IN the face of criticism that it drags its feet in the construction approval process causing serious delays for critical building projects, the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) says it is hobbled by a string of resource problems.
Among them, according to the corporation's director of planning Andrine McLaren, is an inadequate staff complement, a lack of equipment and remuneration packages that are too low to attract and retain skilled professionals.
McLaren, who represented the KSAC at a mid-week forum hosted by the Jamaica Observer, reported that her department is staffed by only three planning officers.
"In the KSAC's organisational chart, in the planning unit, there is a post for the director of planning, there is no other support staff there," she said.
"In terms of the city engineer, he has positions for about 10 field officers, and you're talking about Kingston and St Andrew. Now, for me to have three planning officers, I actually have to utilise three of his posts.
"Think about Kingston and St Andrew and all you have are three planning officers to do the entire work; to look at building applications, to look at sub-division applications, to look at applications for modification of restrictive covenants, and to do enforcement in terms of the Planning Act. Three officers!" she exclaimed.
Ideally, the planning director said her department should be staffed by at least 10 persons since it processes about 20 applications per day, in addition to carrying out a range of other functions.
The KSAC has authority for the local governance of the municipality of the Corporate Area. Its functions cover, but are not limited to, cemeteries, public parks and gardens, parochial roads, poor relief, animal and vehicle pounds and of course, building and town planning. In the case of the latter, it coordinates with several other agencies in terms of granting approval for building and modifications. The other entities include the National Environment and Planning Agency, the National Works Agency and the Ministry of Health.
Together, the agencies have a 90-day period in which to dispense with building applications, but stakeholders have consistently complained that there is a lack of coordination among the agencies and that the process takes much longer than the stipulated time.
Last Wednesday, architect and developer Michael Lake gave a summation of his experience with the KSAC.
"We find that the process is inordinately long for various reasons... I personally have projects that are in the process for which it is taking an inordinately long time," he said.
Vice-president of building material manufacturer ARC Systems Deanall Barnes also voiced his displeasure with the local government body.
"We built 141 homes in Old Harbour and it was an absolute nightmare because of the bureaucratic process involved," he said.
"What is clear to me is that the bureaucracy is hindering the construction industry significantly and I think what is required, more than anything else, is how do we solve the problem?"
McLaren responded by underscoring that the KSAC was not the sole entity through which approval was granted and pointed out that applicants often don't take that fact into consideration.
As far as the corporation's internal problems are concerned, however, she said she has been asking for additional staff for the past two years, to no avail.
"This is a department that is also asked to look at reviewing local government development plans, coming up with plans so that the political directorate can be better informed when they are making policy, and there are four of us. And we're expected to do our normal work," said McLaren.
"One of the things that parish councils have always said is that we have not been given even the minimum resources required, but at the same time we are expected to deliver the same level of service within this given time period.
"You will find that they will set up an agency today and that agency is given the requisite staff, equipment, everything, but here is a parish council, for example, that is asking for staff for two years now and can't get any staff. Not even one. And these are critical positions to be filled," she complained.
In addition to the severe staff shortage, McLaren said the low wage packages were hurting the corporation.
"At KSAC our field officers are paid lower than any other parish council... [but] we've been trying to have the posts reclassified to match those in the other parishes," she revealed.
In tandem with that, she suggests, is the fact that "the KSAC charges the lowest fees for any kind of application". Those fees, she said, were $65 per square metre for residential developments and $130 per square metre for commercial or any other type.
For ARC's Barnes, the corporation, the wider government, and stakeholders in the industry need to examine solutions, and soon.
"From our checks, there are billions of dollars tied up in parish councils in this country...If there are developers who are ready to move but the bureaucratic process is holding them back, then it is a national issue. We need to see exactly what is needed to be done to unleash the potential that is within the domestic construction industry," said Barnes, adding that he was not suggesting sacrificing quality for speed in terms of processing time.
The other guests at Wednesday's forum were president of the Jamaica Institute of Architects Laurie Ferron and city engineer Norman Shand.