A National Spatial Plan – The urgency of now


Sunday, March 11, 2018

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Jamaicans living abroad who return to Jamaica, having not done so for decades, are struck by the changes they find: major highways have been built, once sleepy towns have become bustling urban centres, sprawling housing schemes now occupy lands where they used to ride donkeys or hunt birds with their slingshots. They are also struck by the shortcomings: bad roads, lack of water, inadequate community services such as street lights and garbage collection, a chaotic transportation system, lack of employment opportunities, etc.

The Government wrestles each year with tight budgets and overwhelming demands and needs, and must make decisions as to which roads are to be fixed, where water supply systems are to be installed or upgraded, where housing schemes, schools or police stations are to be built, etc. There is no overarching national plan that guides these decisions. They are often based on the strength and effectiveness of political representation or other advocacy.

In the 1960s, at the instrumentality of the Most Honourable Edward Seaga, who was then minister of finance and planning, the National Physical Plan for Jamaica (1970-1990) was prepared. Funding and technical assistance were provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I believe it was its first project in Jamaica following its establishment in 1965.

It was a scintillating piece of work. It made a detailed assessment of what existed on the ground across Jamaica, the drift and direction of urban migration that was taking place, and the economic and social pressures that it both reflected and created. It compiled an inventory of the physical assets and resources that were scattered across Jamaica, and laid out a matrix of how they could be utilised to support the rapidly growing population and to mitigate the pressure that was being exerted on major urban centres like the Corporate Area, Spanish Town, Montego Bay, and Mandeville. It sought to synchronise agricultural development with industrial development that offered better prospects for employment creation. It also included provisions for social and community development.

I recall that as a fresh university graduate I was fascinated by the document. It designated the locations that were to be recognised or developed as major urban centres, those that would be suburban centres, the villages within their radius and how they would all be linked to each other. It then identified the infrastructure (roads, water, electricity); services (schools, transportation, health facilities, community amenities); housing and job-creating investments that would be required to support this nexus of urban/rural interconnection and development.

It allowed one to envisage a Jamaica of bustling but orderly planned cities and towns surrounded by, connected to and servicing as well as being serviced by small villages. It was to be used to guide government agencies in the planning and implementation of infrastructure development, water resources, housing, construction of schools, health and community facilities, location of markets, police and fire stations, the provision of services such as street lighting and garbage collection and the promotion of investment and economic opportunity.

It would also provide investors and developers with a guide as to where to consider siting their projects. Importantly, by improving the quality of life in rural Jamaica, it would have suppressed the need and urge to migrate to the cities and towns in search of a better life.

For reasons that remain buried in the politics of the 1970s, the plan was discarded and replaced by the National Physical Plan (1978-1998), denuded of the important social development dimension that was part of the original plan. Possibly because of the economic crisis that befell Jamaica in the late 1970s, this revised plan went the way of all flesh.

Since then, our planning activities have largely been playing catch-up. Planning regulations and development orders have been forced to take account of and regularise unplanned developments in an attempt to bring order to disorder. The National Works Agency finds itself under pressure to provide and maintain roads in places where they were not planned to be or, on a feasibility basis, ought not to be. Communities have sprung up in areas where there are no sources of water to support them, not to mention the range of other services that they need.

The Ministry of Education is running behind developers and spontaneous settlements to build schools in areas where the school-age population has exploded almost overnight, while having to maintain schools where enrolment has dwindled to less than 100 students because families have abandoned the rustic conditions of those isolated communities.

The Rural Electrification Programme struggles to extend electricity, at taxpayers' expense, to communities where the demand is insufficient for the Jamaica Public Service to profitably provide the service. The National Water Commission is pressured to source water several miles away to serve communities that will never be able to provide cost recovery.

The social pressure that is being exerted in places like Spanish Town, Old Harbour, May Pen, Mandeville, Santa Cruz, Christiana, Brown's Town, Ocho Rios and Annotto Bay, not to mention the major cities, is more than enough evidence of the need for a master plan for spatial management. Our coastal zones are reeling under the pressure of population concentration, unplanned activity and environmental abuse with severe long-term consequences for which future generations will pay a heavy price.

Vision 2030, the blueprint for making Jamaica “the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business”, is in desperate need of, and specifically anticipated, a companion physical plan that is integrative and interactive, and provides some GPS relevance and guidance to its objectives and the measures being pursued to realise them.

Various policy and regulatory promulgations continue to be made, including development orders, land use policy, Highway 2000 corridor development, parish development plans, and a variety of sustainable development plans. However, they are not integrated and there does not appear to be a paramount vision and set of principles that inform them. Enforcement becomes difficult because there is no overarching framework of what is to be enforced.

In 2010, with the aid of a grant of US$678,000 from the Caribbean Development Bank, work started on the preparation of a National Spatial Plan. Because of fiscal constraints, the required budgetary support was not sustained. In fact, only $15 million was provided in the subsequent three years and the project disappeared altogether from the Estimates of Expenditure in 2014. Last year, minister without portfolio, the Honourable Daryl Vaz, announced that work on the National Spatial Plan would resume, but it does not seem to have found its way back into the Estimates of Expenditure.

In the meantime, we continue to play catch-up, lagging further and further behind the people as they settle where they can, do their business where it best suits them, and exert their political weight to force the Government to respond to the needs that are thus created. The result is the allocation of scarce resources in ways that are way below optimum efficiency.

The National Spatial Plan deserves priority attention. It must be an important inclusion in the quiver of the Economic Growth Council. The urgency is now.

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