For decades, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), which is now the umbrella agency for environmental protection and town planning, has come in for a lot of criticism, battered both by the public opinion and the report from the auditor general which identified significant failings in its operation.
In a 2010 audit of the performance of the NEPA, which was published in 2012, stakeholders commented that, as a regulator, the agency needed to be removed from the direct control of the political directorate.
"There may be an inherent risk, as it may be hard to say no to your 'Boss'," stakeholders said in the report, adding, "The challenge that NEPA has is that when a company is in breach, it has to decide whether it shuts down the development or work with the developer to remedy the breach. If it shuts down the company, 200 persons may be out of jobs or alternatively, NEPA may wish to work with the developer over a given period to get the breach corrected."
There is a fear among onlookers that the environmental agency, as an extension of the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation (MEGJC), is focusing more on the role of investment and job creation rather than the role of environmental protection.
More recently, in May 2022, things came to a head between the environmental agency and residents of Montego Freeport, St James, who "lawyered up" to prevent the construction of the 281-room Dreams Hotel. The project had been granted an environmental permit by NEPA, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), and the Town and Country Planning Authority (TCPA).
NEPA represents a merger between the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), the Town Planning Department (TPD) and the Land Development and Utilization Commission (LDUC). The agency resulted from the work of the Government of Jamaica public sector modernisation programme (PSMP), integrating environmental, planning and sustainable development policies and programmes.
The agency says on its website that its priority programmes and projects support the following sustainable development goals:
Goal 8: Good jobs and economic growth— Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all; and
Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities— Make cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
NEPA's main activities include monitoring Jamaica's natural resource assets and the state of the environment; processing of applications for environmental permits and licences and granting permits and licences for development and change of land use; beach use; construction and operation of industrial facilities listed under law including power generation plants and sanitary landfills; monitoring of sewage discharge; industrial waste discharge; export of wildlife species, for example, conch, orchid; and preparing town and parish development plans, development orders, advising on land use, planning and development activities, and enforcement of environmental and planning laws and regulations.
The agency has spent the last decade remedying the loopholes identified by the auditor general in the report published in 2012, resulting in an improved assessment published in 2020.
Back in 2012 however, NEPA was accused of employing more administrative staff than technical staff, leaving its core functions undermanned. It was also noted by the auditor general's report that there were notable shortcomings in protecting the environment and the public and that there was insufficient controlled planning of development in Jamaica.
Up to that year, it was stated by the auditor general that NEPA had not conducted any assessment of the impact that existing developments are having on the environment in Jamaica.
It was also stated that key operational targets have not promoted efficiency; that the agency's monitoring and enforcement regime was ineffective; that there were weaknesses in the coordination of monitoring and enforcement activities impact on the potential for successful NEPA outcomes; that there was no strategy to monitor high-risk permits and licences.
It was noted by the auditor general that enforcement officer priorities were administrative rather than in the field and that despite the identification of breaches, NEPA management was not taking appropriate action to ensure public and environmental protection, with NEPA not investigating and taking appropriate action in all environmental breaches reported.
The auditor general said in the 2012 report, "NEPA's lack of aggression towards enforcement has resulted in the continued flouting of its regulations, adding, "NEPA's legislation for fines is not providing a deterrent. It was also stated that NEPA has not met the requirement to generate revenue to cover costs.
"Despite the identification of breaches, NEPA management is not taking appropriate action to ensure public and environmental protection...the NEPA senior management should demand weekly reports that provide details of planned activities versus actual output. Armed with this information, the NEPA senior management should critically examine the activities of the two functions to find ways of improving performance," it was stated.
The 2020 report
In a report published in 2020, the auditor general said that since 2010, NEPA has shown improvements in the submission of development orders for parishes/designated areas.
NEPA also implemented the auditor general's recommendation to integrate the preparation of state of the environment reports in their planning process and prepared two reports which outline the condition of the country's natural and environmental resources.
NEPA was also assessed to have made greater use of its enforcement tools to increase compliance. Over the five-year period, April 2010 to March 2015, enforcement activities totalled 3,604 compared to 922 for the previous assessed period.
It was also noted, "NEPA's response to environmental threats reported by the public improved significantly. NEPA investigated 90 per cent of complaints during the period April 2010 to March 2015, compared to 42 per cent reported in the prior audit report."
However, it was noted that NEPA's monitoring targets were not appropriately aligned with the number of approved permits/licences and the agency did not conduct the required monitoring on a timely basis to ensure that approved activities were being carried out in accordance with the terms and conditions of the permits/licences.
The auditor general's report explained, "For example, we found that for 60 permits/licences, there were significant gaps of up to five years between the time of licence issuance and the conduct of the first monitoring visit. We also observed that NEPA did not strictly adhere to its procedures in relation to the periodic monitoring of permits/licences."
While some executive agencies are required to earn between 40 per cent and 90 per cent of budgeted expenditures from fees, total fees collected by NEPA averaged 11.1 per cent of actual expenditure for the five-year period, from 2010 to 2015. NEPA continued to rely heavily on Government subvention, which accounted for an average of 94 per cent of total expenditure
Comparing developments to the 2010 audit (published in 2012) the auditor general said that there has been limited progress in NEPA's forward planning function since 2001, noting, "Some development orders needed to inform planning decisions are 30 years old. Seven parishes are not fully covered by development orders. The finalisation of the orders is not being prioritised."
Meanwhile, it was noted that draft orders prepared during April 2001 to March 2010 were not promulgated as at July 31, 2010 even though preparation had cost around $29 million.
The best picture of the challenges facing NEPA come from the latest report delivered by the organisation itself.
NEPA's strategic business plan for the period 2019/20 - 2022/23 indicates that the agency is constrained by a "reluctance to enshrine NEPA's functions within law; limited investment in the environmental sector; a low level of understanding and concern about the environment due to cultural norms; and the prevailing political climate with changes in government".
The agency also states that it is also challenged by increased exploitation of natural resources; corruption or perception of corruption; poverty as a constraint to environmental conservation and proper planning; lagging local government reform; and the impact of political decisions on the enforcement of environmental and planning laws. It said that it was also affected by the financial constraints on the GOJ.
The Jamaica Observer reached out to NEPA to secure a response on how its operation was affected by a deficit of legislation and also by political influence. However, the organisation declined a response, leaving its strategic report to answer for itself.