Building construction lawlessness — inefficiency, incompetence or corruption? (Part 1)
We complain bitterly about indiscipline and lawlessness — the taxi drivers on the road, the people who dump their garbage in the drains and gullies, the hustlers who cut down trees to burn coal on the hillsides. But is it not the same indiscipline and lawlessness when someone — most likely an 'uptowner' — erects a building that is contrary to what was approved and is in violation of the building code, and violates the rights of others in the neighbourhood?

A source of much complaint, especially in the Corporate Area, is the prevalence of construction projects, particularly housing developments, that are in breach of the applicable regulations. You see projects going up almost everywhere. In many instances what is being built, if any approval was ever granted, is far different from what was approved.

You may have lived for many years in a quiet neighbourhood. You see the zinc fence go up. Construction starts, workmen get busy, and trucks carrying steel and pre-mixed concrete go in and out. Before long they are up to three, four, five floors. The beautiful view you used to have is now blocked. Later on, people start moving in. There isn't enough parking for all those people and their visitors so many end up parking on the street. Eventually, traffic on the road becomes a nightmare; vehicles are parked on your verges; sometimes you can hardly drive out of your gate.

Under the Building Act, the archaic arrangement is that the developers are to put up a notice on the site and at the nearest police station and post office indicating what they intend to build so that, as an affected person, you would have the opportunity to raise your objection. I was pleased to learn that the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation (KSAMC) will shortly be posting this information on a website that people can visit periodically to see what projects are being planned for their neighbourhood.

Sufficient unto that day, the primitive posting of notices is supposed to be done before approval is granted by the local planning authority, the KSAMC. But very often, nothing of the sort is done — you just see the structure rising from the ground.

When you check it out, the developers may not have got the necessary approval for the project — no building permit was issued. Or, what often happens is that they get a permit for a particular set of plans but what they proceed to construct is based on a completely different set of plans.

Let me give a specific example. Some time ago I visited a friend who lives off East King's House Road. I noticed a building being constructed right opposite. They had completed three floors and were now putting in steel for a fourth floor. I asked what it was that was being built and was told that the residents were never informed, no notice was ever posted, they just saw the building going up. I took the trouble to investigate and what did I find? Approval had been given for nine one-bedroom units. Nine one-bedroom units requiring four floors? Are you crazy?

Since getting the approval for the nine one-bedroom units the developer had applied for modification of the approved plans to accommodate more units, but that modification had not yet been approved. It had been referred to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), as is required for a development of more than nine units. When I spoke to NEPA it said it had just received the modification application and had not yet reviewed it. But the developer couldn't bother to wait on that. He had finished three floors and was now working on a fourth. Who knows, maybe he was going to build a fifth and sixth.

So, I got in touch with the KSAMC. They visited the property and found that what was being built far exceeded what had been approved — something that should have been discovered long before. They issued a stop order but up to the time of writing this article work was still going on. Inefficiency, incompetence or corruption?

But it is not just the impunity with which some developers treat the law. In this case, threatening messages were sent to some of the residents in the area because of my intervention. The threats should really have been directed at me. It was I who took it upon myself to query the matter.

Indiscipline and lawlessness

We complain bitterly about indiscipline and lawlessness the taxi drivers on the road, the people who dump their garbage in the drains and gullies and cause flooding when it rains, the hustlers who cut down trees to burn coal on the hillsides and cause landslides that sometimes leave communities marooned for weeks or months. We have a cultural proclivity toward indiscipline and disorder.

But is it not the same indiscipline and lawlessness when someone — most likely an 'uptowner' — erects a building that is contrary to what was approved and is in violation of the building code, and violates the rights of others in the neighbourhood?

And who are the people who should be held accountable for this? The developers are not the only ones who are culpable. There are many actors in the process and enough blame to go around.

Let's start with the local authority. It is they who have the power and the duty to regulate construction development. Are they mindful about what they approve? Are they giving due regard to things like zoning restrictions, density limitations, parking requirements, sewage disposal, etc?

And after they issue the building permit, do they monitor the construction to ensure that what is done is in conformity with what was approved? Under the law, building inspectors are supposed to inspect the construction activities and issue certificates of compliance at varying stages of the construction. Under the law, it is illegal for construction work to proceed from one stage to the next without a certificate of compliance. The building inspectors are supposed to carry out four inspections at different stages of construction.

Last year the KSAMC approved building permits for just under 600 residential projects totalling around 450,000 square metres. It has a staff complement of only five building inspectors so each building inspector would therefore be required to carry out about 10 inspections per week. It clearly needs more inspectors. They are required to submit a monthly report to the KSAMC on the inspections they have done and their findings. Are these reports being submitted and on a timely and consistent basis? Do these inspection reports include photographs of what was observed to provide some sort of evidence that the inspections were, in fact, carried out?

How many inspections were reported during 2021? How many breaches were identified and what action was taken? How many stop orders and enforcement notices were issued? How many building permits were suspended or revoked as the KSAMC is authorised to do? How many certificates of compliance and certificates of occupancy were issued? How many breaches were belatedly "regularised" by the KSAMC, another trick in the trade, instead of being rectified by the developer? In this age of transparency why is all this information not readily available to the public?

Where the developer fails or refuses to rectify breaches, the Building Act empowers the KSAMC to enter upon the site, carry out the rectification works, and recover the cost from the developer. The now-repealed Kingston and St Andrew Building Act authorised it to "proceed with a sufficient number of workmen" to do this. Has this ever been done? How often?

Jamaica is not short of laws to ensure good public order — it is just that we don't enforce them. Inefficiency, incompetence or corruption?

Registered titles cannot be issued to the purchasers unless the KSAMC certifies to the Registrar of Titles that the development has met all the legal requirements and conditions of approval. But this is being done even where flagrant breaches have occurred. Inefficiency, incompetence or corruption?

There are other actors who must be called to account. We will turn the spotlight on those tomorrow in Part 2.

— Bruce Golding served as Jamaica's eighth prime minister from September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011.

Last year the KSAMC approved building permits for just under 600 residential projects totalling around 450,000 square metres.
Bruce Golding

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