LLANDILO, Westmoreland — "A disaster waiting to happen" is the way Minister of Science, Energy, Telecommunications and Transport Daryl Vaz has described the informal communities of Farm Pen and Llandilo Phase Five in Westmoreland.
He has promised that efforts will be made to address issues plaguing the communities, transforming them from squatter settlements into neighbourhoods of which the residents can be proud. However, he stressed that nothing can be done before the next financial year, which begins in March.
"The commitment that I make here today is that this is a project that we will look at to see how we can bring it to fruition, not only from the aspect of the rural electrification… but formalising for safety, security, and for good order, and so that people can live in what we would say is a very, very comfortable and formal way," said Vaz during a recent visit to the area where his initial focus had been the issue of electricity supply.
Faced with the extent of the problems, he spoke of the need to address more than just safe access to power, with the discussions extending to the thorny issue of land ownership.
"It has to be dealt with in relation to electricity theft and formalising communities such as this so that they can get proper infrastructure, water, road, light, social services — but most importantly, land tenure," the minister noted.
"[National] Land Agency will have to come in on this, and JSIF [Jamaica Social and Investment Fund] has the experience to know how to deal with communities such as this in terms of doing the assessment and what is required and, of course, executing, which is the most important thing," added Vaz.
While awaiting the funding that will be provided in the next financial year for these greenfield projects, he said preliminary work will be done. The scope, the minister explained, would include public consultations with residents.
"You are talking about, I would have to say, at least over 1,000 houses for which very few are connected to the JPS grid formally. It's a major, major problem because it creates problems all around. It creates problems for JPS, it creates safety problems — a lot of the houses are wooden structures — so it is a disaster waiting to happen," stated Vaz.
He was speaking with residents of Llandilo Phase Five after a recent tour of the communities at the invitation of Member of Parliament (MP) for Westmoreland Central George Wright (Independent).
In addition to residents who are not legally connected to the power supply, there are paying customers whose connections are hazardous as some are connected by wires located more than 700 feet from their houses. This results in low voltage, irregular supply, and the possibility of fire.
Under the Government's Rural Electrification Programme houses that do not have proper wiring will be wired, inspected, and passed; while JPS will put in place proper infrastructure consisting of poles, transformers and wires that are placed as near as possible to each customer's premises. Telecoms providers will then be able to run their infrastructure on the same poles, expanding the services available to communities.
The minister noted that both Farm Pen and Llandilo Phase Five are in need of significant investment in infrastructure. In addition to the issue of low voltage he expressed concern about how the wires impact emergency vehicles that need to enter the areas.
"We have a situation where the fire brigade is unable to access these roads because of how the wires have been run and the height at which they are. That is a very, very serious, serious issue in relation to safety," noted a concerned Vaz.
JSIF Managing Director Omar Sweeney, who was among those on the tour, also expressed concern about the state of the communities. In Farm Pen he is looking forward to working with "the MP and the residents in terms of coming up with the solution that best fits".
"You can see the long lines of heavy-duty electrical wire with no transformers connected; these things are significant and have to be addressed. And just in terms of getting emergency services, solid waste management, everything, into the community, the civic infrastructure has to be upgraded," he pointed out.
In addition to challenges with electricity, residents such as Marlon Brown, who has lived in Llandilo Phase Five for the past 15 years, have expressed concern about flooding due to inadequate drainage and poor road conditions.
MP Wright, who has been lobbying for improvements in the communities, said utility poles, roads and proper drainage are among the common cries of residents.