Govt, opposition to finetune Single Window Planning and Development Bill; opposition wants major say in administration, appeals process

Last Updated on Monday, 24 April 2023, 20:01 by Denis Chabrol

Legislation that will allow land-users and infrastructure developers to apply for approvals at one location was Monday sent to a bipartisan select committee for further consideration, but already the opposition A Partnership for National Unity+Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) is recommending that the Opposition Leader be allowed to nominate a member of the Oversight Committee.

Housing and Water Minister Collin Croal announced during debate that the legislation would be considered by the select committee, a move that was welcomed by Shadow Housing and Water Minister Annette Ferguson. She welcomed the establishment of the Single Window system that would be a single entry-point for the electronic and paper submission of planning and development applications; other electronic paper documents, data and information, and facilitate electronic and non-electronic payments for transactions lodged with the system.

House Speaker Manzoor Nadir said the first meeting of the committee of selection for the select committee would be held to make way for work to be concluded within one month.

Junior Housing and Water Minister, Susan Rodrigues said national and local councils have experienced problems processing the volume of development applications with simple paper-based workflows with only minimal use of technology to record applications in a data base.  She said with an expected spike in development applications more so due to the oil and gas sector, government decided to establish a far more automated system within the Central Housing and Planning Authority and stakeholder agencies that are part of the approval system that would also remove arbitrariness, bias, discrimination or corruption. “Notably, it reduces the powers and influence of political figures in the approval process,” she told the National Assembly.

About the claim of de-politicisation of the process, opposition lawmaker Amanza Walton-Desir pointed out that the minister and the cabinet could overrule the Tribunal’s decision wholly or partly if the proposed project is regarded as one of national interest. “That is dangerous and that is not de-centralising it politically…so basically, we are trying the devil’s case in hell,” she said, adding that government could object to projects being proposed by political opponents. Mr Nandlall said there is absolutely nothing unconventional or unorthodox to determine what is in the national interest, suggesting that if an Appeals Committee goes rogue the government could not remain a sitting duck. “You must have a fall-back in the national interest,” he added.

Ms Rodrigues noted that 2,530 applications have been processed from October 202o to April, 2023. Of that number, she said 2,328 have been approved in full or in part and 42 are related to the oil and gas sector. She said the single window system would increase the speed of processing applications, enhance predictability and improve customer service.

Ms Rodrigues said, “I struggle to make sense of the amendments” that were proposed at the “11th hour” although the Bill was tabled in the House five months ago. She also questioned whether there was any consultation before the APNU+AFC’s proposed amendments.

In proposed amendments to the Single window Planning and Development Single Window System Bill, the opposition asked for provision to be made for the Opposition Leader to the Planning Oversight Committee.

Government’s version of the Bill provides for them minister to be responsible for the appointment of four of the five members of the Planning Oversight Committee. They are the chairperson, a third member to be appointed by the minister from the private sector and two others appointed by the minister after consultation with the professional bodies representing land use planners, architects, engineers and land surveyors.

The opposition also wants the Director of the Planning and Development Single Window Unit to be appointed by the Central   Authority on the recommendation of the National Assembly’s Committee of Appointments. The amendments were tabled by APNU+AFC parliamentarian, Ganesh Mahipaul who said, “in that way, we guarantee the inclusion, that way we guarantee participation and we will find a person that fits the criteria to hold such a position with the necessary qualifications that it so demands,” he said.

But Ms Rodrigues said she could not see the need for the Director’s appointment to dealt with by by that House Committee. Attorney General Anil Nandlall said the government has “no apology” for giving the ministers power to perform statutory functions for unfounded fears that would amount to political patronage and abusive power. “We are answerable to the people, we are answerable, as a collective, to this House,” he said.

In government’s version of the Bill, the Central Authority-which is responsible for data security, confidentiality, securing of the system from unauthorised access, and compliance by system users of all data protection laws and regulations- would appoint the Director in consultation with the Minister.

The opposition is also recommending that Cabinet’s proposed power to accept, amend or revoke a decision by the Planning Appeals Tribunal be removed in its entirety from the Bill. Instead, APNU+AFC wants that entire section erased from the Bill and a section included to provide for the Tribunal decisions to be subject to appeal to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).  In that regard, the Minister said there was no need to introduce a special provision to do so. “We do not have to legislate access to the Caribbean Court of Justice. Every citizen has a right of recourse to the courts so they have the right to go there anyhow. We do not understand the use of this recommendation. All we can conclude is that this is an attempt to politicise the process but more importantly, they want to frustrate the process but this defeats the purpose of this Planning and Single Window System Bill,” he said. Attorney General Nandlall said at any stage an applicant could go to the High Court for judicial review rather than await the Tribunal.

Further, the opposition hopes that it will get government’s support for a three-member Tribunal whose chairman shall be appointed by the minister; a member appointed by the minister after consultations with  professional bodies representing land use planners, architects, engineers and land surveyors, and the third person should be a nominee by the Opposition Leader who should be appointed by the minister and has knowledge and experience of matters relevant to land development and drawn from the areas of business, finance, law, physical planning, natural science, land surveying and architecture or engineering.

In rebutting those recommendations for the appointments, Ms Rodrigues said, “I struggle to fathom how is it or why we would want politicians, the Leader of the Opposition to be involved in this process. It is cumbersome and it is unhelpful to the functioning of this system,” she said.

The APNU+AFC is also asking that a new section be included to make it mandatory that funds collected on behalf of other agencies should be transferred within 60 days of receipt. Mr Mahipaul further proposed that such an amendment to be in the primary legislation and so guarantee local elected councils the revenue that will be collected on their behalf.

Minister Rodrigues saw no need for the Public Service Commission to be involved in the appointment of the unit’s administrative staff.