Modernising Planning in Barbados

This note is based on the introductory presentation to a workshop session led by Penfold Associates at the Barbados Town Planning Society’s Annual Symposium “Transparency and Modernisation of Planning” held on 13 February 2015

At the outset it is worth remembering that town planning anywhere in the world is about balancing competing private and public interests – and that the public interests concerned are those of the wider community and not only those of one or more public body or agency. Town planning is inevitably also concerned with balancing social, economic and environmental considerations. Town planning should be about making places better. Cynics might say it is more about making them less bad than they would otherwise be. Nevertheless, most people go into planning with the goal of making things better. Balancing planning issues can be a complex business and sometimes the arguments for or against a particular change can be finely balanced. However, the processes for reaching a decision should not be complex.

There is an economic imperative for modernising planning in Barbados. This imperative is linked to the Government’s facilitation agenda and the demands of business and investors for efficient public services. We should be acutely aware that our competitors are overtaking and outpacing us. This does not just include territories in the Lesser Antilles – some of whom have shown growth rates recently that out-perform Barbados. It also includes the big players. With Cuba becoming released from restrictions imposed by the USA, that island has the potential to be a major economic power in the Caribbean. We also need to be aware of competition from well-organised and well-ordered smaller states such as Bermuda and from other places beyond the confines of the Caribbean. To compete for investment we need to be taken seriously and, to be taken seriously, it is becoming increasingly important that we are seen to behave seriously. Having a modern and efficient planning system would help.

The reasons for modernising the planning system are not just economic. As a small island developing state (SIDS) we need to protect and manage our sensitive environment. Also, the Barbados public deserves a modern, inclusive, fit-for-purpose planning system. The present system owes much to the English 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. Some people would argue it is both too much like England and too much like 1947.

Some of the changes needed will require legislation…but some won’t. Some of the changes needed will cost money…but some won’t. There is a need for an overall strategy for modernisation and for an implementation plan. There is also a need to make some rapid progress by identifying significant changes that can be made quickly (and cheaply) to achieve some early wins – what the management consultants call the “low hanging fruit”.

It may be argued that some improvements are already being discussed or are in the pipeline. Good! However, experience suggests that these things are taking too long and may not come to fruition. The reform process needs to be speeded up. It should be recognized that time is running out and that complacency is the biggest threat. We are in danger of being left behind. But to make really significant progress needs commitment all round – from politicians, civil servants, planners, other professionals, and the private sector.

Increased transparency is vital. Without it, other change is a waste of time. More openness and transparency are needed to give the planning system more credibility. We need to build trust and gain the support of the public.

Turning to the main elements of modernisation, the plan making process needs to be more rapid and plans need to be kept up-to-date. Unfortunately, there are few positive lessons here from England where the present plan making system is shambolic and overly complicated. A large proportion of English local authorities do not have up-to-date development plans and many are failing to reach the required standard. In Barbados the current Physical Development Plan was produced in 2003 but not approved by Government until 2008. It was supposed to have a ten year life. This timing issue undermines the credibility of the planning process and the credibility of planners defending its policies in hearings. There is a message here for politicians – of all parties – to support timely production of the next plan and approve it for implementation in a timely manner too.

A more evidence-based approach is needed for preparation of the PDP and for development control decision-making. This would help prevent a process of “decision by assertion”. Government already holds a mass of information across departments and this should be shared. There may be confidentiality issues but aggregated data should not be treated as secret or the private possession of one body. One key example of where more information is needed for effective decision making is land release for housing development. For a start, we need to know how much undeveloped land has approval. We then need to know how much extra land (if any) is needed for a given period. There should be a strategic housing land availability assessment with the results made public. After completion of that exercise, a 5-year supply of land could be designated for housing development and rolled forward on a regular basis.

The whole sub-division process should be the subject of review. The present situation ties up a lot of unused land indefinitely. A lot of that land reverts to bush with environmental and economic implications. It is an inefficient approach to housing land delivery and contrasts with the way a volume builder would “build out” a site. It is recognized that there is a social and cultural consideration here with everyone wanting their own “piece of the rock”, but it is a very inefficient and unproductive use of land. This whole issue is, of course, tied up with the future of agriculture, the decline in sugar production and the argument that it would not take much land to feed the whole population. But that still leaves the question of what to do with the rest.

The concept of “development control” needs to be replaced by that of “development management” where the objective is to promote and assist the best solutions rather than just prevention of unsuitable development. Meaningful pre-application discussions can help achieve this. But management needs to come into the planning process in a wider sense. The whole process needs to be driven rather than being reactive. Things should not be allowed to drift and disappear in the system. This point does not just apply to decisions delegated to the Chief Town Planner but also to decisions referred to the Minister and to appeals decided by the Minister. Deadlines need to be set and met – this applies to deadlines for applicants as well as for the Town & Country Development Planning Office. A validation process for applications should prevent incomplete applications entering the system at all. Environmental Impact Assessments should be requested at the outset, as should other supporting technical information. Statutory consultations with other Government departments and agencies could be speeded up through more use of electronic communications (eg emails) rather than files and paper communications.

A wider management issue is the need for the empowerment and development of staff across the civil service. The traditional structures are very hierarchical. Talented staff could be allowed to use more initiative and given more responsibility. Duplication and repetition should be eradicated. Decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level. Managers should spend more time managing and only work on major cases.

In the longer term the whole development control process should be computerized. These systems have existed for years and we should take advantage of other people’s R&D. It is possible for the progress of applications to be open to view at every stage on the internet. In the UK this extends to publication of all supporting information, statutory consultation responses, objections from members of the public, planning officers’ reports and eventual decisions. Planning Committee discussions and debates are webcast. The same openness applies to applications and appeals considered by the Planning Inspectorate or Secretary of State. This all goes to help public understanding of the issues and build credibility.

In Barbados at present the only public involvement and consultation is when there is an EIA. All applications should be subject to appropriate neighbour consultation. Also, input should be more actively sought from relevant voluntary organizations such as the National Trust. These bodies have experience and expertise. Welcoming their contribution and taking it into consideration will again build confidence. The fundamental point here is that in a modern democracy the public has a right to know, a right to comment, and a right for their comments to be given proper consideration.

At a more technical level, one aspect of planning that does not seem to get a high level of consideration in Barbados is design. It is, however, a key element in place making. It is especially important in heritage areas and there are clear linkages to the attractiveness of the tourism product and therefore the economy. Buildings can be “bad neighbours” just because of their massing and how they sit on a site. It would be a good idea to review the present policy on the height of buildings – the maximum height has become the default height and results in an unattractive uniformity.

There is also limited use of masterplanning in Barbados. It is an urban design approach to major developments and is a meeting point for planning, architecture, landscape architecture and engineering. The urban centre at Warrens is an example where masterplanning at the outset would have helped produce a better place. Retro-fitting a traffic circulation system is an expensive outcome of not starting with a properly thought out masterplan.

The main conclusion to be drawn from all this is that modernising planning is important and improvements need to be introduced soon. We need to modernise planning in Barbados for ourselves, for the community, for the economy, and to be taken seriously in the wider world.

One final suggestion that could be implemented easily, quickly, and cheaply is the publication of a weekly list of all applications received and decision notices issued. This should include all cases determined by the Chief Town Planner, cases referred to the Minister, and appeals decided by the Minister. This is a piece of “low hanging fruit” and would be a quick win. The list could be published on the T&CDPO website and issued to the press. It would be a first step in opening the planning process to public view. It needs to be recognized that existence of a “public register” that people can consult in business hours at the Garrison is not enough. After all, this is 2015… not 1947!