NEPA given a basket to carry water- a letter to the editor

I generally keep out of public debates, but in recent weeks I’ve watched and listened as critics blast the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) for its efforts to carry out its job, even as it remains tethered by the concrete blocks and ball chains of in-adequate legislation and faulty government policies. I was driven to write to the editor of the Jamaica Gleaner the following:

I read with interest an article in your December 23 edition entitled ‘Lobbyists call for NEPA’s reform’. I guess many have had what they see as their own challenges with the agency, and now see the auditor general’s report as confirmation of their often unjust and biased outlook.

For my part, I am appalled that for most of 2007, auditors took up residence inside and sifted through the records of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), yet it took such a long time for these so-called “revelations” to come to light.

What is also amazing is that so many critics, many with no viable solution, have chosen to attack civil servants who are merely doing their jobs, rather than lobby for amendments to the outdated and ineffective laws and policies that hamper the agency’s operations.

It is also interesting to see that even the so-called experts ignore the fact that even NEPA can do only as much as the law allows it to do. So while the agency remains silent, I feel compelled as a former staffer to say this much: Fellow Jamaicans, in many cases NEPA is impotent. It is therefore useless to blame an entity that has been given a basket to carry water.

It should be public knowledge that immediately prior to the change of government, NEPA had conducted a comprehensive assessment of its operations and had instigated several initiatives to 1) amend legislation that prevents effective operation by removing overlaps and conflicts; 2) reorganise the agency to better utilise its manpower and resources and 3) make the agency self-sufficient.

same problems

Three years after these important efforts were halted, the agency’s problems persist. Parish Councils collect application fees while NEPA carry out the work and mayors lambaste the agency for doing the tasks the councils are ill-equipped to do. At the same time, NEPA’s ability to collect fees from profitable government and quasi-government agencies continue to be adversely affected by waivers; and its effectiveness undermined by its inability to prosecute government agencies for failing to do their jobs.

I would like to suggest to the critics that they lobby government to amend the laws that hamper NEPA’s operation and put in place effective policies to support the underpaid enforcement officers, who more often than not, must face armed thugs to enforce notices and monitor developments. Did any one mention that fact?

Did anyone mention that often development applications are incomplete or that developers sometimes fail to provide information when requested thus lengthening the process?

Also, did anyone mention how much it will cost to update the development orders of each parish? Or how much money is available to do so?

appoint Peter Knight

My advice to the prime minister, under whose portfolio the agency falls, is: if you haven’t done so yet, appoint Peter Knight CEO and give him the mandate to implement the changes.

To the council of mayors: rather than worry about the fees that would be lost to the parish council(s) if NEPA were to collect development application fees, put your weight behind the agency and help to strengthen the development process. Establish a robust enforcement regime that deters development breaches and will, over time, allow for capacity building at the parish level.

To the rest of us: know the law and your rights. Don’t be fooled … any citizen no matter who you are, can help to police the environment and hold developers and governments accountable. NEPA can, and is mandated to, help citizens retain their rights under the law.

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