Consultation in government policy, but not actions

Houses along Piccadilly Street where plans are being made by the Government to revive Port of Spain. File photo/Ayanna Kinsale -
Houses along Piccadilly Street where plans are being made by the Government to revive Port of Spain. File photo/Ayanna Kinsale -

The following article was submitted by the TT Society of Planners and the TT Institute of Architects.

Having painted a picture of the seemingly ingrained approach of presentations instead of consultations in our previous article, we now examine the framework currently in place for consultation in the national development arena, and the extent to which this is reflected in current state initiatives.

We continue to advocate for involving communities and stakeholders in decisions that affect them. A collaborative approach is essential to successful nation building that achieves more than large buildings, and government rhetoric supports this.

The Vision 2030 strategy seeks to "establish wider and more structured consultation…through broad based participation of state, private sector, labour and civil society,” as a specific mechanism for improving the way in which development projects are executed.

This is directly in line with the sustainable development goal (SDG) 17 target of encouraging and promoting effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships.

As part of civil society, we willingly contribute to state initiatives that invite our participation. In early 2020, our organisations collaborated with others to craft a report for the reimaging of the national construction sector, as part of the Roadmap to Recovery.

Whilst the process and outputs were encouraging, to date we have received no formal update on the status of the many recommendations put forward. This is consistent with the current approach to the planning and development process, which falls far short of stated policy ideals regarding consultation. Slide shows, presentations, press releases, and press conferences are not enough.

The need for consultation and transparency in decision-making is also established in local planning law. Though dated, the 1960 Town and Country Planning Act (TCP Act) remains the guiding legislation for the development of land. In respect of the preparation and alteration of development plans, the TCP Act requires the minister with responsibility for planning to consult with the council or local authority in whose district the land is situated.

As part of this, “The minister may consult with such other persons or bodies as he thinks fit,” and give the opportunity to make objections or representations. Such plans or proposals, as approved by Parliament, shall be available for inspection by the public.

The 2014 Planning and Facilitation of Development Act (PAFD), which is intended to repeal and replace the TCP Act, is more vocal on the need for consultation and transparency. It similarly states that copies of development plans and amendments thereto shall be made available for inspection and purchase by the public.

Whilst partly proclaimed in 2014, the PAFD has not yet been implemented, and we are not aware of any timeline for full proclamation and implementation, including its approach to consultation. Not using the term “development plan,” and seeking Cabinet, rather than parliamentary approval, does not circumvent the requirement for transparency.

“Consultation” can be a controversial word. Paternalistic thinking says more stakeholder outreach leads to too many “cooks in the kitchen,” and therefore delayed or non-existent decision-making. However, outcomes are highly dependent on intent and execution. True consultation involves stakeholder participation from visioning, straight through to working out solutions, whether it be for a revitalisation strategy or crafting fit-for-purpose land-use policies and site development standards at the Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD).

This is a far cry from recent events for projects forming part of the PoS Revitalisation Plan, where there was no role for stakeholders in crafting the vision, and only a minimal role in formulating the solutions.

Udecott hosted an initial presentation, followed by a number of stakeholder focus groups, before concluding with the Spotlight on Urban Development event at the Hyatt last November. There is, however, no evidence that the considerable feedback generated resulted in any perceptible changes to the proposed mega-projects, as the document presented to Udecott by the consultants is not in the public domain.

Similarly, in yet another failure, the private sector, which the Government is depending on to revitalise the city, has not been allowed any opportunity to review or comment on the recent Cabinet-approved, update to land use policies and site development standards for PoS completed by the TCPD.

Neither our organisations nor the developers and landowners we work alongside have been asked about the issues with the previous regulations that deterred investments in PoS, and unsustainably pushed development activity towards peripheral suburban and rural sites. The TCPD has not paid attention to our calls for planning policies and standards that go beyond restricting land use, regulating building height, and imposing outdated controls on land.

In spite of the existing status quo, there have been strong examples of successful consultation in TT, including a groundbreaking exercise in community-driven planning and design among some of the city’s most fractured communities.

The East PoS Development Company (EPOS), a state-owned entity, was given a mandate to lead the redevelopment of East PoS. As the only such development-oriented agency led by an urban planner, EPOS is unique.

This is in stark contrast to Udecott, which lacks a single planner in its general staff or management.

In 2012, EPOS built on its initial 2009 Strategic Development Plan, and introduced an international best-practice form of outreach known as a design charrette, to develop detailed urban design solutions and redevelopment strategies for select communities. Here, multiple community-level events were facilitated with participants involved not only in crafting the vision, but also formulating solutions at hands-on workshops. They were not asked to simply comment on projects that were already set in stone.

According to the World Bank, a charrette not only provides quick results, but also boosts creativity and integration of transportation, land use, economic, and environmental considerations. Despite this progressive step, EPOS remains chronically and severely underfunded, and its development plans are yet to receive Cabinet or parliamentary approval.

This suggests that our problem is not an inability to undertake successful consultations, but rather the willingness to adhere to a development strategy that was largely envisioned by and for the people, as opposed to a paternalistic state and its agencies. Despite community members of all ages giving of their time and energy to work collaboratively, by ignoring the plans, the State’s implicit message is that their ideas and the planning process followed do not matter.

Whilst there is support for a consultative approach in planning legislation and national strategic documents, including Vision 2030 and the Roadmap to Recovery Phase II report, this has not been reflected in actions.

Referring to an exercise in public relations as a consultation does not make it so. To quote a government minister recently, “If you’re a rabbit and you feel that by putting a duck feather on your back you become a duck, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”


"Consultation in government policy, but not actions"

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