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Planning orderly progress

Gercine Carter

Planning orderly progress

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CHIEF TOWN PLANNER Mark Cummins first joined the Town Planning Department in 1985 as assistant town planner, after completing studies in the United States.
He next spent five years as housing planner with the Ministry of Housing and Lands, moving on to the Ministry Of Health as deputy chief health planner in its House Planning Unit, before returning to the Town Planning Department in 1995.
He was subsequently appointed Chief Town Planner. His is a Government agency constantly under the public microscope, given its critical role in the development of Barbados.
The Chief Town Planner sat down with  journalist Gercine Carter for a wide-ranging interview during which he discussed his role, the functions of the Town Planning Department, and his vision for Barbados as its chief town planner.
Sunday Sun: How do you define the role of the Chief Town Planner?
Cummins: The role of the Chief Town Planner is, among many other things, a very challenging one. The Town And Country Planning Act sets out what is expected in that it is an act that speaks to the orderly development of Barbados in both rural and urban areas.
The Chief Town Planner is the primary advisor to the minister on land use management matters, notwithstanding the fact that the minister also has a planning advisory commitee.
Town planning is central to the economic development of Barbados. We are a small country, but, we are the number one developing country based on the United Nations Development Index. So that means that we have been doing a number of things right over a period of time.
It is our role to ensure that Barbados contiunues to develop, but that we develop in a manner that is sustainable We have a very small land area, approximately 106 000 acres; we are faced with all the challenges of the vulnerability of hurricanes, and with that comes coastal innundation and erosion. We are also vulnerable to earthquakes.
We have a large section of Barbados, the Scotland District, which because of its unique geological conditions cannot carry the same capacity as the limestone secton of Barbados; so that has to be treated specially.
So basically the Town Planning Department has to mould all those things together, work with numerous Government agencies across the board in this multitask approach to ensure that Barbados’ development is sustainable and that he quality of living that we now enjoy either remains at that level or it goes to an even higher level.
Sunday Sun: What have been your biggest challenges?
Cummins: Some of the big challenges from a development standpoint have  been to ensure that development is sustainable.
We are pretty much development-driven as opposed to being plan-led. While we have a Phsyical Development Plan, we also have a situation where when large developers come in to carry out development which will significantly add economic value to Barbados . . . .
We also have to be very sure that what is proposed will fit into our landscape and will not be carried out in a manner that will be injurious to the country, and sometimes getting that balance can be a challenge.
The challenge from the developers is sometimes what they want is not always sustainable and I will say that that has proven to be one of the biggest challenges in the job so far.
Sunday Sun: Can you be more specific about the kinds of pressures from developers?
Cummins:  Lets say for example on a beach front development, the realtors always say beach front views sell; restaurateurs, the closer they are to the water the better for the table. But there is a requirement which has a specific setback from the edge of the water.
Those are the kinds of pressures. At the end of the day it is important that we have proper planning standards because Barbados is pretty much a coastal economy and any time that we have serious problems on the coast, then a lot of our economic plan is going to be challenged.
So we have to ensure that in the planning when those events come, that it is not catastrophic and wipes out everything, and sometimes the developer does not understand that up front.
Sunday Sun: What has been the level of compliance by such developers ?
Cummins: I would not say we have had a high incidence of non-compliance. There has been of course some level of non-compliance and that’s where the other aspect of planning law comes in. That is planning control where sometimes we do have to serve enforcement notices and sometimes we do have to go beyond that and remove things.
Sunday Sun: We have seen tremendous development of the west coast over the years. How much more can this coast carry?
Cummins: I am assuming you are defending the west coast as Paradise to North Point. The west coast provides a wonderful mix because you have traditional Barbadian villages interspersed with multi-million dollar development.
There is not much more it can carry because most of the coastal lands have already been built out.
I think any development you see there in the main will have to be redevelopment because I think that it adds to our character as a country if we can continue to have our traditional Barbadian villages, your Mount Standfast, Six Men’s . . . on the coastline, interspersed with the new developments.
There is not a large quantity of vacant lanes along that stretch anymore.
Sunday Sun: You talked about challenges posed by big developers. What are the challenges posed by the average home-owner?
Cummins: The major problem from the smaller home-owners is that a lot of them are not familiar with the role and function of the Town Planning Department.
Maybe that is a deficiency on our part or on the other hand we can say that they have not visited our website, they have not contacted our information desk, because there are still too many persons in Barbados who go out and do things which constitute development and then the magical phrase is ‘We did not know’.
I am of the view that we have done a sigificant amount of public relations by way of the Government Information Service, other advertising, certainly now over the last four and a half years with our website.
We also have an applicants handbook with very good technical information written in language which the average person can understand.
We have also done a lot of work in the schools over the last six years especially with the fourth, fifth and sixth form students in order to disseminate information and get that information out into the public domain so that persons know what is required.
But we are still finding too many instances of persons doing things and indicating ‘we are not aware’, so we have a lot more work to do.
Sunday Sun: For the benefit of the general public could you state some of the common infractions of the Town Planning regulations?
Cummins: The major infractions we get as it relates to breach of the Town Planning Act would be persons who go and start development without the relevant permission. That can be a house, a shop, a storage area, someone placing boulders on the beach in terms of putting up a revetment or a groyne – there is a myriad of things people do, all of them require planning permission.
The breaches that we get are significant. We also have breaches where persons  change the use of structures – you may have permssion for a house and some person may decide I am not living here any more I am going to use it for a day nursery. Those are the challenges thatwe have.
Sunday Sun: What action does the department take when people contravene the regulations?
Cummins:Well the first thing you will do is send them a warning notice advising that what they have done is not in compliance with the law, and give them an opportunity to comply. After the warning notice, if that is not heeded we can serve them an enforcement notice which gives them an opportunity within the 28 days to make an application which most of them sometimes do, or it gives them the option of complying, that is removing whatever has been put up.
Over the years we have had good compliance. Of course there are cases where we have had to take the ultimate action by removing structures but that is never the preferred route.
Sunday Sun: With the recent Tudor Street tragedy, fingers have been pointed at the Town Planning Department and the question has been asked ‘how could the Town Planning department allow these structures to be erected without provision for fire safety’.  What is your response?
Cummins: To be quite frank, I cannot address that. To me those are questions from people who are not aware of the functions of the Town Planning Department.
I think there was an excellent article in the NATION where Mr Phillips, an engineer, clearly pointed out that since 1993 Barbados has had a building code. Professionals, designers architects are duty bound to follow that building code whenever they are carrying out work. However there is no act. There is no enabling legislation and that is where the Ministry of Transport and Works through its Building Standards Authority comes in, but I am not going to venture to speak specifically to Campus Trendz and what would have occured there.
Sunday Sun:  As chief town planer what is your vision for a Barbados of tomorrow? 
Cummins: My vision is to ensure that all development carried out in Barbados is sustainable; to ensure that not only is Barbados  preserved for those of us that now enjoy it, but also for future generations to come. We will continue along a hierarchical form of development that begins with Bridgetown as the national centre  and then branching out into regional centres – your Six roads, your Oistins, Speightown, Holetown.
Keeping that hierarchical structure, we will also have your suburban structures – Warrens, your Wildey. We will build on these to ensure that these areas provide the level of goods and services that we can satisfactorily service our residential population.
Traffic is a particular challenge. We are working very closely with the Ministry of Transport and Works. The larger developments, as they are submitted to us, we require traffic impact assessments where we look at the volume of traffic the particular  development will bring. We will also see what load that adds to the existing traffic, and if the area can carry it without any serious problems.
“Also there has to be a serious look at public transport where we can have a situation where there is a reliable public transport system that persons can use into the centres to reduce the volume of daily traffic, because that is one of our major concerns now.
“Another concept that we have used in recent times and [with which] we will continue with modifications, is the use of what we call the ‘mixed use corridor’, the type of development you will see from Highway Seven at Bay Street, all the way into Oistins: also the Collymore Rock corridor where you have businesess fronting on to the main roads. Clearly we have to look at the traffic impact that brings.
“We have to be also be very cognisant of our heritage and we will expand on the area of cultural heritage conservation areas.
Sunday Sun: Is there anything that you would like to say apart from the specific questions asked?
Cummins:  What I would like to say and I probably don’t say it often enough is the tremendous support I have had from the staff here and the staff of the relevant ministries over the past 12  years.
The decade 2000 to 2010 represents the largest volume of applications that we have had in the history of the Town Planning Department especially between 2004 and 2007 after Barbados was awarded the ICC World Cup Final. That period was one of tremendous growth and without the support of the staff we would not have been able to achieve a lot of the things that we have been able to carry out.
Criticism is good and I think the criticism keeps us on our toes. We always endeavour to do better because we realise our mission statement is to provide an accurate and timely planning service. The accuracy I can vouch for and I am comfortable with, but we are always working assiduously to increase the timelines. But in increasing the timelines we do not want to diminish the quality. Staff have gone beyond their normal course of duty in order to ensure that we  meet some of these challenges. (GC)