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Dear Editor: T&T’s building dilemma: to plan or not to plan? An activist answers in the affirmative

“If I were to tell you that the Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) is perhaps the most critical state agency in addressing [your daily life], most of you would probably chuckle disdainfully or shrug your shoulders with indifference. “Town and who?” And the funnyor tragicthing is we’d both be right.

“Worse yet if I said that the Minister of Planning, after the Prime Minister, is arguably the most powerful person in the Cabinet in terms of influencing our livelihoods…”

The following Letter to the Editor on the haphazard, vie-ky-vie way building development takes place in Trinidad and Tobago and the role of Town and Country planning in that—which inadvertently coincides with a fresh discussion on property tax—was submitted to Wired868 by Jabal Hassanali, who is currently working and studying in Japan:

Photo: Property taxes are coming...
Photo: Property taxes are coming…

As a young urban planner trying to find my feet in a largely unregulated system, I have no doubt where I stand on this question. But what about you? If you are not in the same business, you are probably not as clear on the issue as I am.

Look around at your neighbourhood and the built-up development that you interact with on a daily basis. Do you see any connection between how we have settled and the everyday issues we deal with?

If I were to tell you that the Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) is perhaps the most critical state agency in addressing these issues, most of you would probably chuckle disdainfully or shrug your shoulders with indifference. “Town and who?” And the funnyor tragicthing is we’d both be right.

Worse yet if I said that the Minister of Planning, after the Prime Minister, is arguably the most powerful person in the Cabinet in terms of influencing our livelihoods. Don’t blame me, blame the archaic legislation that even our former colonial overlords moved on from.

Still, before you dismiss this article as just the rantings of a madman, please allow me to make my case.

Look around again at our built-up private development. As someone who abhors generalisations myself, please indulge me as I offer three imperfect characterizations, of which one may, so to speak, fall in your gardenwhether or not you have one.

Firstly, there is the architecture of the poor-to-lower middle class. That stuff is built brick by brick and goes largely unregulated. Development is piecemeal and often financed through an informal network of family and friends.

Photo: What could go wrong?
Photo: What could go wrong?

Many within this category are unaware of the TCPD and the need for approval. For those that are, the constraints of their parcel mean that they cannot conform to our requirements and they feel unfairly discriminated against. Emboldened by the general lawlessness of our society, many risk flouting the rules for the sake of a better life for themselves and their families.

At the other end of the scale are the extremely wealthy who have the capital to at least initiate and finance much of the construction without relying on loans from financial institutions. When a basic operational structure is largely in place, if TCPD approval is required to complete works, these persons are well placed to negotiate ministerial relief and the Division under these circumstances largely functions as a rubber-stamping agency, regularising development that would not ordinarily be approved.

Finally, there are those that actually comply with the rules set by the regulatory framework. Its bureaucratic inefficiencies tend to squeeze for the most part this middle class.

For many in this category, TCPD is simply another administrative hurdle to cross in order to secure financing and they fail to see its actual purpose. The clandestine nature of its operations fosters an environment that can facilitate corruption.

There is a genuine perception shared among many that the only way to get something approved in TCPD within a reasonable time frame is by ‘passing’ some money. Some are even under the false impression that there are processing fees attached to the applications. Moreover, even within this category of built development, because monitoring and enforcement are so lax, there are instances of development taking place that does not conform to the plans that have been approved.

Photo: Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis.
Photo: Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis.

The reasons for this status quo are already well known and well ventilated: institutional convolution, a centralised system, lack of capacity to enforce and regulate effectively, legislative loopholes and persistent political interferencesometimes well intentioned, but inevitably almost always tied to inappropriate short-term horizons.

These factors have resulted in a system of ‘control’ that is (1) largely negligible and of little known consequence to many, save perhaps for being a bureaucratic nuisance from time to time; (2) extremely profitable and lucrative for a self-serving, well-heeled few; and (3) a powerful weapon that can be wielded arbitrarily to oppress and subjugate the unlucky ‘lawbreaker,’ who just happened to affront the sensibilities of some member of the elite who is well placed to do something about it.

In a perfect world, wrong is wrong and right is right. But in a society where almost everyone is, whether we want to admit it or not, either complicit or tainted or both, how can natural justice apply?

Many do not know what they do. Does this make them less culpable? Some hide behind a facade of feigned ignorance, complicating the situation even further. The entitlement to do whatever we want with our piece of land is a powerful cultural urge that pervades all classes of a citizenry which only recently threw off the shackles of colonialism to make itself independent.

When approaching our jobs, we urban planners have largely failed to adequately take account of this attitude and we therefore have not discovered meaningful ways to combat and treat with the modus operandi that is really the corollary of such selfishness. Truth be told, the greatest indictment on my profession as it seeks to maintain its relevance is that it has completely underestimated the power of this urge.

Photo: Carpenter at work...
Photo: Carpenter at work…

And what of the result? Do you see it? The traffic congestion. Flooding. High food prices. So many issues seemingly out of our control that are in actuality intimately interrelated to this failed experiment of condoned anarchy. Chickens coming home to roost if you will. “Town and Who?”

And until these connections are better driven within the psyche of the general populace, no amount of legislative reform can help us. For there will never be the political will or adequate resources allocated to actually implement what is proclaimed. Right now we like it so too much.

So what should I do? Call it a day and find a new career? Bury my head in the sand and pretend that I can live with this broken system? Accept that the only victories possible for people like me are never definitive but always fleeting, the occasional small victory on days when I know I have helped someone in trouble solve his/her problem?

Is it possible, given my original premise that most built-up development occurs outside of the regulatory framework, that the tipping point has already been reached? Have we gone too far to turn back now?

Is it too early to mourn? Or too late for meaningful resistance?

Photo: Will property taxes be a defining moment for this industry?
Photo: Will property taxes be a defining moment for this industry?

AboutJabal Hassanali

Jabal Hassanali is a semi-retired, Trini urban planner-cum-English teacher, who is currently stuck somewhere in Asia. He has made a career of being in-between countries and in-between jobs and sometimes, mainly in his in-between moments, fancies himself a writer.

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4 comments

  1. “This year Mayor de Blasio will pay $3,581 in property taxes on each of two row houses he owns in ultra-gentrified Park Slope. The city says his properties are worth about $1.6 million apiece.

    Some 14 miles away, in middle-class Laurelton, Queens, Arthur Russell, 66, who retired from computer sales, will pay a property tax bill that, at $4,569, is about 28% higher than the mayor’s — even though the city says his single-family home is worth 75% less than de Blasio’s properties, at $396,000.”

    “Homeowners in Washington Heights, where the demographic is 83% non-white, are assessed at 141% of comparative sales prices. Homeowners in highly gentrified Williamsburg/Greenpoint (which is 63% white) are assessed at only 74% of comparative sales…”

    “The inequities for homeowners, he said, are created by rules that cap increases to assessments at 6% per year and no more than 20% within five years.”

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-property-taxes-favor-rich-white-homeowners-suit-claims-article-1.3089889

  2. Earl Best

    Here’s a poser for you to ponder on, Jabal: If everybody is corrupt, is anybody perceived as corrupt?

    And if almost everybody is corrupt, do the non-conformist few have any chance of getting a fair shake?

    But you don’t have to answer either question; I feel sure that we are going to get loud, public answers in the next few months as Imbert and co. try to save themselves from financial disaster by forcing through a clearly unrefined version of the property tax arrangements.

  3. I’ve been complaining for the last 12 years about T&C, together with the Regional Corps.

  4. Very good article, Jabal…it is not too late at all, in fact I would say that the need for proper and integrated planning is greater than ever given our severely limited available land area and the existing losses due to the bad practices of the past…keep on keeping on!