By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A leading architect yesterday said the protracted wait for building permits was having a “far-reaching effect” on the Bahamian economy, with Miami-Dade County processing “ten times’” the number of approvals local regulators are getting through.
Amos Ferguson, the Institute of Bahamian Architects’ (IBA) president, said that while he welcomed the Government’s plans to introduce an electronic process for submitting building permit applications, there was likely to be “resistance” in the Building Control Department.
Suggesting that this key agency was “50 per cent overstaffed” currently, Mr Ferguson hinted that many in the Department would not support any initiatives to speed up the building permit process.
This, he implied, was because the Building Control Department needed to justify its continual demands for more staff, plus the bureaucracy that had since the late 1980s “maybe doubled” the number of steps to obtaining a building permit.
Both Mr Ferguson and the IBA urged the Government to bring in outside consultants to oversee the electronic permitting process’s implementation, rather than leave it to persons within the Building Control Department who were part of the current problems and may have a vested interest in not solving them.
However, the IBA president said improvements were desperately needed, given the “significant negative impact” a lengthy permitting process had for the construction industry and certain professions, plus the wider Bahamian economy.
“From experience, we have found that because of the long wait for building permits, many projects don’t go ahead,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business.
“When we look at the chain in terms of what that does to the economy, projects do not get built, the intended contractor does not get work, and it goes down the line to the mason and carpenter, who don’t have a job.
“Money doesn’t circulate in the economy. This happens frequently; many times, so it has a significant impact. It has far-reaching effects, and to solve the present dilemma would significantly help the economy. We’re just hoping for the best.”
The IBA yesterday said that apart from being “inconvenient”, the existing manual building permitting process was “rife with inefficiencies and bureaucracy”.
While commendable, it added that the Government’s planned electronic document submission system - as outlined recently by Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis - would not solve the problem by itself.
Rather than the ‘manual’ nature of the process being the problem, the IBA said the real issue was the policies that had been implemented by the Building Control Department.
These had increased the time taken to obtain an approved permit from two-three weeks in the late 1980s to between six months to one year currently.
Suggesting that the number of steps project had to go through had “doubled”, Mr Ferguson said the end result was an increase in costs (and time) for investors putting the money behind construction developments.
“The cost will go up, and any contract not executed will be higher,” he explained. “Contractors will normally only give you a price for three months, because of the constant rise in building material costs.
“The average time taken to get a permit means there are two different stages where the price goes up. That means the client ends up paying a higher price.”
Referring to the Government’s trumpeted visit to the Miami-Dade County building department, Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business: “What we know about Miami-Dade is that they process 10 times’ as many permits with an equivalent staff to ours, so we’re way behind.”
Mr Ferguson added that one problem in the Bahamas was that the Building Control Department acted as a “pivot position”, receiving submissions and drawings, then sending them out to other agencies that needed to give approvals, such as the Department of Physical Planning.
Building Control then received the submission back from that agency, before sending it in to others whose approvals were also required - costing more time and money.
“A lot of the steps are unnecessary because Building Control tends to act as a qualifying agency, which it’s not intended to be, so they’re doing a lot of things they’re not mandated to do, and that leads to the whole confusion,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business.
“A lot of these steps need to be taken out. It’s supposed to be a Code Review, and they’re talking about checking most things. Things they don’t have any right getting into, they are, and are slowing the whole process down. It’s the system that’s the problem.”
And he added: “They don’t need that many staff. They need them because they’ve added a whole bureaucratic process, which they don’t need to do, and are looking for staff right now.
“It’s costing government more money. Building Control always wants more staff. Their complaint is that they need more staff to be more efficient.”
Mr Ferguson said the proposed electronic system, which the Government sees as justifying the building permit fee increase, would eliminate the need for investors and architects to physically take drawings down to Building Control, as they could be sent directly from the office equipment.
And the same submissions could also be sent to all relevant government agencies at the same time, rather than going to one before being sent on to another.
Yet Mr Ferguson added: “We have to say these things with caution. The Building Control personnel don’t want any changes, and I suspect they will be resistant to anything to speed up the process. We have to be cautious with that.”
The IBA added in its release: “In the late 1980’s while’ most building departments elsewhere, including the one in Miami Dade, were streamlining their permit processes, procedures and staffing, the Building Control Department in the Bahamas was doing the exact opposite and was, in fact, adding unnecessary steps and procedures to their building permit processes and dramatically increasing their staffing.
“While building departments elsewhere were experiencing significant reductions in wait time for building permits because of their streamlining exercises, the Bahamas was experiencing a significant addition to the time it took to get a building permit.”
And it added: “While the Institute of Bahamian Architects welcomes the proposed electronic submission, we caution that if the inconvenient, inefficient and bureaucratic current building permit processes are not addressed, then this new proposal will in fact be a failure.”