By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
CONSTRUCTION activity would increase by 20 per cent if the Minister of Works makes good on his pledge to eliminate "under-staffing" at the Department of Physical Planning.
Leonard Sands, the Bahamian Contractors Association's (BCA) president, told Tribune Business yesterday that the resulting "backlog" in construction permit/approval applications limited the amount of projects that get underway in any given year.
He added that an increase in physical planning inspectors, and greater efficiency in the Department's processes, would boost construction industry investment and make the sector's prospects "very good".
Mr Sands spoke out after Desmond Bannister, minister of works, yesterday revealed that the Town Planning Committee was targeting a three-week "window" in which all planning-related applications will be processed and approved.
Detailing the "many challenges" the Committee's Board had met upon taking office, the Minister told the House of Assembly that the 'three-week' timeframe will only be possible once the existing application backlog is cleared.
He added that this, together with staff "burnout", had resulted from the Department of Physical Planning having two few inspectors.
"This new Town Planning Committee is committed to adhering strictly to the provisions of the Act, and maintaining the integrity of their office," Mr Bannister said. "They are in the process of ensuring that the manner in which they conduct their work is transparent, and that everyone who is involved in Town Planning is held accountable.
"They are analysing the process, and will seek to streamline it so that as soon as they eliminate the current backlog applicants will be able to expect to have their matter resolved within a three-week window."
Mr Sands yesterday encouraged the Minister to address the planning inspector shortfall, acknowledging that there were "very few people to deal with the permits and make sure they are up to date".
He told Tribune Business: "The reality is this shortfall restricts the amount of projects constructed in a year, because if we can't get things moved fast enough because there are too few inspectors, it holds up the whole process.
"If we can make this thing efficient, the construction sector could be very good. We should encourage the Minister to address the complement of staff, and introduce greater efficiency into the system, because I think it will improve the Bahamas' investment in construction year-over-year."
Mr Sands continued: "We can improve that, and get permits and approvals out faster. If they were to deal with the under-staffing at Physical Planning, along with some necessary improvements to increase efficiency, it would increase [construction sector activity] by 20 per cent."
The construction industry, together with real estate and associated professions, arguably forms the 'third pillar' of the Bahamian economy, while providing a significant source of employment for the semi-literate and illiterate segments of the labour force.
With the housing/mortgage market already struggling, improvements in Town Planning/Physical Planning efficiency would help ease this burden, and alleviate bureaucracy and extra costs impacting the industry.
Mr Sands, meanwhile, said he and the BCA welcomed the Government's planned third review of the Bahamas Building Code "if they're serious about it".
Mr Bannister yesterday unveiled the review as part of the Minnis administration's efforts to strengthen construction standards, especially in coastal areas, to counter the increased strength and frequency of hurricanes.
"Many of our Family Island communities are traditional fishing villages," the Minister said yesterday. "It is our duty to support the right of our citizens to remain in their ancestral homes, but at the same time we must ensure that buildings meet modern safety and infrastructural needs.
"High sea surges demand that we build higher and strong winds require that the inspection process in the construction phase is strengthened."
Mr Bannister said the existing Building Code contained provisions dealing with flooding, storm surges and hurricane-force winds, but he identified "several shortcomings" and noted that non-compliance with the regulations had contributed to Hurricane Irma-related damage on Ragged Island.
"In this respect, the Ministry of Public Works will either have to expand to every Family Island, or we shall have to increase the effectiveness of local government in each community," the Minister added.
He said the upcoming Building Code review will include components dealing with environmental sustainability and climate change (hurricanes), plus energy efficiency and renewable energy.
"We must review and suggest the necessary policies and incentives that would support the sustainable development of the Bahamas," Mr Bannister added.
"These are all critical steps that every Bahamian must buy into and support if we really love our Bahamaland as much as we say we do."
Mr Sands told Tribune Business that the Government's proposals were "not bad", but said enhanced construction standards would likely mean an increase in building costs.
He added, though, that this would be a worthwhile trade-off for ensuring Bahamians - especially those living in coastal areas of the Family Islands - were "better able to survive the environment they're part of".
However, the BCA president again rejected the idea that certain coastal areas be declared 'no build' zones, instead arguing that the onus should be placed on construction standards to protect homeowners against storms.
"I don't think it would be positive for any government to tell someone that they can buy a piece of land on the beach, but they can't put a home there. That's not the direction the Minister should go in.
"Realtors can't sell beachfront property at all. That could have potential negative effects on national economics if they say you can't build there."