By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Government's planned crackdown on 'bush mechanics' was yesterday hailed by the Bahamian Contractors Association's (BCA) president, who branded the sector as "out of control".
Leonard Sands told Tribune Business he backed efforts by Desmond Bannister, minister of works, to implement planning discipline and order by targeting abusers with long-standing laws.
The BCA president spoke out after Mr Bannister told the House of Assembly that his Ministry "intends to begin prosecutions" of persons who constructed buildings, or additions to existing structures, without valid construction permits.
The Minister added that "illegal roadside garages", or 'bush mechanics', will also be prosecuted as the Minnis administration moves to enforce the Building Regulations Act and 'zoning' requirements.
"You need to start applying properly for building permits, or you will be prosecuted," Mr Bannister said yesterday.
Describing the situation as another where the Bahamas never enforced the laws on the statute books, Mr Sands suggested the Ministry of Works needed to create a dedicated enforcement unit to combat planning law breaches.
Describing the proliferation of 'bush mechanics' as "out of control", the BCA president said persons are "building what they want to build without any regard for zoning".
"I'm pleased that he was bold enough to reiterate the law that has existed for quite a long time regarding the Building Regulations Act," Mr Sands said. "We would be very, very pleased if he put action behind the comments he made."
He added that the Government's "less than stellar performance in awarding contracts" was partly due to it handing projects to persons who lacked the proper permits.
"We have to go have proper permitting, go through the process of showing architects' drawings, and the Ministry should be aware of what's going on," Mr Sands said. "Small to medium-sized stuff goes on without the necessary pre-approvals being done.
"The law has always been there, and it's become a matter of ensuring we have a strong Minister who will ensure the law is enforced."
Mr Sands said the Building Control Officer's "wide-ranging powers" enable the tearing down of structures that violate the law, but he implied that this had never been used.
"Maybe they're working together, and have said: 'Let's clean up the country and do everything according to the law'," the BCA president said of the Minister and Building Control Officer.
"It's good news. I like it. If it's followed through we will see some good things. It's the law, and has been the law for a long time, but we don't like to follow the laws on the books. It's good this minister is reminding people he will carry out the laws put on the books many, many years ago.
"I personally believe they may have to look at putting an enforcement unit within the Ministry of Works just to go around and enforce, and make sure it happens."
Mr Sands suggested that transparency in the Town Planning and permitting process could be improved via the introduction of a formal mechanism to make the public aware of applications that could be controversial and/or impact their communities.
He added that US law required Town Planning departments to provide formal notice of applications, so any public objections could be raised prior to permits being granted, and suggested that same be done in the Bahamas.
Mr Bannister, detailed alleged violations and problems with Town Planning laws and regulations, although he was quick to absolve his predecessor, Opposition leader Philip Davis, of any blame or responsibility.
He told the House of Assembly there were "numerous instances of alleged abuse of power of the planning process in the past, resulting in Physical Planning inspectors being called in by government officials to 'rubber stamp' applications, even if they are inconsistent with zoning regulations".
Mr Bannister added that he had promised the Town Planning Committee "there will be no interference with their work", and revealed that "understaffing" at the enforcement level in the Department of Physical Planning had led to "an abundance of self-perpetuating breaches of planning control throughout the Bahamas".
The Minister also identified "confusion and disparity" among the local government entities in the Family Islands that perform Town Planning functions, saying this had resulted in different, "arbitrary standards" being enforced in different communities and islands.