By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A senior Bahamian architect yesterday argued that building permit "red tape" is increasing, not decreasing, and added: "I don't know anyone who gets an approval in less than six months."
Gustavus Ferguson, the Institute of Bahamian Architects (IBA) president, told Tribune Business that the time required to obtain such permits remained "exorbitant" with the number of separate stages applications have to pass through having risen to 20.
Contradicting assertions by the Prime Minister's Office's Delivery Unit that the time taken to obtain construction permits has already declined by 12 percent, Mr Ferguson said the government's target of cutting turnaround time to 30 days was achievable if "the will" was there.
He argued that critical steps could be made "with the stroke of a pen", and called for building inspections and plan reviews to be outsourced by the Building Control Department to other professionals within the industry to speed up permit issuance.
Mr Ferguson also suggested that plans submitted by licensed architects and engineers for residential buildings in approved subdivisions be given the go-ahead within one to four days, adding that successive governments had failed to appreciate the importance of construction in "stimulating the Bahamian economy and getting the money to flow".
The IBA chief said The Bahamas would not have suffered such a significant decline in the World Bank's "ease of doing business" rankings for obtaining construction permits had previous governments accepted recommendations by itself and others.
With the IBA now dealing with its third administration since it began lobbying for reform, Mr Ferguson said he is "looking forward to the day when we can actually obtain a building permit in a month or less" and move closer to the one-two week turnaround that has become the norm in Miami-Dade County and other US cities.
He added that neither he nor his IBA colleagues had experienced the reduction in building permit issuance delays touted recently by the government, which is aiming to slash this another by 75 percent - from 120 days to 30 days - by 2021.
"I don't know what basis that's on. As far as we're aware they've added more steps to get approval, more red tape," Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business. "The last time we counted they were up to close to 20 steps in terms of obtaining approvals.
"I don't know of anyone who obtains a permit in less than six months. It's six months or more. It's not unusual to have permit approvals go beyond one year. It's sad. It speaks to a whole lot of projects that could have happened, a whole lot of jobs that are unavailable, and we have investors who are put off by this."
Mr Ferguson said the IBA had previously compared the time taken to obtain construction permits in The Bahamas with the procedures followed in major US cities. He added that "certain types" of construction in New York were permitted in a day, while in Miami-Dade it took one to two weeks, even though those cities were dealing with far more applications than The Bahamas.
"These are places doing 10 times' the amount of approvals we process in The Bahamas, and usually with less staff," he added. "You're talking about more approvals processed by less staff in a shorter period of time. In terms of comparison with Miami-Dade we're not even close in achieving these type of goals.
"I look forward to the day when we can actually obtain a building permit in a month or less. It's disheartening. The number of procedures and approvals we have to go through to obtain a building permit is exorbitant. From our standpoint there is no need for it."
The IBA, in a statement issued yesterday, backed previous calls by contractors Robert Myers and Stephen Wrinkle for the introduction of an Internet-based document management system that would facilitate the electronic submission and approval of building plans together with a reduction in the number of stages in the process.
Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business that an electronic approvals system would act as "a one-stop shop" where all relevant government agencies could review the plans, thereby eliminating the "back and forth" and time taken moving drawings from Building Control to other agencies for zoning, environmental and other approvals.
He added that the Ministry of Works had talked about the introduction of such an electronic submissions system in the 2018 third quarter, with Desmond Bannister, its ministers, informing the IBA that Cabinet approval was awaited on the $1m initiative. Mr Ferguson, though, said nothing had been heard about it since.
"Even if they were to introduce electronic submissions it can only help with a fraction of the delay," Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business. "We need a combination of things to happen for the Government to make a 75 percent reduction in the approval time.
"We do have low-hanging fruit. A lot of the policies and procedures we speak to can be achieved in a few weeks to a month. It's not lengthy in terms of implementing certain things. It's having the will to do it.
"It's just a stroke of a pen; as simple as that. They can use other professionals to do inspections and plan reviews, making sure the plans confirm to code. We can outsource lots of the inspections and plan reviews. It's only a matter of signing off. In residential subdivisions already approved you should be able to obtain building permits in one to four days."
This was reiterated in a statement by the IBA yesterday, which said: "Only effecting positive changes in policy and procedures would achieve the goal of reducing the building permit process by 75 percent.
"In the 1980s when there were very few qualified professional architects and engineers in the Bahamas, it took approximately two weeks to obtain a building permit. Today, despite having a multitude of qualified, licensed professional architects and engineers, it now takes on average six months or more to obtain a building permit."
It added that IBA members had been complaining about the time required to obtain a building permit for more than a decade, branding some of the policies, procedures and measures that the Building Control Department had taken without consultation with industry as "absurd".
"Building Control procedures had grown from approximately six steps in the 1980s to 16 steps in 2008. Again, this was at a time when the majority of architects and engineers were formally trained, qualified and licensed," the IBA said.