By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian professionals yesterday said “show me the money” after a Cabinet minister expressed hope that a fully integrated digital system for handling building permits will be in place by year-end.
Architects and engineers responded alike after Desmond Bannister, minister of works, told Tribune Business that the Town Planning Committee chairman and acting physical planning director have been “tasked” with developing and overseeing improvements to the whole permitting process.
He added that the ultimate goal was the long-awaited automation of the entire building and planning approval system, with applications flowing seamlessly between the relevant government agencies and permits issued within “hours or a few days rather than weeks and months”.
Mr Bannister said Adrian White, the Town Planning Committee chair, and Charles Zonicle, acting director of physical planning, had provided “tentative dates” they wished to hit along with a proposed budget, although he declined to provide details on these timelines and the funding involved.
“The chairman and acting director have met with me on two occasions now, and we are looking to see if we can put some new processes in place in relation to how the whole system works,” the minister told this newspaper.
“The issues with the Building Control Department, and moving ahead with planned automation, hopefully for later this year. It would involve automation of the whole system of approvals for permits, and digitising what we are doing. That would improve the whole process and speed it up.
“I think it would benefit everyone. Right now, we have a Town Planning Committee that spends the entire day on Tuesday looking at these applications. It’s a process that’s needed reform for many years. These are private citizens. We have Department of Physical Planning staff who are basically overwhelmed.
“They have challenges there for this century with an organisational mandate that really is outdated. We have to look at how we improve that for everybody. If you are applying for something, once this whole system is integrated, instead of your application for a permit going to Building Control, Town Planning and then to environmental health, it will be done digitally,” Mr Bannister continued.
“The country and citizens will not have to go through the hurdles they go through every day. Hopefully we’ll see the benefits of that before the end of the year, having it in place and moving ahead. We’re going to make it happen. Instead of permits taking weeks and months, they should take hours or a few days.”
Removing the bottlenecks and red tape in the planning/building permit process would provide a major boost just when The Bahamas badly needs some positive economic developments amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Should Mr Bannister’s ambitions be achieved, time, costs and uncertainty would be reduced and/or eliminated, and job-creating growth and development spurred and encouraged.
However, Bahamian professionals, while enthused by Mr Bannister’s comments to this newspaper, said they had heard such automation and digitisation promises made repeatedly by administrations over the past three decades only to never come to fruition.
Gustavus Ferguson, the Institute of Bahamian Architects (IBA) president, recalled a workshop held last year with all construction industry stakeholders where the Ministry of Works had promised to move ahead with the plans outlined by Mr Bannister only for them not to materialise.
“Show us the money,” “Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business. “It’s better for him to show us than say it will happen. That the worst thing with that ministry (Works). It doesn’t seem like they believe in timelines. It’s hard to get timelines from them.
“All administrations for close to 25 years have been talking about implementing an electronic system there, and they’re still talking about it today. In hindsight, the pandemic may have forced it out of the Government. I’m hoping that’s the case.
“We did research on the system they need in terms of the cost to implement it, and at the low end it comes out to about $50,000. We can begin from $50,000 and up. It’s one way to streamline. I’m sure all the clients will be happy and the practitioners will be happy,” he continued.
“There’s no need to wait for four to six months for approval on simple residential construction. You have approvals that are granted in a day in major US cities. Residential projects are granted approval in a day. Regionally, you have some jurisdictions that grant it in one week or two weeks.”
Mr Ferguson added: “I know of projects I had whereby because of the extended period of time it took to approve them they actually died. I can probably say that for all architects in the country. I had a lot of projects that died waiting for approval and the whole economy is affected by that.
“We pointed that out to the minister [Mr Bannister] on previous occasions and the minister of finance [K Peter Turnquest] - the revenue being lost because of non-approvals and the time taken for approvals.”
Quentin Knowles, the Bahamas Society of Engineers (BSE) president, said in response to Mr Bannister: “That’s a good way of putting it: I’ll believe it when I see it. We’ve been talking about it for years. Most modern jurisdictions have done it, and I think I can speak for everybody in construction, architects and engineering when I say we’d welcome this with open arms. Without a doubt.”
He explained that the manual permitting process was especially problematic on major projects when multiple engineers and architects had to submit up to three copies of drawings and plans that could require up to 150-200 sheets from each consultant.