Mon | May 27, 2024

Editorial | NEPA’s new man

Published:Friday | April 19, 2024 | 12:06 AM
Leonard Francis, CEO of NEPA.
Leonard Francis, CEO of NEPA.

T he Gleaner congratulates Leonard Francis on his promotion to the post of chief executive officer of Jamaica’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

We, as is likely to be the case with most people, welcome his pledge to deepen partnerships with a range of stakeholders in pursuing the agency’s mandate of protecting Jamaica’s environment and ensuring its orderly physical development.

We, however, offer a bit of unsolicited advice to Mr Francis if he intends or wants to be a successful regulator, in the sense of really fulfilling his mandate as set out in the several bits of legislation that underpin the agency that he now runs. It is simple: don’t overthink things. Follow the law. Accordingly, align NEPA’s decision-making with, as its title obligates it to do, protecting the interests of Jamaicans.

This, of course, will not be easy as it sounds. But it starts with NEPA regaining the trust of ordinary Jamaicans and extricating itself from the pervasive view that it is in the pockets of the big guys.

CRITICAL PRIORITY

Put another way, a critical priority for NEPA must be rescuing its reputation, a requirement which, based on his interview with this newspaper, Mr Francis seems to have an appreciation, if not, as yet, a firm grasp.

NEPA is an executive agency. Its job is to provide technical and administrative support to three critical environmental protection and development bodies:

· the Natural Resources and Conservation Authority;

· the Town and Country Planning Authority; and

· the Land Development and Utilisation Commission.

NEPA is therefore a powerful organisation. Essentially, it does the work and undertakes the regulatory functions of those authorities, leaving their boards to formally attach their seals of approval to NEPA’s actions.

Unfortunately, most people do not believe that NEPA does a good job – a perception that has worsened in recent years, especially in the face of a string of court rulings, in cases mostly by activist citizens, where judges have reprimanded it for a less robust approach to its mandate. Or worse.

For instance, in a 2020 ruling upholding citizens’ complaints about a high-rise complex built in Birdsucker Avenue, St Andrew, Justice Georgiana Fraser scolded NEPA for its retroactive issuance of environmental permits for the project after the developers had already broken the rules, including on room density for the size of the lot.

A year later, with a similar issue at nearby Roseberry Avenue, when the developer also disregarded restrictive covenants, Justice Natalie Hart-Hines invoked Hamlet’s soliloquy of the “unweeded garden that grows to seed” in highlighting the actions of NEPA and the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation. The latter issued the building permit for the development.

She said: “The garden metaphor in Hamlet was used by Shakespeare to represent the decay of a country when it becomes lawless and corrupt because those who are tasked with the responsibility for pruning and managing it fail to carry out their responsibility. In this case, it seems that the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation (KSAMC) and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) have been dilatory in their mandate to enforce local planning laws and regulations and to promote sustainable development in respect of the building situated in the property, which is the subject matter of this application.”

IC SPOTLIGHT

More recently, it was the Integrity Commission’s spotlight on the construction of a complex at Charlemont Drive, St Andrew, by power couple Mark Barnett and Annette Francis Barnett, where NEPA only acted on the breaches many months after they were observed and with the project near completion.

These, though, represent only a small sample of the complaints citizens have made about NEPA’s lax enforcement of its regulatory powers and its husbandry of the environment.

So while Mr Francis’ declaration of attempting to enlarge NEPA’s database of citizens’ groups and his wish for community members to become the agency’s “eyes and ears” to assaults on the environment will probably be welcomed, his first hurdle will be to establish trust.

Mr Francis, in this respect, has the disadvantage of being an inside man, having, before his elevation, served for a decade as NEPA’s director of spatial planning. That is not insurmountable.

He has to prove to stakeholders that he has, or is capable of, transcending NEPA’s past where things big and shiny, and the voice of the deep-pocketed, seemed inherently persuasive. Again, Mr Francis, be informed and led by the law – and the people’s interest.