MPPP Councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui has urged the Penang Island Municipal Council to engage more with the people and find ways to democratise the whole planning process.
I think his remarks reflect the sentiments of many people who are alarmed at the property-centric model of development we are seeing.
Mah Hui made the following address yesterday at a full council meeting of the MPPP:
In recent years and more so in recent months, there has been a spate of protests from angry residents in various parts of Penang island over what is happening in their communities. This is not an isolated incident. It is quite widespread and has become a societal problem and issue. To mention a few examples, residents in Pykett Avenue, Moulmein Road in Pulau Tikus, Lembah Permai and Mount Pleasure in Tanjong Bunga, Savoy Garden in Ayer Itam, three residents association in Taman Desaria in Sungai Ara are protesting against projects in their neighbourhood that are threatening to degrade or destroy their living environment.
Suddenly a 30-storey high rise apartment is approved in a low-rise residential area where individual house owners have difficulty getting permission to build three-storey houses. Or suddenly a high retaining wall appears a few feet from their backyard threatening their safety; or a steep hill slope is cut causing erosion and flooding to their houses as happened in parts of Tanjong Bunga. If such incidents were limited to one or two, it would be bad enough. But when they appear in increasing frequency, these incidents should serve as a signal for MPPP that something is not quite right.
As public officials and servants, we should start asking, why would people, especially people from the middle-class who have a comfortable life, want to come out to protest? What is it that is causing them to take such actions?
What is emerging from this disturbing pattern is that there seems to be a growing gap between planning and people. Planning and development is not about putting up buildings and more buildings. It is about creating a liveable environment for people. People should be at the centre of the development and planning process. Planning should not be simply a top-down, technocratic process; it should start as a bottom-up process involving ordinary people in making decisions that affect their everyday life. It should be people-centric.
But right now many neighbourhoods are beginning to feel that the planning and approval process has left them behind; it is top-down, bureaucratic and developer-centric with little concern for the interests of ordinary citizens and residents. Let me illustrate with an example: there are special committees set up to liaise with developers, architects and engineers to facilitate and fast-track development projects. But there are few, if any, similar committees or avenues to solicit or to address the concerns of ordinary citizens, beyond the monthly meetings to hear individual complaints from rate payers.
The present planning and approval process under Section 21 of the Town and Country Planning Act requires residents within 20 metres of a project be given notice and a chance to voice their concerns or objections to the project within a time frame (usually two to three weeks). This requirement is appropriate when the project is a single house or a small building. But when it is a huge development project that has major environmental, traffic and social impact on a whole neighbourhood, is this guideline adequate and meaningful? Should not the larger community in the area be properly consulted in the first place? The fiasco and experience of the PGGC project should be a good lesson that the present guideline of limiting objections to neighbouring lots for big scale projects must be changed.
I would suggest the Council take the initiative to hold consultative meetings with not only surrounding neighbourhood but to the public at large to explain to them the possible impact of major projects and to solicit their input and feedback BEFORE approval, rather than stick to the present process of simply ticking off technical requirements and approving the projects speedily only to invite objections from irate residents and having to deal with appeals and protests down the line. In other words, a consultative process beforehand is better than a confrontational process after approval has been given.
Or take another example, when a traffic or environmental impact study is made, it should be open to public review, consultation and input before acceptance. I have suggested last year that instead of the present system of relying on reports of consultants hired by developers, we should have developers contribute to a common pool of funds from which the Council can access to hire its own independent consultants. This would minimize the conflict of interests. What has happened to this suggestion? I would like to formally table this again for deliberation and adoption by the Council as soon as possible. The same process should be adopted for geo-technical and environmental consultants.
In other words, is our planning, approval, objection and even appeal process too one-sided, especially since residents are unorganised individuals with little knowledge and resources. Most likely, they don’t know the intricate planning laws and guidelines; and the planning process and decisions may not be transparent to them. They do not have access to documents and information to assist them in their objections and appeals. On the other hand, developers are companies with vast financial resources and well-organised lobby groups. If you take them to court or they take you to court, they can hire the best lawyers in town and drag on legal cases for long periods. In short, it is a battle between David and Goliath.
I think the signs are clear. Increasingly more and more citizens are pushed to voice their concern and even their anger in public protests because they perceive something is not right with the planning and approval process. They feel they are marginalised, ignored and pushed over. If we are serious about promoting local democracy (Local Agenda 21), we must begin at the local council where people should not only be given the chance but indeed be encouraged to participate in decisions that affect their lives. This aspect of participatory democracy is just as, if not more, important, than electoral democracy.
If existing processes and guidelines are outdated and causing more problems than solutions, then we should change or improve on them. I list below as a start some issues and guidelines that should be relooked.
- What is the density we should allow for residential, mixed, and commercial development?
- Are present guidelines for provision of car parks adequate?
- Should we not introduce height control?
- Are present hill-slope development guidelines adequate to protect our people and environment?
- Should we allow for further development only after adequate infrastructural facilities are in place as opposed to the current practice of before.
In conclusion, I urge the council to engage more with the people and find ways to democratise the whole planning process. People want change and we should respond to their aspirations.