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Gov’t must tackle problem of unplanned communities, says PM

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PRIME Minister Andrew Holness insisted yesterday that unplanned communities fuelled by political expediency are to be blamed for the crisis facing the country, following heavy rain from the outer bands of Tropical Storm Eta, which drenched the island last weekend, destroying roads, property, and infrastructure.

He said, too, that much of the island’s road network which suffered extensive damage was not engineered to the specification of the current weather pattern affecting the region, an issue, he said, which must be tackled by his and future administrations.

Holness, who was giving an update on the status of communities in the aftermath of three consecutive weekends of adverse weather conditions, cautioned that the budget for repairs is expected to be significant.

This, he said, will also include assistance for residents, whose lives have been uprooted, following the destruction of their properties.

“What it says to us is that where people live in Jamaica has to now become a focus of the Government’s attention. We have to build infrastructure that is defensible. So, it’s not where you feel you want to go and live. We have to build infrastructure that is defensible, that is resilient, that incorporates eventualities of weather events and then we have to build planned communities around the infrastructure,” he said.

“Then, we have to encourage people who are living, many of them in these unplanned communities, to transition into the planned communities, which is why we have put in place the Ministry of Urban Renewal. That is the kind of long-term strategy that has to be laid out if Jamaica is going to survive in this new era of extreme climate variability and the impacts of climate change,” Holness argued.

He said it was time for the country to build infrastructure that will last so that the budget that exists based on the economy can suffice.

The prime minister also said that Government has to be “far more deterministic” in preventing the growth of informal and illegal settlements.

“We cannot allow communities to emerge and then now follow behind with the infrastructure… At some point the nation will have to confront this, that because of political expediency we have allowed some communities to exist, but now these communities are at risk. The people who live there need to ask themselves, is settlement by virtue of political affiliation worth my life and property?” Holness said.

“The budget that we will have to consider will soon be revealed [and] will require us to now make allocations to recover and replace, rehabilitate housing that has been destroyed, roadways that have been destroyed, and the question is: Should we seek to rebuild those houses and those roadways and recover those livelihoods in the place that they were destroyed?” he reasoned, following reports of wide-scale flooding in sections of Nine Miles in Bull Bay, St Andrew, last weekend.

The community runs parallel to Chalky River, which on Sunday breached its banks during the heavy downpour associated with Eta. Several homes were damaged.

Holness said after objective assessments are done, where locations are recommended, relocations will follow.

Equally, he stressed the need for political consensus in addressing the issue of relocation of at-risk communities which, he said, has been a sore point for years.

“I know when the question of relocation is raised you’re going to hear objections. You’re going to find all kinds of reasons why the persons can’t move and when you get down to it, it is where the names appear on the voters’ list. So, I’m just sounding the alarm, the warning now that we cannot have some of these communities continuing to exist in these areas in the face of the weather events that are projected to happen on a cyclical basis,” said Holness.

But Opposition Leader Mark Golding took issue with the prime minister’s statement, noting that it was partisan and not entirely factual.

According to Golding, much of the slums or unplanned communities that exist are as a result of socio-economic problems and less of political ones.

“The prime minister indicated the issue of informal settlements and persons living where they shouldn’t be living because it’s not safe. I don’t personally think that there’s any political affiliation in that. That is a socio-economic problem in Jamaica. There are informal settlements that would ascribe to themselves affiliations to both political parties.

“So, I don’t see the point of trying to infer, or any innuendos to say that this is some form of one-sided political issue. It’s a socio-economic issue, and having a partisan approach to it is really not helpful and it’s not truthful either,” said Golding.

Holness responded, saying the point was not meant to be taken as partisan or for it to be politicised. He said a national debate needs to be had on the matter and also at the Cabinet level to come to a consensus on the relocation of communities at risk.

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