Director of Planning targets faster turnaround times
There are few things more frustrating for a construction company chomping at the bit to start work on a new project, or for a householder wishing to make a minor change on their property, than having to wait for the green light from the Planning Department.
Victoria Pereira, who took over as Director of Planning last summer, is determined that her department should shed the image of a slow-moving bureaucracy by stripping out inefficiencies and by being proactive in reaching out to the public to demystify the planning process.
With the full support of Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, whose responsibilities include planning, Ms Pereira is working to implement a raft of changes in the coming months that will streamline the department’s workings and speed up turnaround times for planning applications.
At the same time, she is mindful that efforts to become more efficient should not dilute her department’s oversight responsibilities: to ensure that development is appropriate, sustainable and in keeping with strategic policy documents, including the Draft Bermuda Plan 2018 and the City of Hamilton Plan 2015.
Ms Pereira said that Planning’s role is often not well understood and strongly urged developers to come in for a chat well before drawing up plans in any detail. “Planning should be the first stop,” Ms Pereira told RG Construction. “We’re the glue that holds it all together.” In its everyday work, Planning is, by necessity, a collaborative department, frequently seeking expert advice from other parts of government, on topics such as health issues and fire safety, she explained, meaning that it is used to getting answers on development-related issues beyond planning rules.
She added: “I have been working with the Institute of Bermuda Architects and people who own construction companies to find out what their issues are. We have to improve our processes so that people can get permits and decisions quicker. What we do here greatly impacts jobs on the ground. We understand that our processes have been cumbersome.”
She gave some examples of ongoing efforts to improve the efficiency and user-friendliness of the department:
*A new paperless system called EnerGov, which is scheduled to become fully implemented by April this year. It will allow people to apply online and make the history of an application much easier to track with documents, including written complaints, stored digitally and available publicly online through Planning’s “Citizen Self Service” feature on its freshly overhauled website.
* Revisions: these refer to often small changes, such as the size of a window, which require planning permission before the work can be done. Ms Pereira says: “This process takes far too long and it’s something I’ve discussed at length with construction company owners. We are looking at making the process more streamlined, by allowing our inspectors to sign off on the revisions out in the field.”
* Competent Persons Scheme: Ms Pereira said this idea was developed through engagement with the solar industry. Effectively, the scheme would allow registered tradespeople to carry out certain work projects without the need for planning permissions. A good example is solar panel installation, Ms Pereira said. A Competent Persons Scheme would require tradespeople to be registered with the Workforce Development Department.
* Scheme of Delegation: this allows the Development Applications Board to delegate their power to grant or refuse planning applications to the Director of Planning. In practice, it means that Ms Pereira is empowered to sign off on applications that fall within a defined scope and that are fully compliant with the Draft Bermuda Plan 2018. This change was rolled out in February and will streamline and shave time off the application process, Ms Pereira said.
The Draft Bermuda Plan 2018, which covers all parts of the island outside the City of Hamilton, sets the guidelines for land use and development that make the most effective use of the island’s resources, while aiming to protect its natural and built environment and to provide a good quality of life for residents.
The Plan’s development strategy recognises key trends that will shape the needs of the future, such as the growing cohort of seniors, which will lead to more demand for housing and healthcare facilities for older people. Also, it points out that the average household size is decreasing, meaning the number of households will increase, impacting the demand for residential land.
The Plan directs new development to previously used “brownfield” sites and cluster housing schemes to increase residential densities in certain areas to reduce pressure on remaining open spaces.
The Plan’s community strategy states goals, including conserving open space, to encourage more sustainable use of land and buildings and to facilitate community improvements in neighbourhoods to create healthier and safer places to live.
Scanning through the 230-page document, the broad scope of the document becomes clear. It entails considerations such as coastal development, transportation and accessibility, utility services, nature and coastal reserve, recreation, woodland, agriculture and water reserves to name but a few, considerations that could sometimes be in conflict with each other during the planning process.
A reasonable takeaway conclusion might be that Ms Pereira has a strong case for believing that Planning is “the glue that holds it all together”.