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SDO changes given green light despite objections

Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Controversial changes to Special Development Orders were approved in the House of Assembly yesterday despite objections by the Opposition.

Walter Roban, the home affairs minister, said SDOs would undergo “far more transparency, scrutiny and testing” under global best practice rules previously not mandated – and an environmental assessment will be required by law.

He added that problems were created under the previous lack of oversight, which caused Unesco to threaten withdrawing the world heritage status of St George’s because of the new hotel.

Mr Roban opened the debate over the Development and Planning Amendment Act by highlighting the 2015 St George’s Resort Act, passed under the One Bermuda Alliance government, which led to the new St Regis Hotel.

He said it got in-principle planning permission with “no public involvement, consultation or advice, or advice from technical officers within the Department of Planning”, sparking “outcry” from area residents over the use of the beach.

Mr Roban added: “Even more worrying, as a result of the approved development, Unesco has since threatened that the world heritage status of St George’s is in danger of being revoked.”

He said having to bring SDOs before the House had been too unwieldy, causing developers to complain of delays.

Instead, SDOs will get advertised with the environmental impact assessment for 21 days of public scrutiny.

In addition, property owners will be able to get a higher level of conservation status for their land “enshrined by law”.

The amendments will also give the minister the power in a national emergency to allow the Director of Planning to fast-track approvals, such as during a natural disaster or public health emergency, through Emergency Development Orders.

Jarion Richardson, the Shadow Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, said the legislation included positive aspects, but the change to the SDO policy was a “key and crucial flaw”.

He said that Bermuda Plan 2018 was brought to the House of Assembly and approved in May after extensive consultation, but SDOs allow exemptions to the plan in the national interest.

Mr Richardson said SDOs have repeatedly sparked controversy in the past, and there was a public perception of “back room dealing” in some cases because the large amount of money involved.

“There are big returns with a lot to lose,” he said.

He said the legislation would allow SDOs to be approved before they can receive scrutiny of Parliament, saying: “We are balancing that greater efficiency with the weight of parliamentary scrutiny.”

Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, said the Bill was about far more than SDOs, saying the legislation included further protection of conservation areas and emergency development orders, which were “sorely needed”.

“We have a hurricane season every year that, when we are unlucky, causes devastation,” he said.

Mr Rabain said the island was in a different space when the requirement for a positive resolution for SDOs was introduced ten years ago.

He accused the OBA of “pandering” with their stance and said the public will have additional say in SDOs through the public consultation process.

Mr Rabain said parliamentary scrutiny will remain, as SDOs could be taken up for debate under the negative resolution procedure.

He added: “If the negative resolution is voted down, that SDO will be rescinded. It’s that simple.”

Cole Simons, the Leader of the Opposition, said he agreed with the introduction of proper procedures for SDOs and conservation areas.

But he denied the suggestion by Mr Roban that Parliament was to blame for the delays in the approval of SDOs as Parliament has been called back into session to tackle issues of national importance including SDOs previously.

Mr Simons said that Mr Roban praised the planning legislation’s “absolute transparency” last year, but now proposed to change those policies.

He added: “What will it be next year? How can the community feel that they are really committed to transparency when they are going back and forth like some yo-yo?

“What is driving this, because it is surely not Parliament slowing things.”

Scott Pearman, the Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs, also said most of the legislation was commendable, but the SDO element was “significantly detrimental to democracy”.

Mr Pearman said: “You have 30 seats. Why are you afraid of a debate?”

He said that SDOs are a matter of the public interest and the national interest, which makes it important that they come to the House for debate before they are approved.

“I don’t like the fact that we are watering down public scrutiny, because Parliament is supposed to be the breaks on the runaway train,” he said.

“If he were to change ‘negative’ to ‘affirmative’, he would have my vote on this Bill.”

David Burt, the Premier, praised the work of the Department of Planning and said the legislation was an example of the Government moving forward with its promise to improve efficiency.

He added: “The Government is advancing not based on political agendas, but what is in the best interest of this country and its development going forward.”

Mr Roban responded to the criticism of the SDO change saying there would be no “rubber-stamping” given the requirement for public consultation, which would create greater scrutiny of projects.

He said the PLP has a consistent record of environmental protection and reiterated that SDOs approved under negative resolution can be taken up for debate by MPs.

“The nature of involvement is changing, but it's not being withdrawn,” Mr Roban said.

He added that the OBA had repeatedly pushed forward with controversial development projects without the SDO process or public consultation.

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Published July 17, 2021 at 3:48 pm (Updated July 17, 2021 at 5:13 pm)

SDO changes given green light despite objections

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