Review how one stop centres work

THERE were news reports recently of a heated argument between the mayor of Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya and some councillors during a full board council meeting, resulting in 10 of them walking out. The argument was over the approval of the plot ratio of 1:8 for a project involving a 20-storey office tower on 0.4ha plot, including a four-storey carpark, at Lorong Sultan.

The land is occupied by an A&W outlet, reputed to be the country's first.

While this outlet is considered iconic because of its architecture and historic status, it is not necessarily the most popular compared to other outlets. Moreover, since it is privately owned land, the owner has the right to redevelop as approval has been given under the One Stop Centre, which approved the plan at the OSC committee meeting.

The problems started when a councillor requested for the approved plan to be reverted to the OSC for further review and fine-tuning for the benefit of the area.

There were a few who objected because the project did not qualify for the maximum plot ratio of 1:8. A request for voting was also turned down. If not reviewed, this would set a wrong precedent for other developers to follow suit.

This brings up questions such as "Do councillors have the right to speak out on decisions made at the OSC?" and "Are councillors allowed to request for a vote if there are disagreements during council meetings?"

Development control is under the jurisdiction of the local authorities. They approve layout plans, building plans, earthwork plans and issue development orders.

In practice, the fate of a development project is decided by a committee. Before April 2007, it was the Town Planning and Building Committee (TPBC) made up of 13 to 18 councillors with the mayor or president as chairman and technical officers, such as architects and engineers, there as advisers to address any technical problems.

Since 2007, the TPBC has been replaced by the OSC committee. The mayor or president is still the chairman, but there are only four councillors, with a dozen or so heads of technical departments from the council or from other agencies as committee members, not advisers.

The OSC was unveiled by then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and was meant to improve and hasten the processing of applications for permission to develop land. A process that used to take five years or so is now expected to take only six months.

Under the OSC, processing of applications for land use conversion and subdivision by the state government is done simultaneously with those for layout plans and building plans by the local council. It used to be land matters first followed by layout plans and then building plans.

The negative effect of simultaneous processing is that if the application for land conversion is not approved, the effort and time in preparing layout plans and building plans will go to waste. If the layout plans have to be amended, the building plans will have to be redone.

Land development in Malaysia operates in an environment of uncertainties because of the absence of gazetted local plans in which land use and intensity of use are clearly stated. This is made worse by sudden new rules and guidelines.

To complicate matters, developers, with the help of consultants, push the envelope on matters such as the height of buildings, land use mix and types and layouts of buildings.

Under the old system, the delays and uncertainties spawned the emergence of influential people who developers approached to clear the path.

The new system has minimised the role of local councillors. However, it has given the state politicians more power. The decisions of the OSC committee are to be forwarded to the state executive council for consideration. This opens a whole new ball game in development control processes.

While the OSC is a positive step towards standardising approval processes and minimising undue influence by local power brokers, it also opens up further questions about the role of local government in moving ahead with plans and projects they have a limited role in approving. The process could become more opaque and bring up unintended consequences.

In light of these emerging conflicts, the OSC process needs careful study and possibly some amendments to be more transparent and accountable.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: