Local Counsel - Tell ratepayers more

IT IS fair to believe that the local authorities in Malaysia have not been doing a good job. Malaysian towns and cities are not near to the top liveable cities rankings.

Besides, the target set by Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainol Abidin, who was the former minister of Federal Territories and Urban Wellbeing, for Kuala Lumpur to be among the top 20 liveable cities by 2020 is not likely to be achieved.

Kuala Lumpur has been ranked in the 70s according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, one of the few outfits that are involved in liveable city rankings.

The challenge to improve urban management is not directed to Kuala Lumpur only. Many state leaders also want their cities and municipalities to be noted as liveable cities.

The recent 70th meeting of the National Council for Local Government (NCLG) has finally acknowledged the lacklustre performance of the local authorities in the country.

The NCLG meeting, which was chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has acknowledged that the ratepayers should be living in better and safer cities and towns. There is hope for improvement.

More specifically, according to Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, "The people too have the right to hear and be heard?"

As such, local authorities should inform the public clearly how the assessment tax and quit rent collections are spent so they understand the constraints and challenges faced by them.

Even before the target was set by the minister, some presidents or mayors of the local councils have also made press statements about their aims of making their municipalities or cities to be among the best in Asia if not the world.

Under the present system, the ratepayers know little about the working of the local councils.

The only way to let the ratepayers understand the workings of the local councils and help in making their towns and cities more liveable is to allow them to be observers in council meetings. The meetings should not be held behind closed doors.

Take, for instance, One Stop Centre meetings held to approve or reject applications for land development projects.

As such, the ground tenants on the land that is to be developed and those living nearby have no idea of what is happening around them until a billboard is erected to specify the buildings to be built.

Most councillors are also in the dark about the workings of the One Stop Centre.

The meetings that approve or reject applications by landowners to undertake land development consist of only four councillors and several senior officers who are involved in development control.

The chairman is the president or mayor of the local authority.

One Stop Centre meetings should be open to the public, including the landowners or developers who own the land to be developed.

All matters in the One Stop Centre are development projects. There is no need to keep the process to approve or reject a project as a secret.

After all, within a few weeks of approval, developers will put up huge posters to advertise their projects.

The Town and Country Planning Act stipulates that all local authorities must have structure plans and local plans to regulate and control urban development.

Structure plans are basically policy plans that provide a general picture of the development of the local authority areas. Although the preparation of a structure plan may be costly, it generally does not get huge protests.

The problem is the preparation of local plans. The Penang Island City Council and Kuala Lumpur City Hall – the two most developed local authorities – still do not have gazetted local plans.

They did try to prepare their local plans in 2008, but for reasons not made available publicly, there is still no gazetted plan in each local authority.

It is high time to make the administration of the towns and cities in Malaysia less secretive and more transparent.

At present, apart from full council meetings, many important meetings, including those that approve development plans, are held behind closed doors.

The ratepayers have no idea of the development of their cities until they see hoarding boards or the building sites.

The 70th National Council for Local Government meeting has approved the Local Authority Transformation Plan. Hopefully, this impending plan will enable local residents to play a role in making their towns or cities a much better place to stay and bring up families.

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