Improving local government

Stabroek News
May 25, 2000

Building and improving local government structures, be they municipalities, regional democratic councils or neighbourhood democratic councils is desirable in principle for many reasons. First, it devolves power from the top to smaller districts where local people are closer to the problems and know the priorities better. Secondly, it empowers a large number of people and gives them experience in the harsh realities of governance, getting things done, collecting money, budgeting, awarding contracts and monitoring them, indeed generally learning to take responsibility. Those people, if they are serious and honest, quickly realise how little they know, how much difficult and detailed work is involved in running anything properly, how easy it is to make mistakes including quite serious ones, and how voluble their critics are and sometimes how ill-informed. Thirdly, it creates countervailing powers and to that extent lessens the control and domination of central government.

Good local governments contribute to the prosperity of the country and create a pool of persons with experience who can graduate to higher office, as happens naturally in many developed countries where, for example, a state governorship can be a stepping stone to the presidency.

Our local governments have not recently covered themselves with distinction. Indeed, sectors like drainage and sea defences which had been devolved to regional democratic councils had to be returned to central government as the job was not being done. There were several reasons for this, partly inadequate funding and resources, partly that these councils were not seen as attractive careers for able and ambitious people and partly the brain drain that has afflicted the entire country and left us short of trained and experienced personnel, at all levels.

The drafters of the National Development Strategy in the Chapter on Urban Development have come up with a large number of ideas, some of which we set out below:

The financial base of municipalities and local authorities will be broadened and strengthened through the revaluation of properties and road licenses, revenues, improved systems of rate collection and through municipalities being granted a percentage of the road licenses and other such revenues being collected by the Central Government.

The authority to make valuations in urban areas in the future will be vested in the six municipalities.

Special training courses in property evaluation will be conducted in Guyana for these municipalities. In addition the better students will be sent abroad for further training, and on study tours to observe the valuation methods that are used in other places.

Higher rates and taxes will be charged for all property in municipal areas. These new rates will not be imposed in one fell swoop, but will be increased gradually over a period of five years. Thereafter they will be raised at stated periods of time.

The municipalities will begin to contract out the task of rate collection, with commissions paid in relation to the amounts collected.

Automatic grants at a rate to be decided by the Central Government and the municipalities and NDCs in proportion to their respective populations.

Income generating activities for urban centres will be initiated. Such activities will include surcharging heavy trucks that use the road networks of the municipalities; selling fertile top soil to farmers in areas of poor soil, for agricultural activities; and exporting sand and other products to local and overseas markets. These activities will be under the direction of professional managers appointed by the Council and all profits will be utilised to improve the general welfare of the towns.

To curtail urban sprawl a three-pronged strategy will be put in place: (i) State lands will be allocated to a greenbelt and freehold land will be purchased for that purpose wherever necessary; (ii) Measures will be adopted to encourage higher-density housing for the middle class, and (iii) Secondary centres will be established beyond the greenbelt with adequate roadways cutting through the greenbelt to the city.

A physical development plan will be prepared for the greenbelt policy and estimates will be made of the required amounts of state land and the cost of acquiring the necessary freehold land.

A greater density of urban settlement will be created by encouraging the private sector to construct duplexes and condominiums for sale to the middle class. This Strategy is developed more fully in the chapter on Housing. This population group would be the main target group that would need to be persuaded over time to shift its preferences (in part) away from single-family dwellings and towards structures of greater population density. Higher density dwellings will have the further advantage of generating more tax revenues per acre than the current pattern of settlement does.

Garbage collection in all municipalities will be contracted out, with a special system of incentives for cleaning up loose paper and garbage as well as that which is deposited in designated collection points.

New landfill sites will be identified taking care to avoid seepage into groundwater supplies and to observe other environmental requisites.

Urban zoning regulations will be updated and their enforcement provisions strengthened.

In all six municipalities, steps will be taken, with the assistance of an international lending agency, to rehabilitate and maintain all the municipal roads and drainage networks, reconstruct commercial facilities such as markets, abattoirs and stellings, as well as rehabilitate street lighting systems, and upgrade municipal government facilities. All this will be done by 2005.

There are many other valuable suggestions. If only a fraction of these things could be done by our city councils they would transform our cities and greatly improve the morale of the people living in them. All are achievable, what is required is energy, purpose and political will. And property owners have to be prepared to pay realistic rates and taxes, which in many cases they do not do now.

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