Friday, April 10, 2009

Tiger park – Where stands the council?

By Goh Ban Lee
The Sun

THE proposal for a tiger park at Relau by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has attracted considerable attention. So far, public reactions, including those of the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (Mycat) and Penang branch of the Malaysian Nature Society, have largely been negative.

This is not to add to the many reasons why a tiger park is not suitable. It is to point out that the land owner and the local planning authority, namely the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP), does not seem to have much say in the project.

MPPP senior officers, including municipal president Datuk Zainal Rahim Seman, were present when Lim made the announcement. Was it an indication of support? It would be interesting to know their views. Have the councillors discussed the project? Has the council approved the tiger park? When was the decision made?

The 16ha identified for the tiger park is part of more than 40.5ha of hilly land owned by MPPP. Except for a small piece that was surrendered by the developer of a nearby housing scheme, the land was bought in the late 1990s or early 2000s for about RM40 million to be turned into a large recreation park amid hundreds of fruit trees and greenery.

The idea of a recreation park to compliment the very popular Municipal Park, formerly known as the Youth Park, was made as far back as the 1970s in the Interim Zoning Plan for that area. Indeed, the council has already done a reasonably good job in making part of the land into the Metropolitan Park.

Like all local councils in the country, MPPP is not a department of the state government. As has been stressed many times in this column, it is a local authority. In other words, it is a local government with the president as its chief executive officer and chairman of council meetings and councillors as the policymakers although they do play some executive roles.

Unlike state departments, such as the State Housing Department, MPPP is a corporate body that can sue and be sued. Its power and responsibilities are rather well defined in the Local Government Act (LGA), Town and Country Planning Act (TCPA) and the Street, Drainage and Building Act (SDBA) and other laws.

The chief minister has limited direct roles in the workings of the council. There is no provision for him or the state government to decide on the use of land belonging to the council. However, if MPPP wants to sell any landed properties, it must get the permission of the state government.Under the LGA, the Penang State Government can pass policies of a general nature which MPPP must follow. Under the TCPA, the state planning committee, chaired by the chief minister, can also pass town planning policies which must also be followed by the council.

However, the state government or the chief minister has no power to instruct or decide for the council that its land be used for a tiger park.

It is, of course, not illegal or wrong for Lim to float the idea of a tiger park. He has to think of new ideas to make Penang attractive and an engine of growth. The proper step should have been for him to communicate the proposal to the council.

In the spirit of CAT – competency, accountability and transparency – and following the spirit of Local Agenda 21, the council conducts an exercise to solicit feedback from the people of Penang.
The president and councillors then make the decision.

The laws provide for a clear separation of roles between the state and local governments. These must be followed to ensure accountability. Unfortunately, there has been serious blurring of lines between the state governments and local councils in the country.

Under such circumstance, it is hard for local council officers to sustain the principle of rule of law and a commitment to good governance. It is also confusing to the councillors about their roles.
These, in turn, lead to ineffectiveness and inefficiency.

The problem is that the state governments have very little to do vis-à-vis the local councils. This is complicated by the federal government taking over functions that are usually local government matters. There is a serious and urgent need to rethink about the allocations of functions among the three tiers of government.

Dr Goh Ban Lee is a retired academic interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com.
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