Urgent need to review KL City Draft Plan 2020

Prem Kumar Nair


LETTER | The proposed commercial development on a contentious vacant land along Jalan Maarof in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, earmarked as a green lung in the original Kuala Lumpur Draft Plan 2020 (prior to amendments made) in Bangsar Baru adjacent to Jalan Maarof is now back in the limelight with very interesting concerns, to say the least. Recently, there was a notice put up near the parameter of the parcel of land stating that the "proposed" construction of a four-storey commercial building with three floors of underground car parking facilities will be constructed on the land. 

The development order issued by DBKL in 2017 was given the green light for this commercial development building block with three floors of underground car park on this controversial piece of land notwithstanding the fact that various quarters including the various residents’ associations in Bangsar and the mosque adjacent to it promulgating strong objections to any commercial activities taking place there for fear of traffic congestion and increased pollution to the already packed surroundings. The main contention remains that it was originally earmarked as an open space or be utilised as a green lung in the original Kuala Lumpur Draft Plan which should have been approved in 2013.

For long, it was used by a private car showroom for more than a decade. Distressingly, this green lung was issued a new land title and lot number and was sold by DBKL to a private entity. To add insult to serious injury, the land status was also converted from a green lung to a commercial one despite it being earmarked strictly for recreational purposes or tanah lapang. And, a new land title was subsequently issued to its new owners. The mystery as to who was responsible in the local authority for the approved sale of the land and the issuance of a new ownership title to the land is still shrouded in what can only be best described as clandestine in nature and whose objective for it is to be firmly concealed. 

Equally perplexing is where any project approved under the Kuala Lumpur Development Plan 2020 and 2040 from now on will no longer use the requirement under Rule 5 of the Federal Territory Planning Act 1982, which allows for public participation in planning and development control by the government. This denies the opportunity for the public to raise any concerns or to raise their objections and provide their feedback on the sustainability and progressive development for Kuala Lumpur.

Pakatan Harapan’s Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad said that as a result of this directive, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) would no longer hold public hearings and developers would only now have to present their Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA) reports to residents or stakeholders after a development has been approved. This goes against the principle of public engagement and the chance for people to voice out their resentment and air their grievances over any disputed developments which will affect their livelihood for changes taking place in their vicinity. 

The sole intended purpose for the fulfilment and meeting the objective for the requirements under Rule 5 was a mechanism for use when there was no "gazetted plan" because, at that time, development was undertaken without following any guidelines. Previously, under this rule, all proposed developments could be questioned, but when a plan is gazetted now, there is no longer any need for a public hearing. Why is this so and why did the minister decide that the people will now be deprived of having their say in the projects proposed in the city?

A minute exception to this, according to the new directive, is that except when a project contradicts the Kuala Lumpur Development Plan 2020 and 2040, for example, the plot ratio fixed, if exceeded by the developer, then only would a public hearing be required to explain the increase of density to the residents. This is a poor reflection of KL City Hall’s role to act as an enforcer for developers breaking the guidelines on the original development order issued and a clear example of the lack of responsibility the city council had imposed on its enforcement powers.

The well-documented examples of the Taman Rimba Kiara and Bangsar disputed plots where development orders were gazetted despite receiving strong objections from the public were just two appalling scenarios where development orders were issued for commercial or residential development despite receiving strong objections on the grounds that such development will be detrimental to the environment, were against basic principles on the increase in density and that the development will bring dire irretrievable impact to the livelihood of residents, the public and drastically change the landscape of its surrounding areas. 

These cases were just a tip of the iceberg and had been going on for a very long time. This blatant issuance of development orders to developers in already congested areas must be strongly opposed and a revocation order must be issued immediately. Town planners and urban planning experts must toe the line and adhere to areas allocated as green lungs. Sustainable developments must be done with these in mind and not giving in to political pressure and demands from politicians.

This creates a bad and negative impression to the public and the public demands that local authorities and approving agencies be more accountable, compassionate and uphold the principle of good governance and to serve and protect the best interest of the people. It is comforting to see that there are still citizens who would speak up, join forces and campaign hard to preserve the shrinking forests and open green lungs in the Klang Valley. 

But I strongly believe people need to be more proactive and question decisions made by the local councils and approving bodies. Furthermore, it is very important to get to know your elected representatives and continuously engage with them in dialogues for the simple reason that they are responsible for their actions and they are public servants entrusted to provide the best service to the people who elected them.

Once again, elected representatives holding positions in public office and sitting on advisory panels must be responsible and residents must hold political parties accountable especially when we were promised transparency and proper governance during the last general election. As such, the gazetting of the KL City Draft Plan 2020 must be carefully scrutinised again with no further delay and elected representatives or wakil rakyat in Kuala Lumpur must be more vigorous in getting this done and it must be promulgated. 

For ages, people have left the responsibility of town planning to local councils and on many occasions, decisions are politically made due to very high connections by property developers with people sitting in public office whose duty is to serve the best interest of the people who elected them based on their promises made during their election campaigns. This is a basic contentment of a manifesto presented to the respective constituents when one intends to get elected into public office to serve the best of his or her capability for the benefit of those who put them there.

I must stress that if our citizens do not devote time and effort to organise themselves and engage with their elected representatives, the policymakers will implement development plans according to what they think is right and deny society their say or question their intentions. But by building an active, working relationship with local governments, the people can keep the politicians and civil servants on their toes and question any decisions made which go against the basic principles of accountability, transparency and informed decision-making from the very people who elected them into office to achieve their set objectives.

DBKL with a new leadership under the current administration can definitely benefit from appropriate and successful engagement of the public where developments matters are concerned. For instance, public engagement can improve decision-making through the solicitation and identification of community members’ values, ideas and recommendations. Other outcomes include more informed and engaged residents, greater support for public decisions made and enhanced public confidence in local government, the same reasons why the people voted for change from the previous government. 

However, while most public engagement strategies offer positive results, these efforts will be most effective if attention is paid to the various agenda for the benefit of ordinary citizens. The targeted issue or controversy should be likely to benefit from broader resident engagement and will justify the additional time and costs involved to hold public engagements.

A proposed public action or decision that involves strong feelings and opposing views or that will benefit by asking residents about the kind of community they wish to have, may be particularly suitable. A good public engagement process should ask residents for their views rather than try to persuade them to agree with a particular plan, policy or action. The objective of the now-defunct Rule 5 of the Federal Town Planning Act is a testament to this very aspiration. Appropriate local agency leadership should be in agreement on the engagement purpose, process and use of the outcomes. 

Clarity among elected officials and the relevant appointed officials about the planned engagement process and a clear delegated role for appropriate local council staff are essential elements. Along with appropriate local officials, the planning and design of a public engagement process will often benefit from input from members of the intended participant groups and communities.

DBKL must be seen to continue to engage in discussions and decide if there is a need for a consultant or consulting firms to take on designated public engagement design and/or delivery responsibilities. Good intentions and well-run meetings are not enough. It is important to be clear about how local officials will document and seriously consider the ideas, preferences or recommendations that result from a public engagement effort. 

This should be part of a consistent and clear message delivered to the public by the local council for public engagement initiatives should start by talking about purposes and goals, not processes. DBKL’s decision to gazette a city plan which did not thoroughly go through the legal requirement is a glaring error and demonstrates very poor judgement on the provisions of existing laws which are in place for this very purpose.

Their voices against more controversial projects especially when dealing with open spaces or earmarked for green lungs will also carry more weight in the future and it is hoped that drastic changes will be put in place by the ruling government and bring back the confidence of the public especially on matters regarding environmental protection and the genuine aspiration on sustainable development in Kuala Lumpur.

It is not enough to work only on setting up democratic institutions and processes. These institutions and processes must be put to work creating opportunities for citizens to lead healthy and productive lives. Ensuring that government actually works for the public good requires informed, organised, active and peaceful participation of like-minded members of society. Citizens must, therefore, understand ideas about being vocal, demanding accountability and constantly pushing for the government to be fair to its people regardless of creed or stature. 

They need the knowledge to make decisions about policy choices and the proper use of authority, along with the skills to voice their concerns, act collectively and hold public officials (elected representatives, civil servants, and appointed leaders included) accountable. Democratic principles including engaging in public debates and discussions depend on educating, informing, enabling and empowering people to participate freely in and benefit from the social, economic, civil and political systems and processes in a country.

To stress these principles further, the recently gazetted KL Draft Plan 2020 which was amended without the views of the public must, therefore, be reviewed as serious flaws exist especially on the legality of approvals given to development without adhering to the guidelines as stipulated under the law. Ample time must be given to the public to study the development approvals particularly to those given when this emended version of the Kl Draft Plan 2020 was rushed through without a proper consultation process with the stakeholders, indeed a clear and blatant violation of the laws requiring a public discourse on any development which requires the public to be notified for their views.

The initial KL Draft Plan 2020 which was prepared in 2013 remains to be the actual one which should have been given the green light and not the latest version where many can question the legality on the included amendments made by DBKL under the new government without the public’s knowledge or scrutiny. Initially, the draft KL Draft Plan 2020 was to be gazetted in 2011 and later moved to 2012. Sadly, that did not happen too. It was then planned to be in 2013 but again delayed pending a review from the previous government. 

The law is very clear and if the current Federal Territories Ministry had made a bad misjudgement in this respect, it can still be revoked as all approvals must be made in accordance with the provisions of the legislation in place where supremacy of the law will always be given the priority and the utmost respect it truly deserves. There are laws in place dealing with such situations.

If a land was indeed transferred and transacted under dubious circumstances where there clearly exists elements of fraud and corrupt practices involved, let the relevant agencies responsible at looking for such abuses and breaches in fiduciary duties which are entrusted by the people to uphold the basic tenets of transparency and accountability, be brought to justice to face the consequences for their actions. The rule of law must always prevail and it is only fair for it to be applicable to all.

The writer is honorary secretary, Bangsar Baru Residents’ Association.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.