Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bitter vindication

Bitter vindication
by Elizabeth Wong

ONE of the earliest policy decisions by the Pakatan Rakyat Selangor government was to throw out any housing and building applications for Class 3 and Class 4 hillslopes to preserve environmentally sensitive areas and prevent landslides. This was decided at an executive council meeting on April 2.
Selangor became the first state in the federation to have complied with the Federal Town and Country Planning Department’s Total Planning Guidelines 1997 (2nd edition, 2001) which states that no housing development should be allowed on slopes with 25° and above gradients.

Developers thought it was a late April Fool’s joke. Since our ban, they have used all means – the media, blogs, lobbying by state reps and MPs etc to change our minds. We were vilified as "anti-business" and "anti-development". I have even had some of our Pakatan MPs asking us to make exceptions for Class 3 slopes.

I was told they particularly disliked me and called me "lan-si" (arrogant) just because during a public meeting of developers, NGOs, residents and the exco, one of the key developers questioned how the state government could stop hillslope development, and I answered, "Because we can…" And none were too happy when I had to repeatedly wave the Total Planning Guidelines book at them.

And every couple of months, we have had to repeat our policy decision. Even as recent as last month, developers were insisting that they had the right to develop hill slopes and some had told a couple of exco members that they were planning to sue us. One of them said we would have to compensate them RM330 million (25% of our state budget) for possible loss of profits. Imagine the pressure of a lobby group whose combined income and assets dwarfs the state government!

Saturday’s tragedy proves the correctness of the decision of the state government. But vindication which comes after the loss of four lives and more homes is unspeakably bitter. There are some 5,000 residents living in the vicinity of the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide who face uncertainty and may have to vacate their homes.

We ask that developers stop pursuing and pressuring us to review our policy, and instead thoroughly go through every single technicality of their existing hillslope projects.

While Ikram and the Public Works Department are responsible for pinpointing the cause of the tragedy, the state government will immediately review all approved hillslope projects by the previous administration, whether standing or partially built.

Those where there is no construction yet but approved before March 8 should not be allowed to proceed, especially along the same range of Bukit Antarabangsa and Hulu Kelang – which should include Taman Hijau and Bukit Melawati.

We had come too late. Many of the hillslope projects have been standing for a number of years, some were half completed when we came into power. Without proper maintenance of slopes and drainage on these private lands, tragedy will strike after many years, always after the period of indemnity is over. Those areas shown to be prone to landslides such as in Hulu Kelang, where the Public Works Department had flashed its red card in 2005, more stringent conditions will be imposed on existing projects.

All developers and private land owners have to protect and reinforce their own hillslopes if they want to continue to prosper, own property and do business in Selangor. We recently received complaints from Ampang, Kajang, Cheras and Pandan where private landowners and developers have neglected to protect hillslopes and there are already signs of wear and tear. Some have used plastic sheets and some said they were bankrupt and don’t have the funds to repair their slopes. Whatever. If they do not do the necessary, we will blacklist them.

We ask that "people" be put ahead of "profits".

We are heartened that finally, after eight months of battling the housing industry, the federal government has come to our side to give Selangor, both the moral and policy support it needs, with both the prime minister and deputy prime minister calling for all hillslope development permits to be cancelled.

We can only hope the federal government doesn’t forget Dec 6, 2008 - like what had happened to Highland Towers (1993); Taman Hillview (2002) and Kg Pasir (2006) - which was less than a kilometre from Saturday’s landslide. Lest the lives lost would be in vain.

The writer is assemblywoman for Bukit Lanjan and state executive councillor in charge of the environment. Comment: letters@thesundaily.com

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