The Importance of Development Plans/Land Use Policy for Development Control

 By Dr. Deborah Thomas, Land Use Planning Consultant, Development Control Authority

Prepared for the USAID/OAS Post-Georges Disaster Mitigation Project, Workshop for Building Inspectors,  January 15 - 26, 2001

1.0 Introduction

The topic I have been asked to address today is "The Importance of Development Plans for Development Control." It is therefore my task to put into context why development plans are important in the context of the development control function with which most of you are involved. Let me start by defining the discipline and profession of land-use planning.

Land use planning refers to the process by which land is allocated between competing and sometimes conflicting uses in order to secure the rational and orderly development of land in an environmentally sound manner to ensure the creation of sustainable human settlements.

The process of land use planning consists in the main of the two twin functions of Development/Land use Planning and Development Control. Of necessity, these two functions must be supported by relevant research and mapping which are also major components of the land use planning process.

Having defined the activity let me spend some time to put land-use planning in a wider context: why do we do it and how does the need for it arise. Land-use planning does not exist in isolation. It is necessary to view land-use planning as an integral part of the process of national growth and development. Among other things, this process seeks to identify, articulate and satisfy the basic social/human needs of a country’s population within the context of available economic/financial resources and technical knowledge.

People have needs that must be satisfied. For instance, they need housing; jobs; education; opportunities for recreation; transport; and basic services like water, electricity, clean air and health care. Social planning and policies attempt to take care of the basic social needs of the country’s population. Economic planning and policies seek to ensure that the country has a sound economic base which provides revenue to finance government operations and pay for provision of services to the public while also ensuring that jobs are available to the country’s labour force.

Land-use planning seeks to accommodate these needs within a technical and spatial framework. While houses must be built for the population for example, they cannot be provided in a swamp; or an area that is unsuitable for housing development because of its terrain, vulnerability to natural or other disasters, or inability to physically support the building; or in an area that endangers the health and safety of the occupants or other members of the public.

Similarly, economic decisions to focus on tourism, manufacturing industry or agricultural development as the basis of the country’s economic development must be translated into land-use terms. First, each of these activities use land. Furthermore, some areas of land are more suitable for some types of activities than others and some activities have negative impacts on the terrestrial (land) and/or marine (sea) environments. Also, use of land for one activity often prevents its use for another activity at the same time.

National social and economic needs are identified and articulated by people themselves, by politicians; community groups and sometimes by the technical experts, like Land-Use Planners. These needs are translated into a spatial form or a land-use activity and reflected in land-use plans, policies and development actions. Land-use planning therefore derives from the need to satisfy these needs on the ground, in a rational manner and within a technical framework. It is a crucial part of the process of Integrated Development Planning which includes social and economic planning and reflects their land-use/spatial components.

Land use planning also takes place within a legal context. At this stage, suffice it to say that the legal context provides the justification for undertaking land use planning and sets out the powers and duties of the agency responsible for the planning function - the Development Control Authority. The legislation also sets out the procedures to be followed, the conditions under which they may be carried out and the matters to be covered in executing both the development planning and development control functions. The law also makes provision for revising and changing land-use plans and policies to ensure that they are always current and relevant to the country’s development needs.

The law also provides for remedies for those persons affected by planning and development decisions/activities and penalties for those who fail to comply with the provisions of the legislation.

2.0 Development Control

The focus of this training workshop is the development control function of the land use planning process and it is this activity with which you are most familiar in your daily work. The development control function seeks to manage and regulate property development to ensure that all development takes place at an appropriate time and place and in such a manner that it conforms to a pre determined set of policies or standards.

Many of you may have asked yourselves or have been asked by others why is a system of development control necessary in the first place. Let me emphasise that the purpose of development control is not to stop development or to make life difficult for developers or home builders. Instead, the main purpose is to ensure the orderly and rational development of land to create sustainable human settlements that accommodate a variety of land uses to meet the needs of the people who live in these settlements.

I am sure we can all think of examples of:

The development control function is an important one and those who work to evaluate applications for development permission; grant or refuse permission; and inspect development have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that the problems just identified do not arise. They have a responsibility to ensure that development occurs in the right place, at the right time; that buildings are structurally sound and will not endanger the safety or lives of those who live in or use them; that they are provided with the basic services and facilities necessary to support the purpose for which they are erected; and to ensure that the environment and natural resources of Antigua and Barbuda are managed carefully and prudently for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Notwithstanding the admission of The Honourable Minister St. Luce this morning that there is sometimes political interference in the work of the Development Control Authority and its Inspectors, it is still your responsibility to arm yourself with the technical knowledge needed to understand and communicate to others the need for the standards and policies we are called to implement. We also need to have the courage of our convictions and stand up for what we know to be technically sound and safe practices.

3.0 Land Use Policy and Development Control

Development control is the most visible part of the land use planning process and the function with which members of the public - particularly those engaged in the construction and property development industries - interact on a daily basis.

However, the development control function cannot and should not operate in a vacuum. This brings me to the central theme of this presentation. That is, the link between land use policy and development control. The formulation of land use policy and development standards - often contained within development plans - provides the contextual framework within which the development control function operates.

The preparation of Land Use Plans and formulation of land use policies and development standards are some of the main outputs of the development/land use planning process. Plans are prepared to:

Plans are also prepared for areas which are already experiencing significant development pressures or some of the negative effects of growth and development in an effort to find solutions to these problems and to manage future growth.

Plans may be prepared for a country as a whole - such as the recently completed Draft National Physical Development Plan for Antigua and Barbuda - or for specific areas (cities, towns, villages or other communities) of the country -such as the recently completed Draft St. John’s Local Area Plan. In addition, Plans may be prepared for certain vulnerable areas within the country which may cut across settlement (town and/or village) boundaries ? such as a Coastal Zone Plan or a Watershed Plan.

The Plan is a statement of intent or vision. It sets out how we would like to see the country develop over a specified time period. It is also a road map: since we have a vision and a goal, how do we get there? Policies and standards help us to achieve the vision we have set ourselves for the future development of the country. As the old adage goes: if you don?t know where you are going, any road can take you there!

Preparation of Plans is a lengthy and time-consuming process. However, land-use planning agencies are often called upon to make decisions on applications for development permission before a Plan is prepared or completed. If no Plan or policy statement exists, evaluation of development proposals may raise critical development issues for which no policy guidance is available. At such times or in order to pre-empt such situations, the land-use planning agency may formulate land-use policies/policy statements to address specific development issues when a quick response is needed and time does not permit preparation of land-use Plan. These may include, but are not limited to, subdivision policies, industrial location policies, settlement upgrading policies, development standards etc. Policy statements may also be prepared as an alternative or supplement to a land-use Plan.

One primary reason for preparing land-use plans and policy statements is to fulfill a legal requirement of the Land Development and Control Act of 1977. However, plans and policies are mainly prepared to guide the operation of the development control system and to facilitate the development decisions of private and public sector developers, including home builders.

In other words, Plans and policies provide the framework within which the development control process can take place. In the absence of this framework and guidance, how can applications for development permission be assessed? What criteria will be used to determine whether or not a development proposal is compatible with nearby activity/land uses or is located on an appropriate site or includes the necessary facilities to support the proposed activity?

In the absence of a policy framework, the development control system is seen as arbitrary and people question whether or not there is any sound basis or foundation for the decisions made. Furthermore, in the absence of a policy framework, decisions are made entirely at the discretion of the Officer evaluating a development proposal.

Consequently, decisions can vary according to the person evaluating the proposal and can vary over time. This leads to inconsistency in decision making and also to uncertainty in the minds of developers and home builders who can never be sure what development standards they are required to satisfy or whether their applications/proposals will be positively received by the DCA. Potential developers are also confused as they are never sure what the rules are and when they may be changed. And as we have all learned from as early as childhood, it is not fair to change the rules while the game is being played. Ultimately, this reinforces the perception among members of the public and the building industry that the development control process is arbitrary. The process and we who implement it lose credibility in the eyes of those we are meant to serve.

3.1 Land Use Considerations in Development Control

In Antigua the Development Control Authority operates a type of "One Stop Shop" for evaluating applications for development permission in so far as two appraisals are conducted by the Authority. Applications for development permission are assessed to determine:

In practice however, there is no clear distinction made between the two levels/types of appraisal and insufficient attention is paid to the analysis of land-use issues. The structural assessment of buildings will be dealt with in greater detail during the course of this training programme. However, I would like to outline some of the criteria that should be incorporated when evaluating the land-use implications of development proposals.

When we receive an application for Development Permission, the first level of assessment requires us to determine whether or not the use/activity is appropriate for the proposed site/location. If there is a land-use (zoning) Plan in existence this will provide the first indication of the suitability of the area for the activity proposed. If not, we have to apply some basic principles to assist us in evaluating the development proposal.

Notwithstanding this however, the following land-use issues should be considered in determining an application:

The physical characteristics of the development site and surrounding land, including topography; on-site physical features; geology and soil type; drainage patterns etc. Some of these characteristics are crucial in determining an area’s vulnerability to natural disasters. In the context of the Post Hurricane Georges Disaster Mitigation Project under which this workshop is hosted, any attempts to mitigate the impacts of disaster events requires us to address these issues in the practice of development control.

Let us now consider some examples of development that takes place in the absence of the necessary land-use policies to guide the decision-making and/or implementation process. These examples also highlight some of the problems that may occur if land-use planning issues and criteria are not adequately considered during and incorporated into the process of evaluating development applications:

Proliferation of advertising and directional signs

Antigua’s streets are "littered"? with a number of advertising and directional signs which are erected on wooden stakes randomly placed within the road reserve; abutting privately owned lands and on utility poles. These signs are unsightly as they do not conform to any design or aesthetic criteria; they are a potential hazard to motorists since they often block drivers' lines of vision and obscure views of approaching vehicular and pedestrian traffic; and a potential obstruction to utility company workers. In the absence of a policy to guide the display of advertising and directional signs in Antigua and Barbuda, the development control system has no criteria by which to judge whether or not a sign is too large, too close to the road, within motorists' line of sight or is aesthetically/visually pleasing.

Proliferation of Roadside Vendors

There is no clearly articulated policy to guide the location of vendors around St. John’s City or standards for the design and/or construction of their booths. In fact, there is still some debate about whether or not the erection of vendors’ booths requires development permission from the Development Control Authority. The resultant chaos is evident.

Incompatible Uses in Residential Areas

In the absence of an approved land-use policy to guide development in residential and other areas, a number of "non-conforming" uses have crept into residential areas. For instance, the proliferation of mechanic shops/garages is a cause for concern among residents due to the noise, congestion and pollution which these activities generate. However, if there is no clear policy to guide the location of garages or to specify what types of uses are unacceptable in residential areas, this problem will persist.

Conflict between Agriculture and Built Development

With the encroachment of residential development onto agricultural land, pockets of farmland remain between residential communities. While these tracts of land are actively farmed, spraying of chemical fertilisers and pesticides may cause health concerns for nearby residents. On the other hand, conversion of agricultural land to residential use removes fertile land from productive agriculture; splits large tracts of agricultural land, thereby reducing its potential for viable commercial farming; and restricts the use of certain production methods etc. In the absence of a land-use policy that reserves specific areas for agriculture, it is likely that development control decisions will continue to alienate productive agricultural lands; compromise the economic and financial viability of the agriculture sector; and inadvertently increase the possibility of health concerns for nearby residents.


The Development Control Authority receives many applications to subdivide large parcels of land to create smaller residential lots; often without the benefit of an overall plan to show how this may be achieved, the layout of lots or the provision of infrastructure. To date there is no subdivision policy in use by the Authority. Instead, development control decisions are sometimes made to approve creation of smaller lots from large parcels on an ad hoc basis. By the time the larger parcel is completely subdivided in this way, a haphazard layout of buildings is created with small lots that are inadequately served by road access and other basic infrastructure.

Failure to Enforce Development Standards

Perhaps the most critical example of the importance of land use policy to the development control process can be observed in the application of development standards. Development standards are articulated in the Land Development and Control Regulation (No. 20 of 1996) and the Antigua and Barbuda Building Code and Building Guidelines. New standards are also recommended in the recently completed Draft National Physical Development Plan for Antigua and Barbuda and the Draft St. John?s Local Area Plan. However, these standards are sometimes applied with discretion by the Authority?s staff ? often in situations where the use of discretion is neither necessary or justified - or not applied at all. This may result in buildings that suffer structural damage during hurricanes; buildings constructed without the necessary facilities to meet the needs of their occupants eg inadequate provision of car-parking spaces; structures that are inadequately setback from roads and/or the coastline.

Uncontrolled Development at Jennings Estate

A former agricultural estate, this area forms part of Antigua’s watershed and contains productive wells and other groundwater resources. Recent uncontrolled development threatens the quality of the groundwater extracted from this area and alienates valuable agricultural land from production.

4.0 Conclusion

The land use-planning function must be viewed as an integral part of the national development process that cannot be viewed in isolation from the other critical elements of that process, namely social and economic planning.

Land-use policies and plans address a number of issues which the development control staff, especially the Building Inspectors face on a daily basis while evaluating applications for development permission. However, Plans and Policies are only useful if they are implemented and enforced consistently and religiously with every application. It is also important to ensure that land-use considerations are fully integrated into the analysis of development applications and that this takes place prior to evaluating the structural integrity of proposed buildings.

While carrying out the development control function, one should always remain alert to changes that have occurred which may signal the need to amend Plans, policies and standards. However, this should not be done arbitrarily or by an individual acting alone under the guise of using discretionary powers. This creates uncertainty and confusion among developers and inconsistency and lack of credibility in the development control process. Instead, we should use the procedures provided for in the legislation or other transparent, administrative procedures for making such amendments that are necessary to ensure that Plans and policies are always current and relevant; that decisions are consistent and that developers/applicants are treated fairly.

Dr. Deborah Thomas, January 15, 2001