Sunday, May 29, 2011

Better engagement is the way forward

May 29, 2011

The N-S Expressway project shows need to communicate well with affected parties

By Christopher Tan

Engagement, inclusivity and transparency are words which have been used fairly liberally in the last one month.

They are words filled with promise and hope, of a country where citizens have a say in issues that affect their lives and the lives of their children.

And it might as well start with transport, one of the things Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologised for in a moving election rally speech on May 3.

There is no need to harp on crowded trains and unpredictable bus arrivals. These are being addressed with infrastructural improvements, fleet expansion and extra actions such as bus priority schemes.

Relief should be in sight from as early as October, when the rest of the delayed Circle Line opens. It is to be followed by the completion of nearly one new rail project a year till 2020.

We can only hope that there will be no more hiccups between now and then, and that the planners have their projections right in terms of route and capacity (most, if not all, of the new railways will have stations that accommodate only three-car trains).

What is opportune now is perhaps for the Government to re-examine the way policies and projects which can have a profound impact on citizens are rolled out. This is because even the best of intentions can get off to a bad start if they are not communicated well and sufficiently.

The case of the North-South Expressway (NSE) comes to mind.

There is no arguing that with a fast-growing population, Singapore needs the additional capacity that the highway project will offer.

But the way in which it was announced on Jan 19, and the way the concerns of parties adversely affected by it have been addressed, fly in the face of engagement, inclusivity and transparency.

Last month, I interviewed residents at Nuovo, a residential estate in Yio Chu Kang affected by the NSE which runs from Sembawang in the north to the city centre in the south.

From their responses, it is clear that most of them understand the need for new roads, and they understand that road alignments will sometimes be close to residences.

What they find hard to accept though is the way the project had been communicated, the way their concerns were addressed (or not addressed) after they learnt of the project, and the level of accessibility of the authorities involved.

For starters, they first heard of the NSE through newspaper articles.

A few days after the news broke on Jan 19, there was a briefing by Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Singapore Land Authority officers facilitated by Ms Lee Bee Wah, then an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Despite that, residents felt the authorities did not have satisfactory answers to questions about why portions of the highway near residences could not be underground.

Another briefing was facilitated two weeks ago by Mr Seng Han Thong, a new MP for the ward. Residents felt officials were making a better effort this time at reassuring them that there would not be any appreciable change in noise levels.

But they still could not accept a reason given for why the expressway near their homes could not be underground: ventilation shafts would eat into training ground near Lentor Avenue used by the Ministry of Defence.

Residents felt some public engagement with parties affected by the new highway before decisions were made would have helped immensely. They felt they were left to deal with the foreseeable impact of the NSE - the noise, dust and pollution - by themselves.

I asked the LTA last month why it did not engage affected residents before finalising its plans.

It replied: 'The Government as a norm does not carry out consultations when finalising the alignment of major transport infrastructure projects... as these would involve commercially sensitive information affecting property values.

'This is to ensure that no party will have privileged information or have any undue advantage over others, and that this does not lead to unnecessary speculation.'

Is this really a valid reason?

In 2003, Seoul Mayor Lee Myung Bak proposed the demolition of a massive elevated highway in town to restore a covered waterway (the Cheonggyecheon river).

The views of thousands of residents, businesses and commuters were sought before a decision was made.

His office faced opposition from some quarters, including traffic engineers and civil engineers. Three thousand illegal street vendors had to be moved as well.

Still, the planners took pains to convince detractors, which included compensating those whose businesses would be affected.

The project was completed successfully in 2005, and the site is now a major attraction for locals and tourists. There was no traffic mayhem as well.

Mayor Lee went on to become President.

Admittedly though, the challenges of public involvement are real. And Singapore is not alone in the dilemma of balancing efficacy with the need to consult ordinary citizens for views that may or may not contribute to the greater good.

Dr Karen Bickerstaff, a lecturer at King's College London, noted in a 2002 paper Transport Planning And Participation: The Rhetoric And Realities Of Public Involvement that major transport projects tended to go through a 'decide, announce, defend' route.

But in a 1998 White Paper, the British government charted a new course.

It decided that first, an inclusive approach will ensure better support for plans. Second, locals have intimate insight into issues in their neighbourhood and can contribute. Third, public participation is key to raising travel awareness.

But Dr Bickerstaff and other academics recognised that, in practice, involving the public is easier said than done. And there has been little evidence of how involvement actually impacted transport plans. Hence, there are doubts about the efficacy of the practice.

Even so, the British and Korean exercises brought into focus normative arguments about public involvement. Meaning, governments should involve the public not only because it is beneficial, but also because it is the right thing to do.

Will the authorities do the right thing here?

The LTA recognises that there 'will always be difficult trade-offs that have to be made for a major project like the NSE, but we need to make a decision taking into account wider interests'.

That is true.

It is also true that most people will have a 'not-in-my-backyard' stance when it comes to infrastructural projects built near their properties.

But it also means that those whose backyards will soon be fronting a six-lane expressway should be compensated.

Policy studies refer to them as 'losers'. Right now, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of the authorities to even commit to relatively small mitigating measures such as noise barriers and double-glazed windows.

And that may not be defensible.

[Doing the "right" thing takes time.]

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