Local government representatives repeatedly point to a link between allocation of resources by central government and the perceived political allegiances of local government bodies. Essentially, if you don’t support government, you don’t get government money to serve your community.
This dysfunctional arrangement is the end result of our hybrid approach to governance — a mingling of autocratic crown colony philosophy where power resides with central government, and the Westminster system that advocates the democratic devolving of power to the people through elected representatives. Regardless of what type of system we have, effective local government delivery continues to elude us.
The official site of the Ministry of Local Government claims that its vision is founded on enhancing the quality of life of all citizens, with a mission of “efficient delivery of services in an equitable and transparent manner.” Yet, communities across our nation are beset by litter, bad roads, abandoned and overgrown lots, discarded vehicles, stray animals, indiscriminate dumping of waste and decaying buildings.
Businesses materialise in residential areas, causing havoc for parking, excessive noise, and pollution and limiting free passage through the community. Simple fixes such as enforcing building codes, garbage disposal at nonpeak hours, no-parking lines, street signs and regular spraying for mosquitoes are required to make our communities more habitable and less chaotic. However, this can only be achieved if there is a serious commitment to improving the lives of citizens through the delivery of services.
Efforts to manage various aspects of our community life began centuries ago, when we functioned as a Spanish controlled colony in the 16th century. The local government structure that we have today was established in the late 1960s. In the following years, legislation refined this structure, including the abolition of the Tobago County Council and the founding of the more autonomous Tobago House of Assembly.
Sadly, with two city corporations, three boroughs and nine regional corporations, all with councillors, mayors, deputy mayors, chairmen and vice-chairmen, community improvements have not reflected the reality of a country with substantial assets of oil, natural gas and considerable agricultural and human resources.
The proposal of increased autonomy for local government bodies therefore represents both a challenge and an opportunity.
Independent management of budgets and community resources will mean getting rid of ingrained bad habits and a lethargic approach to improving our neighbourhoods.
There will also be the challenge of ensuring that there is synergy with national development plans, which will require local government representatives to work within the framework of a wider nation-building strategy.
The stated commitment to reform our local government system presents an opportunity as well.
The vision of an enhanced quality of life for all goes beyond drains that don’t clog and streets that no longer flood. In many ways, our progress as a nation depends on the ability of our local government officials to deliver results, on a sustainable basis. Citizens would thus be well advised to select wisely in the impending elections, but must be mindful that it does not end there.