Madam, this Bill introduces new planning permissions for buildings and related works and enables building approvals to be processed through the new CORENET X platform.
I commend the Government agencies and the industry for their collaborative approach in creating the new CORENET X platform. The platform streamlines our planning process into a single submission by developers and a coordinated response across agencies. It is a good example of how all stakeholders can work together for better outcomes.
I have three points of clarification on the Bill.
My first clarification is on safeguards for preliminary approvals. Under the new section 5AA of the BCA, plans for any lodgement works are automatically approved without any need for the Commissioner to check the plans. The new section 33E of the EPMA and 46F of the EPHA allow developers to apply for a design certificate to commence preliminary works before getting a clearance certificate for pollution control or public health risks is given. Under the new section 17A of the Planning Act, there is a process to apply for provisional permission to commence works before planning permission is granted.
I understand it is important to give developers flexibility to commence work early while waiting for final permission. However, once preliminary work has begun, it becomes harder to change course. Would it be difficult for the agencies to refuse final permission, knowing that developers have already incurred expenses? What if rectification costs are too high or not even possible and the damage is already done? Can the Senior Minister of State clarify what safeguards will be taken when giving provisional or preliminary permission to minimise such risks?
My second clarification is on the scope of defences under the Bill. Under section 20 of the BCA, the new subsection 1 states that it is a defence to lodging a non-compliant plan if the accused reasonably believed the plans complied with all the prescribed regulations. What would be considered to be reasonable?
Similarly, in the new section 33H of the EPMA, it is an offence to deviate “in a material way” from the plans under a clearance certificate. What is the threshold for the deviation to be considered material? Providing guidance and examples on how these terms are applied would be useful for developers to know the extent of due diligence expected.
My third and final point is the need to legislate an environmental impact assessment (EIA) framework for all building works. I have raised this a number of times in this House. These updates to planning permissions are commendable but we still have not taken the critical step of introducing a formal EIA law.
EIA is an essential exercise to ensure that we properly balance the benefits of development to the costs to our environment. Loss of natural spaces and biodiversity adversely affects the lives of all Singaporeans. We not only are denied the enjoyment of natural spaces, we also lose an invaluable resource for combating climate change.
The Minister for National Development has previously stated that even though we have no formal EIA laws, the EIA framework is built into the planning approvals and agencies can require an EIA to be undertaken. I also recognise that we are taking steps to centralise EIA requirements under NParks.
A law to mandate EIA has several benefits over the current case-by-case approach. It creates certainty. Developers would know the cost of falling short. They would be able to plan ahead of time and not need to await some government decision.
Agencies would not need to make as many case-by-case assessments. Singaporeans could be consulted to ensure the law reflects their values and priorities. The law could also contain principles and rules to standardise when and how information gets disclosed, strengthening our Government’s principle of transparency.
I hope the Senior Minister of State can consider these benefits and periodically review our planning framework to consider codifying an EIA law.
Madam, notwithstanding these clarifications, I stand in support of the Bill.
Watch the speech here.