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Did URA & MND contravene law on Master Plan?

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Have the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Ministry of National Development (MND) contravened the law by ignoring legal requirements governing amendments to the Master Plan?

That is the question a group of concerned Singaporeans is asking, following the gazetting of the amendments to the Master Plan on 6 June 2014 by the authorities.

The Master Plan 2014 is the statutory land use plan that guides the physical development of Singapore for the medium term. (URA).

In its gazette, 75 buildings were put on the list of sites to be conserved as part of the Master Plan.

Included in the gazette was the proposed road which would run through the Bukit Brown cemetery.

The road was not included in the last Master Plan (2008).

The group of Singaporeans, named SOS Bukit Brown, is questioning the legality of the gazette of the planned road, in accordance with the law governing amendments made to the Master Plan.

SOS Bukit Brown said that during the feedback period for the Draft Master Plan in Nov-Dec 2013, several members of the public submitted written feedback over the addition of the road through Bukit Brown in the 2014 Master Plan.

“Some of these letter writers received what looked like a standardised reply from MND on 5 June 2014,” the group said, “a day before the gazetting of the 2014 Master Plan, reiterating MND’s documentation efforts in Bukit Brown and its general commitment to heritage.”

There were no invitations by the URA or the MND for these members of the public to share their views or feedback with the authorities.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday evening, the group said, “According to the Planning Act (Caps 232) and Rule 6 Planning (Master Plan) Rules, hearings/public inquiries must be held in response to public feedback regarding amendments to the Master Plan, provided that the feedback is not ruled frivolous.”

The exact wordings of the Rule 6 of the Planning (Master Plan) Rules stipulate (emphasis added):

“Except where the Minister is of the opinion that an objection or representation is of a frivolous nature, the Minister shall afford to any person whose objection or representation was received by him within the period specified under rule 4(a) and has not been withdrawn, an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person or persons appointed by the Minister for the purpose, or cause a public inquiry to be held in accordance with Part III.”

“None of the feedback was ruled frivolous,” SOS Bukit Brown said, referring to the submissions by the members of the public.

“No hearing or public inquiry took place" to receive feedback or representations from the submissions, SOS Bukit Brown added.

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Given what the law stipulates, the group said the MND and URA may “have acted inconsistently with due process of the law in not holding hearings or public inquiries” to receive feedback from interested parties, such as those who had written to the authorities indicating their interest in giving feedback, before gazetting the 2014 Master Plan.

The group emphasised the legal “due process relating to the Master Plan specifically allows the public to give their feedback (legally termed “representations & feedback”) to MND regarding official proposals to change the use of land in the Master Plan.”

“Such a mechanism helps protect citizens and public interests by ensuring a fuller consideration of government proposals and their consequences in an official forum,” the group said. “By accounting for competing views, this process can lead to a final policy that has broader public acceptance.”

SOS Bukit Brown also emphasised that the law also says that so long as the feedback is not ruled “frivolous”, the minister is required to convene hearings or public inquiries on these issues.

“These hearings or public inquiries should produce findings and conclusions for the minister’s consideration before a final decision is made to gazette changes to the use of land in the Master Plan,” SOS Bukit Brown said.

The group said that since the reply from the MND on 5 June “did not rule any of the public feedback as frivolous”, the minister responsible is legally required to conduct hearings and public inquiries before gazetting the 2014 Master Plan.

Not holding hearings or public inquiries denies members of the public their lawful right to formally raise concerns over the amendments, the group said.

“Due process is a critical element in the Rule of Law,” SOS Bukit Brown said. “Without the legally stipulated hearings and public inquiries, gazetting the 2014 Master Plan raises concerns over the legality of the policy, and whether government agencies should be implementing policies that fall short of their full legal obligations. If MND acted in a manner potentially inconsistent with due process, this brings up questions about whether government agencies can interpret laws at will, possibly to the extent of skipping clearly mandated actions.”

The group said it hopes the ministry will promptly take steps to clarify and, if necessary, address these issues in the 2014 Master Plan.

In May, the Singapore Heritage Society and All Things Bukit Brown said in a letter to the press that “it is now a well-established narrative that officially in 2012 when the road was announced, the decision to build a highway through Bukit Brown had already been made.”

It added that while they were present at a “briefing” by the Ministry of National Development, “there was no consultation or protracted engagement thereafter to extract any concessions” with regards to the protection and preservation of Bukit Brown.

The letter also said that “to date, there is likewise no consultation about the zoning of the greater Bukit Brown area in its entirety for residential use in the 2013 Draft Land Use Master Plan released by the URA. This area includes the larger cemetery complex comprising Bukit Brown, Seh Ong, Lau Sua, and Kopi Sua.”

Read the SOS Bukit Brown’s Facebook post here: “Gazetting the Land Use Master Plan 2014—Did MND and URA Just Ignore the Law?