Vaia’ata Prison project ran unapproved for months
Confusion around the recently-halted $800,000 Vaia’ata prison project is deepening as the Samoa Observer can reveal work on the development began up to nine months before it received development approval.
Documents seen by this newspaper from the Planning and Urban Management Agency show that approval to commence work on the prison was only given in November 2019.
But work on the site started in late March or early April - soon after the Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi and six other Cabinet Ministers attended a “groundbreaking ceremony” at the site.
“In November, 2019 the [development consent] was issued even though they started [working on] the project in April or March,” confirmed the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Works Transport and Infrastructure (M.W.T.I.), Magele Hoe Viali.
This week the M.W.T.I. Minister, Papali’i Niko Lee Hang, confirmed it stopped the construction of the prison in Savai’i last month due to the absence of a permit.
Opposition figures and experts had raised questions about the "irregular" structuring of the project. No company was awarded a contract to oversee construction of the project, the Government said, and prisoners were to be employed to construct the building themselves.
According to Magele the development permit’s delay was due to the complexities of a land lease agreement between the Ministry of Police and Prison and the Samoa Land Corporation.
“Once the [development consent] is issued the permit will be dispensed almost immediately, but the reason the [development consent] is delayed are due to a number of requirements and the process sometimes takes up to three weeks.”
Typically construction permits are issued after development consents by a separate branch of the same Ministry.
To date, Magele still has not confirmed the date the permit was issued.
The Minister of Police and Prison Tialavea Tionsio Hunt strongly defended the commencement of construction without a permit for 10 months.
“I made the call for the project to proceed without a permit, but the work has been stopped by the Ministry of Works Transport and Infrastructure over a month now,” he said.
“We applied for a permit, but because the land is under Samoa Land Corporation, who are waiting on the Land Board to transfer the land; to date we don’t have a lease.
A lease is required for the development consent a component compulsory for the permit,” explained Tialavea.
“We submitted our request for development consent, but because we did not have a lease with the Samoa Land Corporation, our permit has been pending with the P.U.M.A.”
Magele told the Samoa Observer one important component required for the [development consent] is the ownership for the land to be developed.
“If it’s a […] private or Government the process is pretty much straightforward.”
Asked why the Ministry of Police and Prison was allowed to continue the work without a development consent or the permit, the C.E.O. acknowledged such concerns were valid.
“We only step in to stop projects when people around the area lodge complaints, but this is [a] Government project; the sooner they submit the required paperwork, we will issue the [development consent] but the delay for this project was the land lease agreement.
“But it doesn’t mean the [Ministry of Police] violated [P.U.M.A.] laws, it was just a matter of [development consent] being issued late.
“Also you can’t compare Government projects to other projects, because the work is conducted on Government property and no one will complain, otherwise we will step in as the regulatory body.”
The Samoa Observer asked the C.E.O. if P.U.M.A. laws do not apply to Government projects, but Magele said that is not the case. The 2013 P.U.M.A. Act applies universally to private and public development projects.
“As indicated before, we [P.U.M.A.] will step in to stop a project when there are complaints,” the C.E.O. said.
“I know that we are the Government and we should stick to law but since we know there is a timeline for important projects of the Government, we try to facilitate and we also apply logical sense.”
But the C.E.O.’s latest comments apparently contradicted what Magele old Samoa Observer on Tuesday in a separate email: “This is a Government project and Government agencies will always follow what the law requires and the Vaia’ata project has fulfilled these lawful requirements.”
Tialavea told the Samoa Observer during an interview that from the beginning the project started without a building permit, because there was no lease.
“It was my call as Minister to proceed with the project even without a permit,” said Tialavea.
The Samoa Observer put to the Minister that under P.U.M.A. laws for every project, whether Government or not, they must retain a building permit first, asked whether this is illegal and Tialavea said: “to me, no, it’s not illegal.