In Bangkok's construction industry, demands for kickbacks from city authorities are nothing new. But when it was the Bangkok governor who exposed the corruption himself, change may be on the way.
Early in June, governor Chadchart Sittipunt reportedly revealed an attempt by a public works official from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to demand 300,000 baht for a building modification permit.
That official was subsequently fired, and more wrongdoers are expected to face consequences.
While the governor's efforts to eradicate corruption are commendable, dismissing corrupt individuals is not sufficient. Addressing the legal flaws that enable corruption is crucial.
The root of the problem lies in the complex and ambiguous 2001 Building Control Act and related laws. These loopholes allow officials to exercise arbitrary judgement, creating opportunities for corruption.
This problem is highlighted in a research study titled "Guillotining BMA Regulations on Construction Permits" by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT). Published in January this year, the study calls for a legal amendment to enhance transparency and combat corruption.
With excessive red tape and ambiguous laws, it is not surprising that Thailand lags behind neighbouring countries in the ease of obtaining building permits.
The World Bank ranked Thailand 34th out of 190 nations for the ease of obtaining building permits in 2021. This is lower than nearby nations like Malaysia (2nd), Singapore (5th), and Vietnam (25th).
Between 2017 and 2021, Thailand's private sector invested over 5.5 trillion baht in construction, accounting for 3.4% of the country's GDP on average.
Bangkok alone witnesses the value of construction projects reaching hundreds of billions of baht annually, primarily in the residential sector. The city issues around 16,000 construction and modification permits each year, making it vulnerable to corruption due to legal loopholes.
According to the World Bank's guidelines, obtaining building permits should be fast, clear, linked with other agencies, and up-to-date. The BMA's building permit process is none of that.
Firstly, it is the opposite of being fast. The application process for building permits typically takes 67 days to process, exceeding the minimum 45-day period mandated by law.
Delays occur due to the need for personal contact with district officials, coordination with multiple agencies, and lengthy document verification and on-site inspections due to a lack of BMA inspectors. The Wang Thonglang District Office, for example, has only six engineers and inspectors, but they handle an average of 301 permit applications per year.
The delay means lost opportunities for investors. They lose money from the building's late opening while having to pay more interest on bank loans during the delay.
Secondly, unclear laws and regulations. This enables officials to exploit discretion and request additional payments to expedite permits.
Thirdly, lack of inter-agency coordination. Applicants must personally navigate the red tape to gather required documents from different state agencies, including land ownership certificates, business registrations, and professional licenses.
And lastly, outdated online channels. Combined with inconsistent information on various BMA websites, applicants need to seek clarifications directly from district offices.
Furthermore, the current system still makes it difficult to download the various required documents. Consequently, only 1% of applicants choose to apply for building permits online.
To enhance the efficiency and transparency of the permit process, the BMA must overhaul its laws and regulations while maintaining high building safety standards.
Improvements should focus on speed, clarity of rules and laws, inter-agency coordination, and technology.
To start with, the permit processing time for small buildings can be shortened by allowing private inspectors to conduct on-site inspections and submit reports for review by district authorities. The district authorities still have the power to approve.
Many countries such as Great Britain, Australia, and Singapore also use private inspectors to expedite the permit process in order to address the shortage of state employees. There is no reason why Thailand or Bangkok should not follow suit or even try.
The evaluation time for permits should vary based on the buildings' risk level. Smaller, low-risk structures should undergo quicker evaluations compared to larger or higher-risk public buildings. For example, residential buildings under 300 square meters should be evaluated within 30 days.
To improve legal clarity, building laws and regulations must provide clear guidelines to minimise the discretion exercised by officials. It is, therefore, necessary to explicitly define the required supporting documents for permit applications.
Furthermore, the BMA should allow the use of construction standards established by professional organisations such as the Council of Architects and the Council of Engineers. This approach is easier than fixing the primary law while increasing flexibility and keeping up with technological advancements.
Building safety regulations should focus on performance-based standards rather than specific design requirements. For example, instead of mandating precise staircase dimensions, a minimum evacuation time standard can ensure occupant safety in the event of a fire. These specific details should be in professional standards, not in the law.
Equally important, the BMA should make the requirements for the permit evaluation process clearer.
For starters, the central database system should be accurate, up-to-date, and easy to understand. For instance, there needs to be up-to-date information on the width of waterways and roads. There must also be manuals for both public and official use.
To ensure consistency, building permit data should be uniform across all districts. Their websites should connect to the centralised "BMA OSS Permit Application Center" for easy online applications by the public.
Next, data integration. The BMA should create a system that links data between relevant organisations like the Department of Land, the Department of Business Development, and professional councils. The one-stop service centre will eliminate the need for applicants to go to multiple agencies for documents.
Finally, modernise the online platform. The BMA should use the Building Information Modelling (BIM) application for plan submission. This 3D virtual application would improve accuracy, reduce plan modifications, and increase user convenience. The BMA should also make software investments to support BIM systems and train staff on how to use the system efficiently.
By modernising the permit application procedures, the additional costs, such as project delays, construction cost overruns and loss of business opportunity caused by red tape for construction permits in Bangkok, could be reduced significantly by 1.25 billion baht annually.
However, collaboration among relevant agencies is essential to implementing these changes successfully. These agencies include the Department of Public Works and Town Planning, professional councils like the Architects Council and Engineering Council, the Digital Government Development Agency (DGA), and the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission (OPDC).
Governor Chadchart has received the TDRI findings and recommendations and is reviewing outdated laws and regulations. The BMA is also updating the guidelines for online building permits.
Making the building permit system open and efficient is not just about saving time and money for builders or reducing the officials' workload. Getting rid of corruption can save lives.
With a focus on public safety and a commitment to combatting corruption, the BMA has a good chance to turn its vision of a liveable city into a reality.
Thanthip Srisuwannaket is a Senior Researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).