The previous article dealt with the Eden Gardens scandal, now before the Courts, which I termed ‘a most grievous case of Grand Corruption‘. I provided a list of ten questions for media colleagues to put to the accused and their spokespersons on this complex fraud.
Senior former Public Officials preferred the valuation advice of a civil servant, who was not professionally qualified, over that of a seasoned professional of 28 years’ post-qualification experience. I don’t think any reasonable person would adopt that approach if the health of their relatives or the wealth of their family was at stake, but some persons seem comfortable to defend that kind of decision. As David Rudder would say – ‘with a straight-straight face‘. I expect we will be subjected to less and less appearances from those persons.
This article will attempt to put the controversial “St. Augustine Nurseries project“ (North Grove Housing Development) into context with existing land and housing policy. This project is emblematic of what has gone so badly wrong in our state housing policy. To be entirely clear, in this case I am making no allegations of financial corruption or voter-padding. This case is one of ‘Phantom Policy‘ in which intentionally-suppressed policies, developed to advance the public interest, are either ignored or selectively invoked. As we say, is according.
So here are the main points in respect of this project –
Decision – It is clear that Cabinet has taken a decision to approve HDC’s proposals to build 8 towers at this site. According to the reported statements of Minister of Agriculture Land & Fisheries, Clarence Rambharat, in the Guardian of February 21st 2018 –
“…Rambharat told the T&T Guardian that the Cabinet took the decision “fully cognisant of all the issues and there is no turning back not at this time…”.
- Is this Agricultural Land? – According to that interview –
“…Rambharat believes there will be no issue in getting the necessary clearance for the change of land use although the land is “grade A soil,” because “it is already a dense residential area…”
The responsible Minister publicly conceded that these are top-class agricultural lands and went on to express his confidence that obtaining approval for change of use will be no issue. So, what is the position of the Ministry?
Interestingly, the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Land & Physical Infrastructure reported on 20th June 2017 on An inquiry into the allocation and utilisation of State lands for food production. Here are its findings at pg 15 –
“…National Land Policy 2.2.3 The MALF indicated that it is preparing a National Land Policy to address the challenges being encountered with agricultural lands and to encourage greater production in the agricultural sector. Some of the expectations from the plan are: the preservation and conservation of prime agricultural lands for agricultural use…”
The very first item of concern is striking and sobering. That JSC on Land & Physical Infrastructure was established under the present administration and it was a move I welcomed. I tell you.
But there is more. The Land Policy of 19th November 1992 sets out its General Policy Goals at pg 4 and the first of these is stated to be –
“…preventing prime agricultural land from being subjected to non-agricultural use by instituting a system of land zoning…”
- Consultation – There have now been three HDC consultations on this project and in my view, given that the decision has already been taken, these appear to be mere contrivances. That is my view. (See Housing Development Corporation – HDC’s Managing Director presenting at the Public Consultation session for the North Grove Development in April 2018)
The Uff Enquiry was established into the Public Sector Construction Industry in our country, at the urging of several parties, certainly Dr Keith Rowley was one of the notables calling for that. The Uff Report was published in March 2010 and its 17th recommendation is –
“…17. User groups and other interest groups should be properly consulted on decisions regarding public building projects, to ensure that relevant views can be expressed at the appropriate time and taken into account before decisions are made…” (the emphasis is mine).
- New HDC homes for sale – The fact is that a huge majority of the persons on the HDC’s waiting list cannot qualify to buy a home. They are just too poor and these persons make up over 95% of that waiting list. Yet, the HDC disclosed that less than 22% of the new homes it had built in the period 2003-2015 were for rent. The national Housing Policy of 18th September 2002 states in relation to rented homes –
“…the Government’s new housing policy will address the rental needs of low and lower-middle income households…” (pg 14)
What are the proposals for St Augustine Nurseries? Will we see more of the same? More new homes for sale?
- POS lands are in HDC ownership & readily available for development – In that very interview, here is further clarification –
“…Asked if as the Agriculture Minister he was concerned that more agricultural land was being given to build houses, he said, “it is very difficult to get land to do this type of housing on the East-West corridor, and we could make this land available for the HDC because it is under-utilised…” (the emphasis is mine)
Now what is striking to me about that statement is that this approach ignores extensive HDC-owned lands in POS with all services readily available. These are vacant lands, acquired at considerable public expense for urban redevelopment during the now-forgotten major ‘EastBridge’ scheme. After all, those are East POS locations which are unlikely to attract the level of sales with which HDC has become engrossed.
Despite the political circus, there is a chilling consensus across the so-called political divide. All we hear of is new approaches to advance the common agenda – fortification of the home-owning classes.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have scarcely any discussion as to how class-bias finds expression in our large-scale public policies. Like housing. Class-based policy trumps evidence-based policies which would ensure better housing outcomes for more people with greater needs, at less expense. The advancement of those policies requires that our agricultural lands be alienated, for evermore.
What we are witness to is rotten choices, driven by ideology, in defiance of established policy. It is also important to note that the Land and Housing Policies are no longer available on any official website. Of course any administration could propose a policy review, but that would require an evidence-based approach and real public participation. You see?
As is so often the case, class-driven and unstated policies trump sound, evidence-based policies…whither UWI?