Property Matters – Examining the PPP

The HDC launched its first housing Public Private Partnership (PPP) on 3 November 2016 at Mahogany Court, a 160-apartment complex at Eastern Main Road, Mount Hope. It is being designed, financed and built, at a cost of $145M, by NH International, led by my erstwhile friend and colleague, Emile Elias, with completion due in December 2018.
nh-hdc-ppp

The PPP approach to public procurement is one in which the private sector assumes the risks and constructs a project with repayment of that investment taking place over a period of time, usually from the State’s recurrent expenditure. This a controversial public procurement method, with the detailed reviews of completed projects being heavily criticised for the fact that the private sector has not actually taken much risk. It seems that these contracts often contain provisions which shield the private sector from serious risks. The introduction of PPP into our public housing program therefore deserves careful scrutiny, if we are to avoid the serious losses experienced in more advanced jurisdictions.

This PPP uses no Public Money, the State’s only investment being the value of the land, which was not mentioned thus far. The approach was outlined at pg 31 of the 2017 budget as being one in which the contractor will provide short-term finance to design and construct new homes, which will then be purchased by approved applicants on the HDC’s waiting-list. Those purchases will be funded by TTMF and the purchase prices will be used to repay the contractor. Continue reading “Property Matters – Examining the PPP”

Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 6

hdc-logoOn Thursday 17th March 2016, the Office of the Prime Minster confirmed that the appointment of Housing & Urban Development Minister, Marlene McDonald, had been revoked. On Tuesday 22nd March 2016, the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) Board issued a Press Release to confirm that its Managing Director, Jearlean John, had been dismissed.

In less than one week, the two top public officials in our country’s housing program had been removed from office. It does not seem decisive that both those dismissed officials were female, but it is more likely that there is another connection between these events.

We have lacked proper standards of governance in our country for so many decades that some people are seeing these dismissals as a ‘breath of fresh air’ in which those new standards are being set. An apparent case of actions speaking louder than words. Continue reading “Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 6”

Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 5

hdc-logo

SIDEBAR: CORRECTION

With apologies to readers, this is to correct my figures in relation to the amount of Public Money which TTMF received in relation to the 2% subsidised mortgage programme. The figures disclosed in TTMF’s Summary Financial Statements are actually liabilities, being the reducing balance on the original allocation of $200M for this programme.

The recalculated figures for TTMF’s recovery of 2% mortgage subsidy 2007 to 2014 are

YEAR SUBSIDY (cumulative)
2007 $.9M
2008 $5.3M
2009 $16.5M
2010 $34.1M
2011 $52.7M
2012 $70.4M
2013 $87.4M
2014 $105.2M

These figures are far less than those I cited in my article, since only $105.2M has been drawn from the original allocation of $200M, as against my erroneous claim that $1,227.5M of Public Money had been spent on this subsidy.

Last week I examined housing subsidy to illustrate the ways in which Public Money is used to provide better housing opportunities.

The sidebar contains my correction, which shows that a total of $105.2M was spent in this 2% subsidised mortgage programme between 2007-2014. I was also informed that the 2% subsidised mortgage had been granted to 1,466 applicants, who earn less than $10,000 per month, to buy homes under $850,000. In late 2014, TTMF also started offering 5% mortgages to applicants who earn up to $30,000 per month for homes up to $1.2M – 298 of those mortgages have been granted to date.

This revision and the new information will require that we pay even greater attention to the HDC’s operations, since it far outstrips the other agencies providing housing options.

So, what is the proportion of applicants between the lower and middle income groups? At pg 28 of the Vision 2020 Housing Sub Committee Report (2005) that is estimated as follows –

…shows that more than half of the demand for housing to 2020 (57.3%) falls within the low-income group with 30.7% in the middle income group and 12% in the high-income group…”.

It is difficult to reconcile those researched conclusions as to the demand for homes with the actual distribution of new HDC homes, in which only 21.7% were rentals. The pattern of distribution of those homes seems to indicate that the decision was taken to promote home-ownership in preference to building rental units. There is no doubt that this decision was detrimental to the neediest applicants, who were unable to qualify for mortgages, while at the same time being beneficial to those whose earnings qualified them for mortgages. Continue reading “Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 5”

AUDIO: The Breakfast Roundtable interview on Sky 99.5FM – 23 March 2016

sky995fmAFRA RAYMOND, Immediate Past President of the Joint Consultative Council (JCC), comments briefly on the firing of Jearlean John by the new HDC board, after being on administrative leave for a couple of months. He says we should not be too quick to believe the Marlene McDonald dismissal is a sign of greater accountability to come on the part of governments. Mr. Raymond also lauds Government’s proposal to use the housing sector to create opportunities for construction industry, to help pull T&T out of recession.

  • Programme Date: Wednesday, 23 March 2016
  • Programme Length: 26:04

Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 4

hdc-logoAlthough the HDC is the State’s main implementing agency for its housing policy, there are other important elements to be considered. The main one I will examine here is the role of public subsidy in the housing program.

Given that we live in a relatively wealthy and very densely-populated small island state which operates a free market system, the prices charged for property sales or rentals have moved upwards historically. One of the objectives of the housing policy is to assist those who are unable to compete in the market, so it is justifiable to apply State resources to reduce the cost of housing to those needy persons.

That allocation of Public Money and land to the housing program is intended to create the new homes for the applicants. In addition to the direct construction of the new homes, Public Money is also used to reduce the cost of housing.
Continue reading “Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 4”

Dismantling the Code of Silence

This letter was published in Sunday Express on 27th September 2015.

From: Afra Raymond <afraraymond@gmail.com>
Date: Thu, Sep 24, 2015 at 10:00 AM
Subject: Dismantling the Code of Silence
To:

The Editor,

lasalturas-signNoel Garcia served as General Manager of the Housing Development Corporation during the period in which critical decisions were made on the Las Alturas housing project. That project, in which two apartment buildings failed, is now the subject of a Commission of Enquiry. There have been several reports in the press (see below) that Mr Garcia was unwilling to testify to that Enquiry. We have been unable to locate any published responses from Mr Garcia to those reports.

Noel Garcia has now been appointed as Chairman of the UDECOTT Board. The JCC’s position is that the penalties for the failure or refusal to appear as a witness to a Commission of Enquiry must be increased sharply so as to discourage this deplorable behaviour. The present fine for non-attendance is only $2,000, which is why so many persons can show open disdain for a request to testify at a Commission of Enquiry.

The prospect of the Chairman of a State Enterprise declining to testify at a Commission of Enquiry is unacceptable and of course any continuing ambiguity can only feed suspicion.

The Las Alturas Enquiry resumes its evidence hearings on Monday 28th September 2015 and it would be a refreshing change from the ‘bad old days‘ if Mr Garcia, or his attorneys, were to promptly confirm his willingness to appear as a witness.

Afra Raymond
President
JCC


Noel Garcia responded via a media release, which was copied on social media on Sunday 27 September 2015 as follows:

Getting the Facts Right

I refer to a letter to the editor from Afra Raymond entitled “Dismantling the code of Silence” published in the September 27, 2015 edition of the Express Newspaper.
In his letter, Mr. Raymond, in reference to me and the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Project, speaks disparagingly of “the prospect of the Chairman of a State Enterprise declining to testify at a Commission of Enquiry”.

I wish to categorically state that I have never refused to give evidence before the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Project. Despite what Mr. Raymond claims to have read (and what he erroneously plainly believes), the Commission has never at any time contacted or subpoenaed me on the matter of the Las Alturas Project. This, although my postal address, email address and telephone number have remained unchanged for years.

For the record, I have never shirked my duty or my responsibility to give evidence before any court or any tribunal with respect to matters within my knowledge as a former employee of the HDC. I have previously given evidence in the High Court on behalf of the HDC and I have only recently filed an affidavit in support of the HDC’s position in another High Court matter. I am no stranger to and have given evidence repeatedly at Commissions of Enquiry including in the Piarco Airport Enquiry, the Landate Enquiry and the UFF Commission.

I wish to make my position abundantly clear that, were I to be subpoenaed or contacted to give evidence at the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Project, I would have absolutely no difficulty in assisting the Commission.

In his self-appointed role as guardian of the public conscience, Mr. Raymond ought to be more careful about permitting his officious zeal to lead him into making what can be considered to be defamatory imputations about others. Mr. Raymond’s self-confessed inability to locate any published responses from me to press reports he has read is no licence for him to do so.

Noel Garcia.


This clarification was all we were seeking, so I responded later that night, on social media, as follows

“…Noel Garcia’s post ‘Getting the Facts Right’ is very helpful, it is the first public response I have seen to the several articles earlier on this issue – I thank him for it…as I said elsewhere on FB yesterday, one of the Officials in the Las Alturas Enquiry told me that they had been ‘unable to locate’ Mr Garcia, to which I responded that as he was the new UDECOTT Chairman, it was now impossible to sustain that claim…”


For ease of reference – these are the previous press reports

  1. Trinidad Guardian of 7th April 2015 – ‘Las Alturas Hearing resumes today
    …Singh also assured Ibrahim that efforts were being made to locate former executive chairman of the Urban Development Corporation of T&T Calder Hart, and former HDC general manager Noel Garcia, to have them appear before the Commission…” then “…Garcia is said to be living and working in Ghana. HDC’s attorney Vincent Nelson, QC, had previously indicated that Garcia had declined to provide a witness statement when asked, following which they lost contact with him. Seemingly dissatisfied with Mohammed’s answer that every effort was being made to have Hart present himself before the Commission, Ibrahim suggested that there were legal means which could be employed to compel him to appear.”Ibrahim has promised that accommodations would be made not to keep Hart unduly when he does appear, while there was also the recommendation that an offer be made to pay Garcia’s travel expenses back to T&T, in order for him to testify. Both Hart and Garcia have been deemed “important witnesses” in the enquiry. During the 13-day enquiry four witnesses have so far testified before the Commission…
  2. Trinidad Express – 20th March 2015 – ‘HDC lawyers ‘lost all contact with Garcia’‘ –
    …Attorneys representing the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) have lost all contact with former HDC managing director Noel Garcia. This was revealed yesterday during the sitting of the commission of enquiry into the Las Alturas housing project at the Caribbean Court of Justice in Port of Spain.Garcia, who was expected to be called as a witness in the enquiry, is said to be currently residing in Ghana.Junior counsel for the commission Jagdeo Singh told the commission all attempts by HDC’s legal team to locate Garcia had been unsuccessful. “Every effort has been made thus far to locate Mr Garcia and at some point in time Mr Garcia was in communication with the legal team for the HDC, but he has since ceased all communication with them,” Singh said.Nelson had said at a previous hearing that Garcia did not appear to be willing to testify in the proceedings.

    Chairman of the commission Mustapha Ibrahim noted Garcia’s participation in the enquiry was necessary, as he was a “very important witness”…

  3. CTNT News – 5th March 2015 – ‘QC: Garcia’s presence crucial to Las Alturas Enquiry‘ –
    …The absence of former HDC Managing Director Noel Garcia at the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Housing Project was raised by the company’s Attorney on Day Four of the proceedings. Mr. Garcia is one of the key persons who would be best able to add the pieces to the already puzzling situation which led to the partial demolition of two towers at the million dollar housing complex due to shifting soil.”At Thursday’s session, the Attorney representing the Housing Development Corporation, Queen’s Counsel Vincent Nelson, mentioned that Mr. Garcia currently works and lives outside T&T.”The position there is that Mr. Noel Garcia, who is a pivotal person in the project at the time, is someone who really, although it is difficult because he is outside the jurisdiction for the Commission to summon him, he is an important and pivotal person in terms of what occurred at the time.”Mr. Nelson was then asked by the Commission Chairman Mustapha Ibrahim if any efforts were made to bring him back to T&T for the Enquiry, including offering to pay his airfare.

    No. We haven’t done so but obviously that is something that I could take instructions on. I am told we lost communication with him at the moment. So that is the position but we will make further efforts but in the meantime, the position is the Commission may consider whether to call the Board at the time and/or see when Mr. Garcia is available.’…” There is also a TV clip here.

  4. Newsday of 6th March 2015 – ‘Noel Garcia not willing to testify‘ –
    …NOEL Garcia, former managing director of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), has indicated to lawyers for the HDC, that he is unwilling to testify at the Las Alturas Commission of Inquiry, attorney Vincent Nelson QC said yesterday…

I have not seen any responses from Noel Garcia before his response on Sunday 27th September 2015.

Our Land – Land for Everybody?

A detrimental ‘land grab’ is almost upon our country and we all need to be alert to prevent the destruction of our patrimony and prospects.

Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources
Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources

The State owns most of the land in the country – recent estimates by Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, place the proportion of State-owned land in the 63% range – and as such those lands are critical national assets with which a progressive government could seek to address issues of poverty in a sustainable fashion. Those policies would have to be redistributive in nature if they are to effectively address the serious poverty faced by some of our citizens. That means the State using our resources to provide affordable land and housing to those who are unable to do so in the open market. It is critical to ensure that these redistributive programs operate properly so that the benefits will go to the needy persons for whom they are intended. Those are objectives which I fully support.

I quipped that the ‘Land for the Landless’ program should be re-named ‘Land for Everybody’, but recent developments have turned that quip into a growing reality.

There have been three big changes which have effectively undermined the very meaning of these important redistributive programs –

  1. THE CARONI AGRICULTURAL LANDS

    The Trinidad Express reported that the Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, announced a significant change in the original policy in the 2015 budget, in that the ex-workers receiving agricultural leases were now free to sell these lands. Those lands which are sold will likely leave the agricultural use for which they were allocated, representing a significant and detrimental ‘alienation’ of those limited lands.

  2. THE NEW ‘LAND FOR THE LANDLESS’ PROGRAM

    This important program has been revised to now provide for an annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. Even if one makes the most optimistic assumptions that the upper target of 4,000 lots is achieved at the estimated cost of $1.0 Billion, the cost per lot is $250,000. I do not know if the cost of the land is included in those estimates, but experience suggests that it would have been excluded, which would be a serious gap in the planning for the development of these important public assets.Most alarmingly, the income limits have now been increased in a manner which suggests that this program is no longer intended for the benefit of the disadvantaged in our society. The original ‘Land for the Landless’ program set an upper limit of $8,000 on the family’s monthly income, but that has now been increased to $30,000. A family with a monthly income of $30,000 can readily afford to buy a home with private mortgage financing. Apart from that, there are serious questions as to whether the inclusion of those upper-income applicants would force-out the poorer people this program is intended to assist.

    It is just impossible to reconcile the new family income limit of $30,000 for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is only for residential lots, with the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) $25,000 limit on the monthly family income of applicants for homes.

  3. THE NEW LAND REFORMS

    The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and those proposed amendments were passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3 June 2015.

    The main points of this proposed new law, which still has to be approved by the Senate, are –

    • Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
    • The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to be allocated in this new process.
    • Who is ‘Landless’? – In the original 1998 Act, a ‘landless’ person is defined at S.2 (1) as –

      “…“landless” refers to a person who falls within a category designated as disadvantage (sic) by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and who has no legal or equitable interest or any other interest or claim to such an interest, in a dwelling house, residential land, or agricultural land upon which a dwelling house is permitted to be built…”

      Obviously, the original law was intended to assist the most needy persons in our society.In the proposed amendment, just approved by the House of Representatives, ‘landless’ has been redefined as follows –

      “…(c) in the definition of “landless”, by deleting the words “who falls within a category designated as disadvantage by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and…” (the emphases are mine)

      The landless class has now been expanded by our Parliament to eliminate any mention of disadvantage. I tell you.

    • Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected, from Charlotteville to Los Iros.
    • The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys from 2014 and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted? These critical policy changes must be underpinned by substantial research and consultation which can earn the required degree of public confidence.
    • Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or any property at all. These records must be open and searchable so that the potential for serious improper behaviour amounting to a ‘land grab’ is minimised. In the present opaque arrangement the real beneficiaries could remain unknown for too long. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.

When one considers the numbers involved, there is a clear sense that these programs, which were intended to benefit the poorer class of citizen, are being systematically ‘gamed’. It is even possible that officials are assisting those elements for the advancement of their own political agendas. The numbers wrangle is beyond the scope of this column, but I will be exploring it in the near future to explain how they relate a particular story.

The degree of confusion is immense, with LSA officers denying the existence of the national Land Policy. If we are to go by his evasive response to simple questions on the SIS occupation of State lands at Couva in disputed circumstances, the very Minister Seemungal can be seen as hostile to providing essential facts. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements.

We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.

Our Land – The meaning of the 1992 Land Policy

The Trinidad & Tobago Land Policy of 1992 has not been reviewed, withdrawn or superceded. Those are the facts. The responses of various public officials when queried, and the routine conduct of public bodies in relation to public land, are both in conflict with the existing policy. This article will explore the gap between the official policy and official conduct.

The 1992 Policy contains elements which are substantially beneficial to our nation.

Land is very important, especially because the quantity is very limited, so we need future-looking and properly-enforced Land Policy if we are to have a sustainable future in our country. I am specifically using ‘we’, since the important role of land requires us all to have a stake in these progressive outcomes. I am also specifically using ‘in our country‘, to emphasise the fact that most of us will have to live here.

This week’s column will set out some of the key elements in the 1992 Land Policy, so that we can begin to understand just why it has been effectively dismissed from official consideration.

State ownership

Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources
Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources

An important consideration is the high proportion of public land in our country, at para 1.2 on page 2 of the Land Policy we learn that an estimated 52% of the whole is State land. We also recently heard Land & Marine Resources Minister, Jairam Seemungal, state that the proportion of land belonging to the State is of the order of 58% of the whole. Because so much of the country’s land belongs to the State, it is therefore critical to ensure we have a robust policy in respect of State land.

An estimated 47% of State land is forested and therefore subject to certain controls. The non-forested State lands are about 133,000 hectares, which is about 329,000 acres.

The estimated land area designated as suitable for cultivation is about 35% of the whole, comprising about 179,000 hectares or 442,000 acres.

Agricultural Land

According to the 1992 policy, there is a significant decline in the proportion of suitable land actually under cultivation, from 74% in 1963 to about 60% in 1982.

We need to consider food security as an important part of our country’s security. Our taste for foreign food and drinks; the uncertainty of our foreign exchange supply and the continuing loss of agricultural land, all mean that it is critical for land use policy to support our country’s food security policies.

History shows that once land is removed from agricultural use for other types of development, it is almost always lost for future agricultural use. That is described as ‘land alienation’ to signify a complete loss.

We have already lost some of our most fertile lands to contemporary development – eg three major areas completely lost are Valsayn as well as the River and Diamond Estates in Diego Martin. The very fertile Aranjuez lands are being rapidly developed with housing and commercial uses.

In fact, the lands at Tucker Valley in Chaguaramas are some of the last remaining first-class agricultural land in the country. To my mind this means that extra attention must be paid to any proposals for the use or development of those lands. Most importantly, those proposals must be ventilated and considered within the context of the land policy.

So, what does our official land policy state on this critical issue?

At page 9 –

4.          LAND USE POLICY

Land Zoning

4.1                During the period of the oil boom (1974-1982) there was great incentive to shift land out of agricultural into other uses such as housing developments and industrial/commercial activity. In the process much good agricultural land was irretrievably misallocated. This is confirmed by the 1982 Agricultural Census.

4.2                The New Land Policy proposes:

(a) that the existing system of land use zoning be strengthened to ensure that prime agricultural land is not mis-managed or converted to non-agricultural uses except on the basis of a significant spatial or economic development rationale…

Land for the Landless

That program has just been further extended to provide more land to a broader range of applicants as announced by the Minister in mid-March 2015.

The expanded program is to provide between 3,000 to 4,000 lots each year, at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. The Minister also proposed an increase of the income limits for applicants from the previous figure to a new joint monthly income of $30,000.

This ‘Land for the Landless‘ program will require our sternest scrutiny, given its key features. For one thing, the annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots means that about 200 hectares (or 500 acres) of land would be distributed each year. How can we ensure that this program does not cause more loss of our limited agricultural land? Where is all this land going to come from? Given the fact that most officials seem unaware of our country’s existing land policy, this is a serious issue. Indeed, the very Land Settlement Agency stated that they were unaware of any State land policy when we contacted them before starting this series. So that is the problem, the officials who should know, don’t know and what is more, they don’t know that they don’t know. I tell you.

But the situation becomes even less acceptable when we consider the increased income levels in the expanded program. The intention of this program, as I understand it, is to provide subsidised housing lots to poorer people who are unable to afford land and intend to build their own homes. A family with a combined monthly income of $30,000 would comfortably qualify for private mortgage financing to buy a home in the $1.5M+ price range. To expand a program intended to serve the poorer groups of hopeful homeowners in this way is a wanton diversion of limited State resources – both land and finance – for some other purpose.

HDC allocation policy sets a monthly household income limit at $25,000 and LSA is now racing ahead to offer subsidised land to families earning up to $30,000 a month. I tell you.

It seems like this program is really ‘Land for Everybody’.

Public Database

Here is Land & Marine Resources Minister Jairam Seemungal speaking on Caroni Lands to Parliament on 11th July 2014 (pg 141)

…With this, Mr. Speaker, you would find that you have lands all over the place, they have thousands and thousands and thousands of acres. Just under the Caroni (1975) Limited alone, they had over 70,000 acres of land, and now I am finding it is closer to 90,000 aces to 100,000 acres of land they had, and we can only know that, Mr. Speaker, by using a scientific approach…

So, there is official uncertainty as to the true land area of the Caroni estate.

The most important finding, thus far, is the extent to which the basic policy and information is unknown, which would be a very bad situation, or it is known and is being purposely ignored. The former case would be a very sorry story in terms of how our country has been run for too long, but the latter case would be far, far worse. So, which is it?

What we need as a starting-point in this process of managing the critical asset of land, is an open, searchable database with details of all the country’s property, public and private. The 2009 Property Tax proposals made by the Manning administration would have required such a database if the new system was to have worked. There was considerable merit in those proposals, but the strong opposition killed the idea and the Peoples Partnership shelved the Property Tax after winning elections in May 2010.

There are substantial landowners and land-grabbers who would have had their holdings and operations exposed to critical scrutiny if such a database had been established. Those people have benefitted from the continued opaque arrangements.

So, what does the Land Policy say on this?

(page 6)

“…Establishment of National Land Information System

3.4                  …Lack of timely information results in loss of revenues, loss of investment opportunities and inefficiencies in land management…

3.5                  The New Land Policy proposes establishment of an integrated graphic and non-graphic national land information system as a matter of priority. This system will be computer-based…”

Of course, back in 1992, the internet was in its infancy, so the proposal was not for online access.

There have been some steps to complete the required database, but given the amount of money which has flowed through our Treasury and the enlightened policy being established in 1992, we are still without the required detailed, public information.

The question is ‘Which interests are served by operating in the shadows?

Conclusion

Our country has severe limits on the available land, so we need a proper system to ensure that those lands are used in a sustainable and equitable manner. Despite its beneficial aspects, it is clear to me that the 1992 Land Policy is in need of revision. In the interim, that policy must be observed. The concerned members of the public need to inform themselves to defend our patrimony.

To be continued…

Our Land

landpolicy

10 CONCLUSION

10.1   A small State such as Trinidad & Tobago must accord a very high priority to the judicious management and utilization of its land resources or perish. All elements of land policy must be designed to ensure that these finite resources are efficiently utilized and husbanded in such a manner as to serve the long term interests of the national community.

—Conclusion of “A New Administration and Policy for Land” (19 November, 1992)

Click here to download the 1992 Land Policy

Long-standing public concerns over land allocation have been increased by a number of recent events. Most notably there have been reports of leases of waterfront land at ‘Chagville’ for a waterpark and the Chaguaramas Convention Centre for a hotel project. The other episode to have attracted interest is the alleged occupation of 35 acres of Caroni land by SIS in Couva in contested circumstances.

hdc-logoWhen one considers the recently-announced projections for distribution of 100 new homes per week by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and the huge ‘Land for the Landless‘ proposals, it is clear that land is a hot topic. It is tempting to dismiss these proposals as being mere electioneering, but that would be a grave error, in view of the importance of land in our society. Justifiably so.

This article will set out some of the inescapable facts about our country’s land and housing situation. It is not possible to cover these vast, complicated and interlocking issues in a single column, so this is the start of an important series. History demands nothing less.

Proceeding from the general to the particular will mean deferring discussion of the specific controversies arising at this time so that the fundamental and serious issues can be properly framed.

The main points are –

  1. The Land

    tt-land-map
    Landsat image map of Trinidad. Click image for linked article. See p 156 of linked article.

    The land area of Trinidad & Tobago is 5,128 sq. kilometres (1,980 sq miles), but apart from the raw quantity of land, we have to take proper account of the quality of our land. By which I mean to say that a majority of our land area is swamp, forest and mountainous terrain which is not suited for easy development – in my estimation, at least 60% of our land is in those zones.

    The existence of those development-free zones is essential for the sustainability of the other zones, the developed ones. Some of the elements in that sustainability equation would include green cover on high ground to reduce run-off from heavy rainfall; aquifers which can replenish with clean water; swamps/mangrove coastal areas to buffer high-tides and form a vital link in the food-chain; forests to act as living repositories of our bio-diversity and so on.

    The balance between the two types of zones is in constant tension, given the high level of national wealth; the tendency of wealthy persons to land-hoard; the tendency of poor people to take up unauthorised occupation of land and our growing environmental awareness. Those rising tensions as to land use can only be properly addressed by balancing of the needs of the human population against those of the other living elements; the present generation against those of the unborn and not least, the appetites of the wealthy against the needs of the poor.

    Idealists would suggest that those elements are not in actual conflict with each other, but realism and the facts before us speak of a grim kind of contest. The systems for environmental study, public consultation and urban & regional planning are all intended to set norms for the resolution of those conflicting demands.

  2. Population density

    popdensitymap-tt
    Population distribution map. Courtesy CSO. Click to enlarge.

    Since the land area of our country is static (at 5,128 sq kilometres) apart from marginal gains and losses due to reclamation and erosion, the actual population is an important measure of the pressure that our lands are under.

    The population density of T&T as at 2011 is 262 persons per sq kilometre, which places us 31st in terms of world population density, out of 194 countries measured at the Index Mundi website. Of course that figure is a serious underestimate, given the fact that our ‘official’ population has been recorded as virtually static at about 1.3M for quite some time now. The underestimate in terms of population is clear when one considers the electoral list of over-18s, which is just under 1,060,000 as at 2011. The situation is even starker when considered with the relevant figures for owner-occupation and the huge numbers shown in the HDC’s waiting-list.

    It seems clear that our actual population is significantly higher than the official figure, which means that the population density is much higher than stated by Index Mundi.

  3. Land Policy

    For the reasons outlined earlier, there has been a steady stream of criticism of the systems in place for environmental management, public consultation and planning in relation to our nation’s physical development.

    There is almost no discussion as to our land policy. The fact is that the national land policy was established in 1992 and has not been revised, superceded or withdrawn. As a practitioner in the field, I am aware of the policy and consider its contents to be substantially beneficial to our collective interests.

    The problem is that the official land policy is seldom observed, so much so that I often wonder how widely-known is its existence or contents.

    To test my suspicions, I decided to try an experiment by asking some surveyor colleagues at a recent conference and was astonished at the number of people who had no idea if there was a land policy. Some colleagues went beyond uncertainty to flatly deny its existence.

    But that is not all, not at all.

    I then caused queries to be raised with the relevant official bodies as to the existence of a national land policy. The replies need to be carefully noted, so that we can understand the turmoil and confusion which exists at the official level.

    Here is what we were told –

    • Ministry of Housing & Urban Development – Did not confirm or deny, but referred us to the Land Settlement Agency, which is a Division of that Ministry.
    • LSA_logonewLand Settlement Agency – Stated that they were unaware of any official land policy in existence and suggested that we contact the Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development.
    • Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development – Did not confirm or deny, but referred us to the Ministry of Land & Marine Resources. Another query to MPSD yielded the suggestion to contact the Town & Country Planning Division of that Ministry, but the TCPD then stated that “a policy was in process but nothing had been finalised.”
    • min-lmr-logoMinistry of Land & Marine Resources – Did not confirm or deny, but referred us to the Commissioner of State Lands, which office is yet to answer our repeated calls. Further queries to other departments within MLMR only yielded repeated statements that no such policy exists.

    This official level of confusion and ignorance is unacceptable, given the critical importance of land in “satisfying the long-term interests of the national community.”

    Quite frankly, the fact that only one of the many officials we spoke with was willing to give a name, which was actually someone else’s, speaks volumes to the pitiful position of official ignorance or obfuscation on this critical national resource. The responsible officials behaving irresponsibly in matters of the first importance. What is this?

We are either witness to woeful ignorance or a species of wilful blindness which can never serve our collective interests. The worst type of ignorance being displayed by those who do not know that they do not know. I tell you.

Given what is happening with State land in our country, this matter deserves our sternest scrutiny, so next week I will delve deeper.

Riding the Dragon

las alturas
Las Alturas buildings cracked. Courtesy T&T Guardian.

This article is about the Las Alturas Enquiry into the collapse of two new Morvant apartment buildings erected by China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC) for the Housing Development Corporation (HDC). This Enquiry seems a politically-motivated one into a serious failure of professional practice which could have cost human lives. It is only in its opening stages, but it is already clear to me that this episode is one which contains serious lessons for our country in terms of the role of Enquiries; the role of the Chinese contractors; the culture of non-enforcement which we practice and of course, the impact of targets and political objectives on proper process. In the case of Las Alturas this is a large-scale multiple-housing project constructed on a former quarry-site on the Lady Young Road, just south of the lookout. Two apartment buildings which were completed in late 2010 were eventually declared uninhabitable due to severe cracking and the proposed demolition of those structures was announced at the end of May 2012. Each building comprised 24 three-bedroom/two-bathroom apartments, with the total cost of those buildings stated by HDC to be in the $29M range. The buildings were erected by CJIC on the design/build basis which usually places all responsibility for soil investigation, design and construction onto the contractor.

The role of Enquiries

The JCC offered to work with HDC in determining the causes of this serious failure and that offer was accepted, but our joint exercise did not last very long. The Commission of Enquiry was announced in September 2014 by the Prime Minister and despite the serious nature of the failure at this project, it seemed to suggest an attempt to discredit the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, who was Minister of Housing between 2003-2007. I still feel that it was a poor choice of issue to investigate, given the burning questions at Invader’s Bay, the Beetham Water Recycling Project, UWI Debe and EFCL, to name just a few. The Terms of Reference of the Enquiry were published in the Gazette of 3 December 2014 and a five-month period was stipulated for its Report to be made to the President.The Enquiry, which is chaired by retired Justice of Appeal Mustapha Ibrahim, is to examine the causes of the structural failure of two blocks of apartments built in 2008-2010 for the HDC by CJIC. The other two Commissioners are eminent Structural Engineers, Dr. Myron Chin and Anthony Farrell. We have also seen reports of the contractor, CJIC, declining to appear at the Enquiry. I consider that refusal to be deplorable and a real sign that serious penalties need to be attached to that course of action. As it is, the fines for non-attendance are nominal, so people can refuse on a whim, since there are few prosecutions for that.

The role of the Chinese contractors

The really stunning revelation here is that the State was aware, since 2011, that these two buildings at Las Alturas had to be demolished. Despite this, CJIC was able, from early 2012 onwards, to compete for and secure the $500M+ contract for UWI’s Debe campus. The JCC protested at the poor process used in procuring that large-scale project. UWI Principal Professor Clement Sankat was advised that in view of the poor performance by CJIC in local State projects – including UTT Tamana, ETeck Wallerfield and various EFCL – no proper evaluation could proceed to recommend that further contracts be granted to that firm. Given that the normal pre-qualification process requires prospective bidders to identify claims, litigations or disputed matters, one can only wonder how CJIC was able to prevail in that project.

Culture of non-enforcement

One of the seldom-discussed findings of the Uff Enquiry was as to the lack of any culture of enforcement of contracts in the State construction sector, as set out in the sidebar. So, I was both thrilled and intrigued by the headline in this newspaper on Friday 6 March 2015 ‘HDC to sue Chinese contractor‘. The role and reputation of Chinese contractors in the local market have long been a bone of contention for the JCC. That statement was made in opening remarks by Vincent Nelson QC, who is the lead Counsel for HDC at this Enquiry –

“…The Housing Development Corporation (HDC) is moving to pursue legal action against China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC), the company contracted to construct the two towers at Las Alturas, Morvant, which subsequently had to be demolished because of structural damage resulting from land slippage. Attorney for the HDC, Vincent Nelson, was adamant about this as he delivered his opening statement at the Commission of Enquiry into the housing project yesterday at the Caribbean Court of Justice in Port of Spain…”

The culture of non-enforcement, considered with the chiefs at HDC (who transferred there after abruptly departing Caribbean Airlines), together with the special influence seemingly enjoyed by the Chinese contractors, all make me very sceptical as to whether a real and forceful lawsuit will ever emerge against CJIC.

The role of targets

Finally, one needs to consider the detrimental role of politically-motivated overambitious targets. The 2002 National Housing Policy set an unforgettable target of 100,000 new homes to be built in 10 years, which translates to an annual average of 10,000, which means a literally impossible 200 homes per week. Those are the facts behind the bizarre ‘numbers game’ which in turn likely had a decisive influence on the decision-makers at UDECOTT, HDC and of course the Housing Ministry. It would be useful, in this season of 100 houses a week and a billion dollars in land each year being promised, to reconsider the role of over-ambitious targets in distorting proper process.

SIDEBAR: The Outline Timeline

This is only an outline, but it is instructive –

  • December 2002 – UDECOTT acquires the Las Alturas site.
  • 2003 – Initial layout prepared for a total of 120 apartments, which was revised later that year to 292 units given the Town & Country Planning Division’s advice on the allowable number of units.
  • December 2003 – CJIC wins tender to design & build 297 apartments.
  • November 2004 – Start on Site.
  • 2005/2006 – Soil problems identified on part of the site.
  • July 2005 – UDECOTT rejects project redesigns for lower units numbers of 142 and 167 apartments. Those redesigns were intended to avoid the unsuitable soils.
  • July 2006 – the project is transferred from UDECOTT to HDC.
  • 2008-2010 – Blocks H & I are built onto the areas reported to be unsuitable.
  • 2011 – Blocks H & I are recommended to be demolished due to severe cracking.

We have also seen reports that both UDECOTT and the HDC were resistant to any reduction in unit numbers on the site.

SIDEBAR: Uff’s understanding

The 2010 Uff Report into the Public Sector Construction Industry contains remarkable findings which were not listed amongst the 91 formal recommendations. At page 269 –

“Holding to account 29.21. …A recurrent feature of practice in the construction industry in Trinidad & Tobago is the extent to which rights and obligations prescribed by the Contract are or are not enforced. A simple example, discussed above, is the apparently mutual ignoring of contract provisions…”

At page 271 –

“…29.26. Underlying all the foregoing, however, is the question of enforcement of contractual rights and duties. What has been observed by the Commissioners is a culture of non-enforcement of rights, which appears to operate mutually, for example, by contractors not pressing for payment of outstanding sums while the employer does not enforce payment of liquidated damages. Whatever the explanation, the non-enforcement of contractual rights available to Government is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of those charged with protecting public funds. Equally, the non-pursuit of sums properly owed to commercial companies is a dereliction on the part of the directors of that company…”

The key point disclosed here is that contractual rights are seldom enforced in State contracts. A move to such a regular practice would require a major shift in our country’s governance culture.