VIDEO: Speech at Rotary Club of Penal event – 29 June 2019

penal rotary
Outgoing president Narda Ramkissoon present Afra Raymond with a token of appreciation after his address at the Penal Rotary Club handing over ceremony. Photo courtesy Rotary Club of Penal.

penal rotary logoThis is the recording from Saturday, 29 June 2019 at Rotary Club of Penal’s Handing Over Ceremony at which guest speaker Afra Raymond spoke on the national housing policy and programme of Trinidad and Tobago. Video courtesy Rotary Club of Penal.

Programme Length: 00:32:02
Programme Date: 29 June 2019

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Our Land – The Review

“…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)

The PNM won national elections on 7 September 2015 by 23-18.

Two key themes emerged during the PNM’s successful campaign –

  1. Firstly, there was a strong emphasis on the critical need to restore proper standards of Accountability, Transparency and Good Governance;
  2. Secondly, a commitment was given to ‘keep the various promises made by the PP government’.

When one considers the various promises, policy changes and actions of the PP in relation to land and property, it seems clear to me that those two campaign commitments made by the PNM are entirely incompatible.

Our country has a very high population density and the previous Minister of Land and Marine Resources estimated that some 63% of our country’s land belongs to the State. It is therefore a cardinal State responsibility to properly manage those critical resources so that short and long term interests can be reconciled in a sustainable manner. The present situation is so serious and damaging to our collective interests that I am calling for a halt to any attempt to keep promises with respect to land and property while a fact-finding and policy review is conducted.

landpolicyThe opening quotation is from the National Land Policy 1992, which is now a virtually unknown document since its very existence is denied by all the relevant agencies. This Policy provides critical guidance for how this scarce resource should be best managed in the Public Interest.

The severe crisis now evident in relation to our State Lands resembles a ‘Tragedy of the Commons‘ in which this crucial resource which should offer long-term collective benefits is effectively abused by self-seeking individuals. The pattern of abuse is facilitated by gross mismanagement, in profitable partnership with deliberate obscurity in how the State Land system actually operates.

Food Security

foodplan-2012-15This remains elusive since in March 2012 the Ministry of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources published its Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015. The major goal of that Action Plan was to halve the country’s annual $4.0 Billion food import bill. Yet in March 2014, the Food Production Minister, Senator Devant Maharaj, stated that the food import bill had been reduced by only 2% since 2010.

The significant reduction of our food import bill will require a flexible plan, with dedicated implementation and continuous monitoring. The one inescapable requirement is for farmers to have access to land of suitable quantity, quality and location. Without a good supply of land, no food security plan can succeed.

Land for the Landless

The proposed revisions to the State Lands Act 1998 were approved by the Lower House of Parliament on 3 June 2015 and withdrawn after the JCC raised certain objections. The proposed change in the ‘Land for the Landless’ policy were approved by Cabinet on 19 March 2015 with these main elements –

  • Occupation Date – Was moved from January 1998 to June 2014, which means many more persons would qualify.
  • Income Limits – Previously the maximum monthly family income was $8,000, this was now revised to $30,000.
  • Definition – the 1998 Act defined a landless person as one who was ‘disadvantaged’ according to the Ministry of Social Development, that word was deleted from the revised proposals.
  • Designated Areas – these were specified in an extensive list of over 400 areas covering the entire country.
  • The Numbers – The total number of persons identified was 250,000 and a commitment was given to regularise some 60,000 of those.

A policy which was originally intended to alleviate the plight of our poorest citizens has now effectively been extended to offer ‘Land for Everybody’. The existing commitment in respect of 60,000 lots will consume about 8,000 acres of land.

EMBD

https://vimeo.com/7987617
embd logoThe EMBD website states that it is responsible for the development of the former Caroni lands – some 7,500 residential lots are being prepared for ex-Caroni workers as part of their retrenchment package, with a further 8,400 agricultural leases of 2-acre parcels reportedly being processed. That means about 940 acres are to be used for the residential lots, with at further 18,500 additional acres for the agricultural plots. The total land area to be used would be about 19,420 acres, which is about a quarter (26%) of the estimated area of the Caroni lands.

Caroni Lands

caroni1975_logo_smallCaroni Lands were leased to ex–Caroni workers as part of their retrenchment compensation – they were entitled to one residential lot and a two-acre parcel for food-crop farming. The use of those lands for those purposes was intended to be controlled by the restrictive covenants in those leases. For instance, the residential lots were to be developed by a residential building within three years and the agricultural lots were to be held by the ex-workers for food-crop farming. In the 2015 budget, the restriction on sale of those agricultural lands was removed (pg 14). In addition, Cabinet Minute 3093 of 6 November 2014 approved the removal of the restrictive covenants in the leases to ex-Caroni workers – both agricultural and residential. No restriction on sale and no requirement to build on the lots.

This is tantamount to the State entirely gifting the development and transactional rights to these lessees, with no effective means of ensuring the originally desired results.

Housing Development Corporation (HDC)

hdc-logoThe HDC sells new homes at heavily-subsided rates to middle-income families, subject to restrictive covenants which prohibit open-market sale within the first ten years. Under the terms of that clause, the owner of one of these homes is required to offer the property to the HDC at the original price. It now seems that the HDC has relinquished those restrictive covenants. I have seen several letters signed by the HDC which authorise the open-market sale of those homes within the ten-year embargo period. I am not aware of any policy decision which supports that pattern of approvals and none of the vendors I have spoken with have paid any penalties of profit-share to the HDC.

This is yet another example of the State or its agents abandoning its fundamental duty to properly manage the public property rights within its remit.

Property Tax

The proposed Property Tax would require a live, open-access database which would allow anyone to examine the details of any property in the country. Those details would include land area, building area, number of bedrooms/bathrooms and other facilities, transaction history, ownership and assessed taxes. One of the strongest sources of opposition to the Property Tax is persons who would wish to keep the details of their property holdings and dealings as secret as possible.

The new Property Tax system and the modern database is in fact a key element in unearthing the facts of our country’s property ownership and occupation.

Property Tax must therefore be a priority in this arena.

The unrealistic policy of homes with gardens consumes too much land and will jeopardise our country’s sustainable future.

Our Land – Land for Everybody? Part 2

SIDEBAR: The Minister responds

This is a short video (courtesy of TV6) in which the Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, responds to questions on the occupation of State lands in Couva by SIS Ltd, one of the main financiers of the Peoples Partnership.

The ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is being implemented by the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), has now been redefined in such stark terms that I have decided to call it by a more appropriate title ‘Land for Everybody’.

The previous article set out the main points of the revised program. That detrimental law was approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3rd June. Although we have now heard that the new law to amend the State Lands 1998 Act was withdrawn just before the close of our Parliament on Friday 12th June 2015, we are also being told that it will be approved if the Peoples Partnership is returned to office after the national elections in September.

This change to our country’s squatter regularisation law is therefore now being held out as an expansive election promise to regularise the status of some 60,000 landless people. That proposed program is a severely detrimental one which will likely lead to greater problems in the important question of our country’s human settlement policy. It is therefore necessary to highlight the dangers this new ‘Land for Everybody‘ program poses to our collective interests.

The Minister of Land and Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, gave several interviews which attempted to rebut my criticisms, so it is important that that these fundamental issues be properly understood. The public interest demands nothing less.

Food Security

Food security is that elusive state in which we can feed ourselves at a decent standard of nourishment and at an affordable price, without heavy reliance on imported food. The very issue of how food security is defined is hotly debated, but it is clear that we are far away from even the simple one I offered.

In March 2012 the then Ministry of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources published its Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015. The major goal of that Action Plan was to halve the country’s annual $4.0 Billion food import bill. Yet in March 2014, the Food Production Minister, Senator Devant Maharaj, stated that the food import bill had been reduced by only 2% since 2010. That is a sobering reflection on how serious is the challenge of moving to some significant degree of food security, even for an administration with substantial links in the agricultural sector.

The significant reduction of our food import bill will require a flexible plan, with dedicated implementation and continuous monitoring.  The one inescapable requirement is for farmers to have access to land of suitable quantity, quality and location.  Without a good supply of land, no food security plan can succeed. 

The issue is a long-term one, so it is clear from the failure to achieve the targets that a deeper commitment of resources and monitoring is needed if we are to improve our collective position. The Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015 is now up for thorough review which must include serious input from the public and stakeholders.

Shiraz Khan, President of the Trinidad United Farmers’ Association, has spoken out about the disastrous land use policies now unfolding and I have also heard Omardath Maharaj join the calls for a holistic discussion of agriculture policy.

What is the policy?

We are reliably informed that the new ‘Land for the Landless’ policy was approved by Cabinet on 19th March 2015, but there is no clarity as to whether this policy conforms to the existing 1992 Land Policy. The recently-approved policy ought to be subordinate to the wider Land Policy, which states at page 9 –

“4. LAND USE POLICY
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…”

It is imperative that our country’s human settlement policies take proper account of the need to preserve our limited supply of arable land, so that we can maintain some degree of food security.

The critical point is that our total supply of land is very limited, due to the tiny size of our country. The supply of arable land which has not been developed is even more limited, so the choices are stark. There is not enough land for us to continue with this reckless policy of land distribution or large-scale building of houses with gardens. To continue with those policies would be watching a disaster unfold before our very eyes.

I have heard occasional statements from the HDC or Housing Ministry, in this and previous administrations, but that is merely to mention a major issue. This is a serious issue with dire long-term consequences for our society and a proper, wide-ranging policy review is urgently required. That review must include the 2002 Housing Policy, the 2003 UWI Report on the future of Caroni lands, the 1992 Land Policy and the Land for the Landless policy.

How many people will be affected by this policy?

There was some dispute over numbers, with the PM claiming that 30,000 squatters were to be regularised, the Minister of Land & Marine Resources doubling that to 60,000, all while the LSA website states that there are 250,000 squatters.

At one point, the official rebuttal seemed to be that there were 60,000 households with 250,000 inhabitants, but since the three cited statements were referring to ‘squatters’, that line has now been abandoned. We are now told that the intention is to regularise 60,000 of an estimated total of 250,000 ‘squatters’.

How are the 60,000 eligible persons to be selected?

So, which 60,000 people are to be regularised out of the 250,000? How is that selection to be made? Even after all this defensive talk, I am not at all clear on that.

Will the decisive point be the date of application or the length of time a squatter community has been established? The date-based approach would have some legal weight, given that squatters’ rights have usually accrued in accordance with the period of occupation. To my mind, that would be a weak basis on which to proceed, given the shortage of land and variety in its quality.

In the alternative would the choices of communities to be regularised be based on an assessment of alternative uses or land value? What role would the fertility of the soil play in making these important decisions? If we are to have a reasonable chance of tackling the food security issue, it is critical that these factors play an important part in making these decisions. That is not negotiable.

Finally, one has to mention the elephant in the room. Could it be that the selection of those 60,000 squatters is a political one? Are marginal constituencies to be favoured? Is that a possible outcome we ought to guard against? Which are the constituencies in which the selected communities are located?

The Bill to amend the State Lands Act 1998 comprised 24 pages and we need to note that 20 of those pages was an expansive list covering at least 500 areas or districts in our country. I quipped ‘Charlotteville to Los Iros‘, but the point is that with so expansive a list of areas, just about anywhere could be eligible for regularisation. You see?

The point of how these critical selections are being made is one which must be answered as soon and as clearly as possible.

Who qualifies as ‘landless’?

SIDEBAR: The LSA’s abortive meeting with JCC

In March 2015, the LSA wrote informally to seek dialogue with JCC on this revised ‘Land for the Landless’ program and we responded by requesting an agenda and a formal invitation. Despite our constant efforts, we are still awaiting a response.

This is the most damaging part of this proposed policy shift, with the new income levels having shifted to a monthly maximum of $30,000, together with the elimination of ‘disadvantaged’ as a decisive criteria having the combined impact of making these scarce lands available to anyone. The fact is that a family with a monthly income in the $30,000 can readily qualify for a mortgage in the $1.6-1.7M range and there are plenty of good-quality homes in that price range for sale in our country.

The CSO’s 2009 data on monthly Household Income shows a national average in the $8,000 range. Yet we have a Minister, supported by his professional staff, advancing a policy which is seeking to extend a program intended for the benefit of our neediest citizens to just about anyone.

One can only wonder what was the research on which this bizarre policy was based.

This is no time for inadvisable and ill-considered electoral promises, from either side. Our children’s children will wonder just what kind of intentions did we have. History will judge us harshly if we continue with this foolhardy basket of policies.

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.

Land for Everybody?

My letter to the Editor was published in the Trinidad Express on 3 June  2015 as “Protecting our patrimony.”

The Editor,

The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and I am reliably informed that it is due to be approved at today’s sitting (Wednesday 3 June 2015).

Given the continuing absence of the Opposition PNM from our Parliament and the sporadic coverage in the media, it is important that the main points of these new proposals be exposed –

  • 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 to be allocated in this new process.
  • 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.
  • The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys 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?
  • Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or even all property. Which means that the real beneficiaries could remain unknown. 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.

Just remember that Minister Seemungal was the one who refused to provide details on the terms under which SIS occupied certain State lands at Couva, claiming that those details were private. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements. As I wrote recently in the ‘Our Land’ series, the new rules for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, make it seem that the real name should be ‘Land for Everybody’.

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

Afra Raymond
JCC President

None So Blind

Property ownership is a critical ingredient of the society we are trying to build.  No one can deny that.   The wealthiest people and companies in this society have made a great part of their wealth through property dealings – buying, leasing, sub-dividing, selling, renovating and so on.  We all know that property is critical to amassing and holding wealth.

The single largest owner of all classes of property in the Republic is of course, the State.  Those properties are described as ‘Public Property‘ in the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 which is now being debated in Parliament.  The penultimate paragraph of the Private Sector Civil Society group (PSCS) group statement of 13 June 2014, is clear –

“…Whilst very pleased with the progress to date and while not having sight of the amended bill we note two areas that remain of serious concern; the Role of civil society and the acquisition and disposal of public property…“.

At pg 7 of that Bill – “public property” means real or personal property owned by a public body;

‘Real Property’ usually means real estate (freehold or leasehold), while ‘Personal Property’ usually means all other types of property such as licenses, concessions and tangible items of worth.

‘Owned’ usually means literally owned, as in the case of a freehold or leasehold interest, but there are other important types of property which are not literally in the ownership of a public body.  Public Property is important because it is extremely valuable.  The power of the State or its agencies to allocate those Public Properties must therefore be exercised in an equitable and transparent fashion if we are to foster proper conduct of our country’s public affairs.

Crown Grants

In relation to real estate, it is important to note that the system of Crown Grants was used during the colonial period to encourage immigrants of a particular type.  Immigrants who were of acceptable race, religious belief or station in life were allocated public lands for the purpose of agriculture.  The actual documents are called ‘Crown Grants’ and they can be seen in our country’s records.  The allocation of those lands to those selected people established a pattern of substantial wealth which took generations to displace.  Of course such a system of property allocation, on the basis of ones’ external appearance and belief system, would be incompatible with our Republican status.

That history and the important role which property plays in today’s society are both reasons why the  ‘disposal of public property‘ is an inescapable part of the new law, so that we can ensure good governance in these matters.

The Maha Saba Episode

This is a good example of a type of Public Property not literally owned by a Public Body.  The dispute was over the decision of the previous administration to allocate radio licenses overnight to the Citadel Group, which was owned by a PNM member, at the same time as delaying the grant of broadcast licenses applied for by the Maha Saba.   The Maha Saba had to take legal action all the way to the Privy Council to obtain a favourable judgment as to the breaches of principles of good public administration by that PNM government. 

A new law intended to control dealings in Public Property as defined above would be one which extended beyond those literally owned by Public Bodies to include species of property in the ‘care, custody or control‘ of those bodies.  That would allow future occurrences of a ‘Maha Saba episode’ to be rapidly rectified, also at less expense, by the Procurement Regulator as that type of property transaction would be within oversight of the new law.

In point of fact, it was reported that the Citadel group which comprised three radio stations was sold in 2012 to the CCN group (owners of this newspaper) in 2012 for a sum reported to be over $50M.  So it is clear that these species of property have serious value, quite apart from any other aspects.

Caroni Lands

When Caroni Ltd. was closed in August 2004, about 76,000  acres came out of cultivation and become available for alternative uses.  The Caroni lands stretch from Orange Grove at Trincity (near the large new Blue Water facility) as far south as Princes Town.

Given the fact that Chaguanas has been our fastest-growing town for almost 20 years now and the ongoing growth of investment in San Fernando and its outlying districts, it is clear that the Caroni lands have a critical role to play in our medium to long-term prospects.  But those possible outcomes would be conditional on just how the Caroni lands are allocated in the short-term.  As far as I am aware, a decade after abandoning sugar cultivation, there is still no strategic plan for how these lands are to be utilised.  In the absence of a proper strategy for the management of those important State lands, there is scope for missed opportunity in terms of development and re-distribution.

The decisive land allocation issues would include –

  • How does the allocation policy work together with the State’s broader economic policies?
  • To whom are the lands allocated?
  • On what terms are the lands allocated – i.e. for how long are the lands to be leased and with what restrictions? Some of the ex-Caroni workers are demanding grants of freehold interests from the State, but no decision seems to have been made on that.
  • Does the State have the right to repossess the lands upon expiry of the lease?
  • Does the allocation strategy have dynamic measures to control speculation?  This is to prevent the growth of ‘flippers’ who just acquire property to hold and re-sell.  There is a serious view that ‘flippers’ are a part of the market, but there is also a way that their presence can retard development as they do not typically improve or maintain their properties.

All of those issues must be located within equitable and transparent arrangements as required by the new  law.

State Leases of offices

When the State leases offices or other property it is in fact procuring property via a transaction in Public Money.  Those transactions must take place within a modern system which ensures good governance by attaining accountability, transparency and value for money.

There is a huge oversupply of offices in greater POS as a result of the State’s overbuilding during the last regime and the current administration is now shifting significant public offices out of POS.  The combined impact of those ought to be a steady decline in both the gross amounts paid to landlords via State leases and the amounts paid per sq. ft..  That kind of change can only be obtained and monitored if the State’s leases of offices and other property are also part of the new Procurement system, so that the details are published as part of the database of State contracts.

Invader’s Bay

The State-owned reclaimed lands at Invader’s Bay in west POS are another pregnant example of how the use of improper land allocation processes can injure the public interest.  The JCC has mounted a legal challenge to seek publication of the legal advice obtained by the Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development as to the legality of their activity ‘thus far’ in respect of that 70-acre parcel of prime land.

It is interesting to recall that one of the legal opinions on which the State seems to be relying, notes that this proposal was to grant long leases (about 99 years) to the successful bidders at Invader’s Bay.  That was not considered a disposal since the State would have retained the freehold interest.  Now that is probably the best example of why these types of transactions must be controlled by these modern and effective laws.  The attempt to conflate a residual freehold interest with ownership, while at the same time denying the tremendous commercial value of a 99-year lease over prime lands was scandalous.

The most valuable properties in the capital are the leaseholds in St. Clair and Woodbrook, that much is indisputable, which is why we have guard against this kind of evasive advice to facilitate arrangements to escape proper oversight.

The Landed Interests

The ill-fated 2009 proposals for a new Property Tax would have required an updated and open database of the entire country’s property holdings.  The campaign to ‘Axe the Tax’ was successful and that database never saw the light of day, which entirely suited the Landed Interests who are wary of any system which would expose their operations to easy scrutiny.

We need to be vigilant to ensure that the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 does not leave a gaping, purposeful loophole thorough which our Public Money will continue to pour.

Given that our political parties receive financing from business-people, how will those party financiers be rewarded?  In a situation which properly controls the award of State contracts for goods, works and services, how can they be rewarded?

The answer is Public Property.

Calcutta Settlement review

The simple, inescapable fact is that the State could have lawfully acquired the ‘Eden Gardens’ property for less than $40M.  The HDC paid $175M in November 2012 to Point Lisas Park Ltd (PLP) for that property, which is the reason I am calling this an improper use of Public Money.

Despite having available the advice of the Commissioner of State Lands, the Commissioner of Valuations and various attorneys at HDC and so on, the Cabinet approved this transaction.  This Cabinet, with two Senior Counsel at its head and several other seasoned legal advisers, appears to have been unaware of, or intentionally ignoring, the legal safeguards.

Some readers may be surprised at those assertions, so here are my reasons for making such.

The last two articles examined the steps leading to the HDC’s purchase of land at ‘Eden Gardens’ in Calcutta Settlement.  In my opinion that transaction, as well as the one which preceded it, are both highly improper and very probably unlawful.  The HDC purchase must be reversed and the responsible parties investigated/prosecuted as required by our laws.

This ‘Eden Gardens’ episode is an object lesson in what can go wrong when elementary policy is set aside for stated reasons of expediency.  Apart from the lack of any Needs Assessment, the unclear role of the Commissioner of State Lands is a source of serious concern.  That Commissioner’s role is to advise the State on the strategic implications of its land policies and transactions, so this is a straight example of a case which required a solid input from that critical State Officer.

So, what should have happened?  How would a proposal like the ‘Eden Gardens’ one have been handled if the various parts of the system were functioning properly?

When parties are in commercial negotiations, there is always a Plan ‘B’, to be adopted in case the main plan goes awry.  Each side has a different Plan ‘B’, since they have different interests.

What was Point Lisas Park’s Plan ‘B’ in case their negotiations with the State were unsuccessful?  While we can never know for sure, PLP being a private company, the fact that those lots were widely offered at $400,000 can allow us to form a view as to the benchmark they were likely using.

The State’s Plan ‘B’ is far simpler to establish, since there exists the legal power to compulsorily acquire private property for a public purpose.  That was the third unique facility enjoyed by the State as set out in the previous article.

In the case of a landowner making unreasonable demands, the State has the lawful option of compulsorily acquiring the property.

The Land Acquisition Act 1994 (LAA) establishes the right of the State to compulsorily acquire private property for a public purpose.  At S.12, the LAA specifies the rules of assessment used to arrive at the sum offered to the owners of private property interests being acquired.

S.12 (4) states –

…(4) In making an assessment under this section, the Judge is entitled to be furnished with and to consider all returns and assessments of capital value for taxation made or acquiesced in by the claimant and such other returns and assessments as he may require…

The point in this case being that, having registered a purchase at $5M in February 2010, PLP would have been unable to legally resist a compulsory purchase which adopted that price as its basis.  Even if the State, in recognition of the roughly $29M spent by PLP on building the infrastructure for ‘Eden Gardens’, were to add that sum, the final offer would only be about $34M.

Those provisions at S.12 (4) of the LAA are a critical safeguard against persons who might seek to under-declare their properties to evade taxes, then seek to make exorbitant claims if the State seeks to acquire compulsorily.  S.12 (4) prevents the State from falling victim to any such games, it is a critical safety-valve to protect our Treasury from those who seek to pay as little as possible when taxes are due, but boldly make huge claims from the Treasury when seeking to sell.

That is why I am calling for this matter to be swiftly investigated and the responsible parties prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

This was in reality a potent dilemma for PLP, in that if they were served with a proper compulsory purchase notice, they would have either had to stick with the $5M figure as a 2010 baseline, or reject that deed and incur the strong penalties at S.84 of the Conveyancing and Law of Property Act.

One of the three deeds executed on Wednesday 3 February 2010 recorded the purchase of ‘Eden Gardens’ for $5M, which is a massive understatement of consideration.  The true market value of that undeveloped property at that date would have been of the order of $50M, so the loss of Stamp Duty to the Board of Inland Revenue would have been in excess of $3.0M.  The underpayment of Stamp Duty is tantamount to a defect in title of a property.  Are we witness to the State making a massive over-payment for marginal lands with defective title?

Did the Cabinet and the HDC receive the proper advice from the Commissioner of State Lands and the Commissioner of Valuations, as well as the other legal advisers?  If yes, that advice was plainly not followed, so in that case the question would have to be ‘What caused the Cabinet and the HDC to abandon that sound advice?

If the true situation is that the proper advice was not provided, we need to know why.  If the advice was not sought, then we need to know why.  If the advice was sought, but not provided, those advisers need to be rusticated so that our processes are protected from more of this nonsense.

The State has an overriding duty to comply with the law and be exemplary in its conduct.  That is not negotiable, if we are to build a society which is orderly, progressive and just.

Episodes such as the ‘Eden Gardens’ sale and the THA/BOLT deal continue the erosion of Public Trust and the loss of that intangible, almost-forgotten, source of ‘soft power’, the Benefit of the Doubt.

This Prime Minister has made repeated statements that any evidence of wrongdoing will be investigated, so that the offenders can be prosecuted according to law.  These three articles have detailed the evidence and breaches of sound public policy, so it is now over to the authorities.

The ‘Eden Gardens’ transaction is a prime example of a large-scale economic crime against the State and the interests of its citizens.

Again, I ask – ‘Who were the beneficiaries?

The final point here is that the parties to the PLP purchase and improvement of ‘Eden Gardens’ are now in litigation, with the contractors – SIS Ltd. – suing Point Lisas Park Limited for various monies and demanding an account of the $175M.  Case CV 2012 – 5068, so we have interesting times ahead.