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The Trinidad & Tobago Land Policy of 1992 has not been reviewed, withdrawn or superceded.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…

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Public Procurement Priorities

The Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill was passed by the Senate on Tuesday 16 December 2014, completing its journey through the legislative process. That is an historic achievement for our country, so it is essential that we take our bearings and properly record the moment.

This important new law to control transactions in Public Money was the objective of a long-term, collective campaign by the Private Sector Civil Society group (PSCS) of which JCC was a member. The JCC met with the leaders of the Peoples Partnership in April 2010, with one of the key promises emerging from that meeting being that new Public Procurement laws would be passed within one year of an election victory. It has taken four and a half years for the government to achieve that.

This achievement was only possible because of our collective efforts. Ours was a diverse group which resolved to campaign together for this critical reform of our country’s laws to ensure effective control over transactions in Public Money. Continue reading “Public Procurement Priorities”

Integrity Strategy

ic-logoThe Integrity Commission is continuing its efforts to revise the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA) to give greater effect to its anti-corruption work. I fully support those efforts.

LifeSport-logoThe key challenge is to discern how Public Officials commit the corrupt acts the Commission is meant to reduce. It is therefore necessary to conduct a scrupulous examination of Commissions of Enquiry and other Inquiry (eg LifeSport) Reports & evidence; Auditor General’s Annual Reports; as well as the leading international learning on these questions.

Once the main methods of corrupt agents are discerned, it will then be necessary to consider how the existing powers of the Commission might be deployed in tackling those and if there are new powers needed.

  1. Public Money

    ‘Public Money’ is the term used to describe money due to or payable by the State, including those sums for which the State would be ultimately liable in the event of a default. Public Money is sometimes called Taxpayers’ Money. It is our Money. The leading learning from which we have drawn serious lessons in the campaign for Public Procurement reform is Lord Sharman’s 2001 Report to the British Parliament – Holding to Account – which was a thorough examination of the definition, role and need for control of ‘Public Money.’ We expanded on Sharman’s definition of ‘Public Money‘ so as to capture the full range of possibilities, but we have accepted his key finding as to the requirement that ‘Public Money‘ is to be managed to a higher standard of Accountability and Transparency than Private Money. The contemporary, best-practice position in respect of the management of and accountability for Public Money being that the private sector rules are the bare minimum. That position must be at the centre of any reform of the IPLA and should be enshrined in law.

  2. Code of Conduct

    The IPLA effectively contains two limbs – the first requires that Public Officials make declarations of their income, assets and liabilities and the second requires those officials to perform their duties in accordance with the ‘Code of Conduct’ as set out in Part IV. The majority of cases brought by or Notices from the IC are directed at Public Officials who fail to make proper declarations. Is there a single case in which breaches of the ‘Code of Conduct’ were cited in making a case or an adverse finding? It is in this failure or refusal to apply those IPLA provisions that much of the current mischief in our Public Affairs is left to flourish. Some of the largest State Enterprises are functioning in breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’ and as such the Public Officials running those bodies are liable to censure. The IPLA does not contain any penalties for breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’, so that needs to be rectified. I support the Commission’s proposals to make examination of declarations optional, as that shift would release resources for a greater focus on the ‘Code of Conduct’.

  3. Power to make recommendations

    S.36 (1) of the IPLA states –

    “36. (1) A person in public life or a person exercising a public function may, by application in writing, request the Commission to give an opinion and make recommendations on any matter respecting his own obligations under this Act.”

    The key flaw with this power is that it is limited to cases in which the Public Official first requests an investigation and what is more, the Commission can only release its findings/recommendations with the consent of that Official. That power must be extended to all cases, with the discretion as to publication of its findings/recommendations left to the Commission. The fundamental importance of the Public Interest should not be subordinated to the agenda of obstructive Public Officials. A good example of how those powers were used recently in a positive way was the Commission’s 12 September 2014 Report on the Ministry of the Environment & Water Resources with relation to issues of alleged improper conduct in relation to the grant of Saw-Millers Licences.

  4. Notification

    At present, the Commission notifies Public Officials who are being investigated. It seems counter-productive, to say the least, that the same Public Officials who are in charge of the papers which could prove their guilt are being notified by the Commission at the start of investigations. Little wonder that the Commission has had little impact on corruption. It is emblematic of the flagrant double-standards with respect to the detection and prosecution of ‘White Collar Crime’. One can hardly imagine the courtesy of ‘prior notice’ being extended to suspected rapists or murderers. The Commission needs to eliminate that practice of notifying persons to be investigated.

  5. Improving the impact of the Commission’s findings

    The Commission’s findings and recommendations must be effectively linked with other ‘gatekeeper’ regulators – eg ‘Fit & Proper’ regulations as controlled by the Central Bank, Professional bodies, T&T Securities and Exchange Commission and the Stock Exchange. The linkages need to be backward and forward, so that the Public Interest can be upheld by better-informed regulatory bodies. I have seen notices of penalties imposed by the TTSEC in relation to various Public Bodies which have issued bonds and failed to provide timely accounts. If the TTSEC fines were paid, it would have been out of Public Money, so there would be no personal cost to those Directors for their lawbreaking. Those findings would seem to constitute a breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’, but was the Commission formally notified? – examples are in the sidebar.

    SIDEBAR – Lawbreaking State Business

    The SEC has made Orders in respect of Contraventions of the Securities Industry Act 1995 and the Securities Industry Bye-Laws 1997. Those Orders are in relation to the failure of these huge State-owned Enterprises to publish their accounts –

    1. 19 March 2010 against HDC, with fines totalling $121,000 – see http://www.ttsec.org.tt/content/pub100326.pdf.
    2. 15 June 2011 against UDECOTT, with fines totalling $120,000 – see http://www.ttsec.org.tt/content/Order-for-settlement-re-UDECOTT.pdf.
    3. 25 July 2011 against HDC, with fines totalling $400,000 – see http://www.ttsec.org.tt/content/Order-for-settlement-re-Trinidad-and-Tobago-Housing-Development-Corporation.pdf.

    SIDEBAR – Public Companies, Private Business

    Some of the largest State Enterprises and Statutory Bodies are operating in breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’ in the IPLA, which requires at S.24 (3) that –

    “(3) No person to whom this Part applies shall be a party to or shall undertake any project or activity involving the use of public funds in disregard of the Financial Orders or other Regulations applicable to such funds.”

    At this time, there are no audited accounts for Caribbean Airlines Ltd (since 2008) or UDECOTT (since 2005) or Housing Development Corporation (since its inception in 2005). That is very serious since some of the largest State Enterprises and Statutory Bodies are refusing or failing to publish audited accounts as required by the published guidelines of the Ministry of Finance or their own statutes.

  6. Declarations also to be linked

    The declarations of Public Officials must also be linked to the Inland Revenue and Financial Intelligence Unit, so that they can be reconciled. With today’s information technology, that is no great task.

  7. The Judiciary

    The October 2007 High Court ruling that members of the Judiciary were exempt from the provisions of the IPLA needs to be urgently revisited. The fact is that the Judiciary has an immense amount of power and discretion which at present is being exercised outside of the framework which binds other Public Officials. It is true that judicial decisions are subject to review, but the appearance of a beneficial exemption from the Integrity Framework does not inspire confidence.

  8. Secret Shareholding

    The G20 countries recently agreed to start moves against secret shareholdings and nominee Directors. The effect of those proposed changes would be to effectively embargo Nominee Directors, Unissued shares and other ‘masking devices’ which are intended to conceal the ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owner’ of a company. Our Integrity laws need to reflect those practices.

  9. Public Private Partnerships

    The IPLA needs to restate the position that all Directors of State Enterprises and bodies under the control of the State are liable to its provisions. Of course, that would include the gigantic CL Financial.

It is critical that we get these issues right, there is no room for compromise here.

Re-Route Reboot

The continued dispute over the Debe-Mon Desir Link of the Point Fortin Highway and the growing public debate over this issue require further attention to certain critical aspects.

The Armstrong Reportcover-tilt was published in March 2013 after a process agreed between parties to the dispute over this highway link.  It is a significant achievement in the journey to a more considered and consultative approach to national development.  Given the shifting grounds of the dispute and the nature of the various statements, it is necessary to clarify some of the key issues.

The three main issues to be clarified are –

The Armstrong Report

The State’s position in relation to The Armstrong Report is a critical element of the dispute, so it is important to detail how this has morphed, like so much else in this matter.  The Ministry of Works & Infrastructure Press Statement of 3 December 2012welcomed the inputs…from the JCC, FITUN, T&T Transparency Institute and Working Women‘ and went on to note that ‘the discussions had been very fruitful‘.  That statement settled a basic framework for a Review of the elements of the link which were in dispute, with the preliminary Report to be provided within 60 days ‘to NIDCO for its consideration and publication thereafter’.  Some people have tried to restrict the meaning of NIDCO’s ‘consideration’ of The Armstrong Report to a merely editorial vetting which implied no commitment to any post-publication consideration.  The only conceivable reason for a party to this kind of process to have the right to review the preliminary Report would be to address factual errors in a situation in which the completed Report is of some significance.

At the post-Cabinet Press Briefing on Thursday 14 February 2013, the then ‘line Minister’ for NIDCO, Emmanuel George, said that the Report gave the State the ‘green light’, thanked the members of the Highway Review Committee and was reported to have agreed to ‘…as far as possible, accommodate their suggestions and recommendations…‘.

The only reasonable meaning to put to the State’s actions and agreements at the time was that there was a commitment to consider the recommendations of the Report.  Of course we are now hearing from officials that there was no commitment to adopt or consider any of the recommendations in The Armstrong Report.

As a reality check, just ask yourself what would have been the position if The Armstrong Report had fully vindicated the State’s actions.

You see?

The Highway Contract

The high cost of halting construction is the main argument being used by the State to criticise The Armstrong Report and in its litigation with the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM).  On 25 February 2013, NIDCO wrote to JCC with its comments on the preliminary Report and the first page of that letter noted its concern that no consideration had been given to the fact that a $5.2Billion construction contract was in existence for this project. (Comment #2 on p. 30)  That complaint is fundamentally misplaced, to say the least, since technical and scientific reviews do not normally take financial or commercial elements into account as material considerations.

At the level of general principles, two examples can clarify the position. In the widely-used two-envelope tendering situations, the tenderers submit separate technical and financial proposals, which are examined independently, with points awarded for each.  The eventual selection is made after considering both those scores.

The most recent Commission of Enquiry was announced by the Prime Minister on 18 September 2014 into the HDC apartment blocks which had to be demolished in 2012 at Las Alturas in Morvant. (pp. 68-70) When HDC recognised that the stability of these newly-constructed hillside apartment blocks was in jeopardy, they obtained technical advice from professional engineers. It is doubtful whether those reports considered the financial and commercial fact that the building had already been erected or the losses that would accrue if they were to be demolished.  Very doubtful.  Indeed, one would rightly be suspicious of technical advice which was coloured by commercial considerations.

SIDEBAR: NIDCO’s reply to JCC

The JCC wrote to NIDCO on 10 October 2014 to request a detailed statement as to how the ten recommendations of The Armstrong Report had been treated and we met with NIDCO’s team on 17 October to discuss that request.  NIDCO agreed to provide the details to JCC by Friday 24 October, but that reply is still awaited at the time of this writing.

Now, to deal directly with NIDCO’s criticism of The Armstrong Report, we need to note two facts –

  1. Terms of Reference – If, despite the general principle, NIDCO had wished to have the construction contract for the highway considered alongside the other factors to be examined during the 60-day Review, it could have made that request.  The fact is that NIDCO never made that request, so the construction contract was not included in the terms of engagement for this review exercise.
  2. The Highway Review – If, having not requested that the construction contract be included in the review, NIDCO subsequently wanted it considered, there was an option to submit it. NIDCO never submitted the contract to the JCC or the Highway Review Committee.

Proceeding from the general principle to the particulars of this case, it is therefore clear why the Highway Review Committee did not consider the contract as part of the review process.

Note also that NIDCO has not submitted the contract to the Court during this extended litigation with the HRM.

Submitting the contract to either the Highway Review Committee or the Court would have exposed the underlying financial and commercial arrangements, as well as the repeated claims of adverse cost implications, to critical scrutiny.

Tender Truths

Lastly, there is now a series of new statements emerging from the HRM and its supporters which did not form part of the original concerns of that group. The most striking of these is that the highway contract was not tendered. That allegation can be found in the HRM’s International Media Release of 24th September 2014 on their Facebook page and on the AVAAZ campaign webpage, as well as in other media statements by various persons supporting the HRM.  That assertion is most alarming for two reasons.

Firstly, that is an entirely false assertion since the highway contract was tendered in 2010.  Consider this extract from the top of page 19 of The Armstrong Report

…On May 07, 2010, the closing date for this procurement, three proposals were submitted by 1.00 p.m. (from the 29 Request for Proposals issued)
The three entities submitting tenders were, in alphabetical order:

  1. China Railway Construction Corporation Limited;
  2. Construtora OAS Ltda (OAS); and
  3. GLF Construction Corporation…

On May 13, 2010 The NIDCO Evaluation Committee submitted its Final Report and recommended OAS as the Preferred Respondent, and so informed OAS by letter dated May 25, 2010…”

Secondly, those baseless assertions by the HRM show a lack of familiarity with the contents of The Armstrong Report.  The HRM has relied heavily upon The Armstrong Report in its recent campaigning, so one can only wonder at the implications of these repeated claims.
Given the public positions taken by the protagonists, it seems unlikely that mediation can be a real option.

The Armstrong Report is a serious advance in terms of our nation’s development, being to my knowledge the first Civil Society review of a State-sponsored project in the Caribbean region.  That Report would not have existed without Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh’s sacrifice, but the full benefits of the Report can only be realised by a proper and open consideration of its recommendations.  Only then can we gain from the increased public attention to the complex issues of national development and really start to learn the lessons.

National development is a real and inescapable challenge which will continue to evolve, whoever is in government.  That challenge can only be properly addressed by a fact-based approach adopted by all parties.

Money is the Problem

One of the big unanswered questions arising out of the recent ‘grand corruption’ cases in relation to the Public Sector remains – ‘How can we lawfully punish those wrongdoers who are looting our country?

Most discussions proceed along the lines of what I call the ‘bag of money‘ idea, in which we are looking for the actual stolen money.  The belief being that the stolen loot can actually be located and linked to the thieves, who will then face a harsh penalty.  My preferred solution is for full disgorgement of all the stolen monies as a starting-point, even if that is a remote goal.

In re-examining the issue practically, one has to ask “Why do we persist in these ‘pipe-dreams’, while ignoring the ‘low-hanging fruit’ all around us?”  So I am considering a new strategy for action on these critical issues.

‘Public Money’ is the term used to describe money due to or payable by the State, including those sums for which the State would be ultimately liable in the event of a default.  Public Money is sometimes called Taxpayers’ Money, it is our Money. Continue reading “Money is the Problem”

Everything but the Truth

On 1st June 2014, my former colleague and Business Guardian Editor, Anthony Wilson,  made a call for a ‘national debate’ on the proposed disposal of CLICO’s traditional portfolio of insurance business.  This is the first of my responses.

We are now entering the chaotic endgame of this epic CL Financial bailout fiasco. Some of the recent official statements are –

  • CL Financial’s other assets, including majority shareholdings in Republic Bank Limited and Methanol Holdings to be sold;
  • Full repayment of Public Money advanced in this bailout is expected.
  • CLICO’s traditional insurance policy portfolio is being professionally valued prior to its intended disposal;
  • Atrius Ltd., set up in 2013 as an alternative vehicle for CLICO’s continuing business, is to be effectively abandoned;
  • All of CLICO’s sales agents are to be terminated by the end of this month, June 2014;

jwala-howaiThe recent statements of both the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai, and the Governor of the Central Bank, Jwala Rambarran, could give the public an impression that this financial disaster has now been mostly resolved and we are on some kind of smooth track to a complete solution.

I remain sceptical as to the extent to which these problems have been resolved. The complete lack of detailed information, despite many requests by myself and others, leaves one to wonder just what is the basis for these serious decisions.

So, why am I saying this?

The money being used in the CL Financial bailout is ‘Public Money’, which we sometimes call tax-payers’ dollars. The leading learning from which we have to draw serious lessons is Lord Sharman’s 2001 Report to the British Parliament ‘Holding to Account‘, which was a thorough examination of the definition, role and need for control of ‘Public Money’. In the Public Procurement campaign we expanded on Sharman’s definition of ‘Public Money’ so as to capture the full range of possibilities, but we have accepted his key finding as to the requirement that ‘Public Money’ is to be managed to a higher standard of Accountability and transparency than Private Money – see 2.23 on pg 15.

The contemporary, best-practice position in respect of the management of and accountability for Public Money being that the private sector rules are the bare minimum.

CL Financial Ltd. is a holding company for the Duprey empire, comprising major companies such as Republic Bank Ltd.; the Angostura Group; Methanol Holdings Trinidad Ltd; Home Construction Group of Companies; British-American Insurance Company Ltd; Lascelles-Mercado Ltd. (the Jamaican owners of Appleton and Wray & Nephew rums).

The last audited accounts for the CL Financial group were published on 18 November 2008, for the financial year ending 31 December 2007. The function of consolidated audited accounts is to give investors and management the necessary information with which to make decisions as to the future of the company.

Since 2009 I have been making requests under the Freedom of Information Act for these items of information –

  • Audited Accounts for the CL Financial group, or the basis of the various statements by successive Ministers of Finance;
  • Senate Briefing – details of the high-level briefing given to Independent Senators in September 2011 prior to the vote on the two new laws – one to allow the State to borrow an additional $10.7 Billion to settle the bailout and the Act to shield the Central Bank from the supervision of the Courts;
  • Payments – details of the payments to the various claimants under the terms of the bailout, in particular EFPA-holders;
  • Integrity Commission – confirmation of whether the Minister of Finance was requiring the CL Financial Directors to file declarations as required by law.

I have effectively withdrawn the last of those requests and am now in litigation against the Minister of Finance & the Economy for the first three items. The State has resisted those claims and the litigation continues. I have continued my quest on the compliance of CL Financial’s Directors with the Integrity in Public Life Act with the Integrity Commission, despite the serial delays and unresponsiveness which have beset those requests.

The question before us now is, “How can the State and our government be making these serious, long-term decisions in the absence of the basic information?” Put another way, “How can we continue to allow these serious decisions to be made in our name on our behalf and supposedly, for our benefit, while the State continues to withhold the basic information?

We have now entered the unimaginable territory of unexamined State power being exercised on an unprecedented scale in the pursuit of an unknown agenda.

This is the big picture and it is an ugly one.

Try to imagine the Board of a major, privately-owned, holding company proposing to its Shareholders that its major assets be disposed-of without the basic information, such as audited accounts or details of meetings with major stakeholders. Such an action would be seen as a gross violation of elementary norms of corporate governance and quite likely be rejected with swift, high-level dismissals. Yet, here we have our government (the Board of Directors) proposing these actions while refusing the reasonable requests of shareholders (citizens such as myself and others) for the rationale for and basic information underlying this process.

The fundamental, best-practice principle that Public Money is to be managed to and accounted for to a higher standard than Private Money has seemingly been rejected. Rejected by the Minister of Finance & the Economy and the Governor of the Central Bank.

That is the scale of this ‘thing without a name’. I tell you.

We, the citizens and taxpayers of this Republic, are being told that this unprecedented expenditure of Public Money of $25 Billion is to be resolved by a questionable process. The long-time saying is buzzing through my head – ‘What eh meet yuh, eh pass yuh‘.

Some points to remember in thinking about this issue –

  • CL Financial Shareholders’ Agreement expires at the end of June 2014;
  • Asset Sales have continued with the unadvertised sales of Valpark and Atlantic Plazas;
  • No Interest was charged on the huge sums of Public Money spent to settle the indebtedness of the CL Financial group. The Board of Inland Revenue is a Division of the Ministry of Finance & the Economy and annual interest of 20% is charged to taxpayers who are late in their payments.
  • ‘Fit & Proper’ regulations have never been applied to this CL Financial collapse, as mandated by Central Bank’s regulations, despite my continuing calls. One has to wonder if the stage is being set for a return of Lawrence Duprey & his cohorts to our country’s high-level corporate lifestyle.

On 28 May 2014, the Business Express ‘Opinion‘ was entitled ‘Bringing closure to the CLICO debacle‘ and one of the statements in that editorial was stunning –

“…Thus far, Rambarran and Finance Minister Larry Howai have been forthcoming in their handling of the CLICO issue…”

I could not agree less. The taxpayers and citizens of Trinidad & Tobago are being abused in this entire process.

The Elephant in the Room – part 2

Port of Spain
Port of Spain

The recent announcements as to the upcoming completion of the ‘Government Campus Plaza’ offices in POS and the relocation of significant State agencies to central Trinidad are charged with meaning for the office sector. The previous article on this topic examined the huge quantity of State-owned incomplete office buildings in greater Port-of-Spain, the impact of that on the incomplete private office projects and the role of the ongoing process of decentralisation.  For the purposes of this discussion, greater POS is the area bounded by the sea to the South, the WestShore Clinic to the West, the Queen’s Park Savannah to the North and the Lady Young Road to the East. This is going to be a closer look at those aspects, so that we might discern how this issue is going to be settled. There are interlocking issues which have created the Elephant in the Room –

  1. the incomplete State offices, which will impact on the private office rental market as they are completed;
  2. the existing offices leased by the State, which need to be re-examined;
  3. the trend towards decentralisation, with its own profound implications.

To understand the issue requires the reconciliation of these large, seemingly-conflicting, elements.  The first is of course, the ‘sunk capital’ in terms of the State-owned, incomplete office buildings in POS.  The second is the existing leases the State holds from landlords of office space in POS.  The third element is the ongoing programme to relocate significant Ministries and State Agencies out of POS, generally to Central Trinidad.   I am also of the view that we need to enquire into the progress of the ongoing decentralisation process.  The details we need are – Which Ministries/State Agencies are to be relocated from POS?  What are the preferred locations for these offices?  What progress has been made on those relocations?   Has land been purchased/leased?  Has State land been allocated? Has a building been identified?  If a new building is to be constructed, what progress has been made in terms of project scoping, design, tendering and construction?  When are these new non-POS State offices anticipated to be occupied? The key enquiries in this matter would be –

  • State Leases

    We need to know exactly what offices the State is leasing and that info would include – the Ministry or State Agency in occupation; the addresses of the buildings; the size of the office space and its facilities; the number of carparking spaces; the rent paid; the service charge paid; the parties; the extent of the lease/tenancy agreement (when did the lease start and for how long was it agreed).  Apart from the info being presented in that type of detail for each rental, the overall picture will be instructive, as it will show the amount of space occupied  and at what cost. That information will in turn disclose the average (mean) rent per square foot paid.  Without details on the present arrangements for State offices, we cannot properly judge the alternatives.

  • Empty Buildings

    Alexandra PlaceAn additional enquiry has to be raised on the particular instances where the State is paying a rent for property which remains unoccupied.  The same details listed above need to be sought in those cases, but in addition, we need to be told why those properties are still unused.  A great concern was raised recently on #One Alexandra, which concern was mostly justified in my opinion, but the fact is that it is not the only one.  The public needs to be told the full extent to which the State pays rent for unoccupied offices.

  • Re-location progress

    On 2 April 2014, Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development, Dr. Bhoe Tewarie, gave some details in the Senate on these relocations –

    • Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training and some of its portfolio agencies are to be relocated to an ‘integrated administrative complex‘ 15-acre site north of the Divali Nagar on the eastern side of the Uriah Butler Highway. No size was given for the complex and construction was noted to have started in April 2014.
    • Ministry of Community Development is to be relocated to new offices at a 10-acre site near the Divali Nagar on the eastern side of the Uriah Butler Highway. No size or start-date was given for these offices.
    • Ministry of Food Production is considering relocating out of its long-established offices at St. Clair Circle, at the northern end of the Magnificent Seven strip, to either Chaguanas or Farm Road in Curepe.  That decision is pending.

    COSTATT2-595x340

    In the last week we have been told that the headquarters of COSTAATT, which is a part of UTT, is to be relocated from Melville Lane in POS to a location near the new Chaguanas Administrative Complex.   The main building occupied by COSTAATT is said to comprise 86,000sf, which is rented for $13.00psf – the total annual rent is $13.473M.  We were also told that COSTAATT’s POS operations require further rental space to the annual amount of $1.64M.  The new building is costing $168M inclusive of VAT, but no details were given as to its size or proposed completion date.  There are other relevant questions as to the convenience of the new location for students and faculty, but the fact that Chaguanas remains the fastest-expanding town in the country for the past 20 years is a part of that issue.

  • UDECOTT’s rollout

    governmentcampus
    Government Campus

    As per the previous article in this series, the State has built, but not completed, a total of 1,329,000sf of offices in POS.  According to Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, on 5 May 2014 –  “Cabinet has approved a sum of approximately $1.5 billion to complete the Government Campus buildings in downtown Port-of-Spain,” said Howai. Once this is completed in the next 12 months I expect that the OSH problems being complained of at the BIR will be a thing of the past.”

    That Cabinet approval equates to $1,129 per sq ft, which seems high unless one considers that a significant part of that money is stated to be for remedial works and not strictly for fittings and finishes. The impending completion of those offices will be a sea-change in the fortunes of POS, since their occupation will force the landlords who were renting to the State to seek other tenants. In my estimation at least half the rented offices in the capital are occupied by the State, so that office market is largely driven by the public sector.

    I have heard many colleagues attempting to rationalise the coming change by reference to OSHA requirements which require more office space allocated to each worker and therefore those requirements would ease the impact of the impending new offices.  Another rationalisation I have heard is the one about how some landlords would be leaving their places locked-up so they will not actually be offering those on the market, so there will be no real effect and so on.

All of those are coping mechanisms for dealing with the reality of change on an epic scale.  This is the Manning Plan, in full effect.  To quote the CEO of leading private sector office developer, RGM, Gerard Darcy, in a May 2013 interview  – “…The Government Campus is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room because it is too large to ignore…”.  I expect a significant adjustment in office rent levels in POS in the medium term. The financial sector, especially those who have expanded their loan portfolios on the basis of the property boom, will need to take careful stock of the extent to which these rapidly-approaching changes imply severely impaired assets.