Property Matters – Pay Day? Part Two

past-dueI previously estimated State debt to the construction industry in the $3.2-3.5 Billion range. I have since been reliably informed that construction industry claims against WASA are estimated to be in the $600M range, which of course would be subject to verification as discussed previously. My revised estimate (see table below) is now in excess of $3.8 Billion, compared to the JCC’s 27 July 2016 estimate of $2.3 Billion.

The size of my more recent estimate gives a severe picture of the State’s indebtedness to the construction industry, which is the sector that Central Bank research shows to be the largest employer in the national economy. Apart from that, the construction industry also has deep links to other important parts of the national economy such as quarrying; banking/finance/insurance; hardware stores; a range of manufacturers; transportation and so on. Continue reading “Property Matters – Pay Day? Part Two”

Board Games – part 2

state-boards-logos

SIDEBAR: Correction on Court Case

With apologies to readers, in the previous article, I mistakenly named UTT as the SoE which had sued its Directors over allegations of a negligent 2005 investment, in fact it is eTeck which sued its Board. A lawsuit was launched by UTT on a similar series of allegations, but that was abandoned in July 2015.

Both those Boards were headed by Professor Ken Julien.

The previous article prompted a series of extremely interesting responses, so I will continue this examination of the State Controlled Agencies. That phrase includes State-owned Enterprises (such as UDECOTT, Caribbean Airlines and EFCL) and Statutory Agencies (like WASA, TTEC, CDA, PATT and HDC).

Some sharp objections were made to my comparison of the relation between the State, the Government and Citizens to a Company, its Board of Directors and its shareholders. I maintain that this is a valid comparison for us to reflect on the proper roles and responsibilities of the various public officials, but perhaps more importantly, the responsibilities of us citizens. Continue reading “Board Games – part 2”

Board Games

demming xed out
Dennise Demming (left) was “removed and replaced” as the chair of the Tourism Development Company by Corporation Sole. Standing with Demming are Tourism minister, the Hon. Shamfa Cudjoe MP and TDC director Tonya Laing. Photo courtesy Trinidad Express.

The recent controversy over the dismissal of Dennise Demming as Chair of the Tourism Development Company (TDC) has sparked yet another round of debate on the role and operation of State-owned-Enterprises (SoEs).

Some of the issues which have arisen are –

  • What is the purpose of these SoEs?
  • How do the Boards of these SoEs get appointed?
  • Are Board Directors of SoEs required to follow directions from the line Minister?
  • Do Board Directors of SoEs have the right to get involved in managerial decisions such as hiring of staff and awarding of contracts?
  • Do Ministers and Permanent Secretaries have the right to meet with or direct staff of the SoEs without the input of the Board of Directors?
  • Given the recent Appeal Court decision in the eTeck case, what is the legal liability of Board Directors of SoEs?

Continue reading “Board Games”

Telling Truths

“…The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy. Democracy means more, much more, than the right to vote and one vote for every man and every woman of the prescribed age…”
—Dr Eric Williams, in his first Independence address, on 31st August 1962.

We are now at a place in which our political parties routinely subject us to misleading promises to win elections, followed by a sharp dose of reality as we realise which financiers are actually in charge of important public policy. This has been happening for a while now, but while we can criticise the various political parties, our gullibility is at the root of the problem. Many of us still believe in ‘Father Christmas’, so we remain stuck in a loop of high expectations leading to deep disappointment. Frustration and outrage appear to be key features of the ‘new normal’ we are all now living.

Obviously, we need a big shift in how the membership of the political parties hold their leaders accountable once office is attained, but there are other aspects of public affairs which need to change. Some say that once we choose not to vote, we have lost the right to criticise the actions of public officials, since we are effectively opting-out of the system. I believe it is important to remember that politics is not a single choice made by the voter at elections: politics is how we live our lives together and choose everyday.
Continue reading “Telling Truths”

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 – 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.