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

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    Population distribution map. Courtesy CSO. Click to enlarge.

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

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

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

  3. Land Policy

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

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 The fact is that the national land policy was established in 1992 and has not been revised, superceded or withdrawn.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

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

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

    But that is not all, not at all.

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

    Here is what we were told –

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

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

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

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

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

Riding the Dragon

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

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

The role of Enquiries

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

The role of the Chinese contractors

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

Culture of non-enforcement

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

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

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

The role of targets

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

SIDEBAR: The Outline Timeline

This is only an outline, but it is instructive –

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

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

SIDEBAR: Uff’s understanding

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

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

At page 271 –

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

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

Raymond: T&T in danger of repeating housing mistakes

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© Guardian Media Ltd. Photo by Shirley Bahadur
© 2014, Guardian Media Ltd. Photo by Shirley Bahadur

The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published an interview with Afra Raymond in the 25 August 2014 edition of the newspaper.

Recent reports that the HDC housing waiting list has reached 200,000 have thrown up questions about strategies for land usage, housing design and urban planning in T&T. In our series on housing, JOSHUA SURTEES speaks to architects, planners and surveyors to find out if there is enough land available, whether everybody on the list can get a place to live and what kind of accommodation makes best use of space while providing comfortable, functional living that complements people’s lifestyles. Part four features AFRA RAYMOND, president of the Joint Consultative Council, MD of Raymond & Pierre Ltd chartered surveyors and an expert on land usage issues, procurement and housing.

Regarding the state of houses that people are currently living in, what is the extent to which there are people who should be rehoused immediately because their dwellings are unfit to inhabit? 

That sort of housing-condition survey is not something on which we have very accurate or timely information. We ought to have that information and the lack of it, on a national basis, gives rise to sober questions about the 200,000 waiting list…

For More, click here.

Paying the Price

On Wednesday 11 June 2014, the Senate unanimously approved the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 and that Bill is soon to go to the House of Representatives for their deliberation. I was present to witness the collective efforts made by Senators on Tuesday 10 June and it was a really thought-provoking experience for me.  I started to wonder just how much we could achieve if the banal point-scoring and ritual picong was to become a thing of the past.  The basis of decision-making on public issues would have to shift to a fact-based one, which would be a huge, healthy step away from the sad formula of ‘might is right’.

What a day that would be for us all, just imagine.

But we have to exist in this place, as it is, with all its imperfections.  Which leads me to discuss the constant questions put by people who want to know if ‘this law we are fighting for‘ could prevent this-or-that corrupt practice.  So the two projects which I would use to give worked examples are –

  1. the THA/BOLT office project on which the High Court recently ruled;
  2. Calcutta Settlement/Eden Gardens land purchase by HDC.

THA/BOLT

tha-bolt1This project was analysed in a previous article, which set out certain questionable aspects of those arrangements.  In my opinion, the greatest areas of concern were  –

  • Size – THA stated that the Divisions for which this building was being leased now occupy 28,500sf, yet the completed project is to comprise 83,000sf – almost three times more space.
  • Quality – The new building is projected to cost $143M, which equates to $1,723 per sq ft and that is at the upper end of office costs, even when we consider that the contract was reported to be for a fully fitted building.
  • Rent – The current rent paid by the THA for the Divisions to be located in the new facility is an average of $8.17 per sq ft.  The rent for the new facility was agreed at $15.61 per sq ft, which is almost twice the rate now paid.  It was telling that the THA relied on the statements of a Civil Engineer, Peter Forde, who sought to justify that rent by reference to the fact that $10 per sq ft was being paid for some offices in Scarborough.  Mr. Forde is an esteemed engineer with whom I have worked well in the past, but that is like relying on my advice, as a Chartered Valuation Surveyor, as to the correct steel to use in some complex structure.
  • Total Costs – The total monthly rent now paid by THA for those Divisions is $231,788, while the new project is set to cost a monthly rent of $1.295M – more than five times more.

All of these arrangements being made by a public authority which makes a compelling case that the Central Government has starved them of financial resources over a considerable period.  The THA, starved of money, is justifying a deal which will hugely increase their monthly rent bill, for an office building three times larger than required at a higher quality than any other in Tobago.  That is the sense of this deal.

The recent litigation over this project was altered after it started, to two questions of ‘construction’, being ruled by the Court to be issues of public interest –

  • Finance Ministry approval – Is THA required to obtain approval from the Ministry of Finance before entering a BOLT arrangement?
  • Tendering procedure – Is THA required to follow the procedures of the Central Tenders Board Act (CTB Act) in entering a BOLT arrangement?

The High Court ruling on 30 April 2014 was claimed by THA to be an endorsement of their course of action, but this is what it actually meant.

ISSUES High Court Ruling Proposed Public Procurement Law
Preliminary considerations No ruling by the Court. A Needs Assessment would be required to take account of a life-cycle costing, which includes both initial and cost-in-use aspects.
Ministry of Finance approval At para 33, the Court ruled that THA is not required to obtain approval of the Minister of Finance.  In that respect, one can understand THA’s claim to have been vindicated.At para 29, the Court makes the inescapable point that since this is a 20-year recurrent commitment which would have to be paid for by financing from the Central Government, it would be prudent for the THA to consult with the Finance Ministry before entering such arrangements. This is a transaction in ‘Public Money’ via a ‘Public Private Partnership’ which is included in the remit of the proposed law.
Tendering Procedure At paras 48 through 51, the Court was emphatic that the THA was required to follow the provisions of the CTB Act. The proposed law abolishes and replaces the CTB Act and would include this kind of project under the oversight of the Office of Procurement Regulation.

In this case, the THA’s claims of victory appear unrealistic, but the good news is that the proposed arrangements will act to prevent a recurrence of this wasteful type of project.

EDEN GARDENS

163940This 2012 purchase of 50.5 acres (comprising 264 residential lots with ancillary uses) by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) was also the subject of a series of articles in this space, which highlighted these questionable aspects –

  • Private sales as individual lots – Eden Gardens lots were being offered for sale in 2011 at $400,000.
  • HDC Valuations or Offers? – HDC obtained a private valuation of the property at $52M in November 2011.  In January 2012 Eden Gardens is offered to the HDC at $200M.  So why did HDC order a valuation in November 2011?  Was there an attempt to offer the site to HDC before November 2011 and at what price?
  • The State valuer exceeds the opinion of a private valuer? – Of course that is virtually unknown, but the fact is that the Commissioner of Valuations issued an opinion of value in April 2012 placing the property at $180M.
  • HDC Purchase – The HDC buys the property in November 2012 at $175M, which equates to $663,000 per lot.   Given that those lots were available in 2011 at $400,000, that is a 66% increase in the value of those lands within one year, which can make no sense.  It makes even less sense when one considers that HDC was buying the all that land at once, so a discount would be the rational and expected commercial practice.  So what was the basis on which this price was settled?
  • Plan ‘B’ – The State had the power to compulsorily acquire the land if it was required for a public purpose, which housing is.  The point being that the State could have lawfully acquired Eden Gardens for no more than $35M, if they had chosen to use their powers of compulsory acquisition.  So, why did they choose to go the Private Treaty route?
  • The ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owner’ – The basic business practice required of bankers and other finance professionals is to ‘Know Your Customer’ as a fundamental part of ‘Anti Money Laundering’ (AML) laws now in force in this country.  Those laws and professional practices have now extended to cover the activities of real estate agents, so anyone selling land would be required to conform.  The vendor of Eden Gardens was Point Lisas Park Limited, but from my research at the Registrar General’s Dept, it seems that PLP Ltd. has never issued shares.  Which means that we can only speculate as to who was the ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owner’ of Eden Gardens and indeed, who received $175M for that property.

The proposed new laws do not contain any provisions to govern the State in ‘acquiring public property’, which was the case in Eden Gardens, since the State was buying land.

This is one of the outstanding serious concerns as to the proposed new law, which would not act to prevent this type of corrupt practice.  Our Parliamentarians need to consider these aspects in finalising this law.

Charting our losses: ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’

The last four articles in this series have focused on what I call ‘two sides of the same coin’ – the coin being the large-scale and improper use of Public Money.

I examined the THA/BOLT office project called MILSHIRV being undertaken with the Rahael group and the Calcutta Settlement land scheme in which the HDC acquired developed lands at several times the proper price the State could have paid.

Throughout this type of critique one has to strive for effective balance and fundamental integrity.  The extent of the waste and/or theft is never easy to pinpoint when one is working from outside and relying solely on published documents, but my best efforts to establish those facts is what is presented.  Of course it is impossible to say for sure that any amount of money was stolen in a particular project, hence the phrase ‘wasted or stolen’.

Objectively, it does not matter whether the money is wasted or stolen, if it is ultimately unavailable for the benefit of the Public.  Once spent, that Public Money is gone forever, which is why Value for Money is of such importance in any proper Public Procurement system.

Subjectively, however, the errors of inexperience or poor process must be differentiated from an active conspiracy to defraud.  Although the objective measure of loss might be identical in terms of the dollar-amount, there are different long-term consequences.  Innocent errors and miscalculations can be rectified over time by ongoing review processes.  Deliberate conspiracies to defraud require concerted and well-grounded attacks in order to be eliminated.  What is worse about the deliberate conspiracies is that they affect the very atmosphere in which public business is conducted.

We end up with a situation where it pays to pay a bribe and the decision not to pay is to suffer delay.

That is why we are where we are today.  Simple so.

One of the important lessons emerging from the Wall St disaster is that the variety of financial regulators with their varying rules and experiences allowed financial players to engage in ‘Regulatory Arbitrage’. That was  the scenario in which financial players shopped for pliable or suitable regulators within which to channel their products, resulting in the unprecedented financial disaster we are all living through.

Here in T&T we have seen a similar pattern in our financial markets, but the point being made here is that it has also emerged in the Public Procurement arena, with TIDCO paving roads; the rising profile of State-owned entities which were deliberately excluded from the formal procurement controls; those same companies breaking their own rules and so on. That is the emergence of a toxic kind of ‘Procurement Arbitrage’, which is the reason why we must have over-arching regulations to control all transactions in Public Money.

So, there are two types of losses being charted here –

  1. Firstly, inexperienced officials or poor processes can approve wasteful uses of Public Money through sheer ignorance.
  2. Secondly, there is deliberate conspiracy to defraud the Treasury of our precious Public Money.

Only a Court can establish whether the lost Public Money was wasted or stolen, so I have ventured no opinion as to which is which. Readers can reach their own conclusions.

These charts illustrate the extent of the waste or theft of Public Money in the THA/BOLT and Calcutta Settlement projects.

A good example is worth a thousand words

THA/BOLT – MILSHIRV Project

Rental Rates THA- BOLT chart
Occupancy Excess THA-BOLT
Rental increase chart with table THA-BOLT

 

Click on the charts above to see full size version


Calcutta Settlement Land sale – Eden Gardens

stamp duty Eden gardens Chart 1 20130405-1
Acquisition options HDC chart 2 20130405

 

Click on the charts above to see full size version

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.

Calcutta Settlement again

163940In light of the many questions raised by readers after the last article on the HDC’s purchase of land at ‘Eden Gardens‘ in Calcutta Settlement, I am continuing there.

The previous article discussed the Calcutta Settlement scheme and its relation to implementation of national housing policy.  There is little, if any, connection between the provision of affordable housing and the acquisition of those ‘Eden Gardens‘ lands, at what is surely the highest price in Central Trinidad.  How we create and implement a progressive housing policy is a critical part of this discourse, but there is more.

Another important aspect of this episode is the fact that sound land administration policy appears to have been abandoned for expediency.  Expediency should never eclipse proper policy, especially when neither the process nor end-result advance the ultimate objective of serving our citizens.

The sidelining of sound land administration policy was essential in order to get the Calcutta Settlement scheme approved.  National Land Administration policy is important so that we can be strategic in using the country’s property assets for proper national development, as opposed to the enrichment of a select few.

The State is a unique player in our country’s land arena, so we need to place this Calcutta Settlement episode into proper context from a land administration viewpoint.

This is the framework –

  • Size – The State is by far the largest land-owner in the country, which means that there are only limited situations in which it will require private lands;
  • Wealth – The State is the wealthiest entity in the country, which means that it alone can bid at certain levels for the best properties.  Applied to this case, a reasonable question would be ‘Who would have purchased ‘Eden Gardens’ and at what price, if the State had not proceeded?‘;
  • Compulsion – The State is the sole entity in the country able to lawfully acquire land for a public purpose against its owner’s wishes, which means that if an owner of private property takes an unreasonable position during negotiations, the State can compulsorily acquire it;
  • Planning Authority – The State is the national planning authority, which means it has the power to approve its own designs and proposals;
  • Statutory undertaker – The State has ownership and control of the principal utilities, electricity and water/sewerage;

So, if the State intended to construct affordable housing in Central Trinidad, it could have chosen from the abundant State-owned property in the area, granted planning permission for its own proposed development and provided services.  The State could only have bought the ‘Eden Gardens‘ land by ignoring sound land administration principles.  Elementary policy was ignored in favour of sheer expediency, or worse, the enrichment of carpetbaggers at the expense of the Public Interest.

What was the advice of the Commissioner of State Lands on this transaction?  Was his advice sought?  Bizarre and expensive precedents are being set in situations of zero benefit to the Public Good.  This deal is detrimental to the Public Interest.

At a level of State policy, there was a collapse into expedience and a continuing silence as to the role of ‘Eden Gardens’ in the national housing policy.  But when I delved into the documents in my possession, there were even more causes for concern.

The Registrar General’s records show that there were three transactions executed on the same day for this property – It was Wednesday 3 February 2010 –

  1. Deed # DE2010 004276 02D001 rescinded the 2004 Sale Agreement (the one for $17M, registered in 2007), with the deposit returned and no claims made;
  2. Deed # DE2010 007816 95D001, Point Lisas Park Ltd (PLP) purchased the property from the owner, Sookdeo Deousaran, for $5M, paying Stamp Duty of $350,000;
  3. Deed # DE2010 003449 63D001, PLP mortgaged the property to said Sookdeo Deousaran for $18.5M at 8%, to be repaid on the last day of January 2012.

These purchasers were prepared to pay $17M for this undeveloped property in mid-2004, but ended up paying only $5M for it in early 2010.  On the same day, they mortgage it for $18.5M.  By happy coincidence, or otherwise, the property with infrastructure added was offered to the HDC at $200M in late January 2012, two years later.  Literally unbelievable.

What is more, the fact that the second and third of those deeds were executed on the same day is deeply perturbing as to the operation of the Stamp Duty section of the Board of Inland Revenue.  The second deed transfers the property for $5M and Stamp Duty is paid on that, yet the third deed shows a mortgage granted the same day on the same property for $18.5M.  Normal practice in the finance world is for a mortgage to be taken on a property at some fraction of its current market value.  Both those deeds were registered at the San Fernando office of the Registrar General’s Dept.

If there were a reasonable gap between the first sale to PLP and the new owners mortgaging the property, it might be possible to claim some increase in value due to its physical development or obtaining permission to develop.  But since both transactions took place on the same day, there is no way anyone can claim a genuine difference in value.

The 8% interest rate on the two-year mortgage is instructive, in that the actual rate at which finance was offered at that time for similar projects was in the 10.5-12.0% range.  The reasonable conclusion being that both sides had a high degree of comfort with each other, indicative of close collaborators.

S.84 of The Conveyancing and Law of Property Act (1939), states that the penalty for falsely stating the consideration in a deed is a modest fixed fine and a further penalty payment of 5 times the amount of the understatement.  Those penalties apply to both the buyer and seller, perhaps to discourage these dishonest practices.  The Act goes further to offer the penalty payment as a reward to the person making the report of the understatement.

S.86 of that Act also specifies a small fixed penalty for an attorney found guilty of “…knowingly and willfully…” recording a false consideration and mandates that the said attorney “…shall…” be disbarred.  Of course an attorney who had prepared only one of those deeds could reasonably claim to be genuinely unaware of the entire transaction, so we will see.

Sad to say this ‘Eden Gardens’ scheme is reminding me of the CL Financial antics. I am thinking about the the affidavit of the Inspector of Financial Institutions  stating that Clico Investment Bank did not file its Corporate Tax returns for 2007, 2008 and 2009 and the fact that, despite those lapses, they were able to obtain a bailout on ‘sweetheart terms‘.  The Eden Gardens chiefs were able to understate the property value to avoid the true level of Stamp Duty, but were also able to get Cabinet to agree to effectively bail them out, also on ‘sweetheart terms‘.

Always remember that the land at ‘Eden Gardens‘ cost $663,000 per lot as agreed by the Cabinet, seemingly unaware that the developers were offering lots there for sale at $400,000 only months before.

The HDC purchase was completed on 9 November 2012 and recorded in DE 2012 026026 11D001.  The para before the $175M sale price is the one which specifies the 2010 deed for $5M, just so.

I approved of the diligence of our AG in challenging the legality of the THA’s BOLT project.  This ‘Eden Gardens‘ scheme is also in need of urgent investigation, so we will see.

My final point is that all the information cited in this article is available on the internet, so where is the basic due diligence?  These sorts of schemes should not even get past the first gatekeeper, far less into the Cabinet for consideration.

From THA/BOLT to Calcutta – tangled webs: Part 2

Last week I set out my main concerns in relation to poor procurement processes with the THA/BOLT project.  A large amount of Public Money was being committed to a project with little apparent regard to Value for Money concerns in an arrangement which seems to expose the THA to the principal risks at a time of limited financial resources.

This article is a critical examination of the controversial proposed purchase of 50.6 acres of land at Calcutta Settlement by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC).

The HDC’s role is to build and maintain homes to satisfy the requirements of its main client, the Ministry of Housing and the Environment.  According to that Ministry –

The Corporation is mandated by the Act to:

  • Provide affordable shelter and associated community facilities for low and middle income persons and;
  • Carry out the broad policy of the Government in relation to housing.

With over 125,000 applicants on the HDC’s waiting-list, there is no doubt that, for many poor people, the HDC is their only hope of getting a reasonably affordable home of decent quality.  That means that the HDC is an important implementing agency in our nation’s welfare provisions, which is a role I fully support.

edengardensplanThis post is about ‘Eden Gardens’, which is on the western side of Calcutta Settlement Road No. 2 in Freeport, just north of Central Park, opposite to Madoo Trace.  The property comprises 264 residential lots at an average size of 5,600 square feet, 2 residential/commercial lots, 2 nursery school sites, 2 recreation grounds and 4 playgrounds.

In November 2011, the HDC obtained a valuation from Linden Scott & Associates at $52M.  In January 2012, the owners of Eden Gardens, Point Lisas Park Limited, offered the property to the HDC at $200M.

That is an intriguing sequence of events, since the HDC would hardly pay for a valuation on a property they were not interested in.  If we accept that the property was likely offered to the HDC before they ordered the Scott valuation, then one has to ask on what terms was it offered.  That letter of offer, the original one, must be disclosed now.

In April 2012 the Commissioner of Valuations advised the HDC that the current open market value of the property was $180M.  In June 2012 Cabinet approved the HDC purchase of that property for $175M, which is $663,000 per lot – at an average lot size of 5,600sf that equates to $118 per sf.

The normal professional and commercial practice when buying in this quantity, is to obtain a discount on the unit price.  It would be reasonable to expect that these lots could be sold for significantly more than the HDC agreed to pay.  We will see.

There was a lot of argument in the public about this transaction, so I was prompted to look closely at the deal.

I have these serious concerns –

  1. Point Lisas Park Limited (PLP)
    1. On 1 June 2004, Anthony Sampath, Patrick Soo Ting and Azad Niamat agreed with the owner, Sookdeo Deousaran, to buy the property for $17M. That Sale Agreement is registered as deed # DE2006 023638 20D001.
    2. On 26 April 2007, PLP was incorporated as Co. # P2956 (95), with the same three individuals who agreed to buy the property for $17M as its Directors.  On 6 May 2011, the Companies Register recorded that  Kayam Mohammed became a Director.
    3. On 3 February 2010, according to deed # DE2010 007816 95D001, PLP purchased the property from Sookdeo Deousaran for $5M, paying Stamp Duty of $350,000.

    These purchasers were prepared to pay $17M for this undeveloped property in mid-2004, but ended up paying only $5M for it in early 2010.  This is the same property which was offered to the HDC at $200M in early 2012, two years later.  Literally unbelievable.

    calcutta-timeline_v4

    The stated payment of $5M shown in that 2010 deed is a massive understatement of value, probably being only 10% of the true market value.  The Stamp Duty properly payable on a $50M sale of land would have been $3.5M.  The Stamp Duty Section of the Board of Inland Revenue has the discretion to refer transactions to the Commissioner of Valuations in cases where they suspect that the consideration shown on the deeds is understated.  I am reliably informed that in this case the BIR did not seek an opinion from the Commissioner of Valuations.

    I am calling for that 2010 transaction to be revisited immediately, with a view to the State recouping the proper Stamp Duty.  The Public Interest demands no less.

  2. The missing link 
    163940Between 2004 and 2012, the infrastructure for Eden Gardens was built, which included the roads, street lights, drains, water and electricity supply. Eden Gardens lots were available in 2011 via at least two real estate agents – Golden Key Real Estate Ltd. and Samko Realty – at $400,000 per lot.  This was widely advertised.
  3. The valuations
    • Linden Scott & Associates in November 2011 – $52M
    • Commissioner of Valuations in April 2012 – $180M

    Those lots were known to have been on sale at $400,000 in 2011, so the entire development of 264 lots could have earned its owners a total of say $106M.  Even if we allow a figure of $5M for the “2 residential/commercial lots and the 2 nursery school sites”, we are still in the range of $110M as the ‘Gross Development Value’.

    Given that these lots were clearly not selling at the $400,000 price-point, those estimates are at the upper end of possibility.  Which means that we have to adopt a lower ‘Gross Development Value’, say $95M-100M.

    If the entire development is to be acquired by a single purchaser in early 2012, that purchaser must deduct from the Gross Development Value to cater for –

    • Stamp Duty – at 7% of the Purchase Price;
    • Legal Fees;
    • Developer’s Profit – at a minimum of 25%;
    • Agents’ fees for the sale of the lots;
    • Cost of Finance to account for the cost of borrowing that sum until the lots are sold;
    • Time Value of Money, to account for the element of delay in recouping one’s investment.

    I estimate that those discounts would amount to 35-40% of the Gross Development Value.  If we adopt that approach, the maximum net present value of Eden Gardens in early 2012 as a fully-infrastructured property would be in the $60M range.

The meaning of it all

The usual accepted practice of residential development can be expressed by this ‘rule-of-thumb’, to spend less than twice the cost of the lot does not make best use of that land.

Even if we ignore the ‘rule-of-thumb’, one has to wonder

In what way does this transaction satisfy the HDC’s mandate?

It is most disturbing that there has been this amount of debate without the issue of the end-user ever being mentioned.  How do the real needs of the homeless feature in this massive HDC transaction, if at all?

To my mind this Calcutta Settlement scheme resembles the HDC’s flagship project at Fidelis Heights in St. Augustine which created an elaborate, expensive multiple-family project with no allocation of new homes to the needy people on the waiting-list.

I have established via a separate enquiry that only about 2% of the HDC output of new homes is allocated to those who can only afford to rent and this project is likely to be a continuation of that detrimental trend.  The HDC continues to allocate vast sums of money to housing those who can afford to buy, while leaving the left-overs for those who can only afford to rent.  That policy is inimical to the interest of the poorest members of the public, to whom the HDC is literally the last refuge for decent housing.

In all the circumstances, it seems that we need to have the air cleared on these issues –

  • What is being done about the under-stated consideration in the 2010 deed for the sale of Eden Gardens?
  • How many of the 264 lots were sold at the 2011 asking-price of $400,000?  That is important since it establishes a benchmark for the proper value of these lots in the open market.
  • When did Eden Gardens receive all the required approvals?
  • When was the infrastructure completed at Eden Gardens?
  • On what terms was Eden Gardens originally offered to the HDC?
  • There is an abundance of develop-able State-owned lands in the vicinity, particularly since the 2004 closure of Caroni Ltd.  So why did Cabinet agree to buy private lands in Calcutta Settlement at these prices?
  • Who owns Point Lisas Park Limited?

I close by reminding readers of the corruption ratio set out in the first article.  As I wrote in June 2008, referring to the Manning government and its UDECOTT antics –

…Either the Cabinet or its advisers are responsible. We are either dealing with a lack of rectitude at the highest level of our republic or a sobering naivete…

Declarations

  • Raymond & Pierre Limited, under my leadership, provided certain professional advice on this property in 2007.  No aspect of that advice has formed part of this article.
  • Linden Scott is a former colleague of mine, having trained at Raymond & Pierre Limited.  He is now a rival professional.
  • Raymond & Pierre Limited have provided professional advice to the HDC in the past.

Property Matters – Taking Stock

As part of this pre-budget series, I am going to ‘take stock’ of some recent, significant happenings in relevant areas.

Given the unstable situation in relation to the State and its operations, many examples of which have been set out in previous ‘Property Matters’ columns, it is very important that a critical stance be maintained.  That said, it is also important that any progress be properly recorded and acknowledged.

The notable items were –

Housing Development Corporation (HDC)

hdc-logo
I was very pleased to read of the success HDC was having in collecting the serious rent arrears owed by its tenants, reportedly in excess of $240M.  Of course this is not the first time there has been an effort to rectify this situation, so hopefully this will be a sustained program as it is vital that housing be treated with proper responsibility.  That responsibility would extend from the quality of the designs and construction, the treatment of contractors and suppliers all the way to housing policies which respond to the needs of the needy.

Last week, there was a report in this newspaper that the Housing and Environment Minister, Dr. Roodal Moonilal, disclosed a new housing policy.  According to that report, the new policy will favour distribution of serviced lots, with foundation slabs, over the provision of new homes.  I have been calling for a review of our housing policy for some time now, so it was very disappointing to read that Cabinet had recently approved this important new policy without some formal process of dialogue or seeking wider views, much less a thorough examination of the shortcomings of the 2002 policy.  Yes, a new housing policy was sorely needed, but there are solid benefits to wider dialogue.

Housing is too important an element of our Welfare State to ever become solely a creature of Cabinet, whatever the credentials of the current crop of Ministers.

This leads directly into my point about the poor flow of basic information, which can be detrimental to the best intentions.  The 2002 housing policy disappeared from the internet about 6 months ago, but despite several written requests I have had no success in having those links restored, for whatever reason.  The new housing policy is also not available online.  In contrast, last month the Ministry of Finance issued a revised State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual and that is available online, together with the 2008 Manual it replaced.

Building code

Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment
Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment

The impending new Building Code is to be welcomed, having been developed in collaboration with key stakeholders.  There needs to be a solid commitment by all parties to establishing proper enforcement of those critical standards.  The Building Code will cover important areas such as earthquake and fire hazards as well as other quality issues.

The initiative is being piloted by Dr. Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and the Environment.  UDECOTT and the HDC both form part of his responsibilities, so that is a good fit.  We will have to be vigilant to ensure that all State construction conforms to the new standards.

I can scarcely believe that the very Minister who understands the importance of collaborating with stakeholders on the new National Building Code, would state a week earlier that the new Housing Policy had been agreed by Cabinet, with no visible attempt at consultation.  Incredible, but true.

A Culture of Consequence

I have consistently stated that the absence of consequence is inimical to any development and that consequence has to be restored to a proper place if we are to progress.   Up to last Thursday, 11 August, I stated at a public meeting that I was unaware of any government in this country taking decisive action against its own appointees in the State Enterprises.  The pattern has been one of charging people from the last political administration in what almost always looks like revenge.

Dawn Annamunthodo, former chairman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd. Photo © Trinidad and Tobago Guardian
Dawn Annamunthodo, former chairman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd. Photo © Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

The Sunday Guardian headline of 14 August ‘Cabinet fires Chairman of School-feeding Programme’ was as welcome as it was surprising.  It was reported that the Cabinet had taken decisive action to fire a Chairman who had been appointed about 6 months before and that is a positive step, the first time any government in this country has done that, as far as I am aware.

According to that exclusive story, the fired Chairwoman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd (NSDSL)—Dawn Annamunthodo – had obtained extensive and expensive security guards for herself, due to some alleged death threats.  There were also details of what seemed to be deceptive attempts by that individual to become a signatory to the bank accounts of that State-owned company.  If those reports are true, there are two serious implications –

Firstly, it is extremely unlikely that this is the first time that this individual was involved in acts of that kind.  Grown people do not just change their behaviour in a few months’ time, we all know that.  My point being that this episode calls into question the screening which is carried out in relation to these appointments.  Whatever screening processes now exist, will definitely have to be made stronger, together with ongoing reviews of Board performance.

Given that the Prime Minister is widely reported to have approved the Chairpersons of State Boards, that screening process needs to be reviewed urgently so as to preserve the integrity of that office.

Secondly, this individual is reported to have attempted to convince Republic Bank’s Ellerslie Plaza branch to make her a signatory and that matter must be promptly investigated by the Fraud Squad, with charges to follow if those allegations are true.  It is an echo of the point I made here last week about a dutiful police officer allowing a motorist with a defective vehicle to just drive-off after a ticket is issued.  Not good enough, if we are serious about road-safety.  We have to restore a Culture of Consequence if White-Collar Crime is to be challenged.

But, even though no money appears to have been stolen in that School-Feeding episode, the saddest part was the bold-faced question that individual asked the Guardian reporter, when invited to give a comment

How did you get hold of those documents? Those are state documents.   These questions are state business.

It reminded me very much of the response of Jewan Ramcharitar, former PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner, who suddenly resigned as eTeck Chairman almost a month ago.  That entire affair remains mysterious, with Stephen Cadiz, the line Minister, stating that it was due to a ‘difference of opinion’ and the departed Chairman reportedly stating –

I am actually working on a project in the public service arena on a full-time basis and my time at eTeck is eroding the time and attention I pay to that.

“Just what that project is, he won’t say.”

I wonder if Ramcharitar would have found that dismissive answer to be acceptable when he was a partner at PWC?  Probably not, yet we are continually beset by these evasive attitudes in public affairs.  We need to hold our leaders to a high standard.

The latest twist is the sudden resignation of George Nicholas as Chairman of Caribbean Airlines and the opaque statement by the Minister of Transport, Devant Maharaj – “…Yes. I can confirm this. I am in receipt of his letter but I cannot say anything more…

In the three cases, bare-faced conflation of State Business with Business which is private, personal or confidential.

Good steps are to be recognized and applauded, but we must always strive for better.  We need to continue onward and upward.  It would be good to have a statement from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Communications as to the governments’ commitment to a progressive policy in these important matters.  The Housing policy needs to be published for comment and we also need to have a clear statement as to whether there can be any such thing as a confidential state policy.

Confidential State Policy may seem like an oxymoron, but readers will be aware of the reluctance of the Education Facilities Company Limited to publish its new Confidentiality Policy.  I don’t want to say refusal, but when this budget season is over we will be continuing to examine those EFCL operations.

State Enterprises and Public Procurement

procurement cycleState Enterprises were created to enhance the pace and quality of Public Procurement, yet they are now the scene of the most bedeviling paradoxes in the entire system of public administration.

Some of the key procurement issues which arise in this arena flow directly from the split character of the governance model.

The basic rationale for the existence of State Enterprises is they can be more effective because they are not bound by the strict rules which control the conventional civil service.  The absence of those rules is supposed to allow more latitude in terms of hiring, borrowing and contracting.  State Enterprises can hire professional staff at market rates, enter complex commercial arrangements and borrow on commercial terms, all of which should amount to significant improvements in public services.

The typical State Enterprise is owned by the State, with the shareholding held by the Corporation Sole, an exceptional legal creature which exists within the Ministry of Finance.  Apart from its owner, the State Enterprise will sometimes have a ‘line Ministry’, which would be its sole or main client.  For example, the Ministry of Housing & the Environment is the sole client of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and the Ministry of Education is the sole client of the Education Facilities Company Limited (EFCL).

State Enterprises can operate within the existing Companies Act or be established by a separate Act of Parliament, as is the case with the HDC.  That legal framework ought to ensure that a satisfactory standard of corporate governance and accountability is maintained.

The fact is that many of the Directors and Officers of State Enterprises are political appointees, which puts the entire rationale onto a doubtful footing.  Because the salaries and perks are so attractive, not to mention the commercial opportunities, the State Enterprises are prize targets for political appointments and favours.

Some of the main issues which arise when one is considering this sector are –

  • the number of State Enterprises – there needs to be a reduction in the number of State Enterprises.
  • If the politicians can instruct the State Enterprise, via the Permanent Secretary, on specifics, what is the purpose of the Board?
  • Given the preceding point, do the Board members of State Enterprises have the same duties under the Companies Act as in the case of other registered companies?
  • In terms of our proposed Public Procurement legislation, what is the boundary between the fiduciary responsibility of the Directors and the contracting powers of an ‘authorised officer’ – i.e. someone identified as having the power to enter certain contracts?

Proceeding along the Procurement Cycle and using the International Waterfront Centre (IWC) as an example –

  1. Needs Identification – This is the first stage of the Procurement Cycle and it ought to be an objective assessment of needs.  In this case, the IWC was part of a huge, disastrous boom in building new offices in POS – this is all detailed at ‘Capital Concerns – New Office Buildings’ – here.  Before the boom started in 2005, there was 6.5M sq. ft. of offices in Greater POS, at the start of the boom some 3.2M sq. ft., or an additional 50% of the capital’s office supply was approved for construction.  Please remember that Nicholas Tower, which took 5 years to fill, is only 100,000 sq. ft.  Just under 2.8M sq. ft of new offices was actually built in POS in the last 5 years, with 2.3M sq. ft. of that space (82% of it) actually built by the State.  Every State project identified at the outset was executed, but in stark contrast, virtually half the private sector projects stopped before construction began.  The obvious consequence of that over-building by the State has been a collapse in the office rental levels in the capital, which is detailed in the next point.
  2. Reconcile Needs with Funds – This is the stage at which a developer ought to consider critical questions such as the cost of funds, the cost of the project and the returns from it.  That is sometimes called a feasibility test and this is where the IWC dissolves into utter confusion.  When then PM Manning addressed the Senate on 13May 2008, he emphasized that every UDeCOTT project was approved by Cabinet and had been vetted by a Finance Committee on Financial Implications.  That is the most important address if we are to see the depth of the problem with these State Enterprises – see here.  The break-even point on such projects is the rent at which the project can repay its costs of construction – at minimum, those costs would have to include for land, design, construction and finance.  On that ‘bare-bones’ basis, which makes no allowance for maintenance or periods when spaces are vacant, the break-even rent for the IWC is in the $30 per sq. ft. range.  This is the largest single office building ever built in our capital and the best rents ever achieved for space of comparable quality is about half the break-even figure.  There is no way that the IWC project could ever have satisfied any proper feasibility test.  Every new office project started in our capital only increased the supply of offices, which reduced the market rent, which, in turn, increased the gap with the break-even rent.  Under oath at the Uff Enquiry, Calder Hart tried to rationalize the confusion when he confirmed that only one of UDeCOTT’s projects had been subject to a feasibility test and that one was the IWC.  He was even so bold-faced as to estimate a break-even rent in the $20 range, but, when pressed, had to admit that he had left the cost of the land out of the calculations!  That is the extent of the deformed thinking which typified the best schemes of the leading State Enterprise.  Only one of the State’s many office development projects tested for feasibility and in that case, the cost of the land is omitted, yet that same land is included as a part of UDeCOTT’s Assets at $224M in that very financial year.  Political imperatives were allowed to pervert a process which exists to protect the public interest from this kind of empire-building.  But it is in the next part that the full confusion comes to bear.
  3. The rest of the procurement cycle – This is the stage at which tenders were invited for design-build and the winning bidder selected, the project built and the complex opened.  According to UDeCOTT’s statements, the IWC project is its flagship and an outstanding success, having been built on time and within budget.  Even if one accepts those assertions as being true, the IWC project is an example of the tragic consequences of a limited application of proper procurement processes.

As a result we have a completed project which is said to have been built on time and under budget, yet makes no economic sense and has a break-even point at some uncertain point in the future, if ever.

Some collateral damage needs to be noted, to quote one of the former PM’s notable phrases.  Contrary to his statement to the Senate which is cited here, UDeCOTT did not publish its accounts since 2006, which is a breach of both the Companies Act and the Ministry of Finance guidelines.  A total breach of the elementary norms of good corporate governance, which is the protection the private sector structure was supposed to give us taxpayers as a safeguard.  Because of the political element in the operation, we can see clearly that UDeCOTT was carrying-out the instructions of the Cabinet and those Directors have not been punished or censured in any way, apart from their public dismissal.  The consequence of those breaches being condoned at the largest State Enterprises – UDeCOTT and HDC – how does one get the smaller and less-visible State Enterprises to conform to good governance?

If the priest could play, who is we?

This is why we need a complete review of our procurement controls.