People Say

The Port of Spain International Waterfront Centre
The Port of Spain International Waterfront Centre

I call this the Season of Reflection, being the two-month period starting with Emancipation Day on 1 August, centred by our nation’s Independence on 31 August and closing with Republic Day on 24 September.  To me that is a compelling sequence in which those days of national importance are celebrated.  It is a good time for reconsidering the role Conscious Citizens should play in the process of National Development.

Our country is relatively tiny, at 5,128 square kilometres, and its population density is relatively high, at an estimated 239 persons per square kilometre.  I say estimated, since those figures effectively yield a population of 1.225 million and it seems to me that our population is far higher, but that aspect is for another column.  What concerns me here are the implications of our high population density in terms of our physical development.

Given that over 60% of our land is effectively alienated by physical factors such as its being swampy or heavily forested, there are in fact only very limited areas readily available for development.  Place that fact alongside the concentrations of economic activity/population and the growing environmental awareness and there is cause for a pause.

The recent past has been a series of large-scale, impactful developments carried out in our small country with little or no regard for citizens’ input or review.  The established pattern is the creation of big development plans, behind closed doors and in secret, to be announced at the most opportune moment for publicity purposes.  The Citizen, who ought to be at the centre of our Republic’s development, would seem to have been ‘re-purposed’ into a mere audience.  The factors I have outlined above mean that the present  way of proceeding is no longer going to be acceptable.

The most glaring example of this obstinate and wasteful impulse to develop, at literally any cost, is the large-scale redevelopment of POS by the previous administration.  The Patrick Manning/UDECOTT/Calder Hart axis was responsible for rebuilding a huge proportion of our capital with no consultation whatsoever.  What is worse and as confirmed at Calder Hart’s cross-examination at the Uff Enquiry, every single project was commercially unfeasible.  According to Hart, only UDECOTT’s so-called flagship project, the International Waterfront Project, was subject to a feasibility test, which was revealed, under oath, to have been entirely rigged.  Bogus.

The 17th recommendation of the Uff Enquiry was –

  1. User groups and other interest groups should be properly consulted on decisions regarding public building projects, to ensure that relevant views can be expressed at the appropriate time and taken into account before decisions are made. (Emphasis mine.)

I maintain my view that UDECOTT has not been adhering to that standard,  and despite its many statements to the contrary.  That failure or refusal by UDECOTT was the issue settled in ‘The Uff Bluff’, published in this space on 8 January 2014, so that Uff recommendation is an important standard to which we should aspire in these areas.

In relation to the controversial Invader’s Bay project, a serious aspect of improper official conduct has been the failure or refusal of the Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development to host even one Public Consultation.  This is unacceptable since there are Public Consultations on King’s Wharf redevelopment proposals in San Fernando; the South-West Peninsula Growth Pole; the proposals for City status for Chaguanas and so many other issues.  There is no justification for this blatant attempt to develop Invader’s Bay without public input.

Next we come to the sharpest example of them all, the actions of the Highway Reroute Movement (HRM) on the controversial Debe-Mon Desir segment of the Point Fortin Highway.  That issue came to the fore during the November 2012 hunger strike by the HRM’s leader, Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, intended to force a State review of the implications of that segment of highway.  That hunger strike was only broken by both sides’ acceptance of the Civil Society proposal for an independent review of the issues in contention.  That proposal was made by the JCC, the T&T Transparency Institute, Working Women for Social Progress and the Federation of Independent Trades Unions and NGOs (FITUN).  The review was conducted over a 60-day period by a 19-member team under the Chairmanship of then Independent Senator Dr. James Armstrong and it is all here.

cover-tiltAfter a prolonged series of legal battles on the point, the Armstrong Report was finally accepted into evidence in the High Court case between the HRM and National Infrastructure Development Company Ltd. (NIDCO) on 10 July 2014.  The HRM has now lost in the Appeal Court in its attempt to have the Court order a stop to work on the disputed segment and it is not clear whether or not the Appeal Court decision will be appealed via the Privy Council.

The reality is that the Armstrong Report is the first time a major State-sponsored development has been the subject of an independent review at the instigation of private citizens, with the State making a substantial financial contribution to the costs.  The entire HRM episode represents a notable high-water-mark in this struggle for proper citizens’ participation in national development.

As in so many other episodes, the entire HRM issue has become pointedly political, with pronounced positions being taken.  Some people have taken the position that the HRM’s concerns were definitely out-of-place, given the traffic woes suffered by people living in that South-Western part of Trinidad.  Those people were anxious to have the political administration and the Courts dismiss the Armstrong Report.

Just consider the position of Dr. Keith Rowley, who stated in March 2014 his intention to implement the ‘Rapid Rail Project’ if he is elected Prime Minister.  Rapid Rail was one of the heavily-criticised projects which had been proposed by the previous administration and to his credit, Rowley has said that proper feasibility tests would be carried out before proceeding with this, the largest single project ever proposed in our nation, at an estimated cost in the region of $20 Billion.

The important point here is that we need to keep sight of the important lesson of the HRM episode, that an independent, State-funded review of large-scale development projects is in our collective best interest. The HRM episode is still ‘in play’, but a critical aspect of that main lesson is that the review must be carried out before decisions are taken, as recommended by Uff.

The people must have their say, decisions must be fact-based and the public servants must do just that, serve the public.  That has to be our goal.

SIDEBAR: PUBLIC CONSULTATION

Excerpted from  the 19 May 2014 High Court decision in the Charlotteville Beachfront Movement case on the issue of Public Consultation –

At para 66-

  1. R  v  Secretary of State for Social Services, ex parte Association of Metropolitan Authorities [1986] 1 All ER 164, where Webster J stated-
    “…in any context the essence of consultation is the communication of a genuine invitation to give advice and a genuine consideration of that advice…it must go without saying that to achieve consultation sufficient information must be supplied by the consulting to the consulted party to enable it to tender helpful advice. Sufficient time must be given by the consulting to the consulted party to enable it to do that, and sufficient time must be available for such advice to be considered by the consulting party…”
  2. Also, the case of R  v  North and East Devon Health Authority, ex parte Coughlan [2000] 3 All ER 850, where Lord Woolf stated:
    “It is common ground that, whether or not consultation of interested parties and the public is a legal requirement, if it is embarked upon it must be carried out properly. To be proper, consultation must be undertaken at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage; it must include sufficient reasons for particular proposals to allow those consulted to give intelligent consideration and an intelligent response; adequate time must be given for this purpose; and the product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account when the ultimate decision is taken…”

At para 71-

  1. In Fishermen and Friends of the Sea v The Environment Management Authority and Another [2006] 2 LRC 384, Lord Walker at para 28, emphasizing the need for public consultations, indicated that –

    “Public consultation and involvement in decisions on environmental issues are matters of high importance in a democracy.”

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The Elephant in the Room – part 2

Port of Spain
Port of Spain

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

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

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

  • State Leases

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

  • Empty Buildings

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

  • Re-location progress

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

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

    COSTATT2-595x340

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

  • UDECOTT’s rollout

    governmentcampus
    Government Campus

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

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

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

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

The Elephant in the Room

The huge potential supply of State-built, unfinished office buildings in our capital is the ‘Elephant in the Room‘. There are potent elements at play here in terms of the viability of the long-term and large-scale investments which have been made in Port-of-Spain by private and public capital.

At this point, taking account of offices over 25,000 sf in size, there are over 1,500,000 sf of incomplete offices in our capital. This article will examine the likely outcomes for our capital and those investors as the various projects are completed.

Incomplete Port of Spain offices at February 2014 (Over 25,000sf)
Incomplete Port of Spain offices at February 2014 (Over 25,000sf)

The State has 1,329,000 sf of incomplete offices in POS and the private sector has 224,800 sf. The State has virtually seven times more incomplete offices than the private sector and that is the ‘Elephant in the Room’. This chart portrays the reality – the details are set out in the table below.

The legacy of the POS offices built during the previous administration is a matter which deserves serious consideration. The sheer volume of offices built by the State during the previous administration is sobering – 2.3M sf. Given that Nicholas Tower – that elliptical, blue tower on Independence Square – contains 100,000 sf, it means that the State built the equivalent of ‘23 Nicholas Towers‘ in our capital in that period of rapid development.

We also know that there was no attempt at public consultation or feasibility studies by the State or its agent, UDECOTT. At the Uff Enquiry, the Executive Chairman of UDECOTT, Calder Hart, admitted that a feasibility study had been done for only one of those projects. That project is the International Waterfront Centre (IWC), which comprises the two office towers of 890,000 sf, the Hyatt Hotel, New Breakfast Shed and car-parking/outdoor facilities. Hart also admitted, under oath, that the value of the land had been omitted from the viability study for the IWC, so it was a bogus exercise. The break-even rent is the amount which must be earned by a project to repay the cost of land, construction, professional fees and finance. The IWC, repeatedly boasted-of as UDECOTT’s flagship project, is not a viable project, since its break-even rent exceeds the highest rents now earned by A-class offices in POS.

The Parliament has now relocated there during the Red House repairs and renovations. A number of other Ministries and Public Bodies have also started to occupy those offices.

The Office of the Prime Minister is now in the new 75,000 sf building on St. Clair Avenue, opposite to QRC grounds.

The rationale advanced by the Manning administration for that surge in office construction in our capital is that it would free the State from the payment of large monthly rents to private landlords. Although I made several requests, I was never able to get the actual figures for the rents paid by the State in POS. My own familiarity with that market allowed me to estimate the average rent at that time (2007-2009) at about $8-9 per sf. The break-even rents of those new buildings exceeded $25 per sf, so the costs of those office projects would never be recovered. I have read reports that the estimated cost of the Government Campus Plaza, which is the largest element in the POS offices, was recently stated by UDECOTT’s Chairman, Jearlean John, to be of the order of $3.2 Billion.

We can reasonably estimate that the rate of rents paid by the State for office buildings has now increased since 2007, in terms of dollars paid per sf.

The completion of those State-owned office buildings is therefore a matter of the first importance, given the high carrying-costs. There is also the significant issue of the high opportunity cost of the State continuing to occupy rented offices alongside virtually-completed offices.
elephant tablet

Against this background, we are now seeing an active policy of decentralisation of POS offices by the present administration, with several Ministries and Public Bodies being relocated to south and central Trinidad. The decentralisation discussion is one which has been going on since the 1970s and it is an important issue to be pursued, in my opinion. That said, one has to wonder how is the decentralisation to be rationalised, given the existence of this over-supply of State-owned offices in our capital. That is a serious question which needs to be discussed if we are to achieve any proper resolution.

The completion of the State-owned offices is under the management of UDECOTT, the original developers, with recent disclosures from the Finance Minister of plans to sell the buildings and lease them back as a means of financing their completion. The terms of any such proposals would have to be carefully considered to avoid the mistakes and fraudulent behaviour of the past.

The completion and occupation of the State-owned office buildings in POS will pose an existential challenge to those private investors who have built offices for rent. The rental levels for offices in POS are likely to decline significantly, which will impact on the revenues of those investors.

The Uff Bluff

Jearlean John. Photo courtesy Trinidad Guardian
Jearlean John, Chairman UDeCOTT

On December 11, I wrote ‘Invader’s Bay Review‘ in this space, calling for an immediate public review of that improper large-scale development being proposed on reclaimed State lands in west POS.  I also took the opportunity to make the point that there had been no consultation on that proposed development and that UDECOTT’s repeated public statements that its operations are now compliant with the Uff Report recommendations are false.

UDECOTT’s response was to place full-page advertisements in the three daily newspapers, on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 December, in an expensive attempt to refute my criticisms.  My letter to the editor, carried in this newspaper on the Sunday, put UDECOTT’s misleading advertisement in context and reaffirmed the continuing falsehood of their claimed compliance with the Uff Report.  The episode is recounted here.

There are several lessons one can draw from this exchange – the sheer hostility to the truth which is now becoming a disturbing ‘new normal‘ in our society; the invisible hand of the bureaucracy in devising large-scale developments, stated to be for the benefit of citizens, without citizen inputs; the inescapable reality that these obstructive forces operate across and within all our political administrations.

Sunity Maharaj wrote a fine overview of these burning issues in ‘Amandla!  Now listen to the people‘ in the 15 December Sunday Express.  In that article, Sunity detailed the development of a perverse consultation industry “Its specialty is in designing events that look like consultation, sound like consultation but do not actually involve consultation…”.

There is a serious challenge facing us here, since there is no will to implement the beneficial recommendations contained in the Uff Report, despite the repeated false promises.  The failure to implement those proposals is deeply detrimental to our society as it entrenches the colonial idea that development is not something which really concerns the people of this country.  Worse, the deceptive policy of politicians claiming to intend to do the right thing, while doing the underhanded thing, is imposing a neo-colonial reality.  The State has a duty to be exemplary in its conduct and for the State to fail to do so and to act deceptively in that failure, is to increase cynicism and instability in our society.

In addition to failing to implement the Uff Report recommendations, there was also another significant setback.   The Enquiry website – www.constructionenquiry.gov.tt – which held all of the proceedings and evidence, became inaccessible at the end of 2010, about 6 months after the Peoples Partnership electoral victory.

moore-volneyThe JCC has been pressing for the implementation of the Uff Report recommendations and the restoration of the Enquiry website.  Those efforts have ranged from the Attorney General, who directed us to the Minister of Justice, to the then Minister Volney who ignored our three letters on the matter – see http://www.jcc.org.tt/uff.htm.  When we pressed-on with Volney’s successor, Christlyn Moore, the exchanges were sobering.

The two previous Ministers of Justice – Volney and Moore – both claimed that the Uff Report recommendations were to be implemented by the impending Public Procurement legislation.  Quite apart from the inordinate delay in bringing these critical new laws into being, that claim is entirely false, since only one of the recommendations, the 56th, relates to new Public Procurement laws.  90 of the 91 recommendations could have been implemented by now with no need to get any new laws passed or any use of valuable Parliamentary time.  The JCC’s repeated offers to assist and advise in any working party for that purpose have also been ignored.  The implementation of those 90 recommendations would have greatly reduced the criminal theft and waste of Public Money with which we are now beset.  The failure to implement those recommendations is probably the largest single ingredient in the continuing decline in our ‘morality in public affairs‘.

Even worse is the steadfast refusal to reinstate the Uff Enquiry website.   There is no way to tell if the website was deliberately removed or if there was a mundane technical reason for its disappearance.  What we do know for sure is that there is solid official resistance to even offer a sensible explanation for the continuing refusal to reinstate.

It is critical for us to learn from our errors if we are to avoid a repetition and it is therefore important that we excavate those lessons so that they can be considered.  To fail to do that is to thwart the entire move to a ‘developed nation status’.  Our nation’s primary information needs to be properly documented and published so that anyone who wants to learn the lessons can do so.

The evidence in the Uff Enquiry offers a deep, unprecedented insight into the state of affairs in our country and the conduct of our substantial business dealings.  That information is first-class primary source material for research and teaching in critical fields such as Government, Finance, Engineering, Surveying, Planning, Economics, Sciences, Law and Management.  We cannot become a ‘learning society‘ if first-class primary information is suppressed.  It does not matter how many universities we build or how many pupils we certificate, the ignorance of our own primary information will frustrate the drive to a higher level of education.

On 26 March 2013, then Minister Moore replied to the JCC –

“…It is inappropriate to make available the evidence revealed in the Uff Enquiry at this time as they may ground future criminal enquiry…”

On 23 May, we invited the Minister to reconsider her position, pointing out that –

“…To quote from the final remarks of the Enquiry Chairman, Professor John Uff QC Ph.D. – “…Finally we would like to thank the Press for their continued and expert coverage of the Enquiry; and the public for their unflagging interest in the proceedings. There are few countries in the world where an Enquiry into the construction industry could fill a prime time television slot for over a year. For me it has been a unique experience and I am personally honoured to have had the opportunity, as I hope, to serve the interests of the construction industry and the people of Trinidad & Tobago…” There can therefore be no doubt that the entire proceedings of the Uff Enquiry were published widely…”

This is the Minister of Justice, claiming that our request to reinstate this invaluable website, would amount to ‘making the evidence available‘.  Evidence which had been widely televised, all day long and rebroadcast at night. I tell you.

The Minister promised to revert to us by the end of June 2013, but that reply never came.

So now UDECOTT’s stance is clearer, given the overarching policy of the State on these critical matters of public concern. I maintain that UDECOTT did not conform to the 17th Uff recommendation in its involvement in the Couva Children’s Hospital.  That recommendation is –

“User groups and other interest groups should be properly consulted on decisions regarding public building projects, to ensure that relevant views can be expressed at the appropriate time and taken into account before decisions are made.”  (emphasis mine)

Procurement_NoticBut the current concern goes beyond the ongoing Couva Children’s Hospital, since UDECOTT is playing a leading role in the Invader’s Bay development. In December 2013, UDECOTT published full-page Requests for Proposals in the newspapers for Designers for Infrastructure Development of Invader’s Bay.  UDECOTT is seeking to hire a designer for the infrastructure element of this large-scale development which means that the selected designers would have to conform to the client’s instructions in preparing their plans.  The client’s instructions would have to be based on some kind of concept, proposal or outline.  That raises the obvious questions of when were these concepts, proposals or outlines conceived and by whom?  Most importantly, who approved these?  We know for sure that there has been no consultation with the public, user groups or other interest groups.

So, we are witness to yet another episode of large-scale development being undertaken, in this case by UDECOTT, with none of the promised consultation.

Hence my title – The Uff Bluff.

Letter to the Editor – UDECOTT’s failure to consult response

udecott-complaintIn response to a full page UDECOTT advert (embedded below) in response to my article “Invader’s Bay Review” (excerpted above), also published in the Business Express.

From: Afra Raymond <afraraymond@gmail.com>
Date: Sat, Dec 14, 2013 at 9:30 AM
Subject: Letter to the Editor – UDECOTT’s failure to consult
To: Editors of daily newspapers. Email addresses withheld

The 17th recommendation of the Uff Report is –

User groups and other interest groups should be properly consulted on decisions regarding public building projects, to ensure that relevant views can be expressed at the appropriate time and taken into account before decisions are made.

The decisive part is ‘before decisions are made.

The Peoples Partnership has not implemented the Uff Report’s 90 recommendations as promised and there has never been an explanation of that failure or refusal to carry out those critical measures. The sod was turned for the Couva Children’s Hospital on 2nd March 2012, at which time the project type, location, size, budget and procurement arrangements were all announced for the first time. Plainly, no consultation took place before those decisions were made, which was the point made in my 11th December article ‘Invader’s Bay Review’.

UDECOTT has now issued full-page newspaper advertisements to attempt to label my irrefutable observation as ‘reckless and damaging’ and so on. Yet another waste of public money, given that UDECOTT provided no examples of consultation before the key decisions were made on this huge project.

That pattern of secret development is inimical to our country’s progress. We must be properly consulted before decisions are made. We strongly criticised the last administration for that pattern of development and we will continue to make the same point. We must become a learning society.

Afra Raymond
POS

Invader’s Bay Review

There now needs to be a complete and open review of the Invader’s Bay matter. That is imperative if the public interest is to be safeguarded.

The catalogue of irregular dealings and improper procurement practice at Invader’s Bay has now grown so that we are facing an important moment of decision. At this point there has been no announcement as to an award of contract or grant of any lease, so the threshold of binding legal agreement has not been crossed. In investment language, we are at the ‘inflection point’, which is where the prudent investor has to make a decision to continue or abandon a course of action.

This is the exact moment we should be calling for an open review of this major public project, before any binding commitments are made.

The Commission of Enquiry is an often-used device to probe into matters of serious public concern. In relation to construction and property development, we have had recent CoEs into the Piarco Airport Project, UDECOTT, Land-Date and the Biche School Project, to name a few.

The public has a sceptical attitude to these Commissions, since they never seem bring the desired results in terms of arrests of prominent public officials or disgorgement of stolen monies. Many people dismiss CoEs as ‘talk shops’ set up to enrich lawyers, but I do not dismiss them as effective ways to serve the public interest. Despite the imperfections of the Enquiry process, including the fact that key witnesses can refuse to appear without incurring any serious penalties, there are real benefits. The main one, in my view is that a CoE allows us in the public to learn about major matters of public concern which would likely have remained hidden.

That is the reason we need to retain this process so that the wrongdoing of the past can be exposed, so that we can have the possibility of avoiding those in the future. The weak point of the process is that it always takes place after the crimes have been committed, so during the Bernard Enquiry we were learning about the already-constructed Piarco Airport Terminal. Too late to prevent the massive theft and waste of Public Money.

That is why we need to consider a shift in our approach to the question of enquiries into questionable public projects, since the process is a reactive one, completely unable to stem wrongdoing.

At the ‘inflection point’ now occupied by the Invader’s Bay project, we have an opportunity to examine this large-scale development before any significant expenditure of Public Money so that we can detect and deter wrongdoing. I am not yet settled in my mind as to exactly what type of review is best here, but whatever happens, it must be independent and committed to publication of its findings.

Some of the main issues which such an Enquiry or Review should examine are –

  • Consultation – The complete lack of consultation in this large-scale development proposal for our capital city would be addressed by the process. The land is vested in UDECOTT via a lease and that organisation has repeatedly claimed to have implemented the recommendations of the Uff Report. The 17th of those recommendations states “User groups and other interest groups should be properly consulted on decisions regarding public building projects, to ensure that relevant views can be expressed at the appropriate time and taken into account before decisions are made”. Given the swiftness with which the Couva Children’s Hospital – which is being executed via UDECOTT – emerged in March 2012, we know for sure that those recommendations are not being observed by UDECOTT. Even looking beyond UDECOTT and its conflicting ‘versions’, we can see the contradictory actions of the Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development supporting a public consultation process at King’s Wharf in San Fernando, yet refusing to hold public consultations on Invader’s Bay in Port-of-Spain.
  • Environmental Concerns – The Invader’s Bay lands are extensive waterfront holdings in State property. They proper development of those lands must take full account of drainage issues and the impact on the environment, including the marine-life issues arising in any waterfront project. I have before me the EMA’s letter of 14 November, which confirms that there have been no requests or Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) applications for the Invader’s Bay lands. In addition, the EMA records provided to me show that the most recent application for a CEC at Invader’s Bay was in January 2007. It is not possible to obtain planning permission without EMA approval, so there are other implications of the lack of these approvals.;
  • There is no link between the RFP and the other three strategic plans for the POS area. That violates the fundamental notion of strategic planning in that existing plans are ignored for no given reason. Piecemeal planning and development is detrimental to the Public Interest. So, who was the author of that RFP and who in the Ministry of Planning approved such a document?;
  • The Request for Proposals (RFP) published by the Ministry of Planning in August 2011 seeking Design-Build proposals for the development of these lands specified an entirely inadequate 6 weeks for submissions. Whose recommendation was it to truncate the development process in this fashion?;
  • The evaluation rules were only published after the closing-date for the tenders, so how did the proposers know what criteria to meet? That late publication is in breach of proper tender procedure, so the entire process is voidable and therefore illegal.
  • Legal Instructions and advice – Also critical to any review process would be the details of the legal advice sought and obtained at various stages of this process. The Ministry is adopting a bizarre, secretive stance in which the advice is claimed to vindicate their actions ‘thus far’, yet that legal advice is being suppressed. The JCC has taken legal action to challenge that unacceptable secrecy in this most public matter.;
  • Infrastructure – The 2014 Budget discloses a $50M allocation for infrastructure at Invader’s Bay, which of course is only a small part of this substantial cost. In the absence of environmental or planning approvals, it is difficult to establish the cost for proposals of this nature, since a design cannot be completed.
  • Allegations of squatting – Finally, we turn to one of the most vexed phrases in our lexicon where land is concerned. The issue of squatting, which is the unauthorised occupation of land not in your ownership. From the sequence of images shown below, we can trace some elementary conclusions:
    1. the first (left) is a map/plan, which uses a dotted line to illustrate the boundary between the Invader’s Bay property and adjoining Port Authority lands to the north…the physical boundary is occupied by a watercourse/ravine and those ‘Port’ lands are occupied by MovieTowne/PriceSmart, a green play park and the Marriott/BHP-Billiton building
    2. the second (middle image) is an aerial photo which shows the Invader’s Bay land bare of vegetation
    3. the third (image at the base) is an aerial photo which shows the Invader’s Bay land re-vegetated with mangrove and what appears to be a bare excision, immediately south of MovieTowne’s western carpark…that is a gravel-paved area, which is south of the watercourse I mentioned earlier…it is accessed via a basic bridge from the said MovieTowne carpark.

    (Click on images to expand)

    I am asking whether MovieTowne has a lease, licence or tenancy agreement to occupy those lands. Does MovieTowne pay any rent, licence fee or charge of any sort for the use and occupation of those lands? What action is UDECOTT taking on this? What action is the Commissioner of State Lands taking on this? It would be unacceptable for an entity in breach of State policy to benefit from the decisions of the State. I hope that is not what we are seeing here.

We need a full, independent and open review of this Invader’s Bay matter. Do you agree?

Invader’s Bay part 2: All the Ingredients for Bobol…

Since my previous article on this controversial proposal, we have seen that certain legal advice reportedly considered by the government has been featured in another newspaper.  If that is the advice the State is relying upon in advancing their Invader’s Bay proposals, we are seeing a large-scale act of intentional illegality and a worrying return to the ‘bad-old-days.

My main concerns are –

CONSULTATION?

Compare the lack of consultation at Invader’s Bay with what happens elsewhere.  In particular, the large waterfront lands near the city centre of San Fernando at  King’s Wharf, which has been the subject of ongoing public consultations over the years.  The press reports that various design and redevelopment concepts were presented to and discussed with a widely-based audience.

Whatever the criticisms one might make of the King’s Wharf proposals, it is undeniable that views have been sought from the public/stakeholders and various proposals have been made for consideration.

The JCC and its Kindred Associations in Civil Society met with Ministers Tewarie and Cadiz on 26 September 2011 to express our serious concerns.  Yet, when Minister Tewarie was challenged by the JCC and others as to the complete failure to consult with the public, the only example of consultation he could cite was the very meeting we had insisted on, which took place after publication of the Ministry’s Request for Proposals (RFP) and just about one week before the closing-date for proposals.

This Minister obviously does not consider public consultation to be a serious element in real development, notwithstanding the lyrics about innovation, planning and, of course, Sustainability and the Cultural Sector.  Just consider the way in which East Port-of-Spain is being discussed within that same Ministry.  The prospects for sustainable economic development of East POS must be linked with the Invader’s Bay lands, there is no doubt about that.  What is more, to carry-on as though the two parts of the capital can enjoy prosperity in isolation from each other is to trade in dangerous nonsense.  When criticising the large-scale physical development plans of the last administration, ‘dangerous nonsense’ is exactly what I had accused them of dealing in.

Public Administration must be consistent, reasonable and transparent if the public is to be properly-served.  To do otherwise is to encourage disorder and a growing sense that merit is of little value.  The decisive thing has become ‘Who know you’. 

We need to be informed now what planning permissions or environmental approvals have been granted on Invader’s Bay and on what terms.

The Legal advice

I have seen the two legal documents reported on in another newspaper and have to say that those are remarkable documents.

A critical undisputed point, is that the evaluation rules – the “Invader’s Bay Development Matrix and Criteria Description” – were only published after the closing-date.  The JCC made that allegation in its letter of 14 December 2011 and that was confirmed by Minister Tewarie in his Senate contribution on 28 February 2012.  That is a fatal concession which makes the entire process voidable and therefore illegal, since the proposers would have been unfairly treated.

Note carefully that in writing to seek legal advice in response to that challenge of December 2011, the fact that the tender rules were published ex post facto does not seem to have been the subject of a query as to its legal effect.

In one of the legal documents I saw, the penultimate para is chilling in its directness –

…A simple answer to Dr Armstrong’s question on whether the RFP conforms to the (Central) Tenders Board Act is that it does. In reality, the entire tender process was not brought under the CTB Act and the matrix and criteria were forwarded to the tenderers AFTER they submitted their initial proposals to the MoPE…

The ‘simple answer‘, which is what Senator Armstrong got from Minister Tewarie, is that the Central Tenders’ Board Act had been conformed with.  The next sentence is where we enter the other place…let us deconstruct it –

Phrase

Meaning of the phrase

In reality The prior sentence is the official version we are going to tell Senator Armstrong, but here is what really happened.
“…the entire tender process…” Minister Tewarie has consistently held that there was no tender process, this is the State’s senior legal adviser calling that process by its correct title, two weeks before his statement in the Senate.
…“the entire tender process was not brought under the CTB Act…” The tender process was required to be brought under the CTB Act, since it was being done via a Ministry…but that did not happen.
“…the matrix and criteria were forwarded to the tenderers AFTER they submitted their initial proposals to the MoPE…” The State’s senior legal adviser is confirming here that the elementary good practice rules of tendering have been violated, rendering the entire process voidable.

There are two clear findings of illegality in that single paragraph by the State’s senior legal adviser.  Yet a ‘simple answer‘, which was ultimately deceptive, was suggested for Senator Armstrong.

The advice which featured in the press was from Sir Fenton Ramsahoye SC, seemingly obtained after the initial opinion just discussed.

The Ramsahoye opinion was reported to have ‘given Bhoe a green light‘ and so on, but I have serious doubts on that.

  1. Firstly, if there had been clear-cut, solid advice which would have exonerated its actions, the government would have published that so as to silence its critics.
  2. Secondly, having read it myself, their game is a lot clearer.

Ramsahoye’s mind seems to have been directed to the prospect of UDECOTT being granted a head-lease of the entire Invader’s Bay property and then granting sub-leases to the developers selected by the Ministry of Planning.  Those developers would then carry out the proposed development/s.

If that is the way this is proceeding, then there are two serious issues arising on UDeCoTT’s involvement –

  1. The Switch – While it is true that UDeCOTT can lawfully grant the subleases and operate outside the CTB Act, the burning question has to be when was this decision taken to give UDeCoTT that role?  Minister Tewarie has been adamant, since November 2011, that Cabinet took a decision that the Invader’s Bay project be removed from UDeCoTT’s portfolio to be placed within his Ministry.  When did that purported switch back to UDeCoTT take place?  Has Cabinet actually approved such a move?  The first advice looked at the development as it had proceeded and made the conclusions which I criticised above.  The second advice, contemplated a procedure which had been vigorously resisted by the responsible Minister.
  2.  The role of the Board – One of the most vexatious issues to be probed in the Uff Enquiry is the question of to what extent can Cabinet instruct a State Board.  That issue of undue Cabinet influence was also a large contention during the Bernard Enquiry into the Piarco Airport scandal.  Uff concluded, at para 8, that the scope of Ministers’ power to give instructions ought to be clarified.  There are several significant challenges if one accepts the formulation put onto the Invader’s Bay process in Ramsahoye’s opinion. Cabinet would have to instruct that UDeCoTT implement decisions taken by the Ministry of Planning etc.  As we have seen and as the legal advice has clarified, those decisions emerged from unlawful processes.  Is UDeCoTT obliged to follow unlawful instructions?  In the event of litigation, which is increasingly likely, will the members of UDeCoTT’s Board be indemnified by the State for their unlawful acts?   If that were the case, it would be repugnant, with deep echoes of the two earlier large-scale episodes of wrongdoing at Piarco Airport and UDeCoTT projects as cited above.

I stated earlier that this Invader’s Bay matter had all the ingredients for corruption.  I stand by those views.