Archive for category Property Matters

Re-Route Reboot

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

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

The three main issues to be clarified are -

The Armstrong Report

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

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

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

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

You see?

The Highway Contract

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

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

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

SIDEBAR: NIDCO’s reply to JCC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tender Truths

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

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

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

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

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

Secondly, those baseless assertions by the HRM show a lack of familiarity with the contents of The Armstrong Report.  The HRM has relied heavily upon The Armstrong Report in its recent campaigning, so one can only wonder at the implications of these repeated claims.

Given the public positions taken by the protagonists, it seems unlikely that mediation can be a real option.

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

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

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Raymond: Housing strategy requires ‘disciplined effort’

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HDC housing in central Trinidad. Chaguanas is the fastest growing town in T&T.

HDC housing in central Trinidad. Chaguanas is the fastest growing town in T&T.

The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published part 2 of its interview with Afra Raymond in the 1 September 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.

How many ultra-rich, multiple homeowners are there?

How many, I don’t know. But as a practitioner I can tell you it’s a significant part of what takes place. It informs how, when parcels of land become available, what are the forces that compete for it, and this is where the boundaries between public and private become very elastic. If the forces on one side have the capacity to go after that piece of land and get it before the government, that has an effect on what options are available to the government to build affordable housing…

For More, click here.

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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.

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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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Reality Check

Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie

Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie

After a flurry of attempted explanations from the Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development, Dr. Bhoe Tewarie, as to the real meaning of the High Court’s 14 July ruling on the Invader’s Bay matter, the State has now appealed that ruling and applied for expedited hearing of the matter while having the judgment stayed.

What that means is that the State is asking the Court to agree an extension of the Stay of Execution until the appeal is decided, so that the requested information could be withheld while the case is being heard.  Presumably, the State has asked for a speedy hearing so as to avoid any impression of them encouraging needless delay in this matter of high public concern.

This article will focus on the three critical findings in the judgment.  I will be examining Dr. Tewarie’s statement to Parliament on Friday 18 July, alongside the facts and the actual High Court ruling.

  1. Legal Professional Privilege

    The very first point to be made in relation to this is that the reason given by the State for refusing the JCC’s request for this information was not originally ‘legal professional privilege’.

    That reason for refusal was only advanced after the litigation started, literally arising out of the very briefcase of the State’s attorney, on his feet before Justice Seepersad on 4 December 2012.

    We contested the State’s late introduction of these new reasons for refusal, but the Court ruled at para 37 –

    1. The Court…is of the view that the Defendant is entitled to rely upon additional reasons with respect to the refusal to disclose the said information…

    The question of whether the legal opinions are privileged was ruled-upon by Justice Seepersad –

    1. It cannot be disputed that the said information requested, is information that would ordinarily attract legal professional privilege…

    So that issue is not in dispute, in the Court’s mind at least.  I continue to hold the view that it is highly-questionable to easily accept this notion of client confidentiality, given that the State ought to be acting on our common behalf.

    In fact, no evidence was tendered nor was any real case made by the State as to the difficulties which would result from publishing the requested information.  None.  It is only now, with a ruling in the JCC’s favour, that we are getting these positions being advanced.

    For the record, the JCC’s original request under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) was for the legal advices and the letters of instruction.

    Consider this, from Dr. Tewarie’s opening statement -

    The very first point that I wish to make with regard to the high court ruling is that there is no issue of disclosure here. There is no issue of failing to disclose or of wanting to withhold disclosures. The Government is not seeking to prevent disclosure of any matter nor is the Government fearful of making any disclosure of fact.

    The only issue we are contesting is whether the advice of an Attorney to his/her client, which is generally regarded as privileged information, is subject to the jurisdiction of the Freedom of Information Act or whether, since it is a privileged exchange of information between Attorney and Client, it is exempt from the Act…”

    If that is truly the case, with the State’s only concern being the possible adverse impact of releasing the legal advices, the question has to be – ‘Why not publish the letters of instruction now?

  2. Waiver of Privilege

    A significant aspect of the case was as to the impact of Dr. Tewarie’s statement to the Senate on 28 February 2012, in reply to a question by then Independent Senator Dr. James Armstrong – see pg 716 of Hansard –

    The answer to (c); the publication of the request for proposals was not the subject of nor required to be in conformity with the Central Tenders Board Act. Advice to this effect was received from the Legal Unit of the Ministry of Planning and the Economy, and subsequently from the Ministry of the Attorney General…

    The point being advanced by the JCC was that a statement like that one, which purports to publicly disclose the very essence of the advice, has the effect of extinguishing the State’s right to suppress the document as being exempted.

    The Court ruled clearly on this –

    1. The gist and nature of the legal advice was in fact revealed when the Minister’s response was made and this amounted to conduct that is inconsistent with the stance that the said legal advice is exempt from being disclosed under the Act by virtue of section 29(1)…

    So, the High Court found that Dr. Tewarie’s statement to the Senate neutralized the State’s ‘legal professional privilege’. That is an important aspect of this ruling, given the frequency with which legal opinions and names are brandished by our leaders, always when convenient, of course.

  3. The Public Interest Test

    This ruling is significant in that Justice Seepersad weighed the existing ‘legal professional privilege’ – making a clear ruling on that at para 41 – against the ‘Public Interest Test’ set out in S.35 of the FoIA.

    At one point it was widely reported that Dr. Tewarie was insisting that the ruling had nothing to do with transparency, but was only on the narrow issue of legal professional privilege.

    The substance of Justice Seepersad’s ruling was at paras 85 & 86 -

    1. The nature of the project in this case and the process adopted by the Defendant to pursue the Request for Proposals process without regard to the provisions of the Central Tenders Board act, requires disclosure of all the relevant information that was considered before the said decision was taken and the refusal to provide the requested information can create a perception that there may have been misfeasance in the process and any such perception can result in the loss of public confidence. Every effort therefore ought to be made to avoid such a circumstance and if there is a valid and legally sound rationale for the adoption of the Request for Proposals process, then it must be in the public interest to disclose it and the rationale behind the process adopted ought not to be cloaked by a veil of secrecy.
    2. The public interest in having access to the requested information therefore is far more substantial than the Defendant’s interest in attempting to maintain any perceived confidentiality in relation to the said information…”

    The real point here is that Justice Seepersad has carried out the Public Interest Test, as mandated at S.35 of the FoIA and ignored by the State in this matter, to find that the ‘legal professional privilege’ is subordinate to the Public Interest in this case, given all the evidence submitted to the Court.

The entire process possesses all the ingredients for corruption, I maintain that view.

Dr. Tewarie has repeatedly claimed that the process was transparent because he disclosed the assessment rules for the Invader’s Bay development at the T&T Contractors’ Association Dinner on Saturday 5 November 2011.  That assertion is perfectly tautological, in that it is entirely true that the rules were revealed for the first time on that occasion, but it does not explain anything of substance.  The decisive fact is that the closing-date for the Invader’s Bay RFP process was 4 October 2011, a full month before the rules were disclosed.  That fact alone renders the entire process voidable and illegal.

What is more, we have to consider the widely-advertised public consultations on the redevelopment of King’s Wharf in San Fernando; the South-Western Peninsula development; the issue of ‘City-status’ for Chaguanas; Constitutional Reform and of course, the latest one, the Civil Society Board.  The glaring question has to be – ‘When is the State hosting the first in its series of Public Consultations on the Invader’s Bay development?

Finally, will this development process continue, while the legal arguments continue?

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Public Secrets?

It seems to me that we are entering a sustained and hard-fought Information War, global in extent, but with local flavour. The main features of this are the attempted redefinition of Privacy as a defunct notion, right alongside the State’s duty to know all about us, but tell us as little as possible of their own operations. That is the name of the game, so these issues are going to be challenged strongly as we go forward.

Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie

Sen. Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie, Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development

The High Court ruled on 14 July 2014 that the Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development must provide the legal advice which was said to have justified the development process at Invader’s Bay. This case was brought by the JCC after the Ministry refused to publish the legal advice obtained in response to our challenge that the Invader’s Bay development process was in breach of the Central Tenders’ Board Act. Given the repeated statements that the legal opinions supported the State’s actions in relation to the CTB Act, the obvious question is ‘Why the secrecy and refusal to publish those opinions?

The JCC requested the legal opinions and the letters of instructions under the Freedom of Information Act and the judge applied the ‘Public Interest Test’ in deciding that the public right to that information eclipsed the accepted point as to the existence of ‘legal professional privilege’. There have been many comments on what has been described as a landmark ruling and it appears that the question of just what is an official secret is once again up for discussion.

We are now being told that the right of the client to maintain the confidentiality of legal advice is now under threat, so the State is reportedly considering an appeal of that High Court ruling. Read the rest of this entry »

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None So Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crown Grants

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

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

The Maha Saba Episode

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

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

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

Caroni Lands

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

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

The decisive land allocation issues would include -

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

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

State Leases of offices

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

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

Invader’s Bay

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

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

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

The Landed Interests

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

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

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

The answer is Public Property.

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