Archive for category Property Matters

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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Money is the Problem

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

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

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

‘Public Money’ is the term used to describe money due to or payable by the State, including those sums for which the State would be ultimately liable in the event of a default.  Public Money is sometimes called Taxpayers’ Money, it is our Money. Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

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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.

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G2G Policy

The current Government to Government (G2G) arrangements are a direct threat to our country’s fundamental interests.

The key element of the G2G arrangement is that a larger, more advanced, country will assist a smaller, less-advanced country by building or operating complex facilities which are beyond the reach of the smaller state.

One of the features the G2G arrangements have in common with the other large-scale projects is the high degree of secrecy with which the proposals are developed.  That secrecy raises doubts as to whether proper Needs Assessments are undertaken and as to the degree to which the views of citizens and stakeholders are sought, far less considered.  The fundamental issue as to the necessity for these projects is thus routinely sidelined, which is inimical to the public interest.

The main criticisms of the G2G arrangements are -

  • Sidelining of the elementary Tendering Process – the procurement process is effectively outsourced, since the more powerful country has the right to select the contractor;
  • Limited, if any, role for Local Participation in terms of labour, professionals, suppliers, or contractors;
  • Weak or nonexistent contract controls, due to the disparity in power between the parties;
  • Serious drain on Foreign Exchange;
  • Lack of the promised Transfer of Technology.

These arrangements have been heavily criticised in our country for almost 35 years, starting with Winston Riley’s October 1979 paper which identified many of the emerging problems.  As a result of that rising tide of criticism, an official enquiry was established by then PM, George Chambers.  In March 1982, the Ballah Report was published and the G2G programme was brought to a halt as a result of its dire findings.

Despite the learning, successive political administrations seem unable to resist the appeal of these G2G arrangements, so we have today’s situation as shown in the table.

Physical Development Projects via G2G – April 2014

Readers who access this article online can view the background info via the hyperlinks

COUNTRY PROJECT/S DATE AMOUNT COMMENTS
CHINA NAPA – North & South 2008
  • TT$818M as’final cost’
  • TT$207M for ‘remedial works’
NAPA (POS) completed in 2009, NAPA (San Fernando) completed in 2012stated final cost of both projects was $130M USD ($818M TTD). A further $207M was borrowed from EXIM Bank of China in 2011 for ‘remedial works‘ on NAPA (POS). Design & Build contractor was Shanghai Construction Group.
AUSTRIA San Fernando Teaching Hospital 2011 TT$739M Opened in January 2014
CANADA Penal Hospital 2012 Undisclosed Involvement with Canada’s nominated designer SNC-Lavalin was discontinued after serious concerns over that firm’s international banning for corrupt business practices.
CHINA
  1. Couva Children’s Hospital,
  2. three national sports facilities in Couva,
  3. three multi-sports facilities in other parts of the country.
2012 TT$1.8 Billion Loan Agreement signed in March 2013 with EXIM Bank of China, with Shanghai Construction Group selected as the contractor for all the projects.These projects include the swimming & cycling complex at Balmain and the sporting complex at Tacarigua Savannah in Orange Grove.
CHINA Lake Asphalt 2013 Undisclosed MoU, with a Confidentiality Agreement, signed on 30 May 2013 between Lake Asphalt T&T Ltd and a Chinese contractor. One of the official objectives of the February 2014 State visit to China, according to the Office of the PM, was “…Removal of asphalt from the Pitch Lake in greater capacities…”.
CHINA La Brea Port and seven industrial parks. 2014 US$750M (TT$4.83 Billion) Agreement signed in February 2014 to have these facilities built by China Harbour and China Construction.

The total cost of these projects is just under $8.4 Billion TTD.
That is the background, against which we must consider these further elements -

  • china-caricomRegional Strategy – As a leading nation within CARICOM, it is important for Trinidad & Tobago to give serious consideration to the role of the various bilateral G2G arrangements China is pursuing in our region and the implications of those arrangements on our aspirations for healthy regionalism.  I have been reading the February 2013 Research Note by UWI’s Dr. Annita Montoute – ‘Caribbean-China Economic Relations: what are the Implications?‘  The scope of Dr. Montoute’s research and her findings are sobering – at pg 115  “…CARICOM Trade with China is on the increase; however it is overwhelmingly in China’s favour…”.  The regional issue is a serious one to which we must address our energies.
  • Trinidad & Tobago’s Strategy – Now consider these statements by then Finance Minister, Winston Dookeran, at the September 2011 ceremony to sign the $207M TTD loan for NAPA (POS) ‘remedial works’ -

    “…Dookeran said it was now imperative that TT deepens its ties with China…’In the first instance China has now emerged as a very significant player, especially in light of the recent tremors and uncertainties in the world economy,’ he said. ‘China…is now an economy that we will have to rely upon. It is in that context that it is very appropriate and timely for Trinidad and Tobago to start to intensify its relationship with China.’..”

    Winston Dookeran is now Trinidad & Tobago’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

  • The Uff Report – The 42nd and 43rd recommendations of the 2010 Uff Report deal directly with this  issue –
    1. The Government’s policy on the use of foreign contractors and consultants for public construction projects should be transparent and open to review.
    2. Local contractors and consultants who compete with foreign companies should be provided with the same or equivalent benefits as enjoyed by those foreign companies and should be protected from unfair competition through matters such as soft loans…

    Uff was calling for the establishment of a national policy on this series of issues and the JCC has been requesting a consultation between government and stakeholders, so that a proper strategy can be developed in open collaboration. That would include labour, professionals, the State, the contracting sector and all the associated elements such as suppliers of building materials, financiers, skills training and so on.  The JCC wrote to the PM on this in April 2012, but to date there has been no response to our calls for those consultations in the national interest.

  • NAPA, again – The Minister of Culture, Dr. Lincoln Douglas, told the Senate on 8 April 2014 of the serious issues arising at NAPA (POS), with an estimated further $100M being required for more repairs.  It is not certain if the issues of disrepair are all due to inadequate maintenance, but it is unacceptable for such issues to have emerged for a structure less than 5 years old.
  • Shanghai Construction Group – Despite the bad record at NAPA, the selected contractor for the $1.8 Billion Couva Children’s Hospital and the other sporting facilities is the said Shanghai Construction Group.
  • Proposed Public Procurement Law – most alarmingly, Clause 7 of the proposed Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 specifically excludes Government to Government Arrangements and projects funded by International Financial Institutions form oversight.  That proposed exclusion is entirely unacceptable as it further jeopardises our national interest.

The PM has made a call for a National Conversation and this is one topic which needs addressing. Our country cannot continue exporting our jobs, capital and skilled people in favour of unexamined and undisclosed foreign policies.

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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.

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Public procurement pressure

The complete overhaul of our country’s public procurement system is urgently required, given the daily reports of large-scale theft and waste of public money.

The last administration lost public confidence due largely to the high levels of corruption, as revealed in the Uff Enquiry into the Public Sector Construction Industry.

The JCC met in April 2010 with the leadership of the People’s Partnership at its request and with the media in attendance.

At that meeting, the People’s Partnership made three significant promises:

  1. Implementation of the recommendations of the Uff Report – This was the first item at the first post-Cabinet press briefing on July 1, 2010, with the Justice Ministry being tasked to implement those critical recommendations. That promise has been broken.
  2. Tabling of legislative proposals for public procurement within one month of an electoral victory. Then Finance Minister Winston Dookeran did lay two draft bills — a 1997 draft to repeal the Central Tenders Board Act and a 2006 draft Public Procurement Bill — so that promise was fulfilled.
  3. Creation of new laws for Public Procurement & the Disposal of Public Property within one year of an electoral victory.  Despite the statements at pg 18 of the People’s Partnership Manifesto, the appointment of a Joint Select Committee (JSC) and many public pronouncements, that has not happened. Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

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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

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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?

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