“We face a problem in Barbados with smallholdings. A lot of these date back to pre-emancipation days when many non-slaves were what was described as “free persons of colour”. However, to be able to hold public office, they had to own in excess of 10 acres of land. Many free persons of colour purchased the minimum 10 acres of land and many of those titles remain with the descendants today”
The controversial Bizzy Williams brother of Sir Charles Othniel Williams is in the news again for asserting the government is to blame for the ‘spiralling price of land’. He is partially correct although it is not as simple as he suggests. A former Commissioner of Land Tax stated recently if government wants to significantly reduce the price of land it would have to release several lots into the market to satisfy current demand. This would lead to a measure of price equilibrium. It is no secret that demand for land currently outstrips supply. It is easy for Barbadians to take pot shots at the Williams brothers because they are known to be rich and therefore an easy target. The fact that both of them are outspoken means the Williams target becomes even bigger.
When analysing the issue of spiralling land prices in Barbados several factors must be considered. Successive governments have used real estate development to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) especially on the West Coast. There are also Barbadians living in the Diaspora who have been encouraged to invest in Barbados to respond to government’s insatiable need for foreign exchange. What about the ownership of large tracts of land which Amused reminded us of in the quote above and the impact it has had on freeing up land?
The debate about owning a piece of the rock will always strike an an emotive chord. Most West Indians aspire to be land owners because it satisfies a physiological need which says, I have done it, I belong! If there is the perception that the goal of being a landowner is unattainable then expect the kind of societal tension which is currently at play.
Over the years several solutions have been tossed up how we can satisfy the demand for affordable land in Barbados. There was a time in the 90s (speaking from memory) a cabinet committee established under a Barbados Labour Party government analysed the ownership mix of land as a precursor to alien land holding discussion. The consensus at the time, which has influences public policy to this day suggested to the government Barbados needed foreign investment to sustain its economic model and alien landholding legislation would have sent the wrong message to foreign investors.
BU believes the issue of land affordability came to a head under the last government which rode the economic boom on the back of construction and foreign direct investment. Some believe adverse sentiment among the populace that our fields and hills was being sold out to foreigners which had the effect of driving up land price was a dynamic at play in the last general election. Perhaps the Arthur government was implementing a hybrid of the Singapore model whose economy relies on FDI supported by an open immigration policy.
Central to the discussion has to be the role given to the Town Planning Department under the laws of Barbados. There has never been a sense by BU that the Physical Development Plan was in harmony with a relevant national strategic plan to determine how our land resource is to be effectively utilized. Under the last government the strategy was to build out the economy on services, agriculture was a stepchild policy. The incumbent government has been muttering the right statements but a serious commitment to agriculture still has to emerge after 3 plus years at the helm of government. It seems the Minister of Housing has license to drop housing developments anywhere like a yard fowl would an egg. By all means build houses but shouldn’t it fit into a plan? Bizzy Williams confirmed in an interview in today’s press that he has had to stop building houses in Six Roads because the Barbados Water Authority cannot supply the water demand.
Even if Barbados had a Physical Development Plan which was efficiently informed by a national strategic plan for land use, what about the spectre of corruption? The Town Planning Department needs to be established as an independent unit, away from the control of greedy politicians. BU will always remember the reclassification of a large tract of land on the West Coast which was changed from Zone 1 and subsequently sold for millions to the benefit of David Shorey and partners. The sale, subdivision, reclassification of land is big business for the money elite and politician in Barbados, this is where meaningful change must begin. If we get the policy right the adhoc approach which currently exist will be addressed. The government must also follow through on its plan to improve the process to establish titles in Barbados which is a mess and has resulted in years of frustration for many Barbadians seeking ownership of land in the family.
What will it be, a policy of fetching the highest economic value for land? Create a land bank where price is controlled? How does our agricultural policy fit into everything? Are we serious about responding to food security given the uncertainty which is bound to escalate in a world where war is the answer over diplomacy?
A proper land policy like many of the challenges which confront our small developing nation calls out for leadership.