Notes From a Native Son: Thinking Big and Planning Small
In almost every western country, agriculture’s share of gross domestic product has gradually decreased over time.Sometimes, even without any economic knowledge, this phenomenon is remarked upon by observers, such as the turning of many recent sugar cane plantations in to upmarket housing estates. Yet, despite this social and economic reality, which has been going on since the abolition of slavery, policymakers have failed to develop a comprehensive planning and land use policy. Instead, planning has been reduced to a micro-level administrative procedure, in which civil servants have taken the lead. Almost without exception, the town and country planning department has formed part of successive prime minister’s portfolio under successive governments, BLP and DLP. So the buck stops at the very top.
Given this, there is no excuse for the absence of a comprehensive planning and land use policy in operation. It is a failure that can only be put down to oversight, carelessness or a failure of ideas. But planning is a political, not administrative, process and the decision must be made by elected parliamentarians, who must be held accountable by electors for any failings. Civil servants may think and behave as if they are in charge, but as their positions suggest, they are ‘servants’ of the people, not their masters. And before we put in place a workable planning system, this procedural aberration must be resolved.
Despite a formally more sophisticated civil service and political class, Barbados has not reached the heights of major infrastructure development since the late Sir Grantley Adams built the Deep Water Harbour (Port) turned a small airfield in to an international airport and laid the ground work for what is now Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Projects such as the ABC highway, the recent refurbishment of the airport, Dodds and the – ah, what else is there?
The truth is, political tribalism apart, we have lost our nerve. In fact, I have said in one of my Notes, that even the BLP find it difficult celebrating Sir Grantley, who objectively has been the greatest political leader so far in our history. However, this post is not to push the case for Sit Grantley (St Giles and Harrison College), but to reflect on what should have been a central plank of our post-independence development, a national land use plan.
At just over 100000 acres, the Land Registry, Town and Country Planning and central government planning should have detailed plans and ownership of every inch of Barbados. The fact that there is no such comprehensive record, which should stake no more than six months (at the rate of about one acre a working day) to compile, even given the complexity of some ownership, speaks volumes about the way we are governed and the intellectual vision of people in charge.
An example of this is the application to develop Skeete’s Bay and the surrounding area by one Paul Doyle, whoever he is. Let us go back to first principles: Barbados is the home of traditional Barbadians, but as a tolerant people, we embrace people from around the world, as residents or visitors, to come and enjoy some of the natural joys of this little island.
Part of that natural beauty is the sea. However, over the years, but particularly since 1966, governments of all colours have recklessly given permission to property developers, individuals ands commercial, to build mansions right on coast of the most beautiful parts of the island, thereby preventing the majority of people from enjoying the window on to the sea.
That municipal vandalism is particularly noticeable on the South and West coasts, now government is embarking on doing the same thing on the east coast. From Brighton to St Peter, and increasingly inward from the coast, Barbados is becoming a foreign land to its own people as governments worship the false economic God of foreign direct investments.
Had governments and policymakers a vision of the island, and how we best want to pass it on to future generation, they would not have a micro-planning policy that favours the biggest wallet. Further, had they even a vision of how to maximise that natural beauty, through infrastructural developments with a carefully drafted national plan, the warped debate over the Doyle plan would not even had taken place.
The South East and East coasts remain the only virginal areas ripe for development in Barbados. This can be done, with one over-riding principle in mind – that nothing be built on the coast to block the window to the sea. Given this, I will share with you an outline plan I first mentioned during a debate at the London high commission some months ago. Starting with what I called the Seawell town development, I thought the refurbishment of the airport missed an ideal opportunity to turn the airport and surrounding area in to a modern commercial and leisure precinct, with the airport as the hub.
First, the area now used as the car park is a waste of an incredibly useful location. That area could be used as shops, restaurants and bars and other forms of entertainment, not only for travellers but also for locals and others.
The car park could be moved to the east, above the present petrol station, along with a bus terminal, with access to Bridgetown and the West Coast, but also all over the country. Can you imagine our only airport has not got a bus terminal, only a poorly serviced bus stop?
Concorde could be moved even farther east as the key attraction in an area reserved as a aeronautical heritage site. Where the two rum shops are, across from the airport can be developed with a small low-cost business hotel with conference facilities.
Non-aviation business – shopping, dining, parking and advertising – is not only huge, but is one of the fastest growing business niches in the world. What makes this particularly attractive is that Broad Street, our main shopping thoroughfare, is rundown, and decaying, with many of the alleys running off the main street smelling of urinals.
Two examples of this is that two major airports not originally built with modern retail in mind, have now added those facilities. Frankfurt, for example, has 570 sq m of space for every one million passengers; and Heathrow 1050 sq m per one million passengers. I would also build a monorail, running from the airport to Ragged Point with a heritage theme park with a pier running from the lighthouse to Culpepper island.
The theme part would have rides and attractions, thrill rides, Ferris wheel, T-shirts, stalls, restaurants, food parks, a heritage site showing Barbadian domestic arrangement from slavery to the present, bed and breakfast, slides, ten pin bowling, an ice rink, video games, dodgems, trampolines, and others, with the lighthouse as a key attraction.
Based on the cost of trams in Britain and Europe, a monorail would cost in the region of £50m, about Bds$150m. That is less than the $180m the government has pencilled in for Four Seasons. The total development should cost less than the cost of Dodds ($700m and a lot less than the planned new hospital ($800m).
All this can be done with enfranchising ordinary Barbadians, both as the principal owners of the attractions, and as shareholders in the total development through corporate bonds. In addition, this is one of the few times that government should approach capital markets for a development loan.
A modern and progressive planning policy can be developed by first establishing a planning committee, chaired (ex officio) by the relevant minister; other members will be another four members of the ruling party, two from the Opposition party, two co-opted members of civil society, the chief planning officer (as committee secretary), a member each from the utilities (electricity company, water board and public works). Meetings will be held every six weeks and all planning applications received up to two weeks before the scheduled meeting would be considered by that substantive meeting.
Decisions will be announced as soon as possible through publication in national newspapers, and posted on the website of the town and planning authority. Unsuccessful applicants could have an appeal on review to a planning committee to parliament, failing which they could appeal to the high court, but only on a point of law. There should not be an appeal from the high court to the CCJ.
Analysis and Conclusion:
A recession is the ideal time for governments to stimulate the economy by creating new jobs and launching new projects that, as the economy recovers, would put Barbados in pole position to take advantage of the new situation. To play to the romantic in our policymakers, it may even make Barbados a more attractive tourist destination. First, however, we must realise that the application of planning policy to decision-making is political and is best analysed through public choice theory.
Basically, public choice theory posits that regulation is the outcome of competition between a small set of interest groups. A sustainable and progressive national planning strategy would include the development of Oistins as a commercial and entertainment town, the re-invigoration of Speightstown as a commercial and administrative town, Holetown as a heritage and commercial town, and the creation of at least three more commercial, administrative and entertainment towns – Six Roads, Four Roads and Boscobel.
The additional benefit of such a strategy is that the rush-hour traffic which at present clogs the main arterial road in to Bridgetown every morning, and out in the evening, will be substantially reduced, masking travelling an enjoyable experience. Such developments can be at minimal costs to both the public and private sectors.