As minister of finance Chris Sinckler gathers his thoughts for his August 13 Budget, he must realise that this will be the hour of decision, that not only the medium and long-term future of the island will bear heavily on the decisions he makes, but his very future may depend on the package of fiscal and monetary remedies he reveals. But, time is short and he has already missed a number of clear-cut opportunities to carry out a deep-rooted restructuring of the economy, reforms to the public sector and radical stimuli to kick-start the economy. However, there is very little to be said in terms of policy that has not already been said, and all that is left now is to drive home what are commonsense policy proposals, but which the hardened mind-set of the Barbados political and policymaking class would not even entertain.
There is no way round it, but the public sector has got an overburdened payloads of 30000 mainstream employees, and a further 20000 indirect workers who depend on the public sector – Hilton and Gems workers, and construction site workers and others who depend on government contracts. Out of a workforce of about 110000, of whom officially 11 per cent are economically inactive (about 12000), and a further 25 per cent are underemployed (about 27000), including those young men and women who work for petrol stations doing nothing but filling cars, a waste of the most important years of their lives, even given the dignity of work, the minister must admit this is crisis time. But, judging by reports on his Brasstacks interview (I missed it) there is still a stubbornness about preserving public sector jobs. What the minister must understand is that no one wants people to be unemployed, what we need are proper strategies to deal with the current situation. It is the fog of ignorance that surrounds this situational confusion of strategy and tactics and the primacy of political opportunism which not only makes the crisis even more toxic, but crowds out commonsense. To help, I will focus on a single infrastructure development that could have gone a long way towards reinvigorating the economy, the regeneration of the City.
Regenerating the City:
With the exception of the Grantley Adams government in the early 1950s and its spectacular foresight to build the Deep Water Harbour, no other government, BLP or DLP, has given regenerating the city a central part in its planning or policy. It was the Adams administration which built the Pine and Grazettes to rehouse people from the slums of Bridgetown, which changed the heart of the City in such unrecognisable ways young people would not imagine. To some extent, the 1961 Barrow administration tried to match this, with a programme of filling in the Careenage, putting a management in place in the Port and in many ways, giving the nation a confidence that it did not have prior to the formation of the West Indies Federation. But, like most political rhetoric, we ended up with more promises than reality: promises to built a glass factory using sand, the HARP Project which eventually became the Iraqi Supergun; so-called free education; a promised factory to turn bagasse in to board, with the help of the Cubans, and lots more. But that is history. The economic problems now facing the nation are for this generation to solve.
For the present DLP Administration, regenerating the city, designing in urban parks, recreational areas, children’s play centres, lighting, gardens social centres and a mixture of apartments, offices, restaurants, small hotels, schools, stores and shops, should be it long-term legacy. This physical reform, over a five-year period, could be combined with new forms of urban leadership, residential committees, a reconstituted constituency council, police sub-stations, schools, places of worship and clusters of economic activity. It is by returning vibrancy to the heart of the City, now clouded with fear of crime, marginalised people and discarded rubbish, that social activity will once again become part of the beating heart of our nation. As things stand, the City is full of activity during the day, although new commercial centres such as Warrens and others are slowly taking away some of this business, but it becomes blighted and abandoned in the evenings. In fact, the City should be an area that transforms itself, from commercial activity during the day, to entertainment and leisure activity in the evening, with young men and women and visitors taking advantage of its numerous offerings. It should be home to a demographic mixture of social groups, families and professions, giving that small geographical space a new economic and social importance, fed by a new and affordable multimodal form of late night transport. This regeneration will go beyond new architecturally designed buildings, although this will be very important, but will be integrated in to the surrounding area of the Pierhead Marina, Careenage, beaches and the Port, reaching as far as Roebuck Street.
So, in turn, the City will once again be home to a multiplicity of skill clusters, from modern high-tec computerised skills, to artisan bakers, butchers, micro-breweries, blacksmiths who once serviced the schooners and other forms of economic activity, meeting the needs of a regional export market as well as local consumers. In a rejuvenated City centre one of the many small economic clusters that could be encouraged is a digital one, of computer repairs, programmers, app designers, etc.
Another is men’s and women’s fashion design and manufacture, with a resident community college-affiliated academy of fashion and shoe making, all designed in to the new architecture. The social equity from such a development will benefit generations of future Barbadians, giving the nation a spring in its step it has not had for decades. A regenerated City must be the hub of cultural enterprise, the throbbing heart of our night time economy; if young, professional people return to the centre of the City to live work and socialise so will shops, supermarkets, taxis, banks, bars and shops offering their wares to youth culture. To unlock this urban potential calls for a broad-brush strategy, including re-populating the inner city, traffic management (why isn’t Nelson Street a one-way street?) refurbishing some of the shops, while maintaining their historic colonial architecture. It calls for integrative urban planning, of a radical approach to re-organising our social and working lives, and a new dynamic form of governance.
Funding major capital projects is always a challenge. But it is arguable that if promises of money can be raised on unsustainable hotel projects for a development such as the regeneration of the inner city, funds could always be raised using a variety of funding vehicles such as bonds, long-term loans, off-plan mortgaging, etc. Of course, despite this, the defensive reaction to such a five-year development proposal will be: what about the funding? This, no doubt, will come from the same people who backed the waster of national insurance money on the Four Seasons white elephant, who added to this by promising to borrow Bds$260m to buy Almond Resorts, only to promise not to manage the enterprise; so government is now a property developer. This is the government that gave the Turk Club, a cosy collection of the wealthy a $19m handout, the government that underwrote a $6m loan to a trade union, a government that has an obsession with foreign reserves, yet when asked why they do not know, it is just part of the received wisdom.
However, in real financial terms, funding such a project is not a Armageddon event, sending in the bulldozers to flatten the City. It will be done over a period of time, gradually and with purpose, street by street, row of houses by row of houses.
Government would go in and buy up the property, either through agreement or compulsory purchase, with an obligation to give the previous owners first refusal to buy one of the new properties. By building rows of buildings, four to five storeys high, with a mix of one- two- and three bedroom apartments, with offices, shops and bars on the ground floor, court years with car parking facilities and play areas, these properties could be sold off-plan, to nationals and (in cash) as holiday homes for foreigners. With a Post Office and/or Credit Union bank providing the mortgages, the City regeneration will see the introduction of a form of financialisation never before seen in Barbados.
One of the visible failures of post-independence government in Barbados has been the slow, but corrosive decline of our inner city as professionals and small business people who once lived there deserted it for the newly built suburbs. This urban sprawl, however, was part of the wider lost of regulatory control by public servants and politicians, which meant a widespread misuse of land and an inability to understand the changing social conditions. Part of these changing circumstances was the transformation of an economy that was driven by agriculture and an import/export service sector, to one driven mainly by tourism. As economic emphasis moved from the inner city to the tourist belts of the West and South Coasts, policymakers and politicians lost interest in the inner city.
The current economic crisis should return the future of the inner city to the centre of the infrastructure debate. But it could only be part of wider programme, even if it an important part, involving local residents, businesses, civic leaders, police and the emergency services. A lot of the decline of the inner city has been caused by weak political and policy leadership, dysfunctional strategies, counterproductive policies and a fear by politicians that innovative reforms may be beyond their imagination, thus, their control. Any regeneration of the inner city must involved local residents, civic leadership, businesses and the emergency services.
The other problem about policymaking in Barbados is the shared mind-set of being a big player when in reality the Barbados economy is the size of a smaller London borough. Or, to put it another way, the University of Pittsburgh Medical School has an annual export-oriented revenue base of US$10bn and 55000 employees, compared that with Barbados.
Minister Sinckler can take these ideas and run with them, and if he wants to claim ownership I am willing to pass them to him. The bottom line is, however, Barbados is in intensive care and urgently needs an economic blood transfusion.