Notes From a Native Son: It is Not Late for the Government to Return to the Drawing Board

Hal Austin

Hal Austin

Subsidising the private sector has become a public policy addiction, yet vast gaps remain in our understanding of the political economy of our own society. Take for example, the recent row over the abolition of VAT, in which a higher proportion of ordinary people’s take home pay is spent on the regressive tax than that of the well-paid. Yet, for reasons best known to himself, the governor of the central chose to make his views known while out of the island, and, having done so, declined to enter any serious debate about the sales tax. This contempt for Barbadians is part of the pattern that has seen a massive delegation of politicians, civil servants and business people travelling to China – a country that ten years ago they knew only as the home of Suzie Wong and Kung Fu – In search of the mythical pot of gold at the end of the Oriental rainbow. However, back home, the nation has ground to a halt; people have taken strong positions and every other idea has been blocked out. Of course, there is very little new to say in terms of new ideas, but there is still a lot to fight for, most important of which is the future of our island home.

Strategic Policy-making:
Ideally, government could have avoided going cap in hand to the Chinese, or tolerating a silly alternative by going to the United Arab Emirates as if a Middle Eastern state would look more kindly on Barbados than the Chinese. A more strategic policy, and one better in the long-term, would be to launch massive urban renewal programme covering the two sq. mile area bordered by Bay Street, Jemmott’s Lane, Bay Street and Fairchild Street.

With modern architecturally designed three and four storey buildings, with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, with court yards and parking facilities, with retail shops, offices, restaurants, a park and bars at street-level, the development would be the biggest and most enterprising capital project since the Deep Water Harbour in the late 1950s. It would be incremental in its execution, going from street to street, with an end date of up to ten years. Such a development would be a win-win for the nation, the policymakers and the families and businesses living within the area. The success of the scheme could also see it expanded to New Orleans, Baxters Road and Tudor Street, Carrington’s Village, Bay Land, the Ivy, and other urban centres. Such a development would be an enormous legacy and a vast improvement in the quality of life and lifestyles of ordinary Barbadians.

Planning Process:
It must be carefully planned since urban renewal must be a key part of a wider government public policy programme, which includes planning, job creation and support for small and medium enterprises. Of all things, it must be participatory, involving all stakeholders, from local residents and businesses, to the police, planning official, utilities, road traffic, education and health authorities, and of all, the opposition political parties; and any existing neighbourhood Watch or residents’ association. It must involve relevant professionals, from architects, civil and structural engineers, builders and property developers and the entertainment industry. All these and more must buy in to the development and claim ownership, so rushing to leave a legacy should not be as important a driving force as getting it right. At its most efficient, urban renewal must also include the heritage sector in order to preserve what is relevant about local history before it falls under the tracks of the bulldozers. However, there is need to emphasis once more that planning is a political process, not administrative, and should be carried out under the watchful eye of elected politicians. There should be new legislation removing primary responsibility for planning decisions from civil servants to the politician. Under the new system, the minister whose portfolio covers planning should be chairman of the national planning authority, with representatives including the opposition party and the constituency councils. There should also be a number of ex officio members, including the chief town and country planning officer, who should act as secretary to the committee, along with representatives from the utilities, medical profession, police, education authorities and traffic sector. Meetings should be open to the public and held every six weeks to a month at a pre-announced time and place. Appeals from the planning committee should in the first instance be to the high court and, failing that, the Appeal Court and, on matters of law only and not policy, to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Funding such a huge project will cost hundreds of millions, but there are a number of ways of executing such a project. So the first approach to funding should be to created an open-ended Infrastructure Development Fund, with an initial capital target of about Bds$1bn, permitting both retail and institutional investments. Before that, however, there should be a comprehensive development plan, which should be opened to the public for viewing and comment, there is no rational reason why the development should be carried out from start to finish as a one-off.

A more progressive approach would be to execute the plan incrementally with the compulsory purchase of the existing properties on a single street, or part of a street, provide temporary housing for all those families forced to move, giving the authorities time to build show apartments. As the completed properties come on the market, the former residents should be given first refusal on new apartments at market rates, before others are considered. Would-be buyers, including those from overseas, should be able to secure an apartment off plan by making a reasonable deposit, part of which should be non-returnable. The authority would then be able to raise any funding shortfall in the open market, either through a banking syndicate, a combination of banks and shadow banks, and retail investors.

If John Maynard Keynes was right about the socio-cultural instincts of European Protestants to accumulate, then it suggests that Barbadians, and indeed the wider Caribbean people of African descent, might have failed this test. It is, too, the myth on which Max Weber based his most popular study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Whatever the theory, however, the reality of policymaking is that the way it impacts on people is of central importance. Policymaking is a combination of theory and practice, of carefully analysing programmes and being receptive to the way they are received by stakeholders.

Urban renewal, a sub-theme, is also hybrid in that it combines the redesign of old districts, using a number of models or grids, along with wider government programmes, such as monetary policy. Given this, in place of vision, successive governments, through a lack of vision, have consistently preferred to turn vast tracks of the island, in particular the West Coast, in to holiday homes for the super-rich from North America and Europe, in the vain expectation that the owners of those homes would bring jobs and foreign exchange to the country. It is a lost cause. The low quality jobs they bring in general, such as security guards and domestics, although much appreciated, are far beneath what a nation that prides itself on the quality of its educational system should expect. One reason for this flawed belief is that we do not have any proper analysis of tax data to provide the evidence to suggest that the tax authorities in Barbados have a proper handle on the management of public taxation. If they do, and the failure to collect huge sums of money in outstanding VAT suggests otherwise, then there is a failure to extract from this data a narrative story of the state of the nation’s fiscal position. For example, without having to identify individuals, there is a wealth of sociological data that can be got from the data: a demographic breakdown in those on pay-as-you-earn and those on self-employed, professional and other form of tax payment, by age, gender and, maybe even qualifications. The data would also be able to tell us who are the highest paid people in the nation by profession, allowing people to form opinions about which are the occupational groups that add value to the nation. An urban renewal programme would create jobs for plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, masons, carpenters, plumbers, architects, civil and structural engineers, surveyors, security guards, labourers, drivers, furnisher providers, insurance brokers, lawyers, industrial nurses, administrative staff and loads more specialists. These in turn will receive salaries and go shopping for everything from food, clothes, paying their mortgages, etc, shops and stores will then see their turnovers increase, and, in turn, employ additional staff; government would then get income and VAT taxes and national insurance contributions; claimants would also come off the dole. This is the fiscal multiplier at its most basic. It is also the win-win situation steering the government in the face, one that is transparently enormous and which is mesmerising policymakers. With good strategic planning, it would be good to get all stakeholders to buy in to, government has had a number of angles on which it could pursue a widespread urban development plan which it has missed

140 thoughts on “Notes From a Native Son: It is Not Late for the Government to Return to the Drawing Board

  1. “In terms of capital projects, if they over-run then heads must roll.

    Aren’t genuine overruns possible, Hal or do you believe that all overruns are as a result of manipulative practices?

  2. Very few over-runs are based on circumstances. A proper cost/benefit analysis, with assessments for risks, should be adequate.

  3. “Very few over-runs are based on circumstances”
    How do we determine which ones are not based on circumstances and which ones are as a result of inappropriate interference by the political elite with the procedures governing the project? I hold no brief for politicians but I do believe based from my knowledge of the system that they are unfairly maligned when accused of corrupt behaviour with respect to contractual arrangements which fall under the ambit of the Financial Administration and Audit Act and Subsidiary Legislation. I would admit that with a weak or complicit Head of Department designated as “Accounting Officer” under the Rules, in charge; there is some leeway for a politician to manipulate the process for ‘chicken feedish’ contracts issued under the same Rules for under $100.000 and there is even greater room for manipulation of the process for contracts issued by Statutory Boards since all roads lead to the Minister but this wholesale notion that any politician can easily subvert the contractual system to his benefit is not true; and the same goes for cost-overruns. Cost overruns only became a big issue in recent times because it was used with telling effect by the then opposition in the 2008 election campaign and I guess it resonated to a gullible mob because of how the quantum of the overruns was spectacularly highlighted ignoring the fact that the magnitude of cost overruns on bigger and costlier projects would be greater; but cost overruns are nothing new and I have never seen a Government Contractual arrangement out of the hundreds I have been privileged to see without a provision for cost overruns with appropriate procedures in place authorising the “Accounting officer” to sign off on overruns which met the requirements for justification.

    • @Hal

      The AG Reports are replete with examples of a flouting of the financial rules and downright grafe. Added to which poor execution of public projects are well documented.

  4. Balance; Well said, but politically incorrect, at 5:25 am above. Overruns of themselves are not the only or even main pointers to ministerial misfeance. The character / perspicuity / honesty of the Accounting Officer is.

  5. Instead of acknowledging his error or that he chose an inappropriate “example”, Bush Tea comes with his usual bluster, insults and red herrings, which quite frankly betrays a lack of intellectual capacity and class. But what else can you expect from a bushman?

  6. “The AG Reports are replete with examples of a flouting of the financial rules and downright grafe. Added to which poor execution of public projects are well documented.”
    That of which I am well aware but my comments were intended to debunk the notion that political interference alone is responsible for contractual problems and cost overruns.

    “are-we-there-yet? | March 11, 2014 at 6:54 AM |
    Balance; Well said, but politically incorrect, at 5:25 am above. Overruns of themselves are not the only or even main pointers to ministerial misfeance. The character / perspicuity / honesty of the Accounting Officer is”

    Very much true and I would add another – inability by Government to honour bona fide certificates of payment to contractors in timely fashion which by extension result in increases in costs of materials and services because of the delay in payment.

  7. @ Inkwell
    Bush Tea comes with his usual bluster, insults and red herrings, which quite frankly betrays a lack of intellectual capacity and class. But what else can you expect from a bushman?
    Oh grow up do! …..and contribute something intelligent…like balance
    ….or crawl back under your rock.
    If you know that this is what to be expected from a bushman what the hell are you grumbling about?
    It is call bush whacking…..and all nonsense is fair game …especially when it comes from jokers who betray the trust placed in them to advance the cause of the ordinary Bajans…

    Utter nonsense….
    “$8M below budget” Bushie’s donkey!!! How simple minded….
    Bushie could have arranged to purchase your big ride for you.. – and got you a $100,000 rebate too…..if you were foolish enough to agree to pay Bushie $800,000 for it in the first place….

  8. “There should be new legislation removing primary responsibility for planning decisions from civil servants to the politician. Under the new system, the minister whose portfolio covers planning should be chairman of the national planning authority, with representatives including the opposition party and the constituency councils.”

    What utter madness!!!

  9. @ Enuff

    I know it is the Bajan way of debating, just being negative. Why is it utter madness? What are its weaknesses?
    We have had what passed as a discussion about planning in this forum before that ended up in the usual way.

  10. @Hal
    The politicisation of the UK planning system is the major reason why that system is in a constant flux. The last I read, is the intent of the Conservative government to remove planning powers from the Boroughs to the Mayor–total contradiction to their much touted Localism agenda.

    In Barbados, the process is already partially political i.e. dependent on ministerial approval.

  11. @ Enuff

    But planning is a political process, not an administrative one. Of the politicians get it wrong they can be removed. Voters need to know what planning decisions are being made and who is making them. This is nothing to do with the Coalition Govt in London.

  12. @ Hal
    But you speak as if the regulations put in place are not established by the politicians and that explains the administrative confusion.

    What is getting a planning decision wrong?

  13. @ Enuff
    Planning is not just box ticking: a room must be X metres, with the utilities attached, and Y metres from the road.
    It is a holistic decision, is this development, or home extension necessary? What do neighbours have to say? What will be its impact on the street? If it is commercial, how will it change the environment etc.
    These are not decisions to be made by civil servants, but elected politicians – and at public meetings..

  14. Hal Austin
    Planning is more than ticking boxes, yet it must be decided by politicians rather than trained planners? I am lost!!

  15. @ Enuff
    I am sure you do. In fact you have my vote as the most knowledgeable planner in Christendom. All I asked was why do you think civil servants were better at making planning decision than politicians and you have drifted in to the old Bajan way of debate – telling me how much you know, which is nice. I said planning was a political process and not administrative and I am still waiting for the answer.
    You said you were lost and all I did was to confirm you were.
    By the way, plse tell all those environmentalists who oppose some planning decisions such as fracking that they should be protesting against civil servant s, not politicians.

  16. @ Enuff
    Does Hal not have a good point?
    Planning is about visioning a national future, …..balancing dreams with reality, and bringing the people on board with the intended direction.
    Good politicians should be people of vision and should have the pulse of the people who they represent.
    Technical experts would assist with costings, cost-benefit analysis, impact studies etc but then the strategic decisions (the final planning) should be political.
    If the technical people are incapable of execution the final plans, then they should be made to pay the price….and if the plans prove to be flawed, then the politicians should go….or be sent packing…

    This would require a different breed of politicians and of civil servants.

  17. @ Hal
    No I am not a planner, nor am I pretending to know everything but I know nonsense!!

    It is a technical, administrative process that is flexibile/discretionary and ought to be decided by “civil servants” who, guided by a regulatory framework and politicians’ policies, are trained to assess applications whether of the impact on streets, character, permeability or placemaking. In Barbados, the politician already decides on beachfront development and change of use of agriculture land. Given the latter, ask the farmers in Barbados who should have that power after the recent Lower Greys matter.

    @ BT
    Hal is focusing on development management/control i.e. decision making on planning applications NOT the development planning component, which is a multi-sectoral, collaborative effort guided by the politicians’ vision. By the way plan implementation is heavily dependent on the actions of the private sector and of course the economy.

  18. @ David
    Only this week I got letter from the Lands and Surveys department asking me for a plan of land that the id week I got a letter from the lands and surveys department asking for a plan that they should have had in their possession.
    The real problem goes beyond this kind of administrative mix up. The real issue is that government cannot undertake big capital projects.
    The idea that standing at Seawell Airport and cutting a straight line to the West Coast, principally to gt tourists to their hotels, compares as a major capital project with the building of the Deep Water harbour is nonsense.
    Even worse, that we had to borrow the money to carry out a urban renewal project is embarrassing.
    We have failed as a nation.

  19. In my view the most disgusting thing in the whole affair is not just the loss of the funds through sheer ignorance of the nuances of governance but Mr Sinckler’s disdainful and nonsensical explanation pertaining to the loss of the project to the detriment of the residents in the area. It was nothing short of an outrage to defend the incompetence for Mr Sinckler to suggest that land surveying was abandoned because ‘the land surveyor’ contracted was threatened by residents and vowed not to return. Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.

  20. Somebody tell me Branford is wrong about Gov’t abandoning a project because land surveyers were afraid to work in certain areas. Whoever came up with that excuse lacks creativity whatever happened to asking for a Police escort or increased patrols in the areas.

    I plan to be in Barbados soon would the people here inform me of the “no go” areas.

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