Why pave Paradise? (Pt II): Govt needs thoughtful, collaborative approach to fix T&T; and the odd maxi taxi ride

EPL Infrafred Sauna

Now believe me, Madam Minister, I understand the pressure you are under to be seen to be delivering the goods. And as far as PR and Photo Op visibility in our society goes, few events rank higher than a ribbon cutting or key distribution ceremony.

The honeymoon period is well and truly over and ministers’ hands are being held to the fire. Now long gone are the days when calypso captured the pulse of the people as a whole but it certainly still captures the pulse of the PNM base. If my reading of Calypso Fiesta is correct, then your base’s patience is wearing thin and its mood might well be slowly turning ugly.

Photo: Minister of Planning and Development and acting Minister of Housing Camille Robinson-Regis.
(Copyright Ministry of Planning)

This is precisely the type of atmosphere in which rash decisions are made, which I suspect is the case here. Successive governments have made important decisions under these circumstances. Unfortunately, we can no longer afford to make decisions based on short-term political expediency. Madam Minister, you need to be able to step outside your bubble and look at the issue critically and holistically.

Truly inspirational leaders are able, when necessary, to stand up to their base and show them a better way. It’s what Mandela did. Obviously, you are no Mandela but the trials you face are not Mandela’s either.

Not too long ago, Dr Keith Rowley asked contractors for patience in having their outstanding bills settled. I remember finding it funny. It was framed as a request but his tone said confrontation; besides, in the same breath, he insisted that some of the sums claimed were far higher than they should have been (and I agree with him on that).

Fast forward a couple of months and the Acting Minister of Housing is boasting in a media release that this development will create thousands of job opportunities benefitting contractors, builders and others who rely on the construction sector for employment. So which is it? Is the money available to pay these contractors or not?

I guess it’s both, much like the presence of ISIS.

Photo: Contractors at a HDC development in D’Abadie.
(Copyright Ministry of Housing)

It’s an insult to our intelligence to insist that we need this housing development RIGHT NOW, when we can quite plainly see around the country ample evidence of half-to-almost-fully completed HDC developments literally littering the landscape.

There are units that often remain vacant for far too long for reasons never fully explained to the public. Ever so often, we hear news of units or whole developments in themselves that have been vandalised or illegally occupied or allowed to fall into disrepair. Yes, I know that the existing stock is not even close to the numbers required but if you are already failing to adequately treat with what’s currently on your plate, why add more?

Given our current financial climate, dealing with these recurring issues should be the priority. At this juncture, the HDC and the Ministry of Housing in general should really be focusing inwards, taking stock of all its internal processes and making a critical evaluation of its performance to date.

Will such an assessment conclude that we have truly been getting bang for our big bucks?

Under the HDC and even in its previous iteration as the NHA, thousands of homes have been constructed and distributed. Still today, the waiting list remains as long as it has ever been. This is so despite CSO data indicating that population growth has slowed considerably and is, in fact, stabilising.

A big part of the reason for this is that the average household size has become much smaller, so more units and more varied unit types are needed to accommodate this new demand. However, beyond that, the unreduced demand is also indicative of a general dissatisfaction with what existing communities currently offer. It is here that the HDC needs to be focusing its efforts, specialising in brownfield re-development as opposed to its current greenfield model.

Photo: HDC house in Real Springs, Valsayn.
(Copyright Ministry of Housing)

Building on underutilised agricultural land may seem like the easier and cheaper option but it often comes with hidden externalities to be absorbed by the taxpayer. Aside from the lost potential for agricultural production, money is required for the extension and duplication of support infrastructure (roads, utilities, sewerage, etc.) necessary for this conversion.

Instead of swooping down on agricultural land, we should seek to build more compactly, identifying the many in-fill lots within decaying town centres and facilitating the conversion of unused or underutilised buildings. To accomplish this, the HDC will have to retool and work smarter. Tracing ownership of these sites—let alone acquiring them—can prove to be difficult, protracted affairs.

Much greater sensitivity is required when you go where people already live because you have to meaningfully engage with the community to secure buy-in. The usual approach, in which ‘consultation’ is treated as merely an inconvenience needing to be ticked off on a checklist so that people are merely informed of what’s going to happen whether they like it or not, definitely will not fly.

Crucially, the HDC cannot be alone in pursuing this approach. The inefficient pattern of low density, ribbon-sprawl type development has predominated since the 70s and 80s and is reinforced by a cultural mind-set that cannot be easily changed.

Government, too, has its work cut out for it and it is of paramount importance that the ministries stop working in silos, particularly the Ministries of Planning, Finance, Housing, Works and Transport and Agriculture. Rather than compete with each other to be the ‘stars’ of delivery, they have to work in tandem or in teams to develop policies and to be mutually supportive of one another so that they are all pursuing the achievement of a holistic vision.

Photo: Housing Minister Randall Mitchell (right) and UDECOTT officials.
(Copyright Ministry of Housing)

This type of co-operation is neither easy nor flashy but it is absolutely necessary; it is unglamorous and tedious and involves making sacrifices. It may mean the paring down of the fuel subsidy but reinvestment in public transport. It is the Town and Country Planning Division allowing building at greater densities while the Ministry of Works may have to shift its infrastructural interventions toward prioritising the pedestrian experience over the vehicle.

You see, for people to be able to live comfortably at higher densities, you have to accommodate fewer cars; for buy-in, we shall have to practise the politics of personal sacrifice and leadership by example. Cutting ribbons and handing out keys is all well and good but an even more powerful statement is made when a minister takes it upon him/herself to use public transport on the Priority Bus Route to get to Parliament at least some days of the week.

He who feels it, they say, knows it. And he who knows it is better placed to do something meaningful about it.

In closing, Madam Minister, permit me to point out that, much like the St Augustine Nurseries, there is another underutilised resource right under your nose begging for attention. I’m sure this is true of other ministries but I know for a fact that, in your home Ministry of Planning, there are a cadre of young and not-so-young professionals who grow increasingly frustrated with each passing day.

Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on their collective education but their views—in their areas of expertise, no less!—if not outright disregarded, are often marginalised. At first, they were happy and eager to serve and repay the great investment made and the faith shown in them. But, under the last Administration, the reality of how decisions are made quickly came home to them.

Photo: Minister of Planning and Development and Acting Housing Minister Camille Robinson-Regis (centre) poses with some high school students students during a recycle drive in Port of Spain.
(Copyright Ministry of Planning)

Administrations have changed but the disillusionment persists. The country now runs the serious risk of losing them completely unless you engage them and better utilise their talents.

A word to the wise, they say, is sufficient.

Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read with Part One as Jabal Hassanli explains the danger of the government’s fixation with building on agricultural land.

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About Jabal Hassanali

Jabal Hassanali is a semi-retired, Trini urban planner-cum-English teacher, who is currently stuck somewhere in Asia. He has made a career of being in-between countries and in-between jobs and sometimes, mainly in his in-between moments, fancies himself a writer.

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  1. Mr. Jabal Hassanali, though your advice is not only quite instructive but should be heeded, the present (and past) bunch of people that would like to be termed “government ministers” are not only impotent but quite incapable of doing their tasks efficiently and accepting any advice would be in total conflict with there arrogant ways. They all believe for some sinister reason that they are masters of their portfolio when in fact they are a total hindrance. A most foolish bunch of people they are.

  2. This is an interesting and thoughtful comment and I agree with the author that Curepe may not be the best place for a new state housing development—either realistically or symbolically.
    I think, however, it would be useful to consider these two points:
    1) Can a country that recorded a 12% deficit in the last fiscal year and is borrowing billions of dollars to pay the salaries of public servants, teachers etc afford to continue spending money in constructing new houses?
    2) Is it time for some kind of realistic reassessment of Nelson Mandela’s leadership (and that of the ANC in South Africa), given the fact that he (and they) failed to introduce free, national primary and secondary education or subsidise the cost of healthcare—‚both of which governments in T&T did when they could afford to do so.
    South Africa is a country that is much richer than T&T, but has much higher inequities in income and wealth. Free education and subsidised healthcare go a long way in reducing such inequities and creating a path for social mobility.

    Anthony Wilson

  3. Unless our focus is on , 1. The immediate and imminent needs of the young, and 2. The need to make happy, the hearts and place smiles on the faces of the elderly due to their witnessing of a promising future for our children, we are both, insensitively myopic and doomed.

  4. I think they need to stop and think about what is the best land use practice. Why rush? They seem to be targeting food security and construction. Not defensive loyalists, but people who have an idea about the history of poor land use will question this. Without proper transparency people are likely to say that they are trying to house the right voters before elections. A little transparency and proper PR can go a long way.
    Another thing that will compromises them is in this day and age I despair that we cannot get governments to pay attention to the environment. I hear Trinidadians laughing and criticising Trump- we have similar politicians. Look at all the Leaders who are esteemed they are knowledgeable about modern day issues and the environment is on the table

    • Trinis always view America through different lenses. For instance, extra judicial killing in America and they are ready to dress in black. Extra judicial killing in Enterprise and they want to buy the police officer beers. ?

    • Exactly! Lack of awareness and head in sand. Sad thing is they choose to stay ignorant. Blind and supportive to people who don’t care about them or this country. No politician or party is coming before “Love of my Country”.

  5. Think what it was like before ordinary people were able to purchase low income homes. Thanks for the foresight. This would stop sometime like GATE don’t knock it.HDC don’t give away houses. Ask the home owners how they and their families feel.

  6. Paving paradise, really? Making up his own facts. Too much rubbish in this.

  7. Its amazing what passes for good governance in this country.

  8. Very good food for thought Jabal. 😉

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