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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.