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Property Matters – Taking Stock

Published Thursday August 18th, 2011

As part of this pre-budget series, I am going to ‘take stock’ of some recent, significant happenings in relevant areas.

Given the unstable situation in relation to the State and its operations, many examples of which have been set out in previous ‘Property Matters’ columns, it is very important that a critical stance be maintained.  That said, it is also important that any progress be properly recorded and acknowledged.

The notable items were –

Housing Development Corporation (HDC)

I was very pleased to read of the success HDC was having in collecting the serious rent arrears owed by its tenants, reportedly in excess of $240M.  Of course this is not the first time there has been an effort to rectify this situation, so hopefully this will be a sustained program as it is vital that housing be treated with proper responsibility.  That responsibility would extend from the quality of the designs and construction, the treatment of contractors and suppliers all the way to housing policies which respond to the needs of the needy.

Last week, there was a report in this newspaper that the Housing and Environment Minister, Dr. Roodal Moonilal, disclosed a new housing policy.

According to that report, the new policy will favour distribution of serviced lots, with foundation slabs, over the provision of new homes.  I have been calling for a review of our housing policy for some time now, so it was very disappointing to read that Cabinet had recently approved this important new policy without some formal process of dialogue or seeking wider views, much less a thorough examination of the shortcomings of the 2002 policy.  Yes, a new housing policy was sorely needed, but there are solid benefits to wider dialogue.

Housing is too important an element of our Welfare State to ever become solely a creature of Cabinet, whatever the credentials of the current crop of Ministers.

This leads directly into my point about the poor flow of basic information, which can be detrimental to the best intentions.  The 2002 housing policy disappeared from the internet about 6 months ago, but despite several written requests I have had no success in having those links restored, for whatever reason.  The new housing policy is also not available online.  In contrast, last month the Ministry of Finance issued a revised State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual and that is available online, together with the 2008 Manual it replaced.

Building code – The impending new Building Code is to be welcomed, having been developed in collaboration with key stakeholders.  There needs to be a solid commitment by all parties to establishing proper enforcement of those critical standards.  The Building Code will cover important areas such as earthquake and fire hazards as well as other quality issues.

The initiative is being piloted by Dr. Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and the Environment. UDECOTT and the HDC both form part of his responsibilities, so that is a good fit.  We will have to be vigilant to ensure that all State construction conforms to the new standards.

I can scarcely believe that the very Minister who understands the importance of collaborating with stakeholders on the new National Building Code, would state a week earlier that the new Housing Policy had been agreed by Cabinet, with no visible attempt at consultation.  Incredible, but true.

A Culture of Consequence - I have consistently stated that the absence of consequence is inimical to any development and that consequence has to be restored to a proper place if we are to progress.   Up to last Thursday, 11th August, I stated at a public meeting that I was unaware of any government in this country taking decisive action against its own appointees in the State Enterprises.  The pattern has been one of charging people from the last political administration in what almost always looks like revenge.

The Sunday Guardian headline of 14th August ‘Cabinet fires Chairman of School-feeding Programme’ was as welcome as it was surprising.  It was reported that the Cabinet had taken decisive action to fire a Chairman who had been appointed about 6 months before and that is a positive step, the first time any government in this country has done that, as far as I am aware.

According to that exclusive story, the fired Chairwoman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd (NSDSL)—Dawn Annamunthodo – had obtained extensive and expensive security guards for herself, due to some alleged death threats.

There were also details of what seemed to be deceptive attempts by that individual to become a signatory to the bank accounts of that State-owned company.  If those reports are true, there are two serious implications –

Firstly, it is extremely unlikely that this is the first time that this individual was involved in acts of that kind.  Grown people do not just change their behaviour in a few months’ time, we all know that.  My point being that this episode calls into question the screening which is carried out in relation to these appointments.

Whatever screening processes now exist, will definitely have to be made stronger, together with ongoing reviews of Board performance.  

Given that the Prime Minister is widely reported to have approved the Chairpersons of State Boards, that screening process needs to be reviewed urgently so as to preserve the integrity of that office.

Secondly, this individual is reported to have attempted to convince Republic Bank’s Ellerslie Plaza branch to make her a signatory and that matter must be promptly investigated by the Fraud Squad, with charges to follow if those allegations are true.  It is an echo of the point I made here last week about a dutiful police officer allowing a motorist with a defective vehicle to just drive-off after a ticket is issued.  Not good enough, if we are serious about road-safety.

We have to restore a Culture of Consequence if White-Collar Crime is to be challenged.

But, even though no money appears to have been stolen in that School-Feeding episode, the saddest part was the bold-faced question that individual asked the Guardian reporter, when invited to give a comment “…How did you get hold of those documents? Those are state documents.   These questions are state business…”   

It reminded me very much of the response of Jewan Ramcharitar, former PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner, who suddenly resigned as eTeck Chairman almost a month ago.  That entire affair remains mysterious, with Stephen Cadiz, the line Minister, stating that it was due to a ‘difference of opinion’ and the departed Chairman reportedly stating –

“…I am actually working on a project in the public service arena on a full-time basis and my time at eTeck is eroding the time and attention I pay to that,” he said.

Just what that project is, he won’t say…”

I wonder if Ramcharitar would have found that dismissive answer to be acceptable when he was a partner at PWC?  Probably not, yet we are continually beset by these evasive attitudes in public affairs.  We need to hold our leaders to a high standard.

The latest twist is the sudden resignation of George Nicholas as Chairman of Caribbean Airlines and the opaque statement by the Minister of Transport, Devant Maharaj - “...“Yes. I can confirm this. I am in receipt of his letter but I cannot say anything more...

In the three cases, bare-faced conflation of State Business with Business which is private, personal or confidential.

Good steps are to be recognized and applauded, but we must always strive for better.  We need to continue onward and upward.  It would be good to have a statement from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Communications as to the governments’ commitment to a progressive policy in these important matters.

The Housing policy needs to be published for comment and we also need to have a clear statement as to whether there can be any such thing as a confidential state policy.

Confidential State Policy may seem like an oxymoron, but readers will be aware of the reluctance of the Education Facilities Company Limited to publish its new Confidentiality Policy.  I don’t want to say refusal, but when this budget season is over we will be continuing to examine those EFCL operations.

 

Afra Raymond is President of the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry (JCC) and Managing Director of Raymond & Pierre Limited.  www.raymondandpierre.com.

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

Given that the Prime Minister is widely reported to have approved the Chairpersons of State Boards, that screening process needs to be reviewed urgently so as to preserve the integrity of that office.