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CAPITAL CONCERNS
Part V

Published Thursday 27th September, 2007

Reflections on Republic Day

Ground Zero

The best example I can think of for the kind of broad commitment to consultation is, of course, the site of the World Trade Centre in Lower Manhattan: Ground Zero. This is a very interesting example since the site is privately owned and the City of New York is controlled by the Democrats while the Republicans control the national government of the USA. Against this background of different players we have the fact that the destruction of the WTC was a most severe blow to US prestige and power. The entire defense apparatus was rendered useless by that attack. Arguably, there could be no site in the world with a more urgent claim to large-scale redevelopment.

Yet, the fact is that a sort of compact has been arrived at between the parties to the effect that no redevelopment will take place unless and until everyone has had their say. For example, there was a recently concluded international competition for the design of the 911 Memorial. There were over 5,000 entries from more than 60 countries and a winner was just selected.

As expected, the consultations have been controversial and emotional but the fact is that an environment existed in which such an understanding could work. Whatever one’s view of the American imperium, there is a potency to the existence of that huge crater at the heart of their main city while the necessary conversations go on. Time for us to think again.

This column is being written on Republic Day.

Last week we spoke of our planning deficit which was a reference to the lack of planning. That is a long-standing problem here. Given the recent aspects of Property Matters we covered here, there is now cause for a pause and a shift of focus.

This week we step aside from temporal concerns to dwell on the inner meaning of what we are doing or not doing in respect of the planning and development of our capital.

Our concept of development seems to be based on the appearance of those nations which we are emulating. In fact, that level of sustained success demands nothing less than creative tension of the kind illustrated by the example set out in the side-bar.

Key elements of our capital’s issues are not actually discussed with clarity and targets. Homelessness, poor infrastructure, poverty, transportation are just some of the main issues on which there is no discussion. Plenty talk, but no discussion. Discussion involves listening to the other person and taking those views into account. Listening seems to be of little utility in our race to development.

The older folks had a saying: haste makes waste.

A few key points:

·         The information flow

It is striking how little committed we are to openness. That is directed at both public and private sector actors. One can understand the reluctance of private sector actors to disclose more of their business affairs than they absolutely need to. The competitive situation demands that your cards be held very close to the chest. What is now emerging among the private sector players is a shift away from the pride of achievement which marked an earlier age.

For example, one difference I have encountered since doing the first series in 2004 and this one, is that most private sector collaborators now insist on anonymity. Some cite the fear of crime and, of course, that seems to be an increasing part of everyone’s life these days.

While we can understand some of the private sector attitudes to information, it is unacceptable that the State and its organs should hold similar attitudes.

Some of the organisations which are most suspicious and reluctant to share information are State bodies.

·         The tide in the affairs of men

Of course, we accept that this is so and, of course, things will go up and down and so on. But it is very interesting to ask a few searching questions. We are experiencing a phase of “good times” and, from all their utterances, our leaders have the best intentions in terms of taking us to the next level in terms of physical development. If that is so, and it is not an unreasonable series of beliefs, one could question the reluctance to operate in an open and transparent manner.

The realist may answer by pointing out that for politicians to accomplish their agenda in the limited time allotted to them, they must limit the chances for the citizens to get real information on what they are planning.

But if this is the attitude when things are going well and you are doing positive things, what will be our position if things get tight and awkward decisions have to be taken?

·         The information age

We often speak, both in the private and public sectors, of the move to developed nation status. That must mean T&T entering the information age. That would mean a corresponding reduction in the influence of blind loyalty, superstition and ole talk.

The journey would be one of improving the quality of our conversations with rational decision making as an outcome. How compatible is our collective behaviour with our development aspirations? Yes, we do have people here who will grandstand and gallery during any attempt to have public meetings on a range of issues. But that has to be weighed against a significant quality of human beings who are never consulted.

I can remember the live radio broadcast on 91.9FM about a fortnight ago which was covering a community meeting at Bagatelle on development issues. The Housing Development Corporation (HDC) spokesperson was most emphatic that when designs had been finalised he would be returning to consult with the community. This is a common position and so much so that no protest was raised on the point.

One cannot help wondering if another country, with less resources, would be as careless as we are. It might seem a bizarre reversal of Dr Eric William’s 1976 statement but, in our case, it is probably true that money is the problem.

Next week we discuss the physical and financial planning which is needed.

Afra Raymond is a director of Raymond & Pierre Ltd. Feedback can be sent to afra@raymondandpierre.com.

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

Key elements of our capital’s issues are not actually discussed with clarity and targets. Homelessness, poor infrastructure, poverty, transportation are just some of the main issues on which there is no discussion. Plenty talk, but no discussion. Discussion involves listening to the other person and taking those views into account. Listening seems to be of little utility in our race to development.