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A Private Sector View on Squatting

Presented 20th November – Symposium on Squatter Management – Hyatt Regency

Published Thursday 27th November, 2008

This is an extremely critical issue in the development of our country, touching on important areas such as rural/urban migration, poverty, homelessness/landlessness, housing policy, national land-use planning and regional immigration. Of course, at the centre of all this, there are the potent issues of equity and justice in our post-colonial society.

Open collaboration is the only fruitful way to approach these issues of planning and national development.

Some key points to consider:

Land availability issues

A 1997 review of State housing policy by Linda Hewitt states that 57 per cent of our land mass is natural and secondary forest and swamplands, while 34 per cent is either under agricultural cultivation or reserved for that use. That leaves a mere nine per cent for the demands of today and tomorrow’s society. Those uses include roads, schools, recreational facilities, business-places, homes and so on. Even without the issue of squatting, we have to contend with real pressures on a very limited land supply.

The State is by far the largest landowner in the country and that has deep implications. It is difficult to be sure, but when one includes Forest Reserve, Caroni, Petrotrin and other State-owned estates, it is probably in excess of 60 per cent of the country’s land area that is publicly-owned.

Land management

The absence of proper and diligent land management has led to the perception that State land can be targeted for squatting without serious consequences. As always, it depends on who you ask, since for the family who have built their home on State land without permission—the people we call squatters—they have generally had an easier time with less challenges than those who did the same on private lands.

The State land management function is poorly-operated and that means that many of these occupiers are not detected for a considerable time. When one joins that up with the decided lack of political will to tackle this issue of illegal occupation, it is no surprise that State lands are targeted in this fashion.

Planning policy

Given the ambitious plans of both the State and private players, it is clear that many of the boundaries between agricultural and residential, residential and commercial as land uses will be tested to destruction. The re-definition of these land uses and their extents will be an ongoing exercise, which must be done collaboratively if there is to be any chance of orderly development.

Proper land use planning and enforcement must be a central part of the process of national development. It is not at all acceptable for this ministry to be preparing a draft national land-use plan to be released for discussion in two years’ time. That would be after the virtually complete reconstruction of our capital, the commencement of construction of the Rapid Rail System and the commencement of coastal water taxi services, just to name a few major development programmes. We cannot allow planning to become an after thought. That is not acceptable.

The housing policy

The State has embarked on an ambitious policy of building 100,000 new homes in the decade 2003-2012. The latest figures gave a total of about 30,000 as the number of new homes built under that programme. We are at about the half-way point in the programme and the output of new homes is significantly less than the original target.

Apart from the shortfall in terms of gross output of new homes, it is my view that the housing programme is in deficit in yet another significant area ie the persons to whom these new homes are allocated.

I am critical of the housing allocation policy since it seems to cater more for those who can qualify for a mortgage and purchase their homes, with little, if anything, left over for those in the greatest housing need. In my view, that allocation policy is inequitable and represents, in economic terms, a severe mis-allocation of public resources. If neither the private sector nor the State will cater for the needs of the poorest households, there are being almost driven to illegal occupation.

I was pleased to note that the first public statement of the newly-elected Minister of this Super-Ministry, published on December 18 last year, was to announce a complete revision of that housing allocation policy, saying that there was “a cloud hanging over it.” I could not agree more. Of course, we must await the new housing allocation policy before we can assess the extent to which it could help those in greatest need.

The other public players

Another potent issue is that these communities are routinely provided with utilities by the publicly-owned companies such as the T&T Electricity Commission (T&TEC), the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and Telecommunications Services of T&T (TSTT). Surely there needs to be some greater co-ordination between those utility agencies and land-owners, especially the State.

Other impacts and implications

At the beginning, I spoke of “squatting without serious consequences” and went on to point out that that depended on who you asked. Just one example is necessary: the proposed rapid rail. The large-scale, unregulated occupation of the TGR (Trinidad Government Railway) lands on the north to south routes have made that “strategic corridor” virtually off-limits to the designers of the new rapid rail system. There is also more general planning deficit here since there are at least two significant examples of excisions from the TGR lands done with the knowledge and consent of the relevant state agencies. The original corridor has been shut by both illegal occupiers and a sobering lack of strategy on the part of responsible state agencies. The serious consequence in this case being that we have to seek a new corridor to traverse north to south with increased costs due to the delays and expense of the land acquisition process.

The private issues

The private sector experience is markedly different from the public sector one, since there is a general perception that state lands are better to squat on. That perception has arisen since the actions to eject squatters has been far less vigorous on the part of the State. But the issue of squatting has a serious impact on private landlords as well as the State. Even if the presence of squatters on private land is only marginal in terms of the actual area occupied, the impact can be disproportionate and adverse. That is because the occupiers will take over the flatter, better-drained and more advantageously-positioned parts of your land. The end result can be that a considerable estate can be compromised by marginal occupiers if all the better parts are occupied.

The private sector also has potent land management issues, with significant numbers of the private estates in the country being owned by overseas landlords with unreliable or no estate managers. The point being that it takes more than safekeeping of deeds and survey plans to manage land holdings. The preferred approach to dealing with illegal occupiers is for our clients to offer them title for the cost of the subdivision survey and a fraction of the market value of the land.

This is a shorter version of a paper delivered on November 20, at the Ministry of Planning, Housing and Environment—Symposium on Squatter Management 2008, “Managing Squatter Settlements: Towards Sustainable Development” held on November 19 to 20 at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad hotel, 1 Dock Road, Port-of-Spain.

 

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

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

Open collaboration is the only fruitful way to approach these issues of planning and national development. Some key points to consider:

Land Availability

Land Management

Planning Policy

Housing Policy

Other Public Players

Other impacts and implications

Private Issues