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ON REFLECTION – Land issues watered down

NATANGA SMITH, [email protected]

ON REFLECTION – Land issues watered down

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As the flood waters began to subside last Monday evening, many would have heard Acting Prime Minister Freundel Stuart touch lightly on an issue that has been a sore point for most Barbadians from as far back as the days preceding the 1937 Riots. This issue may be arguably sorer now.
Mr Stuart’s speech was comforting as he pledged Government’s assistance to those affected. And the one positive coming out of the inclement weather, the Acting Prime Minister noted, was “a return to the age-old practice in Barbados of being your brother’s keeper”.
Teams on the road had witnessed residents and neighbours banding together to clear drains and roads.
Mr Stuart is usually frank – sometimes brutally so. One recalls a statement of his in the House of Assembly that a certain MP should be “punished with laughter”, but last Monday he stopped short of addressing another burning aspect of Barbados’ land woes: the blocking of watercourses and subsequent flooding – a result of what he termed “wanton contruction” mainly on the West Coast.
Empathy and courtesy may have dictated that Stuart not add fuel to any embers burning among rain-soaked victims, but his brief criticism could not have assuaged the continued hurt of those affected.
In the midst of this catastrophe – a result of the breach of traditional rules and common sense to construct condos and playgrounds for the rich and famous – the crux of this country’s inequitable land policy again remained untouched as if it was sacred ground.
Not a word from the Acting Prime Minister this time on the responsibility, over the years, of several Ministers of Housing and Lands, the Town Planning Department or the Chief Town Planner, under whose watch this wanton practice has thrived.
Stuart could have called to account former housing ministers under the last administration, although Minister Gline Clarke’s words back in 2000 – the admission that less than 30 per cent of Barbadians own land in their own country – were tantamount to saying that he had come and found it so.
Yet, after saying this, Clarke and subsequent ministers allowed the wanton construction to accelerate, and even now another massive suite of condos is about to go up at Sunset Crest on the sprawling property sold for over $40 million in 2008 by Chefette Restaurants. Another watercourse set to be blocked!
Current minister Michael Lashley has not been in office long enough to add much to this uncontrollable madness masquerading under the name of “tourism investment”, although his zero-lot-line housing plan also runs the risk of erasing some remaining water-absorbent grassy areas in low-lying communities.
Chief Town Planner Mark Cummins, having held that position for about 15 years, would have witnessed first-hand large edifices rising up on the West Coast, some so close to the sea that one wonders whether the builders’ original plan involved attempts at underwater engineering.
Under Cummins’ watch, we would have also heard former Chief Town Planner Leonard St Hill call for the Town Planning Department to carry out more surveys of the island’s geological make-up to better track problematic issues, including flooding.
“Once in every five years at least,” St Hill was quoted as saying three years ago in THE NATION, “or more frequently if necessary, he [the Chief Town Planner] must carry out a survey of the island, to find out . . . what areas are subject to flood that weren’t flooding before the hazards that have developed, so that when he is modifying or amending the Development Plan, he would be informed by his survey of what the dangers are”.
St Hill further noted that, as far as he knew, no such studies had been done in recent times.
“I have not seen or heard of a report by the Town Planner which should come once every five years. Since 1991 when the last amendment to the Physical Development Plan was passed by Parliament, no further approval by Parliament has been given to any amendment to the development plan.
“Neither has any report been made by the Chief Town Planner of the five-year survey he is supposed to carry out,” he stated.Seeking a response from Cummins at the time was the usual exercise in futility.
More recently, Government’s advisor on poverty alleviation Hamilton Lashley would have brought the matter closer home to the average Barbadian.
He noted that if a youngster or any of his siblings living in a National Housing Corporation unit decided to add a room or shed in the backyard, the Town Planning Department was far more likely to stop that effort in midstream, or bulldoze it if it was completed, than it would a multimillion-dollar project.
While the actions of the Chief Town Planner need the approval of the Minister of Housing and Lands, he is the technocrat. Has there been, in the last 15 years, no one with the intestinal fortitude to say “enough”?
Admittedly there are other land/flooding issues in Barbados that have little or nothing to do with the Chief Town Planner – such as the manner in which we have cleaned and serviced wells over the years, the disappearance of khus-khus grass as hedgerows to help retain the soil, and the mechanical harvesting which basically sets up soil to be washed away and clog suckwells.
But a check of THE NATION’S archives shows that Cummins is not often available for comment. Even a recent interview unearthed no answers about this dubious building policy. Maybe he doesn’t like the limelight, and probably had enough of it when he played for the national basketball team back in the 1980s. But his position is too crucial for him to remain behind the scenes.
To coin a basketball phrase, he is the big man at the centre of construction planning in Barbados; and construction planning has gone haywire.
People want to know, for instance, how is it that in recent years people have been allowed to erect barricades on land where public pathways existed from time immemorial?
It’s ironic that this islandwide phenomenon springs from a mentality that has been fostered by the wanton practices on the West Coast.
Another irony is that this mentality, nurtured by the Government in the last decade and a half, is now being criticised by the Opposition who trekked along the beach beside vendors in the past week to discuss land access!
We are “spinning top in mud”, and if the Chief Town Planner does not call a time-out, the constantly dripping tears from disadvantaged Barbadians will flood this place, because there are few things as vexing in Barbados as issues related to land.