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Bizzy tells it like it is


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Bizzy tells it like it is

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In this week’s Big Interview, businessman Ralph “Bizzy” Williams responds to critics who say he should be the last to complain about the skyrocketing price of land in Barbados.
Williams frankly discusses his ownership of land while levelling some strong criticisms of his own of the Government’s land use policy. In the following edited interview, he spoke to Editor-in-chief Kaymar Jordan.
Q: A few weeks ago, you reportedly said that the price of land was too high and that this was stymying the development of the country. Your comments drew an angry response from some quarters. Could you start by explaining yourself?
Williams: All I know is that the price of land is too high and I don’t own a big lotta land. There are people who have been calling in and writing things in the paper and they are saying: ‘Hey, he complaining that the price of land too high and yet he is one of the people who push up the price of land.’
 
Q: But isn’t it a fact that you and your brother own most of the land in Barbados?
Williams: No, he [Sir Charles Williams] doesn’t own most of Barbados. He talks that way but he doesn’t really own that much land.
 
Q: And as a family of leading property developers, are you not partly to blame for the rising price of land?
Williams: No, I own land but if you check the records, minutes of meetings of [our] company, you will find that I am quarrelling with Sir Charles and the other people on the board all the time about the price of land. They always come back and say, ‘Well, it is the Government that push the price of lands so high’.
First to begin with, when you buy a piece of land to develop it, they have agricultural land that is not supposed to be used for anything else, but nothing is growing on it, nor will anybody ever plant anything on it because all of us understood in Barbados that when you plant, somebody else will reap.
So people are not really going out there and planting up. There are over 8 000 acres of land zoned for agriculture in Barbados that don’t have a thing growing on it but bush and grass.
 
Q: In your estimation then, the problem is not one of access but use of the land?
Williams: It’s the land use policy. I am told by the agriculturalists that 10 000 acres of land, properly managed, can supply all the food that Barbados could eat. So my argument is why are you protecting the land for agriculture, when nobody is interested in using it for agriculture? I am not saying go and build houses all over the whole island but the way to bring down the price is to increase the supply.
When I hear land in Barbados selling for $28 and $29 a square foot, I wonder if somebody gone mad. This is house spots for poor or middle-income people that the husband and wife are both working, but they can’t afford to have a little home on a piece of land of their own. It is crazy!
 
Q: So you believe Government can remedy this?
Williams: To begin with, suppose a developer wants to buy a piece of land in Barbados. It takes him between two and three, maybe four years to get permission. During that time, he is paying eight per cent interest on the purchase price. That is a 24 per cent increase in the price of the land right away.
Then you have the transfer tax and the rest of it. When it is added up, about 40 per cent of the cost of the land is in Government taxes and delays caused directly by bureaucratic stuff. Then, of course, a markup is put on top of that. Then it costs you money to put in the roads and that sort of thing.
Now I am not suggesting that we reduce the quality of the roads, but if you have a situation where people reach the stage where they cannot afford a little piece of land and a house, you need to do something about it. Find ways to cut the costs.
 
Q: And you believe more lands need to be released from agriculture?
Williams: What is the reason we have the sugar industry operating still? The sugar industry is not there these days. It earns some foreign exchange but do you know that an acre of sugar cane land provides one tenth of one job per year? The Government is subsidizing [it].
It costs about $50 a tonne more to grow cane and deliver it to the factory than what the factory can afford to pay by selling the sugar. The Government has to make up the difference.
They quarrel about golf courses but a golf course would employ ten times as many people per acre as sugar. A golf course would employ one person per acre roughly or maybe half-a-person per acre.
 
Q: So we are wasting time with sugar?
Williams: It is not that you are wasting time. You can’t do the whole thing in golf courses, but when I hear criticism about building golf courses, it is nonsense.
My brother built the Apes Hill Golf Course. It is known worldwide now as one of the finest golf courses in the Western Hemisphere.
 
Q: Getting back to your ownership of land, exactly how many acres do you own?
Williams: I have about a quarter-acre that I live on. Another half-an-acre with another house that the wife and I own; another quarter-acre that we own and, of course, Williams Industries Industrial Park. I don’t know, that must be about 20 acres, and we have land at Warrens; but apart from that I am a shareholder of Williams Industries, which owns twenty something per cent of Foursquare Estates Limited. That is about 1 500 acres and we have been building houses up there, but you know we can’t build anymore houses.
 
Q: Why?
Williams: Can’t get water, and what is the Water Authority doing about it? Nothing!
 
Q: It doesn’t sound like we are ready for your plan. I mean, you talk about a focus on infrastructural development but yet we can’t meet the basic requirement in some areas for water?
Williams:  No, that is not the reason. It is that everybody in the Water Authority carrying home their fat cheque whether they supply water or not. They will get their pension whether they supply water or not.
On the other hand, me now, if I don’t supply water to the Water Authority at Ionics Freshwater, I will lose money. The manager, the majority of her take-home pay comes from results achieved. Everybody in that whole business is paid on results achieved.
 
Q: And that is what you think Government needs to do too?
Williams: Absolutely!  I told the Governor of the Central Bank at lunch one day: ‘If I had this country to run, I would pay you a very small basic salary and you would get your rewards based on results achieved in the economy of Barbados.’ I have never been invited back to lunch.
 
Q: Any missed business opportunities you can point to?
Williams: We applied to take two acres of sugar cane land next to Coles Engineering, which is a company we own up at Lowlands [Christ Church]. Two acres that would have employed one-fifth of one person and earn about $750 in foreign exchange when you take out all the costs and everything.
The opportunity I wanted to take advantage of was when Sir Kyffin (Simpson), my good friend, bought all the Shell stations all over the Caribbean. He wanted new tanks. I could have got all the business but we started to produce the tanks at Coles and discovered we had nowhere to put the tanks.
You are building these big tanks and the place got choked up, people couldn’t come in.?So I rushed and applied for two acres of land four years ago. Can’t get permission to cut off two acres of agricultural land right next to Coles. You know what it growing? Bush. Tell me if that makes sense.
 
Q: But I’m surprised to hear that a powerful developer such as yourself is having such challenges.
Williams: Of course. Look, when we were building the houses up in Six Roads, the highest price that we charged for land, developed land with [a] house on it, was $15 per square foot . . .  (compared to similar development at the time which sold for) $25 per square foot.
 
Q: What would you suggest the Government do in such a scenario?
Williams: I would say, this is what you buy this land for; we will work a fast track to give you permissions and when you come to sell this land, I (Government) want a percentage of it and I will use that money to subsidize land for poor people – all the maids, gardeners who want piece of land, help them get the land.
 
Q: But is it not unrealistic for Government to suggest that everyone can own a piece of the rock?
Williams: Well, everybody don’t really want to do, but mainly women want to do it. The majority of people out there looking to buy land are women because the women seeing further than the men. They have longer vision, but you see the guys need the fancy cars and so on so they can pick up the girls.
 

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