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Urban rescue mission

Tony Best

Urban rescue mission

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As the Urban Development Commission’s (UDC) director, Derek Alleyne has the task of changing large sections of urban Barbados, with its “awful” slums, widespread availability of illegal drugs and guns, high unemployment and poor housing.
Alleyne, on secondment until 2014 from his position as National Union of Public Workers’ deputy general secretary, discussed the challenges and opportunities facing the Government agency and the people it serves with North American correspondent Tony Best while in New York recently.
What are the UDC’s major goals?
Alleyne: Generally, they are to make urban Barbados more conducive to living and the production of the traditional Barbadian environment, not ignoring the challenges of modern Barbados.
I would really like a restoration of some values, physically improved urban Barbados, particularly New Orleans, Lightfoot Lane, Cat’s Castle and those areas where slums continue to be a challenge.
Drugs and those things are part of all urban communities, the hustle and bustle to survive. They are not different from any urban community across the globe. There is the squalor and physical deterioration of the properties.
If you go into Lightfoot Lane, you can’t believe that those communities still exist.
But in changing the face, I also want to change the thinking. For example, we provided a house for a family in a community in suburban Barbados and within two weeks, the people in the neighbourhood called to complain that we brought misery to them.
What were the complaints?
Alleyne: People were defecating, throwing Pampers through the window, and those were conditions to which they were accustomed (in urban areas). We had done nothing to change their thinking. We had just provided a house.
Part of our responsibility is that while we provide a physical accommodation, we also have to deal with the social and mental thinking of the people we are goingto be dealing with.
Have you been able to change any communities?
Alleyne: The amount of money we have spent on urban development over the last 15 to 16 years – because 1997 was when we really started this programme – I don’t think we can identify any community that has been transformed. Not one.
 The Pine received a whole set of support, yet the biggest challenge for the police and the social services in Barbados still remains The Pine.
There is need for a new focus, new structure and direction placed on what we do.
Politicians identify what has to be done and they throw money at it without the social planners identifying the best way forward.
 I don’t know what we can do to rescue Barbados except to do a radical collective effort at changing the thinking, not only the physical part. Urban Barbados is characterized by overcrowding, slums, high unemployment, inadequate housing, all of those things.
 Part of it is the high level of expectancy and dependency on the Government to deal with it. Everybody wants their house patched. There is a need to rescue urban Barbados.
What’s the UDC’s budget?
Alleyne: Approximately $20 million a year for staff salaries and other things.
Like anything else, we have had to do with less provisions from the Government because of the current financial situation. There was about a 12 per cent cut last year and we suspect we will get a further cut this year. I will not be surprised if there is another cut.
How are you managing the UDC budget?
Alleyne: Since the closure of the loan portfolio, we don’t deal with revenue collection. If we are given a provision of $10 million, half of that would go to salaries, water, electricity and so on, recurrent expenditure. Then, there is the programme budget of about $10 million. 
What are some of the UDC programmes?
Alleyne: Upgrading roads in tenantries where you have sub-divisions, titles and the transfer of titles to the new owners. We would put in roads to facilitate those transfers. UDC also has responsibility for slum clearance, demolition of old houses, attachments to the sewage system and the question of latrines. We also do development projects that would enhance communities.
What about enterprise and entrepreneurial development?
Alleyne: We used to do one. That programme was so badly managed that there is debt of $10 million in loans, unrecoverable loans, provided without collateral or anything.
That was put on hold after the change of Government [in?January 2008] really to do a consolidation of what went out and to find ways to strengthen the loan arrangements and so on.
The current economic situation may make that [impossible] to get back to.
If you want to help small businesses, young entrepreneurs, you can’t be as strong as the banks would be or even some of the development agencies we have. Some people who had no right to public funds [received loans].
What kinds of businesses received loans?
Alleyne: Hairdressing, barber salons, small shops, rum shops; a lot of small businesses like those received funding without even the slightest bitof collateral. Fellows who wanted lawnmowers and weed whackers, those kinds of small business – $300 000, $500 000 was provided.
Taxi drivers got loans to buy cars without the bill of sale. Some are holding on to the bill of sale for the cars and things like that. Once you had a small business and you could apply, you applied . . . mechanic shops, bodywork shops.
How many bad loans are on UDC’s books?
Alleyne: I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I would say about 200. You had people who borrowed $5 000 and never paid a cent. Some paid $15 or $20. We put a lot of them [out] to debt collectors but the problem with it is you have nothing put down in terms of collateral and so on; there is nothing to collect.
Why was such a system created in the first place?
Alleyne: Sometimes, you recognize there is a need. I am not excusing anybody or saying that it was right or justified. But you recognize there is a need and you needto build an enterprise or entrepreneurial class and you look for ways to support that policy initiative. A lot of them were ill-advised loans and grants. Some of them ended up saying they got a grant, [that] nobody told them anythingabout a loan.
 Would you recommend a restarting of that programme?
Alleyne: No, I would recommend a housing loan programme. You have public officers who get a pension of $800 to $1 000 a month who really need some help with a roof and who really don’t want any handouts.
They don’t want any assistance from Government but really would do with a $25 000 to $30 000 loan that the $800 a month pension can manage. They can pay back $300 to $400 a month. That is the kind of assistance I would recommend.
But I don’t think the Government is going to want to do that. You have people who received loans to fix houses, $70 000, and paid back the first instalment and that’s all. We can’t go and levy on the house because we have nothing to levy on. They didn’t sign papers. People then say: “We understand that we got a grant.”
 What are some of your new initiatives?
Alleyne: We just had a lovely programme with Courts Barbados. Courts and UDC identified some people who were really desperate in terms of their needs. We provided the improvements to the houses and Courts outfitted them in terms of beds, furnishings, and so on.
 We are also trying to change thinking about the environment, garbage disposal and so on.
 We are working in the community to change the thinking about urban Barbados. We are providing gardens, not just a house, removing galvanized paling and making it environmentally friendly.
 We are also dealing with social issues like guns, getting guns out of the communities.We are dealing with poverty, meeting with people and talking about their own particular needs rather than just providing a house.
Do we have a serious slum problem?
Alleyne: It’s awful. My view is that we should really move some communities and provide more space. I am conscious of the fact that living in The City provides opportunities for business and trade. Closeness to The City is also attractive.
You also face the challenge that people don’t want to move. But to do a lot of the development in urban Barbados, it really requires that you move out some of the people and put them in suburban Barbados, somewhere.
What about the prevalence of guns?
Alleyne: In many of these urban communities, a gun is a normal thing. Most of the young people in urban Barbados would have seen a gun, would tell you what it looked like and can tell you how to load it.
 The fact is that growing up around a gun can result in death, maiming, power, violence.Therefore, if we are planning any development initiatives, we cannot take that out of the equation.
 The young people live in a world in which death is always facing them. Drugs, marijuana, cocaine are part of their daily existence. I am not despairing but I am just saying we have to adapt our thinking and our programmes must reflect that kind of reality.
 Isn’t that scary?
Alleyne: Young people are not afraid of a gun. You and I are afraid of a gun but young people don’t shy away from the fact that a man has a gun. I am a part of a community group trying to deal with the whole gun issue but it is frightening. Most males, after they get married, have a house and a car; the next acquisition is a gun.
The Police Commissioner and the Attorney General are saddled with gun requests. No matter how you tell them [young people] that a gun doesn’t protect you, that it is a response, they don’t listen.
On a personal note, I think guns should be outlawed to everybody except the police and the [Barbados]?Defence Force.