ON REFLECTION: Squatting – and doing what’s right
In preparing for a general election, a government must also naturally prepare for the eventuality of leaving office, and therefore the last-minute efforts to clean house by way of legislation is quite in order and may even be commendable.
I commend, for instance, the bringing to Parliament in recent months of the Employment Rights Bill which is about to be proclaimed, and also having on the Order Paper of the Lower House the Holidays With Pay Bill. These are pieces of labour-related legislation, which is also to include the Sexual Harassment Bill, that were supposed to have been debated for some time but were deferred by subsequent administrations for varying reasons.
There’s also the Prevention of Corruption Bill, which is based on the much-touted integrity legislation promised in the Democratic Labour Party’s last manifesto, and passed recently in the Lower House and the Senate.
As we come to the end of this Government’s five-year term, the Foundations Bill has also been quickly and recently passed in the Lower House and probably remains the last piece of legislation up for debate in the Upper Chamber before Parliament is dissolved.
I commend these last-ditch efforts because five years is not a long time, but I’m a little concerned about the National Housing Corporation (Transfer of Terrace Units) Bill which, while coming on the heels of several housing-related pieces of legislation, including compulsory acquisitions of land, seems sudden.
The NHC bill includes laws to cover the erstwhile illegal extensions which tenants had built onto units as they became overcrowded or as many unemployed or lowly paid tenants sought to open small business entities.
But no matter how well anyone has argued the situation, the bill passed in both houses of Parliament last week basically legitimizes an illegality. And while many will admire the decision, one must obviously ask why should we then frown on some other lawbreaker who is doing what he or she needs to survive.
These extensions to the NHC units were built over the space of nearly two decades, but administration after administration turned a blind eye as the illegal structures multiplied and made the flouting of basic Town and Country Planning regulations an accepted norm.
It therefore reached the point where the former administration found itself in a major bind and took measures that now appear confusing.
The Barbados Labour Party Government quite rightly wanted tenants to eventually own these units and decided to put some up for sale. Nothing seemed wrong on the face of that, but when you consider that an administration, replete with legal brains, knew that even if you sold tenants the units they would eventually fail to get proper titles simply because the Town and Country Planning Department could not have issued certificates of compliance regarding these extensions, one must wonder why they were offered for sale.
The current administration, coming to office in 2008, decided that once tenants had lived in the units for 20 years and had paid up their rental fees, they would automatically qualify to own the units. Again wonderful on the face of it, but the extensions still existed. Both governments were putting the cart before the horse.
To call upon over 2 000 tenants across Barbados to knock down these extensions would have been a bit extreme though being legally correct. Furthermore, to bulldoze them at this time of economic recession when Barbados is seeking to create an environment of entrepreneurship would also have sent a very damning signal.
Many of these tenants, either unemployed or among the most lowly paid in the society, would have added the illegal wooden structures in an effort to bring in an income via garages, bars, restaurants, barber shops, hairdressing salons or other small business entities; so to destroy them would have spelt disaster from which many families would not have recovered.
Furthermore, on the verge of an election, no government would want to do the above.
It is quite hypocritical of anyone, therefore, to politicize this after successive administrations had failed to deal with it. Unfortunately, too, it has been raised alongside the issue of the Belle squatters and the illegal use of water in that Zone 1 area.
It’s easy to moralize but sometimes people must do what they have to in order to survive, and while I’m not condoning illegal activity, as a friend of mine often says, “it is what it is”.
• Ricky Jordan is an Associate Editor of THE NATION.