13 September 2009

Preying on the Public Interest


John Maxwell

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jamaica's so-called Urban Development Corporation (UDC) is not about urban development - no matter what its name says. It has been my contention for years that this entity would be more aptly named the Universal Devastation Conglomerate to better reflect what it actually does.

I must declare interest, since I have been personally involved in disputes with the UDC for more than 30 years - as every sensible Jamaican would be if they knew the facts. My first run-in with the UDC came in 1974 when, as I have previously related here, I attended a news conference the UDC had mounted to impress its new minister, Allan Isaacs.

Great was the consternation when I asked the chairman of the UDC, Moses Matalon, for a copy of the corporation's annual report. There was none. Could I have the previous year's? There was none, and so right back to the formation of the UDC six years before. There was more pandemonium when I asked why had the UDC, a government agency, been involved in borrowing money, by way of IOUs, in foreign currency from money lenders in New York. Allan Isaacs was livid, thought the UDC had made a fool of him, and demanded that before anything else was done the corporation should produce annual reports for the missing years. The UDC eventually produced a document, alleged to be the consolidated annual reports from 1968. The only useful fact contained therein was confirmation of my statement about IOUs.

Nobody was ever fired for these delinquencies and Moses - who was "God" before Vin Lawrence - continued happily destroying 'God-forsaken mangroves', pumping sewage into the sea and inflating our foreign exchange debt as he thought appropriate. After 35 years and at least three or four chairmen and an unknown number of new boards, little seems to have changed.

The last UDC Annual Report covers the year 2005 but, from internal evidence, was obviously presented late.

A run-through of the Annual Report confirmed the impression I have always had of the UDC - lots of marvellous chat but little effective action. The UDC's skin has been saved by successive governments giving it duties once more, economically and competently undertaken by the Public Works Department and the Building Section of the Ministry of Education.

Meanwhile, mouldering away in countless dusty filing cabinets are lavish brochures produced by the corporation over the years promising to redevelop downtown Kingston, to redevelop Rae Town, to create a misconceived 'city' at Hellshire and generally to revolutionise urban development in various towns across Jamaica, to rehouse people in 'de ghetto' and to provide civilised services to urban areas. Instead, it has become Jamaica's largest property speculator and real estate developer, though why we need one financed by public funds is a question only the IMF can answer. Few of the projects described in the brochure have come to fruition. Hellshire is a collection of suburban tract developments in a desert: Hellshire gets far less rain than any other part of Jamaica.

Yet, the geniuses at the UDC, in 1977, were planning to pump their sewage into a pristine underground lake of 'connate' water, formed more than half a million years ago. We at the NRCA managed to stop them then, but it is very likely that the corporation's resident demon has again convinced them that this transcendental act of environmental sacrilege is, after all, a good idea.

The UDC has had more than its share of disasters: at Negril, where its obstinate refusal to listen to environmental advice has ruined seven miles of beach and Jamaica's second most important wetland, itself a potent attraction if properly husbanded. Then there is the catastrophic debacle of Ackendown/Sandals Whitehouse which ended in enormous cost overruns and a black eye for Sandals which was unable to open the hotel on time because the building was still unfinished after huge delays and millions in wasted foreign exchange.

There are more than a dozen companies subsidiary to the UDC, many of them moribund monuments to Big Thinking. Most of them were chaired by 'God'.

The Beach-stealing Campaign

At this moment the UDC is engaged in a campaign to rid ordinary Jamaicans of their public beaches. They have already disposed of Pear Tree Cove (Bahia Principe) and are doing their damnedest to screw us out of the Winniefred (sic) Rest Home Beach, claiming, against all evidence and logic, to be the legal owners of the property. The UDC is now attempting to sell the Cardiff Hall Public Beach. Caveat Emptor! The corporation has already hauled before the court several handicraft vendors, charging them with trespassing on this desirable 'beachfront property'.

This is a replay of what the UDC did on Hellshire Beach. After more than 30 years of trying to deny the fishermen the 10 or so acres given to them by the Government in 1978, the UDC, illegally and with maximum malice, began to bulldoze the dwellings on the ground that the fishermen were trespassing on UDC property. This, despite the fact that the UDC had handed over the title of the property to the Cooperatives Department in trust for the Hellshire Fishermen's cooperative.

This was another blow to weaken and further destabilise the idea of public ownership of the beach with the result that the Halfmoon Bay Fisherman's Cooperative has been almost destroyed and middle-class squatters have built illegal structures on the beach.

In its wisdom the UDC, against scientific advice, constructed an illegal groyne at the exit to Jackass Water Hole - obviously pre-named in honour of the UDC - and this groyne for years starved Halfmoon Bay Beach of its sand. The sand is now back and has reawakened the lusts of property developers of all kinds, no doubt including the UDC and certain councillors of the Portmore municipal council which never had any connection with Halfmoon Bay.

In St Ann, at Cardiff Hall, as at Portland's Winniefred Beach, the UDC is engaged in a struggle to take illegal possession of one of the first of Norman Manley's public beaches.

When I was chairman of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (and Beach Control Authority) 1977 to 1980, the public had unrestricted access to just over 10 miles of beach while private licensees had privileged access to about another 10 miles out of Jamaica's 488 miles of sea coast. The NRCA was about to recommend the abolition of private beach licences, just around the time of the 1980 elections. Mr Seaga, with his penchant for destroying or renaming anything authored by Norman Manley, decided he would privatise public beaches. There were no takers then, and because of the Government's continuing negligence, most public beaches fell into neglect and remained in varying states of desuetude throughout Mr Patterson's generations in office.
'Me bags dat!'

This made them inviting targets for predators such as the UDC who could come in and say that the beaches - as at Hope Gardens and Long Mountain - were not being 'used'. This doctrine could, of course, be used to capture all kinds of public property including schools, parks, courthouses and even parliament, if the predator chose the right moment!

The UDC appears to have a way to acquire apparent title to public property. Public beaches can under the law only be divested by a procedure outlined in the Beach Control Act. As far as anyone knows, that has not happened either at Cardiff Hall or Winniefred Beach, which means that what the UDC is trying to do is illegal. Does the Public Defender, I wonder, have a duty to defend the public interest? Public property is a public trust and it is more than obscene when so-called public corporations are allowed to pillage and loot public property and to abuse the human rights of people and their economic interest in that property.

The rest of us are so poor that we cannot challenge malevolent dinosaurs of the ferocity and strength of the UDC. The public interest is in trouble in many places, but nowhere more so than in this allegedly free country.

Copyright©2009 John Maxwell jankunnu@gmail.com

No comments: