NHT must get back on right path
In November 2008, then Leader of the Opposition Portia Simpson Miller blasted the Bruce Golding-led Government for the purchase of lands at Ferry, St Catherine.
Simpson Miller led the choir of People's National Party (PNP) voices which accused Golding of nepotism and undue personal interest in the purchase of lands.
The PNP charged that Golding's motivation for the land purchase was to rescue the Hydel Group of Schools, owned by then Government Senator Hyacinth Bennett.
Fast forward nearly four years and the PNP, led by Simpson Miller, is being accused of doing the same thing by using the National Housing Trust (NHT) to purchase property housing the Outameni Experience attraction in Trelawny.
While many Jamaicans, rightfully incensed about the purchase, are quick to label it a bailout, The Gavel will await either an admission from the Government or further and better particulars before making a determination in that regard.
Tomorrow, Simpson Miller is scheduled to answer questions posed by Andrew Holness, the leader of the opposition, on the Outameni purchase. The questions are not only pertinent, but timely. One hopes that the prime minister will address them fulsomely and be in a position to answer the follow-up questions. The worst thing that could happen is for politics to trump national interest in getting the full story on the Outameni transaction.
One also hopes that the posture Simpson Miller adopted in 2008 will not be dissimilar to the one she will take tomorrow. For those who may not recall, Simpson Miller, in respect to the Ferry lands, remarked in 2008 that "this misuse of public funds is unacceptable, especially in a climate where businesses are struggling to finance their operations; it is an abuse of public resources for the State's funds to be used in this way".
She now needs to convince Jamaica that the decision that the NHT should purchase the Outameni Experience attraction for $180 million was not a misuse of funds, especially in a climate where businesses are struggling to finance their operations.
The Gavel believes that while corruption may be difficult to prove in either case, or may even be nonexistent, the country could be spared these unnecessary blemishes to its already tattered image if a single policy governing land acquisition by any state agency were instituted. A great place to start is to bar all state agencies, except for the National Land Agency (NLA), from purchasing or disposing of assets over a certain value.
For example, the board of the NLA would be allowed to carry out transactions where the property being bought or sold on the Government's behalf is no more than $10 million.
All transactions above that limit should be subject to either Cabinet or parliamentary approval. This safeguard would go a far way in removing the taint of corruption and sweetheart deals which may follow purchases, especially in the context of our increasingly polarised society.
Government agencies should not be allowed to hop around and engage in activities that do not significantly advance the interest of those it has been set up to serve. Thus, the NHT, in the context of so many Jamaicans being unable to purchase or even lease decent affordable housing solutions, ought to be reminded of its mandate and be made to slavishly follow the rules.
It should not be in the business of running attractions, parks, donkey rides or other unapproved roles it might have taken on. The Trust should not be allowed to be all things to all people.
An examination of reports submitted to a parliamentary committee makes it clear that the NHT has been doing a poor job of following its own budget for the disbursement of funds for home construction.
The NHT's housing budget this year is $22.37 billion but, if the trend, which has been seen in the first four months continues, the entity will fall short.
NHT board failure
This falling short, however, should not be viewed as merely an accounting exercise. Instead, it underlines the failure of the Trust's board of directors and its management to, in the first instance, properly assess the state of play, and secondly, implement the targeted programmes in such a manner that redounds to the maximum benefit of its contributors.
When government agencies appear before the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), there should be a requirement for their directors to furnish the committee with a list of all proposed investment projects as well as the reports of all due diligence that has been undertaken in that regard.
I long for the day when the NHT will consider creating housing stock for young professionals in major urban centres. These properties would then be leased for a period of no more than five years. It would insulate young professionals leaving tertiary institutions from greedy, blood-sucking landlords by charging reasonable rates. These young depositors would be put in a position to move from these starter homes straight into their own NHT homes since they would have been able to save up the deposit to make that first step.
This current Outameni experience should serve as a wake-up call for all concerned to ensure that steps are taken to ensure the NHT fulfills it mandate to deliver housing solutions, build communities, provide contributions refunds and influence the market to make housing more affordable.
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