EDITORIAL: Booby Alley redevelopment

Every time we hear the phrase “compulsory acquisition” we cringe.  We do so because our governments have not been very successful in carrying out this high-risk manoeuvre and it usually comes down to a flawed process, poor communication and/or lack of money.  

The latest target of the government is Booby Alley in the Point Area.  The administration has grand plans for urban redevelopment and they intend to acquire the lands in that area for that purpose.  Later this week, the politicians will head to parliament to acquire the lands from the legal owners in order to support the redevelopment initiative.  Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who is also the Member of Parliament for that area, said that after the matter is deliberated in Parliament, the Senate will pass the resolution the following week.  After that, all the properties will belong to the government of Antigua and Barbuda.  Poof! Just like that! 

Before we go any further, let us be clear that we support urban redevelopment and the upgrade of sub-standard living conditions, so we do not have a fundamental problem with the overall concept, especially if the current land owners are fully on board and the process is transparent.  The last thing we want to hear is that there were any sweetheart deals cut or that the landowners did not get their money.  Basically, we do not want another Half Moon Bay situation where land is acquired and the owners have to fight to get paid. 

We should never seek to acquire land if we do not have the money to pay for it immediately or on mutually agreed terms, and we should never acquire land from one private individual to sell or give it to another.  

The vehicle for compulsory acquisition of land is the Land Acquisition Act.  The very first paragraph of that Act states, “If the Cabinet considers that any land should be acquired for a public purpose they may, with the approval of the Legislature, cause a declaration to that effect be made by the secretary to the Cabinet in the manner provided by this section, and the declaration shall be conclusive evidence that the land to which it relates is required for a public purpose.”  Note the reference to “public purpose,” not once, but twice in that initial paragraph.  This reference is always up for debate, but the interpretation has been largely settled in the aforementioned Half Moon Bay saga and needs not be rehashed here.  You can determine if it is fully applicable here.

What is interesting in this scenario is the fact that the land is occupied.  The Prime Minister has stated that residents currently living in the area will be compensated for their existing homes.  So the acquisition cost is land plus current homes. Then the PM says that the government will relocate residents to apartment complexes that the government will build.  So, now the acquisition cost is land, plus current home, plus relocation, plus housing construction.  Then, after temporarily housing the Booby Alley residents in the nearby apartment complex, tear down and construction will begin.  Cost, plus, plus, plus!

The end result is expected to be condominium-style homes that are supposed to give residents in Booby Alley and squatters living in Perry Bay an opportunity to own better housing, or rent better housing, since the project will be comprised of mainly rental properties.  So, are we to understand that the government will make a strong entry into the residential rental market, utilising the heavily subsidised homes that will be the result of this urban renewal project?  That is an interesting development, but we will say no more until we have all the details of how this will be established and managed.  

Beyond the obvious holes in that plan (based on the information released), we already know from the Prime Minister that the government expects to spend in excess of $20 million on the Booby Alley redevelopment.  Earlier this year, he said that he was hoping to secure some of those funds through a grant from the government of Mexico.  That was followed by an October announcement that the government also accepted a grant of EC $100 million from the People’s Republic of China to go towards the construction of 250 homes; 150 of them in Booby Alley. EC $120 million is a lot of money and we are sure expectations will be very high. 

The question will be, can the government successfully execute this high risk

manoeuvre  without the taint of scandal?  We sure hope so, because as a nation, we do not have a good track record when money, land, and compulsory acquisitions collide.

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