EDITORIAL: Faith, charity and politics

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There have been some interesting developments in the government’s National Housing Project. First, we have learnt that the government will be employing a number of private local contractors to build houses from scratch, in an effort to speed up construction, and we also learnt that the jobsite in Paynters has slowed because of a lack of materials. This has caused the temporary layoff of approximately 200 workers.
For what has been painted as a closely managed project, we were a bit surprised to hear that management only learnt of the materials shortage during the weekend and decided to send workers home on Monday. We are not construction managers, but logic tells us that supply management is one of the most important aspects in construction. We should add that we reached out to some well-known contractors to make sure our logic was not faulty.  
In any case, supply management is not the topic for today; subsidisation and politics are.  We have long been told that the government was subsidising the houses in the National Housing Project and that the workers are underpaid given their skillsets. At the key handing over ceremony at Dredge Bay a year ago, the Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, made it clear that the housing project was a not-for-profit entity and, in fact, the houses were being subsidised to the point that he invoked the descriptive word “charity” when praising the housing initiative.
The underpaid workers always had a gripe with the arrangement and have let their feeling be known. Many in the public also had gripes with the subsidies being afforded the few lucky homeowners. Those who struggled with mortgage payments were upset that their tax dollars went to subsidise another person’s home, while those who could not afford a home were upset at the priority list established for becoming a lucky subsidised homeowner. Like the underpaid workers, they complained that they would never qualify but were being asked to contribute.
The discontent subsided over time. Some attributed it to frustrated acceptance and others simply overcame their objections by convincing themselves that it was good for society if people were being afforded the opportunity to own homes.  That move-to-the-back-of-the-mind acceptance has recently been reversed, and the complaints have resurfaced with the news that private contractors will be engaged by the government to speed up the construction.
In the minds of those who had issues with the subsidised homes, they are now of the opinion that the use of private contractors will drive up the cost of the homes and require an even greater subsidy from their pockets. For those who have always seen the “500 homes in 500 days” as nothing more than politics they have already begun to say, “I told you so.”  In their minds, the true intent and politics of the scheme are now coming to fruition. Their first assertion is that the move to employ private contractors is simply to make things look good for the newly minted Minister of Lands Maria Bird-Browne. They have also concluded that the private contractors were always part of the plan and are openly querying the process for picking the “lucky” contractors.
It is probably too early to jump to those conclusions seeing that we know so little, but the questions are valid. Was there a tenders process and, if so, how was it published and what were the terms? Who are the private contractors selected? Will there be an increase in the cost of construction, and will it be passed on to the buyers? How is the materials shortage being addressed with the private contractors? Are the contractors sourcing their own materials?  Are private contractors paying the same rate to their workers as the government?
These are just some of the many questions we are fielding on the matter. It is clear that the National Housing Project has moved from the back of people’s minds to the front, and they have a lot of questions. We will seek to get as many answers as we can, but it would be in the government’s best interest to address them head on. It is too late to be proactive in this situation. An immediate reaction is necessary; otherwise, this will become a festering sore. Every time there is a key handing over ceremony or something positive to report, it will be overshadowed by the lingering questions and the increasing perception that this is less about “faith and charity,” as the PM put it last year, and more about politics as usual.
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