Families, houses and garrisons
Immediately after slavery was abolished the ex-slaves lived on the hillsides in wattle and daub housing. When there was a shortage of jobs in rural Jamaica, many left the countryside to flock the towns and created slums. So there was a dire need for housing.
Norman Manley established Jamaica Welfare for rural development in 1937. This was really the first effort to deal with the housing shortage in Jamaica by means of self-help housing. The Roman Catholic Church at Homestead in Bamboo, St Ann, built the first housing scheme in Jamaica. The thinking of the Church was to build a family there should be a home and to have a home there should be a house. This was also the thinking of Jamaica Welfare that existed to encourage people to return to banana farming in the rural areas.
Later came ‘government yard’ in Trench Town. It was built to shelter families after the disastrous effects of Hurricane Charlie in 1951. In the late 1950s, middle-class housing schemes like Mona Heights, followed by Harbour View in 1960, were built in addition to low-income housing in places like Duhaney Park. A certain amount of housing also was erected in other parishes including Manchester.
And the housing schemes continued into the 1960s and beyond. According to a radio broadcast made by Norman Manley in 1966, it was he who sought and attained the money from the late US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy to build the West Kingston housing scheme known today as Tivoli Gardens.
In the old Jamaica Now magazines put out by the Jamaica Information Service, there are pictures of the elder Manley on a tour of the slums in western Kingston. No one has ever publicly denied what Norman Manley said about his role in securing overseas funding for housing in Western Kingston. And no one countered the late John Maxwell when he wrote as much.
In 1966, the slums at Back-o-Wall were bulldozed and the people who resisted the police were locked up. The circumstances under which Tivoli Gardens came into being were not pleasant at all.
Edward Seaga was already the Member of Parliament for West Kingston having been elected in 1962. In 1966 he was the minister of development and welfare.
Then came the housing schemes in the neighbouring political constituency of St Andrew South Western. At that time the sitting Member of Parliament was housing minister David Clement Tavares. There were many reports in the Star newspaper that applicants for the houses had to have their Jamaica Labour Party branch cards and recommendations from local political leaders. This, I believe, was the start of garrison politics and all of what that entails.
Both major political parties have been guilty of this sort of thing. The politicians who only wanted to create safe seats in Parliament for themselves and their parties hijacked the initial concept of housing to encourage family life. Eventually there was a system that in theory prevented the granting of houses only to supporters of the ruling party, but ways and means were found to get around this.
Only a system of proportional representation in Parliament can get rid of the garrison concept. As long as the Government is chosen by the number of seats won in the House of Representatives, as in the Westminster model, we will always have this problem. The Westminster model may work very well in other societies such as Great Britain where it originated, as well as in Canada and Australia, but does it work well for us?
Proportional representation has its drawbacks, but Jamaica should try this system for at least 25 years before changing to anything else. Who knows, we may even find that proportional representation is the best thing for Jamaica. Many words have been said about the fact that garrison politics has been bad for Jamaica. But when it suits some people they accuse Members of Parliament of not having built large housing schemes in their constituencies.
In recent times housing has become a political issue once again. Peter Phillips has come under a lot of attack from at least one quarter — although he is yet to assume the presidency of the People’s National Party or the office of leader of the Opposition. Substandard housing in his St Andrew East Central constituency has been criticised as if there are no pockets of substandard housing in other urban constituencies.
As an aside, the actions of some supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party suggest that they are very worried about their election prospects with Peter Phillips as their chief rival. If not, they would be comfortable with Phillips, who they say can be defeated easily.
Hundreds of thousands of houses have been built and there have been other physical improvements. Wasn’t there a decision long ago to spread out the housing into Portmore and other areas and not pack small areas with a bigger population? How many people from St Andrew East Central got houses over in Portmore?
Are lands in the southern section of St Andrew East Central acquirable for housing? If they were, wouldn’t both major political parties in Jamaica during their time in office have built houses there to turn the constituency into a garrison for their party? Do we improve family life if we pack houses in a small geographical area, as is the case in parts of Kingston and St Andrew? No, we do not.
Housing should be spread out to give people space between themselves, which translates into less violence. I argued this point in the early 1990s when Olivia “Babsy” Grange ran and lost in Kingston Central. One of her proposals was to pack the constituency with more houses. We need to go back to the concept where houses were built first to create shelter and second to create homes for families.