Operation PRIDE, the PNP and Holness's 20,000 titles

BY PAUL BUCHANAN

Sunday, April 22, 2018

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By now the People's National Party (PNP) should realise that Andrew Holness cannot be underestimated. He is a cross between Mother Teresa and Machiavelli.

If my fellow Comrades thought we had won the battle of budget presentations 2018 with Mark Golding's dramatic tour de force or Peter Phillip's magnanimous nationalistic offering, that would have been highly premature.

With precision-like certainty, Holness would research every blow delivered by the Opposition, prepare a response that resonates with voters and social media, then present a rebuttal of over five hours if necessary. Ever mindful of his fragile parliamentary majority, he understands that to hold and consolidate power, timing and political will is paramount. Every manoeuvre, every tactic, however unacceptable, is dispassionately planned four steps ahead; any fallout will be dealt with later.

As with his old rival, the battered, tested and now substituted Caribbean Finance Minister of the Year, Audley Shaw, who gave him the unbacked 2016 election — winning tax rebate ploy or the long loyalty of Derrick Smith, there are no alliances so important or friendships so dear that cannot be sacrificed. Concurrently, there is no office, institution or practice too sacrosanct that cannot be disturbed; whether the appointment of a chief justice, the naming of a highway or the repeated use of State funds to influence elections. Nor for a moment will he forget former Finance Minister Dr Omar Davies' 'run wid it' fiscal misstep, to justify the last.

Moreover, his recruitment of the academically-brilliant Nigel Clarke of PNP lineage and his determination to appoint him minister of finance tell of an enduring political will that will back his play, however inauspicious. To be fair, in all this, he has not shirked responsibility for his actions, which undeniable speaks to strong leadership, despite being distasteful to his detractors. Mentored by the unbending Edward Seaga and supported by a wife with solid ground intuition, Holness's modus operandi bespeaks the makeup of the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) version of a modern political leader.

Predictably therefore, he along with an assortment of JLP activists had to counter Peter's powerful, innovative call for secure tenure to small farmers and the shelterless masses using overarching legislation backed by unclaimed NHT refunds:

“We commit to the 700,000 Jamaicans languishing without land titles in so-called squatter communities to transform their quality of life.”

In response, Holness simply announced a similar legislative plan, but sought to exceed Peter's equitable purpose with his stated intention to deliver 20,000 new solutions over the next three years, to be coordinated by one public body created from a merger of LAMP and National Land Agency. Then he over-anxiously sought to complete his political assault on Phillips' programme by incorrectly stating that the 20,000 titles at 2021 will exceed the performance of all administrations over the last 22 years. For sure, this non-factual announcement would have caught the PNP flat-footed, given that its last two administrations provided no noticeable advances in housing or land distribution.

Pity then that the PN,P having distanced itself from the Operation PRIDE initiative, would not have been able to counter Holness's latest promise. That would have been easily accomplished with PRIDE's 30,010 shelter solutions and 28,000 titles, the last of which was handed over in 2005 at Pleasant Heights, Wareika Hills, by Prime Minister P J Patterson. Using a median family of five, there are few socio-economic advances in Jamaica's long history that exceeds the direct impact of 150,000 beneficiaries under Operation PRIDE.

Importantly too, nowhere does the Holness announcement speak specifically to shelter solutions for the hundreds of thousands of unbridled squatters on marginal lands without income, environmental decency and hope. Given the financial limitations, titles, though necessary as a base, must be underpinned by an incremental minimum standard infrastructure- shelter mechanism accompanied by training and micro sector credit included in Phillips's plan.

The real property maxim still holds, land by itself has no value, it is the contractual rights in land.' The great majority of squatters are to be found on epidemic-prone marginal lands, that will attract no mortgages for upgrade unless by Government mandate to the National Housing Trust (NHT). Without plans for relocation to more environmentally friendly lands, no tenure programme lacking infrastructural upgrade will be comprehensive in scope or purposeful in its transformational reach.

Even applying Seaga's insightful call to prioritise early childhood education as an assured base for later marketable skills, it will not meet the 'here and now' test to counter the exploding squatter problem and resultant criminality. There is no deep NHT financial trough, whether long-term mortgage loans or unclaimed refunds, that will be sufficient to treat with the infrastructure imperatives of the estimated 700,000 squatters.

These were the fields of deprivation in which Operation PRIDE scored highly but pointedly remain part of its unfinished agenda. The JLP, having not sought to recognise or learn from its positives and omissions, have now come to the table without full knowledge of PRIDE's blueprint for success. Largely unknown to its detractors was the $3 billion commendably repaid by its beneficiaries against expenditure of $7.2 billion at 2007. Painfully also was the 28,000 titles left in vaults of the Housing Agency of Jamaica that were unkindly handed over by succeeding PNP and JLP administrations without reference or respect to the PRIDE dispensation.

At the same time, PRIDE was not only confined to security of tenure for informal settlers. In the spring of 1997, as head of PRIDE, I informed Prime Minister Patterson that along with minister of state Phyllis Mitchell and the Minister of Housing Easton Douglas, in the presence of the Minister of Water and Land Robert Pickersgill, we were firmly told by the Chairman of the National Water Commission (NWC) that the NWC lands at Mona Estate, Karachi, Beverly Hills, Havendale and Langston/Deanery Road would only pass to Operation PRIDE' 'over his dead body'.

In his usual unflappable manner, with his glasses delicately perched on his nose, Patterson calmly counselled:

“Mr Buchanan, there are many senior public servants, including a number of judges who have served this country, living in Government houses for a long time and forgot that they are not their own. We must do something for them. I will speak to the minister. Please prepare a Cabinet submission for the NWC lands.”

Within a month the Cabinet submission was approved, the planned developments began, the NWC chairman replaced, and he did not die. At this juncture, Minister Douglas and myself were subjected to death threats from persons unknown for 'bringing Riverton to Beverly Hills'. But there could be no threats or 'Operation Shame' propaganda to surmount the political will of a determined prime minister.

Later, Long Mountain in Beverly Hills and Wellington Heights would be included under a joint venture with private developers and the Ministry of Housing. Mona Estate is now being advertised for public tender of contractors by the present JLP Administration. Irrevocably allotted under Patterson's watch on those once exclusive enclaves were two former commissioners of police, other senior officers, judges, public servants, nurses, doctors, teachers, private professionals and members of the working class. This is only a part of the unacknowledged achievement of the PNP's land reform initiative that the JLP has continuously denigrated.

Again, when the late Dr Sydney Beaumont, MP for Manchester Central, vowed to block the PRIDE projects at Clover and Fisher Road in the off-limit Belair section of Mandeville, the PRIDE team simply applied Patterson's edict. Dr Beaumont would live long enough to see both projects accommodate public sector workers who selflessly served Jamaica, his children and himself.

Then came Easton Douglas's ill-conceived merger of Operation PRIDE with the Caribbean Housing Finance Corporation and the National Housing Corporation. The undiluted culture of caring and partnership with the less fortunate that brought forth new-found financial responsibility, and engendered 'sweat equity' critical to the success of the PRIDE Programme, was not only disrupted by the merger, but in its wake came imposters who knew not or cared for our mission; they sought not to build but to appropriate that which they had not earned. These were peripheral players outside the PRIDE team. If there was any 'scandal', it was theirs and not PRIDE's. Inevitably, their alleged activities led to the appointment of the Angus Commission.

Having been set back by the resignation of its minister in the aftermath of the findings of the Angus Commission, Patterson apart, few if any other Comrades or Labourites read the final report. If they did, they would have clearly concluded that there was no 'PRIDE Scandal'. After one of the most aggressive national enquiries and rigorous forensic audits, not a single member of the PRIDE team was implicated.

They would have concurred, also, that the alleged irregularities were to be found in the actions of the Caribbean Engineering Company Ltd (CECL), a unit established in the Ministry of Housing, to provide technical assistance to Operation PRIDE. Referred to as “a Brotherhood” by the Angus Commission, it included men who are to be found in all administrations — with the same DNA as that of the JLP education Minister J Z Malcolm, who went to prison for selling farm work tickets in 1953 or their MP, Lester Simmonds, who served time on criminal charges; another who served time for corruption at the Ministry of Transport and Works in the early 1990s; JAG Smith, who went to prison in the 1990s in another farm work scandal or activists who removed light poles after elections and sell non-existent police cars to the present JLP Government.

Further, the exoneration of Minister of Housing Dr Karl Blythe by the late Dr Kenneth Rattray QC — Privy Councillor, former Solicitor General, a brilliant jurist of impeccable character, who was honoured with the Order of Jamaica for his invaluable service to the nation — had no hint of partisanship or “white wash”— an unvalidated charge blasphemously rehashed by a far lesser man, the JLP's employee, Garfield Higgins, in his Observer Agenda column of February 18, 2018. Rattray's central finding was that Blythe, in his capacity as 'Minister of Housing Corporation Sole', had the legal right and power to correct the exploding squatter problem by accelerating the programme as he saw fit.

They would have found, too, as Rattray did, that the use of the term cost overruns in respect of expenditure on PRIDE projects was inappropriate and, more critically based on a serious misunderstanding of the PRIDE mandate. As was expected, Higgins pointedly and purposefully omitted two of Rattray's most important findings in this regard:

“…the Commissions conclusions in relation to undue ministerial influence are based on factual inaccuracies, on false premises and a failure to appreciate the nature of Operation PRIDE, the constitutional responsibility of the Minister and the responsibilities of the Minister under the Housing Act.”

“…the Commissions conclusions in relation to over- expenditure are based on a flawed definition of what constitutes over-expenditure and represent a fundamental mis-understanding or departure from the well-established and generally accepted notions of over-expenditure in the construction industry”

Further, Higgins' unabashed efforts to score points and to reduce the PNP's land reform advances has exposed the full extent of his campaign of misinformation by his repetition of Seaga's incorrect overrun claim on the 10 large projects that were submitted to the Angus Commission:

“The actual cost of these projects is projected [at] $7.2 billion an overrun of $5.5-billion.”

The term “cost overrun” cannot be applied to a projection. Additionally, he further claimed that only $1.82 billion of the projected sum was expended. But while Seaga's error is unpardonable, Higgins' repeated use of valuable space in the Sunday Observer to cite this non-existent “$5.5 billion cost overrun” as evidence of his 'PRIDE scandal' speaks ominously to the damaging dissemination of hearsay and political denigration by a devious mind.

The situation is compounded by the totally discredited source of the document from which Seaga quoted, which also exposes the shallow hearsay and lack of proper research which attends the many regurgitations that lace Higgins' weekly political offerings. His '$5.5 billion' came from the plotted course of a shady group, without a reliable business address, called “The Independent Consultants”, whose sole objective was to cause the removal of Dr Blythe, by undertaking a fallacious report on PRIDE and enlisting the eager support of the JLP and its leader in their design. Inevitably, their findings known as the Independent Consultant's Report (ICR), which was submitted by the JLP leader, was harshly criticised and rejected by the Angus Commission for its lack of credibility, which Higgins would have known:

“The conclusions reached in the ICR with respect to project overruns and the time and cost for completion were apparently designed to create sensationalism and the Commission considers it to have been unworthy of consultants engaged in a project such as this simply to extrapolate time and cost based on historical data relating to projects (some of which had been in the pipeline for upwards of five years) and can provide nothing useful to the persons who commissioned the report”.

For those who would want to perpetuate the monumental wrong, it is important to understand that Prime Minister Patterson, also an eminent jurist and Queen's Counsel, would have concurred with Rattray's irrefutable legal findings regarding Dr Blythe's exoneration. Ultimately, however, he yielded to the long-held convention of ministerial accountability regarding the alleged actions of subordinates in the Ministry of Housing and accepted the minister's resignation.

With the nation misled as to the transformational work of PRIDE and its officers, it is now time to recount their perilous journey and the redeeming outcomes in those forbidden zones. I remember well the angry women bereft of empathy, conditioned by hard years and burdened by too many children. They supported their barely-literate men who intimidatingly sharpened two-edged cutlasses while swearing to the 'Almighty' that 'blood will run', before they give up an inch of land they did not own. Always menacing in protection of their captured ground and in vulgar satisfaction with their 'rough cut' tracks and illegally connected utilities, these 'brownfield' dwellers countenanced no formality or subdivision of the Crown properties on which they settled. They barred physical planners, land surveyors, pacifying churchmen and policemen too.

Who were these PRIDE officers whose work and worth propagandists like Garfield Higgins continue to debase? In this season of political intrigue and cowardice, their redemption will not easily come. As their leader, however, I cannot wait. I must pay personal tribute and set their history right. In this I borrow the words of Chronixx, that wonderful poet of the people by paraphrasing the chorus of his song,

Legend, which captures the essence of their contribution:

“Yesterday a little boy asked, sir tell me who were they?

I told him they were legends that you never heard of before, they were lions, but you never heard them roar.

They were heroes that nobody celebrates.

But if one person remembers their names, that means they made a change.”

The first of them was Anthony Garth Shaw, an unforgotten benefactor of Rae Town and its people; a man of princely generosity and unbounded benevolence who sacrificed himself, defying his chronic heart condition while overseeing successful PRIDE projects on the north coast such as, Belle Aire, Mount Edgecombe and Mammee Bay. On a faraway morning, body overworked and ravaged by numerous ailments, Tony left us, still hearing the dastard political echoes of those who mocked our work.

Even more painful was the sojourn of Ann-Marie Ramsey, and indefatigable social science major who personified caring and unvarnished love for others. Challenged by the indescribable poverty and deprivation of a slum settlement adjoining the Dyke Road, St Catherine, unkindly referred to as 'Lesser Portmore', she fought through repeated asthma attacks to uplift the lives of those forgotten Jamaicans. Today the proud community renamed Portmore Villas, with tertiary sewerage treatment, asphalted roads and proper utilities, stands as a shining testimony to her labour of grace. Her work completed, our good God called her home.

At the beginning also was Ophelia Dawes, the versatile administrator who doubled as a field officer; Pamela Davies, the capable former housing officer who exuded charm and effective management in coordinating the Manchester and St Ann projects, and the brilliant Marcia Scarlett who championed the cause of the forgotten communities of western Jamaica.

Then came others like Franklyn “Bowla” Morant, the former Kingston College sports hero now bent from struggle in that ungrateful time who, with his 1964-65 Manning Cup football KC teammate Michael Vernon, partnered with the quintessential social engineer Robert Campbell in converting the numerous inner-city communities of Kingston, including Riverton City, which became a UN Habitat Best Practice Model in 1997. We must honour too the work of my deputy, the no-nonsense Dennis Gordon, the former Camperdown man, St Thomas and Melbourne Cricket Club batsman and slow bowler, who successfully brought home the most troubled projects islandwide.

Everton Pryce, the Sussex University first-class honours graduate and UWI lecturer, whose cerebral interventions propelled him to the worker's seat on the HAJ board and the senior deputy slot covering for the formidable Cherry Lee, a font of experience and caring. We dare not forget the passionate 300-pound Cordinal Beckford, who marshalled the eastern projects and commendably recorded $53 million in beneficiary payments against $53 million in infrastructure work completed at Norwich, Portland; or Tamesha Lee, a solid and tireless protagonist, who successfully finalised all the projects in western Jamaica.

There were others like the courageous Lawrence Weathers, who brought normality to the irredeemable St Catherine and Clarendon informal settlements; Charmaine Harrison and Lisa Brown whose non-stop activism brought a happy conclusion to the projects in central Jamaica. There were a few others no less committed, no less patriotic. In due course their services will be fulsomely recognised.

It is now hoped that the work of these unsung heroes will no longer be stained with the unjust vilification of the JLP and its adherents or the cold distancing of the PNP. Over the years their once prominent names that coloured the national good have faded in ungrateful anonymity. Now lift your heads my colleagues; you did nothing wrong and you did not fail. It is good that history is self-cleansing. However long, it ultimately purifies its pages, confining propaganda, personal agendas and misinformation to the dungeons of deception and the charlatans who perpetuate them.

Paul Buchanan is a former PNP Member of Parliament

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