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Will Orville change land licence regime?
On Monday, as Tobagonians were heading to polling stations across the island, retired public servant and diplomat Reginald Dumas, who continues to make a contribution to the country with his insightful commentaries and his investigative work on the THA's BOLT arrangements, made two telling points in his column in the Express.
In shooting down a position of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar that the election was not about the house built by Ashworth Jack, the political leader of the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), but about the performance of the Orville London-led Tobago House of Assembly, Mr Dumas wrote: “The imperatives of transparency and accountability apply also to someone aspiring to such position (as THA Chief Secretary)...because political investors are everywhere and anxious for hefty returns on their investment.”
It seems that Tobagonians accepted the argument, which was explicitly outlined in this space last week in a commentary headlined Will ‘investors’ win THA election? that a vote for the TOP would have opened the door to the political investors in the TOP campaign being given first dibs on the massive land bank that the THA has built up over the last 12 years that the People’s National Movement has governed the island.
In dealing with the metaphorical issue of ships from Calcutta, the other telling point made by Mr Dumas, who would make a most appropriate President, was to ask the question: "Do Tobagonians, who take such pride in being independent-thinking and proud of Tobago and its heritage, really believe that someone can just walk, or sail, into Tobago and take their property just like that?"
My own view is that their concern was not so much with their property (as there would need to be both a willing buyer and a willing seller of someone's property) but with their land, which Tobagonians rightly define, in a way that most Trinidadians do not, as all of the island.
That was the reason there was so much concern in the early part of the last decade about Germans buying up Tobago land and the fact that that concern was translated into the land licence regime, which was regressively implemented.
That land licence regime has resulted in estate prices in Tobago being depressed and has allowed the THA to become the largest landowner by some distance on the island.
In my humble and very respectful view, the disquiet that Tobagonians feel is not related to their property (as in the property owned by individual Tobagonians) but the land owned by the THA, which presumably is being held in trust by the THA for all Tobagonians.
Indeed "...political investors are everywhere and anxious for hefty returns on their investment."
I would imagine that the PP political investors who put millions into the election campaign would view a Tobago estate or two as a suitable return on their investment, wouldn't you?
That was the point that I was making two Sundays before the election to a friend who was involved in the TOP campaign: That if the TOP won the THA election, Mr Jack would have been under tremendous pressure to divest some of the estates that the THA owns to the political investors.
Under a TOP administration, my argument was that if the THA owns 34 estates, it would have allocated five estates (15 per cent of the 34) to the creation of house lots for Tobagonians who do not have a house of their own and five estates to increasing the island’s food production.
This would have left 24 estates for distribution to the ‘investors,’ who would then have lobbied for the administration to abolish the land licence regime, allowing any foreigner with money (clean or dirty) to acquire land in Tobago.
The ‘investors’ stood to make a killing as the abolition of the land licence regime would automatically add 20 per cent to the value of all land on the island.
It was this sense that there were ‘investors’ circling like corbeaux over the La Basse waiting to swoop down and collect the “hefty returns on their investment,” that Tobagonians understood when faced with the slogan In Defence of Tobago.
My friend dismissed my argument as speculation and put forward his own viewpoint that Mr Jack was his own man and would have been able resist the lobbying of the investors.
The problem in this country, of course, is that both of the major parties take advantage of the loose campaign finance laws and regulations to finance parties with the expectation that the money they invest will yield a “hefty return on their investment.”
So of course T&T needs campaign finance reform, but there also needs to be reform by the political parties so that they are not so dependent on a large large investors.
It’s clear that the land licence regime has been a dismal failure and Mr London should lobby the Government to keep the licence but reduce to a minimum the process of its granting.
There is also clear evidence that the THA’s management of some the the land assets it has acquired has not been optimum as anyone who has visited Pigeon Point with its broken-down cabanas would realise.
One of the first orders of business of the new THA administration must be to appoint a committee to look at the land licence regime and the impact that it has had on foreign investment on the island.
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