Friday, February 23, 2018

Disturbing secrecy

Express editorial logo467

Mark Fraser

The vexed question of the Invader’s Bay project remains on the agenda of concerns over the allocation of public land for private purposes. The project entails reclamation of dozens of acres of land from the Gulf of Paria, in the western reaches of Port of Spain. This is an area that has both beckoned enterprising developers and troubled environmental and civil society interest groups.

From what is known of the plans, Invader’s Bay has raised bright hopes for realising a far-reaching entrepreneurial vision which should be encouraged. Details so far disclosed include a cruise ship complex, an innovative “Streets of the World” cultural showcase, and a bowling alley which is sure to add excitement to an entertainment-hungry population.

The process of getting from here to there has, however, been shrouded in disturbing secrecy. Last month’s ruling by Justice Seepersad appeared, encouragingly, to affirm a public right to know more of what the Invader’s Bay undertaking is all about.

During question period last week, however, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar sought to narrow the scope of the ruling to questions arising under Freedom of Information law. The Government plans anyway to appeal.

For present purposes, what the Prime Minister did make clear is the interpretation adopted by her administration. “Nothing in that judgment,” she said, “precludes the ministry from proceeding with their process.”

Which sounds like a signal for UDeCoTT, executing agency of the Planning Ministry, to go full speed ahead in advancing Invader’s Bay toward implementation. Private initiative has presumably gained the all-clear to proceed with developments on public land, without due regard for the public right to know more than it is, grudgingly, told.

The Seepersad ruling did, however, contain an admonition which should be taken into serious consideration. “It must always be in the public interest,” he said, “to ensure that the activities and projects undertaken by Government are transparent, and all attempts should be made so as to dispel any perception of the misappropriation of public funds and financial impropriety.”

Indications so far suggest that such good judicial advice has, if anything, been shrugged off. As noted by Afra Raymond, president of the Joint Consultative Council for the construction industry, Invader’s Bay seems set to proceed without the least effort to engage in public consultation.

As he noted in last week’s Business Express, consultations had been held for other big developments —King’s Wharf, San Fernando; the South-West Peninsula Growth Pole; and on Chaguanas City status proposals.

Invaders’ Bay thus invokes a throwback to what had been supposed were the bad old days of UDeCOTT—before the Uff Commission. It is unacceptable that this high-profile project should go forward in disregard of basic requirements of transparency and consultation. If it does, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar should be ready to deal with increasingly dogged questioning about why.