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Grave challenge facing housing development project

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Fri, Oct 3, 2014

The government of St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Ministry of Housing and its Housing and Land Development Corporation (HLDC) face a grave challenge in one of their pet projects, the Clare Valley Housing Development Project.

While it is true that only one house has collapsed, (and we here agree with Minister of State in the Ministry of Works Julian Francis, that it is one too many), the September 19 incident has opened a virtual can of worms concerning policy, implementation and administration.{{more}}

In commenting on the developments, it is important that two points be borne in mind. First, this administration must be complimented for meeting the formidable housing challenge facing the nation when it assumed office in 2001. Whatever the shortcomings, its record of constructing over 1300 houses, to quote Minister Francis, is a most admirable one, a notable achievement never before accomplished or even attempted on this scale.

Secondly, the acceptance of full responsibility by the government is a welcome development. Typically, State officials are reluctant to take on such responsibility, but beginning with Prime Minister Gonsalves and through housing Minister Daniel and Minister Francis, it is clear where the buck stops.

Nevertheless there are major issues relating to policy and implementation, as well as administration, which need to be addressed. It is not just that one house has collapsed, concerns and justified fears have arisen both about the safety of several other houses in the settlement as well as the quality of the engineering and construction itself in many instances. The government has promised a full investigation, but it is vital that this is done in as impartial and transparent a manner as possible. Too often such investigations tend to go in the direction of protecting persons or vested interests and sometimes ignoring vital evidence.

The many complaints of homeowners about construction defects point to errors in implementation. Government has committed itself to a policy of widening the base of contractors engaged in such projects. This is a sensible approach but can only work if there is fairness in the award of such contracts, based on merit and not connections or political affiliation. Standards must also be be rigorously adhered to, under the supervision of engineers and project managers.

There is also need for the HLDC itself to come under scrutiny. From the complaints of the homeowners there seem to be many deficiencies in the handling of the project by the corporation. Worse, there seems to have been a lack of responsiveness on the part of HLDC officials to complaints from homeowners. The suitability of some officials for the responsibility which comes with senior management has also been questioned.

What possible bearing have these allegations on the quality of supervision, administrative decisions about cost-cutting and employment? To what extent are any administrative failings and errors of judgement responsible for both the September 19 incident and the state of dissatisfaction of homeowners?

All these are issues which must be addressed frankly and fairly. At the same time it is important that we do not make hurried or unjustified judgements nor resort to politicking on one side or the other. The safety, comfort and satisfaction of homeowners must be kept at the forefront. At the same time, those matters relating to governance must not be swept under the carpet.

If handled properly, there are important lessons to be learnt for us all.

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