Straining at the lease...

Mid Ocean News (26 May 2006)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

HANDS up then anyone who thinks the House on the Hill is often no more than a rubber stamp. We’ll pause for a moment, Mr. Editor, to allow readers to pick up their newspapers before I share with them how events last Friday were a classic example.

There were four pieces of legislation which the PLP Government wanted to amend. It made sense to take them up on the same day. We were told that we were being asked to give Government, and three quangos, Bermuda Housing Corporation, WedCo and the Base Lands Development Company, the power to grant leases for periods of up to 120 years with the proviso that any lease longer than 21 years must come to both the House and the Senate for approval by way of resolution.

Minister Without Portfolio Walter Lister led the debate for the Government. He was subbing for the real Minister who isn’t a House anything except spectator. He’s a Senator who sits in a place down the Hill which we on the Hill are required to refer to as “other”.

But Minister Lister came prepared. Sort of. Someone somewhere in the service which we call civil, had put together a brief which he could read to us.

This was his first point: the overriding objective was to have the power to grant leases up to 120 years across the board.

Okay, but why?

What we heard was this:

1. The advice they had was that WedCo and BLDC could only give leases for up to 21 years, and the BHC leases up to 35 years; and
2. Prospective and potential developers were “clamouring for longer periods” to obtain a return on investment.

Minister Lister, a former chairman of WedCo, as he reminded us, said that during his tenure the West End body was “prohibited on a number of occasions” from granting leases longer than 21 years. Some of us always thought that WedCo had the power, it was just that it has to first obtain the approval of both houses of the Legislature.

Never mind. According to Minister Lister, the legislative change “proves once again that Government is listening”.

Really. You have to wonder, Mr. Editor.

A senior PLP MP serves as chairman of WedCo, which is charged with development of the Dockyard area, but complains in its annual reports that the body is being thwarted in attempts to encourage development by the inability to grant long term leases, which can be cured by a relatively straightforward and simple amendment, and it takes this long to act. The last time I counted, Mr. Editor, the PLP are well into their eighth year in power.

The listening part may be easy; the acting part isn’t, I guess.
Still, inquiring minds wanted to know: what can Bermuda expect to see as a result of the legislative changes? Who were these people who were clamouring for leases of up to 120 years and what do they have planned?

The questions were asked but there were no answers.

Sure, PLP MP Ottiwell Simmons conceded, “one hundred and twenty years is a long long time”. But, he said: “people will be better off”.
Meanwhile, his PLP colleague Glenn Blakeney chastised the Opposition for even taking up the points of why – and what for. “They need to take the veil off their rose-coloured glasses, Mr. Speaker”.

But not one of them, Mr. Editor, not even the Minister in charge, could tell us why Parliament was being asked to now give the Housing Corporation the power to not only grant leases up to 120 years, but mortgages as well.

Yet that’s what the House was asked to approve. The BHC now has the power to grant mortgages up to 120 years.

We were wondering whether maybe the change was part of a larger plan to break the back of the affordable housing crisis in Bermuda. But if it is, we didn’t hear about in the House.

There was however, one new statutory requirement for the Housing Corporation that requires no explanation. Any leases greater than 35 years will require the prior approval of Parliament, both lower and upper – as has been the case with WedCo and the BLDC and with Government property generally, for any leases greater than 21 years, and for outright sales too.

It makes for transparency and accountability – and the extension of the principle is a welcome development.

We might have benefited from the exposure had it been required for that loco Coco Reef lease which came to light when the Auditor General uncovered some serious and glaring deficiencies and he exposed them in his Special April 2004 Report to Parliament. Sadly though, exposure came after the fact and after it was too late to do much about it - and that was a 50- year lease.

The pity is that the principle of prior Legislative approval was not being extended to the Bermuda College as well – or any other quango, for that matter, which may be governed by separate legislation.

There is something to be said for consistency, Mr. Editor. It need not always be the hobgoblin of small minds.

Reading along

THE day didn’t get any better, Mr. Editor, when Government turned to the next item of business – a take note motion of Environment Minister Neletha Butterfield. We were to take note of a State of the Environment Report commissioned by her Ministry. We in the Opposition had taken note of the fact that it was a very nicely bound document, some 229 pages long, and that we could be for a long afternoon of listening if the brief prepared for the Minister in any way matched the report in length.

It did.

The Minister rose to commence reading to us just before three o-clock and didn’t stop reading to us – in what must have seemed like story time to some - until a good two hours later, around five thirty in the afternoon –yes, the same afternoon.

The state of our environment was such that at times during the reading there were as few as half a dozen members in the Chamber, including the Minister and the Speaker who was in fact the Listener - as well as the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary who spent the afternoon listening as well.

“What page are you on?”, asked Speaker Lowe, about an hour into the brief which wasn’t looking so brief. He was trying to follow along with his copy of the Report.

“Page 85”, replied the Minister.

“Oh, we are moving along then”, said the Speaker - wryly, I think.
Those of us who there, trying to follow along, quickly did the calculations … 85 pages at one hour, means 230 pages will take two hours and …. and we were spot on – as it turned out.

There were in fact four further speakers after the Minister – two from either side – and we were done some two hours after the Minister sat down. I was inclined to agree with Opposition Shadow Cole Simons . The real pity is that the Government seems unable to apply its resources to where they are needed:

• The last Bermuda Development Plan was produced in 1992. The Department is expected to produce one every ten years. The law requires it. Here we are almost fourteen years on and still counting.

• The Department of Planning is without a Director and has been for some time now and there are reports of staffing problems and applications taking far too long for turn around and decision.

We need to take action, Mr. Editor, not note.

On the other Hill

THIS was also the day Premier Scott returned from Washington. He could not restrain himself from giving us an insight on what he and his team had achieved on their short visit. He had a prepared statement he wanted to read at the end of the day on the motion to adjourn – with the Speaker’s indulgence.

The Speaker indulged him.

As the Premier also gets the last word on the motion to adjourn, it meant that none of the rest of us could comment, or question, and certainly not interrogate him on the contents, notwithstanding what the new Sessions House booklet says.

But we could interpolate - and it was hard at the outset to resist.
“I rise assured that this tiny little country we call our home has found its footing in the larger global society”, declared the Premier.
“My, my, my”, came the quick comment from the Opposition benches, “ and all that without having gone independent!”

Premier Scott paused – but continued on, waxing on, about his whirlwind trip around Capitol Hill.

“Bermuda sits geographically as an isolated island in the midst of the Atlantic”, he said (I kid you not), “but our significance to the world economy has far surpassed our size or our location”.

“Yes”, interjected Maxwell Burgess from his seat in the Opposition benches, just across from the Premier, “but please don’t tell me that you had to go to Washington to find that out”.

Only money

MAXWELL also happened to the featured speaker in one of the better – and funnier – exchanges of the day. He was speaking in the debate on the environment and the need for water treatment plants and mentioned the relatively inexpensive cost of some such machine or the other. “Only $30,000”, he was heard to say.

Allowance money for Maxwell, shouted out someone on the Government benches.

Excuse me, came the reply back, but he is not a Minister. Yet. Silence.

The proposed increases in salaries, Mr. Editor, will be up shortly.

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