There was a time when businesses held a generally contemptuous view of customers and the general public. “Let the customer be damned” was the common refrain even though the success of every business depended, ironically, on ensuring continued patronage by the said customers.
Businesses were able to get away with this indifferent attitude. Customers had little or no choice but to buy from the said businesses or go without, which sometimes was a difficult decision. The only interest groups which seemed to matter were company shareholders and Government authorities to a lesser extent.
However, two developments over the last 25 years have led to a welcomed change of attitude and contributed to businesses becoming more customer friendly. The first development was the liberalization of markets, a consequence of globalization, which resulted in longstanding businesses facing competition, in some instances for the first time, from new market entrants.
With customers now having the power of choice which they could effectively exercise, businesses realized they could no longer afford to take customers for granted. They began to focus on ensuring a high level of customer satisfaction so that customers had good reason to stay instead of taking their business elsewhere.
The advent of the media and information age was the second development. This contemporary reality has opened up businesses and all other organizations serving the general public, including governments, to unprecedented scrutiny through emphasis on the promotion of transparency and accountability as core values.
Customers and the general public, therefore, today expect that companies and governments will be transparent and accountable, especially in the pursuit of major undertakings which will affect the general public in one way or another. Which leads us to revisit the controversy surrounding the planned construction of the Hyatt hotel.
Since this $100 million development was announced, the project, earmarked for Carlisle Bay, off Bay Street in The City, has triggered considerable debate. There have been expressions of concern from various interests, including the Barbados National Trust, especially in relation to likely negative consequences on the surrounding environment. The need for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be carried out and the findings of the study made public before final government approval was given, was particularly emphasized.
Last week, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who holds responsibility for town planning, indicated he was close to giving the go-ahead for the start of the project. No mention was made that an EIA had been carried out, but Stuart did say “this permission will be subject to all the necessary conditions” being met to protect the interests of the wider Barbadian community. More specific details are required as the statement raises obvious questions.
Yesterday, Dame Billie Miller, former Deputy Prime Minister and long-time parliamentary representative for the City, entered the debate and raised a number of concerns during a call to the Down to Brass Tacks radio talk show. She said, among other things, that construction of the hotel could cause “severe” overload on the Bridgetown sewage system, and possibly lead to raw sewage leaking on to the streets of the City as happened late last year along the south coast.
Miss Miller therefore appealed to Mr Stuart to ensure that a comprehensive EIA was done to provide answers to project-related concerns which include possible destabilization of nearby historic buildings such as the Bethel Methodist Church. Such expressions of concern should not be viewed as opposition to the project, but as a legitimate request for more transparency and accountability to satisfy the public’s right to know.
Just about everyone agrees that Barbados, in its current economic state, needs investment now more than ever. However, in going after investment, care must be taken at all time to ensure that the consequences are such that negatives do not outweigh the positives, especially when dealing with fragile environments.
An EIA describes in a comprehensive way the impact of proposed development on the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment which includes land, water, air, structures, living organisms, and also social, cultural, and economic aspects. An EIA outlines ways in which any negative impacts in particular will be mitigated to provide reassurance to stakeholders who will be affected.
For the success of this project, which needs public buy-in, it is important that the developers in particular take urgent steps to engage the relevant stakeholders and the general public to provide answers to their concerns. Such a gesture would demonstrate their commitment to the new norms of transparency and accountability. Failure to do so may be interpreted to mean that where stakeholder issues are concerned, Barbados is still very much in the age of “the public be damned”.