“When you start wrong, you end wrong.” – Traditional Barbadian saying
All human beings have three most basic needs – food, clothing and shelter. Barbadians have in every age sought to secure the third need with no mean sense of pride and accomplishment. Generations have sought to leave a legacy for children by securing for themselves “a piece of the rock”.
But what if, like latter-day settlers, many take up the first piece of open land they see and set up their homes there?
Squatting – the “occupying of an abandoned or unoccupied area of land or a building, usually residential, that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have lawful permission to use” – has been a rampant plague in Barbados for at least two decades now.
The two most prominent cases of wholesale squatting are in the Belle area of St Michael and Rock Hall in St Philip, the latter of which resurfaced again this weekend.
From as far back as 2007, the Director of Civil Aviation warned that the galvanised roofs on the homes in that area, which numbered only 36 at the time, “could create a deflective surface to the radar energy reflected up to an aircraft, which could make air traffic controllers see an aeroplane at two different positions on their screen”.
There should be no need to point out how hazardous such a situation must have become, especially now that some 300 structures are there.
Since we have never moved our airport from one parish to another, presumably this part of St Philip has always been in the flight path; no doubt this is why, when Government initially acquired the land from its original owners it was to guarantee airport safety.
So when the first shanties stopped up in Rock Hall nearly 20 years ago, was no one at the airport or at Town Planning aware? Did anyone urge hem to look the other way?
What is also worrying is the mushrooming of houses – some of them anything but makeshift dwellings that have emerged in the last 12 years.
Can we point to any legitimate housing developments, whether state or privately owned, that have added 264 new properties within such a relatively short space of time?
Reports have claimed that ‘illegal immigrants’ occupy some of the homes but surely they cannot account for all 264 additional structures.
Indeed if the dwellers were not legally entitled to reside here, would they have obtained the funds to buy building materials?
And if they are renting the properties from Barbadians, probably at lower rates than on the real estate market, that would be yet another matter with legal implications; how can you rent out a property that was built illegally and might therefore not comply with the building code?
The utility companies also have a lot to answer for here.
Last time we checked, Rock Hall did not begin as an exercise in using renewable energy and other innovative sustainable means to generate water and electricity.
So why weren’t the Barbados Light and Power Company and the Water Authority flagged when the initial “developers” tapped into water and electricity supplies from elsewhere in the early stages?
What happened subsequently to enable 300 structures, including a two-storey house and many wood and wall properties, to have access to these two basic utilities and no doubt telephone service, internet broadband and cable television, too?
These squatting situations tend to create a dilemma for politicians because while they are mandated to act in the national interest, they fear jeopardising their personal political future for making tough decisions.
In 1990 when the matter in the Belle first came to national prominence, the then Minister of Housing, the late Harold Blackman, wanted the people to move since they were occupying land on the Zone One water table, a situation which had the potential to contaminate the island’s water supply. The Member of Parliament for the area Don Blackman insisted that he was backing his people 100 per cent and that they were not going anywhere. They didn’t.
The Rock Hall issue is a sticky one, especially since a lack of intervention by the Town Planning Department and Members of Parliament for the area from both sides of the political divide has created a void now filled by more durable, seemingly permanent, structures.
It would be difficult to ask someone to demolish a two-storey house given the considerable investment that would have been made.
Assuming that the situation does not severely imperil the civil aviation requirements, we think perhaps efforts should be made within the powers available to Government to facilitate their purchase of the land, no less than if this were a plantation under the Tenantries Freehold Purchase Act.
Given the dangers of the location presumably to aircraft using the island’s sole airport, the state must identify nearby lands to which the households may be relocated.
The Government has designated land for certain types of development, whether residential, industrial or agricultural use. If the relevant Government agencies see houses springing up on land they know is reserved for factories or in an environmentally sensitive area, and to their knowledge no one has applied to them for ‘change of use’, it is imperative that they put an immediate stop to such developments, before worrying about having to displace hundreds of people who have ended up making it their own, albeit illegally acquired, ‘piece of the rock’, decades later.