Now that the camera has captured me at the podium with my mask on for the convenience of speaking and the clarity of your hearing, I will remove my mask and place it in a clean place.
Before I make my address to you regarding titling and land issues, let me reiterate that we are still under the Disaster Risk Management Act as it relates to the necessary infection prevention protocols that have to obtain to control the spread of the corona virus. I’m scanning the room and I’m not going to count because just by scanning it appears, we have more than fifteen persons gathered. Nevertheless, the rules as they are structured give certain exemptions to official functions which this would fall under that rubric and regardless of whether or not there is an exemption to the gathering rule there is no exemption to the social distancing rule and to the wearing of masks. So, I’m satisfied that the organizers of the event have chosen a spacious place where the attendees can be appropriately distanced and so from this event we’re not expecting that there will be any increase in the numbers and in addition to that you have another room where this event is being broadcast so that the other beneficiaries can be a part of this event safely.
I say this because what has been thrown up in the management of the pandemic is the issue of equity and fairness and equal application of the law because there are those people looking on will say those people get away with it while those people don’t and I’m very sensitive to that because the management of the pandemic has also tested the government’s ability to apply the law fairly and equally and we have really tried but you know, our society is such that we have people who believe that they are above the law. We have people who deliberately do not comply with the law and there are those who are always seeking to get exemptions from the law, and we have a word for that, we have crafted that into our culture, we call it a “bligh”. The pandemic is not just a test of our ability to control health issues but also a test of ability to ensure that law and order prevails and that the rule of law prevails and I think we’ve done a fairly good job. I’m not 100% satisfied but just so that the public is aware that the government sees it in the way in which you are seeing it and we are not happy sometimes with some of the issues and we’re working to make sure that there is even application of the law.
This is a good point to segway into the purpose of our gathering because the issue of land and its ownership and occupation at the root of it in Jamaica is this issue of social justice and there is a wrestling in our history, in our society, in our culture with the issue of social justice around land ownership and occupation because from the formation of the notion of a country called Jamaica, there was no equity in the ownership of land, there was no system of fairness and justice. A set of persons came, saw another set of persons occupying the land, claim the land, put up structures to control, divide and own the land which dispossessed those persons who were here before, brought in another set of persons, created a system that held those persons as property to labour on the land and then when that system collapsed because of resistance and the uneconomic nature of that system those persons who were brought in as enslaved were freed but had no means to survive and had no ownership of the land. Some were allowed to occupy parts of the estate usually the marginal parts of the estate and others fled into the hills and just occupied the lands which were claimed by a notion called the Crown and we progressed for three hundred and fifty years with this situation where many of your forefathers would have occupied lands which you will just simply say is family land passed down from generation to generation to generation. There is no title meaning there is no formal document which would allow you to legally claim ownership of the land or to legally transact the land to claim any monetary or economic value so you just lived on the land and as the population grows and expand people see land and say what I don’t have any more space on my family land so I see a piece of land down there, I don’t care who owns it because nobody really own it. There’s no legitimate basis for the claim of ownership, so I can just go and put my stake there and claim ownership too because isn’t that what has been happening for three hundred and fifty years ago to now. Yes, amazing… Just last year I visited a community in St Mary, an informal settlement, and I was on tour with the Housing Agency of Jamaica and obviously great effort was made in this particular community to regularize because it was an informally settled community and there’s just one little piece of land left in the “has built plan” meaning that they went and they surveyed the community as they have built it and they tried to create roads and tracks and they have left a little piece of land for a football field and as we were turning there was a man, he didn’t even dig a foundation which was the curious thing he just laid some blocks and cemented them in, cast them in and started to stake his claim that this was now his piece of land and it struck me you know, that this is something deeply engrained in us as a people and I had to call up the man and I said this can’t work. The people in the community agreed that it can’t work but nobody wanted to say anything whether it is that they were afraid of this gentleman which sometimes usually is the case or there is just the sense of him deserve a chance too even if it is going to create chaos because where he was putting it would have restricted access, it would have limited the playing space for the kids in the community and there was no provision for water sewage disposal, garbage disposal and obviously the structure that he was going to put up would not have been safe so there is in our culture a lot of people ambivalence when it comes to property rights.
Mr Cousins is an attorney and he’s now representing people not just legally but now politically and you will come across this concept that we don’t always respect property and that is because of our history. Somebody has a piece of land, he may not visit the land for a little while and people just feel free to move unto the land because they know that if they occupy it for a certain period of time on this term it becomes their land if they follow through the legal provisions and even when the land is fenced off they still feel that it is their right, this notion that it is their right to go and occupy the land because they were deprived of it and how him have so much and I don’t have any.
I’m threading upon these waters which were threaded before. Mr Cousins made the usual slip that is made by people when they come to acknowledge me or introduce me and they say Michael because of obviously Michael Manley and Michael Manley was one of those politicians that addressed this issue of social injustice particularly from the historic perspective and giving people access to lands and giving the average Jamaican ownership of the country and let me say that I am a firm believer in ensuring that every single Jamaican can have access to land but here me now, no more slave master run Jamaica, we run Jamaica so when we are going to decide to improperly, illegally and disorderly settle land what we’re doing is taking away land from ourselves because we form the Jamaican independent modern state so we have to take a different perspective on ownership now. What you just ensure as a citizen, as a resident is that the politics of your country, the governments that you elect (and I’m not talking about JLP or PNP), I’m talking about your MPs that the people who form your government understands the issue of social justice and puts in place the laws, the systems and the practices that will allow every Jamaica equal opportunity to own assets whether it is land, house, car, business that is what you want; equal opportunity.
This Government and previous Government have wrestled with this. The Chief Technical Officer pointed out the Sites-and-Services programme coming from late 60’s into the 70’s and it is still operating today. It is a program built on the concept of incremental development meaning that we provide the land to the citizen, the landowner on concessionary terms. We may even provide the start of the foundation and then you take your time and build on that. We’ve had successor programmes, we’ve had Operation Pride where service lots are created and houses are created then we now have the Housing Agency which is now trying to not just do incremental development but complete development meaning building the housing solution and making it available to you at an affordable price so there have been several programmes over the years but these have never been able to address the real issue and the real issue is to get lands and houses in significant numbers available to the population because without a properly running land titling system, a properly running housing development and construction system people will take this very serious issue of shelter into their own hands. If you can’t get land to buy at reasonable price, if it takes you a generation to get you the title for the land that you’ve purchased or two, if you are a helper, a gardener, a bearer and there is no provision for you in the market when you pick up the papers on a Sunday and you see all the real estate being advertised and not one of them you can afford, there is no house there in the price point that matches your income but you turn around and have six pickney, aunty and grandma and everybody to take care of, where are they going to live?
So, you see that dynamic and then, of course, you may very well have a politician who will say to you “yes man, you see that piece of land, you go and occupy that piece of land and I know that Tony my good friend and neighbour, we don’t believe in that. Certainly, not Minister Charles. Our generation of politicians is not going to tell anybody ” you see that piece of land go and occupy it. Afterward, we will sort out the title and so forth. Those days of politician tacitly giving approval for persons to illegally occupy land, those days must come to an end because that has been part of the problem because even in areas here where we’re giving out titles, I’m certain that that notion has also played a role.
I started my presentation dealing with these social issues because at some point in time as a country we have to draw a line in the sand and say we are no longer going to allow settlements, land settlements, and habitats to emerge in an unplanned and unstructured way, it does not serve us. When I tour my constituency and I’m going to hear that Drews Land is a part of my constituency and some of the beneficiaries here are from Drews Land, I can see great efforts being made by some persons who own land there to improve their houses but it’s going to be a very difficult task because no matter what you are going to do the roads are never going to be wide enough, it’s going to be hard to collect garbage in some of the areas and some places where some persons have chosen to build it’s going to always be difficult to protect them from flooding and other natural disasters. So we will have this problem with us for a while but in drawing the line in the sand we must say no more squatting in this country. I’m normally polite and say informal settlement but let us call it out for what it is. If we allow it to continue unabated then the very things that you complain about, don’t have water, don’t have formal electricity connection, problems with sewage disposals, problem with garbage collection, crime, and violence, all of them are rooted in how we as a country allowed our lands to be settled.
Recently we had some heavy rains and if you look at it the people who are most affected are those who have chosen to settle and live in areas that are clearly marked as areas that are not suited for settlement. I’ve been on tours and seen where persons have literally established substantial houses in the course of a river, in fact right on the river bank. How are we going to protect you when the river changes its course which it will? It might not do it for two or three decades but you are in the river course so it will at some point change.
So, one of the reasons why we have created the Ministry of Housing and Urban Renewal is to start to create the policy framework by which we can put an end to squatting, an end to improper illegal and informal settlements and to create order and fairness and equity and access in settlement. It is going to take a generation to change this, but we have to start somewhere. So, property is for every Jamaican and that is the foundation minister, every Jamaican can own property and we want every Jamaican to own property. We are trying to build the ownership economy; we want you to own something but ownership can only be established in law it cannot be established in badmanism. It cannot be established in grudgeful and badmind, it can only be established in law.
I had the opportunity to address the Heal the Nation event, I believe it was last week and I spoke about violence and domestic violence. Have you been following the news? And have you been seeing that some of the domestic violence which resulted in murder, what was the origin? Land dispute… Family members don’t want a sister to have any claim in the family land and concocted a scheme to dispose of that sister. Family dispute and brother and brother and you can follow it right through. We can’t build a society like that, we can’t. The core of it is ensuring that ownership is established through legal, transparent, fair, accessible means and that is what we’re going to be doing.
Recently we made a commitment that we’re going to seek within the next 5 years to build 70,000 houses. In the last 5 years, we have gone over 20,000 and that is the highest we have ever done in any 5-year period, 20,000 housing solutions and that is just a drop in the bucket. It’s gonna be challenging, I’m not exaggerating that 70,000 is really going to stretch the NHT and the Housing Agency of Jamaica but what is the strategy behind it. The strategy behind it is to accelerate the pace of housing development so that if someone reaches the point where they need to have a housing solution there is the formal housing market where we have the houses available and the mortgages available so that you can buy a house in a structured community with sewage, proper roads, water and electricity, and internet already in place and you pay your mortgage for that over time instead of going to capture somebody land and build on on it and then afterward you’re in a legal battle to get the land because many of the persons who are squatting, capturing land, they are NHT contributors and there have been some magnificent structures on those pieces of land but they can’t get any value out of it, they can’t take any loan on it, they can’t sell it cause no bank is going to touch it, so that is value tied up there which has no economic use other than the comfort of your residence so what we are trying to do now is to increase the housing solutions so that people are less inclined to take up squatting as a solution to their habitation challenges. That program is underway, I met with some of our larger developers yesterday and gave the charge and it is not just to build the 70,000 expensive houses, we want to target most of that at the price point of 8 million dollars or below which fits into an income situation of about someone earning $15,000 per week or less should be able to afford a house in that price range and that’s the target that we’re having. I see someone saying “no sah, dat too expensive” but that’s the maximum. It’s affordable but remember now a house is your lifetime investment so the challenge it’s not so much the price point of 8 million, the challenge is the mortgage, if you get the mortgage at the right interest rate then you can afford it and that is what we’re trying to do which is the strategy now of ensuring that we have a structured system of mortgages available, keep the interest rates low and get our developers into the affordable home segment of the housing development market to provide the houses and I’m certain that persons like your selves and others will take up those houses and reduce the level of squatting.
It is the objective of the government to regularize as much as possible the communities that are informal which why we’re giving out titles now. There are some titles there which for various reasons as was mentioned by ministers Charles and Hill that sometimes persons die interstate meaning they don’t leave any will, sometimes they paid a little bit on it and there is a small balance left and they haven’t paid it and some people just totally forget or have no interest so there are many titles in the vault at the ministry of housing so one of the mandates given to Minister Charles is to get those titles out quickly. Then we would have changed the legal structure for titling to make it much easier and we are encouraging persons who are on land that they claim to be family land or uncle gave them or all those types of situations to make contact with the ministry of housing and the NLA and see if you can get your situation sorted out and regularized and in fact, now we do have what is called systematic titling where we’re not just waiting on you, the land agency and the ministry of housing, they are going out and surveying and preparing the titles and it is our objective to ensure that all our parcels of lands are titled. Let me just give you the magnitude of the problem. We have about 852,000 parcels of land in Jamaica, 3330,000 of them are unregistered, 39% of the lands identified in Jamaica are unregistered. Their status is unclear, they’re family land or they were pledged to someone but there is no clear document which says that this is the owner and this is the definition of the land owned, all of that is now going to be addressed. Minister Charles how many titles are we planning to do per year under the new programme? It’s about 22,000 titles? Twenty thousand, that was my recollection, under the new land titling programme we want to do about twenty thousand a year. We’re a little bit behind in terms of getting the programme underway but I’m hoping that by the next fiscal year we should be.
That is underway so we will be titling the outstanding lands that are there that are not titled. We’re going to be very vigilant in ensuring that there is no more squatting taking place and I think our members of parliament have a very important role to play in that. You have to be vigilant, you know the lands in your community, you know the lands and what shouldn’t be occupied and it is important that when you see this that we intervene to say no, this is not appropriate in the same way that we intervene to say go ahead in the last fifty-odd years of our independence. As members of parliament, we now need to intervene and say no, this is not appropriate and we’re not going to allow this to happen anymore, that is the position that this Government is taking because we cannot move as a society in a “chaka-chaka” way that we have been moving in the last fifty years, we have to make some positive change.
So, I was very happy to take this opportunity because that is the message I wanted to deliver and you would know that I’m not just speaking to the 30 odd beneficiaries, fifteen of whom are in this room and I’m speaking generally now to my brother and sisters in Jamaica who have for many years suffered, wanted to occupy lands, wanted to own lands but can’t afford it and may have gone the illegal improper route of doing so to put everybody on alert that the Government is not going to countenance sanction or have any sympathy on squatting and illegal settlements but at the same time we’re going to increase the availability of housing solutions and lots so that people can have access to proper habitat legally and fairly.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.