In Barbados everyone with even a modicum of ambition desires to own a “piece of the rock”. And for the average Barbadian, this has less to do with a quest for affluence, but more to do with what appears to be an inbred desire for independence.
The overwhelming desire is to own the roof over one’s head — and that, in our view, is a very noble desire. Those who now pay rent for the place where they live, regardless of the amount, always harbour some thought that the money would be better spent as part payment toward a home for which they have “papers”.
Even in the world of business, regardless of how small one starts and perhaps the impracticality of the thought, the operator invariably sees the ideal situation as the one in which he owns the real estate on which he operates.
Again, we believe that this is bound up in an ingrained desire for independence.
At the Government level in Barbados, there can be no doubt that the Crown is a significant land owner, perhaps the most significant entity in this category. Government is also the single largest employer in this country, and as a result it has a vast array of properties scattered across the length and breath of the island — and their physical upkeep is as disparate as the nature of the businesses carried on within.
What is clear, however, is that for a variety of reasons, Government has not been the best custodian of its own properties — or should we say the properties it holds in trust for its people. In fact, we daresay that in many instances the conditions under which public officers work can at best be considered intolerable.
We are not trying to point fingers at any one Government because over the last three or so decades this issue has existed with both administrations. What we are saying is that perhaps it is time to give serious consideration to two alternatives — or perhaps the deliberate institution of a combination of the two.
In the first instance, those who have the power to make decisions need to consider whether, when all the costs are considered, if Government’s ambition ought not to be the opposite of that of the individual private citizen — to rent/lease rather than own. Would such an approach be cheaper, given the age at which Government seems to be forced to abandon buildings as no longer fit for habitation.
In the second instance, has the time not come for Government to set up a dedicated ministry/department that would be funded, staffed and equipped to properly maintain all State buildings? Something has to be wrong when every time a public building reaches 25 or 30 years staff are forced to protest conditions.
That can only be the case because enough attention is not paid to routine maintenance and upgrading. After all a building of 30 or 40 years can’t genuinely be considered old. We believe it is more a question of: How long was the air-conditioning system designed to last? After how many years should elevators be changed? What’s the shelf life of an aluminium window? Electrical wiring and fixtures should be gutted and replaced after how many years? What does the manufacturer say about when a particular brand of toilet bowls in a commercial environment should be replaced?
And in relation to Building “A”, Factory “B” or Lab “C”, where is all this information stored and who keeps the maintenance records?
In the case of a structure like the National Insurance Building on Fairchild Street, who would be responsible for determining that after “x” years of continuous use it is time to relocate every last staff member and gut and retrofit it with today’s technology for another 50 years of problem free operation?
The problem from our stand point is not that we have people working in old buildings. It is that we have people working in buildings that are not properly maintained. And in many cases we are not even certain that the people who don’t properly maintain them can be considered negligent [we are not speaking from a legal perspective here] because as a nation it appears we have never had systems in place to properly address this issue.
Now that money is so scarce, however, it would appear that we are perfectly placed to make a radical change — for the better.