|Operation Pride will not be abandoned -- PJ
|DALTON LAING Observer correspondent
Sunday, March 24, 2002
PRIME Minister P J Patterson on Friday made it clear that the controversial Operation Pride programme, which is now the subject of a fraud probe, will not be abandoned.
"Where individuals are found wanting, they must bear the personal responsibility for their acts," Patterson said at a function in Westmoreland to present 84 house holders from the Hermitage and Bethel Town Land Development with certificates of ownership.
"There is a clear distinction between acts of corruption and situations where errors have been made and better systems of management must be put in place. If fraud has been committed, the law must take its course. Where changes of management must be made, these will be done. However, let me be clear: the Pride programme will not be abandoned."
Earlier this month, the director of public prosecutions, Kent Pantry, instructed the Fraud Squad to investigate the operations of the National Housing Development Corporation, the state agency that has responsibility for the Pride programme.
The probe was ordered after allegations surfaced that there were irregularities and massive cost overruns at about 10 Pride sites across the island.
The allegations stemmed from a report, commissioned by the NHDC, which showed that the projects were behind schedule and had already cost $150 million more than the amount originally budgeted. There were also allegations that former NHDC managing director, Christopher Honeywell, had resigned in protest after Housing Minister Karl Blythe overruled board decision to fire two NHDC officers who had authorised the wrongful payment of $35 million to "preferred contractors".
But Blythe has maintained that there was no scandal as the NHDC-commissioned report was flawed. He also said that he stayed the dismissal of the two officers to ensure "natural justice" and give them a chance at a fair hearing.
Last month, after Patterson named a four-member team to probe the operations of the NHDC, the opposition leader, Edward Seaga, wrote to the DPP, asking him to launch an investigation into the agency.
The outcome of both investigations are still being awaited.
Pride, which was launched in 1995, is the government's flagship programme to upgrade squatter settlements and provide housing for the poor. The programme is operated under a concept that includes legal entities called provident societies that are made up of land beneficiaries who are expected to make a down payment for their lots, and make regular payments that will be used to put in the basic infrastructure.
But since it was established, the programme has been tainted by allegations of corruption and political cronyism with some of its detractors charging that it is being used as a vehicle to provide supporters of the ruling People's National Party with land.
On Friday, Patterson insisted that there is no justification for these allegations.
"We are fully aware that the land question is the most explosive issue on the social agenda, having tremendous impact on the political landscape of this country," he said. "We have never sought to apply political consideration in the land divestment objective of Operation Pride. There has never been one credible charge that any Jamaican has been denied access to land on the basis of his or her political affiliation under Operation Pride. We always knew that the struggle for land and land reform would not be easy."
He added that changes would now be made to improve the efficiency of the programme, which has been criticised for moving too slowly to address the vexing problem of squatting.
"The Pride programme is now being fully adjusted to the incremental approach envisaged in the original concept. In several instances, the programmme strayed somewhat in providing full infrastructure on a number of sites. Vast funding resources simply do not exist," Patterson said.
He said that challenge was to overcome centuries of physical infrastructural neglect and added that all future projects will be completed to minimum standard level, affording the possibility of addressing a greater number of projects in the process, which will involve:
* roads marled and compacted;
* critical drainage;
* water supply;
* electricity supply; and
* certificates of possession and title and detailed engineering designs to allow each provident society to complete tertiary sewage disposal and asphalted roads incrementally based on their financial capacity.