I realise I am writing this very much late in the day as regards the whole SDO debate. Quite frankly I was taken by surprise at the speed with which the situation developed; I had not expected it to come before parliament until after the Budget debates were sorted and a number of more pressing legislative matters had been dealth with. I had not expected the issue to be debated or voted on until around May, and, accordingly, had not read over the issue in the detail that I would have liked. With full-time post-graduate studies (ironically in urban and regional planning) and full-time employment (ironically involving economic valuation of woodland ecosystem services and greenspace) I have had my hands full, but expected to have the free time in April to properly address the issue, drawing on my studies and experiences.
As it is, I have not had the opportunity to carefully review the plans, the various relevant legisation and other documents, or critically review the basic business model of Tuckers Point. As such, all I can offer is my initial thoughts, based on what I have read on the topic.
First off, with the SDO currently before the Senate, I believe that it will pass. I expect the vote to split along Party lines, with the Independent Senators being the key, and I believe that while their vote will be split, but with the final vote going in favour of the SDO.
Secondly, I think the whole issue has been rushed and insufficient time has been allowed for MPs, Senators and the people as a whole, to make a truly informed decision on this matter. I recognise that the SDO doesn’t even have to go through the legislative process, and I welcome that it has and that all future ones will be (and hopefully the very instrument will be carefully reformed). I am always suspicious when someone tells me that the decision is of critical national importance and then that the decision has to be made urgently. In crisis moments, like a hurricane, I can understand making snap-decisions. This is not a crisis moment and a decision of this nature should be given the time to engage all people in the descision making process.
As for the business model itself, I don’t understand it. It seems to be a very flawed business model and I am not happy in supporting its continuation. I cannot shake the impression that it is a pyramid scheme in the form of real estate. It doesn’t seem to be anything to do with tourism. It seems to be completely a real estate deal. If tourism was the priority, then the tourism construction phase should be the first phase, not the real estate one.
Nor do I agree with the TP argument that ‘we must grow in order to survive’. Rather than constant quantitative growth (more hotel or real estate properties) I think the emphasis should be on qualitative growth. The service standards and quality of the development should be the key, not mass production and poor service, which seems to be increasingly endemic. I want to stress that I am not criticising the workers here. The management just seems to be content with offering substandard services compared to our prices, especially in competition with islands to the south.
We cannot outcompete the Caribbean in mass tourism. They win hands down for a variety of reasons. Instead we should be building a niche in the market for high-end and eco-tourism, something that requires a high level of capital investments and (physical and social) infrastructure, for which we are able to outcompete the Caribbean (though physical infrastructure needs to be carefully managed so as to complement and not undermine this niche approach).
Planning Laws & Trust
The TPC has a number of natural advantages that it could exploit, working within the existing planning zones. It could develop a world-class resort based on an eco-tourism and high-end model. Instead it seems content on a more conventional approach which seems counterproductive to both its own financial interests and Bermuda’s long-term social, economic and ecological interests. It would seem to be a short-term win, long-term lose situation for TPC and a lose-lose situation for Bermuda’s overall social, economic and ecological interests (albeit with a short-term economic bump).
Additionally, there are a number of questions of potential conflict of interest involved in this proposal. These may prove to be unfounded, but there is sufficient doubt now in play that it would seem prudent to ensure that this is not the case. It may mean a delay in development in the short-term, but the long-term gains of improving social relations (in the sense of trust development) would be of greater benefit.
Going back to planning laws, while there may be some situations where overriding existing zonings is acceptable, I am for the most part in favour of developers designing their developments within the set zonings. It strongly does not appear that this has been the case here; it is almost as if the development was designed without any consideration of existing zonings until the last moment, and then only half-heartedly. This may not be the case, but it is certainly the impression one gets. As stated, I am okay with a degree of flexibility in the zoning laws, but not anywhere to the degree of complete reversals and lack of sensitivity as these plans would imply.
Tragedy & Comedy
On a deeper level I have strong reservations about the tragicomedic manner of the SDO and the history of this area. It is well known that this area was once the home of a thriving (socially and economically) majority Black settlement, until a similar mass tourism development (different laws back then of course) led to this communities dispersal. Similar arguments as todays were used then to justify this action, in the name of tourism and national importance. A thriving Black-dominant community was replaced by enclaves of rich Whites, either foreign owned homes or exclusive recreational areas in the form of Mid-Ocean Club. Many have argued that this was less about tourism and more about undermining a threat to the economic and social hegemony of White Bermuda, based in Hamilton (Front Street).
While the land remains in private ownership, huge swathes of it have so far been left undeveloped, largely due to past limitations of construction technology. While these areas are largely unaccessible, due to terrain or fears about trespassing, the ecosystem services they provide are of great social value. Specifically this is due to their biodiversity and geodiversity (the caves, endemics and native species) found there, but also due to their general landscape amenity. They also provide carbon sequestration benefits and serve as a ‘living’ memory of our history, offering a distinct and important sense of place to many. While we may not all be able to enjoy them recreationally, in the sense of a park, they are still of great social value to the island – and their landscape amenity alone is of importance from a wider tourism perspective too.
Alternatives & Closing Thoughts
A far better development plan for TPC would have seen a much smaller-scale development, working with rather than over the ecosystem services of the area. Opening these areas up in the form of nature trails and secluded cottages would likely be more profitable (long-term) and help to engage more people with our natural heritage. This too would provide jobs, and likely more sustainable ones, than the short-term gain of mass destruction and construction.
I should also say though, that while I beleive the SDO will pass, and it is for ‘in principle’ only, I do not see the development going ahead, at least not in its current form. I expect the key desire of TPC is to have planning rights or to set a precedent, with which to revise their development plans in the future, having effectively overturned the zoning restrictions on its land. I would expect to see some initial activity and then a lack of subsequent action, with the land and its planning rights likely sold off at a (relative) profit in the form of real estate.
So, I am not supportive of the SDO, although I think it will pass. I feel that our planning legislation needs critically reviewed and improved, with greater attention placed on ecosystem values. I also feel that we need a national tourism strategy that moves away from mass tourism and trying to compete with the Caribbean, a model that only leaves us with increasingly less of our natural capital (and key attraction for tourism).