Nationalising Berbice Bridge a slap in the face to all Public-Private Partnerships – BBCI Vice Chair

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Berbice Bridge
The Berbice Bridge

… no respect for rule of law, constitutional rights of citizenry – former AG

The Government of Guyana has taken control of the Berbice River Bridge on Monday in an apparent effort to nationalise the structure, which was financed mainly by private investors.

In a surprise move on Monday, the People’s National Congress (PNC)-led Government said that in accordance with the powers conferred upon Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson by Sections 4 (1) and 11 of the Berbice River Bridge Act, “in the interests of public safety, the Minister issued an order declaring that the functions of the Concessionaire to maintain and operate the Bridge shall be exercised by the Government of Guyana as of 5th November 2018 until the date the Minister specifies by notice on the cessation of the threat to public safety.”

According to the Government, there will be no change to the staffing complement, contractors and suppliers, as they transition into what they described as “this new and hopefully temporary arrangement”.

However, the Government’s unilateral decision did not go down well with Berbice Bridge Company Inc (BBCI) Vice Chairman Paul Cheong, who on Monday told this media group that such an arbitrary move was a slap in the face of all public-private partnerships.

Speaking with this publication on Monday, a very livid Cheong said, “The decision came as a shock to us and, so we are working with our lawyers to weigh our legal options. I have a meeting with our lawyers tomorrow (Tuesday). This is a slap on the whole Private Sector … this is something bigger than toll increases … it is a slap to all public-private partnerships … it was a model project for private-public partnership and so the Government will have to be responsible in its actions.”

Only on Sunday, the BBCI offered Government a chance to extend the life of the contract to spare commuters toll increases.

In correspondence to Minister Patterson, BBCI Finance Controller Stephen Rambajan requested a meeting with the Minister on the Board’s behalf and in the public interest to discuss the terms of this offer.

The BBCI proposed to extend the contract period to 40 years. This extension, according to Rambajan, will make it unnecessary to implement the toll increases the company announced on October 16, 2018.

“We believe that such an extension, with full Government support, will provide BBCI the opportunity to approach its lenders to re-negotiate terms and conditions of the various debts. If these negotiations with the lenders are successful, it will provide much-needed relief to the cash requirement burden and, therefore, the need for toll increases at present and in the future.

“We are convinced that this proposal will allow the tolls to remain as is and provides opportunities for toll reduction in the near future, removing the need for Government subsidy to the tolls and maintenance of pontoons,” Rambajan stated, adding that the BBCI would withdraw the toll hikes once a mutual agreement is reached.

But on Monday, several members of the Private Sector were on edge, as, according to a leading businessman, the move by Government did not augur well for investors in Guyana.

State compulsorily acquiring private property

anil nandlall2
Former Attorney General Anil Nandlall

Former Attorney General Anil Nandlall, in weighing in on the issue, said the move by Government to take possession of the Bridge under the guise that it was acting “in the interest of public safety” must have shocked the conscience of every law-abiding citizen of this land.

“This is nothing short of the State compulsorily acquiring private property without any expressed intention to pay adequate compensation at market value as is required by Article 142 of the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. Article 142 is designed to protect private property against the State expropriating the same without compensation,” the Attorney-at-Law said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, numerous private properties were compulsorily acquired by the then PNC Administration. These properties include what is now Citizens Bank, Hope Estate Limited, a huge tract of land at Liliendaal, Takuba Lodge, Echilibar Villas and dozens more. In many instances, no monies were paid to the owners of these properties and in the cases where there were payments, the price was pegged to a 1939 valuation as was the law during that period.

According to Nandlall, “this atrocity was obviously inspired by an ideology that has no respect for the rule of law, the constitutional rights of the citizenry and driven by the unbridled arrogance of those in Government then who felt that this entire country was their private property.

“You will recall also the blatant attempt by Attorney General Basil Williams, to confiscate two pieces of private property adjacent to the Attorney General Chambers on Carmichael Street. Every week, dozens of leases for State/Government lands are being revoked by various agencies of State. As a matter of policy, the Central Housing and Planning Authority is cancelling Transports and Certificates of Title of persons who are unable to construct buildings on house lots sold to them under the previous Administration,” he noted.

He added that with the Berbice Bridge, “we see the naked authoritarian nature of this Government being displayed. Rather than negotiate from a position that recognises and respects private property, this Government has chosen the big-stick method of bullyism and the virtual stealing of private property.”

According to Nandlall, this act of the Government will certainly cause irreversible damage to Guyana’s image as an investment destination.

“No prudent investor would pump scarce finance resources into a nation where the Government’s first resort is confiscation of their investments.”

Last week, the World Bank’s 2018 Report signalled a dip in investors’ confidence in Guyana.

This year, Guyana placed 126th in the global rankings. Last year, Guyana ranked 124th, while in 2015, the nation ranked 140th.

The Ease of Doing Business Index is one of the most comprehensive studies done by the World Bank.

In determining ease of doing business, the World Bank looks at key indicators such as registering, compliance, taxation, obtaining loans and similar factors such as administrative procedures. It also looks at legal measures, such as protection and settlements.

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