By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government is mulling whether to hire private inspection firms to assess construction work on its housing programme, the minister responsible telling Tribune Business it was moving to “really strengthen quality assurance” and controls.
Acknowledging that it was “absolutely critical” that the Bahamian taxpayer receive value for money from the Government housing initiative, Kenred Dorsett said the Department of Housing’s approved contractor lists were also being scrutinised.
The minister of housing and the environment said the Government was looking to develop a system that would remove contractors found guilty of bad workmanship, or whom regular complaints were made about.
And, while there was “no doubt” that shoddy construction work had impacted the Government housing programme in the past, Mr Dorsett said the system had also been “abused” by homeowners seeking to obtain more than they were entitled to.
Pledging that he would reveal more details about the Government’s housing programme when the House of Assembly reconvened in October 2012, Mr Dorsett said he had also held discussions with the Bahamian Contractors Association (BCA) on the issue.
“We are advancing a plan to really strengthen the quality assurance programme within the Department of Housing,” Mr Dorsett told Tribune Business.
“We’re going through the approved contractor lists we have. In addition we’re making sure, for example, that where we have complaints about specific contractors, there’s a system for taking them off the list.
“In addition to that, we’re determining whether we use a private inspectorate firm. We’re looking at the possibility of engaging private inspectorate services for the inspection [of homes] to ensure there is someone being held accountable, responsible...... to further protect the Government and minimise risk.”
On the surface at least, it appears that Mr Dorsett and the Government are taking to heart the findings of the Value for Money Report, by UK-based Crown Agents, that was conducted on the public sector housing programme for the Auditor-General.
Lack of manpower and expertise among the Department of Housing’s building/home inspectors was cited as a particular weakness in that report, especially after the first Christie administration decided to accelerate the building programme between 2002-2007.
“The inspection resource of the Department of Housing came under significant strain between 2002-2007,” the report said, despite extra personnel and resources being provided.
“However, we understand that many of those recruited had limited job-specific experience or qualifications, and had previously worked in totally unrelated roles in the public service (for example, as drivers and prison officers) and were not given adequate training to equip them for their new role,” Crown Agents noted.
Proper inspections were vital, given that Crown Agents were told on one occasion that only 75 per cent of government homes were built competently.
And, between 2007-2008, some $2.3 million had to be allocated by the Government to home repairs. In some cases, repair costs were almost as much as the building’s original value, with some so badly built they were uninhabitable.
“This represents a complete lack of value for money,”
Crown Agents said. “In particular, a lack of inspection capacity and quality control measures have resulted in houses being signed-off for payments at sub-standard levels of quality.
“Clearly, the use of this repair programme represents ineffective, inefficient and uneconomic use of public funds.”
Mr Dorsett, therefore, appears to be spot on in tackling these deficiencies. His plans, previously stated to Tribune Business, to get private sector developers and lenders/financiers involved with the Government housing programme - possibly via joint venture partnerships - also mirror key recommendations in the Crown Agents report.
Acknowledging that achieving ‘value for money’ for the Bahamian taxpayer was “absolutely critical”, Mr Dorsett told Tribune Business: “At the end of the day, we have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure we spend the people’s money prudently and get good value for money.
“We are examining every single aspect of the housing programme to determine where we can pass savings on to the Bahamian people.”
This, he added, involved looking at construction materials and systems that potentially offered lower costs, as well as assessing administrative and other cost inputs.
“There have been some instances where there’s been shoddy workmanship, do doubt about that, but also in certain instances the system has been abused,” Mr Dorsett told Tribune Business.
“People get upgrades as opposed to repairs. We’re developing proper protocols where we eliminate the ability for homeowners to abuse that process.
“It requires proper checks and balances, and strengthened systems, and protocols implemented. We’re not reinventing the wheel. These are normal practices in the private sector. It’s just a matter of ensuring it works well in the public domain.”
Mr Dorsett added that his ministry was talking to the Ministry of Finance about financing for the Government housing programme, a nod to the Bahamas Mortgage Corporation’s troubled financial position and the need for a multi-million dollar recapitalising.
And, confirming discussions with the construction industry, the minister said: “We’ve been talking to the BCA in relation to draft legislation, and had mutual discussions with them on our interest in quality control, and the industry’s interest in working with us to ensure contractors on the Government’s approved listing match theirs. There are arrangements where we share interests.”