Architect of Honduran privatised cities drops out over lack of transparency

Paul Romer attacks Honduran government over its failure to ensure accountability of the new privately-run cities.

Honduras' plans for "model cities" – entire settlements managed by private corporations – already seem to be settling in to a pattern of secrecy and corruption worthy of the best dystopian futures.

The idea to create the cities – known as Regions Especial de Dessarrollo (Special Development Regions), or REDs – was suggested a year ago, but this month the first deals were signed, with US-based investment group MGK, to build one.

The Financial Times' Ron Buchanan reported (£):

The model cities are to be states within a state, with their own legal and law enforcement agencies, tax and monetary systems – “Hello US dollar”, “Adiós Honduran lempira”, presumably – and every conceivable facility to attract investment.

The concept sounds like a steroid-enhanced vision of a free-market enthusiast. Which it is. The US economist Paul Romer has dreamed up the idea of creating cities, along the lines of Hong Kong and Singapore, which have created poles of dynamic investment that have spilled over into their once impoverished hinterlands.

Even before the real problems began, there was already opposition to the plan. The Independent's Suzy Dean wrote, back in January, that:

What sets the REDs apart from other charter cities is the belief that in order for the cities to thrive they must suspend democracy. The unelected [Transparency] Commission will govern the new city, until they decide the population is ‘ready’ for democracy; only then will new local councils be set up. . .

The establishment of the Transparency Commission reflects the belief of the Honduran government that the public might ‘get it wrong’. The Transparency Committee will not engage with or respond to public demands.

The economist Paul Romer has been the guiding voice behind the plans, and was one of the five people originally slated to be on the Transparency Commission. But yesterday, he sent Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen a statement detailing his growing problems with the project. In short, the Transparency Commission has been shuttered, and Romer only even heard about the MGK deal from the press:

From recent newspaper reports, I learned that the Honduran agency responsible for public-private partnerships had signed an agreement about a RED with a private company. When I asked for information, I was told that I could not see this agreement.

This was a departure from the standards of transparency that the administration had led me to expect. It was also a departure from the role for the Transparency Commission outlined in the Constitutional Statute passed by the Honduran Congress.

So the model cities, which were going to have a transparency commission in the place of democratic governance, now have… nothing. Except the corporation that runs them.

Meanwhile, Antonio Trejo Cabrera, a lawyer who had helped to prepare motions declaring the the model cities unconstitutional, was murdered on Sunday, according to the Associated Press:

Antonio Trejo Cabrera, 41, who died early Sunday after being ambushed by gunmen, was a lawyer for three peasant cooperatives in the Bajo Aguan, a fertile farming area plagued by violent conflicts between agrarian organizations and land owners. The most prominent is Dinant Corporation owned by Miguel Facusse, one of Honduras' richest men. Thousands of once-landless workers hold about 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of plantations they seized from Dinant.

Trejo, who was shot six times after attending a wedding, reported threats in June 2011, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press, including photocopies of a BlackBerry message he received saying: "Trejo, you dog, you have 48 hours to get out or you're dead." . . .

MGK director Michael Strong said the company is "horrified" by Trejo's killing.

"We believe that Antonio Trejo, had he lived long enough to get to know us, would have concluded that our approach is 100 percent beneficial to Honduras and Hondurans. We are saddened for his family and understand what a tragedy this is for trust and goodwill in Honduras," Strong said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The plans to construct the first RED remain in effect.

A still from the dystopian future of the upcoming film Dredd 3D. Photograph: Lionsgate/Reliance Entertainment

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.