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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.