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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.