Shanty Town, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Jamaica Observer: ROSE HALL, St James — British High Commissioner to Jamaica Asif Ahmad has argued that, contrary to popular, opinion society’s affluent individuals are the ones responsible for the mushrooming of squatter settlements in urban areas — not poor informal settlers.

The diplomat has also called for a serious mulling over of gentrification, which is defined as the process of urban development in which a poor neighbourhood develops rapidly, over a period of time, changing to a high-value area.

“As cities grow, because the rich want to build houses and build office buildings and towns, the first thing that they do is displace the poor. And, in the absence of low-cost housing, what we see are the shanty towns… informal settlements… The instinct is to blame the poor, [but] it’s the rich who have actually caused the development of shanty towns, not the poor,” Ahmad insisted.

“So don’t blame them [the poor], because they cannot be hidden; you cannot put them out of sight, they are a human reality,” he added.

Ahmad argued that it is ironic that the “service sector, which goes hand in hand with urban development, and, indeed, the construction industry itself, relies on those very poor people”.

“They are the ones who work with their hands, and the choice that such people have to make, increasingly, is to travel vast distances to carry out their trade and to build the cities that we want to live in. So in the rush for more secure, gated communities and iconic office buildings, we shut out the very people we need to build them,” he pointed out.

According to the British diplomat, a day will come when poor people and those in rural areas will say, “ ‘Enough,’ they are not prepared to sacrifice their quality of life so that we can have quality of life as city dwellers.”

He cited that recently, while speaking with Jamaica’s new housing Minister Pearnel Charles Jr, he highlighted the emerging change in social housing in the United Kingdom.

“And part of our thinking actually embraces the private sector. It says, ‘Here is land that you can develop, or here is a part of old cities that you can redevelop, but to do so, what you have to do is you can build what you want to build for commercial reasons, but part of the deal is you have to build in social housing, not somewhere far away, [but] within the same complex’,” Ahmad explained.

He said, too, that the UK model offers some people, who cannot afford to buy a place, the opportunity to convert the rent they pay into equity over time.

“People have a stake in the place they are renting, so the stigma of social housing hinge to social ownership and dignity of being a master of your own environment,” he added.

Ahmad was delivering the keynote address at the opening ceremony of The University of the West Indies, Mona — Western Jamaica Campus (UWI-WJC) inaugural three-day Caribbean Sustainable Cities Conference at the Hilton Rose Hall Resort and Spa in Montego Bay, St James, on Wednesday.

The conference is being held under the theme ‘Go Green. Go Safe. Go Smart’.

In the meantime, Dr Patrick Prendergast, UWI-WJC campus director, thanked local and international institutions that have chosen to support the conference, “especially at this time when we are seeing so many challenges emerging as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“…This conference really is about encouraging what we see as well-needed dialogue and engagement around these critical issues; issues related to the sustainability of cities. It is about building critical partnerships and advancing the sustainable cities agenda.

“One of the major challenges to sustainable development is the fact that the world is becoming more and more urbanised, and as we know, urbanisation itself carries with it several critical concerns, including public safety, security and health,” Prendergast said.

A section of the audience at the opening ceremony of the The University of the West Indies Mona — Western Jamaica Campus three-day Caribbean Sustainable Cities Conference at Hilton Rose Hall Resort and Spa in Montego Bay, St James, on Wednesday. (Photos: Philp Lemonte)