Last week, on Tuesday (April 4), an agreement was signed between the National Housing Corporation (NHC) and the Ministry of Lands for the Government to take over responsibility for issuing leases to NHC clients already residing on about 172 unregistered plots in Freshwater area.
This follows a NHC Board resolution and a Council of Ministers decision to transfer all of the NHC’s remaining interest in this land back to the Government, and for the Government through the Department of Lands to then facilitate issuing of leases to those people living on the plots concerned who have made various levels of payments for the plots to the NHC but have not yet been given proper leases. The issuing of leases will necessarily involve the Department reviewing the outstanding debts of individual debtors and negotiating and restructuring the debt and converting the agreed debt into leases. The NHC will continue to assist the Department to regularise the legal status of those who may have occupied some or all of the 172 plots of land that are unregistered.
The agreement signed this week is the latest in a series of steps the current Minister of Lands and Board of Directors have taken to try and resolve the problems of the NHC. The NHC was established by an act of Parliament in 1986 for the purposes of promoting and providing low cost housing to the people of Vanuatu. On 6 July 1990, lease title number 11/OG31/007 (the Head Lease) in what is now known as Freshwater in Port Vila was registered between the Minister of Lands as lessor of state land and the National Housing Corporation as the lessee. On 16 January 1995, the Head Lease was surrendered and new lease titles 11/OG31/041 and 11/OH34/007 were created and registered in favour of the NHC as the proprietor. These lease titles were then subdivided and consequently derivative leases were created and registered also in favor of the NHC. The intention and objective of the NHC with respect to the subdivision was to sell the unregistered land plots and once paid, the NHC would then transfer and register the plots to the respective purchasers.
However, since its inception, the NHC has experienced continuous difficulty in its operations. The principal reason for these difficulties has been ongoing chronic political interference resulting in mismanagement and large-scale misappropriation. The failure of the Government to properly fund the NHC has also been a factor.
In 2013, upon becoming Minister of Lands, Ralph Regenvanu requested the then-Prime Minister Moana Carcasses to transfer responsibility for the NHC from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (where it had always been) to the the Ministry of Lands. The Minister then appointed a new Board chaired by Mr John Salong. In 2015, the first independent financial audit of the NHC in over 15 years was completed, covering the period up to the end of 2012. The audit found that the NHC had liabilities in excess of 60 million vatu and was not only incapable of paying its debts but also incapable of simply meeting its day-to-day running costs. In the period from 2013 to 2015 a number of cost-cutting measures were implemented by the Board, including relocating the NHC office from the Olympic Building in downtown Port Vila to Matua Park in Freshwater. In 2016, the Government provided a supplementary budget of just over VT14 million to assist the NHC to retire all its staff, and by the end of 2016 the daily running costs of the NHC had been reduced to zero.
With this agreement signed last week, a significant portion of NHC debt relating to the remaining unregistered plots of land in Freshwater has now been transferred to the Government. There remain about 172 unregistered plots which are currently occupied where the occupants have either made no payments at all to the NHC, made some payments or made all required payments but the land is yet to be transferred and registered in their name. The Government is now establishing a framework for facilitating the acquisition, management, and regularisation of the 172 plots of land to be registered. Such a framework will probably include the Government waiving the current and accrued land rents from the 172 plots of land owed by the NHC. The Department of Lands hopes to have the majority of the leases issued by the middle of this year.
In related news, the World Bank is now assisting the Government to develop a National Housing Policy which will include an assessment of the how the Government can be an actor in the land and housing market and what role, if any, the NHC will play in this.
Last week, Minister Regenvanu made an official trip to New Caledonia in which he had discussions with the two principal agencies undertaking development of new suburbs and townships in the territory, SECAL (Société d’Equipement de la Nouvelle-Calédonie) and SIC (Société Immobilière Calédonienne).
Both organisations use public-private partnership models to build new towns and subdivisions, including the largest new township development in the whole of France, Dumbea Sur Mer, just outside Noumea. The Minister also held discussions with the President of the Government of New Caledonia, Philippe Germain, on how his government can assist Vanuatu to develop a similar agency in Vanuatu.
Such assistance is now possible through the inclusion of a section in the Cooperation Agreement signed between the governments of Vanuatu and New Caledonia last month in Port Vila which states that “the Government of New Caledonia will help the Government of Vanuatu to create a dedicated planning and housing entity, which would include related operations like water supply and sanitation, road infrastructure, and social housing”.
The Ministry of Lands is reportedly also finalizing amendments to a number of land laws to implement a new national subdivision policy, the purpose of which will be to regulate the provision of subdivision developments in Vanuatu and in particular to ensure that the creation of subdivisions results in environmentally and socially sustainable development and an improved quality of life for residents with suitable standards of amenity, access, health and safety.
The amendments are scheduled to go before Parliament in the June session and will be an important element in providing for the future development of subdivisions and townships throughout Vanuatu.