Several recovery projects are far behind schedule as the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Irma approaches, but Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said during a Aug. 8 press conference that the United Kingdom’s offer of a £300 recovery loan guarantee is now off the table.
However, he added that the government is in talks with UK officials to find the best way forward to fund the recovery and other development projects.
Some of those discussions, he added, took place in recent days when he visited the UK to watch the opening of the Commonwealth Games.
During the Aug. 8 press conference, Dr. Wheatley commended the recovery work that has been accomplished while also acknowledging that more needs to be done.
“I would say that we have a lot to be proud of,” he said. “Of course, it’s been about five years, and we don’t want to be in a perpetual state of recovery. We want to move on from recovery and move forward with our development. There are some lingering projects we have to get sorted out.”
The list of “lingering projects” is extensive, as the government has struggled to fund many needed recovery projects without the UK loan guarantee. Hundreds of millions of dollars are still needed for projects such as the West End ferry terminal, public libraries and museums, a national archive, a new court complex, extensive sewerage work, derelict boat removal, the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex, a new National Emergency Operations Centre, school repairs, a replacement for the Sir Rupert Briefcliffe Hall, and others.
The premier said such projects — including a library and museum — remain priorities but need funding. But he also commended the work that has been done on other recovery projects, particularly with the schools and port facilities.
“Over 90 percent of our recreational infrastructure was destroyed,” he added. “We did quite a bit to restore our recreational grounds, even though we have a few outstanding ones left.”
He also thanked RDA CEO Anthony McMaster and his team, public officers, individual donors and Unite BVI for their contributions to recovery projects such as the ongoing work at Elmore Stoutt High School.
Dr. Wheatley added that an event is being planned to properly thank donors for everything they’ve done for the territory.
The House of Assembly originally voted to accept the UK’s £300 loan guarantee offer in March 2018 when it passed the RDA Act after a contentious debate.
However, negotiations subsequently stalled, and successive governments never accessed any loans under the guarantee. Instead, leaders publicly complained that the conditions attached to the deal would give the UK too much oversight over the territory’s affairs.
Nevertheless, negotiations continued, and then-Premier Andrew Fahie said as recently as February that the guarantee was still an option.
“We never told the UK we don’t want the loan guarantee: We just wanted to renegotiate some of the areas,” Mr. Fahie said at the time. “And lately with new persons in positions, we have been able to bring this up in a more mature and professional manner.”
However, the offer is no longer available, according to Dr. Wheatley.
“The guarantee, right now, is not on the table,” he said on Aug. 8. “But it is something we can return to see if we can get it back on the table. We essentially lost the opportunity to get the guarantee.”
He continued, “Whether we can get the opportunity again, it depends on us, but for the loan that we are exploring it wouldn’t be big enough really to justify the guarantee.”
He said the VI is “right in the middle” of discussions about a loan and he couldn’t offer further details at the time.
Further conversations about future projects like a possible runway expansion at the Beef Island airport — which he said could cost upwards of $200 million — are still needed, according to the premier. But for that project, he said, low interest rates and a guarantee “would be helpful.”
Also during the press conference, he gave a brief update on the ongoing work at ESHS, one of the recovery projects that is currently under way. Construction includes two classroom blocks for senior students as well as a specialised technical block and an administrative block.
The project broke ground on April 4 and “has progressed at a rapid pace,” the premier said at a previous press conference.
Asked on Aug. 8 if construction would be complete in time for the fall term starting in about a month, the premier replied, “Yes.” He added that the RDA is doing an “excellent job” with the project, despite being delayed by a late shipment of doors and windows.
“We’re still on track for September,” he said. “Many persons said that it was impossible, and I think they’re really doing the impossible right now with quick work to get the school up and ready.”
Dr. Wheatley said the government also wants to get going on rebuilding court facilities in the territory. Government has promised for years to construct a new Magistrates’ Court as the first phase of a larger “Halls of Justice” after understaffing and inadequate facilities at Johns Hole caused a backlog of cases following Hurricane Irma.
In the meantime, the court will be moved to a rented facility nearby, Dr. Wheatley previously said. He didn’t offer a cost estimate for the rental, but he noted that the construction of the Halls of Justice is costed at about $24 million — but only $4 million was available when the project was announced.
“That’s part of the reason I travelled to the UK, because we wanted to have some discussions about financing our recovery with the United Kingdom government,” he said. “Very soon we should have something to report about our ability to be able to finance our recovery.”
Ongoing COI talks While abroad for the Commonwealth Games, the premier said, he also met with Amanda Milling, the UK minister responsible for the overseas territories. Ms. Milling visited the territory shortly after the Commission of Inquiry report was released and has been in discussions with VI leaders about how to proceed.
“Among other things, we discussed the need for the Virgin Islands to have greater fiscal flexibility to respond to surging inflation, high fuel and energy costs, and urgent infrastructural needs,” he said. “It is important that the government is in some way able to further help ease the financial burden on families and businesses until external economic conditions improve.”
In response to a question from the media, Dr. Wheatley also said he did not seek to have the UK rescind the order in council that would allow it to suspend the VI Constitution if the territory fails to implement the COI report recommendations in a timely manner. The interim order was laid in the UK parliament in June.
“We had some very open discussions, and considering where we are in the process, I think we would have to build some more confidence in the United Kingdom that we are going to follow through on our commitments, and I made it very clear that we were resolute that we will go ahead with the reform programme,” he said.
He added, however, that he planned to raise the topic during November’s Joint Ministerial Council meeting.
Part of the planned governance reforms is a review of the 2007 Constitution, and Dr. Wheatley said a key discussion will concern belongership and residency.
COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom noted discrepancies between policies and the law governing how long a person must reside in the territory before applying for belongership status.
Dr. Wheatley said on Aug. 8 that community meetings are being planned before September to get public input on the best way to grow the population without overwhelming the territory’s institutions.
He added that an announcement on a planned reform of the National Health Insurance programme, which has been promised for years, will soon be coming from Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn.
While travelling for the Commonwealth Games, Dr. Wheatley also met with other UK officials, including UK Member of Parliament James Sunderland, the chairman of the BVI All Party Parliamentary Group.
“We discussed our aspirations as a UK overseas territory and our economy,” he said. “He certainly was very interested in what we were doing in the Virgin Islands and how he could support and how he could help.”
The premier noted the importance of giving parliamentarians accurate information about the territory so they can advocate on its behalf on relevant issues.
Also as part of his attendance at the Commonwealth Games, Dr. Wheatley said, he met Prince Charles, Commonwealth SecretaryGeneral Baroness Patricia Scotland, UK Leader of the Opposition Sir Kier Starmer, and Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK minister for South Asia, North Africa, the United Nations and the Commonwealth.
“Our exchanges were congenial and in the true spirit of the Commonwealth Games that is often referred to as the ‘friendly’ games,” Dr. Wheatley said.
Separately, the premier also met recently with neighbouring officials including USVI Governor Albert Bryan and Lieutenant Governor Tregenza Roache during the August Emancipation Festival celebrations, he said.
“Among other things, we agreed that an Inter Virgin Islands Council meeting will take place in September in the USVI, and Friendship Day will take place in mid-October in the BVI, and that our respective governments will explore greater cooperation in areas such as disaster response, maritime management and public health,” Dr. Wheatley said.