Now that the recriminations have flown around after the “Kings of Tennis” debacle, it would be a pity if this episode is allowed to peter out without any real lessons being learned.
There are larger lessons here for the state when dealing with private companies coming up with all sorts of ideas and proposals:
1. Protect the public interest at all times, ahead of private interests.
2. Check out the track record of the companies concerned. Do they have a history of successful ventures? Are they in financial trouble? Check out the directors’ backgrounds.
3. Don’t get too “pally” and cosy with the business community. State government officials are there to uphold and defend the public interest. It’s fine to encourage economic activity, but when dealing with private companies, always do so at arm’s length.
4. Beware of things which appear to be free and cost nothing to the state. What do they expect in return – if not in cash, then in kind? Are they looking for relaxation of regulations, easier licences, cheap land, monopolistic advantage or a stepping stone to related ventures?
5. If they are introducing new technology, chemicals, etc, is the technology proven and safe? Remember the Precautionary Principle:
The precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.
The principle implies that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes. The protections that mitigate suspected risks can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that more robustly support an alternative explanation. In some legal systems, as the law of the European Union, the precautionary principle is also a general and compulsory principle of law.
In other words, the burden of proof lies with those introducing the technology to prove that it is safe – and NOT with the public to prove that it is harmful.
6. What kind of social, economic and environmental impact will the project have? Does the company have a clean record in ensuring that there is no harmful impact? For example, what kind of impact will a hypermarket have on petty traders in the area? Is the project sustainable in the long run especially in terms of traffic, urban planning and the environment? Does this project benefit the majority of the population or just an elite group? What is the cost to the community?
7. Study the financing scheme carefully. Consider hidden costs to the public, the environment and the state. Have they secured financing? Often, that is a key test of the viability of a project as banks are unlikely to lend to dubious ventures. If no financing scheme is provided, this should immediately send a warning signal.
8. Be extremely careful about the state endorsing any private ventures. If the state endorses a private venture, wouldn’t that make it more difficult to penalise the firm or organisers for not having complied with this and that? Wouldn’t that leave the state exposed to claims of compensation from the public, if things go wrong?
9. Beware of giving out over-generous incentives and waivers of fees and charges. Why should some profit-motivated private firms be exempted from fees and deposits that should rightly go into state coffers? In the case of the “Kings of Tennis” event, the state should have at the very minimum collected a deposit or bank guarantee to ensure that the Esplanade is brought back to its original condition, not to mention rental for the use of the Esplanade.
10. Consider all options (to find out which is more cost-effective, sustainable and proven) and various vendors (for pricing, track record and reliablity) and consult the public (to gauge impact) and the experts (for technical input). Look at how other progressive cities create sustainable urban environments. Allow for meaningful public participation and discussions, not one-sided forums or top-down information dissemination. Better to be thorough in planning and groundwork and take your time than to rush into a venture and regret later when the hidden costs and problems start piling up.