“The Monkey Bar” at Sandy Lane Hotel – Photo courtesy of Sandy Lane Hotel

Development over the last 10 years in Barbados has been at an unprecedented level.  Can it continue?  Can the island sustain this level of development?  In essence can our limited resources cope with such development?

These are all reasonable questions and within the context of a developing 2nd world nation they are even more relevant.  The competing demands for our very limited land potentially can be a catalyst for social and economic unrest.  While there can be no certainty that conflicts due to the limited resources will not arise it is important to understand what has been done in Barbados to prepare for and encourage this continued level of development while balancing the sometimes opposing forces.  Much has been written about the National Strategic Plan which articulates the vision for the country through the year 2025.  Not as much attention has been focused on the Physical Development Plan Amended (2003) (PDP) that puts land development directly in the context of the NSP.

The PDP has a shorter projected useful life and takes us through only to 2010 causing some to say that it is almost outdated before it is proclaimed.  The reality is that the plan was adopted in the later part of 2006 and while it awaits formal approval in Parliament in effect it is in operation today.  It will at least guide planning decisions for the next 5 years and likely beyond.

The plan “provides a vision for the growth and development of the nation by setting out policies to guide relationships among land uses, community facilities and physical infrastructure.  It is also intended to coordinate public and private development initiatives in Barbados to the year 2010, within a framework of sustainable development.”

The first PDP was published in 1970 followed by the PDP Amended 1986 and now the Amended 2003 version.  In difference to previous plans that focused on the implementation of Government policies for economic and social development, the current plan introduces a strong foundation and emphasis on:

  • the protection of national heritage,
  • the environment,
  • minimizing negative social and environmental impacts from development,
  • the protection of agricultural lands from incompatable urban development
  • promotion of a diversified economy
  • maintaining Central Bridgetown as the primary location for financial institutions, offices, shopping and other commercial activities
  • promotion of the tourism industry by encouraging redevelopment and modernization of older properties

The Chief Town Planner (CTP) follows the PDP as closely as possible when making a decision or a recommendation to the Minister responsible for Planning.  However, it is clear that the Plan is very “broadbrush” and does not always reflect the situation on the ground (e.g. existing settlement areas, newly issued permissions, etc.)  The CTP & the Minister often deviate from the Plan if the social or economic grounds are “compelling” (of over-riding importance), but will then use the Plan against any proposal that is “unworthy” in their opinion.  Unfortunately this has led in the past to some disagreement where it can be shown that land useless for agriculture gets refused permission for development based on the PDP while prime agricultural land gets approval based on overriding factors (such as National Housing Corporation housing).

In general, the PDP is a good starter document (despite being forever out-of-date) and the National/Community-specific policies generally make very good sense.  The PDP is published by overseas consultants on a tight deadline, and as a result the defined land use ‘zones’ are sometimes not in keeping with the common sense of those on the ground familiar with the land areas in very personal terms.  Thus it is probably a good thing that the Town Planning Office does not always follow the plan to the letter.

The plan itself is broken down into many sections but investors looking for land development opportunities in the island should be most concerned with the Land Use Policies section that sets out specific land use designations.

Local and foreign developers alike find it surprising how robust a document the PDP actually is.  Every square inch of Barbados has a designated use.  Applications to change this designation go through a rigorous process that is time consuming.  That process in itself can serve to allow the Government to control the availability of land for alternative uses.  Some people more knowledgeable than me have said that “he who controls the planning department controls the economy”.  I always thought it was the Central Bank but frankly with the amount of our ecpnomy dependent today on real estate development in its many forms there is merit in this statement.

The Plan does not exist in a vacuum and certainly there are some recent trends that perhaps were not contemplated in the plan and are worthy of mention.  The Plan makes passing reference to height limitations for buildings and seems to suggest that the current limits should be increased so as to allow greater density of development.  Whenever land is scarce the obvious solution is to go upwards.  Barbados is no different and we shall soon follow.

Perhaps more so than any other country in the world Barbadians value the “view” from their property, and this is what makes height limitations so controversial.  Not only can the view from one property to the other be affected but also the very nature of the landscape is changed.  Currently there is a limit for beachfront development on most of the island of 55 feet.  It is recognized that at this level the view is already blocked so why not go higher and have less buildings meaning more open spaces?  Seems like good logic and is likely to be implemented in policy.

The other trend that has developed in the last 5 years and is likely to continue unless there is some form of planning intervention, is the conversion of hotels to apartments.  This does not mean that the apartments are not used in the tourism sector, although that can be the result.  Over the period at least 11 hotels have been redeveloped into apartments.  Not all the apartments have been put back into use as short term rental villas and in some cases the total number of available rooms has been reduced.  In other cases the redevelopments have actually increased the rooms available for the short-term rental market.

As the Barbados brand has developed on the world market the brand attributes are more in line with high end luxury vacations than they are to the budget volume tourist market.  It is therefore not surprising that Sandy Lane has had the success that it has and that the Four Seasons Resort has gotten off to an excellent start if only in terms of the demand for the villa units.  Today we know of high-end brands such as Banyan Tree and Ritz Carlton who are looking to get a presence on the island.  The trend of redeveloping older beachfront hotels into more upmarket apartments is just another part of this overall trend.

The question that local and foreign investors are asking is where will all of this development end?  Is there a point at which the island will become over developed?  The answer to these questions lie in the perspective of the person giving the answer.  For the land developer the market will become over developed when projects are unable to achieve the developer’s desired return.  This may be the result of increased construction prices due to market conditions, extended absorption periods due to over supply of units, or a myriad of other reasons that can affect economic returns.  For the country as a whole we may consider the island over developed when the traditional Barbadian lifestyle is changed too much too fast.  Sensitive issues like access to the beaches and views of the seascape will all contribute to perceptions of overdevelopment.  From the Government’s perspective it is hard to see where they may find a limit to development.  Certainly the island seems to have an insatiable appetite for foreign exchange and the Government has few choices to generate the volume of currency needed other than to allow the continued development of real estate to overseas purchasers with hard currency.

Potential real estate developers will find Barbados a market of tremendous opportunity.  While the planning process can be long for developments that run counter to the PDP and must be justified, the process is transparent.  The plan is not the rule of law, but it does set an excellent framework that guides the competing forces that are inevitable.  In more sophisticated jurisdictions like the UK and the USA the development planning process, while having less subjective areas, can be even more rigorous.  In the UK it is not uncommon for sensitive sites to spend more than a decade in the planning process.  Why should we expect in little Barbados where our resources are that much more scarce to have any less of a process?

In addition to the Physical Development Plan that guides the course of developments in Barbados there are a robust set of professional real estate development services available. †From town planning consultants to Chartered Surveyors, architects to contractors, lawyers to accountants, real estate agents to property managers there exists a complete range of local professional resources to support sophisticated developers. †Over the last 5 years a number of UK based developers have entered the market by way of beachfront development projects, inland apartments and golf developments. †Not only do Barbadian developers now compete with their regional counterparts in Trinidad but more often now they must compete against the sophisticated, experienced and well capitalized international developer. †Barbados is one jurisdiction where the playing field is level for all developers.