23 May 2013

Before 1935, Australia did not have any toad species of its own. However, toads were being used successfully in the Caribbean Islands and Hawaii to combat the cane beetle, a pest of sugar cane crops. After rave reviews from overseas, Hawaii shipped 102 cane toads to Gordonvale just south of Cairns. 

As their numbers increased, they were released into the sugar cane fields in the tropic north. It was later discovered that these toads couldn’t jump very high so they did not eat the cane beetles which stayed up on the upper stalks of the cane plants. The cane toad had no impact on the cane beetles and farmers had to revert to using chemicals to kill the beetles. However, the “cat was out of the bag”, or more accurately, the toads were out of the box! They multiplied rapidly, took food from other native species and have proven to be one of Australia’s worst environmental disasters. 

So what relevance does the above cautionary tale have within a business article? Over recent years, the public sector has introduced a number of “cane toad” measures that never achieve their objectives yet create bigger, more complicated problems for the business community. I have been highlighting the most costly and dramatic of these for some time, the Modern Government Lease (MGL) that was introduced to try to protect the public purse from large dilapidations claims when public sector occupiers exited leased accommodation. The unanticipated consequence was that the provisions included within the MGL have created unsalable investment assets particularly within the current economic climate. We remain the only region in the UK to have this restrictive lease imposed upon us by the public sector and the resultant effect has been the decimation of rental and capital values within our office market. In property terms, the MGL is a cane toad of epic proportion.

This is not the only example of common sense absent within the public sector. One of our major financial services clients was, taken to Court recently and unknowingly for non-payment of rates and the Department granted a Decree in Debt Proceedings against our client. Ensuing correspondence, which demanded immediate payment including Departmental costs, outlined a series of measures available culminating in the statement. “The Department can also begin bankruptcy and liquidation actions if the debt remains outstanding.” The correspondence concluded, “This is a computer-generated letter and as such does not have a signature.”

You may ask why this triggers such annoyance as we would all like to see rates and other tax debts collected efficiently by the public sector. The property on which the debt was supposedly due was exempt from rates owing to an exemption centrally applied and not subject to occupier application; something that a computer is obviously incapable of processing. A lack of human input and common sense meant that no one checked their facts prior to proceeding to Court causing great embarrassment to our client. These expensive computer systems are designed to make rates/tax collections more efficient however, as with the cane toad, do not appear to function in the anticipated manner.

As our retail market continues to struggle, with Northern Ireland having the UK’s worst high street vacancy rates, our politicians pursue a policy that makes Belfast less attractive to shoppers and visitors. The current drive to remove cars from the city centre and replace a perfectly functional traffic system with an enhanced public transport option makes Belfast city centre less attractive than outlying retail parks. Our experience to date is that traffic congestion has increased, new bus lanes are creating havoc, cycle lanes remain conspicuously empty and journey times throughout the city have steadily increased. I remain to be convinced that the new traffic system will ever achieve its stated goals, as it appears simply another massive cane toad.

Our political leaders need to urgently realise that a number of their policies are not achieving their desired purpose and in many cases creating huge problems for business. Sometimes change does not improve what already exists and I would urge the public sector to eradicate these “cane toads” before they effectively ruin our chance of recovery. 

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