Since the proposition to buy the land has been made by the Chief Minister and his assistant, for those on the progressive side of politics it would be almost instinct to oppose it for that reason only. But here Daniel has put forward a case from a progressive point of view that may carry more weight, so please have a read and share your thoughts.
For the record, I am happy to do more guest posts if readers see any value in them, so I'd appreciate if anyone wants to share any views on that idea in the comments section, or give ideas on who to guest and on what topic.
PLEMONT – THE UNDERLYING ISSUES
This Plemont issue is important as it throws so many of the key issues facing Jersey into stark relief. There is the question of private interest versus the public interest. There is the question: what do we actually care about? Then there is the confusion around ideas such as economic growth, population, and Jersey’s so-called “poverty”. On all these questions, Plemont is a test case for the left. Which is why I wrote this piece.
At the outset, I declare an interest – I am firmly in the “return to nature” camp, and I do see that, on the face of it, it might seem hard to justify the likely cost of purchase. But please hear me out. I will just look at a few things Sam said in his Plemont post of 23rd November.
1 “The building work will even help stimulate the economy a bit.” “unemployment is a huge problem at the moment,” “Coupling that with the unemployment and rising population, it's going to be tough. I call that a mess,”
Indeed. Large-scale (for Jersey) unemployment coupled with a rising population on our tiny island is a mess. But both of these things have been brought about by the policies of our ruling elite, and I believe it has been deliberate. If it is not deliberate, then it is a shocking indictment of their incompetence. Consider how strange this really is: rising population at the same time as unemployment is rising.
An ever-rising population ensures housing scarcity, which ensures high prices in all parts of the accommodation sector, including the value of the underlying land, which increases between 80 AND 200 TIMES in value when it is passed / zoned for building. Plenty of money to be made all round, then.
Those who say that the Plemont deal would cost the taxpayer too much might like to reflect on the fact that land prices are so grossly inflated in Jersey precisely because of the POLICIES OF OUR RULING GROUP. It is not Sam’s fault, or mine.
And when I proposed in the States that this massive increase in value should be taxed as it was an entirely unearned gain, it was voted down. How strange! Strange, I mean, that our States members should put the advantage of landowners above the interests of Jersey as a whole. Or then again, not so strange, depends how cynical you are.
Unemployment is high only because of the ludicrous numbers let into the island by the powers-that-be. There is supposed to be a tap for controlling inward migration – whoever was holding the tap was holding it wide open. Why? To keep labour costs down. And to hell with the consequences for the island. Same story again. (That is my explanation – has anyone got a better one?)
So to say that we must create yet more jobs for those mistakenly let in – where does it end, please? It is a policy which will end up concreting all the island, not just Plemont.
What IS the population we are aiming for? I am not saying “send people away”. I AM saying: when people leave (as they do, about 2500 a year (if I remember correctly)) then gently close the tap of inward migration, so the population stands still, and then manage the jobs market carefully. This would solve a lot of our problems . . .
2 “This at a time when there are pay freezes all around, public spending is being cut . . .” and “The money is much better off going into . . .”
This is the classic right wing argument. You cannot have subsidised sporting opportunities / art and music festivals / a police authority / cleaned beaches / proper child protection / health promotion (delete whichever you personally do not think is essential) because we need the money for a new hospital / the refurbishment of Les Quennevais / a consultant to tell us about the future of the Finance Industry (select whichever you think is absolutely necessary).
But of course, we can have both / all of these things. Jersey is a wealthy well-run jurisdiction with large reserves, as our Treasury Minister tells us (often). So what exactly is the problem? The answer is ideology. We simply do not spend enough on our public services. That is why islanders have a hospital with sewage running down the walls. And why our dear States voted against putting any kind of filters into the chimneys at the former Bellozanne incinerator, preferring to run an incinerator which was poisoning their own citizens.
Yes, we do look after the roads, we do run a school system, we do have a fire service and so on. We run the ordinary facilities of civilised life, but when it comes to our heritage we quibble and wobble. When it comes to the town park it takes 12 years to get anywhere because fundamentally it is seen as an option. It is seen as something that would make life better but it is not essential, and when it comes to our landscape, it just does not seem to matter. But these things DO matter.
3 “spending such an excessive amount of money in this case is totally unacceptable when Jersey is in the state it's in.”
Jersey may seem like it is in a mess, but as some commenters pointed out, Jersey is not really in a mess. It is one of the richest places on earth. The reason we have the problems I described above. Is that Jersey spends a lower proportion of its wealth on its public services and facilities than virtually any other rich country, (and most of them have economies in better shape than ours – but that is an aside).
Also, we have apparently not heard of the concept of investment. We hear often about the need for sound business minds in the States, and yet we do not do what every business does – namely borrow to invest for a better future.
We pay for capital assets with a life of 30 or 40 years with CASH. Not sure why we do this. No other government does this, no business does this, no household with a mortgage does this either. It prevents us from grasping a whole host of “spend – to – save opportunities, because “there is no money”. It is crazy and has held us back and turned the government into a NO CAN DO government instead of a CAN DO one. That is why, in Jersey, so often, good ideas get strangled. No oomph, no drive. Just inertia. Looked at this way Plemont is being bought by 100,000 people and it will last rather more than 100 years. Does not look so expensive then, does it? (taking 100 years as the figure, I make it 75p each per year.)
4 “The plans actually look quite nice”
That is a matter of opinion. Or is it? Jersey farmhouses do not sit as a rule on cliff-tops. The old chaps knew better than that. Nor are they built in clusters. For better or worse, the Jersey farmhouse is a rugged statement of self-reliance, hard work, and wealth, and it nearly always stands on its own. . And yet it is proposed to build an entire hamlet of them. Also, the old holiday camp buildings were horizontal in their overall effect, and thus less obtrusive – the new 2½ stories high “farmhouses” will stick out (up) like sore thumbs. It won’t be as violent a difference as at Portelet but the principle is exactly the same – we will have swapped horizontal for vertical on a very sensitive site.
Aesthetically it is a complete nonsense, it has no cultural legitimacy, and in planning terms, as the Inspector pointed out in his report, it would NEVER get planning permission in normal circumstances. So why on earth are we giving this proposal the time of day?
5 “When they say "return it to nature", well, there hasn't been any nature on that site for over 150 years from what I can gather.”
I am not sure if Sam said this or a commenter. Whatever. I am not sure what this means. However, the plan is NOT to build on the existing footprint, but to take virgin Green Zone land to the South. This is “nature” now, if hedges and a green field count as nature, and if it is built on it would become “suburbia”. Removing the old ruined buildings would indeed be the first step to returning that land “to nature”.
6 “would-be developers who are actually coming up with good ideas and, frankly, being very generous.”
Crumbs. Trevor Hemmings is worth £400 million or so: before the crash the poor chap was “worth” over £1 bn. When is enough enough? And yes that is a moral question. And yes, moral questions belong in the political arena. What else is politics about? He is not being generous. He got the entire former Pontins property portfolio for a song, £30 million (in the year 2000), he has long since got his money back on the deal, generous would be to say – ‘OK in this case I can see the extreme beauty of the site and the gain to the people of Jersey, I will sell at the “bracken price,” you are the government- you have the right to purchase the site.’ I have not heard anything remotely like this, but one lives in hopes . . .
7 the question of private interest versus the public interest
I asked in the last debate about buying Plemont:
“Maybe we should start acting like a government. It is the rights of the landowner, who in this case bought the land purely as a speculative investment, compared to the right to enjoyment of the public and why do we not do the right and decisive thing? We could calculate the value of Plémont as part of his £30 million purchase of Pontins, divide up that asset and estimate how much he actually paid for Pontins. We could add inflation and perhaps his fees and negotiate on that basis. Why do we have to negotiate on the basis of an inflated value? Why do we not show that we mean business?”
My starting point for speaking like this is the fact that Trevor Hemmings has enough money already. The government is there to weigh precisely these conflicts. In this case: his interest versus the public interest – it is a no-brainer for me. So it was for instance a crass mistake not to include the whole site in the Coastal Park.
In conclusion, it pains me to see progressives marching under the right’s banners on this.
“We can’t afford to buy Plemont” even though Jersey is still one of the richest places in the world. Even though we would like to do this, we can’t. I have heard a Constable say exactly this in a debate about a miserable penny-pinching cut in a Business plan debate –“I do not want to do this but I have to”
“It will help create housing” when the shortage has been wilfully created, and will continue to be created.
“It will help create jobs” when this is not the answer to our mis-match between people and jobs. We need solutions, not stop-gaps which succeed only in putting off the day of actually tackling the problem.
I suggest that, from a progressive political standpoint, the arguments for not buying Plemont do not make sense.