Sunday, 14 December 2008

So near, yet so far

From the top of the lane, where I live, I can look across to the island of Sark, separated from Jersey by only a few miles of shallow sea, and yet, if one has the pleasure of visiting it, a world away in almost everything but climate and language. Jersey is a busy, impatient place, full of people frantically overworking to finance their conspicuous consumption, and losers in the rat-race comforting their disappointment with alcohol or heroin. Sark is a quiet, carless oasis of tranquility, whose inhabitants cherish their cosy peace.

The extent of the differences from Jersey has been highlighted this week, by the General Election that was held there. The General Election itself was the first contrast. In Jersey it is felt that the public could not be trusted with the power to thoroughly remove an unsatisfactory regime, and the system is designed to allow only piecemeal change. This year, as always, the inability to make any big change discouraged the overwhelming majority of entitled electors from bothering to vote. Sark, though had never had a public vote before, and the turnout was a huge proportion of its tiny population.

The second striking contrast between Sark and Jersey, is that in Sark, the supporters of democratic reform, who brought about the General Election, were also looking in the longer term to selling the island out to rampant commercialism, whereas Sark's establishment wished to retain the quaint and quiet lifestyle that made it such a delight to visit or inhabit. In Jersey, it is the democrats who are sick and tired of being sold down the river, and the establishment who rub their hands joyfully at the prospect of massive development to accommodate soaring immigration. The calculation by the establishment in both islands, that the general public are deeply sceptical of the benefits of living in a highly developed island, leads to different strategies. When Sark reluctantly bowed to mainland pressure to institute full democracy, the old guard stood on a platform of defending Sark as it has been, and were endorsed by their newly enfranchised voters. In Jersey, the establishment got back in by murky spin and shrewd avoidance of vote-splitting, and by the grace of a badly or cunningly designed electoral process most qualified by a minority of the votes cast by a minority of voters. The losers, of course, got even smaller minorities, so they cannot complain too much, but being elected in polls topped by abstentions is not much of a mandate. Not that they have to care about mandates – they are in office for the next three years and can do as they please.

A third contrast is the different attitudes of the electorates to blackmail. In Jersey's 2005 elections, much was made of a quote from a leading representative of the mighty finance industry, that it would leave at the click of a mouse if its puppets were not re-elected, wiping out a quarter of Jersey's jobs instantly, and many more in the knock-ons. So, the few who voted decided that readiness to instantly leave if it could not pull strings was a sufficient level of commitment, and backed the finance industry's men. (Note to non-Jersey readers – finance industry is a local euphemism) In Sark's 2008 election, the Barclay brothers, who had bought up a quarter of Sark's employers while promoting democracy as an avenue to their own seizure of power, likewise let it be known that they would be off, if their stooges did not win. They were comprehensively beaten, to their fury.

A hard decision is, what lesson should be learned from looking at these contrasts? Jersey long ago sold its soul, and is proudly open for business, red light shamelessly shining. Sark has refused to be bought, and can hold its head high. Yet, one cannot live and raise families on pride alone. Sark is suddenly a disaster zone, even as Jersey wallows in its customary orgy of materialism, "Christ"mas. If Jersey were to lose its finance industry, whether through our own intransigence in the face of blackmail, or, more likely, through changes elsewhere turning the money supply off at the mains, we too could be where Sark is now, and by and large, less able to cope. Is the moral, if blackmailed, give in. Or is it, if blackmailed, hold out and be damned. I favour a third option; don't let anyone get into a position of more power over you than they can be trusted with. Jersey needs some rebalancing of the economy to achieve this though. At present we are right under the thumb.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Tantrum of the Century

There have been strange goings-on in Sark. (For any random readers not from the Channel Islands, a small and beautiful island a few miles North-West of Jersey, with quaintly old-fashioned ways. Readers who found this blog through local links can skip the first three paragraphs.)

For centuries they have proudly clung to a semi-feudal local government, in which only the 40 principal landowners were eligible to vote. In the late 20th Century a pair of Scottish newspaper magnates, the Barclay twins, bought an islet just off Sark's coast, and within its jurisdiction, and built a magnificent palace for themselves upon it. However, their islet did not come with a seat in the local parliament, [correction: only one seat]so denying them the power that their wealth would have bought them in most tax havens. The magnates did not get so rich by being quitters, though, and they mounted a campaign to push the mainland government into forcing reform in Sark.

So, at long last, the first fully democratic election has been held. The contrasts with neighbouring Jersey are enough to be another article in their own right( coming soon). In the expectation of taking power in due course, the Barclays bought up many local businesses and properties, with a view to transforming the island into a hive of intensive commercialism. In the run-up to the election they let it be known that their continued commitment depended on votes for their puppets. Or blackmail, in plain English. The Sercquois, however, saw sacrificing all that currently makes Sark a lovely place to live or visit, to be ruled by a bunch of blackmailers, as a double whammy, and a massive majority of the tiny population backed the old guard instead.

And so, the true colours of those stalwart defenders of democracy, the Barclay brothers, were finally unfurled. No gracious congratulations to the victors. No reflections on their failure to convince the voters this time, nor vows to present a stronger case next time. Instead, in an enormous [in both the modern and archaic senses] tantrum, these petulant senile delinquents instantly closed all their investments on the island, thus throwing a quarter of the population out of work.

One can hardly deny the right of a businessman to close an unsatisfactory enterprise at any time and for any reason: Even if one tried to make it illegal to do so for an unapproved reason, an appearance of legitimate grounds could always be contrived with suitable economies of truth. The closure of a quarter of Sark at this time and for this reason, though, reflects nothing but shame and disgrace upon these wicked old men.

In contrast, the brave decision of the Sercquois, not to sell their communal soul, even in the face of serious blackmail, is admirably heroic. Here are people who value the exceptionally high quality life that they enjoy, and would not sacrifice it for mere greed. That the Barclays see fit to destroy them, because they could not buy them, is an immense moral crime, despite the impossibility of making it a legal one.

I hope that strenuous efforts to assist the Sercquois are made by the still-prosperous islands around them. The Barclays, though deserve nothing but ostracism from decent society. Let them fly back to their palace in the sea with their tails between their legs, and rot there forever.
( I shall follow this piece up with another on the comparisons with Jersey)

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Your Home may be at Risk, if Someone Else...!

This week, there was an interesting thread on BBC Radio2's Jeremy Vine Show, about banks evicting paid-up tenants for defaults by their landlords. The initial story was on an American sheriff in Chicago, who was responsible for carrying out forcible evictions under local law. After a few cases of having to put paid-up, law abiding tenants out on the streets, to have their chattels stolen by passers-by, the sheriff had consulted his conscience and refused to enforce any further such eviction orders. This tale elicited audience responses recounting the same thing going on in Britain.

It is quite reasonable, that if a landlord defaults on the mortgage of a rental property, their lender should be able to recoup their losses by taking over, and disposing of the property. However, if a lender has funded a buy-to-let, then the intention was for it to be tenanted, and a third party's home. Therefore, if the lender should find itself needing to repossess the property, it should be repossessed as a tenanted home. The lender has no conceivable moral right to take the property with vacant possession instead, and it is deeply disappointing to learn that the present state of the law allows a court to give them a legal right to do this. It inflicts groundless hardship on an innocent party to give the lender something which was never intended to be available.

In these troubled times, when repossessions may be expected to rise, there is an urgent case for governments to act to forbid this practice, wherever there is a defective law permitting it.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Accidents happen, but some could be avoided.

This week in Jersey, a newly qualified driver's first experience of the rain-sodden leaves, so typical of country roads in autumn, was a spectacular crash. Fortunately she and her passenger, who had recently also survived a similar incident, walked away with trivial injuries; a vindication of the modern cage-and-crumple-zone school of car design. One wonders if the requirements of contemporary driving tests are quite meeting the needs of the general public, or whether they are encouraging instructors to teach a narrower range of skills and knowledge, than their pupils will need, when they become everyday road users. The Compulsory Basic Training inflicted on learner motorcyclists these days may be tiresome and expensive, but one does not seem to read of accidents to young bikers so often as one used to. Perhaps it should form a model for the future of car tuition, in which key skills for coping with difficulties could be taught without the overload of learning general traffic techniques at the same time.

Possibly, we should rethink our whole approach to a variety of traffic offences from scratch: Speeding has become a team sport with motorists on one side and the police on the other, and sometimes the point of why one should not go too fast gets a bit lost.A radical thought I have, and it is so against contemporary culture that the kite needs to be flown for a long time, before anyone seriously tried to implement it, is that all speed limits should be abolished. Instead the responsibility should be placed firmly on the driver to match their speed to the circumstances. If drivers faced a mandatory ban on a similar tariff to drink-driving for contributing to an accident by inappropriate speed for the conditions, then a lot of people who now just glance at the speedo and think that they are alright, because they are legal, might think a little harder as to whether they are actually driving safely. In good conditions, of clear roads, long sightlines and firm grip, traffic could move somewhat more briskly than it does, but anything that persuaded drivers to be more wary of other traffic, especially pedestrian, blind bends and slippery patches would surely be a good thing.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

New Broom Sweeps Clean. Or Maybe just under the mat?

it is a great relief to learn that the possibility has been eliminated, of the remains found under Haut de la Garenne being the result of foul play in our own time. If it has been eliminated, and not just denied, that is.

However, the reporting so far has left a few matters unclear: We have been led to understand that there is a great deal of evidence for criminal mistreatment of the home's clients, in its last few decades of operation. Now that the distraction of the murder question has been removed, one would hope that the investigation into this mistreatment, and into the connivance of those who should have put a stop to it, could proceed with more focus. In fact the credibility of the new people in charge will depend upon this happening. But, the removal of Mr. Power, who has hitherto been conspicuously firm in dealing with corruption cases, does not send a very reassuring signal.

Surely, thoroughly investigating small bones found in a place where violence is known to have been committed against children, and from where other children are reputed to have vanished without trace, is such an obvious necessity for the police, that it would have been a sacking offence for their Chief Officer, had he not done so. To remove him for properly carrying out his duty seems, on the face of it, to be somewhat perverse. There is clearly more going on behind the scenes, than has officially been made public. Senator Syvret's conspiracy theories may not be the only possible explanation as to what is really happening, and I would be hugely reassured to see them disproved, but the picture that the public are being shown at present is, unfortunately, wholly compatible with his sinister suggestions.Perhaps Mr. Power has done wrong in subtle and technical ways beyond my lay understanding. Or perhaps he has just been stubborn about going where his masters told him not to.

The public of Jersey must be given much clearer explanations than we have seen this week, of why so many of this year's shocking revelations are now seen as unusable evidence, or else, contrary to our government's desires, we shall lose all faith in the integrity of our police. Are the items found now known to be not what they first seemed, and the statements given revealed as packs of lies? Or is it all still sound stuff, but just not quite enough to keep a defence lawyer from claiming that the case is not proven to the proper standard of beyond all reasonable doubt? If it is merely insufficient, then the rationale remains, for bringing surviving abusers, and any others, who shirked their public duties as a personal favour to the abusers, to belated justice, and the investigation must continue, vigorously.

Monday, 10 November 2008

And another thing about the Waterfront

One could find fault with the aesthetics of Jersey's Waterfront development – blotting the main aspect of the town with drab, grim and oversized commercial buildings. One could question the environmental quality of the deliberately crowded office and apartment blocks - afraid to sacrifice any saleable floor space to make the area as a whole humanly comfortable. But, most of all, it is the economics that seem absurd. Our ministers talk in awed and reverential terms of the mighty sums of money at stake, but the hypnotic effect of reading all those noughts on the ends of the figures seems to stun them beyond any grasp of the who and how.

For a start, the future of the finance industry, that it is meant to provide a new home for, is currently looking a lot less rosy than its immediate past has been. Expressing official confidence in its continuing health can only help with damage limitation. However, backing the words with nine figure investments is gambling with imprudently high stakes for the unfavourable odds. Beyond that, though, nobody is explaining how the economics work out to Jersey's benefit in the long term. I think that is because they actually do not.

For a start, the States would like Harcourt to invest about a third of a [financial] billion pounds in constructing the monstrosities in the first place. All that inward investment sounds impressive, so long as you don't think about it very hard. But, not all of that vast sum of money is going into the local economy – much will pass straight through. Many of the contractors will be temporary migrants, just here for the job, and spending most of their earnings, and paying their taxes, back home, wherever that may be. There will, doubtless, be a good bit of Ronez concrete and Simon sand used, but the rest of the materials will come from off-island, perhaps with a little mark-up for a local builders' merchant, but more likely bought direct. The architects and other providers of professional services will also be off-island. In fact, the money that is actually injected into Jersey's economy by the development will probably be an order of magnitude less than the headline figure.

Even that much would be nice, if only it would stay in circulation for a little while. However, all that inward investment was just the sprat to catch the mackerel. (Or sand-eel to catch the mackerel, to Jersify the cliché) Harcourt are going to want to see their third of a billion pounds coming back to them, with a nice fat profit on top; say half a billion altogether in property sales, or fifty-odd million a year in steady rents. If they don't, there is no point in them being in business – they might as well put their money in safely guaranteed Irish bank accounts. They will have sucked more out of Jersey's economy than they ever put in, before the fresh, new look has faded from the buildings in the salty air. And, if they sell, the buyers will doubtless finance their purchases with loans that pay interest to bank owners elsewhere, while draining the money to service them out of Jersey's economy. It all adds to Gross Domestic Product, which makes the economy look bigger, but if you look at the flows, instead of just the totals, it begins to look like a lethal wound bleeding it dry.

Or maybe the offshore finance industry has fewer years of large scale operation left in it, than it will take to build the Esplanade finance quarter. Then will we be left with unfinished blocks looming over the town, as signs that we are now closed for business? Even if we had to pay to soothe Harcourt's burned fingers, it may be the better value option.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Yippee!! Er, but...

After so many years of George W Bush's abominable disregard for both non-Americans and even the humbler members of his own nation, it is heartening to see the American people turning to a President who promises a more principled, enlightened, informed and caring approach to his duties. Not only will the United States of America become a more agreeable place than they have been, but he is placed to exert a beneficial influence on almost the whole wide world.

I say almost: Obviously, there are a few isolated dictatorships that do not engage with international affairs enough to care what leads America takes for better or worse, and sadly, there are a few places that engage with the world in a negative and harmful way, and would lose out by a raising of standards in international trade and economic interactions. That bit is a worry to me: Much as I applaud Obama's positions on everything I have seen him quoted on, I happen to live, comfortably and happily, in one of the few places that his just and principled policies could seriously hurt.

So, pleased though I am, as a citizen of the world, to see the best man win, my joy is tempered by looking around me, and wondering who and what would be left in Jersey, should he see through his ideas on fair taxation, for, despite all the sophistry with which our “finance” industry defend their activities, and the willingness of us all, myself included, to share in the trickle-down, it is all about finding alternatives to fair taxation for the clients. If their loopholes get bricked up, back home, then what else do we have to offer? It will be years, rather than months, before he could turn the status quo around on tax avoidance, but we need to start preparing against it, instead of blithely charging on with “business as usual”. It will never be how it was for the last thirty years again, and if a layman like me can read the signs, so, surely, can the expensive advisers to our government. How long before our ministers take them on board, too?

Friday, 31 October 2008

Jammed-up Thinking

Once upon a time, which is how fairy stories traditionally begin, the States of Jersey had a plan for how to develop the big patch of newly reclaimed land behind the new marina. Very nice it looked too, with artist's impressions of tidy little houses interspersed with pleasant green parkland. A generation of senior politicians, and an up-and-coming junior one called Deputy Walker, countersigned the plan, and off we were about to go. Except that the idea, of doing something nice with the Waterfront land, did turn out to be just a fairy tale.

The States handed responsibility for implementing it to a badly designed quango, the Waterfront Enterprise Board, that suffered from the double burden of being , both, too commercialised to properly consider the public interest and, also, too politicised to make sound business decisions. And so, WEB started going their own way, putting up plans that were nothing like their original brief, and getting them rubber-stamped by the next generation of politicians, headed by one Senator Walker, who sadly failed to defend the old plan he hed been a party to. And so various office blocks, hotel blocks and apartment blocks, of grandiose scale, but tawdry design, have already gone up, along with an eyesore leisure centre that killed the popular cinemas and swimming pool that were already established in the older parts of town. Probably the best thing, although poor value for money, was the new bypass road from the old harbour to West Park, that significantly improved traffic flow.

Now, the final stages of the Waterfront development are approaching, and islanders are realising that they ain't seen nothing yet. The new vision is to draw all the banks and other financial service firms out of their smart modern offices all around St Helier, to concentrate them in a new financial quarter on the Waterfront. Hopefully, someone in government knows something I don't about all the companies desperately waiting for office space to come vacant in central St Helier, or else it is going to be reduced from a surprisingly vibrant and prosperous area to a sad, run-down ghost town. But, look at the mess that they are planning, to accommodate the finance sector in its new home.

The first thing that we shall notice, is the loss of half of the bypass road. It takes up too much valuable building land, so it will have to go, to be built over. Later they hope to dig a tunnel to reinstate it in, if the money has not run out, due to times changing for the worse. Remember, this district is called the Waterfront, on account of it being right next to the sea; in fact it was the sea, and a nice spot to swim in, not many years ago. The tunnel design has obviously come from a team where no-one at all understands how storm surges work. In the meantime, of course, traffic flows will be disrupted for several years, as the traffic, that makes the doomed road so busy, has to take alternative routes, which they will need to remember, for the days when the tunnel is flooded.

When we do get the road back, the engineers think that the financial quarter will generate an extra seven hundred cars per day on it. I know that the busy car park that has occupied part of the building plot since the reclamation was finished is due to go, but I have not heard of a plan to replace it, let alone add seven hundred more spaces to the area's parking capacity. So the seven hundred commuters will have to park in the centre of town, as they do now, and walk further, instead.

There is a worrying ambiguity about that estimate though: It could be that they are expecting seven hundred extra car users, who are not already commuting to St Helier, to be coming to work in the new financial quarter. This would imply that there is a plan to build seven hundred out-of-town houses or flats, just to accommodate new immigrants coming to work in the offices. Jersey already has a grave housing shortage, except for a glut of small flats, and it is not doing its existing residents any favours to earmark a major home-building scheme for newcomers off the boat. Almost everybody in Jersey already feels that it is over-populated for its space and resources, and planning major immigration is not at all the solution.

Then, one has to wonder if the rationale for the financial quarter is still quite as strong as it was a few weeks ago. The dominoes are still tumbling in the international finance industry, and at the very least, it is going to suffer a period of instability. When it does settle into a new order, it is clearly not going to be carrying on from quite where it left off. Obviously, the authorities have a duty to be upbeat - any talking down is too likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy - but backing the talk with massive investment, at this stage, is no way to maintain a reputation for safe hands. Jersey may be in a position to restructure its finance industry to remain competitive, in a world that is turning against the practices, that were initially the industry's purpose, but it would be premature to count on it. If the international banks and financial service providers find that they need to pull back their offshore commitments to survive in the new post-crunch world, then the offices will stand empty, priced beyond the sunken market rents, to maintain the book value of the collateral they provide the developers. Surely, the States need to shelve the project until the future shape of inernational financial services becomes clearly visible - it is all a murky mess of maybes and perhapses at present.

And the other cloud, that may or may not blow away, is that WEB and the States have insisted on a lead developer with troubles of their own. There are a couple of current court cases testing their probity at present. [I have no reason to suppose that they will not be exonerated, so I don't want to hear from their lawyers, but nor would I wish to libel their accusers by suggesting that the courts would not find merit in their claims.] If there does turn out to be substance in the claims, then they would not be the type of firm that the States should be doing business with . Therefore, it would seem prudent, for this reason too, to suspend the project until they are cleared.

If the project were to be put on hold for a few years, then landfill could be resumed on the site, to raise the land level so that the road could be turned into a tunnel without sinking it. Given that the only question about rising sea level is how much, not if it will, raising the buildings and keeping the road above sea level would be a sound strategy.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Food for Thought

As my wife followed the latest Jamie Oliver series, on promoting healthy home cooking in the junk-food loving back streets of Rotherham, I caught a few bits of it too. Beyond the formulaic reality TV mixture of sad and happy stories of everyday folk, there was some thought-provoking stuff, too.

Although Mr. Oliver's remarkably poor way with words, for a professional broadcaster, has discouraged me from watching his previous programmes, there can be no doubt that he has a flair for creating recipes that will be a pleasure to eat, underpinned by a sound understanding of basic nutrition. Moreover, and this is what I really admire him for, he is passionately committed to using his celebrity status to promote the cause of healthy eating, for the general benefit of Britain's public health.

While I have only praise for young Jamie's work, there must have been a long-term, large-scale failure by many others, for there to be a problem for him to tackle. Three generations ago, the British government ran an unprecedented campaign to teach its citizens how to cook well with the meagre ingredients available at a time of national hardship. The pioneering celebrity chef, Marguerite Patten ( who made a brief cameo appearance in Jamie's programme) did her work well enough for the post-war baby boom generation to grow up as the healthiest and best-nourished in all of history. But, somehow, that knowledge has not stuck. At least the girls of the baby boom were taught cookery at school, maybe under fancy titles such as home economics or domestic science, but, by and large, they do not seem to have passed it on in turn to their own daughters, who tend to get a more academic education these days, let alone their sons. There seems to be an element of snobbery or inverted snobbery in the problem: Concern about the quality and balance of one's diet is largely seen as a middle-class thing, and too many working-class people despise it as effete and pretentious, while regarding the consumption of calorie-dense, but nutritionally poor, traditional fare as robust and honest.

We need to come not full circle, but full spiral, to a place above where we were before, in which not just girls, but boys, too, receive a thorough grounding in nutritional principles as a key part of their schooling. Eating well has been a cornerstone of our national well-being through my lifetime, but it is in decline. Every year the obesity statistics get worse and the projections worse still. Today's children are likely to grow up no healthier than their great-grandparents, and if their children in turn are to regain the fitness that the baby boomers took for granted, then understanding food, under whatever title, must return as a fundamental ingredient of the National Curriculum.

Until the day comes that people can cook again, the other thing that needs looking at is the quality of the ready meals they eat instead. The authorities are far too laissez-faire about what may be put into them, and at present even explicitly permit sharp practices in the labelling that are deliberately calculated to mislead the unfortunate purchaser. If we are not going to teach people to cook, at least we could make sure what is cooked for them is good.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Getting Lonely

Two of my favourite blogs have reached the end of the line this week. The author of A Holiday In The Sun is emigrating, while The Moving Finger has been forced off the web by threats. I shall miss them.
The threats to The Moving Finger are a disturbing development. I don't know who he is or what his circumstances are, but obviously his position is insecure and open to attack in some way. Yet, the internet is supposed to provide a safe medium for the disadvantaged to be heard. My own personal situation is fairly secure. I am too small a fish to be worth the cost and risk of assassination, and there is no other way they can get to me. I don't need to be brave, therefore. TMF, however, was commendably courageous to try fighting from a position of weakness, and it is a shame and a disgrace that his enemies have been able to force him to quit. I just hope that he gave himself away by something that he wrote, and has not been betrayed by a breach of confidence at If a major blog host could not handle political material securely it would be an international scandal.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Have the Goalposts moved, now?

All the hopefuls currently running for election in Jersey will, or, at least, should, have considered rough estimates of how much their manifesti would cost to implement. In the month since they drew them up, though, two things have thrown a dark shadow of doubt over everybody's costings.

Firstly came the news that States Departments have not been following best practice in their accounting techniques, and that properly prepared accounts would show a picture of very much poorer financial health than has been commonly believed. On the one hand, this makes ministerial spin look even more hollow and untrustworthy than ever: No longer can they stand for re-election on a boast of how tightly they have run their ships. But, on the other hand, the unreliable accounts also mean that the ministers' challengers have been preparing their alternative strategies from false starting positions. If the top line is wrong, anything that you do, that would produce a satisfactory bottom line from it, will also be wrong.

Then, just to make matters worse, the global finance industry has suffered its worst setback for decades. Our Ministers, whether from an obligation not to “talk Jersey down”, or from a genuinely deluded view of what is going on both here and elsewhere, assure us that Jersey is well placed to avoid all the troubles besetting the rest of the world, and will be able to carry on expanding its finance industry as usual. On the face of it, arcane sharp practices and virtual money playing a global game of musical chairs are both what got the world into the current mess and the foundation of our own economy. The official spin is that we are up to different tricks, that have not gone wrong yet, so everything is going to be all right. Hoping that they are correct is one thing, and I certainly do, but believing it is quite another.

Now, if the projected expansion of Jersey's economy is suddenly replaced by a rapid and substantial shrinkage, the projected revenue figures that the Ministers rely on to fund their plans, and the challengers their alternatives, will turn out to be vastly more than actually gets received, in a sharp contrast to the recent practice of systematic underestimation to ensure the appearance of spare money. Obviously, going bust would be unthinkable, and the necessary money would have to be borrowed, at a price. The government would then have to look at how much the new revenue level would be, and how much of that was going on servicing the emergency borrowings, and then slash the provision of all kind of public goods. If our politicians exercise some foresight now, however, and start looking at what should be sacrificed first in an economic disaster, then if the worst does come to pass, then they can roll back public spending levels to meet the revenue available, and at least then be able to spend it all on the remaining public services rather than debt service. If we are to have to borrow, then the place to start is financing major capital expenditure by bond issues, to keep the debt burden structured, controlled and predictable. This maintains investment in infrastructure, while maximising the amount of the income stream that can go on services and support.

Even the most cynical politicians go into the trade with higher aspirations than to be the one who stopped this, that and the other. Nor is it “sexy” politics to put in a manifesto intended to appeal to voters. However, all the aspiring candidates need to be privately thinking about how they would prioritise and target the spending of budgets twenty, thirty or even forty percent smaller than they were expecting to have at their disposal, even if their preference would have been for the tax-and-spend variety of left-wing government. A lot of things would have to go, and it would be the unhappy lot of the next government to face the angry public and explain why.
As well as spending cuts, it would be essential to tax the surviving economic activity more heavily. The deservedly unpopular Goods and Services Tax, would have to remain, and even increase, for far longer than many have been hoping. There are alternatives, as matters stand, but in a shrinking economy they are likely to vanish.

All this means that a new regime taking power will have a high risk of meeting with a big disappointment. And, to make it worse, all except the most analytical of people will blame them for the shipwreck happening on their watch, instead of blaming the previous watch for fishing amongst the rocks on a falling tide.

I am not saying that we do not need a change of government. I just think that there is an uncomfortably high chance that the task of a new one would be to manage catastrophe better than the present one would, instead of actually taking Jersey forward. I hope that those who will provide alternatives are preparing further alternatives to their first choice plans, in case the reassurances, that the global crash will somehow pass Jersey by, do prove to be unfounded.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Too big a job for anyone?

Frank Walker has not been a great success as the first Chief Minister of the States of Jersey. He has managed to disappoint his natural constituency of hard-faced right-wingers, by his spineless inability to provide political direction to his civil servants, of whom some would be better described as civil masters, as well as disgusting everyone else with his cynical willingness to sell us all out. Fortunately, his term is almost at an end.

Only, Frank's departure is not going to solve much: Who is the potential successor who can get the job right? The chosen heir, who may or may not be confirmed by the new House, is of course the Treasury Minister, Terry le Sueur. I must admit that I voted for him, when he first stood for Senator, on the strength of his track record at the Social Security Department. However, I fear he simply took the credit for his civil servants' work there, because once he was moved to front another team, at the Treasury, his performance plummeted. It is Terry who carries the can for the disastrous Zero-Ten tax scheme, to slash the tax take from locally registered businesses, and the equally calamitous Goods and Services Tax, to recoup the shortfall from all the people who gain nothing from Zero-Ten. And his reward, for such services to his island, is due to be the top job. In addition to his fiscal cynicism or ineptitude (take your pick), he is sadly short of the dynamism and charisma that give a natural leader much of his authority. Even Frank projects a modicum of vigour, in a school-bully way. There is not really any hope of Jersey's government getting a grip under his charge.

But, if we could avoid getting stuck with Terry, who else could we have? The chosen succession would probably be Phil Ozouf and then Alan MacLean. Phil enthusiastically and energetically backs most of Jersey's most suicidal policies – economic growth through adding population, letting economic diversity wither, letting predatory outside business crowd out local firms from our own economy and on the list goes. This swivel-eyed maniac with a Saddam Hussein grin wields too much power already, and would be an unimaginable disaster as Chief Minister. Alan at least has personal charm instead of sinister creepiness. However, he is rather a lightweight, politically. Beyond being front-man for some of Phil's initiatives, he has not made much impact in his first term, except for breaking election promises, and it is unlikely that anyone would put their name to his nomination yet.

It would be nice if we could get a Chief Minister from outside the present ruling clique altogether. The catch to this is that there are very few with both the experience and the ability to be credible. Simon Crowcroft briefly threw his hat into the ring, but backed out again, unfortunately. I am not a huge admirer of the way he has run St Helier, but he has at least shown that he is up to the job, and he is certainly a lot more sensible than Young Swivel-Eyes. Len Norman is vastly experienced, but not very highly rated by those who have tried to reckon up his achievements, and is turning his thoughts to focussing on his parish.

As a JDA member, I suppose that I ought to suggest Geoff Southern, but despite his unequalled abilities to grasp issues and crunch numbers, he is fatally flawed: The job entails dealing with a shocking number of fools, and he simply does not suffer them gladly enough to build productive working relationships with them.

Stuart Syvret is another intellectual heavyweight, who despises the lightweights around him too bitterly to show them enough support or leadership to win their loyalty, although he is way ahead of Geoff at selling himself to the general public.

Ben Shenton could be a viable candidate; he has the requisite charisma, and although his maverick centre-ground politics do not fully fit with either the establishment or the anti-establishment wings, he would at least be acceptable.

If the coming elections bring a significant shift in balance towards anti-establishment members, then Alan Breckon might be the dark horse to come through. After fifteen years of assiduous back-bench work, he has a solid grasp of the issues and ample experience of how the States function. I am not sure that he has the ambition to put himself forward, but a majority of members seeking to make a break with “WOLSATA” may well ask him to front them as their best hope; less abrasive than Southern or Syvret, more reliable than Shenton, a better team player than Rob Duhamel.

The real problem is that when the States cherry-picked the Clothier report's recommendations on reform to subvert them to entrenching the status quo more firmly, they made the Chief Minister's Job too big. Jersey only has a five-figure population, and if you draw up a job description that only one in a million could properly cope with, over ninety percent of the time you can expect it to be filled by people who are not really up to it.

What it means is that once again, the States of Jersey need to look at their own make up, and this time, instead of a little tinkering that has only made matters worse, make some radical reforms to see Jersey into the 22nd Century or further without more fiddling about. Constitutional reform is a dull subject, even for a lot of politically interested people, but we cannot afford to keep shying away from tackling it.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Praise to the Maze

I would like to offer a few words of public praise for the proprietors of the “Amaizin Maze” attraction. (For any non-Jersey readers, a maize field maze and associated fun park on a large farm.)

Last Saturday, I finally got around to taking my family there for an afternoon. We had four-and-a-half hours of fun in the sun for our money. The variety of activities meant that I did not hear the dreaded words “Dad, I'm bored, now.” all day, and, because parents can join in everything, my wife and I wore grins all day, too. Moreover, we were not the odd ones out; everyone else was conspicuously having a great time, too.

What deserves special praise, though is the general ethos of the business. Far too often, such places operate in the cynical P T Barnum tradition, trying every possible way to clip extra money from their punters. At the “Amaizin Maze” we appreciated the efforts to provide us with the maximum entertainment for our money, without any greedy attempts to squeeze more.

So, a big “thank you” to them for providing good value with an innovative amusement complex. They deserve to prosper, and can look forward to further custom from my family, next season.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Suddenly I See!

This time last year, I must confess, I viewed the enthusiasm for constitutional reform in Jersey, that most of my more political friends had, with detachment, and maybe even a little disdain.
It seemed to me that all the fine and fancy posturing about separation of powers, and checks and balances, that the world's major democracies boasted, was not really relevant to our cosy little island. Here we had a neat and efficient method, whereby we could rely on the “great and good” to sort things out between them, and, while it might have been preferable, if more of the negotiations held on the links or at the lodge had been conducted across the floor of the States Chamber, it did not really make any practical difference to how most things turned out. In a small place, all the most important people can be expected to know each other, and so long as their dealing are fair and not corrupt, it is of no consequence if they know who to ask to do what, without advertising. The occasional bit of dodgy dealing used to come to light, and get handled rather poorly, but on the whole, it used to appear that the worst rumours always were only that; rumours.
Early this year, however, a catering sized can of worms was opened. The tales of the institutionalised abuse at the Haut de la Garenne orphanage were abhorrent, but, sadly, fairly commonplace. All over the world, and all through history, orphanages have provided opportunities for the cruel to vent their darkest urges on the defenceless, and Haut de la Garenne was far from unique in its failings. What was unique, though, was the way that all of Jersey's institutions seemed to be implicated in the cover-ups of Haut de la Garenne and other child abuse cases revealed in its wake. Some of the supposed cover-ups may yet be revealed to be paranoid conspiracy theories, but the bones have been dug up to prove that the very worst did happen, and at least some mouths that should have opened must have stayed shut.
Suddenly, a new light was cast upon the cherished Jersey Way of doing things. The old joke “It's not what you know, it's who you know.” became an unfunny explanation for how victims and witnesses had been brushed aside, when they tried to complain about abusers with friends in high places. At last, it became clear that the nod-and-wink dealings behind closed doors were including a lot of deeply corrupt string-pulling to look after those in the network, alongside the honest fixing of matters by those who could be trusted. There is no need for me to rehash all that has come out in recent months; if you are one of the few that have not heard, then go to Stuart Syvret's blog. He has been finding out, and in a break with the Jersey Way, telling. A picture has emerged of civil servants, honorary officials and policemen closing ranks against the public interest. Shockingly, it appears that membership of the network takes precedence over all morality. Were anybody in my own circles discovered to be committing heinous crimes, they would be regarded as an embarrassment, and probably disowned altogether by many. Most ordinary people look for integrity in their friends. Not so in Jersey's secretive web of power and influence. Being one of them seems enough, and they will happily back each other, whatever they may have done.
So, what can we do about it? The answer, as my friends have been telling me for years, is constitutional reform. I no longer think “Oh, no, here we go again.” when the subject comes up, and nor should you. Starting at the top, the Bailiff's position is a dire relic of the downside of feudalism, and must be looked at. I never used to see why there was a problem with a senior judge, trained and experienced in conducting fair and correct procedures, taking charge of the States sittings, too. Now, Sir Philip Bailhache has kindly given an object lesson in how it can go wrong. One man, who publicly declares his opinion that the real scandal of Haut de la Garenne is how loudly the whistle has been blown, not the children who were harmed, has much of the control of all three civic functions, the executive, the legislative and the judicial, destroying their natural abilities to put brakes on each others' failings. A senior politician raises the subject in the States, and is silenced. The police arrest people with enough evidence against them that they want to charge them, but the other Bailhache brother orders them to be let go, instead. A minister loses faith in his senior civil servants, whom he has reason to suspect have been have been pulling the wool over his eyes, and his head rolls, not theirs. The Jersey Way in action. Thus, we need to replace the Jersey Way with the rest of the world's way: We need to adopt the checks and balances, and separation of powers that serve other, larger jurisdictions so well, and no longer cling to a failed way, just because it is ours. Until we do that, we cannot stop and draw a line under the ever-growing list of abuses of position.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Too Hot a Topic

Both local and national headlines have turned to the subject of drugs this week. Undoubtedly, it is one of the key concerns of today's society. Yet, of the twenty-five candidates currently running for the States of Jersey as Senator or Constable, not one has taken it up as an election issue. However, I am not about to castigate them all for putative moral cowardice; were I the twenty-sixth candidate, I would not go there either, for pragmatic tactical reasons, despite holding firm, if complex, views on the subject.
There can be no doubt that prohibition of most recreational intoxicants is hurting without working. Do you want your children to grow up in a drug-free society? It has not delivered. Do you want to see former problem drug users pick up the threads of their lives from where they left off? It has not delivered. Do you want to see big-time gangsters growing rich, while cynically sacrificing their employees and customers? It is delivering that one. Do you want to see the most vulnerable people sucked into an expanding spiral of criminality? It is delivering that one, too.
And yet, if any foolhardy soul should raise the question of whether a move should be made toward a harm reduction based policy, the howls of indignation rise deafeningly. To show anything but the hardest face towards those who would get stoned on alternatives to traditional alcohol, will be seized upon as a sign of weak character and lax morals. Public opinion, as shaped by the pervasive influence of the popular press, demands strictness, despite so many individuals in that public liking to indulge in something or other to adjust their mood or perceptions, at least occasionally. One of the various paradoxes that make the problem so intractable.
When one looks closer, the “drug problem” starts to look like a suite of related problems rather than one thing. Firstly, some people have grim lives that feel better when they are stoned. And, moreover, many other people with good lives just have fun by getting stoned. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads them to find out, the hard way, that, sooner or later, nearly all effective intoxicants break the user's mental and/or physical health. (If one can keep to occasional use, then the worst should not happen, but that is easier said than done. The late American rock singer, Kurt Cobain once wrote a vivid account of how occasional use turns to addiction, by gradually reducing the intervals between occasions, until the sudden discovery that it has become a way of life that cannot be broken free from.) One may say “Tough, serves them right.” about those who are damaged by their drugs, but every number in the statistics is a tragic story of somebody's child, sibling, lover or friend. These are facts of life, about why people take drugs and what the drugs do to them, that are what they are, whatever moral stance is taken on them.
Then, on top of the private medical problems, there are the public social problems. One is, that, as I mentioned above, criminalisation of people who just wanted to get stoned is profoundly corrupting to the most vulnerable members of our society: Once the users have crossed the line of the law to have their drugs in the first place, it is all too easy for them to do other illegal things to obtain them. Another social problem, and challenge to the rule of law, is that the supply of contraband is a business opportunity for dishonest and unscrupulous entrepreneurs only. Yet another new question that has sprung up, is what to do about those law abiding businessmen who bring such products as sage and “Spice” to the market? Do we callously leave their customers to find out the malefits of the products for themselves, or do we extend the law and turn still more thrill-seekers and escapists into alienated criminals? Neither option is comfortable.
Although prohibition is serving us so badly, decriminalisation is not going to be a realistic option any time soon, though. A primary obstacle is that our freedom to react to the problems is constrained by international law. Various treaties oblige their signatories, including Britain, whose Crown we are a Dependency of, to restrict or prohibit internal and external traffic in common recreational drugs. We simply do not have the freedom to overtake the rest of the world on that road, even if the argument for it were won amongst ourselves. Besides, if we could and did, we would find ourselves attracting visitors, whom we would be better off without. On top of that, we are also constrained by the need of democratic governments to avoid offering easy targets to their opponents. Which brings me full circle; politicians dare not move forward, because they know it would be spun against them. And so, I believe that our candidates are right to step around this issue; any that attempt to address it will throw away their credibility for no result.
One of the difficulties in striking the balance is that a bit of almost harmless fun for the overwhelming majority can go so very terribly wrong for the few, when it does. 99.5% of hemp smokers getting away with minimal harm sounds like a case for letting them get on with it. Then you do the maths and realise that the other 0.5% of 20,000 users is a couple of wards full of human wrecks, and if even if many of them were the type to end up there anyway, no-one wants their child to grow up to join the ranks.
I am not suggesting for a moment that there is nothing that could or should be done. What I am pointing out is that the power to lead the way towards change lies with the media in the first instance. Political action is not viable until there is a clearer consensus in the community over what changes should be made. We do need to move away from viewing drug use as a law and order issue to viewing it as a public health issue, and to do so,we need people with far wider readerships than myself to work on moving public opinion where it needs to go.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

So who are the ordinary people?

Jersey is undoubtedly an island of deep social divisions and stratifications. Large minorities of the population have English, Scottish or Irish ethnicity. Many more feel themselves to be of French or specifically Breton descent. There is a substantial Portuguese community, a small but close-knit Italian community and a growing number of Poles and other Eastern Europeans. And those are not all that you will see amongst the cosmopolitan crowd thronging through St Helier. However, Jersey is not a melting pot. The mix remains lumpy, with the various groups reluctant to mingle more than they have to.
In such a fragmented society, the other stratifications of wealth and status cut deeper than they might otherwise. There are quite a lot of very rich people indeed here, many of whom hold a great deal of power, whether by public office or private influence. And there are an army of struggling workers, clerks and tradesmen and, below them, a growing underclass. That army is now beginning to mobilise, to fight for their rights, as the realisation grows that they have been sold short by those above them, since time immemorial.
To fight an enemy, however, one must identify him. In the broken shards of our fractured island, it is all too easy to misidentify other pieces of the divided and ruled middle and working classes as the ones who are spoiling it all for everyone. Talk to some people, and the bogeymen are the vast ranks of civil servants and public sector manual workers, taking huge sums of the poor taxpayers' money to lean on their desk or shovel drinking coffee all day long. Not that they have convinced me that that is true. Most of the high earners in the public sector are the professionals that would soon be missed, such as doctors, nurses and teachers. The clerks and manual workers are no richer than anyone else. So, by and large, except for the mandarin caste of a few dozen over-paid, over-powerful upper managers, the public sector are “us”, not “them”.
For many more people, the enemy are the fat-cat finance workers. Admittedly, a proportion of them do bring resentment upon themselves with crass “considerably richer than you” ostentation. Look at the statistics, however. Fully one quarter of Jersey's workforce are directly employed in the finance industry, far more than any other sector. That makes them the most typical workers of all, thus the ranters who would distinguish between “finance” and “the ordinary people” are deluded; they are most certainly “us”, not “them”. Moreover, for the three-quarters outside finance, they are the customer base that keep the other jobs viable. Even if some of us have difficulty in actually being proud of snooty people helping dodgy foreign businessmen pull off scams and shams to cheat their taxmen, the money in our pockets was mostly originally captured by them, and if we turn on them, we turn on ourselves, too.
Should we blame it all on the Portuguese and Poles taking all the jobs, then? No. They always go to the back of the queue for the good jobs, and are mainly employed in the menial jobs that locals no longer need to bother with. After a few years, they tend to have children and become part of the community, just like everyone else, except treated worse. They are certainly not “them”, and we should perhaps be more willing to accept them as part of “us”.
In fact, when one looks closely, we are nearly all the ordinary people of Jersey, and we need to think about the paradox that, in election after election, we keep returning politicians who represent a parasitic elite prizing self-enrichment above their citizens' quality of life. Look at the twenty-one standing for the six Senatorial seats in the October 08 elections: there are the usual selection of well-heeled right-wingers waiting to lord it over us, but there are plenty of others firmly rooted in the real world, some of whom are clever enough and serious enough to make a good job of running the island. If you are a voter, choose carefully, this time.

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Rubbish Minister's Rubbish Plant

A local columnist recently suggested that there should be a memorial to Jersey's first ministerial government. However, I think that they have already planned an apt memorial for themselves, in the shape of the La Collette incinerator: Excessively high-profile, exorbitantly expensive, spoiling the island and full of rubbish.
Worst of all, mass destructors are a very 19th Century solution to waste disposal. Through the 20th Century, numerous technologies have been developed for other industrial purposes, that, by the end of it, were being applied to waste disposal as a cleaner and ,moreover, cheaper solution than simple incineration. The other great change in that time is that the world has moved on from having hardly started on extracting most of its natural resources, to having seriously depleted many of them. This has meant that recycling materials has gone from being a waste of time, for all but the easiest and most precious, to being a major source in itself. If we are to continue to enjoy an industrialised consumer society through the 21st Century, then large scale recycling is essential.
For a fraction of the cost of the proposed incinerator, we could have a modular plant that sorted all the worthwhile recyclables out for selling on and cleanly disposed of most of the residue by pyrolysis or steam reforming to make syngas that would burn to power the plant and still generate a little saleable electricity besides. Or at least, if they are really afraid of modern technology, refuse derived fuel pellets that would flash burn in a fluidised bed incinerator.
However, they have set their heart on a cathedralesque incinerator as a monument to their might, and placed the goalposts to suit. Apparently, all the sensible alternatives to an incinerator are too newfangled to have proved themselves to the Transport & Technical Services Dept. One wonders how they manage with their other kit, with that mindset. Are they still running Trojan 2-stroke vans? No. Is their IT restricted to mainframes on Unix because Windows PCs are a bit of a novelty? I doubt it. So why have they run scared of a modular waste plant? Whatever the nominal excuse, the most plausible reasons are that it wouldn't look grand enough, and that the budget would be too small, and so diminish the Department's status. After all, the adoption of a world-leading sewage plant by their predecessors has been a long-term success, so it is not as if there is no precedent for buying state-of-the-art.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

“If Jersey is a tax haven, how come I have to pay tax?”

The above question has appeared on a couple of local forum sites lately. Surprisingly, even finance industry workers, who might be expected to understand such things, don't always manage to do so. The short answer is that you have to pay, so that the finance industry's clients do not, to keep their staff in jobs. This answer does not go down very well, though, so I am revisiting the subject in a little more depth.
Half a century ago, public expectations of government services were somewhat lower than they now are, and less taxation, in real terms, was needed to meet those expectations. In fact, by allowing a modest number of very rich people to settle in Jersey, and taxing them fairly, but more lightly than where they came from, enough could be raised for taxes to be very low indeed for the masses. Back then, we did indeed have a tax haven in which the hoi polloi did not need to pay.
From there, it was a short and simple step to move the holding companies for the very rich people's corporations here, too, so that they too could share in the benefits of the low tax. And, once it was clear how much business there was in doing this, one more little step not to tax them at all, directly, and just tax the large amount of lucrative work they generated. That step has made many thousands of ordinary islanders pretty rich, and probably done more than they realise for the many thousands more who are not actually on the gravy train. On the other hand, it also moved us on to being a tax haven to our customers,but not for ourselves. Mr. Powell also gave our very rich immigrants parity with their companies, by requiring only nominal personal taxes from them, too. The company tax on the finance companies, and the personal tax on their workers amply made up the shortfall. It would not be fair to tax the finance workers differently to anyone else, though, so we all have to join in paying the tax to make up for what the finance industry's clients are not paying.
And there you have it; a tax haven in which the locals have to pay more and more tax to keep it as a tax haven. And if they did not, they would soon have to pay a lot more still, if they were still in work, as the tax haven is now the foundation of the economy.

Ugh, it's who?

The intention is to make this blog wholly content-driven. I do quite enough self-promotion elsewhere around the web, and shall keep my name off this.
That said, if you know me, you will soon recognize me. Hence the title. If you don't it doesn't matter - it is not going to be about me.
It is election season in my home island of Jersey, and there is much to be dissatisfied about the current government, so, at least at first, most of the posts will be about that. After that, I have no plan; I may expand my subject material, or give up altogether, as the whim takes me.