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.