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.

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