Thursday, 19 November 2009

Human Rights Group

Somebody posted a plug for this in a comment to another article, but it deserves a mention in its own right.
Further and complementary to the existing groups such as the Jersey Rights Association and the Community Relations Trust, Deputy Bob Hill has been working hard in recent months to establish a group to monitor and campaign on Human Rights in Jersey in the strictest legal definition, which still covers a lot of ground.

Deputy Hill's group has now reached readiness to formally establish itself, and will be holding its inaugural Annual General Meeting in the States Building at 5.30pm on Monday 23rd November 2009. For security reasons, attenders must be escorted in by States Members, so will be assembling in the Royal Square for 5.25pm.

Although, as it stands, there are only single candidates for each of the offices, so there will not be any contested elections, it is still important for as many of us as possible to attend, for two reasons. Firstly, the more people come to rubberstamp the appointments, the greater the credibility of the new group and its representatives. Secondly, it is a chance to meet others who care about these things, and reassure ourselves that we are not alone.

If you really can't make it, and I myself have difficulty with the group's customary teatime meetings, then at least email Bob Hill with a message of support and an address to send a membership form to, and return it with your subscription.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A Big Boy Did It, And Then He Ran Away

A Big Boy Did It...
Senator Stuart Syvret has been conducting a bold and astonishing battle with the forces of the Jersey establishment for the past couple of years.
He had seemed a somewhat ineffectual Health Minister, but, once forced from office, he revealed, or at least alleged, an outrageous power struggle between himself and his theoretically subordinate executive officers. Assuming his anecdotes to be as true as they are plausible, Syvret was insulated from the matters that should have commanded his attention and action by his staff, and once he became aware of some grave problems through alternative channels, strings were pulled to ensure his swift replacement by a more amenable figurehead. There is a link to his blog on the left – it is a juicier read than this one, so if you don't already read it, I recommend taking a few hours catching up on it.

So, he then proceeded with a flanking tactic, telling all on his “Quite Vile” blog – I think everyone can agree on that description, it is just that some of us think it is the tales that are vile, while others think it is the telling – and daring those he accused of serious crimes of abuse and corruption to sue him if they thought their denials would stand up in court. To date, no-one has. This could be because all his accusations are just and well-founded. Or it could be that he has been smearing people with no confidence in the efficacy of defamation suits in restoring reputations. This was certainly a brave and bold course, for losing such a case would ruin him, not only financially, but reputationally. The latter would doubtless be the greater personal loss for him.
Although one can only admire the courage shown in blowing the whistle on such terrible things, the ethics are more complex and harder to assess. Quite a lot of the material for the revelations on his blog came into his possession in confidence and in his official capacity. To publish it as a private citizen is undeniably wrong and criminal. However, he has weighed that wrongness and criminality against the wrongness and criminality of the crimes he alleges, and of keeping quiet about them, and decided publication to be the lesser evil. A tenable position that I personally am inclined to support.

Yet, having a tenable and defensible moral position does not and should not put anybody above the law. There is undoubtedly a case for Syvret to answer on data protection issues, and I, along with thousands of others, thought he was indeed going to answer the case. The improper police action he suffered, when ambushed in a dawn raid like a gangster, must have been a terrible experience for him, but it was also prime ammunition for him to throw back at his enemies. And so we all looked forward to the establishment breaking its teeth on our man of iron.

...And Then He Ran Away.

It is one thing to admire a man for having the courage to pick a fight that I think I would have chickened out of. It would be another to continue admiring him when, having blustered for so long, he turns tail and flees when it is time for the real action to start. When it comes to the crunch, Stuart Syvret is no braver or more heroic than me after all; he just talks a better fight beforehand.

I still read his blog from his London bolt-hole, and still worry about his revelations, accusations, paranoid ravings or whatever they may really be. I am naturally of a sceptical disposition, though, and I am finding that I need to take him with ever larger pinches of salt.

He does have a defensible case to answer on the data protection charges, and an indefensible one on the driving licence charge. Neither of which would have landed him in life-wrecking amounts of trouble, if convicted. To instead bring upon himself the more serious consequences of wilful and calculated contempt of court is his own silly fault. Syvret is probably right about the unsatisfactory nature of Jersey's judicial system. He is very wrong to attempt to put himself above it, though. If the law is not to be respected by the overwhelming majority, and punishment meted out to the transgressive minority, then anarchy and disaster must follow. And after that a new repressive order, as the desire for restored stability and security becomes paramount for the survivors.

After all, his very point has been that people in high places have been wrongly escaping prosecution. For he, as another man in a high place, to expect a blind eye to be turned to his own intentional flouting of the law is illogical and hypocritical. Undoubtedly, he has been wronged by the establishment in his ousting as Health Minister, and again in the ludicrous dawn raid. This cannot excuse his own minor crimes, though. The rule of law depends on holding people responsible for what they themselves choose to do, not on looking at what they have had done to them.
An interesting contrast to Syvret's case is the recent one where an accountant operating outside the clique of big firms was sacrificed as an example of Jersey getting tough with financial crime. The Privy Council quashed his conviction, because, despite the rock-solid case against him, the Royal Court did not bother to conduct the trial in a fair manner. So there is effective recourse for being unfairly tried in Jersey. However, unlike Jersey politics' other bad boys, such as Terry le Main and Geoff Southern, Stuart Syvret has not got the balls to face the music.
We all know that thing are not quite as they should be in Jersey, but we now need a new leader for the long campaign to improve matters. Syvret has been tested and failed,but hopefully another will emerge soon.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Rocking Across the Generation Gap

It has been a good summer for live popular music in Jersey, and I have been keenly enjoying many of the events.

It has struck me though, as I look around all the grey heads, that the idea of rock as a youth activity is somewhat past its expiry. Indeed, teenagers do tend to have more time available for listening to and playing music than those whose lives have moved on into fuller phases, but there has been a remarkable change subtly happening, since I myself was a teen.

In the 60's and 70's rock music really was very much a youth interest, and it was rather eccentric of the tiny proportion of older fans to show enthusiasm. The music press of the day liked to reinforce the generation divide. As a reader, I used to wonder if they envied their predecessors covering the original rock'n'roll phenomenon and wanted to bestow the same historic significance on their own times.

However, a taste for classic rock and blues seems to be a one way ticket rather than a passing fad for most people. Moreover the appeal of the musical genres seems to be intrinsic, and not about generational rebellion: These days, I sometimes find myself playing the sounds of my own youth with men young enough to have been my grandkids, had I started a family sooner. To these lads, the music is not a barrier to exclude my generation, but a bridge and a shared heritage. We are just fellow rockers and grey hair counts for no more or less than blonde or red.

The point I am working toward is that rock is no longer a “youth” activity but a “people” one, and although it attracts plenty of young people the operative word is “people”, not “young”. Jersey should continue to provide maximum opportunity for its extensive resources of talent to entertain the abundant audiences of all ages, not merely as a token amusement to patronise youth with, but as general public entertainment. Let us take pride in our burgeoning music scene as one of the upsides of 21st Century Jersey: it is fun, and, moreover, a force for positive social bonding.

Spin Doctor Gibaut's Dodgy Statistics

This week has seen widespread outrage over the new Jersey pay statistics, particularly the £620 average weekly wage. Caller after caller complained on the radio that they were getting nothing like that.

This comes of using the wrong type of average for the sake of spin.

There are different ways to calculate averages to give the most meaningful value in different contexts, but they can also be misused to give a misleading value in a context where the truth could be inconvenient.

The commonest type of average, the first one most people learn about at primary school, is a “mean”. Where figures cluster around a single central value, a good approximation of that value can be made by adding the values of every datum up, and then dividing the total by their count. The trouble with processing wage statistics in this way is that earnings do not follow the “bell-curve” distribution around a medium value that means are designed for. Instead, they have a “power-law” distribution in which relatively low figures are commonplace and ever higher figures become ever rarer. The meaningful average for a power law distribution is the “median” in which just as many data have a higher value as a lower one.

Now if you were a cynically dishonest government wishing to tell the world how prosperous your policies were making your people, you could instead calculate the mean wage and pass that off as the average. But it would not be: The tiny number of very large figures would distort and inflate the mean to well above any sensible concept of the average. Wouldn't it make the government look good? See how rich even the ordinary workers are, with the economy in their safe hands!

However, there is a serious downside to the puffing up of the statistics: By making all the people who are actually doing all right think that they are a lot further behind than they really are, the misapplied average spreads discontentment and unhappiness. Worse still, from an economic management viewpoint, it creates an aspiration amongst genuine medium earners to seek hefty pay increases to restore their apparent position, an inflationary pressure that we could well have done without, in these troubled times.
Worse still, the politicians who commission these inflated figures may use them to justify regressive taxation measures, and to excuse failures to remedy the excessive costs of certain things in Jersey, such as housing and public transport.

The Statistics Unit appear to see themselves as spin-doctors to the Council of Ministers, rather than information providers to the island as a whole. They are letting us all down by this approach. I for one would like to see a change of heart, and the provision of useful and helpful information to become their new objective.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Admit it! We can't afford excellent buildings

Freddie Cohen confuses me. He talks the talk about wanting architectural excellence for Jersey, but, when it comes down to it, he both approves glass and concrete monstrosities for landmark sites and turns down the chance to get a Quinlan Terry neo-classical masterpiece on another one.

To be honest, Jersey does not have a very deep tradition of fine architecture to draw on, anyway. Victoria College, St Thomas’s Church, a few 1,1,(k) mansions and that is about it. I am not saying that there is not a good deal of historical interest in our other principal buildings, but they lack the combination of artistic magnificence and engineering excellence that makes great architecture great.

Walking around central London on holiday last week, I was able to look up and around at the splendour of so many of the buildings there, and appreciate it in a way I could never spare the attention to, when I used to drive around there years ago. In particular, many of the big Nineteenth Century buildings make the more recent stuff rising around them look somewhat shoddy.

Of course, 19th Century building styles reflected both a wealth that is now sadly behind us, and a degree of social inequality that is sadly threatening to creep back. The packed rows of cramped two-up-two-down terraced cottages in London’s back streets are no better than those in St Helier, and for the same reason; they were built to rent to the people who did not matter. However, when it came to building for the collective public, rather than its individual members, a different ethos used to prevail. The Natural History Museum, The Houses of Parliament, The War Office, even the main theatres have a harmonious fractal quality of well proportioned structures composed of neat and pleasing sub-units down to fine detailing. These are deliberately impressive structures glorying in the abilities to both afford and build them, and successfully meant to serve the following generations for centuries to come. Even the old County Hall, from the lean years following the First Wold War, was built both sturdily and with a visual presence. Although it has outlived its original purpose, the excellence of its structure continues to provide premises to a variety of tourist enterprises; hotels, exhibitions, shows and restaurants.

In the bankrupt turmoil of the Twenty-first Century, the labour-intensive beauty of Gothic architecture is an indefensible extravagance for public buildings. With money tight, down-to-a-price has to be the general principle, not up-to-a-standard, although, for buildings whose purpose is likely to endure for centuries, such as schools, it may be a false economy not to build similarly enduring structures, using proven classic techniques and materials.

If excellence cannot be on the menu, however, perhaps we should have no empty boasting about the supposed quality of our built environment. A sober admission, that times are hard and this is all that we can have, would be more appropriate.

Back with a Plug

I have been taking a few days away from Jersey for a family break in London. Although my wife and I have both spent enough time there to get sick of the place in bygone years, our children had never seen it. We all found that a few days taking a tourist’s eye view of the place was very agreeable indeed. I also found that coming back from a few days in radically different surroundings has given me a fresh perspective on my usual ones, which I can mine for blog material.

Firstly, though, a recommendation: If you want a comfortable, friendly hotel in easy reach of all the major attractions, the Premier Inn in the North-East corner of the old County Hall delivers on its promises of a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast, and moreover is better than some at putting staff with personal charm into customer contact roles.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Hollow Celebrations Part 2

May 9th looms, and the Channel Islands prepare to celebrate Liberation Day, the anniversary of the capitulation of the German occupiers in 1945.

Unfortunately, although the Third Reich's claim to the territory may be sixty-four years lapsed, an alarming amount of their spirit seems to linger in the way the States of Jersey exercise their restored autonomy. The Occupation may be long over, but Jersey can hardly claim to be liberated. Freedoms that mainland Britain takes for granted are grudgingly controlled by authoritarian bureaucrats or parish officials.

Our planning department has shockingly intrusive powers to interfere in how citizens use their private space, and yet permit an endless series of massive eyesores to be built in prime locations, so long as it is by or for a big and well-connected business.

A peaceful outdoor music event will be policed even more heavily than an angry political demonstration, and the promoters forced to pay the overtime for all the surplus officers. In fact, in an echo of the old Lord Chamberlain of England, all public entertainments are obliged to seek permission from the Bailiff, whether policed or not. It has become legal to dance on a Sunday in recent years, but you must not be caught doing it any day to a pub band.

A very recent case chillingly revealed that the Police no longer need search warrants, but, if they follow the prescribed procedure, may thoroughly ransack a private family home like a gang of burglars, on the pretext that one of its residents is suspected of a minor offence.

And then there is the way that ranks close around anyone suspected of abusing authority. Elsewhere, conspiracy theorists usually seem away with the fairies, but here they tend to be serious people with thick files of evidence for their allegations. But will those with the ultimate power defend their credibility by investigating and, if found appropriate, casting out those who shame them? Not while the current shower are in charge, that is for certain.

By all means, let us rejoice in VE Day. It was one of the greatest moments of my parents' generation's lives, and of immense historical importance to what kind of world I grew up in. But, things need to change a lot to make it worthy of calling “Liberation Day”.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

We had Chiglet for tea!

I have occasionally grumbled before about the vagaries of food labelling laws, both here and elsewhere on the web. The other day I got caught out, myself.

We did not do a Sunday Roast this week, for various reasons, so I bought a packet of roast chicken breast from the corner shop instead. I do not wear my reading glasses for shopping, or at least I have not until now, but I think I need to start.

The meat was produced by a very famous East Anglian poultry farmer, which maybe should have put me on my guard, as he has a reputation for including some low-quality products in his range. However, it said 100% chicken breast on the front of the packet, and so I bought it.

Later, my daughters and I sat down to eat it. Their comments were not only amusing, but reveal just how impressive the product quality was. “Is this chicken or ham?” asked the 9-year-old. “Did a chicken marry a pig and make chickpigs?” enquired the 5-year-old. “You mean chiglets!” big sister responded. For my own part, I found it surprisingly briny, so I put on my specs and got the packet back out of the fridge.

“MADE FROM 100% Chicken breast” was what the front really said, only I didn't notice the 5-point type in light blue with my naked eyes. Even so, the percentage is both meaningless and misleading, if it refers to how much of an ingredient was itself, rather than how much of the product is that ingredient. I am sure their lawyers have made sure that the label is legal, though. Anyway, I turned the packet over and looked at the details on the back. These contradicted the front, but very much confirmed the eating experience. Really it was only 80% chicken, and reformed chicken (food industry euphemism for sausagemeat) at that. The rest was water, salt and miscellaneous gunk that one would not dream of putting into a home-roasted bird. So the info on the back was honest enough to satisfy the law, but the front packaging was nevertheless misleading enough to get a sale to a customer who would not have been interested, had he known what it really was.

It is no use compelling suppliers to put accurate product information on the backs of packets, if they still have licence to mislead you on the front. As I have said before, we need higher standards of food labelling enshrined in law.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Hollow celebrations - Part 1

As an ethnic Englishman, I get told every year by the media that I should be filling with patriotic pride at the advent of St George's Day.

Apparently, I should take it as a great honour to my people, that the Roman priests of a Jewish prophet assigned us a Greek saint, from what is now Turkey, to share with Portugal, Russia, Greece and a few other countries as our patron saint.

Well, I think that is a gross insult to our nation, not an honour. These halfwits who campaign for it to be a secular National Holiday are swallowing the insult whole. Apart from generally disapproving of the entire concept of patron saints anyway, I really cannot see the point of claiming a special relationship with one who had absolutely nothing to do with us in his lifetime. As the lead missionary in the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, St Patrick had massive and lasting historical significance in making Ireland what it is, and it is not inappropriate for the Irish to remember him when they celebrate their Irishness or vice versa. But which saint ever did much of note in England? St Thomas Becket was too much of a mover and shaker for his own good, and that is about it. If we must have a patron saint, let us celebrate him, instead.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Breathing Space, That's All

Breathing Space
The welcome news, that Jersey has made the G20 whitelist of tax jurisdictions, means that we shall not be losing our “finance” industry just yet. The fear is, though, that there will be a complacent declaration of “business as usual” from our ministers.

The white, grey and black lists were only the first stage in the backlash against tax havens, that their own success has provoked. The longer-term strategy for the G20 is to abolish large scale tax avoidance and havens altogether. Therefore, Jersey's long-term strategy must likewise be to wean itself off the wonderful boost that the finance industry has been giving our economy in recent decades, and return to self-generated wealth as the mainstay of the economy. Our place on the whitelist should buy us a little time to start preparing for a post-finance economy, while the money is still pouring in. But, it is only a breathing space, not a viable future. Nobody really wants to hear that, not the cynical right-wingers enjoying the ride on their gravy train, nor the envious left-wingers hoping to redistribute the gravy train's cargo, nor those of us who like to think we are just ordinary “Middle Jersey” making a living whatever way comes to hand. Not wanting to hear is not at all the same as not needing to know, however, and we should all start thinking about our personal contingency plans, faced with the catastrophic economic effects of 25% unemployment and no dole.

Worse still, the time frame is already looking an order of magnitude narrower than it did, when I started planning this article last week. Gordon Brown has now sent the heads of the Crown Dependencies' governments a curtly menacing warning that they will be expected set the pace in developing tax transparency, and meeting new international standards regarding tax avoidance as they are rolled out. (You can view it yourself at )

We have not been told to close the finance industry down in so many words. The huge problem for us will be that, if we are compelled to lock into a much less leaky international tax system than there has been since the mid-20th Century, the Unique Selling Proposition for much of our finance industry's traffic will be vitiated. The industry has already declared the depth of its commitment to Jersey in the wonderful soundbite “We can leave at the click of a mouse!”, so only a fool would hope for them to stay around as a favour to us.

From the finance industry's own perspective, we are not looking as good a deal as we did, until the 2008 Credit Crunch. Now the whole sector is in deep trouble worldwide. On top of that, many major players are now being propped up by the very taxes that their offshore operations try to cheat, leading to unprecedented pressure to reprioritise their duties to state and shareholder. And then the profitability of those offshore branches and subsidiaries is going to be driven downwards, by the elimination of substantial chunks of their custom. What will be in it for them, to keep Jersey alive as a financial centre on any grander scale than it was half a century ago?

Attempting to cling to “Business as Usual” as a motto will only bring disaster, as half the income and a quarter of the employment rapidly vanish, and the loss of all that spending power then drags local commerce into the pit after it. While all the ways that Jersey leaks money back out dry up more slowly, further starving us of cash, or even simply starving us.

The buzzwords of Jersey politics in the next couple of years must become “Exit Strategy” and “Contingency Plan”. If our ministers do not have them, and good ones, too, or those that have them do not become our ministers we are doomed to drop into the Third World with a very painful bump.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

GST - let's not make it even worse.

I am one of the many who saw the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax, rolled up into retail prices like a Value added Tax, as an unsatisfactory answer to the consequences of the Zero-ten scheme for Jersey's corporate taxation.

On the other hand, I am not so convinced that, now we are stuck with it, that copying the mainland UK pattern of complex exemptions for all kinds of favoured items will not just make it even worse.

The level of the tax is driven by the need to raise a set amount of revenue from Jersey's ordinary households, spread evenly or fairly. Even and fair are seldom synonymous – the less resources one has, the less fair an even share of the burden feels, while conversely, those who can support more than others tend to see being obliged to do so as an injustice against them. But, one way or another, the taxmen will have calculated the average amount that they need to raise from each of us. As they need to take that tax, it makes little difference to the bottom line whether they take a little for all that we buy, or bigger chunks for just some of it. Possibly the latter opens a theoretical opportunity to avoid GST altogether, by a very austere lifestyle with not even the slightest luxury, but in practice the losses will have to be recouped by piling all the more tax on the items that remain within the net. And, not just to compensate for the loss of tax on the “basics”, but even more to cover for the depressed demand for more expensive luxuries. So, the standard of living for pensioners and others on very low incomes will not be appreciably better. It makes no odds whether one has no beer or ciggie money left after buying taxed food or just not enough to pay the new prices after buying untaxed food.

What the UK model does bring, though is unwelcome confusion and unfairness. A notorious bone of contention is trying to define the nebulous boundary between untaxed food and taxed confectionery, but in general arbitrary definitions and limits for anything are a raw deal for those whose products are stranded just on the wrong side. Do we really need to hire a couple of civil servants to pick through the UK precedents and choose which ones Jersey should follow, and which it should not, for the sake of keeping Jersey different? The latter is clearly a big issue with GST, or else they could have enabled everyone to get off-the-shelf VAT systems by adopting it lock, stock and barrel in the first place.

Keeping GST broad and light does make us all taxpayers, maybe no bad thing in this age of low levels of civic engagement, but it also means only those of the most extravagant habits need pay much. The fewer exemptions there are, the fewer injustices are generated by them. For instance, I do not see why fuel for luxury motor cruisers is less deserving of taxation than the fuel for the car I commute to work in. The more such exemptions GST becomes peppered with, the more it will become unfair.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Doubtful Thinking

In Jersey, as in many other places, a jury may only choose from two possible verdicts, or else invalidate the whole proceedings by refusing to agree any verdict at all.

It is very wise to keep the standard of proof for punishment at guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. The problem is that, at least as the trials are reported, sometimes what is actually established is that the accused is not innocent beyond all reasonable doubt. In Scotland, they have a third verdict for such cases – not proven. The flaw in the Scottish option is that it is a full and unconditional acquittal, not a starting point for a retrial. However, given the options of maybe punishing a victim of a false accusation, or maybe letting a heinous criminal get away with it, one gets the impression that in the privacy of the jury room they occasionally perceive a moral duty to make sure the case sticks to the accused to take precedence over their legal duty to eliminate doubt.

To my untrained layman's mind, it seems that it would be a boon to jurors, if they could bring a not proven verdict, where neither has the prosecution proved their case beyond doubt, nor has the defence convincingly asserted the accused's innocence, but for that not proven verdict to permit the possibility of a retrial, and maybe for the proceedings of the original trial to be admissible evidence at the retrial. This would enable the jury to take a constructive step towards a final resolution of the case, without feeling obliged to make a decision that the evidence that they have heard does not altogether support.

Do I have any lawyers or law graduates amongst my readers? If so, do you think that this is a good idea, something that could be developed into a good idea with expert assistance or just proof beyond all reasonable doubt that laymen should leave law to lawyers?

Friday, 20 February 2009

Served fresh - Come and get it!

So far, I have mainly kept to serious matters in this blog, apart from one rejected JEP letter about the Amaizin Maize fun park. However, I am a man with a broad range of interests, including some fun and frivolity.

Before I became too busy with important grown-up stuff, like family and politics, I was a keen rock musician, living for the buzz of performing – even if it was much more often solo busking than the big thrill of gigging with a band. When I turned fifty, I decided that I was old enough to have a mid-life crisis if I wanted one, so I treated myself to a nice Les Paul guitar and advertised for musicians to form a band. Sadly, it fizzled out after a tantalising handful of rehearsals, so I was back to churning out rough multitracks for the internet. (I told you back in post #1 that I do quite enough self-promotion elsewhere on the web, without putting my name all over this blog, too.) Deep in my heart, a little pilot light still burns, though.

At the end of last year, I started noticing references to jam sessions at St Helier's “Tipsy Toad – Town House” pub every Tuesday. Between being busy one way or another, and also being a bit shaken in confidence, after recently failing an audition that I thought had gone well, it took me a while to get round to going, but this week I took the opportunity of my family being away to go down. I enjoyed the evening very much, and got the chance to play a few songs myself. I found playing guitar with good musicians a little more worrying than I used to, but I got away with it, and at least the singing felt as if I had never had a break from it. (I wish I could sing like that at home, without the psychological boost of a band behind me.)

Bully for me, I suppose you are thinking, but regular readers should have noticed that my blog articles always have point and purpose. And it is this: There were just about enough people to make it worth it, but not really as many as there must be out there, who would enjoy coming. If you like live rock and blues music, either as a performer yourself or a keen listener, come and secure the future of the sessions by your support. It is far from all being the likes of me: The core is the O'Keeffe brothers from Killian and Suzy's Field, along with other Real Musicians such as The Dirty Aces and Kevin Pallot and Paul Bisson making appearances on my first visit. Definitely a good night out, if you are in Jersey and like that sort of thing. See you there!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Rubbish Incinerator Again

(This was written for the letters column of the JEP, really, and it goes back over some ground I covered in the blog last year. However, as my next letter, on a different subject, has already appeared, I don't think this will get used now. So as there is some new content, too, I shall put it on here, instead.)

We shall never achieve a world in which mistakes never happen, so we must seize our opportunities to put those that we make right, where we can. Thus, I am very glad to see Deputy Wimberley bringing a proposition that the States undo their blunder with the la Collette incinerator.

The first question to which there has been no satisfactory answer, is why will the planned la Collette cathedral of garbage be so huge? Just across the sea, at Taden in Brittany, they are successfully operating a 90, 000 tonne per year incinerator. To deal with the waste from a catchment of 250,000 people! What are the Council of Ministers intending to grow Jersey's population to during the life of this plant? Bellozanne may be too old and too crude, but, since the third stream was added, it has not faced the problem of being too small. Running the new one way under capacity means either stop/start, or constant underloading, neither of which will produce the clean, hot burn needed for good results. If incineration remains the way forward, let it be on the right scale, at least.

Of course, it is very doubtful whether mass incineration is still the optimum strategy for disposing of tens of thousands of tonnes of mixed waste per annum. Even with the world slump reducing demand and prices for materials in general, most things can be recycled more economically than they were originally created. There is a range of modular systems available that sort and clean, or clean and sort the recyclables, and power it all by processing the burnables into high efficiency fuel, either gas or solid pellets. And these systems fit into normal prefab industrial sheds, too. Best of all, they are around a quarter of the price of mass incinerators.

Which leads to the greatest defect of the la Collette project by far: The immense capital costs, of both the plant itself and the remodelling of the neighbourhood to accommodate it, wipe out any possibility of the economics making sense. About a year ago, I had an interesting and informative discussion with an industry insider. He quoted TTS's own reckoning that municipal waste was costing around £55/tonne to handle at 2007 prices. He also asserted to me that the whole waste operation could be privatised to an operator using a modular clean, sort and pyrolyse process for a charge of as little as £40/tonne, with the private operator making the rest of their money on the recycling. He then drew my attention to the financial implications of what was then expected to be an £80m cost. Updating that figure only makes the picture worse:

The headline cost of the main plant is now £106m, only, since it will be paid in Euros, and the exchange rate is likely to stay crashed for years to come, it will probably work out to something like £140m, or more. On top of that, there is the massive amount of civil engineering envisaged to make la Collette even suitable for the plant. At least another £100m, and maybe a lot more. Let us be optimistic and say £240m altogether. Still being optimistic, let us assume that the new incinerator will last 30 years. That equates to £8m/year. Then suppose all recycling targets fail badly, and we have 80,000 tonnes/year of waste to burn. That would make an effective cost of £100/tonne on top of the £55/tonne handling cost, totalling £155/tonne, against the £40/tonne modular plant operation.

If recycling initiatives do work here as they do elsewhere, the waste volume could easily fall to 40,000 tonnes/year of course, for a more realistic cost of £255/tonne of waste processed. All in all, about six times as expensive to use last century's technology as today's.

Fortunately, the Ministers most personally committed to the la Collette fiasco have now left office. The new House can therefore take the credit for putting a stop to it without losing face themselves. I hope for all of our sakes that they do so.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

A Wake-up Call

The biggest news in Jersey recently has to be the controversial closure of our much-loved Woolworth's store. Due to the lack of the competitors in the same lines of merchandise locally, our own branch had not suffered the slumping sales of the mainland chain, but was just dragged down by them. That much is simple real-life economics, but the fate of the staff has darker aspects.

Firstly, it appears that the liquidators have wilfully flouted Jersey employment law, by dismissing the workforce with neither notice nor payment in lieu. Perhaps, as English accountants winding up an English firm, they feel that they are beyond the reach of Jersey's courts, and may even be right to think so. This is at least a cruel moral injustice, and probably a statutory crime, and any steps, that can be taken to enforce the law and punish its breach, should be vigorously pursued by our authorities.

On the other hand, though, the said liquidators have sheltered behind the letter of the local law, to exclude Jersey staff from the redundancy payments that have been made to those losing their jobs on the mainland. Obviously, this is technically not a crime. It is, however, another cruel moral injustice that reflects only shame and disgrace on its perpetrators.

In the face of forceful lobbying by various interested or sympathetic parties, our local parliament, The States, have considered the matter. Typically, they shelved it in a vote neatly split into the pseudo-party of right-wing “independents” who have long held power, and the slightly smaller pseudo-party of less cynical others, including the one real party operating in our impoverished democracy. The vote at least puts in black and white who is who in the newly elected house. Those of us who do not love the “establishment” can see that we need to pick out five or six of their people, who might be open to persuasion, to shift the balance of power. Looking at the names, though, that will be much harder to actually do than it is to prescribe.
In the immediate future, the other lesson, to learn from this unhappy scandal ,is that Jersey needs to introduce redundancy laws equal to the rest of the English-speaking world as a matter of urgency. It may be possible, if politically difficult, to make some kind of one-off provision for the Woolworth's people. The real need, though, is to get satisfactory arrangements in place before the financial tsunami of the global downturn has swept away many more jobs. There is serious work for our politicians to do here.