Monday, 30 June 2014

Guest post on Plemont by Adam Gardiner

One of my regular correspondents has been in touch, not about the principle of saving Plemont, but the fine print on ownership (and access), and the ways and means by which funding is suggested by Philip Ozouf.
This is in some respect, although it makes the points differently, along the same lines as Bob Hill's post on Plemont.
My own feelings to date are that the issue of access needs to be addressed. This is extremely important, and if the States are going to fund the National Trust in its purchase, there need to be strings attached so that the public will have right of way, without hindrance or charge, to the headland.
Secondly, the source for funding is certainly a matter of concern. The ability of Philip Ozouf to conjure up a "contingency fund", like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, is wearing thin, and more details are needed. Unfortunately, the quick way in which he has suggested diverting funds suggests that the Treasury Minister is not a careful steward of the States finances, but every so often is prone to what can perhaps be best described as the antics of an opportunistic chancer, just as able to throw caution to the winds as his erstwhile colleague, Senator Maclean, was with his fantasy film.
His own version of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" strikes me as a book keeping subterfuge. The BBC described it thus:
"As money from the Criminal Offences Confiscation Fund (COCF) can only be used towards the cost of policing, Senator Philip Ozouf has proposed a novel solution. His plan would see the money taken from the COCF and transferred to the fund for moving the States of Jersey police to a new building, which would then be constructed on the site. Money from that fund will then be given to the Chief Minister's department which will then issue the grant."
It has to be asked why he couldn't have done that when asked to take money from the COCF for funding the Historic Abuse Enquiry, when he replied to a question on that subject as follows:
"Having consulted with H.M. Attorney General, I have reached the view that monies in the Criminal Offences Confiscation Fund ("COCF") are unlikely to be capable of being applied for the purpose of funding the cost of a Committee of Inquiry into historical child abuse."
Now he finds a mechanism by which that can be done, which apparently was not possibly before!
Is he a fit person to re-elect to look after the Island's finances? Far more than last time, Plemont will, I think, be a potential election issue for these reasons.
Guest post on Plemont by Adam Gardiner
The Plemont debate takes another twist.
I am content to accept that at £3.5m the opportunity to bring the land into public ownership in perpetuity is a reasonable proposition and in the circumstances probably the best compromise. But that said:
First. It is not strictly public ownership. Accessible to the public maybe, but it would be owned by the National Trust who would be free to restrict access if they so wished - or charge for the privilege maybe. Whether they all or not remains to be seen - but the important thing is, that possibility exists but has not been discussed or forms part of the proposition While the visual and environmental gain is obvious and a clear asset to the Island the National Trust is and remains a private organisation.
So should public money be used so that can add to their portfolio of property?
In respect of that be considered as an 'investment' I might agree with but for the fact that an investment is usually made to provide some later and tangible collateral or profit on re-sale. So if the Jersey public, through the States, make such the 'investment', what is the taxpayers stake in all of this - other that the being able to enjoy an improved visual landscape? While that may be enough for some - I am not convinced that is good enough. The term investment' seems rather misleading as in effect what we have here is little more than a taxpayer-funded gift to a private organisation.
If however it were a loan it could be better described as an investment even if the terms of the loan were spread over many years at a very modest rate of interest. So far I have heard little about that as an alternative proposition. I am sure it has, but little prominence has been given to this as an option, although it would be fair to say that until it goes to debate we won't know if some politicians may propose and that as a preferred option.
My second point relates to what now it is suggested, that the money would come from  the Criminal Offences Confiscations Fund. Creative thinking on the part of Philip Ozouf it may be, but here we go again plundering cash assets for purposes that were never designed to be used for. The Criminal Offences Confiscations Fund was established to provide sufficient funding to the police and enforcement agencies to tackle high-level and often complex crime - money laundering and illegal trading in hard drugs being two very key areas. Under Philip Ozouf's proposal are we now to accept that Jersey's ability to detect and prosecute serious crime may well suffer from lack of available funds?
I would liken that to the taxes raised from motor vehicle ownership which were said to be necessary to maintain our roads infrastructure and then force the legislation designed to our keep roads safe. Those taxes are not inconsiderable and there are in fact 3 separate taxes which are applied to fuel: Duty, 5% road tax levy and GST. With Jersey having one of the highest car-ownership ratios in Europe, over half of what we pay for fuel goes straight into States coffers. Remember however, that 5% road tax levy. Even at a very rough estimate that generates something between £20-£30m a year. Yet for that income, TTS do not have a road maintenance budget anything like that. No, that 5% goes into general revenue and redistributed elsewhere. The purpose for which the 5% was added is not used for that purpose - which is my point.
The Criminal Offences Confiscations Fund must similarly not be used for ay purpose other than what it was designed for in my view. It otherwise becomes a fund in name only that can be distributed to wherever the Minister for T&R wishes - and sets a dangerous precedent.
So, what we have in Plemont remains a can of worms. Very easy to go down the populist route and pander to those who feel it should be bought at any cost and would see it as an investment and support the proposition as stands, but I am not convinced that the formula is yet right, fair or equitable with the wider public. The National Trust are obviously influential, vociferous and tenacious … but that sounds rather more the description of a bully. Frankly that is exactly what is happening here. You can detect generally that the vast majority don't care either way. However, those who question and oppose the scheme are unfairly bullied by the National Trust which leaves just a small number of supporters who have been sold on this wonderful prospect of acquiring land for the benefit of the public. A noble and just reason perhaps but I think in having that good intention it ignores the fact that other matters will suffer as a result especially if the States simply 'gift' this £3.5m rather than:
(i) properly invest it either by way of making a loan to the national Trust or
(ii) buying it outright and leasing to the National Trust.
One other option perhaps is to consider is whether the project could be put over to direct public subscription; the States form a PPP. The national Trust could still become a major stakeholder but it would avoid using any taxpayers money at all and it's supporters would get opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. Would be interesting at least to see if they would.
So while in broad terms the latest compromise seems equitable, many doubts still linger in my mind.

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