Thursday, 26 June 2014

Plemont: Some Thoughts

Today's post is a reprint of a letter published in the JEP on Tuesday on the States helping buy Plemont for the National Trust. Unfortunately, they don't seem to publish letters online now, so I occasionally reprint them on my blog to make them available to a wider public.

I'm still undecided about Plemont, and I can see arguments on both sides.

Against are three main arguments

(a) that we can ill-afford this, and the money would be better off elsewhere where there are cuts. That might not just be an injection into health care, but could be spent on supporting jobs, boosting the economy, filling any looming black holes caused by zero-ten and falling revenue from GST. Would you like the States to fork out for Plemont, and then have a GST rise next year (or the one after) as a result of shortfalls in States income?

(b) it will not benefit most of the urban population of St Helier, who tend not to stray far from their Parish, but the richer rural inhabitancy - in other words, it is like a subsidy to the Royal Opera House, something that the comfortably well-off middle classes (and above) will enjoy, but not something the working class man or woman would really want if they had a say. This can be seen most readily in the recent vote at a meeting at St Brelade, where a vote was in favour of  purchase by 31 to 7, indicating a rural bias (and people who preferred Plemont to watching football on TV). Putting money into Plemont is, to some extent, a "Middle Class Rip-Off" to quote "Yes Minister".

(c) There is a third argument which I have heard - that we should not be handing over money to the National Trust of Jersey as they do not seem to be financially viable - the 2012 accounts showed an operating deficit of £269,000 which was £11,000 more than the deficit of 2011. The report says that "Our finances continue to be in a parlous state", and they sometimes have to decline first refusal on historic buildings through lack of funds. The 2013 accounts showed a small improvement - a deficit of £142,000, but identified a repair backlog of just over £3.2 million. Given the "parlous state" of the finances, is it financial prudent for the States to give them a substantial sum without sufficient guarantees.

In its favour, it can be said that:

(a)    The Town Park was also an example of culture trumping mere economics. It was felt that despite the cost, and the reduction in parking spaces, there would be a benefit to the people in St Helier to have an extra "green lung". The principle that economic considerations need not be the only ones has been established by a precedent like this.

(b)   It is on a bus route, and accessible (in principle) to anyone. It will benefit anyone who lives in Jersey, and be open to anyone to visit and enjoy, and also a boost to Tourism.

(c) This is a one-off opportunity which is unlikely to arise again. It has to be seen in the context of the purchase of Woodford (now the Winston Churchill Memorial Park) and Noirmont Headland, as an investment in the future, which future generations will regard as good value for money.

(d) Unlike the previous proposal by Sir Philip Bailhache, this is a fixed price, not a blank chequr, with a price agreed with the current owner of the Holiday Camp site.

The letter from "Save Our Shoreline" addresses some of these points, in particular the matter of funding. By taking money from the Jersey Development Company, and the presently aborted car park project, funding can be raised without pinching money from elsewhere.

The JDC is supposed to be self-financing, but would be looking to the States to fund an underground car park - so much for self-financing. When the charges it makes to the States are taken into account, and the paltry dividend it returns to the States is put into the equation, the States is actually effectively paying the JDC more than it receives in dividends. It is high time that it was forced to become self-financing, and all kinds of nice contingency transfers such as that for the car park, should cease.

If I was in the States, I would like to see some provision for funding - such as that proposed by SAS - as a firm part of the conditions for approval of States funding for Plemont, as well as suitable guarantees regarding ownership should the National Trust run into financial difficulties. If those obstacles could be resolved, I'd probably vote in favour. As it is, I think it the proposition needs more scrutiny.

Anyway, here's the full letter - so you can make your own mind up.

Save Our Shoreline Supports the Trust's Purchase of Plemont
from Michael du Pre, chairman, Save Our Shoreline.

There has been much correspondence in your pages as to whether or not the States should match the National Trust for Jersey's contribution and buy the Plemont headland from the developers.

It really boils down to two polarised views: on the one hand, the argument is that the money should be better spent for social purposes - perhaps, for example, on Health or housing; on the other, the argument is that this is a small price to pay to protect our coastal environment and gain a valuable headland for the benefit of generations to come.

Here is one example of a way that funding may be made available. We have recently seen large quantities of money simply disappear from the Treasury-owned Jersey Development Company on ill-advised projects such as its desperate push to create an International Finance Centre on the Esplanade Car Park.

At the last count, they had spent £4.5 million of taxpayers' money on consultants, architects' fees and directors' salaries and bonuses, for no foreseeable return and, as far as anyone knows, will continue to do so.

Furthermore, as the project unexpectedly expanded, the Treasury Minister managed without difficulty or any States' authorisation, to create an allocation from States' reserves of £13m plus to create a three-and-a-half storey underground car park which he now admits will be on indefinite hold.

We suggest that by putting a brake on further JDC spending, the States could free up some or all of the £3.5m, with any shortfall being provided from the £13m. Neither of these measures would have any effect on other States' budgets.

As regards health and social services, there are enormous structural problems that need to be sorted out, since ever-increasing public funding appears to result in little visible benefit.

These problems are not going to be solved by a one-off injection of £3.5m into the system. On the contrary, such an ad-hoc 'donation' would only serve to postpone action being taken on the underlying causes.

On the other hand, the long-term annual returns (in perpetuity) on a one-off investment of a capital sum on £3.5m on the Plemont headland would simply be incalculable in terms of sustaining future tourism and, through recreation, improving the general health of a relentlessly increasing population confined 
within a small area.

Save Our Shoreline Jersey very much support the efforts of the National Trust to purchase the land at Plemont. We hope that this States Assembly will vote in favour of the proposition supporting the National Trust's initiative and will go down in history as the protectors of one of the Island's unique; and most: precious assets.

No comments: