Thursday, 29 January 2015

Question Time – Part 2

Question Time – Part 2

I continue my report on the “Question Time” event at St Brelade’s Parish Hall, organised by James Rondel and Christian May of Change.Je, and with chair Ben Querée and panellists Steve Pallett, Judy Martin, Ben Shenton, Vicky Boarder and Ian Gorst.

A questioner asked whether the States would actually listen to what people say, or go through the motions of pretending to do so, hence the voter apathy.

Vicky Boarder said that she had been told not to be so emotive by a politician over the Port Galots site, but she though the lack of emotion among some politicians was part of the problem. She was passionate in her love for the Island of Jersey, and if more people had passion about Jersey’s heritage, there would be a greater voter turnout.

Judy Martin noted that the States had recently changed the 1802 law regarding Parish Assemblies to make it harder to call them. She thought that the Constables in particular, as Father (or Mother) of the Parish should use Parish meetings more to sound out and see what the people wanted and thought about States policies and actions. They should listen to their parishioners more.

Ben Shenton noted that the States had a bad record, that after the referendum on option A, B or C, the States asked the public what they wanted, and then rejected it. It was no wonder the voters turned away from voting, especially, he thought, working class voters in St Helier. The States just paid lip service to listening to people over that and a lot of people decided that voting was just a waste of time.

He also questioned the proposed change to the Waterfront, and said the States, in his view, by accepting something very different from that passed by the States – with retail outlets and a winter garden, was breaking the planning law. The end result would be uninspiring blocks of offices, the removal of parking, and at weekends and evenings that area would just be a ghost town. He wondered if in 20 years time, people would be asking just how on earth they let this happen.

Ian Gorst said that we had to be real about the challenges that we faced. He said “We don’t always get it right”, and with the Port Galot site, for example, they could see that the public had spoken, and they would have to find another site for the Sea Cadets. He pledged that the Council of Ministers was committed to do this and pledged that within the next 3 ½ years, a site would be found.

Vicky Boarder wondered why, if a private site development was considered, rather than Port Galots, it could be done at the old derelict swimming pool site. This was a prime site, just being left to decay, and the States could get a return by having the luxury buildings there.

Tony asked (that’s me, by the way), whether as it was the 70th Anniversary of Liberation Day, and it fell on a Saturday, whether the public should be liberated with an extra days holiday.

Steve Pallett thought that as it was 70 years, a special occasion, the States should give the public an extra holiday.

Judy Martin agreed.

Ben Shenton said that as far as he was concerned, the 9th of May was Liberation Day, and he would not celebrate it on any other day.

Vicky Boarder agreed, and Ian Gorst said there should not be another day.

Tony just came back with the point that Ben Shenton had given a misleading answer. An extra day didn’t mean celebrating Liberation day on that day, any more than Christmas day falling on a Saturday meant celebrating it on the Monday bank holiday.

He later found out, in conversation with Ben, that the overseas businesses like his found it more difficult when it fell on a weekday, as their staff took the day off, and the management had to provide cover – which may also have explained why he was so keen to misunderstand the question!

A question was asked about how students could afford to go to University in England, as the costs were now prohibitively high, and she could not afford it. She wanted it to be made easier to bright children to go on to University, and make the most of their talent.

Judy Martin wondered if a loan system would be the answer as in the UK, but also noted that a loan system could lead to burdening a student with a very heavy debt to repay.

Ian Gorst said that a lot of people were struggling to make the decision whether they could afford to send their children to university or not. He said “this cannot be right”. He wanted to see young people have that opportunity, and there would have to be a change to the system as it stands.

Ben Shenton said that his daughter had just gone to University, and acknowledged that it was very expensive, and he was lucky enough to be able to afford it. He thought a loan system was the way forward, and the Co-Op Community Bank had assets of £800 million in cash, which could be used for loans. It was there, it was available, and if the political will was there, “something could be sorted out by Friday”!

The Waterfront reared its head with another question. When would the States actually see a return for this investment? Was it a good plan, or should it be private sector? What had happened to the original Masterplan?

Ian Gorst said the change in direction was the right one. Harcourt had been dropped, and the only other developer, Dandara, was doing their own thing. For such a big project it was important to proceed in an incremental manner, so as to reduce the risk which the public were obviously concerned about.

Judy Martin asked where the Winter gardens had gone in the new plans. We had been left with a few office blocks, hardly making the promised vibrant part of St Helier, she thought.

Steve Pallett thought there had been enough delays and something was needed to get up and running.

Vicky Boarder noticed that other places which had reclaimed land would put good restaurants and facilities there. What had the States done? Put a KFC on the site!

Ben Shenton wondered when the supposed amount of £50 million would be returned to the States. He thought the attitude regarding risk was risible – the States of Jersey Development Fund’s chairman had said “we are borrowing the money from the banks, and the banks would not lend money to a development if there was any risk”. He asked if the record of banks was such that people would believe they would not lend to risky property developments.

Ian Gorst thought that was unfair, that the banks had looked at the finance hard before agreeing to lend the money. He was convinced that to deliver economic growth we needed Grade A office space. The new Dandara site had been more or less filled. The Le Masurier Broad street site seemed to have stalled. We needed to get on with it.

I noticed that the question of when the States would get a return of their investment was never answered by Ian Gorst.

A question was asked about the drugs policy and whether it should be reviewed with new drugs

Ben Shenton noted that when in the States, he had brought a proposition for extra funding for drug rehabilitation unit but the States had rejected that, and it had been swept under the carpet. There was a major problem with underfunding, and there were 900 registered heroin addicts in Jersey. More need to be done, or this problem would take away some of our kids lives, and he noted that suicide was often related to drug use.

Steve Pallett thought that more should be done for drug users, but decriminalising some drugs was not the answer. Drug use was not the only invisible problem; homelessness was also another huge issue.

Ian Gorst said that he was sorry about banging on about extra resources for health, but this question showed exactly why it was important, and we needed more money.

Christopher Davy asked about the condition of the roads, and wondered if the public would be more amenable to the tax element on their fuel if that was put back into roads.

Steve Pallett noted that the situation regarding potholes and bad road surfaces mainly applied to public roads, and the Parish kept their roads in pretty good condition. He pointed out that if more money went to roads, it would have to come from some other department.

Judy Martin thought that if some of the money taxed on roads was earmarked for road maintenance people could appreciate any rise. She also wondered why whole roads were resurfaced. When 80% of a road was fine, why did TTS resurface the whole road rather than just the part that needed doing?

Ben Shenton said that “you can tell a lot about a country by the state of its roads”.

Ian Gorst said that 3 million a year was spent on roads, and local roads were actually often better than those in the UK. He thought the way forward was the Street Works Law, which had been in the pipeline for a long time, and this would ensure the utility companies would have to repair roads to better standards, to be in good repair longer after their trench work. He pledged that TTS would bring this forward in the next two years.

The evening ended with a rapid – yes / no question session with two or three questions just thrown out as time was almost at an end. To watch politicians having to say yes or no was the kind of wicked delight that anyone who watches Jim Hacker’s attempts to get a straight answer from Sir Humphrey Appleby would appreciate.

Thanks were given by James Rondel to the Chair and the Panellists, and the next Question Time would be at St Clements Parish Hall on Tuesday 24 February at 7.30.

Final notes – this was a very entertaining evening – part of which had to do with the mix – two politicians in the States, one former politician, and one ordinary member of the public, all of whom were articulate and lively. There was a good amount of humour from the panel, including the Chief Minister, which also lightened the tone from time to time.

Unlike a hustings, there was never the feeling that the candidates were trying to sell the audience anything to get a vote. All the panel came over well, and it was certainly brave of the Chief Minister, Ian Gorst, to put his head above the parapet in that way. The audience was friendly, but that didn’t mean that they asked easy questions. And the ex-politicians and current politicians in the audience didn’t dominate matters, as Ben Querée often chose ordinary members of the public in preference to them.

For those of us hard of hearing, some more amplification would have been useful at times, as it was occasionally, especially at the start, hard to hear some of the responses clearly. That is why I don't usually attend public events like this.

And as before, apologies for anything I got wrong or omitted in my report. One day after the event, and my notes look even more like some kind of chaotic bespoke shorthand, or the results you would get by dipping a spider in ink and letting it run across a blank page.

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