Great barrier grief

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The human race has seen more change in the wake of the industrial revolution since early pond life decided to crawl out of the murky depths and strike out for them thar dry hills.

Every so often, man is propelled to a new level by the ingenuity of forward-thinking and gifted individuals whose inventions, theories or actions change not just their lives, but also all of humanity’s.

Like all communities in the industrialised world that follow rather than lead, Jersey has chugged along nicely in the wake of worldwide progress, enjoying the benefits or suffering the consequences. When the United States, the EU and the oil-producing countries sneeze, we all get the sniffles.

Nonetheless, like all self-governing countries we are, whatever the influences of global capital, masters of what happens in our backyard. Or so we’d like to think.

Change may be inevitable, but it is not always welcome. We grow up hearing our parents bemoan how ‘things ain’t what they used to be’. And then what we all swore would never happen does – we wake up one morning saying the same thing.

On the whole, the passage of time brings better lifestyles, gadgets to do the chores that in the past took up hours of precious leisure time, and medicines to cure ever more previously life-threatening diseases. Yet we all yearn for the past, when summers were supposedly warmer and longer, when there were hardly any repeats on television, when homes and cars could be safely left unlocked and when children acted their age and knew when to be seen and heard.

For a species that is forever looking back to halcyon days, it is a wonder that our distant ancestors ever summoned up the initiative to crawl out of the pond in the first place.

Jersey now finds itself at one of those life-changing moments, and this time it hinges on the latest in a long line of developments to the Waterfront. For a species that started out in the water, it is no wonder that man is still fascinated by getting wet at every conceivable opportunity. We play on it and in it, spend a fair proportion of our disposable income travelling the world to get wet in some far-flung exotic location, dig holes in the ground and line them with concrete to swim in on hot days, and in the case of Team GB win a basketful of medals competing in watersports in the Olympics.

Islanders have for centuries expanded the shoreline bit by bit in the name of progress; the sea has been pushed back from the walls of the Town Church to develop St Helier Harbour and to lay the foundations of a modern thriving economy.

Over the past 40 years we have reclaimed on an unprecedented scale, but without really considering the consequences. Moreover, it was done in such an incremental way that Islanders went about their business as the land gradually crept further towards Elizabeth Castle.

La Collette has served a functional purpose, and despite unproven claims of health-threatening odours from the green composting site, this new chunk of the rock has proved its worth.

Jersey’s latest reclamation coincided with the 1980s’ fascination with developing waterfronts. Once all the disused riverside, shoreline and canal-front warehouses had been converted – with adjacent marinas – along came new developments, which like carbon-copy high streets all look the same.

When faced with deciding what to do with the land fast being reclaimed to the west of the Albert Pier the States, in their infinite wisdom, 20 years ago set up the Waterfront Advisory Group, then in 1996 incorporated yet another organisation which Islanders have come to love to hate – the Waterfront Enterprise Board.

Over that time there have been various proposals, petitions, public meetings, design competitions, workshops and health scares over toxic ash. Architects, planners and landscapers in all shapes, sizes and nationalities and grandiose bridge schemes and towering skyscrapers have come and gone. And the subject of what and what not to do with the Waterfront has given the inmates of Charlie Chuckle’s Laughter Factory countless opportunities to do what they do best: talk ad infinitum.

However, WEB has given us the largest steam clock in the world, a café masquerading as an upturned boat, a multiplex, nightclub, gym and swimming pool to get wet in on wet days, housing, an hotel, yet another harbour and the ubiquitous marina, and fast-food outlets, commemorative sculptures and cordyline palm trees dotted hither and thither – all the tortuous product of the usual controversies and public outcries that we know so well.

Now that the States have agreed a masterplan, we face years of traffic disruption while the underpass – the most expensive stretch of road anywhere in the world – is replaced with a sunken road to reconnect the Waterfront to the old town, barely a decade after we isolated it in the first place.

There are those who say that once the Waterfront is completed, much like mothers after giving birth, Islanders will forget the pain and will come at last to love their latest playground and all the economic benefits it will bring.

No doubt a nouveau café society will inhabit the winter gardens, verdant roof terraces, parks, piazzas and promenades. Twenty-first-century financial wizards will take a short walk from their apartments along tree-lined boulevards to the new financial quarter to play the stock markets and make the Island’s economy even richer.

And the inhabitants of drab UK cities will, as predicted by WEB and the Council of Ministers, flock to our shores for long weekends in Jersey’s new metropolis. Or will they prefer a budget break in Barcelona, Paris or Rome?

I know where I’ll be: either enjoying the peaceful seclusion of our greatest national asset – the north coast – or doing what humankind has done ever since its forerunners crawled out of a pond. Enjoying the natural waterfront.

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