By John Boothman
WHEN it comes to core concepts of governance, two conflicting approaches come to mind. The first is to lead by example, and practice what you preach. The second is for the led to do as they are told, and not as their leaders do. Here we seem to be well on the way to embracing the second mantra.
In a front-page JEP report (2 May) on the recent Empty Homes Survey, Natasha Day, the government’s head of strategic housing and regeneration, is quoted as castigating private property owners for failing to give buildings ‘the attention they deserve’ and allowing them to fall into disrepair. Housing Minister David Warr weighs in to argue that listed properties in particular, including old Jersey farmhouses, ‘should be cared for and we should not let them deteriorate’. And Environment Minister Jonathan Renouf adds ‘it is essential that… all steps possible are taken to bring empty homes… back into use’.
Such sentiments voiced by an independent authority might be fair comment, but when it comes to the government (not just this one but its predecessors) we’re looking at a clear case of pot, kettle, black.
In June 2019, the government admitted that 23 States-owned buildings were currently lying empty. Two in St Helier hadn’t been used for 15 years, while four buildings in St Saviour had been vacant since 2009. The government was coy about naming the locations of these unused properties, but some are notorious. La Folie Inn closed its doors in 2004 and has been derelict ever since. Cyril Le Marquand House was abandoned once its occupants had decamped to Broad Street in 2019. The Opera House has been closed since March 2020 for want of extensive repairs.
In October 2021, Picquet House, on a prominent site in the Royal Square, was singled out by the Public Accounts Committee in a scathing report which concluded that poor management of the government’s £1 billion-plus property portfolio was wasting taxpayers’ money and could also lead to the loss of ‘culturally significant’ buildings. Noting that previous promises to improve property management had come to nothing, Deputy Inna Gardiner, then-chair of the PAC, added that ‘the government must act without further delay to restore and maintain public trust and confidence in its ability to manage the public estate’. A progress report would be appreciated.
One could go further and argue that a chronic failure to undertake routine maintenance at, and incremental improvement of, the General Hospital significantly shortened its life and indirectly led us into the current crisis, where up to £1 billion is now needed to build a replacement. Meanwhile the government’s Planning Department has done its bit to hamper private renovation projects by imposing draconian restrictions on the owners of historic houses wishing to restore them to modern standards. Jerseyman Ivor Barette, who has done more than most to preserve Jersey’s heritage, was subjected to a swingeing £50,000 fine when he had the temerity to remove some dilapidated wooden windows from his period house in St Mary without consent. Small wonder that the owners of other unrestored properties hesitate to subject themselves to the same ordeal: better leave it to rot.
Still on the subject of official hypocrisy, would it be asking too much that the government makes an effort to obey the same laws it inflicts on the rest of us? Data protection rules impose an increasing burden on businesses large and small but are apparently broken with impunity by government agencies. In October 2021, Children’s Services was found to have illegally published someone’s personal information, causing the individual concerned ‘significant distress’. A fine would ordinarily have been exacted but (surprise, surprise) the government is exempt from such penalties. (The cynic who said that ‘data protection’ means government data is protected, while ‘freedom of information’ means the same government has a perfect right to find out anything about you that it wishes, while you have no reciprocal right, may have been on to something.)
In April last year, at the instigation of the States Police, high-profile court orders were issued freezing the Jersey assets of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, and empowering the police to search the premises of a local firm holding documents relevant to the matter. In November came the embarrassing revelation that these search warrants were obtained unlawfully and consequently the searches were illegal too, resulting in a formal apology and the payment of (unquantified) damages to those on the receiving end. A flagrant failure of due process, one might have thought, yet there is no evidence of disciplinary action having been taken against anyone involved.
Then just last month, a problem that is more toxic than most. The government has admitted that the 100ft mound of contaminated waste at La Collette was allowed to grow in flagrant breach of its own planning regulations. Lest we forget, this occurred under a succession of administrations that never ceased to trumpet the Island’s green credentials, while uttering dire warnings about our collective reluctance to give up on fossil fuels. The hapless Infrastructure Minister Tom Binet has been given just six months to come up with a solution that has apparently eluded his predecessors for 20 years. Good luck with that.
Now I appreciate that some readers – especially those employed in or by the government – may consider these remarks more than a little harsh. Don’t we all make mistakes? And of course the answer is yes. I’m no more a believer in political than in papal infallibility. But the central messages, which I fear have yet to be learned by those in authority, are to come clean, learn from mistakes, try not to repeat them, and above all avoid lecturing the rest of us until your own house is in order.
I have lived here for nearly 50 years, and love the Island to bits. For most of that time I have also been a firm admirer of ‘the Jersey way’. But if, as seems increasingly likely, this has mutated from a sturdy independence of thought and action into a mix of ministerial ineptitude and bureaucratic contempt for the poor saps who pay the bills, perhaps it is time to reconsider.