Sometimes, I imagine, it’s tough to be a part of the Jersey government. Our island is made up of such a diverse population, packed into such a small place, that there is literally no way to please everyone. At each and every turn, you are faced with backlash from one group, and support from another. Democracy, as much as it is probably the most fair and representative way to run a government, is unfortunately constantly marred by the fact that the voting public is made up on the whole by, to put it lightly, imbeciles.
For god’s sake let’s look at America, the country that has literally (that’s a loose use of that word) started wars to bring Democracy to the world. In a study by ITS OWN GOVERNMENT, it was found that 32 million U.S adults cannot read. At all. That’s 14% of the population. That doesn’t seem low to you? Well, when you consider 21% of the adult population, which is 66,000,000 people by the way, 14 million more than the population of the UK, can’t read above a fifth grade level, the statistics become scary. I’m not saying that the U.S.A is a fair comparison with Jersey, that would be insulting for all of us, but my point is this; we are putting the decisions that dictate our lives in the hands of people who can’t read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to their children. As much as I’m all for fair representation, when I stop and think about who is shaping my future, the thought of autonomous dictatorship doesn’t sound too bad.
If dictatorship sounds appealing to me, an irresponsible and self-confessed naive student, I cannot imagine how close the men and women pioneering the island’s newest financial institution have come to going what I like to call “Full Tse Tung” on the public. The Jersey International Finance Centre has been a point of contention from the moment the Esplanade Quarter Masterplan was announced in 2008. Without including the proposed park and the new underground parking structure, the plans consist of six new office buildings to be built in the Esplanade car park, combining to provide a staggering 470,000 square feet of ‘Grade A’ office space for prospective tenants to come and expand the booming financial industry in Jersey. Through the maintenance of public land and a complicated process that involves the use of, but not the control of, private investors, the JDC are projecting returns from this project of roughly £50 million before rental income, which will go back to the public rather than into private pockets. Along with the business offices, the JDC are extremely keen to promote the public spaces that the project will create. At the centre of this side of the development is the large public park that will be created in the middle of the quarter, which, along with improvements to the larger Esplanade area and improved pedestrian pathways into the existing town, will showcase the potential for renovated and natural areas in Jersey. So, to summarise, if all goes to plan we will have six new office buildings, an improved park and open space, better access to the existing town area, more parking, and £50 million pounds for public spending. Unfortunately, when something sounds too good to be true, it’s normally because it is.
Opposition to this project has been constant, vocal, and, unlike the work of most protesting masses, relatively logical. Like any dream, the Esplanade Quarter Masterplan has holes in its velour fabric. Nothing, unfortunately is perfect (except Kinder Buenos), and whilst we should all applaud the rhetoric used to get the States to give planning permission for this project, we should also be able to see through it. Perhaps the most glaring issue with the entire 6-building development is the assumption that it will actually be filled. Yes, there is only a limited amount of Grade A office space on the island currently, and yes the vacancy rate for this space is only 1%, but the JDC can only use its “progressive expansion” excuse for the fact there is only one building currently under construction for so long. You may be told that only Building four is under way because progressive, phased introduction will limit exposure and allow for the plan to be evolved and shaped around public and private need, but it might also have something to do with the fact that so far only one building has been let, and even then only 25% of it. That’s right, in this new structure designed to house and facilitate the expansion of the finance industry in Jersey, we’ve only managed to attract the attention of two banks, who both already had a base on the island. The announcement from the States that they have had “interest” from another potential client in 5,000 square feet of space doesn’t do much to dampen the disappointing sting of a plan unfulfilled, and dissatisfied islanders have made clear that a lack of information from the States, a disregard for procedural necessities, and a rush to start on a project that promises ambiguous long term return have left the project marred by the veil thrown on it by its own innovators.
Add into these the abstrusity of the dealings with money and ownership and you can begin to understand the opposition stance on the development plans. With changes to plans, namely allowing it to be completed in a piecemeal fashion rather than a single build meaning that promised returns can be altered depending on how much is actually completed, and a series of different companies being given control of the project, most notably the offer to Dandara being rejected in place of the SoJDC, the entire situation becomes marred by disingenuousness and half-empty promises of returns that may never be seen…allegedly.
Obviously I have to remain impartial in this, otherwise it would just be another one of my many, many pro-capitalist, anti-humanitarian rants, and in my final month here I’d like to prove myself as somewhat of a professional. However, as I began this introductory section with a brief discussion of my views on the flaws of democracy, it only seems fitting that I bring it full circle and once again discuss the possible utopia of a dictatorship (for the dictator and anyone on their side, of course). Ahead you will read some (and I must stress the some) of what I discussed with Sean Power and John Baker, the heads of the St. Helier Waterfront Action Group, or SWAG for short, when I met them this month. A former politician himself, Power understands the importance of an opposition in democratic process, and it is indeed opposition that his group provides. SWAG have campaigned tirelessly against the construction of the finance centre, even making it to headline news with their protests around the Esplanade car park, and it seems that, despite their efforts, in this instance they have become the symbol of a broken democratic process. But is that a bad thing? Do we need a functioning democracy? The reaction from the young generation to the Brexit outcome is evidence enough that, whilst there is something to say about fair representation of each generation, people under the age of 25 don’t seem to understand that the needs of one group may not necessarily be the best for others. The “older generation” (>40), who in 2011 made up 51.2% of the island’s population, have a pretty sizable majority when it comes to voting on public decisions, and it’s fair to say that the best outcome for a student may not be the best for a person nearing retirement. However, if there is indeed a dichotomy to be created here, to which side should the responsibility of the population’s future fall? Should it be the younger, inexperienced group who have seen as much of the world as getting high in university halls can show you and believe that disregarding and denouncing right-wing politics online will gain them the Facebook likes that they so misguidedly equate with respect? Or should it be entrusted to the group who have worked in the industries that will be so affected by any change made in politics, but haven’t to grow up in a time when international alliance and overseas opportunities are so prominent and important? My point is, before you start answering these rhetorical questions, that nobody is perfect. There’s no way to please everybody, at least not until we manage to overcome human nature and understand that we are not always right (but who wants that? Being right is great). And so, rather than disappointing a certain generation and making them feel as though their vote means nothing, why not just take away the vote? Give ultimate power to the one in charge, and then at least the anger of the disenfranchised can be directed at a singular target, rather than at a disseminated list of menial and inconsequential flaws in the voting process. Anyway, I digress. Here are John Baker and Sean Power.
To start off, can I just get a brief outline of what the St Helier Waterfront Action Group are aiming for concerning the Jersey International Finance Centre? We’ve seen the pictures of protests in the JEP, but what is it you’re actually trying to achieve?
We need to make it as clear as possible from the outset that we are not at all against the finance industry in Jersey. We understand and appreciate what that sector does for the island and its economy, and we wouldn’t want to halt the development of the industry itself. However, what we are against, and what we hope to expose and stop, is the way that the people of Jersey have been supplied with insufficient information on the extremely important finer details of the entire Esplanade Quarter Masterplan, and specifically the construction of the Jersey International Finance Centre. We believe that the people, who have become inextricably linked with the project through the use of and risk to public funds, deserve to know how their money is being spent, and who by.
So, is it the entire Esplanade Quarter Masterplan that your organisation opposes, or the JIFC in particular?
We’re fans of the Masterplan as a whole! The integration of the Waterfront and the Esplanade is, in our eyes, a great idea. The plans for the park and natural open space, as well as the underground car park, are viable and would certainly add to the area. Even the JIFC itself is not, in theory, a bad idea. What we are against is the way that the States of Jersey, and the SoJDC, have gone about the entire process involving their construction.
What do you say to the promises made by the Jersey Development Company concerning the massive potential for returns of roughly £50 million from the JIFC?
[extremely audible laughs] Well, how long have you got? To put it simply, that was just a matter of good marketing. The States used that figure to fool the public into believing in the project, but I think, through our work and through mistakes made in the development’s maturation, the confidence that was once there is being depleted. Quickly.
The promises made were based upon the assumption that the entire development would be incredibly desirable to international finance companies, and that leasing the space would be a matter of fighting off combatting bids. As we well know, this hasn’t been the case, and that’s why we’ve seen the project veiled by legally ambiguous activity and rushed into construction. The States allowing construction to start after leasing only 16,000 sq ft was just a small part of a larger system of questionable actions by senior ministers. Last minute changes to the plans made without consent and the rejection of incredibly high-profile contracts from Dandara only raise unwanted questions surrounding the companies and people leading the development, and that is what we here are trying to bring to the public’s attention.
Have we seen examples of this from the States before in Jersey? Is the JIFC the first building that you’ve been disappointed with?
We probably shouldn’t mention anything by name, but we can say that the States have certainly disappointed us before. Our problem is not so much with the developments themselves, but the decisions that lead to them. The Jersey Development Company have been infamously risk-averse in the past, and it has meant that potential developments that could be literally life-changing for islanders. These low-risk, low-return projects don’t particularly benefit the public, who they are technically working for, and so we see wasted potential in things like the failure of the plans to build a high-rise tower at the Waterfront, and specifically the inability to find a new area for the Hospital (the Esplanade wouldn’t have been a bad place…). The States aren’t particularly bad at the development side, but the decisions that determine the construction, planning and location of these developments are often questionable.
So, to finish off, what would you say is the ultimate solution to the problems you see in the development of the JIFC?
We may be too far into the process now to fix what has been broken, which should be the trust in the SoJDC and the ministers responsible for the entire process behind the development. However, we can, with the benefit of hindsight, give some relatively simply ideas for preventing these problems in the future. The big lesson to learn from this is that public money should not be played with. There isn’t another government in the world that provides public money for development, or indeed leads development projects like this. Every financial building project is privately developer led, and that’s the way this should have been done. As we mentioned before, Dandara rejected a substantial offer to take on this project, and it was then that the SoJDC took control and plans were unexpectedly changed and tampered with without the knowledge of the public. They can make all the promises they like, but what has happened here is that the States have bet on a risky hand with public funds, with the promise of return being slim and growing slimmer. This is what needs to be changed.