I’m humbled that so many here have considered it worthwhile coming this far out of town to listen to me today, and I’m really aware that the two hundred and fifty or so here at, let’s say, £100 an hour, means that this lunch is already easily chargeable at £25,000.
I make that obscure calculation because I want those here to know that I am a Planning Minister who thinks about business and the economy, one who cares about not wasting time or money. Consequently I won’t be talking for an hour and a half, neither will I be mentioning seaweed flavoured toothpaste or composting toilets.
At this event last year the previous Minister said he wouldn’t be sticking to the speech he’d been given, and neither will I. Mainly because I’ve written every word in it myself. At least that way there shouldn’t be any surprises for me.
Am I allowed to say that the three and half years since being elected to the States have all been a little bit of blur? It really only seems like yesterday that I was still in the private sector, making decisions that affected my own business, experience that I hope is now standing me in good stead as I make decisions on your behalf.
Until very recently I was still actively involved with Chamber as a Member of the Executive, after having previously been elected as the Chairman of Chamber’s Emerging Industries Committee some five years ago.
I was pleased to keep my seat on the Executive after becoming Deputy for St. Martin in 2011 as I wanted to provide a conduit between Chamber and the States Assembly. I’m sad that I haven’t, on advice, been able to retain that seat now that I am Planning Minister, but potential conflicts would not be good for either side. In any case, I am still committed to working together with Chamber, especially now I have a seat in Government. Right at the outset I’d just like to say a few words about government.
Recently, in the Assembly, I answered a question from Deputy Montfort Tadier about the States Energy Policy that I am now responsible for - 'How could I support both the reduction in carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels to export Jersey Dairy products to China?'
I won’t bore you with the answer I gave, but I was accused by the Deputy of sounding more like the Minister for Economic Development. People will have to get used to Ministers sounding the same as each other.
In a recent meeting to discuss future renewable energy production, I was asked who might bring the subject to the Council of Minister’s table, myself or the Economic Development Minister? The answer I gave was that it didn’t really matter. One of us would propose and the other would support, the important thing was that we were working together and saying the same thing, and not getting precious about who’s taking the credit or publicity.
That doesn’t mean we are a Council of yes men and women - far from it. We occasionally have animated discussions, but once we make a decision we are completely supportive of each other. We will disagree, but we’re not disagreeable. We may argue, but we’re not argumentative and we might object, but we’re never objectionable.
Becoming a minister
My first three years in the Assembly was spent in Scrutiny, as Chairman of the Economic Affairs Scrutiny Panel, and vice-Chair of the Environment Panel. Many expected that, after being re-elected, I might throw my hat into the ring for the job of Economic Development Minister. In reality I had decided back in the summer that, if returned to the States, I would seek the position of Planning and Environment Minister.
Some of you may remember that I brought a proposition of no confidence in the previous Minister over asbestos storage, and I won’t dwell on that, other than to say that this wasn’t the reason why I wanted the position. Asbestos is still an issue that I’m extremely unhappy about, and I’ll resolve it very soon.
The real reason I wanted the P&E job was this: I’m elected as a politician to do the best I can, and to make a positive difference for my Parish and our Island. I was sure then, and I’m even more assured now, that as Planning Minister, I have the ability to influence all parts of Jersey life, hopefully for the better.
Ministers have to work together, and we do. But the Minister with responsibility for Planning has an influential role to play in just about every other Ministry. The decisions I take, and the policies I set, can make such a difference that I’m amazed that there wasn’t a long list of Members queuing up for this job.
I’m sure if I listened carefully right now I could hear the words 'poisoned chalice' being muttered quietly around tables in this room, and it’s been regularly suggested to me that I must be slightly the wrong side of barking mad to actually want this position, but I do. I asked the Chief Minister for the position and I was humbled to be given the responsibility by the Assembly.
In reality, there wasn’t a long list of names to choose from, but when the next Planning and Environment Minister is chosen in three years' time, I will regard it as a success if many more politicians see the potential in the job, and want some of the action for themselves.
I see opportunities, not challenges. Yes, my position is challenging, but the opportunities to achieve are enormous. I’m not an important person, but the position I currently hold is important. It’s a crucial position and it’s one that I feel the responsibility of every day.
So what have I achieved in four months? What have I done so far to assist Chamber Members with business-friendly policies? What am I aiming for when it comes to helping trade?
First, can I say that there was a murmur of jealousy around the Council of Ministers' table when Deputy Susie Pinel announced, almost at our first meeting, that she was going to extend the probationary period for new employees from six to twelve months.
Many of us would dearly love to have been able to get off the blocks so quickly and make our own changes, but these things take time. That much I have found out, and in many cases there are laws that need amending.
However, since becoming Minister I have done the following:
- I have approved three but resisted the formation of another nine Sites of Special Interest at the 5 Mile Road - a move that I hope benefits both the tourist industry and the environmentalists, and boosts the blue economy
- I've managed to get agreement from TTS to open up public access to the first section of the east side of La Collette reclamation site. It will be a small, but significant, addition to the public realm in that area
- I’ve resolved a delicate issue over the historic listing of our Parish Churches, much to the relief of both Church and State - a solution that eluded the previous two Planning Ministers for more than five years
- I've halved the size of the historic advice resource in the Planning Department and will be looking to planners to make more decisions on listed buildings
I’m thinking very hard about issuing suitable new guidance on historic windows. That doesn't mean I’m considering installing triple glazed plastic windows in Gorey Castle, but I do want planners to be able to take a more sensible and common sense approach to the replacement of windows, as we all try to work together to reduce energy consumption across the island.
Energy requirements will be reduced further as new bye-laws come into force this year. We’re going to require buildings to be even more thermally efficient and while it might cost a little more in the short term, the pay back will be pretty quick, environmentally as well as financially.
I’ve set in place some new moves to keep our countryside diversified. With the help of ED and Jersey Business we will soon have a new pack house to allow local producers to access local supermarkets with local crops. I’ve also given a small sum to local organic growers, and indicated that there will be a new initiative to help increase returns from the marketplace for that sector in 2016.
I want to enlarge the excellent footpath network we have around our beautiful Island and I’m particularly pleased that my department is working closely with TTS and land owners in St Peter’s Valley to create a fantastic new foot and cycle path in the Valley.
This two mile extension of our paths could remove the need for pedestrians and cyclists to use a dangerous road and would be a great boost for tourists and locals. This is a great example of where the public and private sectors are working well together to deliver practical solutions to meet Island needs without causing unnecessary harm to the countryside and the sensitive ecology of the area.
Permitted Development, or development that doesn’t require planning permission, is an area I am working on. Some signage shouldn’t need approval and 'change of use' should be less complicated. Indeed there are many small and repetitive things we shouldn’t be requiring applications for.
Some changes can be made very quickly, but I’m also going to conduct a much wider review of permitted development, to be completed during this session of government. With the blue economy in mind I am minded to include traditional aquaculture in the Permitted Development Order so as to have quicker and easier access to sites for prospective new shellfish farmers.
We’ll very shortly have a new online applications system, and hopefully all except the largest of schemes will soon be able to submit paperless applications, saving us all time and money. And when you do need to pay, we’ll have our new online payments system completed very soon as well.
Other areas I want to concentrate on involve amended applications. On too many occasions I see plans approved, only for applicants to come back later with amendments. If you want something then apply for it. If you play the system by continually trying to modify your approval you may be in for a surprise.
I'll also be looking at ways to encourage the turning of approvals into actual buildings. I can't force anyone to build after permission has been granted, but I can make speculation a more expensive option. Even if approvals remain 'live' for five years (which they may not) there could soon be a cost for renewing a permission that hasn't been enacted.
Environmentally I’ll be continuing to support agriculture and fisheries as much and as often as I can, and with my background that won’t be a surprise. I’m very keen to help youngsters into all outdoor jobs - agriculture, aquaculture and most especially fishing, probably our oldest industry, and certainly the one that set Jersey on the road to prosperity.
Farming also needs continued support, and I’ll be there fighting that corner. But in the future it won’t be with large amounts of financial assistance, I’m afraid. I’ll need to come up with policies that keep the countryside vibrant and viable - hand-ups, not handouts.
Nitrates in water are a big challenge, but I’m hopeful that by working with farmers and landowners we can resolve this issue quickly.
I haven't ducked my responsibility to pass applications that conform with Island Plan policies and I’ve approved the outline development of the Gas Place site, although I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of it yet.
The politics of planning is a funny thing. The decision to build a high density residential development at Gas Place was taken in 2011 before I was even a politician, but many of those who voted in favour then are now arguing against. Some of us have very short memories. But it does lead me conveniently on to St. Helier, a subject that will probably be of most interest to those here today.
I can’t remember who suggested it first, but one of my early successes was to convince the Chief Minister and the Council of Ministers that St Helier needed to be elevated on to the list of Strategic Priorities. We’ve paid lip service to it for too long. It’s time we delivered all those masterplans that we’ve commissioned over the years, and come up with a scheme that we can all buy in to. That work has already started and I’ll come back to it in a minute.
Class of 2011
Some of you may know that Deputy Rod Bryans and I are both members of the 7.45 Breakfast Club, indeed Rod is one of the founders. When we both became States Members it wasn't long before we were asking ourselves how we can collectively make things work better.
As a group, the new States Members that were elected in 2011 had spent plenty of time training together, so it seemed an obvious move to set up the Class of '11 breakfast again, meeting every other month or so. And we carried on those 7.45 club traditions - mutual respect, no preconceived ideas, and certainly no preferential treatment.
We had in our ranks all forms of States Member - Senators, Deputies, and Constables. We had a Scrutiny Chairman and we had Assistant Ministers, we had an ex-Bailiff, a whole host of different views. But by giving everyone time to talk and express individual opinions, by allowing everyone to participate, by making sure that no one person dominated any of our conversations, we formed a group that worked together, respected each other and, most importantly, made a difference. Over a variety of breakfast food and endless coffee and tea we would discuss any and every subject. Sometimes we didn't agree, but we always listened and conversed.
We lost a couple of Class of '11 members at the last elections, but we still meet as a group, and the positions we now hold reflect, I think, how successful the Class of '11 have become. We now number 6 Ministers, 2 Assistant Ministers and 4 Constables. And I'm not going to mention the fact that we now hold a majority on the Council of Ministers. So that's tomorrow's headline for the media - Class of '11 party set to take over the world.
Seriously though, the link between this breakfast club, the Class of ’11 and the current Council of Ministers is a strong one, and strength is something we'll really need when it comes to resolving our financial situation.
As much as I would like to avoid it, I don’t think it would be right if I didn’t speak very briefly about the challenge that we as an Assembly face with balancing our books in the next few years. To me it’s quite simple - whether you call it growth, contingency, reallocation, carry over, or any other fancy name, it’s all expenditure, and we’re doing too much of it.
On top of that, our income isn’t going to be what we expected, and it will take, we’re told, the next three years to bring those income and expenditure lines together - a timeframe that is also going to challenge our cash flow.
I can’t stress enough the importance of speed. There’s no other way to say it. We’ve got to work as fast as we can, as hard as we can, to balance our budgets just as soon as we can. Every additional day that it takes to do that is another day of funding a cash flow deficit out of reserves. We’ve got to make these savings, so let’s just get on and do it.
At Planning and Environment we’ve already started to redesign how we work. There’s no option, we need to deliver more for less, and that applies to all departments across the States. I want to hear how we can do it, not why we can’t.
That doesn’t, however, mean that we’re not also going to focus on normal, but important, everyday matters, and of course there are also our four strategic priorities. Health, education, the economy and St Helier all need our additional attention.
I'd like, now, to return to St Helier, the plans we have in place for our capital, and how we intend to develop all the various sectors of town. I'm aware that those here today, especially those involved in retail and business, will be very interested in the 'Future St Helier' project and I would like to use this opportunity to urge everyone to get involved.
This project is about joint working and combined effort, and Chamber will fulfil a crucial role along with States departments, the Parish of St. Helier, the Constable and other town Deputies. I stress the word 'town' because St Helier means the town of St Helier and not the parish.
That process of working together has already started. I have held meetings with your President, Chief Officer and Chair of your Transport Committee and with the Chair and members of your Retail & Supply Committee, mainly to assure them that I wasn't intending to exclude all cars from town.
In both cases we had a good, open discussion and ended with a knowledge that both sides will work together for mutual benefit. I've also chaired the first meeting of the Ministerial Steering Group, and we've taken our first walkabout. That tour of town included the Minister and Assistant Minister of Transport and Technical Services, the Constable, the Town Centre Manager and various officers. We really are working together, and we've identified where we can get our first quick wins, some medium term goals, and where the long term strategy will be concentrated. Finally, we’ve organised the first stage of consultation, which will be a drop-in event for everyone to attend, including residents, at the Town Hall over the third weekend of May.
Let's be clear - the vision is for more housing in St Helier. That then allows us to achieve other goals. It safeguards our coast and countryside and keeps our Island green and beautiful. That keeps us as an attractive destination for tourists and high net worth individuals, and it maintains the environment and countryside that we all appreciate so much.
The vision is also to make our capital a place where people want to do things - to shop, to run a business, to want to visit and live. My hope is that in the next three years I can get people to buy into the concept, then take that enthusiasm into the start of the next Island Plan review that will start after the next elections.
If we can get the 'Future St Helier' concept embodied in the 2021 to 2031 Island Plan then we have a real chance of achieving something that our children will be proud of - a solid retail sector, a vibrant commercial quarter, residential units with space inside and out, green and open areas for relaxation and a transport system that meets everyone's needs, cycling, buses and (you’ll be pleased to hear) cars, while allowing pedestrians priority as they move around the heart of town. The project is about putting value back into the public realm, economic growth and having confidence in our capital.
The influence Chamber must have had on the development of St Helier over the decades is not lost on me. Why do I say that? Well, let's remember that this Chamber came into being 30 years before the first plan for St Helier was drawn up. When Jersey Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1768 the Town Church was still the Island's only arsenal as well as the venue for public elections. The Battle of Jersey and the death of Major Pierson happened 13 years after this Chamber came into being, at a time when Beresford and Bath Streets didn't exist, and when Rouge Bouillon and Springfield were still fields being tended by farmers. Each generation since then will have had an influence on how our town looks and works, so where will we leave our legacy?
From a retail perspective, and if we want to create an experience when visiting St Helier, then it’s time we gave a bit more love to our markets and the surrounding streets. From a business angle maybe it's time for that landmark building. It's clear to me that we will have to build higher, but I don't want high-rise residential, so that leaves office accommodation.
What a statement to make about our confidence in the commercial quarter of St Helier than to have a standout building, something to be proud of, something that our business community can take pride in, something that reflects the quality and integrity of our financial services sector, something that makes a statement about our environmental responsibilities. A building that everyone can look at and say 'we did that and it's good'.
The fact that you’ve asked the Planning and Environment Minister to speak at a venue that was awarded the Carbuncle Cup in 2008 isn’t lost on me. That award, given annually by the magazine Building Design to 'the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months', is intended to be a humorous response to the prestigious Stirling Prize that is given by RIBA to 'the architects of the building which has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year'. I hope it’s obvious which of those two very popular awards I’d like us to be winning in the coming decade.
Fifty years of planning
If we look back at the past generation or two and ask ourselves if we’re satisfied with our Island and the way it looks then surely the answer has to be absolutely, 100%, well okay, 90%, maybe 85%, but on the whole the strategy has held up well. We’ve protected our countryside and coastline, we’ve kept our fields green and occasionally full of brown cows, and our seas are still blue.
That's because the Planning Law was introduced 50 years ago this year, and on the whole I think it hasn’t done a bad job. Members will be noticing shortly a raft of events happening to mark Fifty Years of Planning. One of the main themes for us this year will be to go out to the wider Jersey public and ask "How do you think we’ve done? How do you think we’re doing? How do you want Jersey to look in the future?"
We’re going to make a big effort to consult and to engage. But I am pretty confident that when we get down to basics, when we stand back and analyse what the Planning Law has delivered for us, we’ll be saying that we don’t want too much of the Policy to change.
Ladies and gentlemen, I front up the department that people love to moan about. The one that everyone has an opinion on, except politicians of course, who regularly have more than one opinion.
The fact is that for every happy customer we quite often have another very unhappy objector. Planning decisions aren’t made easily, it really is a tough job, and very occasionally we might not get it quite right.
Delivering an ever-improving service is a challenge, but I’m proud of my team, a team that is continually looking for ways to further improve, a team that I know is more than capable of delivering the 'Future St Helier' project 'in house' without commissioning expensive external assistance, a team that is now delivering better performance figures than ever before. 98% of targets are being met, and only three weeks ago our first ever planning application determined at 22 days, just one day after the minimum legal requirement. Proof that architects, owners, and planners working together can achieve a timely service.
Mr President, I'd like to end by talking about a very recent planning event that's made me both happy and sad in equal amounts, and that's the new appeals system. I'm really pleased that we now have in place a process that allows Islanders access to appeal without the prospect of huge expense. It is a system that I know will result in more common sense decisions, decisions made on merit and not legal procedure.
I'm sad, however, because my ability to get involved in planning applications has been severely restricted. I can't now wade in and make decisions mid-application. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and in my case I can now spend much more time setting policy and issuing guidance.
So, where do we go from here?
In coming to those conclusions about how I think things should look in the future, I will need help. I look forward to a fruitful and positive working relationship not only with Chamber, but with its individual members. As I say at every opportunity, my door is always open, my email address is on the website, and (much to the annoyance of my family in the evenings, and at weekends and bank holidays) my phone number is still in the book.
I hope we all appreciate and accept that we are just custodians of our town and Island, our coastline and coastal waters, just custodians for our children and grandchildren, and I hope we’re all prepared to work together to make it just as good as we can for those future generations.