Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Letter to St Helier ratepayers

Dear Ratepayer
The annual sending out of Rates Assessment notices, which are not a request for payment but notification of how your rates bill will be calculated after the Parish Assembly have ‘set the rate’ on Wednesday 17th July, gives me a valuable opportunity to enclose a letter to you. Hopefully the monthly parish magazine, The Town Crier, together with our website (www.sthelier.je) is keeping you up-to-date with parish matters, but there are a few things that I would like to bring to you attention in this letter.
To begin with our magazine, I hope you like the new format. The second issue will be delivered to you at the beginning of June and early signs are that it was a good decision to change our supplier to bring the work (and jobs) involved back to Jersey. As you are probably aware, production and delivery of The Town Crier is paid for entirely out of advertising revenue. If you are a ratepayer living outside the Parish boundary you will not automatically receive a copy; you can either read it on the website or request for it to be posted to you each month.
Now that we have a monthly magazine and a regularly updated website we are considering another way of saving money – ceasing to run ‘Gazette’ notices in the JEP, a potential annual saving of £10,000. We have received advice that our current means of publishing official notices in the magazine, website, and official notice box outside the Town Church, would (if supplemented by additional notice boards including at the Town Hall, the Nelson Street offices of the Honorary Police and the electronic information screen at Charing Cross) be sufficient to comply with the relevant law. After all, not everyone reads the newspaper. However, before taking this step I would be interested to hear any views you may have on the subject.
A more substantial saving in parish expenditure reaches the million pound mark this month following the decision that was taken not to fill the post of Chief Executive of the parish back in 2002. Since then our administration has been run by a management board which I chair whose members are the five directors of Finance, Human Resources, Municipal Services, Parks and Technical & Environmental Services together with the two Procureurs du Bien Public. We meet fortnightly to deal with the many matters, large and small, that are involved in the running of a large and busy parish. I am grateful to them as I am to all of the parish’s 350-strong staff team and our numerous volunteers that a culture of reducing unnecessary expenditure is instilled in every area of how the parish is run, alongside the constant effort to find ways of improving the services we offer our ratepayers without increasing costs.
A major difficulty we face, however, is that some of the key decisions affecting our finances are out of our hands. The States of Jersey Employment Board (SEB) agreed a 4% pay rise effective from January 2014 without any consultation with us which presents an enormous challenge to my team who have been trying to keep down costs. The States also impose regulations on our residential homes and day nurseries which lead to increased costs, and these two factors have been instrumental in our decision to close one of our three homes, Maison de Ville, at the end of 2014. This is, of course, a very unsettling time for the 26 residents and the staff of the home, although we do have the advantage of running two other homes which will have a part to play in addressing the future needs of staff and residents; we also have 18 months in order to manage the process sympathetically.
While the unfair burden of welfare costs has been removed from the shoulders of St Helier ratepayers, with the introduction of the Island Wide Rate in 2005, the States have yet to address the unfairness of the position of St Helier, whose ratepayers bear the cost of providing a clean and tidy capital for the majority of the Island’s workforce, shoppers and visitors. This problem was raised recently at a Parish Assembly where parishioners objected to the cost of refurbishing the Conway Street toilets, but similar arguments can be made about the cost of providing parks and gardens which, in the case of all other parishes, are paid for out of taxation. My proposition that the States pay rates on its properties (P.40/2013 – available on our website) goes to the States for debate on 4th June but so far it has received no support from the Council of Ministers (many of whom started their political careers as St Helier deputies!) or from the Committee of Constables. If the States were to agree to pay rates on public buildings we would at least have an extra million pounds a year to defray the running costs of the various services we provide to the whole island.
Thank you to everyone who took part in the referendum last month, those who voted as well as the parish’s team of staff and volunteers who ran our four polling stations and counted the votes. Our parish supported Option A by a majority of about 2:1 although Option B was the Island’s preferred choice. The States is likely to debate the implementation of the necessary changes for next year’s elections before the summer recess.
Yours sincerely
Simon Crowcroft

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Not the Parish of St Helier blog

This occasional blog has never purported to contain the views of the Parish, but rather to provide the opportunity for me to get things off my chest that concern the Parish and to elicit constructive criticism and suggestions.  However, I came under fire in the States Assembly this week for having a link to this blog on the Parish website.  While I was able to reassure members and any ratepayers who were listening that no Parish funds have gone into providing or maintaining the blog, I have to accept the criticisms (made predominantly by members who agree with me about the best outcome of the forthcoming referendum) that the mere presence of a link to my views on the Parish website creates a perception that this is the Parish's view rather than my own.

For a Parish Constable to openly support 'Option A' - giving the electors of Jersey an equal say at the ballot box - has caused some consternation, not least because I have changed my mind about this.  A clip of the Constable of St Helier as a younger man supporting the contrary view - that the Parish constables should have an automatic right to sit in the States - has been posted on Facebook by Senator Lyndon Farnham.  As I said on Facebook in reply to Lyndon, changed my mind because I found the Electoral Commission's report convincing on the subject of voter equity. 

The bottom line for me is this: if you are going to redesign your voting system you might as well take the opportunity to achieve that most basic feature of democracy of my vote having the same power as yours. 

To those who fear the collapse of Jersey's parish system if Option A is successful, I would say that 11 years in post has convinced me of the robustness and resilience of the parish system.  Whether 1 or 12 of the parish constables are also elected as States Deputies (under Option A) Jersey's parish system with its unique living tradition of Honorary Police, sworn officers dealing with rates, roads etc., will in my opinion continue to prosper.

If either of the other options is successful in the referendum on April 24th, the need for reform is not going to go away.  This is going to run and run until we stop skewing the democratic process by allowing elected members with vastly differing mandates to influence the outcome of key decisions by Jersey's government, and by giving Jersey's electors different voting power depending on where they live.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why we should vote for Option A in Jersey's referendum on April 24

As chairman of the committee charged with presenting the Electoral Commission's proposals for next month's referendum I've had to keep my personal view to myself about whether the Constables should continue to have an automatic right to sit in the States Assembly.  However, with the approval of the referendum act yesterday, I am now free to speak my mind.

The Commission's proposals are set out in full in a document delivered to every home and available on the web (www.statesassembly.gov.je) and in the run up to the referendum on Wednesday 24 April there is likely to be a lively debate about which of the two reform options A or B, is better - or whether, indeed, we should just continue as we are (Option C). 

The problem with Option B which gives each of the 12 parish constables an automatic seat (and vote) is that it perpetuates the democratic deficit for St Helier electors.  Under Option B there will be 6 electoral districts each with 5 representatives, plus 12 constables: that will give St Helier (to be divided into 2 districts) just 11 representatives in the slimmed-down Assembly of 42.  That may sound like an improvement (we currently have 11 members out of 51) but it is still a long way short of the representation the St Helier electors are entitled to, given that our parish has one third of the population.  In contrast, Option A would create 6 electoral districts each with 7 representatives, so St Helier would have 14 out of 42 members in the Assembly, including the Constable if he or she were to stand successfully as a Deputy. 

It is vital in the upcoming campaign to stress that while Option A removes the automatic right of the parish constables to sit and vote in the States Assembly, but it does not stop them from standing for election as deputies.  Most, if not all of the current constables have shown that they are perfectly capable of discharging their parish duties at the same time as functioning as useful members of the legislature.

Option B not only allows the centuries-old under representation of St Helier to continue but it also means that voters in some parts of the island have more say in the government than we do - whereas it is a fundamental principle of democracy that everyone's vote should have the same value. 

Supporters of Option B will argue that if we don't have all 12 constables in the States it will spell the end of the Parish system.  In my opinion this is scaremongering: Jersey is not Guernsey, our parochial institutions are much stronger than in our sister island, with, for example, strong parish municipalities with particularly robust traditions of honorary service such as the Procureurs du bien public, the Honorary Police, the Roads Committee, the Rates Assessors, the Roads Inspectors, and so on - all of which will continue to function under Option A. 

Why does all this matter? some parishioners will be asking themselves.  Voter equity is important, I believe, if Jersey is to continue to be regarded as a jurisdiction that values fairness; in more practical terms, some of the political battles St Helier representatives are facing - such as getting the rest of the Island to contribute to the running costs of the Island's capital - will be much more achievable if Option A is successful in the forthcoming referendum.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Retail rendezvous

Recently I attended a meeting with the Town Centre Manager, Richard Mckenzie, and traders in Conway Street, to explore ways of promoting their street as a shopping destination. Thanks to the improvements carried out in this street over the years it's become much easier for people to walk up and down it, particularly if they are users of the bus station at Liberty Wharf. But for the retailers and other businesses in Conway Street the question is how to get busy people to pause long enough to see what is on offer in the shop windows? Altogether it was a positive meeting, followed by a walk down the street to see what practical measures the public sector could take to improve things, and what the shops themselves could do too, of course.

The same week we met with traders in Colomberie who have finalised the new banners they were given responsibility for designing, and the concept of Colomberie Shopping Village was officially launched. Similar groups are operating in Don Street and Wests Centre, and the Parish is eager to see other businesses getting together so that together we can raise the profile of these distinct shopping districts in town. St Helier is, after all, much more than a single shopping precinct, with a wealth of small shops, cafes and restaurants off the beaten track. If you would like parish support in developing a trader group please get in touch with me or the Town Centre Manager.

Meanwhile the newly formed 'Town Team' continues to work on practical steps that need to be taken to ensure the town is vibrant, attractive, and accessible. In particular, there are calls from traders for shopper parking to be made 'free after 3' and for free shopper parking on Saturdays. I will be asking the States to trial these ideas in the coming year. After all, we subsidise the Island's other industries in various ways, so why not make shopper parking easier and cheaper for the sake of our retail and hospitality sectors?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

You can't always blame the planning dept!

Representatives of the firm that owns a large chunk of the north of St Helier, the regeneration of which is key to the future or this part of the Parish, came to see me last week to say they were going to pull the plug on the development. As it was the first I had heard of any problems I asked them to allow me to act as 'honest broker' with the planning dept to see what could be done to save the scheme. I had spent much of the previous day with the Minister and Chief Officer of planning and knew that as far as they were concerned the scheme was on course to follow the Millennium Town Park in the much needed uplift of this part of town. The developers, however, were not interested in any assistance I might have been able to give. I think that's a shame, especially after the way public expectations have been raised that the regeneration of northern St Helier was on the way to becoming a reality.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sneak preview of comments in next issue of 'Town Trader' magazine

Responding to a recent question in the States the Minister of Transport & Technical Services stated that the latest survey of parking availability in town showed that around half of the spaces in the public car parks have space at various times of the day. I put it to him that we need to bring back some kind of real-time information screen on the approach roads to St Helier that conveys this good news to motorists. The Minister reacted positively to the idea but I wonder how long it will take? His answer also revealed that the user-friendly alternative to paycards, the long-awaited 'pay on exit' parking system due to be trialled this year in Sand Street car park, has now been put back till the autumn. I also asked the Minister to consider introducing incentives to encourage shoppers to make the trip into town, such as 'first hour free' and/or 'free from 3pm', as the price of a paycard has now risen to such a level that it deters some people from popping into town to make a few purchases which they can more conveniently make from an out-of-town shop where there are no parking charges.

The occasional prophet of doom in respect of the town's future hasn't, I think, been to St Helier recently. We know footfall is down and retail sales have slumped, due mainly to the recession and competition from online shopping, but you can't sit in a pleasant town square on the internet, or chat face to face with friends over a coffee or a snack. And in spite of recent bad weather, town is gradually coming more safe, clean and attractive, thronged with tourists, including the innovative guides dressed in the uniform of the 1781 Jersey Militia, while events such as the recent 'container art galleries' on Weighbridge Place occur on a regular basis.

Town businesses can nominate an representative or 'mandataire' to vote in Parish Assemblies (for more info' please contact the Town Hall or visit the website www.sthelier.je) which means that every business in St Helier can have a say in how much will be paid in parish rates this year. On Wednesday 11th July the previous year's accounts will be presented and budgets for the new financial year and all town traders are encouraged to come along.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Retail therapy

Recently I was talking to a retailer who told me he and his staff had not sold a single item during the previous day. That’s eight hours of trading, with fixed costs – rent, wages, social security, rates, utilities – with not a penny in income. I am sure that this is not an isolated example as I am being told that things are very tough indeed ‘on the high street’. True, there continue to be new businesses ready to step into the shoes of the ones that close in the precinct; true, our town centre is less at the mercy of out-of-town shopping than is the case elsewhere. We are also seeing the benefits of visible policing, increased resources for street cleansing, and plans are underway to increase the amount of litter bins (including recycling bins) and benches around town. But urgent action is needed if St Helier is to continue to beat healthily as the Island’s retail heart. Richard MacKenzie, the Town Centre Manager, has come up with a number of ways of reversing the present decline in footfall, including such ideas as making parking free after 3pm each day. Given that there is always plenty of space for parking in Pier Road multi-storey he is suggesting that some of the commuter parking in the Esplanade car park is replaced with shopper parking, and that the entire car park at Ann Court is given over to short-stay shopper parking on Saturdays. The trial of a simpler way of paying for parking in Sand Street car park is overdue, and I would like to see a change in the way parking fines are handed out, having too often been on the receiving end of letters, emails, phone calls and tearful explanations of how a simple error with a paycard has put a person off ever trying to park in town again. And what's happened to the amendment that I made to the Island Plan whereby the Harbours dept are supposed to be converting some of the rented parking spaces on the Albert Pier to shopper parking? It’s high time everyone involved in the important process of getting shoppers into town, including several States departments, the Parish, and the Chamber of Commerce, work together to make sure that St Helier’s retailers see more shoppers this summer, not fewer.