Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Capital confidence

Without wishing to gloss over the serious challenges that are facing town's retailers and the many other firms that do business in our town, it's important that we recognise the continued resilience of St Helier's retail offer in difficult economic conditions. Recently I was shown around the former CT Maine jewellery shop that is being fitted out by Sandpiper as a clothing store; not only was I impressed by the skills of the craftsmen and women who were involved in an extensive renovation of this historic town centre shop to an ambitious deadline, but I was inspired by the confidence that Nick Steel, from Sandpiper, has in the future of retail in St Helier.

The work being carried out on CT Maine will make it rival the splendidly restored National Trust property just a stone's throw away at 16 New Street; it's as much a museum as a clothes shop, and I look forward to spending time and even some money there this Christmas.

The Parish Roads Committee were persuaded to relax the 'scaffolding embargo' sufficiently to allow essential work on the roof of CT Maine's (a name which it is likely to stick in the public mind for many years to come!), and Sandpiper responded by putting up an attractive hoarding during the work; apparently this has attracted neither graffiti nor fly posting, which goes to show that the public appreciate such attention to keeping the public realm attractive.

At the same time, it's depressing to note that a sculpture on the Esplanade has been vandalised again; a new focus on incorporating public art in developments was one of the key acheivements of the former Environent Minister, Freddie Cohen. I hope that the perpetrators are brought to justice and that we send out a strong message to such people that the majority of us want St Helier to be a clean, safe, attractive and vibrant capital of our island.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why I signed Senator-elect Bailhache's nomination paper for Chief Minister

Seems a few eyebrows have been raised over this so I will explain for the curious. Firstly, it seems to me that the person who tops the poll in the Islandwide election and who decides to stand for the top job on the strength of that is worthy of consideration. True, Deputy Ian Gorst, who came second, announced during the campaign that he would stand as Chief Minister whereas Philip Bailhache didn't, but the latter didn't, as I recall, rule it in or out.

Secondly, Senator-elect Bailhache took the trouble on two occasions after the election to discuss with me what I felt the key issues facing St Helier are, whereas I didn't hear from Senator-elect Gorst.

Thirdly, Senator-elect Bailhache ran for office with a specific objective of sorting out the States Assembly, and it should be clear to anyone who listens in to the States, or watches from the visitors' gallery, or reads it on Hansard, and who has heard some of my (now infrequent) interventions, that I am really fed up with the amount of time we waste in there; we are testing the system to destruction and I am fully signed up to reforming the States so that those of us with other things to do as elected members, and in life, can get on with doing them.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Salle polyvalente, anyone?

For the senatorial hustings meeting last month the Parish hired a meeting room in a town hotel, due to the fact that the Assembly Room at the Town Hall only holds 250 people, seated, with 50 permitted to stand, making a total of 300 out of a population of more than 100 times that number. Nor was there sufficient space on the dais for the 13 candidates plus chairman, nor sufficient microphones - nor sufficient air! If you have attended a packed public meeting at the Town Hall you will know how stuffy it gets. When the building was acquired in the 19th century, as fire station, police station as well as parish offices, meeting space wasn't a problem as the only people entitled to vote in parish meetings were 'principals', those paying over a certain amount in rates; before that, parish meetings had taken place in town hotels (Plus ca change ...) while elections involved a show of hands in the Town Church prior to the introduction of the secret ballot.

Of course we will never be able to find a suitable space in which to accommodate the thousands of parishioners who could turn up to Parish Assembly, and critics of this proposal will point out that most of our assemblies are only supported by a handful of parishioners. It is also possible for us to make use of referendums on important parish issues in future. Even so, I think it is time that St Helier started looking for a meeting room with a more realistic capacity than the Assembly Room. Two of our twin towns have such facilities, the Kursaal in Bad Wurzach and La Salle Polyvalente in Avranches: both are modern, large enough to accommodate up to 1,000 people, and they also are in much demand for concerts, conferences, presentations, dinners and the like.

I'm not for a minute suggesting that the Assembly Room has had its day. We are making increasing use of our elegant room, with lots of commercial hirings as well as numerous community events, concerts, dances, dinners and so on, with potential to to put it on the town's cultural tourism trail so that more people can enjoy the parish's collection of paintings. But when it comes to holding a large gathering of parishioners, there is only really Fort Regent whose future is still uncertain, and which isn't under the Parish of St Helier's control in any case.

Any ideas?

The Millennium Town Park - a personal view

One of the four questions put to the candidates in the election for Senator at the final hustings last month was why the new park had been built without the underground parking that was part of the original petition. As chair of the meeting I obviously couldn't say anything but listened as most of the candidates deplored the fact that the project hadn't tackled the desperate need for more parking in our parish. Stuart Syvret was the only candidate who seemed to fully appreciate the difficulties involved in digging out the site to a much greater depth as would have been necessary if underground parking had been included - and the huge increase in the cost of the project.

It was difficult enough to persuade the States to part with the 10 million pounds the park project cost - thanks to Deputy Southern's amendment to the 2011 Business Plan and the intervention of Senator Alan Maclean's ring binder; it was equally difficult to stop the States from building appartments around the edge of the park site - St Helier elected representatives lost that vote in the States, but the former Planning Minister, Freddie Cohen, withdrew the plans that would have made our new park even smaller than it is. How much more difficult it would have been to get the States in the current economic climate to stump up the extra tens of millions that an underground car park would have cost.

Yes, there were some private sector schemes floated during the last dozen years, and countless proposals for putting the car parking elsewhere - a multi-storey on Ann Court site, anyone? - but States Members in 2011 were faced with the prospect of another decade of argument about underground parking on the site, and no realistic hope of implementing the public's preferred project to celebrate the new millennium - unless they went ahead and voted the funding for a surface park. And that was the decision that was made, albeit by the narrowest of margins.

Not that we should give up on the search for more public parking in the northern part of St Helier; we shouldn't. The company that owns the site occupied by the Odeon and the various surface car parks and warehouses adjacent to the new park is keen to develop a mixed-use scheme and have told the St Helier Roads Committee on a number of occasions that it will include as much public parking as the transport planners will allow. There are also various publicly owned car parks in the area, including parish car parks at Nelson Street and Byron Lane, and States' owned sites in and around Springfield, that could provide much more parking than they do. To the east of town, there is ample space to extend Green Street car park, so long as the States aren't determined to build the new police station there, while extra levels of parking at Snow Hill have been talked about for years.

As for the new park, it is a dream come true for thousands of Islanders. Someone who lives in an adjacent street told me, with tears in her eyes, how she came out of her front door one morning to see a large tree in autumn leaf had appeared at the end of her road. Even though the Millennium Park Support Group is disappointed with the removal from the scheme of some of the features that were promised, and the inclusion of unwished for elements, practically everyone is agreed on one thing: the Millennium Town Park is an enormous improvement on what was there before. See you there, for a game of petanque, perhaps, or a jog a few times round the perimeter, or a picnic on the grass.

Friday, February 11, 2011

No Pooh sticks in the Millennium Town Park

I have given my overall support for the current planning application in respect of the Millennium Town Park especially since the revised North of Town Masterplan has deleted most of the planned buildings from the site.

I say, most of, because I think that given the relatively small size of the park and the large number of expected users, it is in my opinion wrong to waste any of its area with unnecessary buildings. Indeed, the original petition that led, after many years, to the creation of the Millennium Town Park, proscribed any building on the site. There is actually no need for the States to provide any more than an area for picnic tables on the site, given that there is an existing cafe at the junction of Gas Place and Oxford Road, another one across Bath Street and a third under development on the junction of Tunnel Street with Bath Street. The provision of public toilets can be justified, although these could have been provided by using the contours of the site so as not to lose any valuable space. As it stands, the toilet provision in the proposed cafe is woefully inadequate - far better to have achieved a higher number of public toilets at various locations around the park, introduced at semi-basement level with planting or other park features on top. The applicant is providing, at considerable expense to the public purse, a cafe facility which will take trade away from existing cafes. I would refer you to the park in front of Cardiff's art gallery, essentially a lawned space with many trees, fountains, public art and some planting; the cafe provision there is amply provided by a wooden kiosk. I repeat: not only is the proposed cafe building against the spirit of the agreement to create a park without buildings; it is a waste of valuable park space, and it is, in my view, an entirely unnecessary blot on this particular landscape.

An even stronger argument can be made against the proposed maintenance shed on the Tunnell Street side of the park. I have been provided with detailed arguments as to why TTS believes it is essential to take up yet more space from an area that has been described by the park designer as 'very tiny', but there is no doubt that the new park could be maintained without this extra building. Of course this might entail changes in working practices, but there is no doubt that it could be done. It is, after all, not certain that TTS will be able to afford to maintain the park in the face of spending cuts, and I would give, by way of example, the case of La Collette Gardens which the then Public Services Committee decided they could no longer afford to maintain as a formal park. The Parish of St Helier maintains its town parks without the necessity of sheds, and would not require a shed were the Parish to be requested to maintain the Millennium Town Park at some future date. The need to provide a pump housing for the water feature does not justify the presence of the maintenance shed.

I would recommend that the cafe and maintenance shed elements of the application are not approved and TTS is requested to revise its scheme to provide better public toilet facilities. Alternatively, the applicant could simply delete both structures from the plans and we could rely on the surrounding buildings to provide all the facilities involved. I have already drawn the attention of the parties involved in the scheme to the potential complementary uses of the Le Seelleur building adjacent to the park. Given that it is intended to provide, at the very least, traffic calming and safe crossing points along the length of Gas Place, given that this building is in States' ownership and given that it requires urgent refurbishment anyway, it would be a far better use of the funds set aside for the cafe and toilet block for these to be applied to the Le Seelleur building. Public toilets could be provided here as well as the gardeners mess room et cetera, which it is proposed to provide in the second building on the park.

If any further work is to be done by the park designers in respect of the above matters, it would be useful for the provision of water in the park to be reviewed. I did mention during the consultation the presence of former streams through the site and believe that it would have been a major enhancement of the park to have had a watercourse flowing through it, running perhaps from the water play area at the eastern end of the park down to Bath Street. I believe that the 'Health & Safety' concerns of a shallow stream could be overcome and that there are few activities children enjoy so much as playing 'Pooh sticks'.