Monday, 22 December 2014

The 'New Deal' for St Helier

Last Wednesday I attended my first ever Parish Assembly election for the St Helier Roads Committee.

I had never been to a Roads Committee election before (last time round I was at university when it was going on) so I had no idea what to expect in terms of the process of the nominations and election.

For those that don't know, the Roads Committee is the closest thing we have to a "local council" in Jersey. It's a committee of elected members who serve in an honorary capacity (they don't get paid) for the Parish to consider things like licensing, al fresco applications, maintaining the roads and commenting on planning applications.

I was there to support my friend Malcolm Motie in his candidacy. He was not elected, but came within just a few votes.

Given how important Parish administration is (especially in St Helier), I found the whole process of this election to be completely inadequate and it has left me feeling that more than ever there needs to be reform.

In the week leading up to the election I had thought that perhaps some members of Reform Jersey or future prospective candidates for the States might want to consider standing to get some experience.

In looking for information about what being on the Roads Committee involves and how the nomination process works, I was able to find virtually no information about it at all. There was not a single document that described the nomination process, who is eligible to stand, what it involves doing, how much time it takes up etc. I also saw no media coverage at all to advertise this election.

In a Parish with around 20,000 voters, the number of voters in this election was 69. That's a turn out of 0.3%.

Now, this wouldn't necessarily be that much of a problem, but we have to understand that over the next year or two, things are going to change drastically for St Helier.

Shortly before the general election, Senator Philip Ozouf sent a letter to St Helier voters talking about a 'New Deal' for St Helier. Senator Ian Gorst also spoke of this 'New Deal' in his statement for election as Chief Minister.

The idea of this 'New Deal' is one that is built on the premise that St Helier currently gets a raw deal. The Parish is providing services that all Islanders benefit from, yet States buildings are exempt from paying Parish Rates, leaving it up to Parishioners and locally based businesses to foot the bill. This leaves St Helier short of £800,000 a year.

The aim of the 'New Deal' will be to make sure the Parish gets the extra funding it deserves, as well as actually giving more power to the Town Hall over planning, regeneration and amenities. This decentralisation would mean that services can be delivered at a level that is closer to the people and therefore (theoretically at least) more accountable and in touch so it can be better tailored to the desires of the local community.

I am personally very excited about this and am looking forward to doing what I (and Reform Jersey) can do to play a constructive role with the Council of Ministers and Parish of St Helier to end up with a settlement that that works for all parties.

However, having witnessed the Roads Committee election, I have become convinced that actually a simple transfer of powers and finance is not the only change we need to see. I think we need a radical solution that includes an overhaul of local Parish democracy in St Helier.

If the Parish is to get more powers and deal with greater amounts of money, those who serve in 'elected' positions must be able to be held to account by the public. This situation now where you can get elected onto the Roads Committee by simply turning up with a handful of mates to vote without any of the ordinary Parishioners even having the vaguest clue that the election is going on has got to be abolished.

If we are serious about local government working for the people, then the democratic system that governs it must be modernised.

I would propose that the Roads Committee and positions of Procureur du Bien Publique actually be abolished and replaced with a 'Parish Council'.

That council would be made up of elected Conseillers (got to keep it French!) which, depending on the number we decided to have, could either be elected by the whole Parish or in Parish wards (based on the Vingtaines). Those elections should be conducted in the same way our general elections are, with a set date on which a poll is held, several weeks after nominations are taken, instead of the ridiculous situation now where nominations are made and then the vote happens right away.

If those elections are taken seriously, we will get higher calibre people in those positions, who will have had to make an effort to become known by the community and be able to demonstrate to them what they are actually aiming to achieve if elected, and the public can either give them a mandate or show their disagreement with their policies by voting for someone else.

Those elected as Conseillers (who would serve in an honorary capacity) would then be able to form sub-committees, depending on what services the Parish would now be providing. The work currently done by the procureurs could be done by a Finance Committee, there could be a committee for the management of the parks, for the management of the retirement homes or nurseries or whatever.

On much of this we could take example from Douglas in the Isle of Man which appears to have a much wider remit than our Parish administration currently does and is able to be a voice for their capital in a way that currently St Helier lacks.

Any way, that's just my idea at the moment and I'm open to any discussions on it as a concept. It's a bold change I'm suggesting, and there will be many who will, as per usual in Jersey, sit back and claim everything is fine as it is and nothing needs to change. Those people need to wake up. Things aren't fine. My politics is about changing things to make them work better for the people.

But, in the meantime, Christmas beckons!

Merry Christmas and happy New Year to all my readers and supporters. What a year it has been! Here's to 2015 - the year everything starts to get better! (we can hope anyway...)