Tuesday 25 September 2012

Moving the goal posts-- Literally

Those who have been following my Blogs relating to the application to build a new St Martin’s School on its playing field rather than refurbish/redevelop on its existing site will no doubt be interested in an update.

There appears to be a presumption that building on the playing field is a done deal. Fortunately the Planning Law requires all planning applications to be published and for the public to comment on the application. As mentioned in a previous Blog there were 60 Comments submitted with only two in favour but one of those was submitted via a false name and address.

I have heard, but nothing is confirmed, that the Planning Minister will be considering the application in public next month. Once a date is known I will publish the details via another Blog.

Regular readers will know that for many years the playing field has had two football pitches marked out between the cricket pitch. One pitch is for the Parish football team and the other for the school which because of FA Rules must be a lot smaller than the adult pitch.

Instead of allowing both pitches to be used until the planning decision is known, the Parish football club was given the order of the boot and told to find a pitch elsewhere. The feasibility study carried out in 2009 was quite specific in that it stated that if it was decided to build on the playing field, assistance had to be given to the Parish Club to find an alternative pitch.

One would have assumed that those tasked with that responsibility would have ensured that the Parish team at least played in St Martin, but no, that is not the case. What has been arranged is a temporary ground share in a neighbouring parish which does not have any training facilities.

To overcome the problem the club has been allowed to train on the playing field which has floodlighting. One could say that half a point is better than no points at all, but that is poor compensation for the loss of its home pitch.

A couple of week ends ago whilst on my usual weekend bike ride I happened to pass the playing field and almost fell off when I saw that the adult pitch had been marked out. I thought that a bout of sanity had broken out at the Education Department and that the pitch was being marked so that the Parish club could use the pitch whilst waiting for the planning decision. However when I went on to the pitch I realised that it had been marked out for a junior pitch which is much smaller than the adult pitch.

I did notice that the holes had not been dug to insert the junior sized goal posts. I therefore immediately emailed the Education Minister who also happens to be the Sports Minister and copied the email to his two assistant Ministers and to the Education Chief Officer. I pointed out what I had seen and said that if it had been decided to allow the school to play on the field until the planning decision was known then the parish football team should be allowed to continue using their pitch.

Very importantly I said that as the holes had not been dug to insert the goal posts, whoever was responsible for digging them should be told not do so, but told to mark out both pitches and insert the goal posts in the holes which are already in place.

Unfortunately my email was ignored, the holes have been dug and the goal posts erected. There is now the ludicrous situation where the adults can use the junior pitch to train on but cannot play matches on it as it is too small.

I did ask the Minister if he would tell me who was responsible for deciding to literally move the goal posts as the decision was childish and vindictive. I know that those at the Education Department are not happy that their plans may have been thwarted but they should not have counted their chickens until they are hatched. Neither should they be taking their displeasure out on the Parish Football Club who is not responsible for the planning process.

No doubt those responsible for moving the goal posts and those who have let it happen will be glowing with satisfaction at what they have achieved. However in my book they have acted dishonourably and are not fit to fill the positions they occupy.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Electoral Commission---Old Chestnuts revisited

The closing date for submissions to the Electoral Commission was 31st August and I gather that some 300 submissions were received. The last round of public hearings was held yesterday 10th September where I was one of 7 people who gave evidence. Apart from the Chairman the other 5 Commission members were present when I gave my evidence. There were about half a dozen members of the public in attendance but the hearing could not excite any members of the media to attend.

As one will see from my submission below I believe that whilst the decision relating to change rests in the hands of States Members, any meaningful change will be difficult to achieve. The Commission consists of 3 States Members and even though I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the 3 non States Members there will always be the perception that the Panel is so weighted in favour of retaining the status quo that any change is unlikely.

One point I thought worth raising was the fact that the Commission has an even number of Members and what arrangement is in hand should there be a three way split when votes are taken. Does the Chairman have a casting vote? It was evident that the issue had not been addressed so it will be interesting to see what will happen should the issue arise.

Unfortunately the Commission’s Terms of Reference are very narrow and did not include a question such as: is the current system working, if not why not and what is going to be done about it? Having had 18 years experience it is evident that the States is not functioning in an efficient manner, Ministerial government has created a division in the House.

With the benefit of hindsight and possibly because the States cherry picked the recommendations, the Scrutiny system as envisaged by the Clothier Panel has not worked and will not work because it was designed to be solely manned by non Executive members who are expected to be a “critical friend.” As such it is neither fish nor fowl. The UK’s equivalent of scrutiny is the select committee which comprises of members from all Parties.

Scrutiny has now been in operation for 6 years, it has achieved very little, Panels have rarely lodged propositions or amendment and when they have, they have seldom been successful. As an example when the Home Affairs Panel lodged a proposition to establish a Prison Visitors' Panel because the current system was deemed not to be Human Right compliant, not only did it encounter opposition from the Executive but also from fellow scrutiny members. It is not surprising that enterprising States Members no longer want to waste their time on Scrutiny. However by so doing they become marginalised and deemed to be left wingers. Addressing a divided House should be seen as a priority and to be far more important than revisiting old chestnuts.

However as the old adage goes “we are where we are” and my submission is based on experience and along with other like minded members of the public should not be deemed to be a member of the “vociferous minority” because I have a different view from the author the JEP’s editorial of 3rd September.

As can be seen in my submission apart from now favouring a district system rather than a Parish based system, I have been consistent with my support for the Clothier recommendations. It is hoped that my submission may go some way in persuading the Electoral Commission that the time for change has arrived.

Bob Hill submission
I was the Deputy of St Martin’s from November 1993 to November 2011. I have been an active supporter for change in our Machinery of Government and made a written submission to the Clothier Panel and appeared before it in 1999.

When the debate was held to establish Ministerial Government I regretfully voted in favour. I say regretfully because when I voted I had anticipated that my fellow States Members would have been honourable and would have taken positive steps to lodge and support the remaining Clothier recommendations; however vested interests prevented this from happening.

One reason/excuse given for not proceeding with the remaining recommendations was that it would be best to wait and see how Ministerial Government worked. However I believe the reason was because Clothier was recommending that the role of the Connetables and Senators should end.

In 2004 as no action had been taken to address the remaining Clothier recommendations, I believe I was the first Member to lodge a proposition, P115/2004 asking that the States,

(a) Agree that –

(i) the rôle of Senator in its present form shall be abolished from December 2005;

(ii) the 12 Parish Connétables shall cease to be members of the States by virtue of their office from December 2005;

(iii) the number of members shall be reduced from 53 to 42 with effect from December 2005;

(iv) all members of the States shall be known by the same title, namely ‘Senator’, with effect from December 2005;

(v) the 42 Senators shall, from December 2005, be elected in the following constituencies –

(A) S t. Helier – 12 Senators (4 for each of the present electoral districts);

(B) S t. Saviour – 6 Senators (2 for each of the current electoral districts);

(C) S t. Brelade – 4 Senators;

(D) S t. Clement – 4 Senators;

(E) All other Parishes – 2 Senators each;

(vi) all members of the States and the 12 Parish Connétables shall be elected on a single
General Election Day;

(vii) the term of office for members of the States and Parish Connétables shall be 4 years with exception of the first term, which shall run until May 2009;

(viii) the first general election shall be in November 2005 but thereafter it will be held during the third week in May.

(b) to charge the Privileges and Procedures Committee to bring forward for approval the necessary legislation to give effect to the proposals.

After lodging my proposition I held public meetings in St Lawrence and St Martin but just prior to debating my proposition the Special Committee on the Composition and Election of the States Assembly lodged its proposition P151/2004 with a set of proposals which ran on similar lines to mine, as such I had to withdraw my proposition and lodge amendments to P151/2004. Other Members lodged further amendments which along with the Special Committee’s proposals were subsequently rejected.

Since 2004 a number of similar propositions, including some of mine, have been lodged, but with little success. My last proposition related to a request that a referendum be conducted to determine whether the role of Senator should continue, but was rejected following opposition from the Senators. A year or so later and after the States had agreed to reduce the number of Senators, a now former Senator lodged a similar proposition. As one can see vested interests always have a part to play and whilst the decision relating to change rests in the hands of States Members, any meaningful change will be difficult to achieve.

I have always been of opinion that States Membership should be reduced and with one class of Member. I have no objection to Connetables seeking election to the States but they should do so by standing side by side with other candidates so the electorate has the opportunity of deciding whether they want their Connetable to fulfil a dual function.

When the States was first established, the principle of an elected Chamber was in its infancy. When Deputies were introduced in 1856 they became the only elected Members of the States. The Jurats, Rectors and the Connetables all had dual roles. Connetables are elected to run their Parish; as such attention to Parish Affairs takes precedence. They are subject to a different law from the Senators and Deputies whose first duty is to the States. I believe that States membership should be equal which at present it is not. Connetables should be elected to the States on ability not sentiment or tradition.

The days when it was perceived that Connetables knew all their parishioners have long gone. Parish meetings or Assembles are often poorly attended with very few Connetables ever calling parish meetings seeking parishioner’s views on Island matters and very few ever lodge questions or Propositions. During my 18 years, I served with 3 Connetables, to the best of my knowledge I don’t think any one them ever lodged a question and apart from the Island Plan debate last year when the Connetable lodged a proposition relating to the parish rectory, I am struggling to recall any other propositions being lodged in their name.

The Connetables are a political grouping which meets regularly with a member attending Council of Minister’s meetings. Even if it is argued that Connetables are independent of each other and the Council of Ministers, there is a perception that they are not and their voting pattern supports this view. If Connetables are perceived to be so important to the States, then they have no fear of not being elected should they have to stand along side other candidates seeking election to the States.

I am not suggesting that Connetables are not hard working or committed but they are not paid by their parish but by Island taxpayers who are entitled to expect all of its States Members to be fully committed to the States and not with half an eye on their parish.

In 2004 I was of the view that it might be premature to suggest that Members should have initials such as MSJ after their name I therefore proposed that if Members were to have title it should be Senator however I was quite relaxed and would have supported a more appropriate title had one been proposed. If it is decided to have a single class of member consideration will have to be given as to what to call them. It could be said with some justification that as Guernsey appears to cope with the title of Deputy that might also be appropriate for Jersey.

In 2004 I was of the view that membership should be reduced to 42 and along Parish lines, however given the success in Guernsey I am now of the view that perhaps dividing the Island into districts would lead to the introduction of more broad minded members who were not susceptible to falling foul of narrow minded electors who see any questioning of the role of the Bailiff, the Connetable and Honorary system, supporting gay marriages or living on the wrong side of the brook as a hanging offence. It would allow for greater representation with the electorate having 8 representatives. It would also mean that no States Member would be elected unopposed. If it was decided to go via a district setup with possibly 5 districts, membership could be reduced to 40.

I will add that during one of the many Machinery of Government debates, I did lodge a proposition seeking approval for the district format, but it was rejected.

There has been much discussion relating to the merits of the Island mandate, like the role of the Connetable and even the Parish Deputy, I believe the Senators days are numbered. It has been suggested that Senators were introduced because they were intended to be senior members who due to longevity and perceived wisdom would fill the role of Committee Presidents. Again life has changed and although some Senators may be under the illusion of being more important they only have one vote and being a Senator is no guarantee to high office. The one positive note in their favour is that it is rare that any are elected unopposed.

I have always been of the view that elections should be held on one day in spring and members serving a four year term which at long last has been achieved.

In summary, Jersey should adopt the Guernsey district system with a Chamber consisting of 40 members. There should be no ex officio Members; all should have the same title and all being elected on the same day every four years.

If the Electoral Commission feels that it would be of any value, I would be content to appear before it.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

St Martin's Playing Field--- Thank you

The closing date for submissions to the Planning Department has arrived and I would like to thank the many people who not only attended my public meeting but those who made submissions to the Planning Department and to my Blog.

At the time of publishing this Blog there are 57 submissions published on the Planning Website which for convenience can be located here Planning website readers will note that no public comments were submitted until after the public meeting held on 1st August which was a day after the initial closing date for submissions. At the Public Meeting it was agreed to extend the deadline to 28th August.

It is quite apparent that very few people were aware of the planning application let alone of its implications. It is also apparent that many of the public and also those submitting the application thought it was a done deal. Fortunately the public are now more enlightened and more importantly have taken steps to question the application and ask that those behind the application account for their actions.

Among the many questions that need to be addressed before the application can even be considered is why States Members were not made aware of the Field’s status as a Protected Open Space before it was included on the list of fields safeguarded for educational use in the 2011 Island Plan?

The former Planning and Education Ministers must have been aware of the Field’s protected status so why was that fact withheld? Given that States Members were misled is the decision lawful?

As a result of the public meeting held on 1st August it was agreed that the Feasibility Study on the future of St Martin’s School would be made available to the public.

For reader’s convenience it is can be accessed by opening here; Feasibility Study It should be noted that the study was not subjected to any scrutiny. No mention is made of the people involved in the consultation and I who, at the time was the Parish Deputy, was not consulted nor even made aware that a Study was being conducted let alone informed that one had been completed.

It should also be noted that concerns were expressed about the perceived lack of space. There were a number of options considered but one option not included was to demolish the existing school which at the time was not a listed building. Why was that option omitted?

Anyone who knows the school will be aware that there is considerable frontage to school which is taken up with staff parking and a garden area, that area seems to have been left out of the equation, why?

It is reported that the school is a poor state and a considerable sum of money will be required for annual maintenance. If the school is in such a state what use will it be to the Parish who will become its owners should a new school be built on the field.

Surely one option to be considered is to demolish the existing school and rebuild a modern school with a Victorian façade. It should be noted that the school was “conveniently” added to the Sites of Local interest list well after the Feasibility Study. I submit it was added to list to give weight to building on the field.

If one reads the officer’s report relating to the listing he/she states that the school is one of 8 existing schools build around the same period. Demolition may seem a drastic measure but so too is losing a seven vergee playing field.

What is now evident is thanks to the public’s participation more evidence has come to hand which cannot be ignored. As such it is evident that there will be a delay in the planning process. However the delay should not be apportioned to those who exercised their right to raise concerns but to those who by their acts and omissions were hell bent on building on the playing field and naively believed that consent would be granted without questions being asked.

Although the Planning Minister will be busy sifting through the submissions and seeking answers to the many questions which are now posed, the public should not sit back and wait for his decision.

My public meeting, the submissions and the Feasibility Study have raised a number of issues which are Parish related and it is hoped that those issues will be raised via the Parish Connetable and Deputy.

On an entirely separate note: I have made a submission to the Electoral Commission and will be appearing before it at 1130am at the Town Hall next Monday 10th September. I will publish my submission and a report on my appearance some time next week.