Big questions for nine St Helier Central hopefuls

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WHAT should the next States Assembly do to tackle the cost of living crisis? Should healthcare in the Island be free? What population would be right for Jersey?

All big questions that nine budding St Helier Central politicians had to field at a Springfield hustings earlier this week, with less than two weeks to go until the 2022 general election.

Reform Jersey are looking for a clean sweep of the five seats available in the newly formed town district, with three of their candidates Deputies and no strangers to the States Chamber. Meanwhile, Jersey Liberal Conservatives and the Alliance Party have fielded one candidate each, with two independents also standing.

Many candidates argued that more green and amenity space was needed in the densely populated part of town, while issues of air pollution on local roads and an Island ‘brain drain’ were also raised.

There were several empty chairs in the room compared to some of the packed hustings so far, but a handful of hardy parishioners showed up on Thursday night along with one very well-behaved dog. Special kudos also went to outgoing Constable Richard Buchanan, who stepped in at the last minute (with half hour’s notice, to be exact) to chair the hustings.

As Islanders struggle with rising inflation, one parishioner used their question to highlight costs going up – saying he was aware of several families who had left the Island because they could not afford to live here. He asked candidates whether they were going to address this and if so, how?

JLC candidate Julie Wallman said these departing Islanders were ‘what makes the Island our island’, raising concerns that talent was being lost in the exodus. The film producer said: ‘I will fight for that talent, and make sure it stays on-Island’.

Affordable housing was key for town Deputy Carina Alves. The Reform Jersey member said housing contributed ‘significantly’ to people’s expenditure, ‘families that are often working multiple jobs just to live’.

Fellow Reform member St Helier Deputy Rob Ward called for the removal of GST from food, which drew approval from the audience and a ‘hear, hear’. Deputy Ward said the tax ‘disproportionately’ affected lower and middle-income earners.

Reform Jersey chair Lyndsay Feltham said one of the party’s pledges was to make the tax system fairer. On the rising cost of housing and food, she said: ‘Successive governments – despite the writing being on the wall – have not done anything about it.’

Deputy Geoff Southern, who has 21 years’ experience in the Chamber representing St Helier, said a ‘good idea’ for tackling the cost-of-living crisis would be a return to means-tested rents. Deputy Southern said he remembered when rents were capped at 30% of income, ‘and that was seen as reasonable by just about everybody’.

Businesswoman Catherine Curtis echoed Reform party colleague Deputy Ward in calling for the removal of GST: ‘Food should not be taxed.’

She said they would also raise the minimum wage to match the living wage, a party pledge, and make the tax regime fairer, adding that there was rising use of food banks due to items being so expensive.

Business consultant Neil Kilbey, who is standing as an independent, said there was ‘nothing we can do about the cost of petrol going up’, labelling it a ‘global issue’. He said it was key to make use of existing stock to help stem rising housing costs. ‘Houses are there. Let’s get them back on the market,’ he said.

Jersey Alliance candidate and nightclub owner Chris Tanguy said: ‘I think if we had the Governor of the Bank of England here he would not be able to give a straight answer.’

He said there was a ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine.

Independent John Baker, who is founder and chairman of the Jersey Action Group, called GST a ‘regressive tax’ which should be removed. Instead, he suggested taxing luxury goods, such as ‘expensive cars’.

On the topic of struggling Islanders, a 24-year-old parishioner also raised concerns about buy-to-let properties and the impact of foreign investors buying up properties in the Island, and what impact this had on younger potential first-time buyers like himself. This prompted Reform candidates to highlight their ‘housing crisis action plan’, which would require 100% of homes built on publicly owned land to be affordable housing – instead of being sold to investors.

Deputy Alves said getting rid of ‘entitled’ and ‘non-entitled’ accommodation, which had been used to control population, would ‘also help open up the property market and supply’, with Mr Tanguy saying it was not often he agreed with Reform but did so on this. He also said Alliance would create a first-time-buyer scheme.

Ms Wallman said the young Islander was ‘exactly the people JLC and Progress want to help’, arguing for equity schemes similar to those in the UK. Mr Baker argued against the Jersey Development Company building luxury houses, while Mr Kilbey also criticised the JDC and called for more brownfield development.

One parishioner asked what the candidates would like Jersey’s population to be in 50 years’ time, and what they would do in this term of office to achieve that.

Many candidates were reluctant to put a number on the thorny issue, although Ms Curtis said she could remember when the Island’s population was 60,000 and it had seemed ‘very nice’, with ‘a lot less traffic’, while Mr Baker said a population of between 100 and 120,000 was ‘all the Island can manage’. Recent census figures showed Jersey’s population had risen by 5,000 over the last ten years to 103,267 people.

Mr Tanguy also harked back to the late 1970s, when he said the figure was 67,000. Commenting on growth of 1,000 a year, he said: ‘How we ever got to that point, I do not know.’

Candidates were in broad agreement that a lack of population control in recent years had led to this precipice and something needed to change, although others warned that a falling population and increasing dependency ratio could be as big a risk in the years to come.

When asked whether healthcare should be free in the Island by a parishioner who said he had spent over £100 on GP fees recently, Reform Jersey were in unison: Party members pointed to their voting records and push for reduced and free GP fees as examples of their dedication to this. ‘Yes, it is the intention of Reform Jersey to move towards having a free healthcare service, something I consider essential,’ said Deputy Southern, with the sentiment echoed by party members in their replies. Ms Wallman said her political coalition would invest in making healthcare access affordable, and referenced her own experience of being an unpaid carer having to pay GP costs that were ‘not fair’. Mr Baker said he would prefer a system where costs were covered by the government ‘to some extent’.

‘We cannot have completely free healthcare,’ he said, claiming GPs would be ‘totally overwhelmed’.

‘I think the simple answer is by the time we have piled £1 billion into the new hospital, there won’t be any money left for free healthcare,’ said Mr Tanguy, who admitted other Alliance members were ‘better equipped’ to answer the question.

‘There is no such thing as free healthcare,’ said Mr Kilbey.

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