Difficult questions in St Mary for the Constable candidates

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TWO St Mary Constable candidates tackled Islandwide issues and parochial matters in one of the last hustings to be held ahead of next week’s general election.

Assisted dying was perhaps the toughest question faced by Deputy David Johnson and former journalist Mike Fennell at a well-attended St Mary’s Parish Hall, but there were no easy queries and plenty of parishioners eager to hold their potential future father of the parish to account.

Alongside facing questions, each candidate proposed parish initiatives, with Mr Fennell arguing for a village green and community allotment, while Deputy Johnson said a youth committee should be set up to encourage young Islanders to reconnect with local politics.

The candidates also bemoaned what they saw as the erosion of parish identity and lack of representation in redrawn electoral constituencies, which have seen St Mary grouped with neighbours St Peter and St Ouen in one new district in the Deputy election.

High turnover of parish officials, including Procureurs du Bien Public, was a problem the candidates hoped they could solve if elected, while both were unsurprisingly cagey when asked by a parishioner if he would see his parish rates going up during their tenure.

St Mary’s was originally the most contested Constable’s seat in the Island, with three candidates, but Mark Baker pulled out of the race last week due to ‘family reasons’. Sitting Constable John Le Bailly is not seeking re-election.

The parish is one of only four where there is a choice of candidates, although those in the eight other parishes do have the option for the first time to vote for ‘none of the above’.

With temperatures remaining high outside, there were no big clashes, but differences of opinions and some consensus inside the hall on a muggy Thursday evening.

– Assisted dying

Both candidates drew on deeply personal experiences of losing close relatives and friends when answering a question on where they stood on a final vote on assisted dying, which was approved in principle by the States in November last year after a two-day debate.

Watching a loved one die was a ‘terrible state of affairs’, said Mr Fennell.

‘I really am on the side of helping people through this situation … clearly there have to be all sorts of checks and balances,’ he said, adding that in principle he was in favour of ‘helping people in that situation’.

Deputy Johnson, who voted to support the States proposition in principle, said he had been able to do so only after it was amended to include an extra process regarding safeguards.

He said a friend he had lost had been very much in favour.

‘There is a way to go yet,’ added Deputy Johnson, who said the proposal would return to the States in the next term.

– Young Islanders

Asked how they would go about engaging younger parishioners, Deputy Johnson referenced the Youth Parliament in the States.

‘If it was supported, I would very much support and welcome – not necessarily a Youth Assembly – but a youth group to debate with us.’

‘They need to be involved at all levels,’ he added.

There was also scope for many more committees, he said, and ‘youth should be one of them’.

But Mr Fennell, who heads the team that runs the Youth and Community Centre, said: ‘I think young people are well served in St Mary.

‘I do not think they want to sit on committees. I think they want to be themselves.’

He said the current youth organisations ‘really worked’, and were ‘getting better and better’.

– Getting on the housing ladder

Deputy Johnson said:

– A panel the Assembly created to identify sites needed to be ‘reconsidered’ to weigh up more potential areas.

– More should be done to build on States-owned land which had been ‘sitting idle for ages’.

– High net-worth individuals were welcome in Jersey, but he took ‘exception’ with them buying and developing new houses, which took resources away which could be ‘better used elsewhere’.

Mr Fennell said:-

– The Affordable-Housing Gateway should be widened.

– There needed to be shared-equity schemes and help with deposits.

– There were not many brownfield sites in St Mary, so any development might ‘at the end of the day be looking at fields’, but it was a balance between maintaining the parish’s rural charm and providing affordable homes for parishioners.

On whether they would go with their own convictions in the States or the majority of parishioners’ views on issues, Mr Fennell said: ‘I acutely believe – as I think I have made quite clear – that I am going to be in the States Assembly to represent the views of the parishioners.’

But he added that the ‘big problem’ was being able to gauge those views.

‘Parish assemblies clearly do not work very well. It is the same 30 people turning up all the time,’ he said. ‘There has to be a better way of gauging public opinion.’

He suggested asking parishioners to submit their email addresses, which he said would enable them to disseminate information ‘far more quickly and for more effectively than we do now’.

Deputy Johnson had earlier said parish assemblies needed to be extended to some ‘general forum for discussion’, were not as well attended as they used to be and featured ‘largely the same faces’.

The Assembly representative said most communications he received from parishioners were the night before a sitting.

‘If it is a major subject, I would hope there has been debate in the parish about it,’ said Deputy Johnson, ‘so I can gauge it.’

‘I would like to think by and large, I would be in harmony with the parishioners,’ he added.

– Introductions

Deputy Johnson drew attention to his manifesto at the outset of the hustings, advocating himself as a steady hand with plenty of political experience, having served as a Deputy of the parish since 2014 and ‘enjoyed’ his seven-plus year term. He said it had been a ‘privilege’ to represent St Mary in the States Assembly.

‘I was not persuaded but invited to consider standing as Constable in this election,’ the former solicitor said, who after ‘due consideration’ decided it was the ‘best way to represent the parish in the future’.

Deputy Johnson has been a member of several Scrutiny panels, including chairing ​the Economic and International Affairs Scrutiny Panel, but said he expected the role of Constable ‘might even be more demanding’, with its administrative role and requirement for co-operation with all parish affairs.

He acknowledged that there would be pressure from some quarters in the next Assembly over the role of the Constable in the States, following widespread reforms which removed the role of Senator ahead of this election and remapped voting districts to improve voter equity, arguing that Constables needed to play a ‘fuller part’ in States matters next term.

Mr Fennell stressed that instead of reiterating his manifesto, he wanted to draw the audience’s attention to a survey he had laid on each seat before the hustings got under way, which he said had been informed by issues that had come up while door-knocking.

‘A variety of issues have come up, and while some may seem minor, they all have the potential to affect the quality of life in our parish,’ he said.

Among the initiatives, he asked parishioner’s opinions on having an allotment in St Mary, adopting more green lanes, imposing heavier fines for speeding motorists, calling for youth courts to impose more severe penalties, extending the parish footpath network and setting up a tea room or community café in St Mary.

Mr Fennell praised the community café in St Martin and raised the possibility of a similar one in his parish. He raised concerns that green-fingered parishioners had to travel – some times to the other side of the Island – to find their nearest allotment, which he said had numerous benefits such as encouraging physical activity, getting outside, helping mental wellbeing and growing cheap and healthy vegetables.

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