‘We cannot keep treating the environment as a good to exploit and not invest in, and nurture, it’

‘I HAVE the highest of respects for our local environmental groups, the National Trust, the Société Jersiaise, the whole raft of groups,’ said Environment Minister John Young.

‘They are absolutely fantastic groups and I do my very best to work with them and support them. But they appear to have got the impression that I argued against environmental measures and I feel that is very unfair and misleading.’

Deputy Young, who was first elected to the States Assembly in 2011, was responding to criticism levelled at him, and his ministerial colleagues, by environmental campaigners that, despite pledges to protect the Island’s environment, the government had failed to implement any meaningful change.

The recent Government Plan debate saw a number of ‘eco-friendly’ proposals rejected, including an amendment from Senator Kristina Moore calling for tax breaks on energy-efficient and green-energy products such as solar panels, and an attempt by Deputy Rob Ward to provide unlimited bus travel for under-21s for £20 a year.

Deputy Young – who voted against both – explained that the intention behind the proposals was not the issue.

‘The proposals themselves are what we vote on. We weren’t voting on the theory of “do we want to deal with climate change”,’ he said.

‘It was about whether or not the measures were sustainable and whether they would produce the environmental benefits and, if they did, were they the best way of doing it, given the fact that we have not got unlimited resources to do this.’

Deputy Young said that he did not expect to stand for election next year, which means that he has a little over a year in which to leave the department in the best possible place for his ministerial successor.

The former chief officer of the Planning Department said: ‘I have, as minister, less than 14 months to go before the elections and I have made it clear that I won’t be standing again. So I will not be able to see it through – and that’s due to age and not any other reason. I will be 75 and I think it’s right that younger Members take over. So I want to give them a much better situation to take over than the one I took on, with resources to do things, new policies in place to implement and some of the barriers that have got in the way of us giving proper weight to the environment broken down.’

Turning his attention to the Island Plan, Deputy Young said that major changes could be on the horizon – and that he was ‘determined’ to see them through despite the amount of work that would need to take place within a ‘horrendous’ timescale.

‘I am determined that we are going to deal with things like housing and we are going to have to accept some compromise to enable our housing,’ he said. ‘But what we will have are very significant policies in the Island Plan that will allow us to manage and protect the special parts of our environment much better and preserve the character of Jersey as well.

‘That work is ongoing and it is a matter of weeks now before the draft plan will be unveiled in early March. My job then is to see that through – a public consultation, Members’ amendments, sit through a planning inquiry in the autumn and get the plan into the States by February 2022. It’s tough. The timescale is horrendous but I’m determined to try to do it because there are major changes.

‘There will be changes to planning law – for example, a law change to protect trees – that will go with that and strengthen those powers. We are losing far too many trees at the moment. The green-backdrop zone is being badly damaged and we must do more to protect our special coasts and so on.

‘We have a great team on it and we’ve been working really hard and it’s looking positive. There are trade-offs. In other words, you have got greenfield sites but they will be the least damaging. On the other side of the coin, there will be significant improvements such as changes to the coastal national park, increasing the areas that are protected and the boundaries. Not everyone is going to like it but we’ll see.’

When asked how he felt about the Island’s progress towards reducing climate change, the Deputy admitted that, despite a citizen’s assembly to look at environmental issues currently being formed, he was ‘very disappointed that we have not been able to get this show on the road’.

‘We’ve got the money, we’ve got it in the bank but we need to have the policies to go with it,’ he said. ‘The arrangements are in place for the citizens’ assembly to happen, although it’s clear that it will have to be done in a novel, virtual way and we will push for that. I haven’t had an update on where we are with it but certainly that will happen in early spring.

‘Key to that are proposals for environmental taxes, which will be the sort of things where, in my personal view, I would go for a vehicle taxation system and I would exempt electric vehicles. If we have a vehicle charge of, say, £100 a year, you would be talking about £12 to 15 million coming into government per year that could be used to subsidise and support electric vehicles or sustainable transport.

‘I’m hoping we get the energy of the citizens’ assembly and those ideas will come out – the ones that they back – and go to the States.

‘It may be that the States don’t like it because they do not like increasing taxes, even for environmental reasons, but there is no hiding place from that and I will not pull back. The proposals will go forward and, if the States reject them, then at least we’ll have tried.’

However, he pointed out that a major factor in accomplishing significant change this year would be whether the Covid-19 pandemic ebbed into the background as hoped, or whether it would remain a hurdle, demanding politicians’ time and attention.

‘One of my frustrations is that I’ve been waiting two years for changes to planning laws which would provide a lot more safeguards in the planning system and I’ve still not been able to get a draft,’ he said.

‘This is mainly because all of our law-drafting priorities have had to go into Covid and into Brexit. But I’m determined again – we’ve got a year to push for that. It’s those big changes that I’m driving at and it’s why I’ve made it quite plain to the Chief Minister that I’m looking for an exit strategy for Covid. Now that we’ve got the vaccine, we should have a plan to either get rid of this or reduce it to such a level in our community that we have complete control of it. In that case, none of the jobs that I’ve been talking about here would be put at risk.

‘If the whole situation we’ve had, with society not being able to function properly, continues right the way through until late summer, I do worry about how we can get the Island Plan and those things through. I think the worse situation would be if we can’t somehow achieve these things because we haven’t managed Covid. I can’t help looking at Guernsey and see what they’ve been able to achieve. They have had normal life for six months and their system can function so I do ask that, now we have the vaccine, can’t we aim for that?’

Despite the setbacks, Deputy Young reiterated his commitment to bringing about positive change before he comes to the end of what he intends to be his final term as a States Member.

‘The Council of Ministers has only got 14 months left and maybe some of my colleagues have got it in their minds that they will carry on. But for me, it’s clear, because of my age, [that this should be my last term] and I believe passionately that younger Members should be encouraged and brought on.

‘The reason I went into the States was to make a change and, for decades, Jersey has not given adequate weight to its environment and has very much put it down the list of priorities. That is totally unsatisfactory.

‘What I think I’ve been able to do is to achieve a modest but decent uplift in resources but we still need to see that the environment gets a fair crack of the whip in terms of government policies.

‘Unfortunately we are still seeing situations where economy overrides the environment and that cannot continue. We cannot keep treating the environment as a good to exploit and not invest in it and nurture it.’

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