The States Assembly seems unable to make strategic decisions based on evidence
By John Henwood
'IF there is one current issue which shows Jersey’s inability to make strategic decisions based on the evidence, then it has to be the decision as to where to locate the hospital.’ That was former Deputy Roy Le Hérissier writing late last year in The Bulletin, a publication for ex-pat Jersey people, and his judgment was spot on. It has long been a major weakness, not just of our government but the States as a whole, that it cannot agree a plan of action in a reasonable period of time to achieve a long-term objective.
Hopefully, a chapter in the hospital saga will come to a conclusion on Tuesday, when the States will debate a proposition by Deputy Russell Labey to overturn the decision made by the previous Assembly to build a new hospital on the site of the old. As originally drafted, the proposal would also remove the funds set aside for the hospital, but duly amended so that we don’t have to go around that loop again. Deputy Labey’s proposal deserves the full support of the House. If approved, it will not stop anyone from proposing the same site again, but hopefully not even the most obdurate States Member would be stupid or wilful enough to go there.
There may be those who feel that all the money spent so far will be wasted if the Gloucester Street site is vetoed, but that’s not the case. A significant proportion of the sum was spent on assessing other sites and that work will not have to be done again and, as far as I’m aware, no one is about to produce a previously unconsidered site like a rabbit from a hat.
So, we should soon be able to draw a veil over one of the most ridiculous episodes in recent political history. There is no need to rehearse that history here – it is well enough known by most and probably engraved on the hearts of one or two former States Members – but for me the moment I knew for sure we had passed through the looking glass and were lost in wonderland was when the former Treasury Minister admitted that the new hospital project would cost around £900 million after interest. Thanks to the diligence of a small group of people (all non-States Members) concerned only with the best interests of fellow Islanders, we now know it is possible to build a hospital with all the facilities our excellent clinicians could reasonably require for considerably less than the sum voted and the happy prospect emerges that generations to come will not be saddled with a near billion-pound debt.
I’m tempted to promote the case for St Saviour’s Hospital as the best alternative site, notwithstanding any undertaking that might have been given to the Jersey Development Company, but I’ll leave that for another occasion. At this time, I’d prefer to use the remaining space to reflect on the States inability to make strategic decisions based on evidence, because I believe they have made another mistake.
Ann Court was earmarked for housing and we know that we have an acute and growing shortage of homes. So, when a recent report confirmed this with a big estimate of future need, predictably it caused a tsunami of emotional response to the possibility that the Chief Minister might have other ideas for the site. It led to the success of a proposition by Deputy Steve Luce, the effect of which was to allow work to start.
If ever there was an issue about which there should be some analysis and long-term thinking, this was it. The alternative plan was to move all States offices onto the single Ann Court site. This would free up not only Cyril Le Marquand and Philip Le Feuvre Houses, both, particularly the latter, huge sites, but also a number of other big sites which would yield far more units of residential accommodation than Ann Court. It would also open the door to significant savings in public expenditure, certainly many millions, by centralising facilities presently duplicated, triplicated and quadruplicated across multiple locations. Of course, the plan was opposed by those senior civil servants who don’t relish the change that will be required, or the exposure to more open working than they enjoy in their separate silos.
So, we have a short-term decision made on a wave of emotion that could have a negative effect on a long-term solution to the housing shortage and prolong inefficiency in the public sector. When will they ever learn?