Let’s save this project for a sunnier day – now is just not the right time
By Lucy Stephenson
PICTURE the scene: your friend arrives at your front door to collect £100 you owe them. You explain you’re really sorry, you know they need the money and they lent it to you in good faith, but you just don’t have it – you can’t afford it and are just managing to get by.
Yet behind you – which your friend can easily see – are a pile of new shopping bags filled with posh clothes, a new bag, two pairs of shoes and a flashy pair of sunglasses.
It doesn’t look great, does it? And your friend is not impressed, even when you kindly tell them they can borrow any of the new clothes any time they want. They also aren’t going to be lending you more money anytime soon.
The revelation that the Government of Jersey wants to spend £3 million on a project joining the Weighbridge and Liberation Square to mark next year’s 75th Liberation anniversary celebrations feels much the same.
Public sector workers across departments are fighting – and striking – for what they see as fair wage increases they say they have been denied for years, and departments are having to cut spending on existing projects, find future savings to avoid a potential black hole, and not invest where they may want and need to in order to stay within their tight budgets.
In the past few weeks bids have also gone in for the next government plan, which will set the next round of budgets, and departments have had to be savvy with what they are asking for and why.
Meanwhile, important services provided by organisations such as Les Amis are being cut because the government has not tackled the underlying issue of the lack of care workers, it looks likely that tens of millions of pounds has been wasted on the new hospital saga, and there have been claims that decisions on grants and departmental funding are being made ‘in the dark’ without States Members’ input.
Add into the mix the call from the Fiscal Policy Panel that the Island should pump at least £600 million into the ‘rainy day fund’ as a precaution against a collapse in the finance industry, and it’s fair to say that those holding the purse strings right now are facing a tough time.
Which is exactly why now is not the time to be rolling out a multi-million-pound project to create a single square, which itself has already gone up in price by £1m before proper plans have even been made.
And that is ignoring the concerns about how traffic, especially buses, would navigate the new layout, which would require the road which links Route de la Libération with the Esplanade and the Weighbridge to be extinguished.
Sure, it must be tough deciding where public money is spent, what gets priority, how budgets can be balanced and how to protect against the ‘what ifs’ of the future.
And it is understandable that there are many different pots of money dedicated to all kinds of different things which can be drawn on in some cases, but not in others.
For example, Treasury Minister Susie Pinel said that the Liberation project was initially due to be funded via government underspends, but was now likely to be paid for using profits from the Jersey Development Company’s College Gardens development.
Pay rises also bring their own challenges, as they represent a reoccurring cost, not a one-off lump sum.
But it is the overarching message that such a project, at a time of intense public scrutiny on spending and growing disquiet, sends out that is most concerning.
It has been called a ‘vanity project’ by some critics, but who for? The minister with responsibility for it today, Infrastructure Minister Kevin Lewis, certainly seemed to distance himself from the scheme, even when called upon to talk about it.
‘It wouldn’t be my choice,’ he said. ‘We want to know what the public think.’
There is no denying that marking a date such as the Liberation is important, and in an ideal world there would have been widespread support for some kind of major tribute.
But right now, given the context, is not that time, certainly not without some kind of persuasive argument about why it would be so good, why it would cost so much, and how it is OK to use that £3 million because of where it came from.
However, there has been none of that so far, and, just like when Chief Minister John Le Fondré failed to properly ‘sell’ his argument for Ann Court as a new States headquarters, the Liberation project looks likely to be heading the same way.
States Members will be asked to scrap the plan thanks to a proposition from Deputy Jeremy Maçon, and unless that clear case is made to proceed with the project, cancelling it would seem the sensible option. The plans can be put on the shelf to wait for a sunnier day, perhaps.
But there is a wider issue, beyond the simple ‘should we have a joined-up square or not?’ debate. And the solution is not as easy.
Is this case the latest example of a lack of joined-up thinking from government? I fear the answer is yes. And it certainly is the latest failure to properly communicate with Islanders from a government that only last year promised openness and transparency.