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Facing the consequences of economic growth

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DR Michael Romeril may be as passionate about the environment as when he was growing up in Jersey after the Liberation but he is not inclined to join the ranks of climate change protesters.

While he admires Greta Thunberg for standing up for her principles and providing a strong voice for young people who are likely to live through the adverse affects of climate change, he is not convinced that disruptive tactics impress political decision makers.

Trying to persuade the Island’s politicians that protecting the environment should be given equal weight to economic growth was the raison d’être of his time as the States environmental adviser from 1995 to 2003. Alas, his advice fell largely on deaf years and today Jersey, like all countries in the developed world, is facing the consequences of not heeding warnings about climate change.

Born in Jersey in 1941 and educated at First Tower and Hautlieu schools, he went on to Nottingham University, graduating a with a Bachelor of Science honours degree, topped off in 1966 with a PhD in biochemistry.

His CV lists jobs at the UK Ministry of Fisheries, in pollution research at the Central Electricity Generating Board’s marine laboratory and as head of environmental studies at Hampshire’s Residential Study Centre. He returned to Jersey in 1978 to take up the newly created post of conservation officer.

In August 1980, the official 'opening' of Les Mielles, at St Ouen, took place.

His first major task was to oversee the creation of Les Mielles Country Park, which stretches from L’Etacq to La Pulente and inland to St Peter’s Village. In 1978 the States agreed to enact legislation to conserve the sand dunes, coastal strip and the wider St Ouen’s Bay area to protect these internationally significant natural places from harmful human activities and creeping development.

In 1995 he was appointed States environmental adviser, a post he held until his retirement in June 2003, when he left the Island to live closer to family in the UK.

During the 1980s and 90s he was also an adviser to the United Nations Environmental Programme.

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‘The post of environmental adviser was based in the Chief Adviser’s Office at Cyril Le Marquand House, reporting to the Policy and Resources Committee,’ he explained.

‘As well as providing environmental advice to States committees and departments, [my] two main tasks were the production of an Environmental Charter and a Sustainable Development Strategy for the Island.

‘These were to fulfil the Island’s commitments to international environmental initiatives, especially the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, with its aim of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

Although Dr Romeril has no plans to take part in Extinction Rebellion protests, he is not totally adverse to demonstrations. In 2009 he returned to Jersey to join over 5,000 Islanders in the A Line in the Sand public demonstration against over-development of the coastline. He came back earlier this month OCTOBERfor the event’s tenth anniversary and the opening of Jersey National Park interpretation centre at the Frances Le Sueur Centre in La Mielle de Morville nature reserve.

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Dr Romeril oversaw the creation of the reserve in the 1970s and 80s in a neglected area of old sand quarry workings opposite Kempt Tower that had been used to dump household rubbish.

Mike Romeril inspecting vegetation growing on the sand dunes near Kempt Tower, Five Mile Road, St Ouen. in 1979 (26134130)

He says he went back to Dorset from his recent visit feeling sad, having seen the consequences on his homeland of the unparalleled rate of population growth.

Sixteen years after he retired he is dismayed that his two major pieces of work – agreed by the States without a single dissenting voice – have been largely ignored. The key message of both was to control population growth in a spatially limited island or face the consequences.

The result is a population pushing 110,000 and a predicted demand for 7,000 new homes by 2030.

‘I feel sad and somewhat angry that so little has been done,’ he said. ‘The corporate mindset of the States has always been to give priority to economic growth and [it] mostly has no resolve to seriously address the population issue, and this has been a key issue going back at least to the 1970s.’

He is as concerned about the future housing demands of wealthy immigrants as he is about demand for affordable homes.

‘Jersey’s coast virtually from Noirmont westward and around to Gorey is such a key Island landscape feature and attraction that it needs maximum protection from inappropriate development,’ he said.

‘It is a fundamental Island asset and inappropriate development will include large houses that visually intrude on the landscape, and especially the skyline, which should be sacrosanct.’

Unless the States performs a U-turn and finally lives up to its environmental obligations, he fears for the future.

‘I do believe that population can be capped,’ he said. ‘As nothing can be achieved overnight it is inevitable that a further rise will follow before measures are introduced. Given the history of States’ promises, any target should be set as close as possible to current figures.’

His advice for today’s politicians is the same as he gave to their predecessors 40, 30 and 20 years ago – that population growth must be stopped or, at least, strictly contained, otherwise the quality of Island life enjoyed at present must inevitably be negatively affected.

‘Analogies with Hong Kong are meaningless but Jersey should face the fact that it has a population density that is about 14/15th in the world list of over 150 countries and, if quality of life is not to deteriorate, a way must be found to achieve sustainability in its broadest sense. In other words, with an economic and environmental balance,’ he said.

‘The answer lies in changed attitudes and getting on with things. The inertia in addressing the population issue is indicative. The States approval of the Les Mielles proposition in 1978 and my appointment as the first environmental professional were radical decisions at the time.’

His solution is to remind States Members every time a new Assembly convenes of their binding obligation to protect the environment and to appoint a minister for sustainability.

‘I do think there would be a benefit in having a minister for sustainability with a strong brief – and support – to make it happen,’ he said.

‘I look at the proposed Government Plan, 2020–23, and especially the section on the environment, and there are so many similarities with the Sustainability Strategy which was produced with such a comprehensive consultation process and no little expense. Get on with it!’

He says a good starting-point for renewing the commitments made around the turn of the Millennium is in Jersey’s planning and development blueprint, which is currently undergoing its ten-yearly review.

‘I would like to think that in producing a new Island Plan, the States would pay heed to the promises it made in 1996 to respond appropriately to the outcomes of the UN Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992,’ he said.

‘What about a lead in the plan that states categorically that the States of Jersey reaffirms its commitment to its Environmental Charter of 1996?’

The persistence by conservation lobbyists such as the National Trust for Jersey and seasoned environmental and National Park campaigner Mike Stentiford – who he worked alongside in the creation of La Mielle de Morville – gives him some optimism.

The sand dunes and Les Mielles before they were protected.

‘I always used to refer to Les Mielles as a mini national park mainly because of its size in relation to the much larger national parks in other countries,’ he said.

‘To relaunch it as the Jersey National Park can only be for the good. The controls inherent in the original designation must be maintained, especially along the narrow coastal strip where I see examples of some slippage.’

‘The important thing to remember in the broader context is the value of so many other areas of high ecological and landscape value. Those must also be given the appropriate protection.’

Paula Thelwell

By Paula Thelwell
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