By Robert Surcouf
IN writing this piece I know that, sadly, an exceedingly small minority will agree with my personal point of view.
However, I still feel it is worth expressing.
We have a housing crisis as demand has outstripped supply for a long time and with over a decade of very cheap money the price of houses as a multiple of income has become excessive. At the same time rents have also risen at a similar rate as buy to let became a very attractive investment, especially with any interest on debt being tax deductible, which is not the case for home buyers.
Many people now believe the only solution is to restrict population growth. However, we are far beyond the tipping point for that to resolve the current issues, especially with an ageing population that will require caregivers and other services over the next two or three decades. We need a population policy that ensures we get the right skills, but it should not be used to try to reverse the housing demand, as it will fail due to the genuine need for services. As such, I believe the only effective solution to the housing problem will be to increase the supply of homes.
A few vacant properties will help and the use of greenhouse sites, at least those close to built-up areas, makes sense. But in an island that is only nine by five, land for additional homes will always be a sensitive topic. Trying to balance the need for new homes against the desire for open spaces, protecting the natural environment and providing areas for our agricultural and tourism industries is a challenge, as was shown during the recent process to agree the latest Island Plan. For many younger first-time buyers, accommodation in St Helier is an attractive proposition for both work and social reasons, and we have seen many new developments in the parish. Rightly, Constable Simon Crowcroft has pointed out that there is a need for open spaces and community facilities, which appear to be lacking. My contentious argument is that we have been missing a trick by the obsession not to build upwards.
In 2005, there was a proposal by businessman and developer David Crossland for private investment to create a new tourism office and residential district at the Waterfront. Some attractive designs were presented that included a number of high-rise buildings. Having lived for a number of years in Dubai I am well aware that such buildings can be developed to have real character and provide attractive living spaces with useful facilities both for residents and visitors. Sadly, the idea of building a number of high-rise developments at the Waterfront was dismissed. Instead, in order to meet the then stated level of housing units, and hotel capacity, we have seen the Waterfront be developed with all the units closely placed, with little aesthetic landscaping beyond narrow walkways. In fact, some areas are more reminiscent of a prison block. I believe for much of this area we should have doubled the height but reduced the footprint, which would have been more attractive and provided more car-free outside social space that would have attracted more restaurants and cafés with al fresco areas.
For many, the argument about the Waterfront was that high buildings would have an impact on the seaside views available. However, the current buildings have the same impact but with far greater density.
Some said that tall buildings were not part of old St Helier, but the area in question was, in reality, newly reclaimed land – so why build at the same height as before? Sadly, I believe we are likely to see more of the same buildings developed at the Waterfront, with height restrictions blinkering the design process.
Another area where I believe a similar mistake is being made is in the north of St Helier, where the development of Ann Court is only six storeys. I anticipate that the buildings planned for the Mayfair and Apollo sites will be similar. Once again this resistance to taller structures means that the entire footprint of the site is developed, rather than going up and creating more communal spaces at lower levels, or reducing the number of additional sites required elsewhere.
The additional capacity created by building higher in this area could have meant that the former Play.com property could be used to construct a much-needed modern primary school and the Millennium Town Park could be extended. This would have provided greater outdoor space where it is most needed, rather than at Warwick Farm, which could be used partly for larger affordable family homes and the remainder left as green agricultural space.
We have a history of making bad calls around Island planning and, as an example, please consider that in 1996 there was a proposal to redevelop the Fantastic Tropical Gardens into a covered leisure pool with an artificial beach, wave machine, long lazy river and a large number of flumes. It was a private project and a major UK hospitality business was signed up to fund and run the centre, as they felt locals and tourists would benefit from such a business. The scheme was rejected, as the preference was to ‘rewild’ what had long been a tourist site and we were told at the time that there were plans for a similar leisure pool at the Waterfront. The Fantastic Tropical Gardens site became home to three large houses and we got a taxpayer-subsidised leisure pool that was a shadow of what would have been developed had the initiative been handled privately. I believe that was a missed opportunity.
Holding on to the low-rise-only mantra is going to be another missed opportunity.
Robert Surcouf comes from a Jersey farming family, though his mother was Spanish and moved to the Island in the 1960s. He became an accountant and now specialises in risk and enterprise management. A father of two school-age children, he still helps organise and participates in local motorsport events and was one of the founding members of Better Way 2022 before the last election. The views expressed are his own.