By Robert Surcouf
A COMMON theme for so many commentators recently is the availability of affordable housing to rent or buy.
While there has been much discussion around rental controls, the key lever that would have the greatest positive effect is an increase in supply. For this reason, the last government instituted a short-term Island Plan focused on delivering sites for affordable housing only. The process appeared relatively thorough and transparent. Applicants had to confirm that the sites they were proposing would be made available for affordable homes, but we are now a year on from this process and very few if any of the sites, in particular for larger family homes, seem to be progressing. We need to ask why?
For transparency on this topic I must say that I participated in the Island Plan as I own a field that, along with another field owned by a friend, jointly boarded the existing village in St Peter and would have been able to accommodate over 90 family-sized three-bedroom homes for first-time buyers or as affordable homes. My own home sits in one corner of my field, so in putting the field forward I would be materially changing the outlook from my property from open fields to a built-up area. The Island Plan process did require quite detailed information to be completed and we appointed a specialist planning consultant to assist with the application for rezoning due to the level of information requested. At the same time, we entered into negotiations with two organisations who were keen to deliver affordable homes within the criteria set and it was clear that the price we would receive for the land would be half of what we would receive if it was rezoned for homes for the open market. With this knowledge we still decided to proceed with the submission for the Island Plan, and, while we fared well, we were not rezoned and instead another location in St Peter, also near the village, was selected. I had no issue with this outcome as it was in line with the due process until we suddenly had numerous politicians submitting other sites that had not received the same level of scrutiny nor being subject to the formal commitment that the rezoning would be conditional on the use of the land for affordable homes.
Reflecting on the time and money that we spent on this process at the time, while frustrated by the last-minute shenanigans of certain politicians, I still thought it had been a worthwhile exercise. However, to now see that the chosen site in St Peter might not be able to proceed due to the issue that the drains in the area do not have sufficient capacity, which I believe would have been the same for our own development and most other sites chosen outside of central St Helier having the same issue, we clearly wasted our time and money.
When the criteria for the interim Island Plan was being drafted did nobody within the civil service, either within Planning or Infrastructure, consider flagging up that the drains that currently existed in various areas of the Island would be unable to manage the additional demands being considered?
The topic of drains and the facilities at Bellozanne are not new and both needed updating with enhancements and extensions required. Too many times, however, they have been kicked into the long grass as if drains were just a nice-to-have facility. With all the previous reports, consultations and discussions surely it would be sensible in the early stages of the Island Plan to have identified areas within the Island where the existing drains could cope with additional demand or where they could be most easily updated.
We now have an Island Plan that was meant to assist in delivering much-needed capacity, especially for families, which is unlikely to deliver many of the homes as there are no plans currently to enhance the drains in those areas. Had this been identified as a point for the review then the focus could have been on sites that could be quickly updated, or a location where numerous sites could be developed with a single drain upgrade.
What we are left with is a current drainage system that will primarily mean we will see only apartments in St Helier being developed and little to no material increase in the stock of family homes outside of St Helier. Maybe this was the plan all along, but I feel saddened that for many the opportunity to either rent or buy a family home with a garden will not get any easier.
Some I believe still hope that more older Islanders might look to downsize in later years, but I believe that many will not as their only alternatives will be apartments in St Helier with high running costs and away from their communities. This again is an area where the interim Island Plan failed to consider fully the need and benefit of downsizing homes within existing communities that could then free up larger family homes.
Having spent time and money participating in the Island Plan process I now feel it was flawed and again evidences an inability for joined up thinking across numerous governments and the areas of the civil service that will continue to let down all those who participated in such processes and more importantly those hoping to find a suitable family home.
Robert Surcouf comes from a Jersey farming family, though his mother was Spanish and moved to Jersey 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.