A brother and sister involved in running one of Jersey’s biggest farming companies claim that Planning are making “a sport” out of rejecting their applications – accusing the department of dishonesty, bias and intentionally frustrating their bids to develop their farmland.
The allegations came from former joint-owners of the Jersey Royal Company (JRC) Tom and Rose Binet, who now own Jersey Royal Property Holdings (JRPH), which provides and manages facilities for the potato company.
Yesterday, they took their grievances to the States Complaints Board (SCB) – an independent panel tasked with resolving individuals’ gripes with Government departments - following struggles to pass an application for employee accommodation.
Among the Binets' complaints against the department and its process were suggestions that they had been treated as "fair game", and that lies had been printed in a report about one of their planning applications in order to stall their attempts to provide “decent” accommodation for their employees.
These allegations were strongly denied by the department during the heated hearing.
Pictured: Evidence about the complaint was put forward by both sides at the hearing.
The JRC, which the pair owned before they sold their shares five years ago, employ 450 to 500 staff during the farming season and farm around 60% of the island's arable land.
As well as the JRPH owners, representatives from the Planning Department – Group Director for Regulation Andrew Scate and Principal Planner Andrew Townsend – also appeared before the Board to respond to the siblings’ accusations.
The SCB – made up of Chair Geoffrey Crill, Vice-Chair Chris Beirne and Janice Eden – heard that the grievance centred on a particular Planning application for a St. Ouen site called ‘Westpoint’. It took just over a year to reach the Planning Committee – a panel of politicians tasked with resolving contentious applications – which eventually rejected it.
The JRPH had applied to demolish a large shed, a workshop and three staff bedsits and remove a number of poly tunnels already on the site so that they could build a replacement shed, new accommodation to house 24 workers with parking and create a large yard to store machinery.
Pictured: The Binets' grievance arose from how they claimed they were unfairly treated by the Planning department with regards to their application.
According to the Committee's notes, they were informed at the time of the application being considered that it “was a complex application which had to be assessed against a number of key Island Plan policies” and it “included a significant amount of information and the site had a long and complex planning history.”
The Committee ultimately rejected the application as they agreed with the recommendations laid out by a Planning Officer in their report raising concerns about the fact that the development would occur in part of the island’s protected land within the ‘Green Zone’.
The Binets claimed that the way this application was handled evidenced that they were not being treated fairly by the department. Throughout the hearing they took issue with several aspects of the Planning process, including:
Pictured: areas of the island's countryside - known as the 'Green Zone' - are protected from development by the Island Plan document.
The pair, who described themselves as "sick and tired of being mistreated", also argued it was illogical to penalise farmers for 'threatening' the island’s natural environment when they are, in fact, custodians of the countryside.
Mr Binet told the Board: “I drive around the island and I think it looks quite attractive – who do you think keeps it that way?” He later added that his company “maintain 500 linear miles of hedgerow” throughout the island.
Elsewhere in the hearing, his sister argued that the strict ‘Green Zone’ policy was being “interpreted… one way for [their] application” and a different way for other applicants.
Department representatives acknowledged that the Island Plan policy on the ‘Green Zone’ was too “out of date” to cope with recent advancements in the agricultural industry and that it needed to be updated, but explained that officers can only interpret the policy as it stands.
“I can’t criticise an officer for applying policy," Mr Scate said.
Pictured: The siblings' former company works around 60% of the island's arable land.
He and Mr Townsend defended the actions of the department and the decision of the Committee, maintaining that Planning’s approach to applications was always “consistent”.
They emphasised the changes that have been made to the system during a recent overhaul of the department including digitising all applications and policies to put them online and creating a “very transparent and clear process” both via the Committee hearings being held in public and the option of pursuing an independent appeal process.
Regarding the issue of delay, Mr Townsend said that “more complex applications will often take longer than we would like” and that there was an “issue with resource” in this particular case.
The SCB will now consider the evidence given at the hearing and reach a decision on the matter. If they uphold the Binets’ complaint, they will make recommendations to the Environment Minister in light of their concerns.
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