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Opinion

"Where is the housing crisis plan?"

Tuesday 24 May 2022

"Where is the housing crisis plan?"

Tuesday 24 May 2022


Our friends bent on saving our heritage have reacted strongly to the proposal that building high-rise housing in St. Helier should be part of the solution to the housing crisis. They point out that placing such developments close to “pleasing areas or clusters of well-managed heritage buildings” would cause them to be “ruined or sadly compromised”.

I have some sympathy with elements of this.

High-rise development has much less impact on the density of homes than is generally appreciated. 

The provision of space about high-rise buildings has to far greater than the provision of space about buildings of conventional height. There also has to be space for amenities, car-parking, parks and gardens. The limit on density has less to do with the height of buildings and more to do with planning regulations that specify and cap density levels.

In view of the housing crisis, these limits should be relaxed for well designed and properly specified developments, noting that there are also limits on the capacity of mains services in any given area.

Where I would differ from our aforementioned friends is that I would cheerfully demolish most such “pleasing clusters of heritage buildings” and replace them with modern, properly specified and well designed homes, fit to live in, in greater density than rambling rows of old, smelly, shabby houses that were unfit for human occupation even when new.

Make no mistake, in the view of preservationists, almost any elderly construction is regarded as a “heritage building” (whatever that is meant to mean), and the natural and healthy renewal and modernisation of the built environment, replacing old with new, is severely restricted or impossible. This is accomplished by a “listing” process, which is nothing less than a conspiracy, visited upon the unsuspecting people of the Island, to preserve everything as it is. It is damaging to the economy and to the very structure of society.

It prevents the construction of badly needed homes in an island suffering from the effects of a housing crisis. It condemns people to live in unfit housing. It causes poverty and disillusionment.  

We need homes, thousands of new homes.

The countryside has to be protected and few would disagree with that. Generally speaking, urban areas are where people live and work. Homes have to go somewhere. The town is the place and the town must be made fit for purpose.

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Pictured: "The countryside has to be protected and few would disagree with that."

My vision for the Island’s capital is an infrastructure transformation, based on a master-plan, replacing districts of undesirable or slum dwellings with a dense mix of low-rise, terraced town-houses, punctuated with three to five story blocks of apartments, overlooking small green squares with trees and benches, discreet car-parking facilities, schools, clinics, care-homes, youth centres and nurseries, served by a hopper bus service; not a single high-rise anywhere.

This can be achieved only with a Town Plan greatly more detailed and ambitious than any of the reports that have been commissioned over the years and then forgotten.

It must be bold, uncompromising and inspiring. It must be aesthetically outstanding. It must be based on common sense and must avoid nonsense language, such as the “rhythm” of districts and “heritage buildings”. It must be highly detailed, yet without compromising the role of architects to design much more than just “pleasing” edifices. It must be a celebration of excellence, in materials, construction and design but, above all, a happy and balanced community of decent affordable homes, of mixed tenure, for Jersey people.

The present piecemeal, fragmented and haphazard planning process, hostage to chance, with inconsistent decision making plagued by changing policies and short-term fashion, all based on the submission of disparate and separate planning applications that are unforeseen, generally unwelcome and over-regulated, drastically curtailed by a listing process that has run amok, fails to result in a coherent, fit for purpose and visionary outcome for the town of St. Helier.

It deserves better. We all deserve better.

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Pictured: "The town of St. Helier deserves better."

The Plan must be delivered and then pursued, with time and cost targeting, as an existential policy of Government, which must driven by a strategy involving its active participation and intervention. It must be funded.

We have a housing crisis.

It is the role of governments to pursue policies to prevent housing shortages and to ensure that affordable provision is maintained. The Plan will provide the blueprint for the provision of sites and will also ensure that the level of developments required will actually enhance the built environment for the benefit of the whole population. Delivered in phases, over many years, this is easily within our capacity. At the moment we just lack the ambition and the imagination.  

The present “listing” apparatus must be completely abandoned and replaced by a sensible and pragmatic system designed to protect buildings of genuine historical or architectural uniqueness. Let’s face it, Jersey’s town is not a handsome, inspiring or beautiful experience.

Does it attract tourists or architectural students? I fear not. Would our heritage protectionist friends like to live there? I fear not. We can change all that.  

This policy will give the Minister for Housing a proper job and he/she will need a proper Department with a Chief Officer, supported by all necessary enabling legislation.  It can be done.  

I call on our newly elected Government to grasp this opportunity to transform our Island and to offer hope to young families. We need houses, thousands of them. This will not happen by accident.  

Where is the Plan?

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