Saturday, 22 September 2012

The toxic hills of La Collette – DEFRA(nce) to the UK

It has been argued here before that St Helier gets dumped on in more ways than one. Swimming each morning in Havre des Pas pool, occasions me to look over at the incinerator and wonder how much of its leachate and dust is together with me in the sea. Consequently, it was with something of a personal interest that I attended yesterday’s Environment Scrutiny panel on ash, its management and disposal, in the company of the Ministers of Planning and TTS. What TTS creates in terms of ash, Planning and Environment regulate under the waste management law.

The day was filled with acronyms which the Chairman of the panel, Deputy John Young kindly explained to all in attendance lest the public fall into ignorance. “AVI” was bottom ash from the incinerator and “APC” was the gasses it produced. Both required management and risk assessment.

Pollution was there in its toxic glory – mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals. As pit number 33 at La Collette reclamation site fills up with bottom ash from Jersey’s consumer society, uncertainty grows about its ultimate disposal. One certainty is that burying a problem is no solution. The geology of La Collette is not suitable for long term storage. Disposal of AVI is subject to regulations and as yet there is no strategy for processing it locally.

“Burning waste is burning waste”

The new Minister of Planning and Environment, Rob Du Hamel, takes a fairly idealist approach on environmental issues in contrast to the more engineered and technical solutions over at Transport and Technical Services. Disposal of AVI from an incinerator in open or closed pits was the bottom of the waste management hierarchy said the Minister. Indeed the idea of burning all rubbish, including metals, was the primary reason he had long been opposed to construction of the incinerator. As he said “Burning waste, is burning waste”.

We found out from a later meeting with TTS that the main culprit for heavy metals was the Bellozane scrapyard, as a result of their not separating the constituent parts of cars. This would improve after the beginning of next year when a new operator took over.

The Minister of Environment acknowledged immediately there was a conflict between his role as regulator of ash management and as the authority that would have to make a decision on any future planning applications at La Collette regarding removal or processing. He did not wish to prejudice any decision by expressing an opinion in advance. That should have made the meeting very brief, but the Minister overcame any reticence and spent the remainder of the two hours lamenting the burial of waste and stressing the necessity for modern technological treatment solutions.

“We are where we are”

At the very least an obvious solution to decrease the toxicity of AVI was to improve material before it entered the incinerator by increased sorting and recycling. This practice appears to have been forced upon Guernsey by necessity as they only have an in-fill site for disposal and it was filling up. If Guernsey could recycle more then why not Jersey?

It was clear that government policy has been and remains not to inconvenience consumer lifestyles on a small island with finite resources by requiring anyone to take better care with what and how they throw away rubbish. The Minister pointed out the irony of a wealthy island able to afford proper technological processes and treatments, pursuing a policy that literally buried the problem instead of accepting responsibility and associated costs. What became apparent was the reluctance to spend money on new techniques and management when burn and dump sufficed as it has done throughout the postwar era.

Improving the waste stream now was one solution to the quality of bottom ash in the future, yet there remained the legacy ash from the past. The Bellozane incinerator had continued to operate when other similar plants elsewhere had long closed, producing large quantities of legacy waste now lying untreated in pits beneath the hills of La Collette.

The Basel Convention

It was slightly surprising in a meeting dedicated to technical issues of waste management that the ticklish question of Jersey’s constitutional relationship with the UK should arise.

A possible solution to the AVI accumulation is for Jersey to export it for treatment elsewhere. However, this is somewhat problematic since waste being hazardous is subject to international regulation as to movement and disposal. Jersey is bound by the Basel Convention, which as its website notes is “to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes”.

The Basel convention was extended to Jersey by the UK in 2007, as the high contracting party, for whose international relations it is responsible, designating the Minister of Planning and Environment as the competent local authority.

The Minister was uncertain if Jersey had authority to export hazardous waste to the UK or another Basel signatory country, without the authority of the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He noted that the Isle of Man, to whom the Convention had also been extended by the UK, had exported waste via the UK to another country for treatment and that this strengthened his opinion that Jersey could act independently likewise.

The Minister believed that under the Jersey waste management law there was capacity for the island to act independently. The sticking point would be objection by DEFRA under the terms of the Basel Convention that there should be no movement of waste if it can be processed locally. Since Jersey was not attempting to process waste the grant a of a licence or derogation (a Duly Reasoned Request (DRR) for export by DEFRA was unlikely.

The Minister wanted to negotiate a contract directly with a willing party prepared to import Jersey’s waste for treatment, however he had to admit he was uncertain if he had authority to do so and was seeking legal advice from the Crown Officers regarding the Basel Convention. He had in mind exporting to France “because it was closer” than the UK.

This talk of obligations under international conventions had the Scrutiny panel confused and irritated; they wanted a simple solution. There was some comedy when panel member Constable Phil Rondel cited Lord Coutanche’s memoirs to the effect that “the less we have to do with the UK the better” and generally the island should not be “kow-towering” (sic) to the UK. He later had to admit that his quote from Lord Countache might not be strictly accurate. Misunderstanding completely the functioning of international conventions, the Constable asserted that Jersey “should take charge of its own affairs” and not allow DEFRA to “pull our strings”.

In a similar vein, but less histrionic, the Minister saw acting independently of the UK as a conscious assertion of Jersey’s “international personality” as an “Independent Nation”. It should be said that P&E’s Chief Officer intimated his department was keen not to give offence to DEFRA, with whom they had good relations it was stressed. Slightly embarrassed by all this nationalist rhetoric and claims to sovereignty over rubbish, the Chairman of the Scrutiny panel indicated he was keen their discussion should avert a constitutional crisis.

Guernsey’s waste

The delicate subject of importing Guernsey’s waste for burning in the incinerator was considered by the meeting. Importing their waste would help out Guernsey who had no current strategy for long term disposal. The Minister indicated he was sceptical about the import of waste, even though it was better sorted than in Jersey, only to then burn it to produce yet more IVA. The Basel Convention had also been extended to Guernsey, so it was possible DEFRA would have an input into the decision on the various waste movements between the islands. Potentially DEFRA could object to the export/import. Would Guernsey want to take back its IVA for ultimate disposal? Importation would require a licence from the Minister of Environment and when asked if he would be inclined to grant one, he merely replied “I am completely neutral”. That could be taken as a “No”.

During the meeting with TTS it was revealed that half of any profit from handling Guernsey’s waste would go to the Treasury. The Treasury it seems has a habit of creating revenue schemes. It was left to Constable Rondel to reminded the panel of Guernsey’s perfidious nature when it came to pan island cooperation, given their track record on the lottery, sea routes and fishing rights. Clearly Guernsey had better be looking to its own Salt Mines for waste disposal.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Final Electoral Commission Hearing - Media complaints; Constables and faith

The final public hearing of the Electoral Commission was held yesterday. It was a remarkably relaxed affair, probably because the Chairman was absent. Not that it was an uncontentious morning – could it be otherwise as everyone seems to have their own preferred structure for the States Assembly, however Byzantine.

Arriving late, I missed the 9am contribution of a local advocate. One to watch I was told for a future political career. Of lateness more later.

The first contention was some fierce criticism by the Vice Chairman Colin Storm of a recent JEP report and an editorial intimating that the Commission had already reached some provisional conclusions, amongst which was keeping the Constables. Whether the JEP did this “maliciously or negligently” was unknown, but it imputed their collective and his personal honesty, he said. These comments as to the integrity of the Commission were triggered when Deputy Mike Higgins gave evidence in which he commenced by recording his scepticism, calling the enquiry “a farce” given the stated public position of certain States Members on the panel.

Deputy Higgins’s own credibility dropped somewhat when Colin Storm had to lend him his reading glasses before he could read his submission. He was reading aloud because none of the members had had time to consider it. The Greffier informed us this was because he had only submitted it at 9.27am that very morning. Nevertheless, his comments were a tour de horizon of current failings, kitchen cabinets and cronyism in the Council of Ministers.

What did emerge was that the head of the Constables’ Committee has a place as observer on all Council of Minister’s meetings and is a regular attendee. This permanent representation rather tarnishes the argument that Constables are essentially benign and apolitical patriarchs concerned only with their parishes.

Next on was Senator Lyndon Farnham who put the case for retaining the Senators as a category of States Member. He was followed by Sylvia Lagadu, a former Senatorial candidate in 2011, whose concerns seemed to be mainly with the Parish of St Helier and its parking policies.

No rubber stamp

The contention returned when Daniel Wimberly, appearing before the Commission for a second occasion, wanted to submit an additional out of time statement to rebut the work of academic Mr Lewis Baston on constituency sizes that formed part of Advocate Mark Renouf’s submission. The Vice Chairman indicated that all evidence would be weighed equally in due course and that none had precedence. This led to repetition of his criticism made earlier about the presumptious JEP editorial with its “malicious or misguided” comments. The Editor should be asked to retract his comments suggested Daniel Wimberly. Mr Storm was uncertain as it was a decision for the Chairman. In any event a sensational comment may have appeared on the front page but an apology only ever got a few column inches on page 7. The matter was left in abeyance.

The formed Deputy of St Mary seemed to be unaware of some important research conducted by the Commission and published on its website. This thorough research by Dr Alan Renwick of Reading University has some important observations for an objective analysis of the current set up including disparities in size of constituencies that breach the Vienna Commission Code, a set of standards for new democracies. 

Daniel Wimberly pointed out the conundrum in an IPSOS Mori poll conducted in 2006 to which 92% had responded that they were “interested in island issues”, yet when asked why then they did not vote cited poor quality candidates and the feeling that their vote would not make any difference. Panel member Deputy James Baker, having arrived two hour late and perhaps wishing to appear conversant with the issues, suggested a counter argument for voters not voting; it was because they were content.  Clearly the Deputy had not done much canvassing around No.1 district last year, as he would have discovered anything but complete contentment.

“The role of a States Member is to challenge, question and propose alternatives.”

Having served 18 years as a Deputy, Bob Hill recalled how he had welcomed the Clothier Report and was expectant of changes, only to be disillusioned by his colleagues self interest. He witnessed the implementation of ministerial government without the concomitant democratic changes to the Assembly and constituencies.

During his time in the States, which embraced the period of the Committee system, he could not recall any Constable having put forward a private proposition. He supported the idea of one category of States Member. The public had the right to expect their representatives to pay full attention to States business.

“Constablism”and revelation

Constable Steve Pallett told us of his conversion to belief in Constables when he joined the Honorary Police. He admitted he had been a sinner in the past. As a former Chairman of the Jersey Democratic Alliance, he confessed that his “views were tainted, because I was working within a political group”. As for the “vocal, vociferous minority” currently calling for removal of Constables from the States, they were wrong and out of touch with public opinion.

Deputy James Baker sought to encourage the Constable’s continued repentance with a number of leading questions. We learnt that the parish system was open to anyone in any walk of life and that it was not conservative. Were Constables to no longer sit in the States and be paid to do so, then the institution would become elitist and the preserve of only those with sufficient private income to stand. Not sitting in the States would demean the stature of anyone taking up the office in the future. However, Constables should not become Ministers as this would distract them from their Parish duties, as was the public perception of his predecessor in St Brelade.

I was not entirely convinced by Constable Pallett’s vision of this democratic and participatory institution, even if I admit it is not as High Church as it was in the nineteenth century. Certainly it contrasted with earlier witnesses lamenting the absence of contested elections for Constable (8 out of 12 in 2011) and the low numbers attending parish meetings.

This meeting in the Town Hall completed the series of public hearings as part of initial consultation. We await the provisional recommendations of the Commission which will be the subject of a further round of consultation this autumn. In the meantime expect plenty of media coverage of Constables and reasons for their retention – concrete and mystical.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Leading from the rear – Deputy James Baker and EDD in the land of Scrutiny

Insiders to the States know well how disillusioned District No1’s Deputy James Baker has become with life as a politician. There was no real humiliation therefore when he spoke for only 2 minutes out of 75 at a Scrutiny meeting he was supposed to be heading up in the absence of Economic Development Minister Alan MacClean. He did his best to contribute more it must be said, but neither civil servants nor Scrutiny Panel chairman Deputy Steve Luce, really had much expectation that the answers to questions would be coming from his mouth. Deputy Baker appeared in his role as Assistant Minister and for the first time was leading a team of four civil servants at a scheduled Scrutiny panel on the Medium Term Financial Plan ("MTFP" as insiders know the three year financial plan).

The lead in the meeting was taken by Chief Officer Mike King and his deputy Andrew Sugden, both of whom were well informed on policy and finance at the department. The seating arrangement was such that the Chief Officer sat in the centre with Deputy Baker to his side. Those more familiar with the style of Senator McClean, know how he tends to dominate matters and defers to civil servants only on issues of detail. Today, it was the Assistant Minister deferring to the civil servants, allowing them to take the lead and answer questions in a way that left him quietly on the sidelines.

Perhaps so that his presence was not entirely otiose, a few questions were directed specifically to the Assistant Minister by Deputy Luce. However, when on one occasion he sought to interject on a matter, the Chief Officer did not defer to his authority and continued a dialogue with Deputy Luce. Towards the end of the meeting, panel member Constable Pallet, slightly exasperated by the absence of any contribution by Deputy Baker, asked another direct question that allowed him the opportunity to deliver an acceptably fluent reply, making reference to his having been in the “hot seat” at EDD for ten months.

Most of the meeting was taken up with the minutiae of budgets and spending, however there were a couple of moments of contention when broader political issues arose. They were matters which it was acknowledged were essentially political, but were answered by the Chief Officer nevertheless. Deputy Baker did not object.

The new style Scrutiny is anything but contentious and tends to be deferential. Indeed Deputy Luce had been on BBC Radio Jersey this very morning extolling the virtues of being co-operative and “critical friends” to government. As a consequence the meeting was punctuated with remarks such as “I don’t imply any criticism…”, as the conversation sought to probe issues of concern. Exactly why certain retiring civil servants were being kept on as consultants was gently alluded to without causing offence to department or individuals concerned. How short exactly these short-term consultancy contracts might be was left somewhat open. Likewise, there was no criticism intended when discussion fell upon the existence of overseas offices representing Jersey finance in Abu Dhabi or the more than modest budget of Jersey Finance Limited.

The “ticklish question” of finance and its domination of the Jersey economy was referred to in positive fashion, its contribution to tax take and employment, both direct and indirect, warranted a disproportionate spend on marketing its interest, whilst tourism and agriculture came a struggling second. When it came to the issue of human rights in certain Middle East countries with whom the island did business, the chairman Deputy Luce, was quick to move rather than explore the finer moral issue. Engagement was surely the best way to effect change with regimes whose policies we might not seek to emulated domestically. Exactly where Deputy Baker’s war service had taken him was not explored as the Chief Officer had direct knowledge of the Middle East, having worked in the oil industry, and was more that capable of explaining the ethics of business in the region.

As I left the States Building and glanced through the widows, the BBC were filming an interview outside in the Royal Square about the Scrutiny meeting with – guess who – not the Assistant Minister, rather with the Chief Officer. Civil servants it seems are often better informed than their nominal political masters (no criticism implied).