Maurice Letto interview

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This interview by Ted Vibert was first published in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966.

When you swish into the drive of Deputy Maurice Letto's lovely home at St Lawrence, you instinctively know that you are going to meet a man of character and good taste. The gardens are beautifully laid out, the views superlative and everything is planned meticulously. There is nothing out of place.

Unknown quantity

I needed to find out a great deal about Deputy Letto because he is perhaps the greatest unknown quantity in Jersey politics. As I entered his study the first impression of neatness carried on through. Yet again, everything was meticulously as it should be. His bookshelves revealed that certainly he was a man of humour. The Harold Wilson Bunkside Book, which lampoons Harold Wilson, has a pride of place. So do gardening books.

Deputy Letto is 48 and has been in the States as Deputy of St Lawrence for two years. He was educated at De La Salle College, and after leaving school he began at the Jersey General Investment Trust as the office boy. Today he is vice-chairman. A man who is self-assured, well-groomed, quietly confident.

Until the sudden IDC explosion he was known as a good committee man.

"But it was obvious to those who knew him that very shortly he would take on something big," a States member told me.

That "something big" was to be the head of perhaps Jersey's most important and maligned committee.

"It would be true to say that it was not a job that I really wanted," he said. "In fact, I had said in public that it was a job I wouldn't handle with a barge pole. This was mainly because of the enormous amount of time involved. But when it came to the crunch and I knew that I had a good chance of becoming president, I wanted it very badly. It is an enormous challenge. I am delighted that everyone I asked to sit on the committee with me has done so. I think I have a first class committee and I am more than pleased with the way in which everything is going already."

Committee role

I asked him how he saw the role of the Island Development Committee.

"The role is very simple. I am sure it is the wish of everyone living in Jersey that the island should remain a beautiful place. No one wants to see the speculator take over and rape it. With that in mind we intend to follow the Island Development Plan as approved in the States. For instance, we will allow no eating into the green belt. We intend to be thoroughly ruthless about this. But we must also bear in mind that the island continues to expand and that provision must be made to plan this expansion. With this in mind we have called for a report on the Island Development Plan to bring it up to date. For this we must take into account every aspect of Jersey life — tourism needs, agricultural demands and the wishes of the residents."

How does he intend overcoming all the mistakes made by the former Committee?

"First of all, let me put this in perspective. The previous committee did a great deal of good work. Their main problem was that their public relations were bad. Their other fault, it appears to me, is that they were too kind and too concerned with personal problems when dealing with matters of policy. This led to inconsistency. We are not allowing ourselves to get involved in personal matters. The beauty of the island matters much, much more."

The image of the previous committee was one of a committee that had no idea where it was going, which was strangling itself with red tape, and which was becoming the pillory on which the whole States was being placed. How do you intend to alter this?

"Well, we are planning to deal with the public in a different way. We have appointed a chief executive, who will handle the administration of the committee. He will have the full responsibility of informing the public of decisions.
”Secondly, we intend to overcome the inconsistency, which has so galled the public. I can give the public this assurance, that if any application to build on a site has been turned down, no one will be able to come along a few months later and get permission.
”Thirdly, we have instilled into our staff that the public do matter.
”Fourthly, we are having prepared a list of exemptions from planning permission. And lastly, we have given our professional staff guidelines along which to work, and they will deal with minor applications. However, they will not be able to refuse an application, no matter how small. This will be done by the committee."

Greatest problem

What did he see as the island's greatest planning problem?

"Undoubtedly greenhouses is one of them. My two years on the Committee of Agriculture convinced me that for the Jersey farmer to stay in business he has got to turn to greenhouses. This, of course, will present grave planning problems, for I believe that if Jersey were to become like Guernsey in respect of greenhouses it would be a planning disaster. Compared to this problem, the points raised by planning for tourism are minor ones."

I left Deputy Letto feeling that here was a political find. A man who will tackle a tough and onerous job without regard to personal issues, and who will lead an intelligent committee with flair and imagination. He knows that there are trials of strength ahead. And he knows he is going to win.

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