Lessons from history…

Look back a bit, and the Bailiwick’s generally been poorly run – except when there’s a crisis. Will no more money unite States members to Make Guernsey Solvent Again? Richard Digard has his doubts

Policy & Resources president Peter Ferbrache and director of Public Health Dr Nicola Brink. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29499377)
Policy & Resources president Peter Ferbrache and director of Public Health Dr Nicola Brink. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29499377)

WHEN this newspaper was launched in the summer of 1897, its founding partners nailed their colours to the proverbial mast in setting out why they had done so – in the 19th century at least 15 different titles had been founded, so some differentiation was required – and had this particular observation to make of the government of the day:

‘The best friends of the present regime must admit that a great deal of reform is necessary…’, that the States was not representative enough and the island’s currency ought to depart the French standard and adopt British sterling instead.

Fast forward 100-plus years, not much has changed and one of the drivers of the latest controversy over the States of Guernsey’s ‘no more money’ crisis is in part because the island cannot simply print its own cash, unlike larger jurisdictions.

That’s a roundabout way of suggesting that to keep banging on about the Bailiwick being poorly run is perhaps missing the point.

It always has been. But context here is important, too. Put the island’s back to a wall and it responds well – Occupation, collapse of horticulture, Covid.... Cometh the hour, cometh the, well, Dr Brink.

So we can do it, but not all the time and only (so far) in periods of extreme pressure. Is running out of money stressful enough for this Assembly to unite in a purposeful way? Since the accuracy of Treasury’s own figures on this has already been challenged, the indications are not good.

And that’s disturbing, especially since there’s now a left-field demand for £360m.-£700m. to sort out the island’s crumbling harbour infrastructure.

‘Any thoughts on funding?’, I asked States’ Trading Supervisory Board member Stuart Falla at a briefing this week.

Policy & Resources’ problem, he replied, although in a far less flippant way, explaining that the board had been tasked with finding and costing solutions to the really quite chronic sea ports problems, not paying for them.

So we have around £250m. a year paying for the collective brainpower within the public sector and about £2m. a year for that in the Assembly itself and never get it quite right unless we’re standing on the brink (sorry, Nicky).

The conclusion we come to, therefore, is not States = useless (although in areas it certainly is) but that it is incapable of rational prioritisation.

Worse, for fiscally prudent taxpayers, is it is also incapable of sensible budgeting.

The harbours have been deteriorating since their modern establishment in the 1800s but no reserving policy has been put in place.

But then, should we be surprised? Aurigny faces accumulated losses of up to £70m. by year end yet the States has it on its books as an investment, not a thumping great black hole.

You can see how damaging this inability to concentrate on the knitting is by the reaction there was to chief minister Peter Ferbrache’s comments about vanity projects.

We all know he’s right but those responsible for them, including their civil service advisers, can’t or won’t see it that way.

It’s why, 12 years after the first financial transformation programme launched, there is still no reform of public sector contracts of employment, government itself has never been bigger or more costly and politicians get very grumpy indeed when P&R says no more senior appointments unless signed off by Foxy and Co.

Why, for crying out loud, has that only just come in?

Why did it take so long to reform the public sector pension scheme and why wasn’t it closed to new entrants when the scale of the taxpayer burden it represents became apparent 20-odd years ago?

Priorities, that’s why.

Responsibility, anyone, for de-fanging the extreme influence of 14 separate public sector unions united in self-interest?

Stuff that is mission critical to the success of the island but is too difficult or plain unsexy doesn’t get touched.

No matter how vital.

This P&R is starting to point that out. I think it is still too early to predict whether the Assembly collectively will ‘get it’ and rally around the battle cry of Make Guernsey Solvent Again, but we must live in hope. Others are less optimistic, however.

That’s why there’s active talk about executive government. Forget what’s meant by that for a moment and accept the shorthand for a more direct form of decision-making. Forget, also, States members and the wannabes. There’s an entire strata which is knee-jerk opposed to it. Not because of the blather about democracy and mandates, but because it represents a loss of personal power to meddle – a diminution of the freedom to duck important but significant priorities.

Temperamentally, Guernsey is not in favour of executive government.

It rather likes outspoken and maverick deputies. It’s why Inder is the new Hadley. But I sense that is changing.

A bit like Britain’s Red Wall crumbling as traditional voters realise Labour’s not working for them, we Guerns can see the States isn’t working for us.

For its well-remunerated, well-pensioned own, perhaps. For those so gleefully playing with the levers of power, certainly. But when it comes to getting things done, the island’s in a class of its own for failing to achieve.

Don’t just take my word for it. Put it to the test and have a post- implementation review of the outcome of the last machinery of government changes. You know, those which represented last chance saloon for consensus government.

Which is exactly what Policy & Resources is planning to do.

Bring it on.

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