OPINION: Economic agenda

Forget prepared statements in the States, this is what Economic Development is really doing to help get the island back on its feet, says Richard Digard. And it involves cannabis, tourism – and, finally, a population and migration policy

Economic Development president Deputy Neil Inder. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29596075)
Economic Development president Deputy Neil Inder. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29596075)

FUNNY how agendas change. Just as government’s warned it needs to spend around £360m. future-proofing its seaports, attention switches to the States Assembly & Constitution Committee discussing if it’s too demanding for committee presidents and their £100k-plus civil servants to update the States twice a year on what they’re actually up to.

It’s double-dyed drivel, of course. Any committee president who can’t provide an off-the-cuff – let alone scripted – briefing of what their priorities are and what progress they’re making doesn’t deserve the job.

So what you’re not being told is that some department leaders dislike being put on the spot after reading out their set piece simply because they don’t know what’s coming next. A supposed example is when Economic Development’s Neil Inder told colleagues the committee was ‘investing in new and innovative opportunities’ that would turn Guernsey into a go-to jurisdiction, He was, unsurprisingly, challenged. ‘Neat,’ came the response. ‘What are they?’

However, what I can tell you is his irritation wasn’t sparked by being put on the spot. Far from it. As an ex-ad man and campaign manager, it’s part of the job. Instead, it was presenting to the States in such a way that made the question necessary in the first place: ‘I wasn’t very good, simple as that. It won’t happen again.’

Spend a couple of hours with Deputy Inder – all unscripted, on the record, no committee official in sight – and you realise two things. He is on top of his brief and Economic Development has very few levers of its own to pull. Diversification? That means new businesses and staff to work there. But Home Affairs controls population. Anyway, get new people in and where do they live? There’s a housing crisis that falls to others to resolve.

Step back and look at it dispassionately – an ageing population, falling birthrate and declining workforce, with no States plan to tackle that – and it looks suspiciously like asking Economic Development to manage decline. Which it most definitely doesn’t want to do.

It’s the main reason Deputy Inder is to approach Policy & Resources offering to develop a population strategy for the States. Not as a political ‘land grab’ but because, despite its importance, no one else is doing it. Plus the committee believes it is well placed to take it on while P&R is managing the island’s post-Covid recovery and cash crisis. And, anyway, Economic Development can bring a fresh perspective to a complex and controversial issue.

You could almost argue that deciding what the island does on population and how it does it is more important than recovering from Covid. Without clarity on how to backfill the staffing and therefore tax void left by retiring baby boomers, exacerbated by declining fertility rates, how can the island build back better?

Whether P&R accepts the offer remains to be seen. More immediately, the committee expects the island to move shortly into producing medicinal cannabis, something that will see significant amounts of money invested here, leading to a high-value-added export sector, use of redundant vinery sites and a completely new industry.

Although the island was the first of the Crown Dependencies to introduce a legal framework for pharmaceutical-grade cannabis (which enables doctors to prescribe products manufactured to the required standard), Guernsey has wasted the past two years because bureaucracy here failed to produce a memorandum of understanding enabling it to progress.

After some very blunt conversations with officials, an individual has now been tasked with completing that by the end of the month and three groups – from the UK, Canada and California – are interested in setting up here. In part, that’s because the island’s well-regulated status enables proper oversight of production, quality and control as the forthcoming MoU enables them to apply for a licence to operate in a highly technical and regulated sector.

The other area on which Economic Development is focused is restoring the island’s tourist economy to 2019 levels of around 136,000 staying leisure visitors. What’s less obvious is how that’s to be achieved – by turning VisitGuernsey into a public-private partnership and the first significant example of outsourcing some States functions.

That seismic shift should be completed within two years or less. The benefits include headcount reductions, empowering industry to accept more control over its own product and future, plus removing the public sector from a creative and marketing arena in which it should have no involvement. An immediate benefit is that some £500,000 of procurement spend has been brought back to the island as local firms are used instead of UK businesses.

The other area where Economic Development has been criticised is for not releasing a £200,000 report into whether the island should establish a 1,500-student university.

Again, scratch the surface and it’s a bit more involved. While the project’s technically feasible, there’s no guarantee any university is prepared to open here. In other words, the approach in the consultants’ study would be a ‘build and they will come’ speculative venture with the taxpayer carrying all the risk and all the cost. Additionally, a first read indicated the consultants seriously underestimated the price of the build, which is now put at about £100m.

The report will be released after the committee has considered it but, meanwhile, serious thought is being given to whether a smaller-scale facility for, say, 400-500 students could be developed here and a dialogue has been started with those who’ve actually done it. Gibraltar, for instance, opened its own university (chancellor, House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle) in a restored former military barracks in 2015.

It has developed a portfolio of programmes that respond to global needs and aims to create graduates who are ready to enter employment. Interestingly, the courses are relevant to Gibraltar itself, including business and leadership, a BSc for working in the maritime industry and another in marine science and climate change, providing the skills needed to tackle complex issues associated with the sustainable development of marine ecosystems.

An approach replicated here that would dovetail with developing Guernsey’s blue economy, perhaps?

Anyway, we should learn more later this year. Until then, keep your eye on population and migration. Economic Development needs no script to say it’s the key to Guernsey’s future.

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