OPINION: Guernsey’s lost decade

New and replacement housing has suffered a lost decade in Guernsey but that’s not the full picture, says Trevor Cooper

THE expression lost decade was first coined in the economically-crippling aftermath of Japan’s bubble-bursting stock market losses of the 1980s and ’90s.

At various times and in many locations since, it has described prolonged financial, ecological and social losses or stagnation.

Lost decade could also define Guernsey’s response to the States Housing Needs Study of 2011, then the most comprehensive appraisal of our island’s accommodation in the face of a severe housing shortage at the time.

The study found cases of homelessness and of tenants commonly in risk of repossession, and raised concerns about mismatched households and their dwellings, such as overcrowding, shared or inadequate facilities and infant children in multi-storey flats or multi-occupancy buildings. It found significant structural disrepair, lack of or dysfunctional services and fundamental health and safety issues. There were incompatibility problems among family members with lasting medical support needs, and others facing insidious social problems such as harassment, racism and acrimonious relationship breakdowns.

Summarising what the study takes three full pages to itemise hardly begins to describe the sorrowful conditions some of our fellow islanders were living under – and doubtless many still do.

Ten years later and the matter is back in the political and media spotlight, only vastly intensified by the cost and widespread lack of available rental and freehold properties in our gladiatorial housing market.

The Guernsey Housing Association currently has about 500 applicants on its waiting list, despite recently celebrating the construction of its 1,000th island dwelling since its formation in 2002.

Last month, the States purchased the former Kenilworth vinery site on behalf of the GHA, in anticipation of 130 new houses being built between Saltpans and Braye Road. This swiftly followed proposals to build more than 300 new dwellings on the States-owned former Belgrave and La Fontaine vinery sites.

So, where is the incessant demand for housing coming from? Not from overpopulation, apparently. Guernsey’s headcount numbered 62,431 in 2010 and 63,155 in 2020, a negligible rise of 1.1% over 10 years.

And contrary to short-term statistics showing market rents and house prices soaring above wage increases in recent years, the table below tells an entirely different story over a 10-year period.

2010/11-2020/21 % increase

Population: 62,431, 63,155, 1.1%

Average house price: £411,074, £493,174, 20%

Median average salary: £27,430, £35,497, 29%

RPI rate of inflation: June 2011, June 2021, 23.8%

Source: States of Guernsey: www.gov.gg

These are States of Guernsey published figures not necessarily disproving other findings, although proving that statistics can be abstruse. Indeed, ‘How to lie with statistics’ is the title of a 1954 book by Darrell Huff. Even the true origin of the phrase about lies, damned lies, and statistics is uncertain.

In effect, while the much-quoted average price for a Guernsey house reflects current trends in our housing market, it cannot be applied across the board.

In August, one of the leading local law firms declared that the epicentre of the local market boom is between £400,000 and £700,000. They have also seen movement at the top end of the market, although to a lesser degree, and are willing to argue against there being any significant change in the lower end of the local market.

For example, Greffe records show the average price of 20 local market flats sold in March this year as £277,875, which is less than some calendar months going back 10 years or more. In fact, a flat was recently conveyed at the same price as it was purchased for in 2008.

This is not to decry the difficulties tenants and buyers are experiencing in the housing market, but it’s no different to virtually every capitalist country in the world. The inflationary level of activity has taken everyone by surprise but is not unprecedented and won’t last.

Neither do the 500 people on the GHA’s waiting list each require a dwelling. Some will be families of two or more people and several already have accommodation in the private and public sectors, which will come back onto the market for others to rent or buy once their occupants have been rehoused.

Nonetheless, new and replacement housing has suffered a lost decade in Guernsey, which is not the fault of private developers working in a business driven of late by unfavourable market forces. The lull in building locally should have propelled our States to invest in and ultimately profit from enterprising building programmes, providing much-needed work for the industry and adequate housing for the tax-paying public, who directly and indirectly repay the exchequer in abundance.

This still applies to any States-owned land and redundant buildings. At this crucial time for investment in projects with solid financial returns, releasing public wealth into private hands for the sake of a quick buck is absurd.

I have written previously about the States taking a more business-like approach, looking at the wider picture and adopting a give-and-take method of land-use classes in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors, without having to resort to agricultural land. There is a need to concentrate on identifying and encouraging wholesale redevelopment models with broader objectives and aspirations, rather than over-indulging individual planning applications and implementing village-centre modules on an island measuring only 24 square miles.

For instance, it’s time to develop elongated and often vacuous gardens behind roadside ribbon development, essentially along the arterial routes in the higher parishes, where multiple clusters of low-density housing would not encroach upon the copious green fields beyond.

Above all, the granting of planning permission must be a government directive, decreed as belonging to the States and not the individual property owner or developer. By asserting proprietary rights on planning permissions, the planning authority can legitimately determine building applications on need and merit. Appeals could still be heard, but not subject to points of law.

The authority’s protracted written policies are presently open to interpretation and even legal action by developers and architects determined to maximise a site’s potential profit. The planning authority should not and need not be hamstrung by its own petard.

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