OPINION: Stirrings at the grass-roots level

From ‘poo patrols’ to challenging the Church over redundant rectories and the States about inadequate legislation and planning anomalies, there’s more to the douzaines than just checking hedges and douits. Richard Digard highlights some grass-roots issues

Of the estimated 10,000 dogs in the island, possibly only half are properly registered and recorded. (30399214)
Of the estimated 10,000 dogs in the island, possibly only half are properly registered and recorded. (30399214)

I’M GUESSING this isn’t on your radar perhaps as much as how many bottles of wine you can get in a suitcase or how someone called Boris is faring, but the Douzaine Council will be meeting early next month and one of its agenda items is appointing a new chairperson. Riveting I know, but this has significance.

Before you ask whether I’ve lost the plot (years ago, but let it pass), ask yourself this. Who speaks for Guernsey? In these strange times where civil servants take key ‘operational’ decisions unchallenged by deputies and the Assembly itself now does what it’s told (new ferry, anyone?), where’s a still, small voice of calm and reason to be found?

Like so much else, the island’s douzaines are facing change – although the near 120 individual douzeniers still give of their time and skills voluntarily. Anyway, having seen their powers and responsibilities systematically removed by successive States since 1948, government is now reviewing its relationship with the parishes and wondering whether it should reverse the centralisation of the last 70-odd years and devolve back some duties.

Unsurprisingly, there’s parochial suspicion at this – all that free labour to be tapped! – for all the parish willingness to play a part in the working group itself.

Heidi Soulsby, who leads for Policy & Resources, is seen as honourable and trustworthy, the rest of government less so. That’s not simple anti-States sentiment but based on experience and a pretty widespread belief that ‘the system’ regards douzaines as an irritation to be ignored or worked around.

Island-wide elections and the loss of ‘parish deputies’ hasn’t helped. Who represents parochial interests in the Assembly now? Quietly, the individual douzaines are moving to fill that void – some better than others – but view it as an uphill struggle.

The States devolution working group, for instance, is seen in some quarters as more interested in turning the douzaines into identikit clones of government and ultimately controlling parishes as outliers of itself.

Meanwhile, if the publicised experiences of St Sampson’s are anything to go by, serious matters affecting the whole island – public safety, traffic management and decarbonisation – properly raised with all deputies and Environment & Infrastructure are largely ignored. So, too, are multiple-douzaine concerns over the Island Development Plan, widely seen as unfit for purpose, plus representations over unsuitable parish development.

Which brings me back to the forthcoming meeting of the Douzaine Council and whether it decides to take a stronger lead in highlighting and campaigning on some of these issues – and others yet to arise.

For instance, as best I can tell, based on UK figures, around a tonne of dog poo rains down on the island every day.

True, most of it finishes up being exported in our waste streams after being disposed of by the majority of responsible dog owners. But ask the States vet and he’ll run through the diseases and parasites that can lurk in what’s not picked up and the potential danger posed to livestock, children and local meat production.

Some of the parishes have embarked on a survey of the problem and it is hoped others will follow. St Peter Port, one of the most-walked parishes, tagged 440 samples in a 30-day poo patrol towards the end of last year. Castel’s Saumarez Park, another popular area, was a problem highlighted earlier in that year.

Of the estimated 10,000 dogs in the island – I suspect it’s more now, post-Covid – possibly only half are properly registered and recorded. That’s largely in the hands of the parishes, but the licensing system is in desperate need of updating and active policing. Yet there seems little appetite from Environment to recognise the issue, which will require joined-up governance to establish a way forward – let alone finalise.

On a more spiritual level, there’s a problem with the Church of England and the anachronistic laws that say ratepayers have to provide and maintain a rectory for use by clergy who sometimes don’t even live there. In the case of the Vale, the Church owns the property but nevertheless expects parishioners to pay for the upkeep of an asset that isn’t theirs.

There are also issues in a number of parishes either without or awaiting another rector, while others continue to share clerics – which has led to cries of inequality when it comes to financing their housing, because they can live in one property only. St Sampson’s has gone as far as selling off its mausoleum of a rectory. But will it be made to buy a replacement? Difficult to justify with dwindling congregations, but it’s what the law says. Nevertheless, getting Policy & Resources to resolve these anomalies is devilishly difficult.

Congregations are reported to be declining in a number of parishes and, more generally, what would happen if a congregation decided it couldn’t afford to heat, light, clean and fund contents insurance for its parish church and chose to worship elsewhere? At least three parishes are facing that now, I believe, with more to come as the Guernsey Deanery faces falling incomes and worshippers.

In turn, that will leave the parishes with the problem of what to do with a redundant but much loved ancient monument that they own and whether it should be put to alternative uses, sold or turned into housing.

The list of issues raised by the parishes is extensive and includes:

l The area of farmland taken into domestic curtilage under the Island Development Plan which, unlike previous plans, does not give priority to brownfield over greenfield sites.

l There is no directive on size, scale and massing of development, hence the incongruous house in the Cobo Alice field or the Guernsey Housing Association planned development at Saltpans.

l No accurate figure exists for housing demand or annual build targets but 1,400-plus developments in the north have been approved. Similarly, the parishes argue there are no figures of exactly how many one, two, three or four-bed properties are needed.

l Draft Development Frameworks are produced by Planning, but these are seen as giving landowners free architectural advice on how they can best utilise their land for maximum profit at taxpayer expense, while Planning employed UK consultants for the Bridge and St Peter Port frameworks.

l The IDP is flawed because it proceeds without an island infrastructure plan, meaning developments are approved in isolation without knowledge of supporting infrastructure – omissions which came home to roost with Pointues Rocques.

l The IDP does not consider the aggregate effect of all the development frameworks or approvals given on the parishes if, say, all 26 Development Frameworks (15 in the north alone) were approved with no or very little change despite them and others spending hundreds of hours in ‘consultation’.

l There’s an issue with the way the Cadastre’s online land and property records system identifies and defines habitable units, causing anomalies in rates and refuse charging.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it does give a flavour of what’s significant at parish levels and why you should keep an eye on what your douzaine and the Douzaine Council’s up to.

All too often these days, while P&R’s busy bossing the Assembly, they are the only ones speaking up for grass roots issues.

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