Guernsey Press

‘We have to attack our housing problem with a vengeance’

Guernsey’s housing situation is desperate – and listing the Castel Hospital will only make it worse, explains Deputy Peter Ferbrache, president of Policy & Resources

Castel Hospital. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 32499876)

I READ with interest the comments made in the Press by the much-respected architect Andrew Dyke concerning the listing of the Castel Hospital. I very much value his judgment in such matters. He led a team which restored my own property where I live which was built somewhere in the late 16th/early 17th Century. He did a brilliant job.

He even persuaded me to build a 21st Century folly, which is the tower that can be seen in my duck pond.

That said, we are now in the 21st Century and we have a real housing need. We have so many properties that could be listed for heritage purposes. They run into the thousands. We have to balance the need for restoration and listing against the very, very pressing requirement for people to have decent homes, whether to buy or to rent. I have never known the housing situation to be so desperate in my lifetime. We need homes today. In fact, we needed them yesterday and the day before.

I believe that former States member Andrew Le Lievre may soon give a detailed history of social housing in Guernsey, and I look forward to reading that, as should everyone. Knowing him it will be well researched.

What we now have to do though is attack our housing problem with a vengeance, as others did in the past when faced with real challenges. Andrew can relate the history of that.

I was walking up New Street recently when a conveyancing clerk I know stopped me for a chat. He showed me an article in the Guernsey Press, from 2017 I believe, showing that there was real cause for concern because housing prices had fallen by 8%. The average price of a local market home was then something in the order of £470,000 or thereabouts. It is now in excess of £660,000. The pressures are such we are unlikely, as just a few years ago, to see such a downturn in prices.

Although there will always be troughs and peaks in relation to housing, we now have such an absolute requirement for our citizens to be able to be decently housed. People do not want plans or mission statements. They want homes. They want homes that do not cost, if they want to buy, an average of 16-plus times their gross pay, and they cannot be expected to pay for a pretty modest family home £2,500-£3,000 per calendar month rent.

Castel Hospital. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 32499876)

Deputy Marc Leadbeater gave an example in the States recently of the situation a friend of his faced. The friend was in need of rental accommodation. He could not obtain one for months, and when he did he was having to pay six months’ rent in advance. That exemplifies the desperate position people find themselves in.

I heard on a news item recently a lady from Sarnia Housing saying correctly just how dire the housing situation is. She related a story of a lady who has to sleep in her car, and whose 12-year-old child stays on a nightly basis with friends/acquaintances. That should be unacceptable in Guernsey in 2023. We need revolution in the way that we need to solve our housing problems, not mere evolution. I have used that phrase before in this context and make no apology for doing so.

I am absolutely sure that all of the members of the DPA that voted for the listing of the Castel Hospital did so in good faith and with the best of intentions. That does not stop that decision, in my view, being a poor one. It had regard to our heritage, not our modern housing needs.

The former Odeon Cinema at Monument Gardens, St Peter Port. (32499888)

Of course the listing contributes to our heritage. Of course in an ideal world it would be better if it could simply be listed and restored. Deputy Taylor, who is a member of the DPA, and I were having a conversation about something completely different recently when he asked me how I was qualified to give a view about such matters. I answered with the phrase ‘common sense’. I believe he thought that I had said that the property was not structurally sound. I do not believe I ever said that, but if I did then I could have been wrong. Whether it is or is not structurally sound is not the issue, but by listing it places a potential (in my view real) hurdle to the use of that part of the Castel site for housing.

In any event I make no theoretical criticism of the issue of a survey because under the relevant law and having regard to the considerations they had to have regard to when listing, that was probably not required, albeit I refer to that just later on.

We live though in a world where we need practical solutions, not theory. I have little doubt that the political members of the DPA applied, in accordance with the advice that they would have been given, the relevant weight to the appropriate criteria for listing.

Their decision in theory could have been appealed on one of the grounds, being that it was unreasonable. Now I have a fair degree of experience as a lawyer in connection with planning matters. I am also known not to shirk a legal challenge. That said, if I were advising a client as to whether or not to appeal the decision, I would be advising ‘no’.

Guernsey Prison in St James Street. (32499900)

The word ‘unreasonable’ in this context means in my view either not taking into account relevant matters that they would have had to take into account or that they applied undue weight to them. I cannot see any evidence of that, so from a pure listing point of view I think any appeal would have been likely to be unsuccessful and would have given false hope and wasted much time.

There were also no other practical remedies that could have been applied to change that decision in early course.

That said, I still think the politicians made a poor decision. They know the wider interests of the community, which is well beyond keeping an old building which is well past its sell-by date in situ. They were entitled to say, and should have said, ‘We cannot in the extreme circumstances we find ourselves in list this property’.

The reality is that the States is never going to have the money to maintain it. The States is never going to have the funds to restore it to its former glory, although, and bearing in mind the usage of the property over the years, I think ‘glory’ is probably not the appropriate word.

I remember when the States knocked down the old Odeon Cinema. That had begun life before the Second World War as the Regal Cinema. It was an iconic building. An old friend of mine, Lyndon Queripel, with great energy, led the resistance to it being knocked down, although he was not successful because a competing property at the time for listing was St James Church, as it then was. The view was taken that that was a more appropriate property to list and protect. Whether that was right or not, I leave others to decide, although, speaking for myself, I am glad we still have it, and it makes a valuable contribution to island life. It is an attractive building. In an ideal world though I wish that the Odeon Cinema was still with us, but a pragmatic and realistic decision was made to demolish it.

What we have been left with though now – for, what is it, more than four decades? – is a car park where the cinema used to be. Really! Was that the intention when it was demolished? I think not. Anyway, moving on.

Andrew Dyke mentioned the old prison. I probably spent more time in that prison in my early days as a Guernsey advocate than most prisoners. It was lovely. It was an Elizabeth Fry-era building if I remember correctly. It was though completely unsuitable in the 20th Century for its continued use as a prison.

We had to, under pressure from the Home Office, build the current prison. Not a building of beauty but a building of practicality which will serve our needs for many years to come.

The old prison was thus demolished. Certain of its features have been used in the extension and renovation of the Royal Court building, but its demolition was I believe the correct decision. We had to be practical and move on.

In an ideal world it could have been turned into a museum. If it had, I wonder if my colleagues Deputies Trott and St Pier would have occasionally volunteered to spend the odd night in the cells so that visitors to a museum could look at them through the bars. Now that would have been a real draw both for tourists and locals alike.

Deputy Peter Ferbrache. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 32499858)

Anyway, moving on again.

I asked some 15 questions of the politicians involved in making the decision to list the Castel Hospital. Those questions were answered by a senior civil servant within a reasonable period of time.

I now refer to just some of those answers.

No survey was obtained. I appreciate they were not obliged to but, nevertheless, no survey was undertaken.

The condition of the building was not taken into account when considering it for listing.

No advice was sought on the cost of repairs to any part of the listed building. They did not take into account the cost of repairs. No advice was sought on the future cost of keeping the listed building in good condition. The cost of its future upkeep was not taken into account. No advice was sought on the future use of the listed parts of the building.

The effect of the listing on the future housing development of the site was not considered.

The reality of the situation from all of that thus is that we are left with a building that nobody is going to spend any money on and is going to provide no practical utility to anybody and will be a bar to any developer taking on the site, whether it was for social/affordable housing or otherwise.

All we in P&R were left with, and we have done, is to write to the DPA saying in precis, ‘When you review the IDP [which they are now doing] can you have regard to zoning it in such a way that it can be more available for housing?’. That though will not in any way affect the listing of the Castel Hospital, which we are now stuck with for the foreseeable future. A future which means it will get more and more neglected, because we simply do not have the funds to put it into any kind of reasonable condition, and for what use? If in due course you were able to get planning permission to turn it into, say, residential flats for the elderly, heritage requirements and the costs associated therewith are likely to be very significant indeed so, in practical terms, that conversion will never happen.

I recently asked how many GHA properties had been built to date this term. I have been informed that the total is 33. There is a possibility that during the remainder of this term another 15 units could be constructed.

That means, thus, that in the lifetime of this States, which would have been four years and eight months by the time it is finished, the GHA would have constructed less than 50 such units.

The only comfort I get, and it is pretty poor comfort, is that at least this States had the gumption, which some of its predecessors did not, to spend over £30m. of public money on buying sites which hopefully will be turned into homes in the years to come.

Too little though, too slowly and too late. Somebody will say ‘better late than never’. True, albeit I prefer what my old headmaster from Amherst School said to me and others as 10-year-olds – ‘better never late’.

Decisions such as the Castel Hospital do not help us to provide housing, however well-intentioned that decision was. They are a real hindrance. Instead let us do something for many, including the lady having to sleep separate from her child and in her car.