Guernsey Press

Back down to earth

Deputy Gavin St Pier explains what’s on the agenda at this week’s States meeting


SPARE a thought for journalists and editors during August, the media’s ‘silly season’. While many of their ‘content creators’ on whom they normally rely on to generate news – the politicians – are taking a break, they have to work with the thin gruel of government media releases and the ramblings of the friendless. Thank goodness for Nadine Dorries’ resignation letter.

As the schools return to a new academic year on Wednesday, the States of Deliberation will begin its first meeting in September. Routine statements are due from the Policy & Resources Committee and Home Affairs, followed by a relatively short agenda of other business. However, the length of the agenda is no indication of the likely length of the meeting or its possible tetchiness.

The first item of business is Environment & Infrastructure’s policy letter on the electricity strategy. This was delayed in July by a sursis, led by P&R’s Deputy Murray, who successfully argued that it needed to be debated alongside P&R’s capital programme and funding proposals. These were never going to be ready to be debated in early September and, in the event, have been further delayed until at least October. Logically, therefore, a further sursis might be expected to again push back debate on the electricity strategy. However, it seems P&R are now taking a different approach.

Firstly, they have recently published a letter of comment on the policy letter, although there has been no explanation why this was not prepared before the strategy was originally due to be debated in July.

Secondly, the media have become aware that Deputy Helyar is intending to lay an amendment although, at the time of writing, this had not been published.

The concerns expressed are a jumble of different issues which leave a nagging doubt that while P&R knows that the island desperately needs an electricity strategy, they are reluctant to endorse E&I’s work believing, perhaps, that they could do better. This manifests itself in a number of ways. There is a suggestion that more needs to now be done with Jersey. This includes the possibility of merging Guernsey Electricity and Jersey Electricity. Given JEC is a publicly-quoted company with significant non-government shareholdings, any merger – which has, of course, been touted before – would be neither easy nor quick to negotiate. The risk then is the ongoing development and execution of the electricity strategy would be further delayed, consistent with this Assembly’s apparent determination for inaction this term.

While the electricity strategy is long-term and intentionally flexible in the technologies to be deployed in its execution, P&R seem to have a preference for the development of offshore wind power, evidenced not least by their creation of an offshore wind sub-group led by Deputy Meerveld.

Finally, the costs of the strategy, short and long term, are cited as concerns by P&R. The fact is that all alternative courses of action, including taking none, will incur costs for consumers in the long term. These will be even higher the longer it takes to agree (or not) a strategy. The short-term costs are minuscule in the grand scale of both the strategy and government spending more generally. To hold up the strategy because, it is argued, they are not well enough particularised now either completely misses the long-term nature of the strategy or is an excuse for derailing it in its current form, given P&R already have enough tools in their capital spending procedural tool kit to oversee good management of these short-term costs to progress the strategy.

Another debate on another airport runway extension is likely to be as scratchy as the electricity strategy debate. The much-awaited and delayed policy letter from Economic Development in relation to the Guernsey Airport runway is, in essence, a cute hospital pass to the States’ Trading Supervisory Board to deal with it as a commercial issue as and when they think they need to resurface what is there. It’s best not to think too hard about the hundreds of thousands in consultancy costs, let alone the internal resource, that it has taken to reach this conclusion.

The not-inconsiderable fly-in-the-ointment is ED’s very own Deputy Vermeulen who, along with Deputy Dyke, constitute what remains of the Guernsey Party. They intend to move an amendment in essence to progress an extension through the use of the runway safety areas, an idea first floated nearly a decade ago by the late Deputy Jan Kuttelwascher.

To be fair to Deputy Vermeulen, he’s been nothing but consistent in his views on the need to extend the runway and, indeed, it can be argued that this may well have contributed to his being elected in October 2020. He and his party colleague seem unafraid to adhere to the policies on which they were elected, in contrast, perhaps, to those who’ve left the party. He believes that the use of an engineered solution can be achieved within the existing airport perimeter. This is important, as an extension outside this area was always going to be nigh-on impossible to deliver politically.

Deputy Vermeulen believes his solution can be undertaken for £22m., somewhat less than the proposal to extend, widen and repair Alderney’s runway. The economic case for doing so is far from a slam dunk but it’s more evidenced than that for Alderney’s runway extension, the case for which placed no reliance on economic considerations and was rather based entirely on the purported long-term savings, including for Aurigny, of the proposed project. The debate may test the normal political alignments and loyalties in the States. At the end of the day the amendment is likely to be lost to an alliance of those previously opposed, together with those who might have expressed support before, but will find sufficient in ED’s policy letter to justify passing this particular poison chalice to a future STSB to lead another debate in a future States.

Deputy De Lisle’s requete to re-open Herm’s school will conclude the agenda. The requete will also test the loyalties of some, including the president of P&R, Deputy Ferbrache, who has been highly critical in the States in his questioning of the policy change, drawing a good analogy with Herm’s education being like ‘home education’, which ESC profess to support.

At the end of the day, the bonds of the election’s informal Van Party, which have been the most enduring of this Assembly, are likely to bring him back into line behind Deputy Dudley-Owen’s position, but it seems the requete has a good chance of success, not least because nobody believes ESC’s line that the closure is a temporary pilot for a year. (It’s an irony that neither does anyone believe that ESC’s intention to temporarily move the Sixth Form to La Mare will also only be for a year, but that’s another story for another day.) ESC may believe that their decision is a small operational change justified as being in the best educational interests of Herm’s children, but before announcing the decision, they spectacularly failed to roll the pitch to prepare the case for change, particularly among the Herm community impacted by it. Former, present and prospective parents, happy with the education delivered by a popular teacher, do not want the equality of educational opportunity that ESC say they aim to deliver, particularly when it will involve trying to put a four-year-old on a boat at Rosaire Steps in driving wind and rain on a dark, wet Wednesday in February.

The politically heated debates of the week are likely to set Home Affairs up well for their policy letter on domestic abuse legislation to slide through in the middle as relatively uncontroversial.

They say timing is everything in politics.