Cut the red tape

If the States of Guernsey really wants to diversify the economy, it needs to make it easier for local entrepreneurs, says Horace Camp.

I WOULD like you to cast your mind back to 1535. Henry VIII sits on the throne of England and Sir Thomas More is executed on Tower Hill. Meanwhile in Guernsey the States is concerned about the sustainability of a local green asset which is of such value that the people are over-harvesting this boon of nature and there are fears that future crops will diminish year by year.

Therefore the possibly first sustainability ordinance (albeit economically driven rather than a David Attenborough sort of thing) of the States of Guernsey was issued in January 1535. And what was being protected for future generations? Have you guessed yet, Dear Reader? It was of course vraic. The green gold that our English friends like to refer to as seaweed.

We certainly didn’t regard vraic as a weed. It is fertiliser, fuel, an emergency food and even medicinal. There is talk that a specific vraic found only around Alderney is as good as the famed Icelandic moss for treating mouth and throat irritation, loss of appetite, the common cold, coughs, sneezes, fevers and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

In the more distant times social responsibility favoured the poor, allowing them to cut vraic overnight on specified days, which ensured they would have fuel for their fires and the resulting potash could be spread on their gardens to give the vegetables a bit of a tonic.

Vraic was an economically and socially important crop. Thousands of box cart loads would be taken every year and the prescribed vraic cutting days would be big community affairs with food, fun and frolics taking the edge off the hard labour.

Vraic had quite a value and over time became a commodity most people purchased and given that nearly 30,000 loads a year were being delivered at its peak, it became quite an industry.

My grandfather was in the vraic trade, among other enterprises, and my father spent many hours on the beaches loading horse-powered box carts. The season was relatively short and the aim was to get as many cart loads a day as was possible. Father told stories of the tide coming in and floating the box cart while they were still loading.

We in this island are certainly blessed. Deputy Le Tocq’s God has given us an equitable climate, fertile soil, long sunny days, strong winds, incredible tides and the sea’s bounty, which includes vraic. Surely we can want for nothing.

That would of course be true had we chosen to take advantage of the great gifts that surround us. We grow very little in our fertile soil, we have let our solar-powered growing palaces fall into disrepair, our winds just blow and power nothing and our tides rise and fall without any attempt to tap into their great potential.

And vraic? It’s just smelly stuff that is very annoying and the States should do something about it.

But wait. One man can see the potential for a new industry based upon vraic. Brilliant, given our stated intent to diversify our economy. Starting small and investing his pension money, this entrepreneur is no spring chicken, but George Clacy begins to turn vraic into an economic benefit.

The product is good and plans are made to scale up, with dreams of an export business bringing in much-needed new money to grow our GDP. There could even be a place for disused vineries to be converted into seaweed processing units, making them once again a contributor to our economy.

Greater scale calls for a new way of growing and harvesting vraic which is both environmentally and economically sustainable. In the pre-Covid world, Mr Clacy went hither and thither to see what others are successfully doing to farm vraic. All this travel may not have been green, but even Extinction Rebellion activists would be able to see that converting vraic sustainably to green, organic products would be worth the cost in the long run.

So here we have it. An entrepreneur with a project that aligns with the States of Guernsey’s economic diversity policy and which is probably just what the Guernsey Investment Fund was designed to support.

How is vraic farmed in the 21st century? Well, vraic spores are collected and impregnated into long ropes which are then rolled out about five feet deep and 15 feet apart. I imagine they are similar to mooring lines in our bays. Nothing majorly new here and it has been tried and tested in other jurisdictions and generally considered beneficial to biodiversity and all the other stuff beloved by greens.

What could go wrong with such a great initiative?

Well, it appears the insurmountable stumbling block is the States of Guernsey, specifically Environment & Infrastructure. Somehow they convinced an enthusiastic entrepreneur (exactly what Guernsey needs right now) who has invested his pension savings to call it a day.

Unlike other jurisdictions, which offer up to 100% grants to encourage seaweed farming, our government appears to offer only obstacles designed to remove all hope.

I trust this is a rare occurrence, but I doubt it.

There is a tendency for the States to want to interact with large corporates. We have read this week how Deputy Inder wants to assist local businesses to solve the riddle of the procurement process and keep more money in our island by not disenfranchising small, local businesses with red tape and bureaucracy they just cannot afford to cut through.

If the States of Guernsey really wants to diversify the economy with locally-headquartered businesses, then it must encourage local entrepreneurs and not make their lives a misery. And for all the rhetoric from Locate Guernsey, the most likely entrepreneurs who will diversify our economy will already be living here or have a very close existing connection. Therefore my plea today is encourage our home-grown talent. Accept they may not be the mega corporates you really want (and who are not coming) and write your procedures accordingly.

In other words, cut the (here I would like to make reference to the waste of a male bovine but not sure my editor would approve) red tape.

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