‘THE island is benefiting from the cautious approach of previous States in building up reserves,’ says the Government Work Plan 2021-25, before raiding them to the tune of £445m.
In addition, it plans to borrow another £200m., as a ‘temporary solution’ without a scooby as to how it’s going to fund repayment in the long term. That’s a decision left for another day.
If you didn’t know any of this, that would be no surprise, given it is well buried within the GWP’s 268 pages, which, despite aspirations to the contrary, is not a great deal shorter than the 311 pages in the last major plan document in 2019.
At least you can take comfort that it’s all going to be spent wisely – or at least ‘invested’ in capital infrastructure for our future, right?
Before we’ve even discussed the GWP, we had last week’s extraordinary vote in the education debate, on the back of a policy letter described blithely by the Education president as a ‘sales document for deputies’, putting us one step closer to ignoring the teachers and spending £54m. on buildings, including an entirely new Sixth Form Centre, 500 metres away from the serviceable one built a mere 16 years ago, in an ideologically obsessed pursuit of the ‘principle of equity’ and the ‘parity of esteem’. Surely the vainest of vanity projects.
Meanwhile, vital non-vanity projects such as coastal defences, the Dairy and a MRI scanner are kicked into the long grass, with little added other than a ‘clinical and animal waste solution’. In the meantime, we’ll also get to spend several more millions engaging off-island consultants to look, once again, at extending the runways – not one this time but two, the one in Guernsey and the one in Alderney.
It is true that previous administrations have struggled to expedite the delivery of the capital programme. Many of those delays were not because of the civil service process, often cited as the reason, but because of political spokes being thrust into the wheels – the schools programme, the inert waste site and the L’Ancresse anti-tank wall being three such examples, with multiple millions being spent going around the mulberry bush again.
In the most brazen attempt yet at introducing executive government by the back door, the Policy & Resources Committee is also proposing that all limits are removed on its delegated authorities in relation to capital projects in the GWP. In other words, only five deputies will have total control of spending decisions for hundreds of millions of pounds. This authority is being sought, apparently, in a bid to cut through process. If approved, then after next week Policy & Resources will be no longer be subject to the pesky requirement for scrutiny and approval of projects by the Assembly as a whole. Oh, and they will also have the absolute authority to enter into euphemistically-named ‘alternative delivery arrangements’, which in real world speak means private finance initiatives and public private partnerships. The mere perception that this will give the opportunity for some cosy deals to be done behind closed doors ought to be enough for deputies to reject this particular proposal. I will do my darnedest to persuade colleagues to amend these propositions but I’m afraid you should expect them to be approved on the back of the Van Party/Guernsey Party coalition whipped vote.
Capital projects will add £1.7m. a year to government spending, on top of which an additional £27m. spending is planned (£12m. of which is recurring annually, the balance being described as ‘one-off’). Among these are some oddities, such as ‘scoping the options for Guernsey enterprise zones’ at a cost of £1.25m. and ‘enhancing the Guernsey Aircraft Registry’ at £450k, at a time when we are still waiting to see the much promised cost-benefit analysis of the aircraft registry. On the other hand, the next phase of implementing Nice drugs into healthcare is stopped.
Did I mention the proposition to raise taxes by an additional £1m. a year in each of the next four Budgets, totalling an extra £4m. a year by the time of the 2025 Budget? There is no detail at all as to where that particular axe might fall. And in any event, there is no need for this proposition, as Policy & Resources will submit its recommendations annually as part of the Budget – and its recommendations will be dictated by the financial conditions then prevailing.
There is next to no chance that the annual recommendations will actually be £1m. a year – it will be more or maybe less depending on government’s performance. So why throw this in? Simply to spread the political responsibility for increasing taxes away from P&R or, more particularly, the tax-cutting manifesto promises of its treasury lead, Deputy Mark Helyar’s Guernsey Party. If passed, this resolution will then be used to reinforce the narrative that the GWP is not P&R’s plan, but the whole government’s plan. Consequently, it will be said, the additional taxes which flow from it are not what the Guernsey Party or P&R wanted at all, but as the Assembly’s ‘servant-master’ they must accept it is what the majority of deputies wanted.
Next up is the promise to ‘re-shape’ government. This started its rhetorical life as ‘downsizing’ before comically and rapidly being replaced by ‘right sizing’, language which admits that in some areas there is a need for more not fewer people. It’s not started well. The £7m. savings ‘approved in the 2021 Budget are not expected to be achieved within the year and it is now forecast these will not be fully realised until 2023’. Hardly surprising when you read ‘savings have not yet been allocated to specific budgets’ and the GWP bakes in an assumption that public sector pay will continue to rise at 0.5% a year in real terms. But the final detail may fall short of the public’s expectations of the meaning of ‘transformation’ given it envisages £26m. being spent over the four-year period on this work, while yielding savings of only £7.4m. over the same period.
The GWP is a well-intentioned attempt to manage the flow of government business over the next four years and match that work with resources. But it has been prepared with a mix of haste and lack of transparency that has frustrated those involved.
Richard Digard recently wrote in his column, ‘we had four years of the last Assembly pursuing firmly-held personal opinions and that nearly bankrupted us’. It’s a popular view but not one borne out by the facts because, as the GWP itself spells out, we had a surplus of £63m. in 2019 – but his comment may well turn out to be a prophecy for the next four years.