We can build it but will they come?
The idea of developing Guernsey’s east coast has brought out the sceptic in Horace Camp.
I AM A bit puzzled about the east coast redevelopment project – and it isn’t just because according to the States of Guernsey and Greta Thunberg, most of our present east coast will be under water in 100 years. No, the main source of my puzzlement is that no one seems to have vocalised why we want to develop it in the first place.
We have done a few bits and pieces to the east coast over the years. A couple of car parks and the odd marina. A roundabout and some modern office development as well, stretching from the old Royal Hotel to Fruit Export. Quite clearly no concerted plan, but in the main driven by the spirit of enterprise with the underlying motivation of benefiting the economy.
One of the downsides of the development was encouraging islanders to rely less on walking, cycling and bussing when visiting Town, simultaneously making our health worse and increasing the use of fossil fuels. Yes, a big thank you to the genius who came up with the North Beach idea.
It could be argued that at the time of developing North Beach, which facilitated the use of the car, we were completely oblivious to the dangers of fossil fuels and the impending apocalypse due to climate change. We were also totally unaware of the approaching death of retail and the high street to be brought about by the internet.
Just like all armies prepare for and train to fight the last war, infrastructure developments are often designed by planners who have one foot in the past and the other in the present and funded by entrepreneurs who expect a quick return from a brief expected to still be viable in 100 years.
There are always exceptions that prove any rule and in Guernsey we have had successful infrastructure developments on our east coast which still benefit us and our economy. Our forebears developed a grand harbour with wonderful wide esplanades far in excess of what the island needed in the short term and at a cost which was highly speculative in nature.
Their Victorian mindset of grandiose projects proved to be a ‘build it and they will come’ moment far before that phrase became the inspiration for a plethora of memes. I fear the successful outcome of that development project, led by a true visionary genius and approved by the ruling rich elite whose own money would be funding it, will be used as a rationale for doing it again.
Unfortunately we have no visionaries or geniuses and the approval will come from a democratically elected body with one or two rich, elite members but in the main the money will be provided by the stretched working classes and not our Assembly members.
Ross Le Brun will hate this next paragraph. He sees the plan as altruistic and sees no place for the stain of profit and can’t sleep at night for the fear that the pursuit of filthy lucre will dominate the thinking of the development agency members.
However, back in the real world, unless we intend to develop our infrastructure solely with the money torn from our wallets, purses and pockets, the folk expected to provide the moolah will expect to get it back in spades.
While the States is spending our hard-earned cash to provide some below sea level affordable homes for Millennials, the money men will be looking to turn a fast buck and limit the risk of any long exposure.
Take Admiral Park as an example of how it works. Initial entrepreneur develops a fine office building, then acquires a tip-top tenant and ties them into a long lease period. Everyone is happy with this. The offices are built for current need and prestige and deep-pocketed tenants are happy to take a long-term view of the successful continuation of their industry.
The rental return is good and guaranteed. So does Johnny Entrepreneur take the long view and stay content to keep his money invested and grow fat on the premium rental income? No, he effectively packages up the building and its rent as a sort of 25-year fixed income bond and sells it for a good profit. He now has a whack of cash to invest short-term elsewhere and has removed himself from the risk of being tied to the up and down cycle of our economy.
So where does this leave us now? Given the players we have, I would say up a certain creek without a paddle. From the debate on the development agency I have drawn the conclusion that the Assembly, which seems to want to run the project, is neither of Mensa quality nor a Mystic Meg.
It would seem to me that our great east coast development will be focused on making our tourism industry great again, as well as encouraging more finance businesses to come and join us. Possibly the ‘vision’ could be summarised by imagining lots of finance workers and cruise line passengers promenading along the car-free esplanades, all dressed like Bridgerton extras, with parasol sales hitting astronomical levels.
We will get funding for such a daft plan. We may not be selling off our family jewels but we will be giving away long leases which will be long enough to be packaged up and sold as ‘bonds’ by the initial money men to some poor saps who will eventually take the hit when the finance workers and tourists just don’t come.
And we of course will be funding the social and environmental aspects of the development with GST, or some other heinous form of taxation, and if by some chance affordable housing (using the real world definition of affordable, not the social housing definition used by the States) actually appears, it will be because our economy has totally crashed. And perversely, if our economy crashes and house prices plummet they still won’t be affordable because you can’t get a mortgage without a job.
By now you may have guessed that I am somewhat of a sceptic when it comes to this plan. And I will remain so until someone tells me that if we build it they will come and that the ‘they’ are not tourists or finance businesses.