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The States was right to pull the plug on this expensive merry-go-round

Peter Roffey | Published:

Those who support a longer runway shouldn’t need to throw taxpayers’ cash at yet another consultants’ report to provide a compelling case for it, argues Peter Roffey...

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THE States caught it hot with some in the business community for not spending £700,000 on yet another report on whether to lengthen Guernsey’s runway. I for one have no regrets over voting against this reckless waste of taxpayers’ money.

This is not simply because I have huge reservations over the wisdom of a runway extension – although I do. Rather it is because the States simply must stop their habit of squandering huge sums on consultants’ reports to use as comfort blankets when making difficult decisions.

That is not to say that there is never a case for using experts to advise us on technical matters. Nor am I suggesting that it was inappropriate to employ consultants to look into the possible advantages of a longer runway. In fact we have had several over the years. If the latest had been the one from York Aviation a decade back, there was even a case for a fresh look. The world changes. Rather it was that in this case we would be piling one consultants’ report immediately on top of another, which was only completed last year.

OK, it will be pointed out that further consultancy work was one of the recommendations in the PwC report. What a surprise. I well remember when the States became addicted to commissioning consultants’ reports from Peat Marwick some years ago. One of the conclusions was always that further work be carried out and the States always went for it on the basis of wanting evidence-based decisions. Suckers. It almost reached the point where we had outsourced the government of Guernsey.

The point is that if a strong prima facie case that Guernsey would benefit from a longer runway had been established, either from the work of the Economic Development Committee or the report on connectivity from PwC, then spending more on working up the details would have been perfectly valid. No such initial case was presented. In fact it was striking by its absence.

For example, one of the most avid and longest-standing advocates of a longer runway is Deputy Jan Kuttelwascher. What did he say in the debate? That if we lengthened our runway to 1,700m it would be technically possible for Easyjet to operate here. I think we all knew that already. As a result, he concluded, it would be possible that they might choose to fly here but really not very probable, which he regretted.

I love Easyjet and I use them lots but I am not totally convinced that their operating model would benefit Guernsey that much. It would be a curate’s egg. Good for the leisure market fixated on price but bad for those wanting a fairly frequent and year-round service. It could also prove to be a cuckoo by driving out other operators with no guarantee of longevity themselves if our market proved sub-optimal for them. Very different to Jersey, which has the critical mass to sustain competition.

That said, let’s presume for the sake of argument that attracting Easyjet is the Holy Grail and would be unalloyed good news. I know that you have to speculate to accumulate, but at the same time there needs to be some regard for the likely return on that investment when splashing taxpayers’ cash. So with the man closest to this issue and most gung-ho in favour of a longer runway saying it was improbable that Easyjet would come here even with a 1,700m landing strip, it was hardly a compelling case.

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Instead he seemed to suggest that the main benefit might be allowing Aurigny to operate bigger planes. Well I am always open-minded but this seemed like fairly thin grounds for destroying a sizeable chunk of beautiful farmland at very significant cost. Particularly as Aurigny had given no signs of having such aspirations. However, if it is the new compelling reason for laying tarmac across fields at La Villiaze then I am sure the decision not to vote a small fortune to get consultants to carry out further work won’t stymie it. There is surely plenty of expertise within STSB, Economic Development and the board of Aurigny to work up this concept and make a case.

In fact there has been plenty of chances for all of those wedded to the concept of a longer runway – like some religious tenet – to make a compelling case over the last few years. The fact that they have singularly failed to do so suggests to me that there is no such case to be made.

Of course I accept that I could be wrong, but at some stage those in government have to make a judgement call. How likely is it that this process is leading anywhere meaningful? How much will it cost to make sure? Will any amount of spending on reports really provide solid evidence on which to make a decision? I think it was the right time to pull the plug on this expensive merry-go-round. In fact Deputy Soulsby and I would have done it in 2017.

If Economic Development wants to pursue this project/pipedream then they should come back with a compelling outline case. It should not take multiple consultants’ reports to achieve that if such a case really exists. Watch this space.

Helen Hubert

By Helen Hubert
Features editor

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