New rules of the road

AS THE weeks of lockdown roll by, its feel has gradually but noticeably changed. For a start there’s a lot more traffic on the roads than a month ago.

(Picture by Peter Frankland, 27714899)
(Picture by Peter Frankland, 27714899)

A small part of that could be a result of phase one of the exit strategy – allowing the home delivery of goods. That could edge up again next week due to all those gardeners and window cleaners who’ll be allowed to ply their trade again. But I suspect most of the extra cars are down to purely private use.

That’s quite alright so long as the vehicles are being driven for one of the very limited number of purposes for which those of us remaining under lockdown (the vast majority) are allowed to leave our homes. For instance it could be that people have got bored with walks near their home and are driving to different parts of the island for their exercise. That’s OK.

I also suspect that a few naughty islanders have been unable to resist the call of their Guernsey genes to simply drive around the island for no particular purpose. That’s not OK.

Whatever the reasons, we are seeing rising traffic levels (albeit still as low as they’ve been for 50 years) at a time when masses of people are still using the roads and lanes of Guernsey on foot or mounted on bikes or horses. Without reasonable courtesy, that could create friction so I would like to suggest two voluntary ‘rules’.

The first is a hierarchy of road users with those lower down the scale making way for those higher up wherever practical. I would propose:

1. Walkers.

2. Horse riders

3. Runners

4. Cyclists

5. Motorists.

There are no value judgements in that suggestion. It is certainly not anti-car. It just makes sense for those moving faster to be considerate of, and give a wide berth to, more sedate road users. This will aid both social distancing and road safety. It will also help more vulnerable road users feel safer and therefore enjoy their exercise far more than if motorists, or even cyclists, were rushing by, inches away from them.

Of course the key to those on foot staying/feeling safe isn’t just the number of motorists but how fast they drive. During the lockdown 90% of drivers have been remarkably considerate, but sadly a small minority seem to view the uncongested roads (uncongested with other cars) as an invitation to put their foot down.

There’s no need for this. Even if we all followed a voluntary 25mph speed limit we’d still get around far faster than in normal times simply because we are not getting stuck in traffic.

Moving on. The States are holding their second online ‘meeting’ this week.

The items range from an item from P&R which brings home the huge financial impact of the current crisis to yet another debate on the L’Ancresse anti-tank wall. Not so much Groundhog Day as fiddling while Rome burns.

As a Vale boy, born and bred, I may be at odds with the parish on this issue. Not my fault – blame another Vale boy, my dad. He was in his early 30s when the Occupation began and once the Germans had been sent packing five years later he was hugely resentful about the way their ‘blasted wall’ (or something like that) had ruined his favourite beach.

I suppose one man’s ‘heritage’ is another man’s ‘despoliation’. He still pined for L’Ancresse as he knew as a boy with sand dunes running along the top and I guess his views rubbed off on me at an impressionable age.

Looking forward. How is the States going to operate for the remainder of this Covid-19 crisis? At the time of writing no proposal has been revealed, but my views are clear.

On one hand, the Civil Contingencies Authority can’t continue to approve all of the big decisions. It simply wasn’t designed as an alternative government to run Guernsey for months on end. That will be particularly true when the response to the virus becomes as much about economic recovery as it is about public health. That time is fast approaching and there will be some very difficult choices to make between competing imperatives.

On the other hand, nor do I feel that Guernsey’s traditional system of government by committees, and by a parliament which wields most of the real executive powers, is well suited to an emergency either.

I have said this quite clearly over recent weeks, which has led to some colleagues saying, ‘really – so you favour executive government?’

That’s been quite annoying. No one has been more robust than myself over very many years in defending our traditional system of government, with its diffuse executive powers, where anybody elected to Guernsey’s parliament is also in the island’s government.

I have consistently accepted that it might not be the most efficient or quickest way of governing but it is still miles better than a UK-style executive system, which requires party politics to ensure the government enjoys a majority in the parliament. That would lead to a far more adversarial and less collaborative approach to island government.

I will continue to resist the concentration of power in too few hands – in normal times – until I drop. But these are far from normal times and extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary responses.

So what would I do? I would encourage my fellow deputies to voluntarily delegate the majority of their executive powers to a far smaller group to make all of the big decisions around the crisis for the duration. If they’re worried about mission creep, this could be time limited and require renewal every couple of months.

That would allow rapid and decisive government on all of the matters related to how we get through this historic challenge. Those decisions would be taken by a body rather broader and more representative than the CCA but far, far smaller than the States of Deliberation, which is much too unwieldy and clunky for the purpose.

Where would that leave the rest of us? We would still have work to do both in committee and in the States.

Committees would continue to run ‘business as usual’ within their departments. The last thing a Covid-19 executive would need is to be bothered with running all the day-to-day business of the States. But it would need to be empowered to overrule committees within their mandates where that was essential to the Covid-19 response.

Meanwhile the States would operate as normal for all business not related to the current crisis, although I really hope that can be kept to a minimum over the next few months with only genuinely pressing items being debated.

In respect of Covid-19, the Assembly would – in the short term – fall back to the role carried out by most parliaments around the world. They would be responsible for legislation and for scrutinising the executive.

Before finishing I want to say one more thing. People are fond of saying that ‘we are all in this together’, but in reality it is hitting some people far harder than others, particularly financially.

For those of who are relatively lightly affected, like me, there is now a way to help those who are in a far worse boat. We can donate to two special funds. One to allow islanders to boost the limited cash the States can throw at financial relief. One to support local charities at this crucial time.

I made my first donation last week and will continue to do so weekly for the duration. I really encourage those in a similar, fortunate, situation to do likewise.

Details on how to give are at https://covid19.gov.gg/support/appeals.

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