Dealing with three-pronged issues requires a radical shift in mindset
Postponing the election to June 2021 is a disaster: too many crises for a small community.
WE ARE still dealing with two emergencies following the Covid-19 pandemic. The fear of close contact with other people, so successfully instilled in the Guernsey population by the Civil Contingency Authority (CCA), ensures that social distancing will continue for weeks and months to come. And with the lockdown exit framework now published, and continued monitoring of community transmission, attention can turn to another emerging health crisis: mental stress in various forms (anxiety, insecurity, self-harm, emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, depression, etc.) resulting from the lockdown, as well as from financial and economic problems. We now have a health issue mutating into a mental problem affecting all age groups and likely to increase well after lockdown is lifted, and even to persist long-term. Can our mental health services cope with this unfolding trauma and collateral damage of lockdown?
Economy, environment and social fabric:
At their April meeting, the States agreed that these three issues needed to be re-imagined as one whole innovative development. The urgency is everywhere: dealing with the collapsed economy; halting the destruction (and next crisis) caused by climate change; and reducing the island’s widening wealth gap (still the second largest in the western world). Social support is essential during our ecological and social transition towards the ‘new normal’.
The International Monetary Fund recommend infrastructure projects, as ‘the return on any half-decent project more than covers rock-bottom borrowing costs’. The IMF added that these investments should include infrastructure and green projects.
The speed of policy decisions and implementation by Public Health to tackle the pandemic will forever be the yardstick by which to compare future States deliberations. One very important reason for Public Health’s success is that it is not hindered by red tape. This points to the first and most urgent priority for the government going forward: to eliminate red tape; to simplify all regulations and administrative processes in all States departments; to streamline our bloated public administration. Thereafter, all future works and projects should face the shortest time span possible between conception and realisation.
The building of new stock of social housing could be sped up by adopting standardised styles for every type of accommodation (one-bed, two-bed, three-bed, etc.), with no more than two or three variations of each style to suit land configuration and neighbourhood architecture. All styles to be pre-approved by Planning & Building Control, with spades in the ground only pending decisions regarding land issues.
New infrastructure projects – wholly financed by private equity, or jointly with the States – should provide a regular and guaranteed income stream. Any private capital, attracted by income producing, green projects will make the agreed £500m. borrowings go even further. Strict conditions should be attached to all new projects: contractors and builders to be locally registered and managed, using Guernsey labour only; unavoidable non-local input (e.g. of a specialist or technical nature not available locally) to be provided in an advisory capacity only; priority to be given to investments in renewable energy projects (wave, sun, wind) and in high-tech projects.
The 2019 Update of The Policy & Resource Plan provides the necessary starting point. The plan, first drafted in 2017, covers inclusive community, tackling poverty, climate change, capital portfolio, etc. Suddenly, all these goals are being accelerated by the devastation caused by the lockdown. The portfolio of major capital (infrastructure) projects contained in the plan requires immediate prioritising, and this could be done by experienced professionals under special authority delegated by the CCA or the Assembly. Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures. The CCA took the right (and the best) decision regarding the health crisis; are they astute enough to take another ‘best’ decision regarding the economic crisis? Deputy Trott explained that, in the recovery process, the P&R Committee will be advised and assisted by an advisory panel of experts in the fields of economics and fiscal strategy. This is reassuring but of little benefit when the deputies continue to ignore the experts’ advice as they have done so frequently throughout this political term; this explains why so few capital projects have seen the light of day during these last few years, and also why some of the 2014 borrowings still remain unspent.
About the postponed election:
Deputy St Pier said, on 5 May, that holding an election in the near future is not feasible given the public health risks. This argument is already out of date, as Dr Nicola Brink repeatedly emphasised the fluid nature of the phased lockdown exit strategy, which may be adjusted according to the health data.
Voting, in terms of social distancing, is similar to visiting shops, restaurants, gyms, etc., all part of phase four which could start next month(June).
So SACC still have plenty of time to finalise the preparations for an October 2020 general election, to be postponed (but very unlikely) at the last minute should the virus reappear due to excessive flouting of social distancing rules.
There is another major reason for returning to an October 2020 election: 15 deputies do not want to postpone the election to June 2021, with a number of them planning to retire next month from political life. As all parents know, getting a child to do a job against his/her wish means that the job gets done (sort of...) but with no commitment, enthusiasm, efficiency, interest or motivation. It is nonsense, torture even, to keep these deputies in their posts against their wishes. For the next 12 months these deputies will be less than useful, but they will still want to collect their 40 grand.
Surely, the honourable thing to do is to take a new vote and re-select October 2020 for the general election, as originally proposed by SACC. The further claim by Deputy St Pier, that a 2020 election will limit the effectiveness of government in the short term, cannot be substantiated, as the advisory panel of experts referred to by Deputy Trott will still be available to assist the new Assembly – thankfully.
I want to point out that all my references to deputies are meant collectively, of course, as we have some outstanding representatives, including deputies St Pier, Soulsby and Trott, to name just three.
It is Public Health, i.e. a majority (?) of non-elected, but professionally qualified people, which dealt so efficiently with the pandemic; the large majority of States members played no part in dealing with the virus and the lockdown. That, and the absence of red tape, explains why decisions were taken so swiftly. Less government equals better government.
Stay-at-home deputies had plenty of time to reflect on this most unusual, but telling, situation. But the penny did not drop, and at the subsequent April States meeting it took members three days of debates just to approve a £500m. loan (subject to conditions). The ‘new-found confidence in politicians’ only exists in Deputy St Pier’s mind.
Openness and frequent communication, hallmarks of Public Health, ensured wide public acceptance of the draconian lockdown measures. Similar public support could also be expected for redesigning the island’s economy and society... if the people continue to be engaged in the process. So why are the daily bulletins completely absent for this long-term rebuilding programme? Why is P&R’s ‘high level’ strategy, decided behind closed doors it seems, taking four weeks to formulate, when most of the information is available in the Policy & Resource Plan (see above).
We are facing a cliff-edge situation like never before. Dealing with the three-pronged economic, environment, and social issues requires a radical shift in mindset, a sense of urgency, vision, ambition and leadership – none of which this Assembly and this cumbersome government machinery can deliver.
Who can trust an Assembly with a four-year record of bickering, indecision, delaying and decision reversals (U-turns), and with now the additional burden of carrying members no longer concerned with the outcome of future States meetings, to suddenly step up to the plate?
Only deputies remaining out of touch with reality and sealed in their bubble can believe that. Having to endure another year of dithering when so much needs to be done in so little time will condemn the island to the status of has-been minnow on the international stage.