Forget Aurigny, just answer the runway question

PERMIT ME, if I can marshal the relevant words and figures, to alarm you. To shake you out of that all-pervasive but so very comfy Guernsey complacency that instructs us the world owes us a living. That we need do nothing for our wealth as measured by GDP per capita to remain 65% greater than that of the UK.

(Picture by Photo Junction/Shutterstock.com)
(Picture by Photo Junction/Shutterstock.com)

Well, not put the willies up you, obviously. You’re reading this and so are clearly naturally disposed to questioning the official line that everything is fine and as long as the island’s carbon-neutral by 2030 then the grandkids will have an idyllic future on a plate.

Which means, like me, you’re also wondering what’s got into Policy & Resources, declaring it’s a waste of time and money to resolve once and for all whether we need a longer runway or not.

Poke around in the bowels of the dreadful States of Guernsey website long enough (without Google, you’d never find anything) and it’s clear we’re turning into the mongrel offspring of Sark and Alderney – sliding into decline and obscurity with a geriatric population and no replacement nippers.

Glance at the population reports and you can see the island’s birth rate is in freefall, so the Grim Reaper’s having it all his own way, with deaths exceeding births.

At the same time, the people we relied on to make up the shortfall – guest workers and new residents – are staying away because the island is no longer so attractive to them.

We’re still being told by some of our leaders and betters that if only we hadn’t adopted zero-10 and given away £70-100m. all would be fine, austerity wouldn’t exist and the abreuvoirs would be overflowing with organic milk and vegan honey. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Irrespective, look back at the accounts for 2008, the year zero-10 was introduced, and grateful taxpayers and businesses gave the States a total of £348.8m. in revenues. This year, we’re expected to give government £460m. – £111.2m. more.

So despite zero-10, government is no worse off than it was a decade ago. In fact, in cash terms, it’s £11m. better off. If it doesn’t feel that way, it’s because government itself is swallowing more and, as a proportion of what we do, has never been bigger.

In terms of jobs, the key sectors were finance, retail and, if you didn’t fancy indoor work, construction. Finance is still dominant at 21%. But what’s this? Working for the States is now number two at 17%. And growing, whereas the other sectors are static or shrinking.

I’ve touched on all this before but it’s a vital reality. Do nothing and the state burden will increase on fewer taxpayers as they’re not having enough kids, and guest workers aren’t coming to fill the jobs that – for the time being at least – are still there. Plus, the cost of looking after those of us approaching our dotage are rocketing.

Consultant PwC touches on some of this in its rather excellent strategic options review of the island’s air links. Jersey’s bigger – and growing – population makes it easier to support better air links. The report also demonstrates how Aurigny’s Gatwick fares are disproportionately high and have been rising steadily since Flybe stopped competing in 2014, although – surprise – Aurigny says those figures are wrong.

To recap, Guernsey’s at a crossroads. Without something changing, and this is before Brexit and attempts by MPs to remove privacy from businesses and individuals wishing to use its financial services, it has no sustainable future.

Is a longer runway the solution? No idea, frankly. But that’s why PwC, business groups, Economic Development and the States’ Trading Supervisory Board, among others, say it’s worth a few quid to find out.

What P&R hasn’t flagged, however, is this pretty strong steer from its favourite consultant: ‘A 1,700-1,800m extension should be taken forward as the primary alternative to the 1,570m option. There are clear additional benefits and it is lower risk in the longer term, although there may be a substantial cost difference.’

You don’t hear me say this very often, but that cost is irrelevant. If dispassionate analysis indicates a bigger airstrip provides solutions to some of the looming problems, there is plenty of cash in the kitty to pay for that.

If the runway is not the answer, we’re still in the poo and other solutions will need to be found. But we have to know one way or another and P&R’s attitude is disturbingly blinkered, especially given how well it discharges its other responsibilities. Perhaps it’s Brexit fatigue.

The other aspect of the PwC report which hasn’t got much airplay is whether we need Aurigny at all.

Fans of the airline though we all are, it has, inevitably, a high-cost business model.

That’s why PwC is itching to review its fleet, which could entail selling the jet, questioning leasing arrangements and upgrading aircraft. It also wants to investigate interlining or code-sharing to work with other airlines to help passengers connect seamlessly and access a wider network.

More fundamentally, its experts want to explore whether Aurigny could operate as a virtual airline. That means its name and rights, especially in regard to the lifeline Gatwick slots, would continue but as a shell airline with its operations carried out by other operators. Extreme outsourcing if you will.

This last possibility brings a number of very attractive benefits, although it is not without risk, yet bizarrely PwC isn’t being asked to look into it.

Indulge me a further recap. P&R reckons it’s a waste of time and money to look at the longer runway length, although its consultant says a 1,700m strip is the primary alternative to what we have now. Additionally, the committee’s not keen on establishing whether the whole operation can be outsourced to provide a better, cheaper service that’s more reliable and closer to what islanders and business want.

No, I don’t know why either. If it’s some sort of ‘protect Aurigny at any cost’ thinking, I’d suggest it’s misplaced. Safeguard the slots, that’s a given. But Guernsey cannot afford sacred cows – that’s why the public sector pension scheme got (partially) reformed.

If it’s to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that the £31m.-worth of losses it has raked up to date is effectively money wasted, that’s also misguided. Changed circumstances can overtake the best of previous decisions.

More fundamentally, however, without knowing whether a longer runway can resolve some really rather pressing problems, we simply cannot move on.

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