Guernsey: how it looks from space...

Looking down on the islands from the International Space Station provides a perspective sadly lacking from last week’s debate on air and sea connectivity. That’s why a majority of States members were happy to ignore a vital lesson from the past, says Richard Digard

The UK and Channel Islands as seen from the International Space Station.
The UK and Channel Islands as seen from the International Space Station.

NASA released an image the other day of the UK taken from the International Space Station. It was striking for a number of reasons, not least – prepare yourselves – because it shows that Guernsey is not the centre of the universe.

Perhaps even more shocking and contrary to what we’ve all been led to believe, it appears that not even Jersey is either.

In fact, we’re pretty insignificant specks at the edges of continental Europe and quite a long way from a Britain that, in theory, is about to sunder itself from its nearest neighbours.

As such, copies of the picture ought to be provided to all elected representatives and their senior advisers when formulating Grand Ideas to provide a reality check. To help them keep, as it were, one foot on the floor.

Additionally, the image shows that without the holy trinity of connectivity – air, sea and digital – we metaphorically are (or at least risk becoming) isolated inbreds.

Seemingly I got a mention in the States last week along the lines of Private Frazer’s ‘we’re all doomed’ when members were making a hash of the runway issue.

If so, blame my parents. Being a nipper 20-odd years after the Occupation ended meant never taking anything for granted and getting into trouble for questioning whether people and government could really make all that money from a few tomatoes.

Sustainability wasn’t an issue then, which is why Guernsey had four major petroleum companies here and the highest per capita consumption of oil in Europe, pumping heat into acres of single-glazed glasshouses to keep those tomatoes toasty warm.

NASA’s image also indicates a couple of other things. Firstly, we’re pretty well served with shipping services given we’re at the edge of the known world and, after getting here, the ferries have to go straight back. In the old days, at least they could fill up with tomatoes to defray the cost of that ‘dead leg’ return.

Secondly, that any operator who flies here has to be fairly tenacious. So our air links are pretty good too.

If this is starting to sound slightly counter-intuitive, please bear with me. The point is that the adequacy of connectivity – left to itself – depends on demand. You have to have a reason for coming here.

St Sampson’s Harbour was built because people then wanted Guernsey granite, an export economy ultimately as sustainable as tomato production.

So what we ‘sell’ now is a complex ecosystem of financial services expertise, a stable government and legal system, with proportionate regulation and no VAT or tax on capital gains, inheritance or business profits.

Like so many ecosystems, these things are fragile. So in all the noise of last week’s debate on air and sea links, one thing stood out: Guernsey International Business Association chairman Tony Mancini saying that a number of businesses he advises would not come to Guernsey if they were starting over now because of poor air connectivity.

That pretty much echoes the warning given a couple of years ago by Specsavers co-founder Doug Perkins that the island is losing its attractiveness for business.

Giba, Chamber and IoD, plus the Committee for Economic Development and, as far as we can judge, the States’ Trading Supervisory Board, all felt that a forensic examination of whether a longer runway provided tangible, cost-effective, economically enhancing benefits was justified. Or not.

Being at the sharp end, you’d have thought that their views carried some weight, but alas not.

If you’re thinking of moving here, establishing a business locally or even an airline pondering routes to or from an island with a small population and smaller runway, what do you take away from last week’s decision?

Firstly, that ‘open skies’ is a paper figment only. When it comes down to it, government’s knee-jerk default is to protect Aurigny, even when irrational to do so.

Secondly, that loyalty (no matter how loved Guernsey’s ‘national’ carrier may be) precludes a proper look at whether there are more efficient ways of providing air transport, locking you by default into a high-cost business model for flights.

Thirdly, a government that prides itself on being ‘close’ to those it governs will, on a whim, ignore the advice of its wealth creators and the States departments that manage them.

As Economic Development president Charles Parkinson summarised it on Twitter: ‘The coalition against considering a runway extension includes the south-west deputies, the Aurigny loyalists and some environmentalists. The rest just think it would be unpopular.’

Watching the States do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons is precisely why we need to be wary of the way politics is developing and remind ourselves that populism rarely boosts GDP or living standards.

Put that another way and the debate wasn’t about whether Guernsey is well or affordably served by air. It should have hinged on whether what we have is adequate to maintain and grow the international financial centre status on which we all depend.

Look again at that satellite image and my parents’ post-Occupation upbringing springs to mind: nobody owes you a living. Last week showed a majority of States members have forgotten that.

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