Home ownership is falling but government doesn't care

States members’ policy aspirations have lost touch with the real lives and hopes of islanders. That’s why home ownership has plummeted, stress is on the rise and people are turning to drink and drugs. Richard Digard explains

 (Picture by Shutterstock)
(Picture by Shutterstock)

A FRIEND I hadn’t seen for some time was gentle but firm. Why was I so relentlessly downbeat? Guernsey seemed fine to him. Economy growing, island paying its way and a just-published happiness survey confirming that our collective wellbeing is tickety-boo thank you very much.

Well, yes. But it’s the fragility of it all that worries me. The fact that we seem to take it all for granted; that no matter what expectations we throw at the economy it will all be fine.

Here’s a couple of examples. Deputy Peter Roffey produced here on Monday a list of 20 items the States needs to work through. Most of them involve extending the reach of government into your life, taking on new civil servants to do so and then charging you in some way for the privilege.

The list is not exhaustive and will only grow when a new Assembly takes over in the summer. Policy & Resources has already warned in its Fiscal Framework report to be debated next month that – without significant tax increases – the island is running out of money to pay for these ambitions.

On top of that, Deputy Heidi Soulsby and others have just produced a seductively written requete to the States urging members to embark on establishing a more effective structure of government.

In fairness, it’s a good, well-researched document positively oozing ‘vote for me, it’s only an investigation after all…’ Look more closely, however, and it’s actually a charter for making it easier for individual committees to spend more money and to avoid the Policy & Resource Committee’s pursestrings and control over these things.

It also wants to make it easier for committees to influence public sector pay and staffing numbers plus – brace yourselves – employ more lawyers at St James’ Chambers so they can write more laws more quickly and do stuff faster.

I appreciate what’s behind it. Unlike P&R, which looks at cost first and benefits second, Deputy Soulsby and her supporters are at the service delivery end of politics and see the effect on people of delays, of necessary changes not being implemented speedily and of the sheer bureaucracy of it all.

The outcome, however, is to further cement the role of the Assembly as government in one giant committee. And if you want to know how effective that is, ask Deputy Barry Brehaut. This is his assessment: ‘The 2016 to 2020 political term in four words. Meet, Vote, Requete, Repeat.’

Depressingly accurate. Although you could add the impact of amendments coming through and radically changing well-constructed policies at the last moment and without proper public consultation. Stopping that would be a useful reform, Heidi.

Increasingly, islanders believe government is less for them and addressing their needs and more about what individual States members want to impose and so control their lives. It’s one reason why Horace Camp was able quite credibly to wish here last week that the Assembly of 2020 will close the divide between people and government and restore the respect and trust that has been lost.

Home ownership is a particularly vivid example of how States members – your deputy – have turned their backs on community benefit over ideological wish-lists.

Previous Assemblies placed great store in encouraging people to buy their own home. It’s what thrifty Guernsey people aspired to and brought huge benefits to the island.

So the census of 2001 indicates that a whisker under 80% of all homes here were owner-occupied, a tremendous achievement at a time when more prosperous Jersey had only 51% owner-occupiers.

The subsequent Household Expenditure Survey of 2005/06 indicated that the number of property owners had increased quite significantly, at 87%. Some six per cent of islanders were renting from the States and seven per cent from private landlords.

Perhaps that’s why we all felt happier then, even though struggling to pay mortgages. At least there’d be something to show for it at the end.

By the end of last year, however, the percentage of islanders owning their own home had fallen to below 60%. The number forced to rent is now more than 7,700 – 30% – while 10% are in social or affordable housing.

It’s a staggering turnaround. In less than 15 years, government has overseen the surge in generation rent and done nothing about it. Something of huge importance to your children and grandchildren and a key driver of whether they stay or can return here is of no political significance.

Yet stopping cars being advertised for sale on headlands is, and Deputy Soulsby and her backers want more resources (AKA States-employed lawyers) to draft that particular legislation. But they’re not demanding more affordable housing or rent-to-buy schemes for your kids.

Instead, we’re agonising at your expense about clapped out sea walls, preserving Guernsey French and what Guernsey can do about climate change (five-eighths of beggar-all).

What sort of future your children should have, how they’re going to afford commercial sector rents when they eventually retire, doesn’t feature at all. That’s because Guernsey politics has moved from caring about people as individuals with needs and aspirations to policy-making for the sheer on-trend vanity of it.

Perhaps that’s why the ‘happiness’ survey shows 34% of our young people have low mental wellbeing, a third of the island drinks excessively, 40% live in households that find it difficult to pay their bills, 35% have transport difficulties in getting where they need to be, and not far shy of 4,000 islanders don’t have £100 to meet an unexpected bill.

The number of islanders reporting money and financial pressures has increased by 10% to 30% in just five years, while work-related issues have also gone up, to 38%, and the number using cannabis in the last 12 months has more than doubled to more than 6,000 islanders or 11% of the population.

So, no, I see little reason to be upbeat. And when deputies say Guernsey is an affluent place and we can all afford to pay more for Shiny Policy X, I wonder whether we’re living in the same island.

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