Let's duck the real issues shall we?

NOT many people know this, but every week more than 100,000 vehicles drive along The Quay, the road between the Albert and Crown Piers. Add movements along Les Banques, the Grange, Fountain Street and Le Val des Terres and you’re up to about the half million mark. Every week. Or 20 million a year.

(Picture by Lightspring/Shutterstock)
(Picture by Lightspring/Shutterstock)

Most of this tidal wave of metal blighting Guernsey’s tiny streets is generated by single individuals driving to and from work and could be switched off at a stroke.

Paid parking or making all spaces three hours maximum would guarantee full buses – buses we’re expensively subsidising for commuters to use but which office workers resolutely refuse to board.

We don’t do this, of course, because although it’s self-evidently the correct thing to do, it’s not popular. Expediency rules, political self-preservation overrides what’s required, and elections are only ever four years away.

Which brings me back to housing, because my last piece on the subject – government’s unwillingness to tackle steeply falling home ownership and the rise in Generation Rent – triggered a strong response.

And, just like parking, housing’s in the ‘too difficult’ box. So all that’s ever done is to tinker around the edges. My own view is that’s pretty feeble. If there’s no intention or willingness to confront some of these issues, say so and accept the consequences. Like Australian PM Scott Morrison on climate change.

Anyway, tinkering’s generally counter-productive. For example, because Environment & Infrastructure can’t/won’t tackle the commuter issue, car use is attacked on the fringes, which is why new-builds don’t have adequate parking and we’re demonising parents who drop their kids to school.

And after my last piece, I had contact from a senior States member who said, ‘…you are right, nothing’s been done – and I doubt much will come from the housing strategy as there has always been a non-interventionist approach, despite the evidence’.

If you’re one of the 300 people on the waiting list for social rental or partial ownership properties, that’s not good news. If you’re among the estimated 7,000-8,000 having to rent and watching just shy of half your earnings going to a private landlord, it’s even worse.

Although rent to earnings ratios here have improved over the last few years to ‘just’ 47%, that’s higher even than in London.

I’m not criticising landlords. They’re responding to supply, demand and the cost of property, but rents like that leave little headroom to save for a deposit.

This won’t be a popular thing to say, but one of the worst things the island did was to create the Guernsey Housing Association. Not because it’s doing a bad job. Far from it, it’s done excellent things and continues to do so.

But after the States set it up, members collectively rubbed their hands, said ‘job done’ and moved on to other priorities such as controlling bonfires and watching the police ‘persuade’ travellers to stop criticising the airport on social media.

The thing is, as currently cast, the GHA is more a housing association in name only because it has been hobbled by those who created it. It was supposed to be a self-actuating housing association with an independent balance sheet, its own decision-making board and finances – all operating at arm’s length from government.

I’m open to correction on this but I don’t see the GHA as remote or financially removed from the States. Rather it seems to operate as a wholly-owned and controlled sub-department of government, 100% reliant on the States for guaranteeing or making land and debt available.

This means the benefits that ought to flow from the GHA being independent and nimble and responsive to market issues don’t flow and so it can’t develop its own products and policies.

In contrast, Andium Homes in Jersey was given £300m. in cash and left to get on with it by its States and has performed very well. In fact, it says it expects to release 739 additional homes for affordable ownership through its Homebuy Scheme by 2023.

Our GHA has done well too, but within the confines of the limits imposed on it by government. That’s why there’s only partial ownership housing – no rent-to-buy or help for people to get on the ownership ladder or other innovative housing ‘products’ coming along.

It’s also why the GHA doesn’t own and operate the existing pool of States houses, even though it’s ready and able to and could have borrowed the funds to purchase the stock.

Two and a half years ago, consultants proposed working with the GHA to develop a secondary partial ownership scheme that incentivises ‘staircasing’ to 100% ownership over a defined period.

That would support first-time buyers who can afford ongoing mortgage costs but cannot meet transaction fees and deposits (something else the States could help with if it had a mind to) and would be a huge boost. But neither Environment & Infrastructure (E&I) nor Employment & Social Security (ESS), who both welcomed the report, have acted on it.

Freeing up the GHA would enable it to buy land and develop it using new, cheaper modular methods and materials. And without a profit motive or the 20% margin banks demand on commercial schemes, it could create homes to match demand rather than pursue margins as private developers do.

But we don’t do any of this because States members have lost interest in accommodation and home ownership – such dreadfully middle-class aspirations – in favour of climate change, inclusivity and tearing down the Grammar School.

There was much glee when consultants KPMG wrote down the annual housing target to about 100 a year – because the previous 300 units per annum was rarely hit – and let politicians off that particular hook.

In fact, over the last eight years to 2011, that figure was met only once, in 2014, when the net increase in domestic property was 320. In other years (2016) the net increase was just 43.

On average over that period, 180 new homes a year have been achieved, a total of 1,455, and more than the ‘new’ housing target. But what’s this? Despite achieving the target, we still have that official waiting list of 300 and increasing numbers trapped in rental accommodation.

Who’s responsible? E&I and ESS are supposed to be developing a new housing policy for the island, which is why they commissioned the KPMG study to inform their proposals.

It’s tempting to say that instead we’ve got 25mph speed limits and a desire to introduce self-certified disabilities, but I won’t.

Instead, I’d simply ask what it takes to get States members interested in insisting the island’s young people are decently and affordably housed.

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