Don’t be a mug – follow the evidence

Look around a bit and you start to realise how much you don’t know and how profoundly things are changing. That’s why, says Richard Digard, States members should listen to Dr Brink a bit more.

(Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29160346)
(Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29160346)

‘HANG on a minute…’ Son Alex broke off our regular online catch-up to answer the door at his Bristol home. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said, seconds later, ‘but I’d run out of beer.’

Fresh supplies, ordered by text while we were deep in discussion, arrived 15 minutes later. Lifesaver – and not just for essentials like ale.

Our amazement, naturally taken as further evidence of parental age and decrepitude, established that 15-to-25 minute delivery times are routine and for all sorts of stuff. His nearest Waitrose, for instance, encourages you to ‘shop tonight’s dinner, a Champagne breakfast from bed, or beers and snacks for impromptu parties’, brought to your door for just £3.49.

‘Use it much?’ we asked. The pause indicated the jaw-dropping stupidity of the question. Why wouldn’t you? Deliveroo has more than 60 exclusive outlets in the city centre, ranging from Waitrose and the Co-op to Wagamama and Pizza Express and Majestic Wine and LloydsPharmacy.

The tech underpinning it means you can select outlets on the basis of hygiene (102 5* rating), discounts (up to 25% off), dietary (halal, Kosher, veggie or vegan, etc) or categories – foodie advent calendars (2) to American (11), breakfast (4) or healthy (6). Aldi and Morrisons are there too, so you can see it’s mainstream.

More, it’s also charitable. You can make a donation – £5, £10 and £20 are popular – so that NHS workers can have a free meal, delivered for nothing and arriving in 10 minutes. Ten minutes.

Yet this level of sophistication also exists in Guernsey – and in many different areas. Take, for instance, a financial services outfit called Wealthify. That originated here and was equally revolutionary: one of the new breed of digital wealth managers that democratised and simplified investing. In doing so it brought money to the masses and enabled ordinary folk like you and me to access global stock markets with as little as a quid.

A mix of human skills, artificial intelligence and computing power can do it better, and way cheaper, than ex-Etonians called Justin working for, say, Hichens, Harrison & Co. That, incidentally, was the City of London’s oldest-established firm of stockbrokers before being bought a few years ago by brothers from New Delhi, two of the richest people in India, whose wealth derives from pharmaceuticals.

The family of the founder of the business they bought made their money from Cornish pilchards (strictly sardines, but let that pass), an industry coincidentally enjoying a bit of a revival due to certified sustainability and decent marketing.

Similarly, Wealthify also enables clients to invest ethically and sustainably, avoiding industries and activities harmful to society and the environment, from tobacco and gambling to deforestation and unfair labour practices. Neat, eh? Well, Aviva, the huge insurance and asset manager, certainly thought so because it bought the business in 2017, little more than a year after Wealthify started.

There are many conclusions you can draw from this success story – that Guernsey start-up is now one of the top six so-called robo-advisers in the UK – but I use it to highlight that change is sudden, often unexpected and there are winners and losers. In this case the clear winners are consumers.

For my fictitious friend Justin, the story’s not so cheery because old school wealth managers are becoming an endangered species. Online trading platforms undermine his operation, dramatically devalue the worth of his advice and experience, plus reduce his ability to earn money – fees and charges have fallen substantially (not necessarily here in Guernsey, but that’s for another day).

That’s a shame, but few care, life moves on and while you’d never have entered the offices of Hichens, Harrison & Co, fifty quid in Wealthify’s middle risk tier ethical fund would have grown by 5% in the 12 months to last September.

Unnoticed by most of us, all manner of consumer revolutions are happening (try Googling ‘food deliveries Guernsey’) and that’s before 5G, robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous drones break into their stride.

Yet if a shop in High Street St Peter Port closes or another national chain succumbs, all hell breaks loose and we see States members demanding ‘something must be done’, as happened last week.

Yet look into the figures, as former senior States member Mary Lowe has done, and you’ll find that the 34 vacancies in Town is down from a peak of 50 eight years ago despite the pandemic, and there have been many new start-ups. Not a disaster but actually a quite good news story, with commercial property agents Watts reporting local and national interest in such properties as are available and potential clients waiting to visit them when Covid quarantines permit.

My point is that markets and people’s commercial instincts are much better than governments ‘doing something’ about these things. Labour, for instance, is apparently proposing a new law to allow councils in the UK to take over empty shops and reopen them without consent from the owners to ‘do something’.

Forget the ethical or legal implications of that, but state-sponsored shops aren’t the answer to retail’s biggest challenge – which is people demanding home delivery. One London fashion outlet, for instance, sends a driver round with all of the colours in all of the sizes for you to try on and waits 40 minutes while you do so. Pay for what you keep plus a modest charge for the service.

The conclusion here, ladies and gentlemen, is that States members generally know only what they know and this guides their actions on our behalf. Like banning bull bars all those years ago (never enacted and about to be rescinded), wasting your money on a clapped-out anti-panzer tank wall at L’Ancresse and, in the latest flight of lunacy, banning hedge veg crab and lobster sales from casual fishermen.

Perhaps we ought to club together and give every member of the Assembly one of those Dr Brink mugs. You remember, the one that says: ‘Evidence... you all know I like evidence’.

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