Boring government – just what we need

TO SAVE you the time of wading through the 268 pages or so of the Government Work Plan 2021-2025, I’ll highlight some of its key points. ‘Action this day’ is a myth, many of the ‘priorities’ identified relate to extending or modifying red tape and pretty much the first real expenditure as the island allegedly spends its way back to the pre-Covid sunlit uplands will be buying some new buses.

Policy & Resources president Deputy Peter Ferbrache at the presentation of the Government Work Plan. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 29664791)
Policy & Resources president Deputy Peter Ferbrache at the presentation of the Government Work Plan. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 29664791)

Those, in the absence of any information in the report to the contrary, will be dirty old diesels like we already have, so the opportunity to build back better is similarly illusory.

In short, the plan is long on developing, managing, enhancing or facilitating but exceptionally short on doing.

Except, as I say, for extending a fleet of vehicles that will be illegal to buy after 2030 and belatedly repairing Fermain’s historic wall.

Under the plan’s sustainable economic recovery section, for instance, we find: ‘Scope actions necessary to support local entrepreneurship and diversification post-Covid-19’. And ‘Enable general and commercial aviation and enhance the Guernsey Aircraft Registry.’ Or, ‘Develop and agree a Bridge Strategy – with a focus on coastal defence consideration… – strong interdependency with the Leale’s Yard decision.’

Leale’s Yard rests, obviously, on government deciding what involvement it should have in developing the regeneration zone along with owner the CI Co-op – but that’s not slated to be completed until next year, while responding to whatever development decision is reached lasts until the middle of 2025.

So, not only no spades in the ground, the States itself is crashing ahead via the Guernsey Housing Association to build housing at Fontaine Vinery, a lamentably unsuitable site for so many reasons, thereby undermining the viability of a Leale’s Yard and Bridge area that’s crying out for sustainable regeneration.

Elsewhere, your government sets out its future pandemic response – ‘Live responsibly with Covid-19’ – and then the next area of focus, which is managing the effects of Brexit plus international agreements and conventions. There, the key is enhancing the Bailiwick’s constitutional resilience. Which is as good a rallying call as it gets, I suppose.

There’s loads more like that. ‘Ensure customs agreement compliance’, ‘Develop and deliver Periodic Testing Inspections for road transport’ and (a personal favourite), the electrifying, ‘Develop a register of driving instructors’.

My point here, however, is not to criticise Policy & Resources or gently take the mickey out of its grand plan. Instead, it’s to highlight that much of what the States does on our behalf is incredibly mundane pen-pushing but vital for us to go about our ordinary lives.

For instance, ‘identify, implement and maintain an appropriate Customs and Excise service structure that enables the delivery of the post-Brexit business-as-usual functions’ is dull but vital.

The benefit of the work plan – apart from setting out that we need to spend half a billion on capital projects and that revenue budgets (AKA States income) are shot to shreds – is that it pulls all the stuff of government together in a handy schedule with timescales. This reinforces that nothing the States does is quick, can often be contradictory and that the business of government isn’t bold sweeps of trail-blazing social policy but more akin to keeping the lights on. Especially with Covid thrown into the mix.

All this has significance because P&R is now being criticised for acting like a cabinet over its less than slick handling and rejection of the harbour development proposals in favour of establishing a development and regeneration board to start from scratch.

As Matt Fallaize has pointed out elsewhere, executive government’s baloney. The committee is five votes out of 40 and has no cabinet powers. If it has power that stems from the strength of the so-called Van Party and Guernsey Party coalition. In other words, through the support of a majority of the House.

Some members are complaining this damages democracy and is destroying proper debate in the Assembly. Perhaps. If you’re reasonably confident something will go through, why bother trying to persuade the minority rump?

Some argue this is marginalising the Assembly itself.

If so, is that such a bad thing?

Since the States governs via resolution, reaching a decision is more important than the process adopted to get there. And the significance of that is twofold.

Firstly, the Government Work Plan shows how extraordinarily tied the States’ hands are in pushing ahead with what’s actually needed, come what may. Secondly, deviating from that script causes all sorts of mischief, as we saw with the last States adopting all sorts of nice-to-have policies the island couldn’t afford. The same policies, incidentally, which are now wreaking such havoc with public finances.

The GWP has identified what needs to be done and what doesn’t. Sticking to that, whether we especially agree with the plan or not, is what’s important.

So too is preventing well-meaning deputies persuading the House to go off on a tangent with yet another nice-to-have.

So, no. I don’t think we have anything close to cabinet government – perhaps we should remain optimistic and add ‘yet’ – but we may be nearer a Policy & Resources that can finally discharge its mandate. To remind you, that’s to lead and coordinate the work of the States, including developing and promoting overall policy objectives and leading the policy planning process.

Hardly subversive.

What we’ve seen so far is a majority of the members you put in the States Chamber via island-wide voting last October being willing to endorse the guidance provided by a senior committee they themselves appointed. So far, so democratic.

I’m yet to be convinced this coalition will hold until the next election in 2025 but if it does, politics in Guernsey will become more mundane, less exciting and working to a set agenda.

Exactly what it needs and which is long overdue.

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