Home pride

When a local food bank is urgently asking for crisps and gravy granules to serve as Christmas treats it’s obvious not all is well in the state of Guernsey. But, says Richard Digard, there are solutions

ANSWER honestly now: are you proud of your island home? Oh yes, comes the immediate reply. Absolutely. Fantastic place to live, work and bring up kids. Why do you even ask?

Stop for a moment and reflect, however, and I suspect that response will rather depend on your status here, how much money you have in the bank and, especially, whether you own your home.

I’m not going to beat anyone up for that but no one who follows this column will be surprised that my own admiration for the island is tempered by what it hasn’t done, the opportunities missed and a system that generally props up the comfortable ‘haves’ at the expense of the have-nots.

And the fortunes of the less well off have been deteriorating steadily since the crash of 2008 and are nosediving today thanks to Covid, rocketing house/rent prices and, now, inflation.

Don’t turn the page, because I’m not off on a Guardian-style rant, but want to explain why I’m questioning home pride – and to offer some hope.

Isle of Man chief minister Alfred Cannan last month released that Crown Dependency’s draft Island Plan and said that amid the global dangers and challenges there should be an Isle of Man its people are proud to call home. It’s a useful and challenging start.

Anyway, the IoM’s approach is building a secure, vibrant and sustainable future for the island – an aspiration which is instantly relatable. In contrast, this island’s various iterations of strategic direction have been undeliverable waffle-fests designed to change nothing, upset no one and preserve the status quo. If you think that’s a bit harsh, just ask how many years and what level of ineptitude it takes to convert a housing shortage into a fully fledged crisis?

Or to see the island’s largest food bank currently urgently asking for donations of fruit squash, small bags of sugar and Christmas items like chocolates, biscuits, gravy granules, Paxo stuffing, crisps ‘and other festive treats’?

The island’s largest food bank is urgently asking for donations, while the system props up those more fortunate.

What I particularly like about the Manx approach is its clarity and directness. Its core strategic objectives of ‘secure’, ‘vibrant’ and ‘sustainable’ are each defined. For instance, ‘vibrant’ means ‘…diverse and welcoming, providing excellent educational, recreational and economic opportunities for all, and our businesses are able to grow with confidence, accessing the skills and people required now and into the future’.

Government’s approach, it says, will centre on simplicity and meaningful delivery on the issues that matter most to its people. So priority one is Building Great Communities. Well, yes. But what does that mean? Simple – ‘Everyone has a suitable and affordable place to call “home” and our housing stock meets the needs of our population now and into the future.’

Notice the priority emphasis on housing. Easily said, of course, so how’s that to be backed up?

‘We proactively tackle current issues of affordability, homelessness, security of tenancy and vacant or derelict properties with bold action.’

Oh?

Yes indeed, says the chief minister: ‘There is a choice of housing stock available for differing needs, people are able to transition between different housing types according to need and changing circumstances and urban living is promoted to support regeneration with a specific focus on brownfield sites.’

And here’s the relevant bit under a heading of What We Are Doing: Establish a Housing and Communities Board to bring together and focus policy and actions across government on housing for all. This will include legislative, financial and practical interventions as appropriate as a priority for our Island, so that public and private sector housing is accessible, secure and affordable.

‘Revive our urban landscape and improve the public realm in a sustainable way by transforming government-owned brownfield sites via the Manx Development Corporation, for the benefit of all citizens.’

I’ll stop quoting now, because you get the drift. There’s a directness and sense of purpose that has been absent from Guernsey’s approach and a clear statement (threat?) that government will get as muscular as required: ‘include legislative, financial and practical interventions as appropriate’.

This approach is maintained consistently across the report as it maps out not just what a secure, vibrant and sustainable community looks like and can be developed, but how that progress will be measured. And, presumably, politicians held to account for falling short of their commitments.

Another difference in the Manx approach – apart from the much greater sense of aspiration and delivery – is that there’s no mention of departments or committees. Just ‘we’. Government will deliver and be accountable. Not hide behind silos or fragmented responsibilities.

Plus there’s an acknowledgement government of itself cannot deliver the entire plan so ‘we must increase our positive influence and collaborative working capabilities with key partners across the community if we are to achieve success’.

Work has started to identify core indicators that can be used to measure social, health and economic wellbeing in the Isle of Man and a stronger understanding is being developed of baseline metrics used to inform and measure the success of the plan.

The other difference of approach is that the Manx priority of principles for one (as in joined-up) government is ‘Listening – to continue to understand the changing needs of our people’, which is why ministers are meeting islanders face-to-face at unscripted drop-ins to discuss their approach.

I gently challenged our own deputy chief minister, Heidi Soulsby, the other day about the Lt-Governor’s comments, which I highlighted here a fortnight ago, on Guernsey’s own lack of strategic direction or even knowing what ‘good’ looked like.

‘It’s really difficult under our system of govt, as [His Excellency] said, which is why Govt Work Plan is important. What we have is a huge improvement on P&R Plan but 2022 iteration needs to build on that to get a more focused strategic direction on big issues eg pop mgt, climate change,’ she told me via Twitter.

Yes, I kind of get that.

But there are other ways of doing things, as the Isle of Man is demonstrating. More fundamentally, is the system meeting Guernsey’s needs or the other way around?

Turn that around a bit, and the States really are running out of hiding places to account for the gaps and shortcomings in our society which stop us all from being proud of Guernsey.

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