Richard Digard: Try defining success...
With Guernsey and Jersey both grappling with housing costs and falling workforces, the need has never been greater to give young people a reason to stay in their home island. Defining success and a reasonable standard of living for them would be a start, says Richard Digard...
Have you thought of leaving Guernsey recently? No? Really? In that case, I’m surprised. It’s an increasing topic of conversation – and not restricted to certain age groups either, although that does affect it. Frequently, however, it does come down to kids.
For older islanders, that’s because grandchildren are or are about to be in the UK or elsewhere, or because the cost of downsizing is crazily high here, while younger generations despair of ever getting a place of their own. That’s why so many students never come back after completing university.
And it’s the same in the other island, where the Jersey Evening Post headlined last Saturday’s front page ‘Let’s give our young people more reasons to stay’. In a detailed look at the problem of working age people quitting, Environment minister Jonathan Renouf was quoted as saying that too many people there weren’t able to enjoy the fruits of a reasonable standard of living.
He’s right, and it’s the same here thanks to sky-high prices, a lack of competition, government policies (before GST), unaffordable housing, rents at nose-bleed levels and poor childcare provision. And now, of course, we have punishment-beating freight rates, even though the taxpayer owns one of the ships.
That’s why I get so cross when people say Guernsey’s a prosperous island. Only if you’re one of the happy fortunates who is – which is why food banks here have never been so busy.
We can argue about the reasons for this, but in essence it’s down to a lack of vision and ambition by the States over the decades to do very much that makes a difference for the community as a whole – just look at how Leale’s Yard has still to see a spade in the ground or that Admiral Park is still not quite complete.
In essence, we’re not good at big picture stuff because getting consensus (that word again) is hard in a small community where people have differing ideas of what’s really needed. Think of the controversy if Guernsey Water was today to propose flooding a valley to create St Saviour’s reservoir.
I’m reminded of this because you’re currently being asked for your views on developing the harbours of St Sampson’s and St Peter Port which, in turn, will help to inform a local planning brief which will set guidelines for what can and can’t be done in these historic but underused and under-maintained areas.
Admittedly, it’s a long-term project and the brief will help steer the Guernsey Development Agency, which is looking to 2030 and beyond, although it does hope to accelerate this timeline.
Its remit is quite tight, with five objectives set by the States. If you were being uncharitable, you could view some of these as things government itself should be doing (‘Provide infrastructure to develop modern and resilient harbours…’) and Policy and Resources wants it all done for free. Or, as it puts it, ‘These objectives should be delivered whilst being as cost neutral to the States as possible’.
That said, I’m supportive of the GDA and hope it can flex its remit to tackle some of the issues the island has, rather than being constrained by the narrow vision of others.
Some of you will recall that an outfit called Amec proposed reclaiming the whole of the island’s east coast from North Beach to the Vale Castle back in the 1980s, while Charles Billson came up with the ‘Little Venice‘ scheme in Belle Greve Bay of creating a series of islands with housing, lagoons and moorings in 2006.
More recently, in 2017, a group called Hydroport proposed a tidal barrage spanning Belle Greve with a minimum of 70GW tidal power generation, a purpose-built container port off Longue Hougue, cruise liner and super-yacht berths, new land for homes and industry, and significant traffic reduction via a barrage road and ‘Gatwick-style’ monorail between St Sampson’s and St Peter Port. Like these schemes or not, they all had one thing in common. The proposers looked at the problems for which the island needed solutions – essentially more housing, fostering economic growth, traffic mitigation, flood defences and decarbonising energy production – and proposed solutions.
As history records, none have yet found favour, while the issues themselves get worse. Compounded, it has to be said, by an ageing population, reducing workforce and declining birthrate. Oh, and shrinking government revenues.
In this context it’s worth noting that despite all the focus on the eastern seaboard, all we’ve achieved over the years is the possibility of alfresco Thai dining on the north arm of the Crown Pier – but only if Planning agrees – and the long overdue and very welcome restoration and refurbishment of elements of La Vallette.
From that, you would be right to conclude that the GDA has a lot to go at and the chaps behind it, chair Peter Watson and director Simon Kildahl, have a wealth of enthusiasm and relevant experience behind them to get stuck in.
Do check out their website* and survey because your views are especially relevant and will help inform what is subsequently proposed by them, after Planning produces its local planning brief.
Before you do so, it might help to ask where you think Guernsey will be in five or 10 years’ time, let alone 50. What, in essence, will be needed to help the island pay its way as an independent micro-state, with low levels of tax, enviable quality of life, adequate housing and a rising standard of living for all – I stress all – its residents.
Despite what P&R would have you believe, taxing incontinence pads isn’t the route to prosperity. That requires the sensible growth of the economy, greatly improved productivity, particularly within the States itself, diversification, growth in tourism and more tax being taken from businesses.
The biggest failure of this and previous recent States has been to identify what success looks like and work towards such a vision, so I hope the work of the GDA can go some way towards rectifying that and unlock the potential of the east coast.
I know that very phrase risks triggering ‘save Belle Greve Bay’ protests and (my favourite) placards demanding ‘What About the Winkles?’ but there are two things to bear in mind.
The first is that all the relevant indicators show the island is in decline or, at best, flatlining. Visitors to the Bailiwick by plane and ferry down by more than a quarter on pre-Covid numbers this year is a good illustration.
The second is, you aren’t going to give your children or grandchildren a reason to stay here by offering more of the same. Which, after all, got us here in the first place.