Obscure aims

Last week’s States meeting featured yet more ideas for spending taxpayers’ money, from a toothless internal review to dumping unsightly rock armour at L’Ancresse, as Richard Graham reports.

(Picture by Peter Frankland, 30777807)
(Picture by Peter Frankland, 30777807)

I NOTE that audience participation is all the rage these days, so to show how with-it and trendy I am, I pose two questions for readers of this latest parliamentary sketch.

How much value would you attach to a restaurant review that was written by the restaurant’s owners, chefs and waiters? If your answer is ‘not much’, then I suggest you take note that the States has just decided to spend around £40k of taxpayers’ money (your money) on a review of itself, to be conducted by itself and then delivered to itself for approval by itself. The States spent well over £100m. in its response to Covid-19 over the past two years but could not, last week, bring itself to spend up to £250,000 on a reliable, independent review to find out if all the States’ principal committees, boards and authorities had made efficient use of such a huge sum. And if they hadn’t, what were the lessons to be learned. Never mind that Deputy Trott reckoned such a review wouldn’t cost that much anyway. He told the Assembly that Policy & Resources is prone to overstate the cost of reviews it wants to avoid and to understate the cost of those it wants to commission. He should know, of course – he did it himself when he was No. 2 at P&R in the previous States term. But whatever the cost, P&R and its supporters were very clear that money is tight and we can’t afford it. Spending upwards of £100k on self-indulgent, totally unnecessary electronic voting for States members was fine, but £250k on something that was actually useful? Come off it!

Ironically, the strongest arguments for having an independent review came from those opposed to it. They sprayed the air with liberal doses of Eau de Complacency which left the cloying stench of self-congratulation hanging offensively in the air of the debating chamber and clinging to those members present. I hope they washed it all away in the shower when they got home. Apparently, our response to Covid-19 had all gone so spiffingly well that there was nothing to be learned and, in any case, even if there were lessons, we didn’t need a bunch of geeks from outside coming over here at great expense to point them out. Listening to the appel nominal voting at the end of the debate (an excitement soon to be denied us), I concluded there is not the slightest chance that an internal review will end with a report in which any person independent of the States could have faith. It will be a complete waste of taxpayers’ money and civil servants’ time. Far better to have no review at all.

Speaking of money being spent to no useful purpose, I am reminded of my second question.

What will it cost the taxpayer to keep enemy tanks from coming ashore at L’Ancresse for the next eight years? The answer is that nobody knows.

What we do know is that in 2020 six current deputies (Brouard, Inder, Prow, Dudley-Owen, Ferbrache and Queripel) persuaded the then Assembly to approve their scheme for preserving the east end of the anti-tank wall on the hopelessly optimistic and idiotic promise that it would cost no more than £200k over the next 10 years. We also know that within months, the Committee for Environment & Infrastructure had costed the scheme at £1m., while a separate report from independent engineers commissioned by the Vale Commons Council concluded that it would cost close to £3.5m. to do the job properly.

Oh well, what’s a few millions of taxpayers’ money between friends, eh? So long as we keep those tanks out, it’s worth it. Except that the money, whether £1m. or £3.5m., simply wasn’t there. Come to think of it, neither were the tanks.

In last week’s meeting, E&I came riding to the rescue with a scheme that will save the requerants from their embarrassment and might – just might – prevent further deterioration of the wall without in any way improving its current grotesque appearance. And the cost? That’s the problem. It’s as unforecastable as the weather. Following the requete’s success, we had to pour £25k-worth of concrete behind some of the panels in the winter of 2020. Under E&I’s face-saving scheme, up to £150k-worth of rock armour is dumped on the beach and fingers have to be crossed that there will be no storm damage over the next eight years. If there is damage, it will cost between £50k and £75k to repair each affected panel.

Knowing the debate was coming, I visited the scene on a sunny day over the Easter weekend. There were several people on the Pembroke end of the beach but none at the east end anywhere near the damaged length of the wall. No locals, and none of those legendary hordes of tourists who are said to be so fascinated with what remains of this wholly unremarkable and boring wartime anti-tank defence that they allegedly cross the world to come and see it. And no wonder there was nobody there. The beach at that end is now a horror show of unspeakable ugliness. It beggars belief that the previous States preferred – albeit only by the belated swing vote of Deputy Gollop – chaotic piles of rock armour and hideously deformed concrete slabs to glorious sand dunes like the north-facing dunes that are now being nursed back to stability near the Richmond end of Vazon. It seems that the current States has a similar preference, but by a much larger majority.

The meeting had begun with general updates delivered by the presidents of Education, Sport & Culture and Environment & Infrastructure. I’m in favour of preserving these routine statements, but we seem to have reached the point where, with a few honourable exceptions, they are used by presidents as a device for telling good news stories designed to present their committees in a good light. You know the sort of thing – everything is going swimmingly thanks to the fantastic work of a splendid workforce who are producing world-class results against all the odds, all under the inspired leadership of the hugely talented political members. I suppose that human nature makes such a characterisation inevitable, but stone me, it makes for tedious listening. And it’s not helped by the rule that limits the speaker to 10 minutes. Few of the committee presidents have conquered the art of editing their material to fit the time. The effect is that of a verbal laxative – they simply cram everything in and then gabble it away at breakneck speed.

That said, there is value in these general updates, and it lies in the questions from the floor that follow them. If we discount the ‘Does the president agree with me’ questions from the oh-so-predictable sycophants, the 20-minute question session enables States members to test the mettle of these presidents.

The E&I president’s answers offer extra interest because it’s always touch and go if she will manage to finish them in the time allowed her. I thought someone had promised to buy her a stopwatch for Christmas.

The ESC president made no mention at all of the large exodus of secondary school teachers this year. Having advised the Assembly that her committee’s education strategy was its most important piece of work from which all other work streams flowed, she was asked why, if it was that crucial, she was still determined to prevent States members debating it. Her answer seemed to imply that she has so little confidence in the strategy that she doubts it would survive scrutiny in the Assembly. Besides, she reminded States members that they had elected her unopposed 18 months ago and should trust her to deliver what she had promised. Deputy Inder supported her with one of those ‘Did she agree with him’ questions. Of course she did. His message was simple, and I mean simple – politicians should stay out of education and leave it to the professionals.

Really? How short memories are. It was precisely that view which led to the resignation of all but one of the Education Department’s political members (Deputy De Lisle refused to go) 11 years ago over abysmal exam results in most of the States secondary schools. For far too long, States deputies, even those serving on the Education Department, had been kept at arm’s length from what was going on in our failing secondary schools. Key issues such as exam results were regarded as ‘Not their business’. They weren’t even allowed to see them. So much for ‘Leave it to the professionals’.

As it happens, I agree with Deputy Inder and the ESC president about not debating the strategy. What would be the point? When all is said and done, the strategy merely repeats what States members were promised when they elected the committee’s president and members back in October 2020. Nothing has changed. It was vacuous gobbledygook then and it’s vacuous gobbledygook now.

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