‘Critical challenges ahead, but Island is well placed’

JERSEY faces a number of critical challenges in the coming years, but is well placed financially with a motivated and capable public-sector workforce to meet what lies ahead, the interim government chief executive has said in his first major public speech since taking the reins from Charlie Parker.

Paul Martin addressed business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce lunch.
Paul Martin addressed business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce lunch.

In his address yesterday to business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce lunch, Paul Martin outlined the areas where particular focus would be needed to realise the ambition of securing a bright and prosperous future for the Island.

He spoke of the growing divide between those who owned property and others struggling to get on the ladder or to afford rented accommodation, showing a graph which demonstrated how property prices had soared while average earnings had flatlined. He said that reducing this gap was crucial, adding that building more affordable homes was at the forefront of policy thinking complemented by a need to deal with allied questions such as population.

Mr Martin also talked of a need to address labour shortages, mental-health services and to drive efficiencies in the public sector after the extraordinary experience of the pandemic, which, he explained, had necessarily sucked many people onto the government payroll as part of the response to Covid. History, he suggested, would look favourably on that response, both in terms of how many government employees had stepped up, but also because the community had acted so responsibly.

Mr Martin said that although unemployment numbers had reduced from a peak last year, the Island had to consider also that this enlarged army of public servants would soon be reduced, for example because the track-and-trace teams, who had done such sterling work, would soon not be needed in the numbers required over previous months.

‘The net growth in headcount is clearly unsustainable and I am certain that in the months and years ahead the civil service will focus on the still considerable opportunities for improved efficiency and value for money,’ said Mr Martin, who took up his post in March on a 12-month contract.

‘The crucial thing for the civil service is to see improvement and efficiency as a constant process of evolution. This needs further work and attention, to reboot how we can achieve the maximum public outcomes for the lowest possible tax dollar.

‘My 23 years of experience as a chief executive in English local government has taught me at least one thing – that there is little correlation between the size of government and its effectiveness or outcomes.’

Mr Martin said that the number of civil servants had grown to more than 8,500 – up by around 700 from 2019 – while the number of Islanders working in the private sector had dropped.

Shortly before Mr Martin had been due to speak to business representatives, a States debate on whether to delay the appointment of a new permanent chief executive until after the 2022 general election was withdrawn following concerns that legal challenges could ensure if it was successful. (Full story: Page 5.) The Chief Minister confirmed last week that Mr Martin’s successor would be Suzanne Wylie, currently the chief executive of Belfast City Council.

He went on to say that Covid-19 had ‘intensified inequalities starkly’.

‘This is seen most clearly in unaffordable housing,’ he said. ‘The gap between the asset-rich and the asset-poor has grown, and is at risk of doing great damage to the Island’s economy and future growth.

‘Of course, increased housing supply is the crucial response to this challenge, but there are others, including the Island’s population policy and also the need for us to adopt a more strategic approach to the usage of capital gains from selling public-owned land.

‘At present, we have a tangled approach to priorities, including social housing, other forms of affordable housing, investment in new services and improvements to local neighbourhood regeneration. An incremental approach to decision-making risks losing the benefits of a longer-term and more strategic approach which is evidence-based on where Islanders feel that need is most pronounced,’ he said.

Mr Martin added that the biggest threat to business was shortage of labour, which was compounded by housing costs, while mental-health issues also need to be addressed.

‘I know this [labour shortages] is a huge challenge for many of you, and it looks likely that given the very high cost of living in Jersey this is set to continue,’ he said. ‘It also impacts on the civil service, and so although I don’t of course know about your particular situations, in our public services I envisage accessing skilled staff will be one of our principal challenges in the coming years.’

He added: ‘The impact of the pandemic on mental-health services, and especially child and adolescent mental-health services, remains a huge challenge. The government has rightly invested in these services and yet we still face significant challenges.’

Asked what advice he had received from his predecessor, Mr Parker, and what he would offer to his successor, Mr Martin said that he had been lucky to receive an excellent handover and suggested it was a bit early to know what advice to give – a bit like ‘discussing divorce while still on his honeymoon’.

However, he said that his experience to date was that it was important to listen and build a broad network of relationships across the Island to help gain a good understanding of Jersey and its points of difference from other places. He also said that he had received sage advice from the Bailiff, who advised not to try to force his own agenda too much.

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