By Robert Surcouf
AS we await the Assembly’s decision on who will be in the new Council of Ministers, I personally believe the Assembly, our civil service and those running the various arm’s-length organisations would benefit from a large dose of realism.
For those who missed my last article, the definition of realism is the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly. Whether you are an individual who holds power or influence to make change or, like me, is just an invested outsider who wants to see positive change we must have a realistic understanding of our circumstances.
Since the introduction of ministerial government, we seem to have lost sight of what Jersey is and, in the process, too many poor decisions have been taken by consecutive governments. While many of the decisions were taken with the best of intentions they were often based on idealistic concepts or the principle that what has worked elsewhere will also work here.
Jersey is an island nine by five with a population of some 105,000 individuals from very diverse backgrounds. Post the Occupation, Jersey’s tourism industry flourished with the bucket-and-spade tourist industry that was especially reliant on the British Rail sea links that brought large numbers of visitors to the Island, especially those who benefitted from their free travel scheme for staff. However, the development of low-fare airlines to locations that offered virtually guaranteed sunshine and the break-up of British Rail put paid to much of that market.
This change would have happened whether we did or did not have a finance industry as they were predominantly completely outside our control. The development and evolution of a finance industry since the late 1960s helped generate wealth and in particular material tax revenues. Without this funding much of the infrastructure developments that we have seen over the last 50 years would never have occurred. The finance industry has also played a key part in ensuring continued airlinks despite the reduction in tourism due to business travel.
It is true that our population would be far smaller, reducing demand for certain services, but we must be realistic as there would be far less available and we would not have developed reserves. Love it or loathe it, the finance industry overall has been positive for our community, and it has helped fund our social security and healthcare system and has supported many charitable endeavours that benefit some of the most vulnerable in our society.
As such, we should perhaps appreciate its positives while also now recognising that we have a far greater disparity of wealth and, just as importantly, that its future can never be guaranteed. The finance industry does face challenges and unfortunately, as a smaller international finance centre, our level of influence is restricted and we must play, ultimately, by the big boys’ rules.
With this in mind we need to be realistic about our influence and the role that we play internationally as well as our future commitments when we are taking decisions. I fully understand and accept the need for the Island to take positive steps, for example, in the area of climate change but they must be fully costed and we should not be blinkered to alternative solutions, but we must prioritise the immediate suffering caused by the current cost-of-living crisis.
There is no doubt we have an affordability of housing crisis and this, along with ageing health infrastructure, have to be two of the biggest challenges that we must resolve, and these were identified over 20 years ago, and yet consecutive governments and the civil service have struggled to make significant progress and did not act decisively soon enough so the situation gets worse, and more expensive, for each successive government.
In terms of the affordability of housing it goes hand in hand with the cost-of-living crisis that again is in no small part connected to imported inflation that we can have little control over. When I hear of ideas such as a bridge or tunnel to mainland Europe to assist with transport costs, I have to question the logic as we have an immediate problem to resolve. This type of idea cannot be a priority as it would cost a huge sum and will need to charge high fees to users and, with 105,000 people, the demand will not be there. The Isle of Wight does not have a land link and it has a far larger population and several thousand commute every day to work in Hampshire. A project of this magnitude would need to have been undertaken decades ago when costs and budgets could have possibly supported such works in anticipation of the demands on housing and infrastructure.
If we still had the committee system, I think these types of ideas would have been a ten-minute discussion and then dismissed and no civil service time would be expended. With ministerial government successive ministers feel obliged to look at even the wildest options as Scrutiny or social media will demand the same. The result is that valuable time and tax resources are wasted when we have far more serious matters to consider. We need more realism and snappy decisions, so we focus on the immediate priorities over the next two years if we are going to start bringing our community back together.
Robert Surcouf comes from a Jersey farming family, though his mother was Spanish and moved to Jersey in the 1960s. He became an accountant and now specialises in risk and enterprise management. A father of two school-age children, he still helps organise and participates in local motorsport events and was one of the founding members of Better Way 2022 before the last election. The views expressed are his own.