Here’s a prediction for you: when the history of Guernsey comes to be written in a few years’ time,
its decline as an autonomous, prosperous and happy place to live will be traced back to the 2020s’ refusal to extend the airport runway, says Richard Digard, and here he explains why

Yes, I know the States Committee for Economic Development is reviewing and updating the Frontier Economics report, which demonstrated a strong business case for extending, but whatever the outcome of the latest review, significant numbers of people will be opposed to it.

Like education, where the evidence indicates better educational outcomes are provided by a two school model of 11-18 age range establishments under devolved leadership, islanders know best. So that’s not going to happen either.

These examples of what you might call people power – government bowing to public opinion – are particularly significant in small communities like Guernsey and Jersey because the popular voice is easily heard by politicians. No matter how poorly informed that voice may be.

The consequences of policy being determined by emotional sentimentality – you can hear it now: “Guernsey’s unique way of life will be destroyed by a longer runway” – are also more profound in small-scale islands.

To have a future, any island has to have critical mass. That is the minimum level its population, infrastructure and service provision needs to be to enable social services at an optimum level of scale and affordability and for the island’s economy to be viable and financially self-sustaining.

Critical Economics, a consultancy specialising in islands and small communities, has done a lot of work in this area (see opposite) and lead author Chris Brock concludes: “Above all, the island’s very existence should not be reliant on external support from a neighbouring island or country.”

Yet as he notes, “Merger and consolidation of many Guernsey and Jersey-based companies takes place with more ‘headquarter’ emphasis in Jersey. Inter-island air connectivity deteriorates to the detriment of Guernsey economy. Jersey able to embrace low-cost air travel market. Jersey relaxes immigration policy.

“Online shopping has a detrimental effect on traditional retail market and employment levels. Guernsey construction sector contracts due to lack of public and private sector building projects.”

Instinctively, we all knew that. But to see it written down is still shocking. And we’re doing it to ourselves – and that’s before Brexit and the damage caused by Covid-19.

The very real point here is that Guernsey’s exceptional level of public services, requiring 17.4% of the 32,000 working population to be employed by the States, is the high-tide mark of post-war prosperity ushered in on the back of horticulture and tomato growing and, now, financial services. Ensuring the sustainability of that model is not only critical for the island, it was challenging before Covid and Brexit.

Cost, too, is a major driver. How much longer can either Guernsey or Jersey continue to provide duplicate “nation state” services just 20 miles apart? Guernsey is already the most densely populated island, with 2,520 people for every square mile, yet consistently misses its own targets for house building and has what many already consider to be a crisis in providing affordable homes for its young people.

To be clear, this isn’t to talk us down. But unless there’s a focused recognition of the problems ahead, there is no chance of taking the decisions required to keep this island as it is. Which means change is required.

First is a recognition that economies of scale matter as much here as they do within the many CI businesses that have consolidated, merged or expanded in order to remain effective and competitive. A process that must include the public sector.

As Critical Economics puts it, “Given the relentless increase in costs associated with the need to resource rising public expectations on the quality of services generally, the luxury of having separately administered public services in each of the main Channel Islands becomes hard to justify.”

The difficulty Jersey’s got itself into over a new hospital is a case in point. Viewing the islands as a single archipelago with, say, a flexible employment pool would be a huge benefit, especially if private CI employers weren’t juggling two housing/immigration systems.

Healthcare, law and order/border security and education and training all lend themselves to a more holistic approach while enhancing resilience and reducing cost. The stuttering public sector reform processes in each island show how important this is.

But success hinges on top-flight connectivity between the islands – so you can see how mission critical those runway improvements really are.

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