Wednesday 26 May 2021
The Committee for the Environment & Infrastructure's focus is not just on what happens today, but on the future, and launching the policy required to enable the Island to meet the needs of the next 25 years and more. As this Assembly makes key decisions to keep Guernsey moving forward following the impact of Brexit and the global pandemic, my Committee will have that key role to play.
One such example is planning the long-term infrastructure the island will need, which will include identifying and co-ordinating the infrastructure required to deliver the States' agreed priorities. In the absence of a reliable crystal ball to plan for all future needs, this can be a challenging task, but it's a challenge we're up for. Short-term economic objectives tend to shout loudest in strategic decision-making, and the recovery from the pandemic gives good justification for this approach in the short term. However, we also need to look well beyond the horizon of this political term and think through the interdependencies of economic, social and environmental aspects to maximise the benefits now and for future generations.
Sometimes, this will mean investing in and maintaining existing infrastructure, but sometimes it will mean doing things differently to how we have done them in the past. Now is a good time to innovate, and the more we can design in flexibility, the better able we will be to adapt to whatever the future holds.
With that in mind, the Committee welcomes the coming debate on our harbours, changes to which have the potential to enhance or even transform the public realm in those waterfront areas, improve the efficiency of our transport system and develop the Island's blue economy. This is exactly the kind of strategic decision that can catalyse mutually inclusive economic, social and environmental benefits if we get it right.
Back in the here and now, one of my Committee's priorities is housing. Data emerging in recent months and weeks indicate that Guernsey is currently facing severe housing supply issues.
In our social rental sector (which for clarity sits in ESS's mandate, but is obviously still relevant), waiting lists are increasing and there has been a significant increase in enquiries and demand since the Covid 19 lockdowns. As at April 2021, there were 181 approved new applications on the waiting list (with the vast majority needing one-bedroom accommodation), in addition to 110 current tenants who are unsuitably housed and need to transfer.
In the private market, house prices have increased at a faster rate than earnings from 2019 to 2020.
Partial ownership waiting lists remain high (currently standing at 180 applicants) and the average wait time is approximately 3 to 4 years.
In the private rental market, the average rental price for local market properties is also increasing notably. In the first quarter of this year, for example, it was 8.9% higher than the previous quarter. The number of private rental units being advertised has significantly dropped in recent months. There is also a lot less movement in this market.
We need to take action to ensure that islanders' housing requirements are met. We need to address this now, and we shouldn't be constrained to more traditional approaches: indeed, there is no better time to think about how we might do things differently and more innovatively.
With the standard timescales to be worked through, even if development sites became available immediately, it is unlikely that housing units would be completed for two to three years. We cannot wait for years: we need to act quickly and effectively to make a difference in the next 12 months.
To do that, we are taking a co-ordinated, joined up approach: E&I and ESS together with P&R have set up an action group whose focus will be very much on making a practical difference as soon as possible.
The DPA and Deputy Oliver in particular have been very helpful in supporting these efforts: they are looking at ways in which the planning process can be streamlined so developments can progress much more swiftly. They have already removed the requirement for a Development Framework for smaller housing development sites, which will reduce the timeframe in which new housing units can be made available for islanders to buy, rent or partially own.
As a committee, we are looking into longer term trends and evolutions in the construction sector with a particular focus on sustainability, energy efficiency, affordability and quality.
One of the tensions around housing - and it is something of an elephant in the room - is that while people may be genuinely supportive of addressing the mismatch between supply and demand, when it comes to the planning application stage there can often be community resistance to new developments. It's worth noting that, if it's not addressed, this tension could be exacerbated if the States decides on a policy of increased population growth. Objections to planning applications often focus on two areas relevant to E&I: the loss of green spaces, and concerns around the traffic impact.
To address concerns around the loss of green spaces, my committee intends to work with the DPA to see how planning processes might better reflect the amenity value of the natural environment. While we think there are some quick wins, the more significant benefits will be realised through the green economy workstreams proposed in the Government Work Plan.
Concerns around the traffic impact of new developments are also understandable. We have one of the highest levels of vehicle ownership in the world, but our road infrastructure is the legacy of a different century and cannot be easily expanded to accommodate the higher vehicle volumes that inevitably accompany new housing developments. The fundamental problem is that our current transport system is just not very scalable. We need to look at doing things differently.
One example of this is shared mobility, which has the potential to reduce the traffic impact of new housing. If people buying or renting in a new housing development had access to a shared fleet of modern electric vehicles, they could choose the most suitable type for any given journey - perhaps a small EV for a trip to the doctor's surgery, a larger hatchback for a family beach outing, an e-bike to pop down the road to grab some milk or a van for a run to Longue Hougue with some bulky household goods for recycling. Where shared mobility schemes like this have been introduced elsewhere, it has been shown that each shared vehicle replaces the equivalent of 16 privately owned cars, so it is a really efficient system that is worth exploring in the Guernsey context.
With respect to transport more generally, the Committee has recently prioritised workstreams in the Integrated Transport Strategy and we have created six areas of focus: access to main centres (i.e. Town and The Bridge), access within main centres, access to schools, road safety, emissions reduction, and regulatory requirements. This will of course involve some cross-committee working, particularly with Home Affairs and Education, Sport & Culture.
Moving on to the Government Work Plan, one of my Committee's key roles will be in developing and co-ordinating the blue and green economies as part of the island's recovery, supporting sustainability in both fiscal and environmental senses. It will also create economic opportunities for existing sectors and support diversification into new sectors.
While the benefits of a blue economy are fairly obvious, people are not so familiar with the benefits that a green economy plan can bring about, so I'll quickly outline some of the areas that work supports:
· The planning and quality of development - by de-risking the development process with respect to environmental factors and providing greater assurances for investors;
· Tourism - by enabling and supporting the development of a strong, robust and resilient eco-tourism sector;
· Construction - supporting industry to keep pace with wider developments in relation to more sustainable development and green supply chains;
· Green finance - by promoting our local credentials and minimising the reputational risk of greenwash;
· Economic diversification into new sectors such carbon trading and compensation habitat trading;
· Sustainable agriculture and local growing initiatives - in turn supporting greater self-sufficiency and food security and improving our wider determinants of health;
· The energy transition and the development of a thriving renewables sector;
· Health and wellbeing - through improved access to nature, green spaces and opportunities for physical activity; and
· Culture and heritage - by protecting and enhancing the attractiveness of the island for existing residents, potential residents, visitors and investors.
These are all areas in which other committees - most notably Economic Development - have an interest, so I hope next month that the Assembly will reaffirm its commitment to Green Economy Supporting Plan to maximise the use and value of our natural environment and green infrastructure for the economy, health and wellbeing.
I've spoken previously of the seriousness of nature loss, the reasons why and rate at which it is happening, and the ways in which it is costing us, not least economically. The Strategy for Nature provides the framework for tackling these problems and better managing and supporting our natural environment longer term. One example is our recently approved policy to manage Invasive Non-Native Species, or INNS.
INNS pose a threat to our environment, economy and public health. They are considered the third greatest threat to biodiversity after land use pressures and climate change, threatening the survival of some of Guernsey's rarest species and harming some of our most sensitive ecosystems. As well as harming our native flora and fauna, they can also pose a risk to human health, as they can be dangerous, carry diseases or cause allergic reactions. Once established in the island, they can be very costly to manage and can damage infrastructure and commercial agriculture. Our policy prioritises keeping invasive species out of the Bailiwick in the first place, then preventing their establishment, then managing those that are already established. We have taken the step of tightening up our border controls to support that first objective but there is plenty more work ahead.
The Committee is pleased with the progress in a number of different policy areas, including Energy Policy, Aggregates and our Coastline Strategy. We are also feeling well prepared for the IMO Audit (checking how well we implement our international maritime requirements) in September, when we will be the first in the Red Ensign group to undergo this process. We performed admirably in our mock audit and in fact have been held up as an example of best practice for other member states - something else that Guernsey can be proud of.
Time prevents me from providing a more detailed update but I look forward to any questions from the Assembly on the Committee's broad and varied mandate.