5 min read

Politics & Government

How the runway debate hit the sand

Low politics, raw emotion and a factual famine leave a strategic issue in limbo

Difference of opinion

In the great controversy over whether our runway should be lengthened, you don’t need a view on the issue to form an opinion on how our politicians make decisions. The supposedly defining assembly debate on the matter was supposed to be about whether to garner hard evidence for and against. Instead the talk was practically all about the idea itself.  In the process we learned once again how our States collectively works when it faces tricky decisions.

The assembly’s votes on three resolutions decided three things.

  • To remove authority over the runway lengthening issue from the top Policy & Resources Committee (P&R) to the Economic Development Committee. This was passed by a crushing 29-4 majority.
  • To reject P&R’s proposal to do no further work on the issue. The 22-15 majority implied that the work already done to identify the various runway lengthening options would be carried forward.
  • To refuse £700,000 funding to investigate the business case for the most plausible option, namely lengthening the current 1,463m strip to 1,700m. The narrow one-vote margin, 20-19, contradicted the earlier decisions.

Speak to ordinary mortals, and they have no trouble expressing a view about the underlying question. For those against a lengthening, we shouldn’t decide anything of such magnitude without clarity about Brexit, or about the future of the finance sector.  We certainly do not want more airlines, more tourists and more businesses because we’re all supposed to cut our carbon emissions and we have enough people on this crowded island who should be spending their money at home, not on cheaper flights abroad.

In any case, they go on, we should not spend taxpayers’ money, and especially not as much as £700,000, on a study done by outside consultants who only ever tell you what you already know – which in actual fact is that the airport and our airline already do us proud, and that extending the runway would be unacceptable economically, socially and environmentally – in other words, politically.

For those in favour of a lengthening, they recognise despite their personal bias that you can’t do such a project without a good idea of how much it will cost, and if you’re to win the day you’d better know something about the potential offsetting benefits, because the actual construction cost is likely to be high. They want to secure the future of the finance sector, grow the hospitality sector and diversify the economy.  They are happy to see more people coming here, not just to visit but to live, and especially young talented ones who can work in local businesses and pay taxes.  Otherwise the current rate of increase in the number of earners relative to the number on pensions means we may not be able to maintain support our longer-living elderly, our health service or our social care provision.

As this group puts it, the last thing they want to see is the sort of chronic stagnation and decline which other places suffer. In particular they do not wish Guernsey to become a spoke to Jersey’s hub, rather as Alderney is said to have become in relation to Guernsey.  Spending up to £700,000 to show a possible way to avoid such a scenario would be money well spent.

Plainly this is about more than just a runway.  And here’s the funny thing.  Where does this £700,000 number come from? It is in the third resolution debated, and was one of the few apparent facts on offer in the debate, but PwC, the firm which carried out the first phase of the study and was presumed by everybody to do the now-thwarted second phase, doesn’t recognise the figure. In fact the total cost of both its air links and its sea links study was originally quoted at less than this figure back in 2018 – and that took no account of the narrower study which would be involved for a single option like a 1,700m runway in the second phase.

For that matter, there is also no reliable figure yet for the cost of extending the runway either. Yes, there is a figure swirling around of $10m per 100m, but it takes no account of the special circumstances surrounding each of the potential extension options, let alone a narrowly specific study. If the costs are rubbery, the benefits may be too, but no one can be sure without some dedicated expert input. Yet that is exactly what has now been ruled out.

So much for the clash of arguments, which will no doubt be scrutinised much more deeply by those with the time and inclination. The more pertinent aspect now is to understand how we have landed up here. It may be going too far to say that the arguments have been massaged and “spun” with the aim of influencing the outcome. After all, we cherish the beIief that our assembly is a group of 40 independent minds seeking the common good through reason and consensus.

History, if it ever cares, will decide whether some nine hours of debate on the subject produced a satisfactory outcome. For the moment we are faced with an extraordinary contradiction in which P&R, the leading States committee, has commissioned a detailed investigation, pre-determined the merits of its findings, delayed publishing the initial analysis, refused to take the study to any conclusion, foisted responsibility onto a chamber which plainly struggles to act collectively, and left the island in an indecisive limbo.

Supporters of the extension are putting a brave face on it, trying to martial their forces and raise funds for the business case study to go ahead.  Some would like to see the Economic Development Committee pick up the ball, but that seems unlikely. The nascent party known as the 2020 Association appears keen to make the matter an election issue, but the next poll is still more than a year away.

Opponents are obviously happy not to see the matter taken any further, but for the many people who remain agnostic on the underlying issue and want evidence one way or the other, irrationality has taken over. They wonder whether the decision not to fund the business case study might have gone the other way had the mix of expertise in the assembly been better.  How many of our representatives are comfortable with numbers and statistics to the point where they demand full analysis as the only basis for a proper cost-benefit assessment?  How many understand the scenarios which would make or break the case they purport to be making?

In case anyone finds this perplexing, it is a further source of puzzlement that the assembly easily and promptly passed a resolution to spend up to £400,000 on the important sea links issue.  Here too PwC doesn’t recognise the number, and it is impossible to divine its reliability because the full report has not been published. But it is clear that this issue is at least as important for the island’s future, given that Condor Ferries, the monopoly shipping company concerned, is to be sold by its owners and is the only one plying the seas with freight and passengers between the UK, the Channel Islands and France.

The options on this front ought ideally to be aligned in an integrated approach with the air links questions.  In any event, they are similarly complex: start a state-owned company to serve Guernsey or with Jersey to serve both islands, or call for tenders to provide a commercial service to Guernsey or to both islands. In the view of Guernsey’s top politicians, this is far more important strategically and in security terms than the length of the runway, and they are probably right. The difference in this case is that the matter is now going to be fully investigated.

 

 

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