Blog on Guernsey States accounts: ‘We’re not out of the woods yet’

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Sorting out the debacle that is the education debate... Fixing the issues with the island’s transport links...

Arguably the two biggest priorities that the intake of 2016, came to office with in their in tray.

But to Deputy Gavin St. Pier, Guernsey’s senior most politician, there’s an argument that one thing above everything has dominated the most senior committees work: Public finances, the issue which underpins quite literally everything the States do.

The assumption was that the States of Guernsey was in a sticky situation at the start of 2016, with an increasing black hole in public finances.

The good news is that a policy letter in the last term was passed, seeing a series of Public Service Reform, orchestrated by Paul Whitfield and his senior team at Policy and Resources.

Now this, from the outside looking in has been an unequivocal success, despite what you may hear on the BBC Radio Guernsey Sunday Phone-In about a ‘bloated civil service’, or ‘too many Chiefs and not enough Indians’.

Despite this restraint though, the amount Guernsey’s States spent on staff rose by nearly £3m in 2016, with States pay costs reaching £218.4m. But throughout the States we’ve seen a more efficient use of staff, being re-deployed amongst committees, a rationalisation of States property and an emphasis on delivering services in a more effective and customer focussed manner (Service Guernsey).

The bulk of the pats on the back should be shared around the Committees, especially Health and Social Care, where expenditure has been reigned in heavily. The public asked for greater fiscal prudence and under the leadership of Deputy St Pier they’ve had this delivered, with bells on.

However, to steal from Deputy St Pier a phrase he used earlier this year, ‘we’re not out of the woods yet’. Lots of what can be construed as the ‘good news’ in this set of accounts are one offs, and of that there can be no denying.

There’s been money returned from the States Trading Supervisory Board to General Revenue, which let’s be honest is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The amount the island has put into the Capital Reserves, so the money spent on building the island’s infrastructure, has been woefully lax in recent years as Deputy Emilie Yerby realised in the P and R Plan debate last year.

Alongside it, as Deputy Lyndon Trott will be quick to remind you, the States of Guernsey’s investments have performed exceptionally well. Something which cannot be relied on to continue, however much the former Chief Minister produces bluster.

To rely on one-off factors like these, is not sustainable. Deputy St Pier knows this. Paul Whitfield knows this and I hope the States of Guernsey’s elected representatives as a whole know it.

Whilst the States of Guernsey, as I mentioned above, has a series of extremely vital issues it needs to tackle – namely education, transport links and the role of Aurigny, there can be no denying on the day that the States debates its accounts there can be no greater focus of this government, than sustainable public finances.

How much progress we’ll make in moving towards that today, is pretty negligible I’d say.

The most vital days will come next week when I’m off in Gotland covering the Island Games! When the States debates the Medium Term Financial Plan, and when the shadow P and R committee (Deputy Ferbrache and Deputy Kuttelwascher) start trying to meddle in the best laid plans of Deputy St Pier. Watch this space.

The outlook today, much like the weather may be bright, but it certainly isn’t breezy. In fact the risk much like with the weather is of fatigue. Political fatigue with regards to austere spending targets, and an increasing tightening of the belt for the committees.

How long will the island’s politicians be able to stomach this regime of fiscal prudence, or will the story of the next year be a revolt from the committees over spending targets which whilst being relaxed still are seen as ‘politically unmanageable’?