St Helena – a personal and professional diary
‘Wow’ (Janet, Paddy, Gwen)
‘Great result’ (Nick)
I can’t imagine ever reading such superlatives about a housing job. In fact apart from ‘astronaut’ or ‘rock star’ I can’t imagine any career warranting them. But getting the job of creating the first housing service on the tropical island of St Helena was, to me at least, like winning Olympic gold.
Mind you not all comments were that effusive; ‘sounds really interesting, if that’s what you really want’ was typical of well meaning friends who don’t share my enthusiasm for housing and travel. Roger saw the irony that I’d turned down a Housing Policy Manager post because I didn’t want to commute to London, when St Helena is one of the remotest places on the planet, five days by boat from Cape Town or three from Ascension Island if you can get there.
Discovered by the Portugese and settled by the East India Company and freed slaves, the island has gradually declined since the growth of air travel. The loss of trade has been matched only by the exodus of young people seeking work and a decent income. This is now set to change: a huge airport investment, a five star hotel and the unique attractions of the island look set to reverse the trend. Well, just so long as there are homes for the hundreds of people who are expected to be attracted to and back to the island. And this is where I come in, as ‘Housing Executive’ with responsibility for improving the existing housing stock and developing new homes and even new communities.
The most exciting part of the job is that there is a blank sheet of paper when it comes to housing legislation and housing management. St Helena has very little of either. But this is not - thank goodness - about imposing UK practices on the island. First of all, as my Solent blog has made clear, the UK model has failed, with house prices way beyond the means of all but a few first time buyers and ‘affordable rents’ condemning many to the poverty trap. Secondly, St Helena really is a special case, with the challenges of climate, terrain, supplies and a suspicious population. Who is this guy? How is he going to tackle years of decline successfully? One local news article suggested that the island needs Harry Potter or Merlin to sort out its housing problems. If only it were that easy… Thirdly there is the unique environment to protect. St Helena is a microcosm of Costa Rica, with its 400 endemic species, incredible geography and with all of Jamestown High Street made up of listed Georgian buildings. No wonder Charles Darwin liked it so much. The volcano last erupted several million years ago, which may or may not be a good thing. I am hoping that neither it nor the local people will have cause to erupt at my arrival.
Soldiers do it. Tennis players and cricketers do it. Rock stars do it. So do criminals. So I really shouldn’t be feeling too sorry for myself for committing to working 4,000 from home for three years. But when home has been the same house for 20 years and you’ve just spent three weeks saying goodbye every night to a great bunch of friends, your wife of 26 years and 25 year old son Matt, it is quite a challenge. Sad, too, to abandon Tony Hall and his Eastleigh team, stuck between rising homelessness and a very limited budget.
I caught a bout of man flu so the final farewells and flight to Cape Town were quite low key affairs. I have never been known to turn down free food but Jane has prescribed me enough medicine to supply the St Helena Hospital for the next ten years and with a small portion I was out cold for the flight. That and a few more hours’ sleep in the Glen Boutique Hotel provided the cure. ‘Boutique’ means just Guest House, but it’s half the price and much more personal than the city centre hotels. It’s ‘gay and lesbian friendly’ which means that I’m the only straight in the village, but like Mykonos, Brighton, Sitges and Sydney it’s a place where everyone but a Texan Republican would feel comfortable. I even have a day for sightseeing and there can be no better choice than to visit Robben Island on the same day that Barrack Obama is re-elected in the United States.
A five day trip on the RMS St Helena is the only way travellers can reach the island. There are 100 passengers and it is like walking into the pages of an Agatha Christie novel, where the officers’ rig defines the dress code. Tonight it is mess dress – formal jacket and ties for the gentlemen. There’s a deck quoits and bagatelle tournament taking place and we have cocktails with the Captain at 18.00 hours. I’ve met a writer, a diplomat, a teacher, an entrepreneur and an engineer within the first few hours. I’m half expecting a blood curdling scream ‘there’s been a murder!’ and Inspector Poirot to appear at any moment.
Old friends Steph and Chris gave me a copy of ‘Napoleon and St Helena’ to while away the journey. It describes the island as a ‘wart’, ‘a stage set for hell’, with ‘market stalls offering thoroughly meagre fare’ and, at its most charitable, ‘an ideal holiday resort for invalids and artists.’ No wonder some Saints have a distrust of outsiders having been on the receiving end of such artistic licence. The writer, Johannes Willms, would clearly prefer to condemn the islanders to eternal poverty rather have his sensibilities offended by tourism. It is hardly what you want to read at the start of a three year contract, but nobody that I have spoken to shares his miserable outlook.
There are plenty of ways to spend five days on board the RMS for such a small ship. You can of course eat yourself to death, but there is a superb gym overlooking the Ocean on three sides. With a bit of imagination you can convince yourself that the ship is going faster when you’re on the rowing machine. Entertainment is very Hi Di Hi, apart from cocktails with the Captain and a Service of Remembrance on the sun deck. ‘For those in peril on the sea’ has a particular resonance when the nearest land is several hundred miles away. I’ve met Chris, a Belgian Astronomer, got some useful advice from Bill, a marketing man from New Brunswick and had breakfast with a Professor of Art and Deputy Mayor from New York State. It’s also a good opportunity to get to meet some Saints and find out their views on the changes and the housing situation. Like waiting for a British tennis champion or a by-pass the airport has been so long in gestation that some still don’t quite believe that it’s happening. There is a guarded welcome for the opportunities it brings. I do hope that the Saints will make the most of them. For if they don’t there are plenty of international investors who will be more than happy to step into their shoes.
The welcome upon arriving at the island is unforgettable. After being serenaded by a local rock band, I’m greeted by Lands Manager Tony Earnshaw and then whizzed around the island and introduced to around 50 people. I get to wave at around 500 more because what makes St Helena particularly charming is the way that everybody – and I mean everybody – waves and smiles. You wave when you are driving and you wave when you are walking. I am waving in my sleep. I bet Johannes Willms didn’t wave. And the island is stunning. No photos could reflect the enormous range of contours, vistas, flora, fauna and climates in this incredible place. Best of all my office is the one with the red and white striped roof – what greater welcome can a Southampton fan wish for?
Some key facts about St Helena. The island economy relies heavily on the public sector since land supply and transportation costs make exporting anything but coffee and fish uneconomic. As one of the remotest islands in the world it faces the extreme difficulties of sourcing materials and disposal of waste, notably broken down cars. Earnings are well below UK levels with £5,000 being the norm. Demand for labour is increasing and with improved productivity people can look forward to an increase in their earnings.
But with social rents reflecting current incomes at around £18 a week, there has been little money for repairs and tenancy management. Resident consultation is in its infancy. Homes which were fit for purpose when built now fall well below modern standards. One in ten public sector homes lack inside toilets and all lack a piped hot water supply. Most roofs are made of asbestos and are starting to fail. I’ve met elderly tenants who have few complaints about homes where the bathroom and kitchen is over the courtyard and where the outside toilets are around the corner. To them it is normal, but how many younger Saints will accept this state of affairs? It will be interesting to find out.
Demand from airport managers for housing is inflating market rents, though the airport construction company is developing a large number of temporary workers’ homes. Airport and hotel workers create a huge but short term spike in demand and it is good that the temporary homes are taking the strain. This keeps the government’s focus on the longer term impact on the housing market.
The enormity of the housing task is looming large. I need to develop a completely new raft of laws and policies, refurbish and transform the management of the existing stock, enable the development of the right mix of intermediate and social rented homes, plus carry out a stock transfer. Alone. Well, not really. There are a number of SHG managers who include housing among their responsibilities and of course plenty of residents who I’m keen to get involved. But as the only one with ‘housing’ in my title, several bucks now stop with me.
The first new home I’ve visited is a pretty solid structure of concrete base and recycled steel columns. It will provide great accommodation for the island’s ….er…donkeys, who enjoy spectacular views from the fields above Lemon Valley. Basil Reed, the airport builders, are providing it as a goodwill gesture to Jody and her team of animal lovers. The youngest member of the donkey family is named Basil as a thank you.
Some more surprising facts about St Helena….you can drive from France to Scotland via Fairyland and St Pauls Cathedral in about half an hour. For £20 you can go deep sea fishing and keep as many Marlin or Tuna you can land. It is home to the world’s rarest tree, the Bastard Gumtree. You can often see dolphins leaping in the sea off the coast and whales were recently seen berthing off Jamestown. The most popular music genre here is country and western, sharing most airtime with a 1973 record collection on Saint FM, which provides a lifeline to those who can’t afford the high cost of television and incredibly high cost of internet access. But membership of the golf club costs £24 a year and this includes all green fees and discounted bar prices. My biggest outlay is likely to be petrol because of the contours created by two volcanic eruptions : while from google maps it is just ten miles by six, if you were to flatten out the island it may be the size of Greenland!
My first weekend was as surreal as could be imagined. On Friday I witnessed what was described as the largest explosion ever on the island (I suspect the volcanic eruption five million years ago was bigger) when 60 tonnes of TNT blew up 65,000 cubic metres of hillside for the airport. Each Friday office workers drift down to Donny’s Bar where the music includes Bowie and The Clash until the sun has fallen below the Atlantic horizon. On the Saturday morning I visited the donkey home and helped walking, brushing and cleaning them. I must admit that my In the afternoon, David, a lovely guy who heads up the planning service, took me for a ride down a precipitous road for a picnic at Sandy Bay in his 1950s open top sports car. On the way back I stopped at the remains of Halley’s Observatory, where he helped to calculate the distance of the sun from the earth. I then went shopping, putting my petrol and week’s food on the slate at the local supermarket. In the evening I was invited to a leaving do with free bar and food at the sophisticated Consulate Hotel. On Sunday morning a bunch of us helped Colin, the Financial Secretary, to move house to Luffkins, the second best house on the island. I was then invited into the best one - Plantation House - for a chat with Hannah of the Foreign Office, after meeting Jonathan, the world’s oldest known living creature, under his chin. He’s a giant tortoise the size of a small car. I then got invited to play tennis at Plantation House next week. Pinch me somebody!
Anyone looking at my facebook photos could imagine that life is just one big party, but of course photos of me at my desk and in meetings may not be so exciting. Even so the weekends have been packed and it’s possible to have a great time without breaking the bank – kayak hire, for example, is £2 a day.
The real work has kicked in, though. The most significant challenge is to develop the homes that the Saints and the tourist industry will need. The real positives are that the government owns much of the development land and there is an excellent (three stars, SHG!) strategic framework. This allows for the managed release of large amounts of government land and an emphasis on affordability and sustainability. I’ve heard a few grumbles about ‘experts not delivering anything’, but without these legal and planning documents – which take time because people do get consulted and difficult decisions have to be made – the islanders’ interests could never have been protected.
The negatives are that the scale of tourism is still an unknown and the airport and the other infrastructure projects are soaking up every skilled construction worker on the island. It is a matter of timing: developers will flock to the island once airlines schedule flights, but we need accommodation by then. We need to consider the options. If we cannot find local builders to create the sort of modern, high quality homes that we need, we must at least be able to train up locals to help construct the later phases.
Things are starting to move on the development front. Three steel framed houses were already planned for two sites well before my arrival. We need to test how quickly and cost effectively such homes can be built – and to see what residents think of them. We are taking a masterplanning approach to consult local residents and businesses on what they would like to see at Half Tree Hollow, which is a comprehensive development area and not a Tim Burton film. The overall mix, any non-housing uses including open space and community art, the layout and the appearance of homes are all up for grabs. We aim to include a further pilot project on or near to the site. We have to consult with local and, if necessary, off island developers to work out how to make it ‘stack up’, to use the jargon. Most of all we want to send the message that you can now have far more control over your lives than ever before: please make the most of it.
Then there is the management of the existing homes. I’ve already mentioned the condition of many homes. The challenge here is to improve the homes that are capable of being improved and put the service on a sound financial footing for the future. A service review will tell us what it will cost to produce the minimum standard of service that tenants want to see. The difficult bit will be working out how to fund it.
Another important priority, but not quite the easy solution that it may once have appeared, is to reduce the number of empty homes. I once had an argument with Margaret Thatcher about homelessness. It was the day before the 1987 General Election. She gave me what remains the standard Conservative response: it’s because of all the empty homes. It has become clear that they are part of the solution, but hardly a golden bullet. The number of empty homes isn’t as great as first thought. Saying that a home is unoccupied on one particular night is not the same as saying that it is empty. The island context means that many residents are off island working on Ascension, Falklands, the UK and the RMS. Then there are those in various forms of care including all four residents of HM Prison Jamestown, whose new manager, Martin, I met up with on the RMS. The number of genuinely empty homes is much lower and the emerging message is that it is the owners of uninhabitable homes that most need help.
We’ll also be working out how best to help any residents who are threatened with homelessness, because there are no Rent Acts, Protection from Eviction or Homelessness legislation here.
On my first visit to The Standard I was asked why St Helena needs a Housing Executive. Will that be enough?
I’ve been able to meet quite a few Saints so far. Some activities inevitably attract expats more than others; let’s face it, going on a boat cruise might not appeal if you have spent your life surrounded by water. But events like the Sleeping Beauty Pantomime at Prince Andrew School bring everyone together and, as everywhere, sports and drinking override most social and cultural differences. The most enjoyable so far has been tea and cakes at Patsy Flagg’s home. Patsy is a bit of a legend, hosting regular fundraising events and just happens to live on Half Tree Hollow. It was an initial attempt at consultation, but I can’t say that it was my finest hour because Patsy kept refuelling me and the other 20 or so guests with tea, meat roll, cakes, more cakes, quizzes, more cakes and lucky dips. It was her show after all. It was just great to be invited into her home and to introduce myself to some of her many friends. I’m going to be setting up Thursday afternoon surgeries in a variety of community centres to enable residents to meet me on a one to one basis. Consultation and involvement on housing matters is not something residents are familiar with and it’s important to change that.
One of the two local newspapers; the Sentinel, has been asking me for an interview. After three weeks I think I can say a few things without sounding like a naïve or insensitive newcomer. I’m pleased that the big messages come through strongly in the article, albeit with one or two minor misunderstandings – I seem to be aiming to recycle electricity, which would win me the Nobel Prize, but overall it’s fine. I hope it generates a debate and people wanting to be part of a housing sounding board come forward.
There’s a local gent by the name of Andy who looks a bit like me. I know because I met him on the RMS on his way back home and because several people have greeted me like a long lost friend. They probably think he’s not as sociable as he used to be and that maybe his memory is starting to go. Sorry, Andy.
Aren’t there are two types of football fan? Normal fans expect their team to lose every week and never, ever win a trophy. Armchair fans who have never seen ‘their’ team play live yet refer to ‘Giggsy’ and ‘Becks’ like lifelong friends are the other sort. I’ll exclude those of us on St Helena from this because, quite frankly, TV is the only way that we can see professional football regularly without emigrating. And now, as an armchair fan, I can refer to Nige, Adam, Lambo and Chung as my lifelong buddies.
Being able to watch seven sports channels (all without adverts and for a fraction of the overhyped Sky service in the UK) is one reason why it is hard to believe that you are on a speck of rock in the middle of the Atlantic. The Georgian architecture of Jamestown, the ropey old Ford Fiesta that I drive, the Tesco and Asda labels in the shops, the English language and the ability to Skype friends and family all help to keep island fever at bay. There are of course many signs that this place is different, but what we have in common is quite comforting. New friends here tell me ‘don’t forget that you are an islander now’. Only an actor would pretend to look at life through local eyes from day one, but these factors help to make it a gentle conversion.
Napoleon has made a reappearance. Longwood House is in need of major repairs and David has been over to take a look. It is only in such a small and historic island that there could be so many different things to do. I’m reminded of a housing officer in London whose sole job was ‘garage keys’ – how he must wish for such variety. Bedtime reading is now ‘Napoleon on St Helena’ by Julia Blackburn, an altogether more balanced and poetic description of the man and the place than the Johannes Willms account. It’s fun reading books in their locale – ‘Our Man in Havana’ in Havana; ‘Zanzibar’ in Zanzibar; and ‘Hard Times’ in Portsmouth, so reading about Napoleon’s home in sight of Longwood House adds to the experience.
Shopping isn’t quite the mundane experience that it is the UK. First of all we are dependent on the regular supply of many foodstuffs on the RMS. It’s easy to see why the ship has an emotional attachment, like a steel umbilical cord. So it’s like first day of the sales when the food arrives in each of the several grocers in Jamestown. Unlike the UK when people queue overnight for a new iPad or half price TV, the lady in the queue ahead of me had two bags’ full of cabbages. Rather like when we visited Cuba I had the impression that there was no food in the shops, let alone fresh food. The reality is that in Cuba we gave away our emergency supplies of packet mixes to some unimpressed locals, while in St Helena it’s freely available until the supplies run out. And there’s plenty in the freezers just in case.
Then there’s the price of food. For the imported stuff, it seems to be a combination of weight, volume and shelf life. So Angel Delight is the same price as in the UK (I now have a full shelf) and there’s a 50% mark up on most tinned food. But for the real bargains you have to ignore shelf life. It seems that Tescos and Asda try to get rid of the products reaching the sell by date via their home delivery services but if that doesn’t work they send them to St Helena. Shelf life is not so much an issue for frozen goods (I paid £6 for six chicken breasts) and having eaten in some pretty dodgy places in Bolivia, Greece and Portsmouth, I have a strong stomach. So a week or two past the sell by date is worth the gamble and I’ve not had any ‘consequences’, but I’m seeing what the oldest sell by date I can find so far is. The current winner is April 2011. Pricing is quite amusing too – the Happy Shopper labels say 65p for a tin of custard or any 2 for £1.09, whereas the shop label charges 92p. Everyone accepts that the original labels are meaningless.
Christmas is coming and it’s time to take stock.
Working with the people who deliver it, I’ve drafted 30 improvements for the landlord service. A good starting point is that everyone realises that the service needs to improve.
We’ve come up with the St Helena equivalent of the decent homes standard. I’m calling it a minimum standard because, believe me, it is very basic.
Building surveyor Tracey has done a great job of visiting most homes to draw up a schedule of what is needed. She’s also identified a long list of repairs which have never been reported and which are now being carried out. It is a sign of the tenants’ low expectations that so few had been requested.
We now have a draft shopping list of what is needed to bring the stock up to the minimum standard. I say ‘drafted’ several times because one of the most important innovations is to consult residents on everything we’ve come up with.
As challenging as improving the homes is paying for the work. An initial estimate that it will cost over £1.5 million – nearly £10,000 per home. This is equal to over ten years’ rent each. Could any government provide this level of subsidy indefinitely? Can the tenants afford it? You can’t just raise rents without having a safety net for those who cannot afford an increase. So a new fair rent policy and improved welfare benefits system are next in line if house conditions are to go beyond basic and not deteriorate once again. Suggesting changes of this nature may be as popular as going on a wirebird hunting trip.
Rent collection is itself another challenge. The government is still struggling to collect the rent from those who can afford to pay. The approach is not at all joined up, with one department chasing money while another is giving away free pots of paint to the same people. It is a good example of the need for an integrated approach to the service.
Dealing with anti-social behaviour is another. I once interviewed a resident of a Devon village who described ASB as ‘looking at you in a funny way’. St Helena is frankly much closer to Devon than the drug dens and gang violence of UK cities but still has its problems, mostly alcohol related. They are usually ‘dealt with appropriately’ by the Police according to their weekly reports to the local press. But some of the sexist jokes in one local newspaper do not sit easily with the incidences of domestic violence that are reported.
Linda has completed her research into empty and unused homes and we have worked together on how to take this forward. We already know where the ‘low hanging fruit’ lies: it is with those who have inherited uninhabitable homes and are looking for help. What we need now are financial models to help them with – a revolving loan fund is one such example. We will be consulting Councillors’ on these in February.
Moving swiftly from existing to new homes, we’ve drafted a first brief for architects to come up with a site layout and mixes of homes for Half Tree Hollow. I am looking for an imaginative mix of local architectural skills, international ‘green’ expertise and high quality builders to produce the exemplar homes we want to build in 2013. I’ve decided to commission masterplans for four of the sites in the local plan and we have been able to negotiate a reasonable price for this. This will ensure that they address needs other than housing, can be released in a managed way and that we can be flexible in what we can offer developers. The big advantage for next year is that there is a substantial capital budget to develop the exemplar homes.
There is increasing media interest in what we are trying to do. Horatio, my dinner table companion on the RMS, has been on Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ to report in his gentle and insightful way of the importance of Christmas to the island. when children look forward to seeing their parents again more than Father Christmas. This is because so many Mums and Dads have to work abroad to earn an income. Horatio highlights the mixed opinions of the airport, but if it makes trips home (at least from the UK) easier and enables more people to earn a living on the island it will surely be a success. I’m also nurturing interest among other media contacts in what we are trying to achieve. A Grand Designs Christmas Special, maybe?
My gear has arrived after a two month journey from England. Working out how to pack household goods for a place you’ve never been to before was quite a challenge. I realise that I have packed enough socks for an army and have three or four jackets and coats, of which I’ll need one, once a year. I’ll be able to do a remake of The Mummy with all of the plasters that have been packed. The TV, books, tapestries and paintings all make the place look like home, which strangely makes me feel homesick for the first time since I arrived. The Cable and Wireless digibox arrived the same day but C&W have decided to show seven live Premiership matches a weekend but to leave out Saints. Don’t they know we play the most attractive football and have more goals per game (mostly in our net) than most other teams? To make it worse the commentators make every Manchester United match sound like a pilgrimage to the altar of football, when most real football fans would rather watch Saints.
My first trip to the GP was a pleasant experience. I’d developed a face ache which turned out to be just down to old age. I was seen within a few minutes of getting in, had a quick but convincing diagnosis and had to go up one flight of stairs to collect my prescription a few minutes later. The pills came in a little plastic bag with none of the horrific ‘if you take these there is a small risk that you will die painfully from an allergic reaction’ insurance against ambulance chasers messages that you get in the UK. The total cost? £2.
I’ve discovered a new psychological condition. It’s called ‘wave guilt’ and it happens when you are distracted by holes in the road, bends or the radio and omit to wave to another driver or pedestrian. You get instead a wave of guilt that you have become a cynical no waver in the eyes of the world. I’ve been here long enough to realise that a few drivers don’t wave, either through some sense that it is not manly or just that they are plain miserable. But the vast majority do and I don’t want to end up in some waveless hell.
Talking of driving there’s only ever been one set of traffic lights in the history of the island and there are few road signs. The government felt it necessary to issue a press release explaining what the lights meant. This seems rather unnecessary but maybe it was because most of the American TV movies we see suggest that you’re supposed to drive through red lights. Anyway, they’re gone now. There aren’t many road names outside of Jamestown but the wonderfully named ‘Ring Road’ encircles Diana’s Mount, the highest point on the island. It is shaped more like a gunshot wound than a ring. One of the most amusing signs appears after you have negotiated several blind hairpin bends out of Jamestown. At the top of the road, where it starts to level out, there is a gentle bend that is heralded by the only ‘bend in the road’ sign on the whole hill. Just in case you’d forgotten.
I think I’ve invented a new word. ‘Snowdenfreude’ is the term for people in hot places sniggering at the thought of the weather back home.
We have taken a big step forward on the development front. A qualified architect, James, has joined the government primarily to lead on the hospital and other capital projects. This in itself is a full time job. But he is as excited as I am at the opportunity to create new affordable and original housing. James brings technical and commissioning skills that the island previously lacked. So if I can, with James’ architectural advice, instigate a competition it could result in truly world beating designs. The competition is open to all, but could generate worldwide interest. Interestingly, the RIBA priced themselves out of contention by wanting to charge £35,000 plus expenses just to administer it. No wonder there are so many unemployed architects; their professional body does them no favours.
After a couple of months we have our first housing crisis. A tenant has died and his flat needs deinfesting (I won’t go into the details). The design of the flats is such that four neighbours have to be evacuated. The Government does not have a ‘homelessness duty’ but can rely on the goodwill of the community. After meeting and informing the residents we find that a combination of relatives and the Salvation Army can help out. Services for the homeless often have their genesis, so to speak, in voluntary organisations, as I know from my time on the Board of Two Saints Housing Association. It’s important that we encourage and support such good work.
This speck of an island is attracting quite extraordinary media interest. The BBC website and ‘Norway’s biggest newspaper’ have highlighted the call for a fast internet connection, which will cost another £10 million. Given the condition of the island’s housing, health, schools, prison, utilities and roads it is a question of which among many are the biggest priorities. I have my doubts whether UK taxpayers can stump up even more money, as some people seem to take for granted. So should this be a priority I expect it to be found from savings elsewhere. My old RMS dinner table Horatio has followed up his Radio 4 report with a Financial Times article that balances effusiveness about the island with a more sober assessment of the crossroads that the island is at www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/545fa650-1cf5-11e2-abeb-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2HmDcfG1f
Not since Pimlico declared independence can.such a small place have gained such a high profile.
‘Sea slugs’ and ‘attractive’ wouldn’t normally appear in the same sentence but the marine biologists have found a spiky pink and white model. Better still, they’ve been diving in areas never previously explored and think that this is the first time such a creature has been found. Could we be the first people ever to see these slugs?
We have a curious little shop opposite the office. Shops seem to be tucked into most corners of Main Street and this is no exception. Both what you can buy and how goods are displayed are delightfully unpredictable. Entering the shop the display case has packets of fuses and electrical miscellany alongside three pairs of ladies shoes and a dozen or so packets of flower seeds. There are a few red and green peppers below. Sweet jars along the back have plastic bags of inexpensive spices in them. And along with individually packed bags of sweets there are some bubble gum and gobstoppers that I last bought 40 years ago. I am sure that this was how my grandmother’s shop in Aston would have looked like in the early 1960s, before it was demolished to make way for Spaghetti Junction.
The imperative to build new homes has hit home with the expression of interest of the Mantis Group to develop a new five star hotel at Ladder Hill, above Jamestown. Excellent news, but it will mean that up to 14 tenants will need to be rehoused. We’ve provided reassurances to the tenants that if a deal is done we will have the best part of two years to rehouse them and we’ll be taking full account of their preferences and the size of homes they need. But we only get one or two vacancies locally and two years is still very little time to develop 14 new homes. And they aren’t the only ones who might be affected by hotel developments.
Budget setting is a complicated business because so many stakeholders have to be involved. The need to improve other services is just as great as it is for housing. I don’t expect housing to be as high a priority as a satisfactory hospital building, electricity supply and clean water. But like most professionals I want to do the best I can to improve my own service. In an ideal world I would replace around 150 of the government landlord homes with modern, well built properties, but the de minimis position is to ensure that they are all safe and meet our new minimum standard. We need to build 30 homes on Half Tree Hollow to ensure that the residents of Ladder Hill can be rehoused and a five star hotel constructed. Unlike some less democratic nations, we won’t simply drive people off the land. We want them to be involved in the design of the estate they move to, have plenty of notice and can even choose who to live next to. And I need to have the ability to tackle rent arrears and deal with estate management problems.
Some days everything goes well. This afternoon I visited the Prince Andrew Secondary School to talk about a housing design competition to run in parallel with the international contest. Vanessa, the Acting Head was really enthused and we ended up organising the whole thing, from an assembly talk by James the Architect to the exhibiting of the winning entries alongside the international short list. I want the school winner to be on the jury for the international contest. It’s all about raising aspirations, both in terms of the quality of housing and the heights to which young Saints can attain. Off I then went to Enterprise Saint Helena for an immediate response that they would sponsor the prizes.
The Sentinel is reporting on a big local derby in the cricket league. Surely every match is a local derby? The last local derby I went to was a football match between Malaga and Real Betis of Seville – a 300 mile round trip compared with the 10 miles from Jamestown to Longwood and back. It’s great that a place with a population of 4,000 has ten cricket teams in its league. Given that the weather is always so fine and the pitch at Prince Andrew School has the most glorious of settings, perhaps it isn’t so surprising.
Best non-housing news of the month is the request from Martin the Prison Manager to be part of a football team. I offer not only myself but my six Saints shirts for the team to wear. I am not sure which least impresses Martin, but I think my offer to clean them and promise to get our team photo in a Premiership football programme is winning him over. It is another step in my campaign to get Saints to support the Saints. The Saints shirts range from the classic early 1990s Dimplex to the latest aap3 model. The RMS turned up half way through and it's horn heralded half time. It was a demonstration match, demonstrating how to play football badly, but the local kids enjoyed it with some taking part. Few can afford a premiership shirt but I'm sure that if we could set up a team ahead of the football season (which starts in June) we could wean some of them off the so called top four clubs. After the way that Saints demolished Manchester City it’s not as daft as it sounds.
This week gay marriage was overwhelmingly approved by the UK government. In the space of a generation we have seen a sea change in attitudes towards minority groups. By coincidence I came across the 1950 edition of the Laws of St Helena and this shows just how much things have changed here, too. Among the 134 Ordinances, as they are called, you can find laws with a local context such as ‘deserters from foreign vessels’,’phormium industry’,’white ants’ and ‘wrecks and salvage.’ There is a bounty of ten shillings for each deserter caught by the local police.
Social progress can be measured by the abolition of capital punishment of juveniles in 1910, the fact that flogging could only be applied with ‘an instrument approved by the Governor’ and that anyone obtaining tobacco for an under 16 year old would face a fine of £2. Any scoundrel attempting to procure any woman or girl under the age of twenty to have ‘unlawful carnal connection’ faced a prison term of two years, with or without hard labour. A brothel owner would face a rather lesser prison term of three months.
And over 50 years ahead of the UK there was a minimum wage to be fixed by the Governor where wages in a particular occupation were felt to be unreasonably low. Community care was introduced the best part of a hundred years ahead of the UK with the Governor able to permit ‘the removal from the Lunatic Asylum of any lunatic in confinement..at the request of any relation or friend of such lunatic who may be able to undertake the custody and charge of such lunatic…’.
I’m pretty sure that if any of these laws are still in force I won’t be tempted to break them. But I’m going to be careful with my oil paintings and camera – if I take a photo, sketch or paint any military work I may end up with six months’ hard labour and expulsion under the Espionage Ordinance. I’m flying close to the wind – last night I found out that I needed a St Helena driving licence, while sat next to the Chief of Police….
There’s no greater privilege for an expat than to be invited to Sunday Lunch with a local family. At the end of the third of Patsy’s coffee mornings I was asked to join her family for a Helenian lunch. It was hard to decide what was best – the banquet of a meal or the chance to meet and chat with her extended family. The themes ranged from local nicknames to the lack of trust that many people have with government. I don’t have the knowledge or time to reach any judgement on what has happened in the past, but spending time like this does help to gain the trust of local people. Ultimately, as we said in several hundred inspection reports, it’s outcomes that matter. That will take a little longer.
St Helena is an incredible place for trekking. The many steep valleys that divide the island provide walkers with unforgettable landscapes, mixing dense greenery with a rainbow of volcanic soils. The top walkers on the island are Nick, Frank and Joe. They are built like goats whereas I’m closer to a warthog. So their definition of trek mainly consists of rock climbing without ropes. The journey down to the Black Rocks begins with a gentle, well signed path but soon becomes vertical scree. Nick even has to bring a pick axe to create a path, so rare is the opportunity to place one’s life in extreme jeopardy. There were a couple of times when I was hanging on to crumbling rock above a steep drop, described hekpfully by Frank as akin to death by cheese grater. We were trekking from 930am to 6pm; I drank three litres of liquid plus a couple more when I got home.My bloodied legs and nerves were indeed shredded!..
The honeymoon period is over and its down to the real hard work of change. We are building a budget and making the case for a generic housing officer who can step into my shoes. It’s going to be a great opportunity for a bright young Saint but I’m being told that it’ll be too challenging. We’ll see. Whoever gets it will become a very influential and important player and I’m committed to mentoring and training that person to take my place when I leave.
I now have project plans in place for 30 homes and for the creation of a community based housing organisation. In the UK this would employ at least two staff and specialist consultancies; here we have to cut our cloth and it will be me, the generic housing officer and a critical friend, who we have yet to appoint. In the UK stock transfer can take several years; on St Helena I’ve two.
Consultation is proving to be difficult. While rumours can spread like wildfire, the newsletter, housing surgeries, press articles and public meetings are not yet generating much interest. We’ve started the masterplanning process for the three largest housing sites. and I’ve made it very clear that we start with a blank sheet of paper. Given the furore over a separate set of proposals for Jamestown, where little consultation did take place beforehand, you’d have expected people to welcome these opportunities. I’m entering into debates within the local newspapers because of the coverage they get in the hope that it generates interest. I’m fully aware that there are a few people who, if I was able to walk on water, would say I wasn’t walking fast enough, but that’s life. It worries me that the negative people dissuade others from giving consultation a chance.
The design competitions are proving to be a big success. They are helping to challenge traditional approaches to building with new and original designs. I can’t say I like all five international finalists, but that’s the point of design – it gets people to think. One worry that I have is that the urgency to provide homes will undermine the most imaginative approaches. One design could be built almost entirely with local materials – but how long does it take to establish the local industry for this? It might be that our first phase will be pragmatic, leaving time for the longer term solutions to be developed.
I’ve settled surprisingly well into the life of a singleton. Back home I was banned from the washing machine in 1983 and I’ve never really sought to lift the ban until now. And now I realise that it’s not Jane’s fault at all that socks disappear and white shirts occasionally go pink. There really must be a planet stuffed with non-matching socks somewhere. It’s easy to get into a routine, too – if the drawers are empty then it’s time to put the washing machine on. I’m having to do more vacuuming with carpets that have been specially designed to show up every microscopic speck of dust or dead moth (lots of them). And do people living alone start talking to themselves? I asked myself this question several times this morning.
At my age I never thought I’d take up scuba diving. The PADI course is really well designed; important since I don’t fancy running out of air or getting the bends when the nearest decompression chamber is a week away. I’ve an excellent trainer in Anthony and it’s great value for money. It’s possible to scuba straight off the wharf and find yourself surrounded by huge amounts of sea life, much of it exclusive to St Helena. Some of the skills are confusing, like having to release air as you ascend. I didn’t panic at the less amusing sessions, like having your air supply turned off deliberately, either, but my heavy breathing would have gotten me arrested if I’d been on the phone. Scuba diving and deep sea fishing is certain to draw huge numbers of people to the Island and the Government needs to do everything it can to assure the success of these local industries run by positive, hard working Saints.
Another experience that I am hardly likely to get in this or any other life is to spend an evening in Bartram’s Cottage with friends who work for the National Trust of St Helena. The cottage is the former home of Napoleon’s general who looked after his (considerable) needs while in exile. The place is a historic monument but as with so many properties on the Island needs a small fortune spending on it. It didn’t stop us from having a great night and the walk home underneath the southern night sky is breathtaking.
It’s easy to see how St Helena would appeal to people wanting to retire to a place that is safe and crime free. It’s a year since the last burglary (and the Police aren’t quite sure that it was a burglary). This week’s crime headlines comprise an untaxed car, runaway dog and tax offence. No wonder the demand for retirement homes is expected to come from the high crime areas of South Africa.
After six months apart, Jane has made the long journey here. It's used up most of her annual leave (I'm reminded of this several times) but it doesn't take long to convince her that St Helena truly is a wonderful place. I think we managed two nights in out of 15, did the tourist stuff, played lots of tennis, swam a bit, ate at the three best places as well as at Longwood House and The Briars, did some 1/10 postbox walks and made friends with lots of donkeys - and I don't mean those of us playing five a side. Sunday morning's prayers beside an empty grave for a French bogeyman who actually kidnapped the Pope was pretty bizarre, but not as much as impersonating the man himself for the BBC. Look out for 'Andrew Robert's Napoleon' series on the BBC in the Autumn of next year...
Both of the Design competitions have been a great success. Local lad Keegan Yon won the School competition with the sort of house I'd like to live in - it even has a cinema. Keegan is a talented and modest young lad and we'll be doing what we can to help him to become the first Saint to train as an architect. The winner of the International competition is the Bilbao Architecture Team who are one of the top 20 young architecture practices of Spain. They've done a huge amount of research into the Island and propose a Balinese style design made from volcanic rock and bamboo. If we can make this work the economic cost and carbon footprint of imports should be a thing of the past and we could create an industry... something the Island is desperate for. We do have giant bamboo growing on government land on the Island and so we need to create a business plan that works and the support of the environmental lobby.
There are of course a vocal minority of negative voices. We displayed the entries for a month in two very prominent locations, publicised this widely, encouraged comments and reported every one to our jury of Saints. A few people who couldn’t be bothered to comment during this time are now making a fuss. Funny, that – the same people who see conspiracies everywhere appear to have thought up one of their own. Those who complain that the government does not listen to consultees are saying that we should ignore the majority opinion. There are without doubt some major barriers to overcome if bamboo is to be a success – enough land to grow it, a management plan to control its spread, the cost of establishing a production plant. But we are duty bound to do our best to overcome them and we should remember that the design wasn’t selected just for its bamboo – the flexibility, the other local materials, the ventilation, shading and ease by which self builders may use the design all contributed.
We now have a housing advice centre. Well, not quite – it’s a noticeboard at the front of Essex House where we can offer free advertisements to landlords and tenants, promote the occupation of empty homes and use for consultation. But by St Helenian standards it is a major new initiative.
Two things they didn’t mention in the job interview were welfare reform and playing the part of Napoleon. We have a benefits system that isn’t fit for purpose. There’s no ‘taper’ which means that all help with the rent is withdrawn once you earn the dizzying amounts of £50 a week if single or £120ish for a family, depending upon the number of children. This places an artificial limit on social rents which in turn is one of the reasons why the housing is in such poor condition. If we are to create a viable housing service then we need to have a sensible welfare benefits system. So I’ve proposed a new housing benefits system which is simple but has a ‘taper’ which withdraws the benefit at a rate of 25p in the pound. That’s the easy bit – the difficulties will lie in winning everyone over….
Carrying out the review also means defining what is ‘affordable’. As followers of Solent Housing may recall (but since most won’t I’ll remind you), we awarded the appalling, deluded and since departed Housing Minister Grant Shapps the ‘George Orwell award’ for redefining ‘affordable rents’ as up to 80% of market rents. This was a desperate bid to develop as many housing association homes for as little government grant that he could get away with. The housing association movement was not organised enough to say no to the new regime and so when I left Eastleigh the rents on even relet homes were running at £150 - £160 a week. One thing anyone coming to St Helena should learn is not to try to replicate the way things are done in the UK, but to learn from its mistakes. And this is a prime example. I am instead arguing that we adopt the measure applied for many years by the National Housing Federation and local authorities that an affordable rent should be around 25% of the net household income of the majority of new tenants.
Word of my appearance as Napoleon at Longwood has circulated and Nicky Stevens of the New Horizons Youth Club has asked me if I’d play the role on their carnival float for St Helena Day. The day is a bank holiday and one of the highlights of the year, as everyone celebrates the discovery of the Island on May 21st 1502. Now I was the sort of person who’d feign illness to avoid taking part in the school play, so being part of a carnival float was not something I’d normally volunteer for. New Horizons do a great job so I’m persuaded. The amount of effort that has gone into recreating Longwood House on a lorry and the uniforms of the infantry is incredible. But it’s disconcerting to find that I’m the only person on the float. I’m expected to sit down and look glum for the whole trip down from the hospital to the wharf, with disco music blasting out of the speakers. But it’s more fun to do the occasional Napoleonic Boogie and catch the audience (half the Island) by surprise. Now skipping about on a slippery base atop a lorry going backwards down a steepish road is quite challenging, so I was quite relieved not to have given the crowd an even bigger laugh by ending up on my backside.
Approaching the end of May we have a national crisis. We’ve had drought conditions for seven months now and only have a few days’ water supply left on some parts of the Island. Now I’m hardly expecting sympathy from friends back home who have forgotten what the sun looks like, but this is no laughing matter . Having to turn off the supply and instead have to deliver it by lorry or stand pipe to a large and elderly population is a real challenge. An Emergency Committee and Control Centre has been set up and visits are being organised to every household. Which probably means that it will rain tomorrow.
It’s June and the water shortage is persisting. Thanks to the hard work of Martin and his team along with some clear and persistent messages through the media the available water supply has risen to 12 days. Martin has been drilling holes, pumping water around and bowsering, which I thought was a type of clog dance. Maybe it is – it might not be long before we’ll be rain dancing and sacrificing virgins. The public response has been excellent – water consumption is well down, though I’m starting to imagine that people from the drier parts of the island are staring to whiff a bit. In a remarkable piece of non-investigative journalism one of the radio stations announces that ‘unconfirmed reports’ say that one of the reservoirs is overflowing. Basil Reed have been obliged to respond to claims that the airport reservoirs are reducing the water table which I’m no expert but I doubt. What we do have to ask ourselves is where will the water come from if we have 350 more homes and a number of water guzzling hotels? In the past, when the Island had a much larger population, this does not appear to have been a problem. But islands throughout the world are now threatened by global warming, with the Maldives expected to be submerged before too long. I think that at least one of our new developments needs to incorporate another larger reservoir and water saving and retention measures have to be a feature of every new home.
Work-wise I have a plethora of reports and funding bids lined up. A General Election has been called. While in the UK this would be no more than a Parish Council election, given the population, out here it is a much more important matter. While Parish Councils concern themselves with objecting to planning applications (well, that appears to be the raison d’etre of the lamentable Bishops Waltham Parish Council) and cutting the grass, out here there are some huge local, regional and international duties all sitting upon the shoulders of a dozen local people. The pressures and temptations are that much greater, too, when you probably know every member of the population. So it’s important that the elected members concern themselves with matters of policy and don’t get drawn into the time consuming and thankless task of day to day matters. That is what the officers are there for.
The Election has meant that policy decisions have been put on hold. I need to create a viable housing service, because at the moment the cost of it far exceeds the revenue it generates. I’m drawing together first two phases of housing development, which isn’t easy when you don’t have an architect, QS, project manager or engineer to call upon. That said, I do have a friendly surveyor to draw up the design brief with, drawing upon the most important messages from the design competition and a UK based architect who is putting together an estate layout (rather pretentiously called a ‘masterplan’, a term that might appeal to dictators, but seems out of place when it is just a few roads and houses). The feedback from the consultation so far carried out is that the site does not lend itself to uses other than houses; that most of the residents of ladder Hill would like to remain in this vicinity; that there is a major sewerage problem that needs to be sorted out first and that we need a mix of terraces and detached houses. I think the row of bungalows we aim to place atop the cliff will be highly sought after. There is a real challenge to develop exemplar, high quality homes but at the same time complete them quickly enough to rehouse people living in poor housing at Ladder Hill to make way for the construction of an important new hotel. So far the only thing I’ve built is a tower of documents marked ‘project management.’
I’m recruiting a housing management officer to help with the day to day work of lettings, estate management, resident consultation and income recovery. We now have a housing trading account which, while flawed, has produced the ability to fund and recruit. Bruce Springsteen was once described as ‘the future of rock n roll’ and whoever gets this job will be ‘the future of housing in St Helena’. Perhaps not as cool, but just as important, I’d say. One frustration is that I had the job description and advertisement written in April but because of the processes involved, could not get to advertise it until June.
Just as an aside I’m trying to develop a housing benefit system because as soon as people find work they lose their entitlement to income support. With a minimum wage of £2.20 and many in part time work this creates a poverty trap (some like to call it an employment trap which seems to me to be a euphemism for poverty, which doesn’t help). I hope this makes for exhausting reading – it’s exhausting work.
It remains a national emergency so it’s a mixed blessing that the weather for the St Helena Golf Open is hot and sunny. I have paid my £8 entry fee with absolutely no hope of winning but for the opportunity to comment as loudly as possible back home in the East Horton Clubhouse ‘well, when I was playing in the OPEN’….. £8 gets you 72 holes over two weekends plus a curry, so it compares rather well with golf courses in the UK and Spain where £8 wouldn’t even buy you a coffee. I won’t bore with the details except to say that I was delighted to finish the first two rounds five from bottom and in the equivalent of the Blue Square (South) Division. I did get a birdie though, which I may mention in the East Horton Clubhouse.
I’ve had a bit of a hammerblow with Jane being refused the opportunity to take a sabbatical/career break and join me for a few months. Given the time it takes here it is actually impossible to see each other more than twice a year. We’ve both given a big chunk of our working lives to the public sector and I like too think we’ve both been model employees. I worked out that the last time I took time off work was 15 years ago after a car accident – and that was following an evening meeting when working for East Hampshire District Council. I know that Jane has been equally loyal and committed, supporting more families than the average portage worker. She does this by working additional hours at home as well as using a heck of a lot of space at home to store children's toys, including those she has purchased herself. If I can quote from Hampshire’s website:
We’re committed to supporting our staff…..we recognise that your job is only part of your life so to help you meet your work and domestic commitments we have a variety of flexible working arrangements
July 15th is General Election day. 20 candidates are standing for 12 seats that make up the Government. While the electorate is the size of a parish, what makes it different is that every one of the candidates is well known. Ask anyone to name any one of their Parish Councillors in the UK and I guess that over 9 out of 10 would not have a clue. I would bet that a majority wouldn’t even be able to name their MP. The range of responsibilities and of course the intimacy of an Island population are the reasons for this.
The media reports ‘crowds of as many as six people’ queuing to vote and everyone gets up to 12 votes. This makes the count last longer, but the method of the count is quite unusual, with the name of every candidate being read out every time they get a vote. It takes six hours and 10,000 names are read out before the result is known. The name reading is broadcast live by both radio stations while those who can stay awake keep a personal tally of the results. With their names read out over 800 times each, environment specialist Ian Rummery and the excellent golfer Lawson Henry are the biggest winners by 4am when the count ends. I suspect that Lawson may have a lot less time for the golf course; ordinary voters just don’t realise what a commitment it is to be a Councillor.
Another competition is also taking place far away. It is the Island Games, which bring together a motley bunch of islands including the host Bermuda, Greenland, the Channel Islands and the lesser known places like Froya, Hitra, Saaremma (aren’t they Star Trek characters?) and the Isle of Wight. The usual Olympic sports and the new one of golf all feature. I feel a tinge of pride that this little island (population 4,000) has ended up higher on the medal table than the massive Isle of Wight with its 124,000 residents, who presumably spend little time in the gym. And if one of the events had been general knowledge I’d have asked how Gibraltar defines itself as an island.
Everything is starting to come together. I finally have my housing management officer. Having written the job description and advertisement at the end of March a young St Helenian will be joining me this month. I’ve lined up the Chartered Institute of Housing certificate in housing studies for Tracy (equivalent to the first year of the professional qualification). Fortunately it’s a distance learning course.
We now know how much we’ll need to bring the housing stock up to the minimum standard. Hold your breath...a 15 year programme to restore and maintain the 175 homes will set us back £6.5 million. My immediate reaction is that it would be better to invest this in new homes which will be of a far better standard than we can achieve through restoration. We shall see – first we need the money…
I have an estate layout and a set of plans and elevations for 63 homes at Half Tree Hollow. This is the largest development since Queen Victoria wrote to the Governor asking him if he’s mind looking after a few hundred Boer prisoners of war. The Environment team, National Trust, Roads manager and Planning Manager have all been consulted so far, along with the people who attended the drop in sessions and meetings in March. One of the biggest headaches of the design process has been having to do so much by email because there are so few on-Island professionals. But we have got there.
As anyone who has ever built anything knows, planning is a complicated process. You need your funding, development brief, outline permission, individual house designs, detailed permission, building regulations consent, invitation for expressions of interest, tendering, appointment of the contractor, project manager, purchase the materials and get the infrastructure constructed before you can start your house. Among all of this it can be easy to rush the most important part; the consultation. I’ve added in an extra stage of consultation prior to submitting the application because we know who will be housed in the government homes, so can involve them. The initial wider public reaction was muted so it’s also a chance to offer another opportunity to comment. Quite frankly for the wider public the actual principle of 63 homes is not up for debate; the Local Plan established this. It is really about appearance and layout which will mean most to the occupants. I am delighted that with or without a hotel we will be rehousing the residents of RE Yard and Ladder Hill. Some of the poorest housing conditions are to be found here. We’ve asked everyone where they want to move to (almost all within Half Tree Hollow, but many preferring older houses), who they’d like as their neighbours and what size home they need.
I’ve been working with three designers on the first phase of 12 homes. I’m not exactly having my door knocked down by entrepreneurs wanting to invest in bamboo. Our exemplar will therefore have to be made from imported bamboo, which rather misses the point, but should help to show how attractive a bamboo house can be. We also investigated the use of eucalyptus but the consensus among local builders and agriculturalists is that it won’t work. You win some, you lose some. What this means is that our first phase will retain the traditional bungalow form, but encourage modern methods and less reliance upon imports. I’m delighted that local construction manager Paul Scipio understands our design brief best and we are working together to create a new vernacular for the Island.
And the world is about to find out about it. I’ve been invited to speak at the National Housing Federation’s Annual Conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham when I return home next month. The NHF and Aster Housing Group have generously agreed to sponsor a reception at which we will be presenting the awards to the design competition winners. It’s the biggest housing event on the calendar and the Foreign Office, SHG and all of the big developers will be there. Given that the UK housing market is on its knees I hope I can attract investors to the Island before or after the airport. And if one in a hundred delegates thinks ‘wouldn’t mind going there’ we’d fill every hotel room on the Island.
We are making big strides forward but still have a lot to do in managing the houses. The new Government has some really big decisions to make on the future funding of the service, now that we know for the first time how much it costs and how much we need to spend to restore and maintain the houses. I have a collection of policies on lettings, house sales, help for first time buyers and the creation of a housing association ready for debate, held up only by the General Election. Our first ever housing management officer, Tracy, has taken up her post and we have already adopted responsibility for lettings and estate management. Everything is in place for the construction of the first housing development to commence in January.
The consultation work has been time consuming, but effective. We held a meeting with the residents of Half Tree Hollow in order to share with them the draft estate layout and house designs. The estate design has already been the subject of many revisions to take account of internal comments. This has added six weeks to the timetable and convinced me that design by email is fraught with difficulties. We could really do with more on Island expertise since, as I have found with the house designs, a thirty minute discussion with plans to scribble on is worth a hundred emails. The internet has its limitations.
In spite of this eight out of ten residents rate the designs as ‘good’ with the rest rating it ‘fair.’ I’m not used to this sort of welcome for a planning application, especially as the most recent planning meeting was addressed by a local preacher who threatened hellfire and eternal damnation if a separate planning application was granted. Our design brief and the preferred house design draws heavily on the lessons learnt from the international competition. We have taken the traditional bungalow style and added a touch of nautical class to it, with sustainable materials and the lifetime homes standard. I’m delighted to say that it was local house designer Paul who best understood the brief and so he is now working up the detailed design. Paul has also produced what my parents would call a ‘snazzy’ video walk through of the houses. It has the appearance of the Goldeneye shoot em up and I half expect James Bond to come crashing through a window.
Inspired by the calls to use local materials, we have also explored eucalyptus. It grows in abundance on the Island, is termite resistant, yet we import timber at huge cost. As with most subjects if you ask a question like ‘could we build homes using eucalyptus?’ you will get several different and contradictory answers. So we held a meeting with builders and agricultural experts to find out for certain. Unfortunately there isn’t enough of the right type of eucalyptus in the right places and the builders say that the smaller trees will cost too much to process. Eucalyptus is therefore consigned to history and there won’t be a eucalyptus exemplar. We’ve listened.
I’ve represented the department at the end of year awards at Prince Andrew School where Governor Capes gives an inspirational talk on the importance of positive attitudes and ambition. He also mentions how negative people always see fault in others and never have a good thing to say. I’ve been here long enough to know that there are plenty of positive people and also who the negative ones are – they’re the ones who always look like they are sucking on a lemon. Fortunately they are a small and reducing number.
There’s one last delay as the new government wants to review the capital programme. Most of it is the result of previous bids to DFID and so there’s little leeway, but it’s important that the elected members understand and favour the projects we are developing. It’s a minor element of the process to get this far. In terms of project management I’ve completed a project justification, project concept note, project initiation document and project plan as well as a request to be placed on the procurement list, authority to commence procurement and authority to appoint the winning bidder - for each and every one of the five elements of the development; two design contracts, project management and two construction contracts.
In a matter of days I head back to the UK to take all of my annual leave. I’ll miss the buzz of excitement when fresh fruit hits the shops and the huge range of sporting activity. I’ll miss my young girlfriend Jo, even though she has taken to bringing cockroaches in to play with and has a habit of jumping on my lap with her muddy feet whenever I wear clean, newly ironed trousers.
I’ll miss supersport, especially now that the football season has restarted though I won’t miss the increasingly daft hype for each and every sports event. We get bizarre claims made in gruff Arnie tones. Apparently for a nondescript athletics event ‘extraordinary is only the beginning.’ While for F1 ‘speed is more than a sensation….it’s an extension’ (I think women have a similar but less flattering opinion of why men buy fast cars). Golf is apparently ‘the architecture of precision.’ Indeed.
Over the last ten months I’ve not missed mobile phones and the fourth and fifth gears of my car. Nor the UK weather or the Coalition’s increasingly desperate attempts to use unemployment as its weapon of choice. But I’m looking forward to a busy few weeks catching up with family and friends.
So I should sleep well on the RMS. In my first ten months I have realised that you need as much energy to sort out and develop a handful of properties as you do 10,000. But I’ll also be dining out on some incredible experiences so far. Where else could I:
• Go diving fifty feet down to a wreck and coral arch after work;
• Borrow the key to let myself into a World Heritage Site;
• Play tennis on the Governor’s front lawn with the world’s oldest living creature as a spectator;
• Work in an office with a red and white striped roof and with previously undiscovered sea slugs and other creatures in the room next door;
• Play in an Open Golf Championship on the world’s remotest golf course in the company of some of the rarest birds in the world;
• Have lunch with the BBC at Longwood House before being filmed for its Napoleon documentary;
• Witness humpback whales, whalesharks and dozens of dolphins close up;
• Look after the hens at Bertram’s Cottage; and, most recently,
• Enjoyed an evening reception on board the HMS Richmond.
They said it would pass quickly and so it did. After ten months on St Helena I’m heading home for my first annual leave. The passage to Cape Town felt like it lasted longer; without the novelty of the first trip and with some heavy seas confining most of us to our cabins for half the time. One event worth reporting was a visit to Captain Rodney’s Quarters to provide him with some housing advice and consult on our housing proposals. A thousand miles from land. Now that’s what I call consultation. Work continues in the UK with a presentation to the NHF Conference including the awards to the winners of our architecture competition. There’s also a visit to the architects responsible for the design of the three comprehensive development areas which provides a reminder that face to face discussion is far easier than design by email.
Best news in the meantime is that planning permission has been granted for 65 homes at Half Tree Hollow. I had left quietly confident that this would be so, even without me there to present the application. We’d carried out so much groundwork and consultation to respond to and win over local support including that of the Planning Manager. I’m told that the most animated part of the debate was David’s explanation of the difference between sewerage and sewage.
Those five weeks of annual leave just flew past. I managed to pack a years’ worth of socialising into this time and it also coincided with an excellent run of form by Saints (the football team). The icing on the cake, to use possibly the biggest cliché in football, is that the programme for the Crystal Palace home game features the St Helena Saints, including photos of my innocent colleagues in the red and white stripes. Well, apart from Paul, who as a dyed in the wool Newcastle fan, refuses to touch anything resembling a Sunderland shirt. I manage to get in more reunions than the Eagles, with trips to Manchester, Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham. Jane and I even managed to, Inception style, have a holiday within a holiday by flying out to the beautiful pueblo blanco of Frigiliana for a week. In my time back I get to remind myself of what ‘mobile phone’, ‘dishwasher’, ‘overtaking lane’, ‘cashpoint’, ‘self service’ and ‘curry house’ mean.
So leaving Jane and the UK is all the more painful, thanks in particular to Hampshire County Council’s blanket policy of no sabbaticals. The excitement of the unknown is no longer there to counter this, although I am sure that the friendly welcomes and challenges ahead will provide plenty of consolation.
The highlight of the journey back was unplanned. We arrived at Cape Town at 9am. The hotel room was not ready until 1pm so I caught a taxi to the Table Mountain cable car. Huge queue so decided to walk up instead. Plenty of STL but no hat so had to use my t shirt to protect my thinly covered scalp. Fellow climbers thought I looked like a pirate, but not Johnny Depp. Two hours later we reached the summit, saw some great views and an excellent cafeteria that sells disappearing lager. So much for relaxing and catching up on sleep after a night flight.
Returning to St Helena, several familiar faces are no longer on the Island.
Without going into detail, there’s a much higher risk in recruiting people to a place, people and government that they do not know. For some the isolation is too much to cope with and for others they are simply not what the government had in mind. These are expensive mistakes and it’s clear that the recruitment process, which is bound up with paperwork rather than assessment, needs to change.
That said, there is a regular turnover of expats, almost all of whom fit the bill. With around 100 on contracts averaging two years this means that there is a new face nearly every week. Every week some new face (myself included) gets quoted on how wonderful the place and its people are and how much we want to help. Which is all genuine, but gives the impression that there are more expats on the island that there actually are. This can be a source of tension and of course the solution has to be for the Island to grow it’s own and reward them properly. But so long as Saints with the professional qualifications choose to stay abroad because the pay differential is so great, expats will be needed.I used to say when I managed homelessness that success would be to do away with my job and the same applies here.
Back in the UK the government is doing its best to revive the homelessness industry. After stemming the tide for 30 years I have great sympathy for the Eastleigh team and a sneaking sense of relief that I’m not having to cope with the mess that is the bedroom tax and universal credit. I wonder how many Liberals expected to support a government that makes Margaret Thatcher appear cute? And how many will at the next election?
So I’m back and some work has progressed and other work has stalled. My job title has been changed to Housing Project Managing Contract Managing Estate Designing House Designing Rent Collecting Estate Managing Paperwork Completing Gopher. Well, not really but with only one overworked Building Surveyor, an overworked Architectural Technician and an overworked Planning Manager whose professional expertise I can really trust, it really is a case of filling in the gaps as best I can.
The next few months will be pretty make or break. We need to get the new estate infrastructure and homes on site. I need to get funding for a modest programme of 15 a year for the next five years; sufficient to replace the worst homes, rehouse those affected by the hotel development and make some inroads into the housing register. I need approval for a new revenue funding regime to fill a £140,000 hole in the running costs of the service. Plus a programme to bring the remaining homes up to the minimum standard and – here’s a surprise – maintain them regularly. We need to begin the options appraisal for the creation of a not for profit housing organisation. I will also be meeting my fourth director in the space of a year, so I know what it feels like to play for Chelsea. Without the Russian billions.