Year Two in the Atlantic
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 National Housing Federation Conference in the five star surroundings of the International Convention Centre in Birmingham. The highlight is the presentation of awards to the winners of our architecture competition. It's great that the challenges of St Helena attract so much interest within the housing sector and I'm delighted that Aster and the NHF were good enough to sponsor it and Hannah of the Foreign Office came from London to do the presenting. 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 (or maybe because) 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 for 99% is genuine and heartfelt, 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
MOVEMBER IN THE SOUTH ATLANTIC
We’ve said goodbye to a man who, on his first day on the island, complained about having a female boss, not being provided with a BMW company car, not being greeted at the wharf by the Director, not being taken out for a meal on his first night (by the very person he’d so offended) and he and his wife having a 3 bedroom house for which he was only given one duvet and two pillows. Not since I heard tourists complaining in The Gambia about the lack of British food have I known anyone do so little homework on a destination. Not since Napoleon can the government have had such a cantankerous guest. And just my luck that he was the technical support that I’d been looking forward to. Except that in his view housing was not sufficiently important – he expected to be handed the airport project.
The airport project is running very well, thank you, without his help. Much of the huge gut has been filled (meaning 'deep valley', not 'waistline'). From the sea, several terraces now bridge the divide, while, from the golf course, the ‘v’ in the landscape has now disappeared. It is an impressive signal that the first planes are just over the horizon and a tribute to the work of Basil Read and their Island workforce. I think there are about five people left who think and say ‘it’ll never happen.’
Returning home from a delicious meal hosted by Leon de Wet - the perfect name for someone in charge of the water supplies - the news comes of Nelson Mandela’s death. For those of us who protested outside the South African embassy and still have our 45rpm singles of the Special AKA , it’s a bit like losing a distant but much loved relative. For most of South Africa it is like losing their father. It's been a bit of a privilege to follow the blanket coverage of his death via South African TV and BBC Africa World Service. The world is so familiar with the life, achievements and strengths of this man that none of the tributes can really say anything new. But the sheer volume speaks for itself. The same negative people who predicted the collapse of SA after apartheid are now predicting it post-Mandela. SA still has high crime levels and President Zuma isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but these are still early days. As Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ proves, in spite of the gun culture in SA and the USA, the world is getting safer, fairer and kinder. Madiba can take a lot of the credit in this part of the world.
We’ve consulted on who gets housed (in dry housing language, the ‘allocations policy’) and on a package of low cost housing initiatives. A housing market exists for those on the lowest and highest of incomes, but for those caught in between, the supply of mortgages is very limited and house prices are high. The ratio of starter house prices to local incomes is over ten to one, akin to Dorset in the UK.
The waiting list will be simpler and opened up to those who can afford some form of home ownership. It will tell us how many households fall within the gap between social renting and full ownership. As with so many issues there are plenty of conflicting rumours about how many this will be.
Where public subsidy will be needed I’m suggesting the introduction of covenants to put a ceiling on housing prices for local people. Whereas the UK approach is for it to be a percentage of market prices, here I’m suggesting linking it to the salary of a staff nurse. There was a time in the UK when 75% of the market price was affordable, but with the average house price £200k the definition no longer holds. This still needs to form part of the capital programme (both for income foregone and any contribution to build costs) so it still has several hurdles to overcome.
Christmas 2013 is as memorable as last year’s, but for very different reasons. Having coughed my way through the month I was diagnosed as having pneumonia. Pneumonia! In the summer on a sub-tropical island! I suppose after three weeks of rasping and feeling wiped out and a well-intentioned but unsuccessful cocktail of tabs from John the Pharmacist, a trip to the doctors was timely. It’s funny how men are accused on the one hand of being slow to go to the doctors and yet exaggerating their ‘man flu’. Apparently it’s community acquired pneumonia, which sounds like I’ve been sleeping around (not so!). Best not tell Jane. Or is that an admission of guilt? But if I tell Jane I'm unwell she will think I’m dying. Oh dear – a bit of a dilemma.
Jo’s Christmas present is a family of fleas. I’m told that they don’t bite above the ankles, which in my case must be located at chest height. They are tiny in spite of the blood they consume and scars they create, so it needs intensive vacuum cleaning and a few cans of spray to rid the house of what may only be a few.
Jo then turns up with a gaping hole in her leg with tendon and muscle clearly visible. Once I’m fit enough to take her, Joe the Vet gives Jo the cat three or four injections (local anesthetics and antibiotics) and a couple of stitches. Jo is remarkably calm apart from the times that the anaesthetic didn’t work, leaving me with a fur coated and blood stained white work shirt and yet more scars.
With so much time at home feeling sorry for myself and Jo, I get the chance to do more painting. The Police need one to decorate the Victim Support Suite. I'm asked for ‘something calm and serene’ as though my usual genre consists of scenes from Reservoir Dogs and Saw. So I’ve created my own map of St Helena; brightly coloured and featuring my favourite places. Someone nameless suggests it’s more accurate that the OS version. I think it will make a nice postcard, too.
Charles Darwin’s ‘Voyage of the Beagle’ diaries include the few days he spent on St Helena. Not much has changed – the mix of rugged volcanic and Welsh landscapes, the ‘respectable’ houses of Jamestown and the presence of High Knoll Fort. Two observations have particular resonance. Firstly, the appearance of my garden shows that the goats who put the ‘dead’ in Deadwood have just as much appetite for banana trees. We shared Darwin’s appreciation of the stunning views to Lot at our Essex House end of year meal held at Colin’s Bar at Sandy Bay. The view out of the window above the men’s urinals is generally agreed to be one the most attractive vistas in the world.
I can’t finish 2013 without mentioning the highlight of the holiday season; a coughing trip to Derek and Linda’s Christmas Party. I’ve said it before but it’s a real privilege to be invited to the home of local people and we were treated to a great meal and even Christmas presents. The setting, in a marquee overlooking the ocean on a sunny Christmas day, was superb.
With pneumonia curtailing all other social activity the weekends have been devoted to painting and reading. Alan Forrest’s biography of Napoleon is by far the most readable of the several biographies I’ve consumed so far. It's said that history is always written by the victors, but here we have a real and balanced insight into his life and times, rather than just a procession of facts and myths. It’s clear that Napoleon was a great moderniser, promoted education, generated deep loyalties and promoted the ideals of the revolution in breaking the stranglehold of a corrupt aristocracy and church. He was a brave tactician who led from the front on the battlefield. So why did he make himself the Emperor of a nepotistic monarchy and commit thousands of his soldiers to death in Russia? It’s probably lost in the fog of propaganda, which both he and his powerful opponents were masters of. I can’t imagine the Vatican press releases spoke favourably of the Pope being held prisoner, for example. Interestingly, one of England’s reasons for taking on Napoleon was his creation of a ‘common market’ (the continental system) which excluded English trade, so it seems a little ironic that some politicians now want the UK out of Europe.
By a nice coincidence one of the people that Alan Forrest gives credit to in his book; Thierry Lienz, Director of the Paris-based Napoleon Foundation, is on island to inspect the renovation work taking place at Longwood House. Over a million pounds was raised for this work through 2,500 public donations from (mainly) French Bonaphiles, matched by the French government. And the Foundation clearly want to see Bertrands Cottage saved for posterity. Wearing my housing hat I’ve been round the house recently to produce a furniture inventory. Both the house and its contents (excluding the delightful Ross and Rachel) are in a lamentable condition. Thierry makes the point that St Helena has far too many historic monuments for the population to maintain. It’s as though Stonehenge, the Pyramids and Buckingham Palace were moved to Bishops Waltham and the Parish Council (who find grasscutting difficult) was asked to maintain them with the income from a few hundred visitors a year.
Thierry is clearly impressed by my Napoleon credentials. Eating later at Ann’s Place somebody mentions that one of the unique cultural experiences of St Helena is the karaoke at the Chinese restaurant.
‘So Ondee, av you sung ze karaoke in your Nappoleyon geurr?’
’Not yet, but I’d like to sing ‘Waterloo’’
‘Ah, but ze song is incorrect. Nappoleyon did not surrender. He escaped!’
Given the not altogether surprising absence of social housing finance experts on the Island it’s important that I get my sums checked and my facts corrected. Six organisations submitted bids to be a 'critical friend' and the Housing Quality Network were the winners, amongst a very competitive and capable field. I last worked with HQN over ten years ago on a benchmarking system which eventually became Housemark and on the first (ever?) peer review of housing. Those peer reviews were worth an extra star to the participants when it came to ‘real’ inspection because they highlighted many issues that were easy to put right. I was Chair of the Hampshire Chief Housing Officers Group at the time and this project helped to transform the group from a social gathering to one that actually did things. I’m looking forward to working with HQN again.
Talking of inspections, this month we get the annual DAPM inspection. I know because everyone I speak to says they are ‘too busy because of DAPM’. I’m half expecting the cleaners to say they can’t clean the rooms ‘because of DAPM.’ While I am sure that some managers are completely tied up, I’m less convinced by the ones who can never find the time for you. I recall years ago how some people in local government believed that saying you were busy and never being on time for meetings was supposed to show just how important they were. The people kept waiting just thought they were rude and a cause of waste and inefficiency, though I think the phrases employed were more succinct.
At the end of each DAPM inspection there’s a joint communiqué. The progress on Half Tree Hollow and introduction of Tracy’s planned maintenance programme both get the thumbs up. We all agree that there is a lot more to be done and I’m hopeful that this will be remembered when we review the long term viability of the service later this year. A visit to the soon-to-be-vacated Signal House reminds us how much needs to be done.
A couple more milestones are reached this month. Firstly we are inviting tenders for the infrastructure work to Half Tree Hollow. At last! I feel that we could have saved six months if we'd had the on-Island expertise. Quite frankly long distance design is fraught with problems for both client and contractor. It's a pity if huge amounts are invested in policy formulation and then there aren't the practical people around to implement the policies. The need for architects and surveyors was entirely predictable once the airport was approved. I'm mystified why it hasn't been a priority. Still, we are aiming to sign contracts by the start of March, which for a dry, rocky, steep site with wider infrastructure problems isn't bad at all.
A second milestone will be the submission of a planning application for 150 houses on the Bottom Woods CDA. As as result of the same difficulties associated with long distance design I'm designing this myself, with plenty of advice from David the Planner. The layout incorporates crescents of housing around open spaces, a Millenium Forest trail and a Wirebird Information Centre. Most houses are orientated to make the best of the stunning views of the Barn, Flagstaff Hill and the Ocean. This will be the first development that visitors see when they leave the airport, so it’s pretty important.
Just when you thought it was safe to think that you’d run out of new experiences….one Friday evening eight of us went looking for whalesharks, which had been sighted off the Island. After an hour of searching we hit the whaleshark jackpot. A pod of 35 all gorging themselves on plankton. Twice as many as previously recorded, these 30 feet monsters are the world's biggest fish. Snorkelling off Anthony's boat one fish gracefully take minutes to drift past you with their huge mouths open. Then another... and another. A less graceful specimen lifted me out of the sea. Scary.
A great thing about living and working in a small community is that you get the chance to do so many things. Of course some people live here with their heads down out of choice, as they do throughout the world. The less self conscious (and possibly deluded) like myself say ‘yes’ to everything. The latest opportunity is to be the Saint FM football correspondent. They might regret it since every report now dwells on the Saints and you’d think that Shadenfreude was a new Manchester United player given the amount that the two are linked.