Devil is in the lack of detail, by Nick Mann
Tuesday 27th August 2013, 5:00PM BST.
POLITICIANS love this bit of their term.
Finally, they get to spend some cash – or at least signal their intention to do so.
All departments have submitted what they want to be part of the capital prioritisation process – a wish list that totalled around £385m. – and a magic formula and a bit of judgement have been used to weed out those that are not a priority.
Treasury has released its list of those projects it thinks should go ahead, £225m.-worth to be funded from the capital reserve and another £100m. by internal loans or charges. Whichever way, it is islanders’ money they are playing with.
But it does not have the funding in place to pay for it all.
It is some £70m. short, even with a windfall of £46m. already in the bank, primarily due to projects that departments argued were urgent last term not going ahead.
So that’s the background – September on the floor of the Assembly will be the battleground.
And there is a danger, like SAMP and the GSP before it, that things could begin to unravel over a lack of detail and the bigger picture is lost.
There is a fine line between keeping information back for a commercial advantage and giving members and the public enough to make an informed decision.
Some may fall back on the argument that the review of the projects came out with what it did, that the model is sound, end of story.
But some are already pressing for more information about the projects and it is easy to see why when you compare this report with the 2009 vintage.
Back then there were costings, albeit mostly inaccurate ones, predicted timeframes for when the projects would start and in some cases five pages outlining why individual projects were needed.
There had also been the background of major debates on Les Beaucamps school, mental health facilities and the airport runway which all fed into the process.
The criteria used to assess each project and the weighting given to those measurements was also in the report.
In essence, the class of 2009 had much more at their fingertips.
And this is important, especially for those projects that do not make the grade, because in some ways this debate is as much about ruling things out as ruling them in. Those that are in will come back in detail anyway, while those ditched probably will not see the light of day for another four years at least – they have no second airing.
So members have to trust that the judgement of Treasury, and the model it is using, is sound.
Confidence in the department has already been dented this term, so it may not be as forthcoming as in the past.
The process has evolved, as it should, but with it some detail has been lost and if this States has shown anything, it is that it is a fan of detail.
The 2013 report does list the criteria used, but this is different to 2009 – for example, where once there were 10 points for heritage and cultural impact, now that is subsumed into a broader criteria of fitting with States objectives – and who knows where the weightings lie.
Not that the report tells you this.
That may well not be a problem – it may be that the model, criteria and weights are all in perfect harmony – but how do the public know?
Again, that may be obsessing with detail – but it is this detail which means a school will or won’t be built, or the old hospital wards will or won’t be revamped.
In answering questions on this, Treasury says that the weighting of each criteria reflects that used in 2009, although the overall analysis framework has evolved – i.e. it has changed.
‘The weighting of each criteria was fully understood by each department and has been applied consistently,’ it said.
Detail may be one theme, but there will be others.
Naturally there will be arguments from those trying to force their projects up the agenda.
Remember the rather perplexing debate last term when museum storage ended up competing against bowel cancer screening?
Perhaps it will not go to those extremes this time, not least because cultural projects have not made the grade, but there will be those who rightly would like to examine in more depth why the Leopardess or the CCTV network, for example, need to be replaced.
In preparing this report Treasury was handed something of a dilemma by the States, which had overturned its wish to leave the report until 2014.
In pressing on, it means waiting for the next Budget report – only a few months away – before the funding conundrum will be dealt with.
Members then should also be armed with the results of the personal taxation, benefits and pension review, which it is worth remembering was sold as an exercise in coping with the funding pressures of an ageing population, not a revenue-raising exercise for the States.
There should then also be a debate about borrowing, although Treasury seems at best lukewarm on that option, or perhaps extending the programme by a few years as was done last time.
With the States struggling to hit savings targets anyway, consideration must be given to some of these projects on the prioritisation waiting list – those will be tough and controversial choices.
The department recognises that in the long term there needs to be an assessment of Guernsey’s level of capital investment and whether the target set is where it should be – a vision beyond the election horizon.
Treasury and minister Gavin St Pier, pictured, are also keen to take more control of the programme to keep it all on track and the public informed – a welcome move given how many projects did not deliver last term and with no explanation from the sponsoring departments.
What that shows is that not everything deemed a must-do when the programme is debated remains a must-do three years later – it also shows a lack of judgement to start with.
And that, perhaps, takes us right back to where we started.
Politicians like buildings things, but their desire to do so is sometimes utterly misplaced.