Guernsey’s population growth

June 1st, 2010 by Peter Roffey

Recently released official figures suggest that Guernsey’s population has increased by about 1,000 over the last two years. That mightn’t sound like a growth rate to frighten the horses, but if the trend continues we will have more than 70,000 people living in the island in 20 years time. What’s even more worrying is that the recent increase has taken place during an economic slow down. History shows clearly that population growth tends to accelerate when the economy is booming. So if Guernsey thrives – as we all want it to – then that figure of 70,000 could only be a decade away.

Which ever way you look at it it’s hard to believe the official projection of just 64,000 residents in 2020. That simply doesn’t marry with the current trend. I can understand why the problem of population growth is being played down by the States. It is an incredibly difficult issue to tackle. Just how you do stabilise the population to protect the island’s quality of life, without jeopardising Guernsey’s prosperity?

On one side of the argument are those islanders – I suspect they’re a big majority – who feel the island is already rather overcrowded. It’s not an issue of misanthropy or xenophobia but rather just a natural desire to live in a place with a bit of breathing space. Most islanders don’t want to become urban dwellers. Not even in an up market, city-state, surrounded by pretty bays and beautiful seascapes. The vision of Guernsey as “Hong Kong dans la Manches” is a nightmare for most locals and settlers alike.

Every time a few hundred more residents are added to the population it inevitably impacts on quality of life in the island. Not because the incomers aren’t thoroughly good sorts but just because its means more cars on our limited road system and more homes in a community where open space is already at a premium. It also puts more stress on our infrastructure – more water and electricity to be supplied, more educational and healthcare needs, not forgetting more rubbish to be disposed of.

So there is a strong qualitative case for ending Guernsey’s historic trend of steady population growth which has gone on unabated, bar a couple of blips, since the island’s first census in 1821 showed a population of just 20,302. The $64,000 question is how?

It’s clear that Guernsey’s current political levers for controlling the population are not effective enough to achieve equilibrium. So in order to follow the agreed states’ strategy of a roughly static population new measures will be needed. That’s why we are all waiting with bated breath for the long promised States population strategy which is due to be unveiled this summer. If the gestation period is anything to go by then it should be a “many splendored thing” which gets right to the heart of this thorny problem.

If that sounds a bit too sceptical, even for a cynical old columnist, then I should redress the balance by saying that the problem is about as thorny as they come in local politics. Too timorous an approach and they have no chance of stabilising the population. Too draconian and they could either infringe human rights or even worse wreck the island’s economy for a generation.

On the human rights side there were worrying rumours abroad a while back of a proposed return to the situation where locals could lose their residential rights if they left the island for too long. If that makes it through to the final version it’ll be a scandal which is not only deeply unfair on local people but could also deter talented islanders from pursuing a career in the wider world. A lose-lose situation.

On the economic side there is no doubt that strong growth creates demand for labour and therefore for population growth. On top of that Guernsey’s demographics suggest a growing labour shortage unless we are all willing to work for longer in our lives, or else see some activities disappear to divert labour into the real growth areas. However as soon as government intervenes in business and tries to regulate growth it risks really wrecking the economy. That’s clear from other “control economies”.

It’s a real poser. I hope that the new policy can find some inspired answers – unlike the previous feeble attempt. If not the States will need the courage to tackle some of the side effects of population growth and mitigate its negative effect. Really discouraging excessive car use would be a start.

This opinion piece has previously been published in The Guernsey Press.

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