Saint Helena – a personal and professional diary
September 2012 : the Prologue
‘Wow’ (Janet, Paddy, Gwen)
‘Great result’ (Nick)
It's hard to imagine 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 too, 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 an 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, St Helena's economy has been on a downward trajectory since the growth of air travel. The loss of trade has been matched only by the exodus of young people seeking work and a living wage. 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 stay and return 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, homelessness rising fast 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 local people naturally wary of an unknown face. Who is this guy? How is he going to tackle years of decline successfully? One local commentator suggested that the island needs Harry Potter or Merlin to sort out its housing problems. Thirdly there is the unique environment to protect. St Helena is a microcosm of Costa Rica, with its 400 endemic species, incredible geography and 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. Can't wait to get there.
November 2012 (1) Journey on the RMS
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 miles 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 1800 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.
November 2012 (2) Arrival
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. 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 has developed some temporary workers’ homes. Airport and hotel builders will create a huge but short term spike in demand and it is good that the temporary homes are taking some of the strain, but it is not enough
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 with a 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 Gumwood. 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 £40 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 biggest blast ever on the island (I suspect the volcanic eruption five million years ago was bigger) when 33 tonnes of TNT blew up 65,000 cubic metres of hillside for the airport. Later and 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 shelter and helped walking, brushing and cleaning them. I must admit that my charitable heart didn't stretch to removing ticks from their backsides - I left this to an expert. In the afternoon, David, a nice 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. He’s a giant tortoise the size of a small car. I then got invited to play tennis at Plantation House next week. Could this be just a normal weekend?
I ought to stress (though no-one will believe me) that life isn't one long party. After three working days so far, the nature of the challenge and order of priorities is very clear indeed.
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 (and I mean three stars!) strategic framework. This allows for the 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 did get consulted and difficult decisions had 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 (soon) the hotel are soaking up every construction worker in sight. It is a problem of timing: developers will flock to the island once airlines schedule flights, but we need to start building sooner rather than later. 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 local people to help construct the later phases. To kick things off, within one week I‘ve produced a first draft of a development brief for Half Tree Hollow, which is not a Tim Burton film but one of the six comprehensive development areas on the island. Lots more to do, including involving local people, but hitting the ground running.
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. I’m starting with a service review this week from which we will estimate what it will cost to achieve a minimum standard (to be agreed with the tenants) and provide the sort of service that they deserve. The difficult bit will be working out how to fund a better service.
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'. But on St Helena the number of empty homes isn’t anything like 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, in the UK and on 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 coming over. So 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. So one task is to help those people who are prepared to offer up their homes to help the economy to move forward.
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 trip to The Standard I was asked in a blunt Yorkshireman kind of way why St Helena needs a Housing Executive. Will that be enough?
Half Tree Hollow - up to 60 homes planned
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 development site earmarked for 60 homes 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.
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 fishing trip 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 housing 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 gent by the name of Andy, married to a Saint, 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.
Bottom Woods East - over 100 homes planned
It's the start of a new year so it’s time to take stock.
Working with the people who deliver it, we’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. Building surveyor Tracy 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.
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. 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 new additions to the 'to do' list.
Linda Houston 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 bring the homes into occupation.
Moving swiftly from existing to new homes, I’ve drafted development briefs for three of the six development sites. 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’m producing development briefs for all six large sites in the local plan. This will ensure that they can be released in a managed way and that we can be flexible in what we can offer developers. The appetite for market housing will not be clear until the number of flights to the island are announced, but the question I ask all developers is this :
Who would like to build homes on large greenfield, uncontaminated sites in single ownership and in a growing economy, with a government that is prepared to help minimise any risks?
Given that housebuilding in the UK is now at its lowest level since the 1920s this could be an interesting test of the ambition and imagination of the building industry. But of course a top priority is to get the local builders on board.
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 finally 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 at most one, once a year. I’ll be able to do a remake of The Mummy with all of the plasters that have been packed, for some unknown reason. 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?
Christmas and New Year in St Helena are similar to the UK. Well, apart from the barbecues set in banana plantations. Warm weather and nice company doesn't compensate for the absence of close friends and family but skpeing helps a lot, as my £300 internet bill proves. And the experience of singing to Philippino Fay's karaoke machine to an audience of bemused Saints is one of those 'things to do before you die'.
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 experienced 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. It was felt 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:
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. Will we do it? Watch out for next month's episode!
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 the UK government overwhelmingly approved the opportunity for gay people to get married. 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 learn more and 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 by Saints themselves 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 relentless negativity of some people dissuade others from expressing their own views.
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 of the 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. The students of Prince Andrew School have shown equal enthusiasm and it is good to see their entries displayed alongside those of international architects. It is great to be able to encourage this.
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.
An unmissable opportunity while I’m here is to learn to scuba dive. The PADI course has a huge emphasis on safety; important since I don’t fancy running out of air or getting the bends when the nearest decompression chamber is a week away. It appears to cover every possible risk to your life and limbs while under water, which is good if a little unnerving. But 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 favourite 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 was 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 and environmental cost 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 I feel sure that we will be able to offer it for free to help establish the industry. All we need is a business plan that works and the support (ironically) of the environment team.