Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Borderlands of Sark

What is happening to Sark?

The BBC news report notes that

“All the hotels in Sark owned by the Barclay brothers will be closed in 2015. The four hotels, Dixcart Bay, Petit Champ, La Moinerie and Aval du Creux, are no longer accepting bookings. No-one from the management company, Sark Island Hotels, has yet commented on the closures.” (1)

It also notes that “Two of the four hotels, Aval de Creux and Petit Champ, did not open this summer.”.

Now that gives a slightly different complexion on the story from that reported elsewhere, as a number of reports give the impression that all the hotels have closed. In fact, two were already closed for this year, so it is just the remaining two which will be closed. Another report from the BBC gives this impression:

“The closure of most of the hotels in Sark could affect tourism in the rest of the Bailiwick, VisitGuernsey has warned. The closure of the four hotels run by Sark Island Hotels was revealed on Thursday” (2)

But it is not the closure of four hotels, it is two hotels last year – which does not seem to have caused much notice, and the closure of the other two this year, Elsewhere on Sark, of course, there are two more hotels, 10 guest houses, and 16 6 self-catering properties and two campsites. It is by no means devoid of beds for tourists. In fact 160 of the 500 beds for visitors will be lost.

So why is there so much notice this time, and not earlier when two of the hotels did not open in 2015? The answer has surely to be the press release in the Sark News by Kevin Delaney. The paper is the organ of news produced by Mr Delaney and very much reflecting the views of the Barclays brothers, although they rarely make pronouncements, and appear to prefer to let Mr Delaney, as their lackey, do so.

The Sark News reports as follows:

“The CEO of Sark Island Hotels, Kevin Delaney, has announced that he will not open any of the hotels in the group for the 2015 season. Whilst acknowledging that this was a difficult decision to take, Mr Delaney made it clear that he was not prepared to request further investment to develop these iconic Sark businesses. Furthermore, had the establishments opened next year he would have been left with no option but to resign his position as CEO of Sark Island Hotels.”(3)

And the key issue to which this all relates is not having a customs post:

“Mr Delaney pointed to the continual refusal of Michael Beaumont and the members of his one ruling party government to consent to a Customs post which would allow Sark direct access to the vast tourist markets of the West coast of France and beyond as the principal reasoning behind his entirely commercial decision.” (3)

Now this is a bone of contention which has been rumbling on for many years. In 2010, the Guernsey Press carried this story:

“Direct service to and from a Normandy port is being pursued by Sark Estate Management. Writing in the latest edition of his Sark Newsletter, SEM’s Kevin Delaney said that during 2011 the company will be working towards establishing a daily passenger route between the island and one of the small coastal ports of north-west France.” (4)

The obstacle was, of course, the lack of a customs post, which meant that anyone travelling to Sark had to first pass through the customs post of St Peter Port or that of St Helier (or even possibly that of Braye in Alderney)

In May 2011, this again was the subject of a news story:

“Officials in Sark are in talks with the Guernsey Border Agency about establishing a formal customs area for the island. Currently anyone entering or bringing goods from outside the British Isles to Sark must register with the agency. It currently has three offices - in St Peter Port and St Sampson in Guernsey and Braye Harbour in Alderney. “

“Conseillier Jan Guy said if they introduced a port of entry "the practicalities would be huge". She said: "In many ways we would have to replicate everything that is available at all the other ports of entry. "It's a very good thing for Sark to look into, but when you talk about practicalities you also have to consider the cost." (5)

But in a report issued in November 2012, the ideas were very much shelved. The Harbours and Pilotage Committee asked about approved ports into the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and Chief Officer Rob Prow of The Guernsey Border Agency responded.

He noted that in the first instance, Sark would need to introduce legislation

“Sark has no Import & Export legislation so it has no protection should goods (all manner of restrictions inc. firearms, explosives, offensive weapons, dual use goods, WMD, CITES, counterfeit goods, trade sanctions et al) be allowed to enter directly without first being cleared though an approved port.”

But even if the legislative problems could be resolved, other issued remained, such as passport controls, and custom and immigration resources:

“The Bailiwick of Guernsey is part of the Common Travel Area. All passengers who arrive directly from outside of the CTA must be examined by an accredited Officer, passports electronically scrutinised and Home Office warning index checks initiated. The UK has the power to remove the Bailiwick from the CTA if the controls do not match those in place in the UK.”

“In a modern and sometimes dangerous world, trained and accredited Officers are required to discharge these statutory based regimes. Drug trafficking, financial crime and immigration legislation is extremely complex and criminals ever more sophisticated. In addition Human Rights based legislation provides a demanding framework of compliance”.

And he concludes by looking at the resources needed:

“For a port to become Customs approved there are requirements that would need to be resourced. Passenger examination requires passport control facilities, search benches, search equipment and private interview rooms, commensurate to the services envisaged. The Port would also require fully appointed, trained and accredited Officers to man those control points. By way of example Braye Harbour in Alderney is an approved Port and is so resourced. Such resources, facilities, Officer training and accreditation, come at a considerable cost and the GBA is not currently resourced to meet those costs and neither does Sark’s harbour have any customs or passport examination infrastructure.”

Braye Harbour in Alderney, of course, falls within the jurisdiction of Guernsey, and Alderney has representation in the Guernsey States of Deliberation. Sark being independent could not expect Guernsey to bear costs, and would have to incur those itself. This would almost certainly require full time paid officers and suitable training.

The present situation is that a Constable and Vingtenier (junior officer) are elected by Chief Pleas, and these are part-time voluntary roles. The volunteer officers are at times supported by full-time officers from Guernsey Police.

In July 2014, the issue came back again, as the BBC reported:

“Visitors to Sark may be able to travel directly to the Channel Island if the roles of police and immigration officers are combined. Currently, people have to go via another Channel Islands customs post - either Guernsey, Jersey or Alderney - to meet immigration and customs laws. The suggestion of a joint role has been made in a review of policing in Sark. The island currently has two voluntary part-time officers for the 600-strong population. Supt Nigel Taylor, from Guernsey Police, is assisting the Sark authorities with the review. He said: "There are opportunities for a dual-warranted individual... to carry out the functions of customs and policing providing the necessary training is in place. "[We're] exploring all the options to make sure it's cost effective policing in Sark, but it's also fit for a modern day society."

“The Guernsey Border Agency and the island's police force have been united under a head of law enforcement, but no plans to merge the two organisations have been released.” (6)

The review considered the following options:

1) Keep policing as now – to weigh up the pros & cons – hear comments from the Sark Constables, from the Guernsey Police and take questions from the floor.

2) Employ a retired Police Officer to be stationed permanently on Sark. The Island could advertise this position, but the questions arise of housing, pay and under whose responsibility such a position should operate. Specialist Units of the Guernsey Police may still have to be called in if a situation warrants it.

3) For the Guernsey Police to take overall responsibility for policing in Sark.

And the review noted that:

“If Options 2 or 3 are adopted there will be an additional cost element and that would lead to an increase in taxation. Weighing up the pros & cons of these options would lead to the question as to whether Sark needs that level of policing and whether it would be cost effective to change from the status-quo. It all hinges on the willingness of local people to come forward and be prepared to volunteer as Vingtenier and then Constable – a two year period of commitment of service to their Island.”

In this respect, it is worth considering this news story:

“Direct taxation on the island of Sark will rise by 11% in 2015 because about 10 islanders are predicted to leave in the next year. Sark's finance committee chairman Robert Cottle said the move was necessary to meet a 1.8% increase in the islands £1.3m budget. A 15% increase in alcohol and tobacco taxes was also passed at the meeting of Sark's government, the Chief Pleas. Direct tax is a levy on income on Sark, which is home to about 600 residents.”

Clearly the cost of running Sark’s infrastructure is easily affected by small changes in the population, because it has a relatively small total number of inhabitants. So a customs post, properly manned by trained and fully paid professional staff, of which two would seem to be a minimum, would impact upon the economy, and Sark’s levels of taxation.

It is notable that while pressing for a customs post, neither the Barclay brothers nor Mr Delaney have made any offer to fund such a position. If it is so much to their economic advantage for their business in Sark to do so, why don’t they offer a contract to pay for the post for, say, the next ten years, subject to review after that time.

Instead, for the putative but unproven advantages to some tourism businesses – theirs – of a fully operational customs post, they would like the burden for that to fall upon everyone in Sark in terms of increases in taxation.

As with the elections a few years ago, when they closed businesses when their preferred slate of candidates failed to be elected, the modus operandi of failing to get their own way has repeated itself, To an outsider, like myself, it appears like a temper tantrum, a stamping of feet loudly, a throwing of toys out of the playpen because they have not got their own way on a customs post.

The problem, of course, is that because they own a considerable proportion of Sark, they can apply economic pressure where political pressure is not an available route. It appears to be an ill-judged attempt to bully the government of Sark into submission. It may certainly damage the Sark economy to some degree, though not perhaps as badly as might be feared. But it is about time they learned the lesson, so hard for millionaires, that money simply cannot buy everything. Not everything has a price.


1 comment:

Paul Kirkwood said...

An interesting read. Thanks. Just back from Sark and heard about this controversy.