The Island is a place of beauty but is its physical isolation a plus or a minus?
EARLIER this year the House of Commons had a peek at the IW.
It wasn’t just the IW, mind you. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee published a report, all 208 pages of it, on coastal towns, and the IW was one of the places it looked at and heard evidence from.
In June last year, both Cllr Ian Ward, then cabinet member for planning, environment and transport at the IW Council, and Robin McInnes, then coastal manager, appeared before the committee and their evidence was included in the report.
The report reached conclusions that might not be news to Islanders. The problems highlighted included poor housing provision combined with high-priced holiday homes, dumping of vulnerable adults and children from other local authorities, coastal erosion and flooding, ageing populations, poor high schools and low parental ambition.
It also heard the IW has a special handicap — physical isolation.
Many people reading the report will come to a couple of immediate conclusions about the IW, again, neither of them startlingly new.
We need a bridge and we need a decent council with enhanced powers — either that or total independence.
During a recent visit to the island of Malta, I picked up the local paper and read a piece about a recently-built high-tech park. One phrase struck me:
“It is clear that we have brought within the grasp of the young people of Malta a world of opportunities...”
It’s a striking phrase because it is really not something we can say about our own Island.
In fact, we continue to fail our children with poor education and lack of opportunities.
If only us Islanders, the IW Council, Island schools and colleges and the plethora of government agencies and quangos in our region could say the same as the Maltese.
So far, we have only let the next generation of IW children down.
It just isn’t a good idea to rely on central government to help us out.
The report spelled out the number of government departments responsible for coastal towns: seven.
You can bet none of them talks to each other on a regular basis. In fact the committee complained government wasn’t even collating some basic statistics from invalidity benefit claimants, of which there are disproportionately large numbers in costal towns, to deprivation indicators.
“The government has no specific policy or initiatives for coastal towns ... government has conducted no research into the situation of coastal towns in recent years, nor did we receive any evidence demonstrating there was any action or liaison between departments ...”
Although a number of regional development groups like SEEDA were singled out for some praise, even it did not have specific strategies for coastal towns, or specifically for the IW.
There are good reasons why it isn’t easy for us on the IW.
Cllr Ward spelled a number of these in his evidence.
“As to the age profile on the Island,” he told the committee, “about 26 per cent are pensioners or retirees.
“That percentage is growing by five per cent a year. The problem is, we do not have a workforce.”
Of course, part of the problem is not just we don’t have a workforce but that there aren’t many jobs being created and those that are tend to be low-paid.
Cllr Ward continued: “For people, it is an attractive place in which to retire.
“The problem is ... we have little more than a cottage hospital. Most of our medical treatment is provided across The Solent ... The cost of that journey is not subsidised in any way.”
Cllr Ward went on to touch on the isolation of the IW, the cost of getting to and from the Island, the collapse in the long-break family holidays, which made the Island a tourist destination in the 1950s and 60s.
“It will cost a husband and wife who want a short break something like £100 to come across in their car. They will just drive on and go elsewhere. Our tourist market has slumped.”
The IW, said Cllr Ward, was in a wealthy region and could not qualify for extra EU funding. Poor low-cost housing was attracting larger numbers of low-wage or no-wage earners and fuelling a poverty cycle.
“We do not want to rely on the government. We are not here for handouts,” he told the committee.
“We are trying to help ourselves.”
The IW is a beautiful, wonderful place to live for many of us. But it is a land riven with competing interests.
More thsn a quarter of our population here is retired or elderly. They tend to like the Island just as it is — after all, that’s why they came here. There needs to be a better understanding that what makes the IW is not just scenery but people and we need jobs and economic growth to sustain them.
We are surrounded by natural beauty but the environmental agencies and groups which aim to preserve nature make it almost impossible to allow regeneration or enterprising schemes to get through a tortuous and ruinous planning process.
Our isolation from the mainland is often something to be savoured but the costs of ferry fares mean small businesses and entrepreneurs often cannot cope with the costs of doing business on the IW. Our high schools perform way below the national average. We all know they are failing but there is no political consensus for dealing with it.
We have increasing numbers of £1 million-plus houses on the IW, many of them holiday homes, but the bulk of us labour with the inflated property prices which result and our children can’t find homes to move to.
All this gets down to one big problem, for the IW, for all of us. We are failing our children — letting down the next generation of Islanders.
We have an MP who works assiduously but is a lone voice, a council which does its best, regional agencies which work well but do not focus on the particular needs of the Island.
We need to face it. If we don’t do it for ourselves, no-one else will. Others have made it: Committee members cited Whitstable and Padstow as successful examples. We should learn from them and get on with it, for our children’s sakes.