This article is re-printed from the Islander and based on a speech given to AIG staff on 1 May.
‘How can we celebrate the Bicentenary when I don’t even know how I will get home next year or get fresh food on the table for my family’? These are some of the sentiments I encountered last week when I gave talks at the bicentenary public meeting and AIG Away Day.
My response is that you can get home to St Helena, have fresh fruit & vegetables and celebrate 200 years of British sovereignty in Ascension. They are three very different issues but it is not a case of either/or – we can achieve all three.
Finding a cost effective and convenient way of transporting people and cargo between Ascension and St Helena is my top priority. I know how important it is for Saints to get home to see family & friends on St Helena. Ascension simply could not run without its skilled, hardworking and loyal Saint work force. I know the concern that uncertainty over a successor to the RMS St Helena is causing you. That’s why I want to share with you as much information as I can.
The ‘2016 access’ issue is a complex problem and will require external support in order to resolve. We live in an isolated place and the Ascension Island Government does not have sufficient resources to underwrite a solution independently.
We now know that St Helena will have a weekly air service to Johannesburg subsidised, in the short term, by DFID. The provider, Comair, is unlikely to fly on to Ascension because of the additional time required for this extended service. The St Helena Government will shortly be announcing the final schedule for the RMS. We expect the last sailing from Cape Town to arrive here in mid May 2016. Therefore, we have one year to find a solution.
What has AIG been doing?
I have been working with Toni Bendall to come up with a range of air and sea options. We hired an external firm of consultants, who validated our earlier work and provided us with several more options. There are a number of potential solutions, though none of them are straightforward. And we face several challenges. The price, for all options, is high due to the distances involved and low passenger demand, however there is a strong preference for an air link, as opposed to continued sea services, for passengers. If the cost goes above the price of going the ‘long way’ round (via London and Jo’burg), it will be very difficult to secure financial support for the establishment of an inter-island link.
We are working with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London to explore all other options including the extension of existing, non-civilian, links to the island.. In the end it will come down to the cost.
Last week I met with representatives of all the major employers and we have agreed to go to tender for an air link, to seek firm bids from companies that are willing to operate the route. We hope to have results by September. So we should know by then what plane will operate the route for what price.
I know many of you are concerned about how you will get your belongings and cars back to St Helena. We will also be looking at chartering an additional sea cargo service, perhaps once or twice a year, which will allow you to ship your possessions home.
I know that some people have argued that we should scrap the Bicentenary celebrations until the fresh food and access issues have been resolved. I can understand that. But I say we can have food, a park and solve the 2016 access issue. Refitting the kids’ playground and building a small seating area in the main square is under AIG’s control. Securing our food supply will be challenging. But again we can doa lot on island to grow our own vegetables as we did in the 1940s with hydroponics at Donkey Plain and the Mountain farm. We are looking at more modern forms of hydroponics and re-opening the farm if it is economically viable. And we need to explore other import options as well.
We may not feel like celebrating but the Bicentenary only comes along once. It may not feel convenient to celebrate this year but that does not mean we cannot mark the achievements of our forebears in making this island fit for habitation. I urge you to get involved in helping make the celebrations a success.
Above all, I want to reassure you that you have not been forgotten and I am dedicating all my energy and time to solving this issue.
Administrator Ascension Island
4 May 2015