Monday 11 May marks the completion of my first year as the Governor of our three unique territories in the South Atlantic. This time last year my wife and I remember the wonderful inauguration and reception given to us by the community on St Helena and the warm wishes of welcome from Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Our many engagements and meetings with people from each island during the year have been a truly satisfying and unique experience.
Last year in Jamestown, I mentioned areas I intended the Governor’s Office to pursue with councillors and administrations. The important roles of any government are to create a stable set of laws, services and infrastructure. These let people live in a society that encourages innovation and opens up opportunities for commerce to thrive and diversify, all reinforced with reliable international connections. Let us reflect on some of what we have achieved together over the last 12 months.
On St Helena, the digital cable is coming and will open up the opportunity to develop a digital economy. An important project is well underway to protect the rock face above Jamestown and at Ruperts where it should lead to full operation of the jetty to handle freight containers. Preparations for the next capital projects supported by DFID on a container park, roads, water security, sanitation and the Comprehensive Development Areas are in the pipeline. Hopefully too, we may sometime soon have a new prison facility at Bottom Woods and a modern police custody suite at Coleman House. A swathe of updated legislation is in place including the decriminalisation of minor offences, introducing simpler fixed penalties and fairer disclosure arrangements for various jobs.
Throughout this year I have enjoyed attending services in fellowship with nearly all the religious and faith groups, meeting with business groups, farmers, hoteliers, retailers and many others to consider new opportunities. The Pitch@Plantation event demonstrated the island's innovative potential and it has been very satisfying to host at Plantation House the many islanders who have achieved academic, professional and vocational qualifications. Building professional and personal skills are crucial to creating a strong local economy and continuing personal development.
St Helena has been very successful in raising its international profile and getting an international credit rating. Over the past year we have seen a positive rise in visitor numbers and investor interest and the administrative steps to rationalise and diversify the economy for a digital age are being developed. There have been numerous published articles by reporters and travel writers across the world and visits by well-known television presenters like historian Dan Snow and Peter Greenberg from CBS in the USA. There have been visits by the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Simon MacDonald, the Belgian Consul General to St Helena, and the European Union Development Directorate-General as well as various potential inward investors. An international debit card option is now available for Saints when they travel in the future and the next major banking development on the island is to get point-of-sale terminals in our shops for international card transactions.
There is still much to do. In the coming weeks St Helena will finalise a forward-looking immigration policy and the expected report on St Helena’s first independent police review will inform the future development of the Police Service. Other issues need a collective effort to be delivered, such as stabilising the future for a privately-led fishing sector, an issue that generates different opinions, and the rebuilding of our agricultural potential. Securing the elusive wind farm project should benefit the island by reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, whilst new approaches are coming to managing our marine environment and maritime opportunities. More fundamentally, my short-term Governance Commission begins this week. It will set out clearly the two reform options for a public decision soon on the way St Helena governs itself. I will assist in bringing these opportunities to fruition as swiftly as possible.
On Ascension, I welcomed the newly elected Island Council and the pioneering creation of the 100% Marine Protected Area. I am pleased to have honoured my promise to visit the island approximately every six months. Sadly, this may be more challenging in the current international climate.
While on island, I was pleased to meet a wide range of people who work on Ascension and heard about their experiences. Steve Chandler, the outgoing Administrator, laid a firm foundation of collaboration with the civilian and military organisations and took necessary decisions over the business levy and fire service. I wish Sean Burns the very best in his first year as Administrator on the island. With contracts signed, Ascension should look forward to the commencement in the coming months of the runway resurfacing project. Completing this monumental task is essential to secure the return of the Falklands flight and opportunities it brings. Similarly, the time is right to tackle the backlog of capital repairs, often in the quiet, un-flamboyant areas of infrastructure that we all take for granted, e.g. water, sewage, roads. The Administrator and I continue to press for the marine monitoring funding, when the UK Spending Review finally gets underway. This should unlock the separate philanthropic donation via the Blue Marine Foundation. Updating the employment ordinance I know is important to elected councillors. It is time to replace legislation dating from 1926 with one that includes the common expectations of modern times.
On Tristan da Cunha, we were thwarted in my plans to visit last September by the storm damage. My wife and I are looking forward immensely to coming to the island. I can only hope we will not be prevented again this year by the various travel and quarantine restrictions now in place. Following the departure of Sean Burns to his next post in January, I was privileged to welcome Fiona Kilpatrick and Stephen Townsend on behalf of the FCO as the first ever job-share Administrators. The year also saw the return of Wave Dancer. Its major refit was recognition of the importance of the lobster industry to the island. Alas though, two storms defined the year but not the spirit of the island. I am aware the extreme weather led to the considerable damage, the repairs from which are only now approaching the end with the reroofing of the school building. I am pleased the recent repairs and strengthening of the harbour were finished before the winter arrives. The collective effort and determination of all on the island to carry on with their lives has been an inspiration to Tristan da Cunha’s wide international following, for example, I thoroughly enjoyed the interviews on Piers Morgan’s ‘Good Morning Britain’ television programme (or should I say, ‘Good Morning Tristan da Cunha’ as it appeared on screen). Most recently, congratulations on the promotion of the northern rockhopper penguin’s success on Twitter as the world seabird champion!
If you had asked me to describe the future one year past, it would certainly have not looked like the scenes we see today. I can sincerely sympathise with the many islanders who have loved ones locked down or stranded far away. The very flights that brought me to St Helena are grounded, so unexpectedly my wife too is unable to return.
The gains of our past year are at risk. The recent events of the global COVID-19 health emergency have been seismic in their impact on the world. Understandably this has led to much uncertainty about the future. As three of the few places without any positive cases, our islands’ isolation and firm action have protected us so far from the virus. As with the storms in Tristan, I have been struck again by the way people from all quarters have come together in this time of adversity and achieved remarkable outcomes. Be that, constructing the Bradleys facility in St Helena, or taking a pragmatic approach to protecting Ascension, or introducing early restrictions on landings on Tristan da Cunha. We must continue to protect ourselves in the coming months.
COVID-19 has without a doubt impacted on the economic trajectories for our islands, as it has with other overseas territories and far larger countries across the world. Nevertheless, the measures currently imposed: quarantines, restriction on activities, closed borders, increased medical aid and ad-hoc UK financial support are – and will only ever be – a temporary fix. Soon each island must act to protect their fragile economies, reduce public spending to what is affordable, find innovative opportunities amongst the current challenges and endeavour to secure a sustainable future.
I would like us to recognise that one day in the months ahead will need to re-engage our travel connections with the outside world and reconnect with friends, families, travellers and investors visiting our islands. Much of the past normality of the way we lead our lives and the necessity of hassle-free travel will have to restart as it will in the UK and across the rest of the world. Coming to an acceptance across our communities on how our islands can reopen for business is something we will all have to confront during this year. Although it will be challenging, it is also an opportunity for each island to find innovative solutions.
If there is anything I have learnt over the past year, it is that the community spirit and looking out for one another is a precious character of island life. More than ever in the potentially difficult times ahead we need that sense of community. It is needed to help elected councillors and administrations decide on how to keep our islands safe, not just from a virus but from its long term economic impacts too. Thank you for a rewarding first year and I look forward to working as your Governor in the coming year.
Dr Philip Rushbrook
Governor of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha