THE VALE COMMONS
Past, Present and Future
This briefing paper has been prepared by the VALE COMMONS COUNCIL and the VALE COMMONS WORKING PARTY to provide a general overview of the history of the VALE COMMONS (“the Commons”) and the future plans for its use and well-being by and for the benefit of all Islanders.
In particular, it offers a discussion on the future playing of golf on the Commons when the present agreement of seventy years’ duration ends in 2016.
What are the Vale Commons?
The Commons are the largest area of land available for recreation and open to the public of Guernsey, comprising approximately 740 vergees in all and situate in the north of the Island. In addition to the many open spaces, there are numerous and large areas of gorse and other important habitats for many species of birds, animals and other wildlife. The Commons run from the Vale Church in the west to Beaucette in the east.
Presently, approximately 368 vergees is given over to the playing of golf.
The Commons also have a number of shooting ranges, two football pitches and a horse-racing course.
Who manages the Commons?
The Commons are managed by the Vale Commons Council (“the Council”). This body is empowered by an Ordinance (XI of 1932) and the Council comprises five members, two of whom must be Douzeniers. In particular, their duties include a responsibility “to regulate and supervise the use of the Commons not only as a place for the exercise of the rights of common pasture, but also as a place of public resort and recreation and this in such a way as to ensure as far as possible to every person the opportunity to enjoy the amenities of the place for those purposes and to prevent any use which would be harmful to the general interest.” Article 4 (translated). The members of the Council are elected by the Habitants of the Clos du Valle (“Habitants”). They are unpaid.
What areas does the Vale Commons Council have to maintain in addition to the open land of the Commons?
There are (depending upon how you count them) no less than 16 car parks, with a total area of 10,800 square metres.
Some of the coastal footpaths and other footpaths, exceeding 3,038 square metres.
There are metalled tracks across the Commons which amount to an area of 2,126 square metres.
There are unmade tracks of 2,721 square metres.
There are a number of important ancient historical sites which are in need of investment.
There are a number of German fortifications which need ongoing maintenance, and also with a view to them becoming places of future public interest.
What is the Vale Commons Working Party?
The Vale Commons Working Party (“the Working Party”) comprises four Habitants who help the Council where there is a requirement for specialist or technical assistance. They are unpaid.
Who owns the Commons?
Ownership of the Commons is diverse. In the 1800s, all of the Commons was in private ownership. Some remains in proven private ownership. Some has passed to the heirs of former owners, but those heirs may not be ascertained at present. Some areas are owned by the Council, purchased on behalf of the Habitants, and some small areas are owned by the States. The Crown owns the foreshore.
Who are the Habitants and what rights do they have?
Habitants are people who reside in the Clos du Valle. This is the northernmost area of the parish, the boundary of which was created when the parish was divided by the waterway between Grande Havre and St Sampson. Habitants have rights of grazing, they may attend the meetings called by the Council (normally an annual general meeting held in February) and vote on any propositions put to the meeting by the Council, including the membership of the Council itself.
How is the care of the Commons funded at present?
Funding for the care of the Commons has always been minimal. In 2000, the States resolved to set the annual grant to the Council for the maintenance of the Commons at a maximum of £30,000 per annum, increased by inflation. In fact, for the past fourteen years, inflation has not been applied, and so the value of the grant, which would otherwise stand at about £45,000, has diminished in real terms. The Council also derives a small income from rent for the Golf Course (£100 per annum), trenching £800 (variable), rental for bunkers and sites for kiosks £1,650 and horse-racing £350. There are also some small annual donations (£600).
In short, that level of funding has fallen increasingly far short of what is required to manage the Commons properly, for the benefit of all Islanders. A great deal of work has been performed voluntarily by members of the Council and others, but this is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. There has been an almost complete absence of capital for some now pressing areas of major maintenance.
What are the future funding needs for the Commons?
The Working Party has developed a business plan for the future management of the Commons, which provides for a part-time manager to co-ordinate the day-to- day management of the Commons, to generate sufficient income for a rolling programme of capital works and to create a modest reserve to cater for the unexpected. The income required is of the order of £160,000 per annum. Whilst this may seem a large sum compared with the present level of income (say, £35,000 per annum), it is noteworthy that the annual cost required to maintain the cemetery at the Vale Church, which is not the responsibility of the Council, is
£90,000, whilst the cost of resurfacing the car park at the Vale Church, which is the responsibility of the Council, is £70,000.
How will those funds be generated?
The biggest single contribution will be derived from the playing of golf after 2016. The Council will seek an increase in the grant from the States to no more than £45,000 (£30,000 per annum increased by inflation), and that will leave a further annual sum of £35,000 to be raised by the Council from other sources, such as trenching, rental, sporting events and other sources on a ‘user pays’ basis, such as long-term car parking at certain locations.
What plans are there for the future management of the Commons?
There is no doubt that the Commons have had to be managed on a hand-to- mouth basis, with much work being left undone for lack of funds. Modern environmental standards call for improved environmental management. This role could be contracted to Environment Guernsey Limited, and is expected to cost in excess of £60,000 per annum. The Council, the Working Party, the environmental managers and specialised contractors will be working together to care for and enhance the Commons in a sympathetic and environmentally- friendly way for the enjoyment of all Islanders.
Why is a return to grazing of the Commons seen as important and how could it be achieved?
There is no doubt that a decline in the levels of usage by Habitants of their grazing rights has resulted in the need for more mechanized methods of managing the Commons. By opening grazing up to non-Habitants, it is anticipated that the level of use by owners of livestock will increase, sympathetically improving the land which forms a part of the Commons, and generating a modest source of income. Control of grazing rests with the Council, which will remain mindful of the historic grazing rights of Habitants, which exist to this day.
What are the present uses for the Commons?
As previously noted, one half of the Commons is presently set aside for the playing of golf. The other uses are limited grazing, walking, horse-riding, cycling, football, horse-racing, shooting, athletics, military exercises, kite-flying and other recreational pursuits by Islanders. Sometimes, the Council has to exercise its powers in balancing the competing wishes of various interest groups, for example, the interface between cyclists and walkers on the paths, or dog walkers and other pedestrians.
What are the likely future uses for the Commons?
The use of the Commons is likely to remain substantially unchanged for the next twenty-five years, with one-half of the total area being given over to the playing of golf. However, pressure on the Commons is expected to increase over that period as a result of a likely overall increase in our population, a demographic change which means that there is a greater proportion of older people in the Island’s overall population, and the fact that people are generally more active in their later years.
What is the history of the playing of golf on the Commons?
Golf has been played on the Commons since at least 1890. In 1947, and following the German occupation, the States voted the sum of £10,000 for the reinstatement of the golf course, post-war. Of that, £5,000 was a loan to the Tourist Committee for it to develop the course on a municipal basis and take over the management and upkeep of the course from the Royal Guernsey Golf Club (Resolution of the States dated 20 February 1947). The preamble to the Resolution cited the golf course at St Andrew’s, Scotland, as an example of what was in contemplation in terms of the type of municipal course.
In the event, a municipal golf course has never existed, and the playing of golf has remained all but the exclusive preserve of the members of the Royal Guernsey Golf Club and L’Ancresse Golf Club. Those two clubs own Golf Course Management LBG, which undertakes the upkeep of the golf course on behalf of the members. Under a lease of seventy years’ duration, the two clubs have paid an annual rent to the Council of £100 per annum, with a further £20 per annum being paid to the owners of ten parcels of land which form about forty per cent of the present golf course. This equates to 8p per annum for each of the 1,500 or so members of the two clubs.
What might be the options for the future playing of golf on the Commons?
The Council is of the view that, at least for the next twenty-five years, it would not be right to curtail the playing of golf on the Commons when the present agreement ends in 2016. It has therefore put forward proposals for extending an agreement to the two clubs beyond that time. At present, no agreement has been reached, and should this remain so, the Council will consider alternative arrangements, such as a municipal course or the appointment of alternative managers but, in so doing, it will also provide for the continuing playing of golf by the members of the two clubs, but on a different financial basis, such as paying per round, and with the 50,000 or so annual rounds of golf which the course is able to sustain being shared with a wider golfing fraternity.
Should a future agreement be granted to the States of Guernsey?
There is presently pressure from the two golf clubs for the Council to enter an agreement with the Culture & Leisure Department, which would then enter into a subservient agreement between itself and the golf clubs. The precedent of the present agreement is cited in support of this argument, and the Culture & Leisure Department is anxious to be involved.
The Council is strongly resistant to this. In the first instance, the historical reason for States’ involvement was because funding was provided for a municipal course. This never happened, and the course has remained effectively closed to non-club members (a day rate of £55 is available to local non-club members, subject to a maximum of six rounds a year and restricted times of play).
In the second instance, the States plays no part in the management of the golf course.
In the third instance, the Council is only prepared to deal with the users of the Commons. It recognises that, in the present financial climate, the States needs to limit its activities to the core matters of government, of which involving itself in a golf course is not one.
Nevertheless, the Council also recognises that there is a need to take account of the views of the States in preserving certain rights, such as the playing of tournaments, and it has confirmed its willingness to embrace all such reasonable requirements.
What contribution to the funding of the Commons should arise from the playing of golf?
As the golf course comprises the most attractive half of the Commons, the Council believes it is reasonable that the two golf clubs contribute one-half of the costs of looking after the Commons as a whole, in the future. With reference to point 9 (above), a sum of £80,000 per annum, increased by inflation, is required to meet that objective, together with a continuing payment to those owners of land which comprises part of the golf course.
Whilst the committees of the two golf clubs are resistant to this request, the view of the Council is that, when divided by the membership of the two clubs, this amounts to less than £60 per member per annum, which it regards as reasonable, having particular regard to the historic cost per member of 8 pence per annum.
The Council is not aware of the extent to which those committees have shared details of its proposals with their members.
It is likely that alternative arrangements for the management of the golf course would prove more restrictive and more costly for many members.
For what period of time should any new agreement for the playing of golf on the Commons be?
The present agreement for the playing of golf on the Commons was for a period of seventy years. The Council is not willing to see its successors fettered in this way because, and for the reasons already set out in 2 & 13 (above), it has a duty to preserve the Commons as a place of enjoyment for all Islanders. It is foreseeable that, in one generation, pressure on the Commons as a place of recreation could be such that retaining one-half of the total area for more or less exclusive use by the members of the two private golf clubs may no longer be viable.
For this reason, the Council is not willing to grant a further agreement for more than twenty-five years, to 2042. That is not to say that a golf course will not remain after that date but, for example, the course may be opened to more than the membership of the present clubs, or the course may be reduced in size to allow more space for enjoyment by a larger Island population. In declining requests for periods as high as fifty years, the Council believes that a term of twenty-five years is sufficient for the members of the two clubs to consider the possibility of alternative long-term future plans, if that is their wish.
Would a new golf course at L’Ancresse be realigned to avoid playing across public roads?
At present, the golf course involves playing across public roads in two places, and this is clearly undesirable. This problem was addressed in 1987, when Mr Donald Steel, an international golf course architect, was engaged to advise on a realigned course, in order to avoid the playing of golf across public roads on the 8th, 9th and 13th holes. The Council is willing to relinquish the two present football pitches, to allow for a change to the golf course, on the understanding that the golf clubs meet the costs associated with the creation and maintenance of a relocated sports field. No agreement was reached on Mr Steel’s proposals, because there was no appetite on the part of the golf clubs for exchanging land from the present course. The Council has asked Mr Steel to revisit and update his proposals, and he has confirmed that they could be implemented as part of any agreement after 2016, and that it would neither degrade the course nor be particularly expensive to achieve.
Conversely, the position of the golf clubs appears to be that it costs about £1 million to create each hole, and the very substantial investment required precludes their members from paying the contribution to the maintaining of the Commons which the Council is seeking. Mr Steel remains available to provide advice on a redesign of part of the course at a more modest cost. The plan which Mr Steel originally produced remains available.
Should the Commons continue to be looked after by the Council?
Historically, the Council and its predecessor committee have managed the Commons essentially in the terms of the present Ordinance (see 2, above). The members of the Council represent the interests of the Habitants but do so with regard to the rights of all Islanders to have equal enjoyment of the largest open space in an increasingly crowded Island. They do so with decades of experience, and are demonstrably able to balance the competing needs of Islanders on what has been a wholly inadequate level of funding. The Council certainly has its critics, and adequate future funding will allow it to address many of the issues which give rise to such criticism.
Were there plans for the Ordinance to be set aside, it would inevitably lead to a move to replace the functions of the Council with those provided by the States. At present, the States manages areas of public land which total an area equivalent to the Commons. The uses are varied but the inescapable fact is that the costs of so doing run into something in the order of £1 million per annum. The accounts of the States are not easily understood, but it can be said with certainty that such a move would be costly, probably not as effective and would certainly involve considerable Civil Service time. The Council is of the view that neither the Habitants nor the general public would be supportive of such a move, particularly if any such proposal had its roots in protecting, enhancing or subsidizing the interests of the membership of the two private golf clubs.
This set of questions and answers has been prepared to enhance public understanding of the issues and challenges surrounding the Commons, including the golf course at L’Ancresse. There is a growing interest in the Commons on the part of Islanders, and our plans for re-invigorating our association “The Friends of the Vale Commons” are progressing.
Please contact our Secretary, Mrs Sally Ozanne, by email at email@example.com, if you are interested in becoming a member of the new supporters’ organisation.
Any questions relating to this briefing paper should be submitted to me in writing c/o The Vale Douzaine Room, Rue Maritaine, Vale, GY3 5QE.