Sark: how electricity sparked Channel island crisis
The FT's Jemima Kelly goes to the small Channel island to find out why it faces an electricity crisis
Produced, filmed and edited by Petros Gioumpasis
There was a time when somebody wanted to tarmac roads and the street, lights, and thought it'd be wonderful for us. But that's not the way that the local people think. They've lived on the island for 450 years, manage very nicely. We don't really need it.
The island of Sark in the English Channel is a place where time flows slowly. Its fewer than 500 inhabitants still live a semi-feudal existence. But commercial interests have forced the island to open itself up and to move into the 21st century. I'd heard the island was facing the risk of a power shutdown because of a standoff between a monopolistic electricity company and a government that some said wasn't as democratic as it professed to be. So I'd come to Sark to find out what was going on.
It's a very long-standing issue. It goes back to 1947, to just after the war, when a guy called Malcolm Robson came along and offered to supply the island with electricity, which is obviously a need. So it was then privately owned. It was his own private investment. And he established the company. What then happened subsequently is that's the arrangement that's carried on without any regulation. And then Sark finds itself over a barrel having two choices. You either buy electricity off this gentleman, or you generate your own, which was also expensive. And so it was the lack of regulation, I think, that's really caught us out.
But it was actually an attempt to bring in regulation that sparked the current crisis. Soaring price of electricity had led the government, called Chief Pleas, to bring in price controls last year. But Sark Electricity said the lower prices would bankrupt it, and the company threatened to turn the power off unless it was allowed to put prices back up. Sark faced total blackout.
So I am in the main high street of Sark. It's called the Avenue. And as you can see, it is completely pitch black, apart from someone passing. Hello.
In a mobility chair, which you actually need a special licence to drive because you're not even allowed those, because that's counted as a vehicle here. There are no street lights here and no cars. So the only bits of light that we have are little bits of light from the houses around us.
An eleventh-hour agreement for Chief Pleas to buy out the electricity company kept the power on through the winter. But I'd heard the dispute was once again bubbling over because no one could agree on what price the government should pay. What everyone could agree on was the fact that 66 pence per kilowatt hour is a lot to pay for electricity. It's over five times the UK average. Sark has to import diesel to convert into electricity, so prices have always been high. But how had they shot up quite so much?
We're so small, we have no way to spread the costs. So our price is very high. The new democratic government has spent so much time interfering, it has cost the company over a half a million pounds. And that only put the price of electricity up. Their one big demand was that we open the books to the world. We're a private company, and I'm not interested in letting my employees' salaries be a matter for discussion in the pub.
The islanders are worried that the electricity crisis could drag on into the spring and summer months, when around 55,000 visitors will descend onto Sark.
I wish they'd hurry up and get something sorted out because time is marching on, and the season's just around the corner. And the last thing we want is for it all to blow up again right at the beginning of the tourist season.
Sarkese may be British citizens, but the island has never been part of the UK, nor subject to its government. And this has, de facto, helped Sark remain isolated from the modern world.
People like things to change very slowly, hence there's no motor cars on the roads and things. It's illegal to drive a motor car on the roads. It's legal to drive a motor car over the fields, but not on the roads.
The island was granted the right to operate as an independent royal fief by Queen Elizabeth in 1565 on condition that it was kept free of pirates. But in 2008, its feudal constitution was reformed, and Sark held its first general election. Some islanders told me they thought the old feudal system was fairer and that the new, quote unquote, "democratic government" is to blame for the electricity crisis.
What price paradise? If you want reliable electricity, you have to pay for it. I think it was a fake crisis personally. I don't think that any government should put its population in a situation of crisis like that. And I don't think it was a real crisis. I think it should have been sorted out long before.
If the clash of cultures on Sark really is one between protectionists and commercialists, it's easy to see why the government is refusing to back down. They've learned from market forces that if yours is the only bid in town and the seller wants to sell, you dictate the price.