Even its own mother, if it had one, would be hard pushed to describe the old PWD store in Jamestown as a thing of beauty.
But there’s no need to be rude about a building that has the sort of rugged, solid reliability that one might value in an old friend.
Hugh P Crallan, who wrote an oft-cited report on the historic buildings of St Helena, felt no need to be charitable, however.
“The building has an excrescence at its north-east corner,” he wrote, describing a kind of porch that rather crudely detracts from its classical simplicity.
The line is quoted with a refreshing lack of guile in the sale particulars for the building, which is on the market with offers sought in excess of £250,000.
Online dictionaries offer various definitions for an excrescence. Here are some of the best:
A distinct outgrowth on a body or plant, resulting from disease or abnormality [as in] “the males often have a strange excrescence on the tip of the snout”; an unattractive or superfluous object or feature (Oxford Dictionaries)
Something that bulges out. Synonyms include bulge, bump, gibbosity, gibbousness, hump (vocabulary.com)
An outgrowth or enlargement, especially an abnormal one, such as a wart (thefreedictionary.com)
There’s concern that St Helena currently does not have an open and transparent property market. On the plus side, though, this means it doesn’t have smarmy estate agents with their finely-honed inability to paint a truthful picture, warts and all.
Can we look forward to more of the same? How about: “Historic Castle, undermined by bougainvillea tree and prone to collapse”, or, “Handsome property in Jamestown; occupants liable to be crushed by rockfall at any moment”?
Island builders are to be invited to bid for the contract to build 15 experimental houses on St Helena, following an international design competition.
Spanish architects BAT have proposed creating bamboo plantations so the island can grow its own building materials, instead of having to import them.
Concerns have been raised that the island’s weevils and termites would quickly destroy bamboo in homes, but the winning architects say it can be treated to remove its natural sugars, meaning the termites would not be attracted to it.
The scheme put forward by Spanish company Bilboko Arkitektura Taldea (BAT) also involves importing wire baskets to fill with local rocks to create gabions, similar to those seen supporting embankments alongside major roads overseas.
If an initial “exemplar” development at Half Tree Hollow is successful, the Spanish design could be used across the island to bring down existing construction costs – and not just for housing.
Andy Crowe, the island’s first housing executive, said: “I think it needs to be stressed that the ‘exemplars’ will take time to be produced because of the need to create a bamboo processing plant.
“I don’t want us to simply import processed bamboo and never get round to creating the industry, so it might be a couple of years away.
“In the meantime I am planning to invite expressions of interest from local builders to develop the first phase of 15 homes using modern methods of construction by a set deadline.”
Andy will report on the scheme at the annual conference of the National Housing Federation in Birmingham, in the UK, on 19 September 2013.
He plans to tell delegates the new housing design could mean Saints no longer have to spend “a small fortune” importing building materials to build houses that can take 20 years to complete.
He said: “There was, until my arrival, no housing service on the island and there is no housing legislation. Until recently there was little planning legislation and so homes have been built ad hoc, without a proper infrastructure. Local builders are in short supply
“It may be the only place where British citizens still have to use outside toilets and live in homes without an internal hot water supply.
“The housing competition is a signal that things are about to change. It sits alongside work to masterplan new estates, in stunning locations.”
The UK’s Department for International Development has provided funding, but actually building homes remained a challenge, said Andy – and costs needed to come down.
In October 2012, St Helena Government disclosed that eight families were known to be in imminent risk of becoming homeless. It revealed the figure after one returning Saint made a public plea for a home for his family, after being presented with a steep rise in rent.
If the Spanish design proves successful, bamboo plantations could be created around the island, alongside small quarries, to serve housing developments in St Paul’s, Alarm Forest, Longwood, Sandy Bay and Blue Hill.
Up to 350 homes could be built by 2022.
The architects say bamboo would grow on barren parts of the island, and could help other plant life to recolonise land that has suffered through destruction of woodlands in past centuries.
It remains to be seen whether the island can grow enough bamboo for houses and other new buildings.
But Andy said: “If we can replace flax with bamboo and control its growth (cutting it down to make houses seems a pretty effective way) then we can offer the island a new source of earnings and reduce its dependence upon imports – what a great solution that would be.”
Click the map to see sites for homes, quarries and bamboo plantations
St Helena Government saved £32,000 by staging the architectural competition itself, rather than handing the project to outside consultants, said Andy.
People on the island who saw the proposed designs during the judging period said they made the most of the island’s natural resources – and respected its community culture.
A paragraph in this story has been toned down in response to a comment made privately to St Helena Online. The paragraph, about information being made available to legislative councillors, was capable of mis-interpretation.
Secretive decision-making by governments in St Helena and other British overseas territories leaves them vulnerable to corruption, MPs in London have been warned.
The same lack of transparency had already brought down the government in the Turks and Caicos Islands, said Clare Stringer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Her warning echoed strong concerns raised about the conduct of St Helena’s executive council, which meets almost entirely in secret and refuses public access to agendas, reports and minutes.
Clare Stringer delivered her warning in evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Wednesday, 17 April 2013. She referred to a recent RSPB review that found widespread lack of openness.
Speaking as head of the RSPB’s overseas territories unit, she said islands were vulnerable to unhealthy outside influence if they did not have “robust legislation and transparency systems.”
She went on: “Our recent review of environmental governance showed that in a lot of the territories those aren’t in place.
“Very few if any have transparency legislation, freedom of information doesn’t exist, decisions are made by a Foreign Office appointed governor or by elected council members – but often behind closed doors – and it’s very difficult to know why decisions are made in the way that they are.
“And it does leave administrations open to corruption, and we have seen that in the Turks and Caicos Islands in recent years.
“The fact that these decisions aren’t made openly, it leaves an atmosphere where corruption can occur.”
An inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands corruption affair found that it resulted from circumstances very similar to those that are now emerging on St Helena, with the building of an airport attracting outside investors.
In fact, the RSPB’s review has singled St Helena out for praise for the strength of its developing environmental protections, which greatly restrict opportunities for developers to apply undue pressure to obtain Crown land.
But Clare Stringer’s criticisms of secretive government exactly describe the clandestine decision-making that takes place in the shady confines of the Castle in Jamestown.
Even a member of St Helena’s legislative council, Christina Scipio O’Dean, has reported being repeatedly refused information about government funding for the South Atlantic Media Service. Other legislative councillors have complained at public meetings that they were not told about structural reforms in the government, despite their scrutiny role.
The refusal to meet openly and make vital documents available for scrutiny means that it is impossible to know how much influence is being applied by unelected officials.
In the past, a St Helena Government official has justified the lack of openness on the basis that it was the same in most other territories.
The RSPB’s concerns were echoed by Dr Mike Pienkowski, who was giving evidence to the MPs as chief executive of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.
He said: “We are dealing with small communities whose legislative bodies are more on the scale of parish councils, in some cases.
“So it’s really very difficult for them to negotiate or avoid legal but excessive influence by international companies.
“And there are problems with openness and accountability in their systems.”
Dr Colin Copus, Professor of Local Politics at Leicester Business School, said in January that the limited information released about St Helena’s ExCo meetings “may fulfill some element of accountability, but it doesn’t go far.”
He said: “You can only be representative if people know what you are doing. It is just simple and healthy for people to know. It leads to a more informed and engaged citizenry and that is a good thing.”
Further criticism has been aimed at the proposals to turn Jamestown into a tourist centre – this time by historian John Tyrrell, after a return visit to St Helena.
His internet journal describes the “rather bad tempered” public meeting held on the Jamestown 20-20 Vision document in mid-March 2013.
He writes: “The author, off the island at the time of the meeting, seems to envisage Jamestown as a kind of up-market las Americas, and the wharf area perhaps as a cut-down version of Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred waterfront.
“I was told by someone in the know that I would be shocked at the cost of the project.
“I was also confidently informed by a number of residents that nothing would happen anyway, certainly not before the completion of the airport: gossip and rumours are the only things that move fast on St Helena.”
St Helena’s new housing boss has written of his excitement at the challenge of making sure Saints can afford to live on their own island – a week after it emerged eight families were known to be facing homelessness.
Alan Crowe has started an internet journal about his new job improving existing housing, and “developing new homes and even new communities.”
But he promises he won’t be imposing UK practices when he arrives on the island later in November.
“The UK model has failed,” he writes, “with house prices way beyond the means of all but a few first-time buyers, homelessness rising fast and ‘affordable rents’ condemning many to the poverty trap.
“The most exciting part of the job is that there is a blank sheet of paper when it comes to housing legislation and housing management. St Helena has very little of either.”
He acknowledges that locals might be wary of an unknown face. “Who is this guy? How is he going to tackle years of decline successfully?”
The trick is to meet both local housing needs and demand for luxury accommodation, and managing land use, which affects prices and housing costs. “Shielding housing prices from the ravages of inflation is the way to make housing affordable for local people in perpetuity.”