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  • Writer's pictureDavid Marlow

How does St Helena do LED and placemaking in their small remote island community?

Updated: Jan 10

In this episode of LED Confidential, David and Mike are joined by Susan O’Bey, Chief Secretary (effectively head of the public services) of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena – a remote 4,000 population island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.


Jamestown St Helena
Jamestown, St Helena

Perhaps best known as the place where Napoleon was exiled and died after Waterloo, contemporary St Helena faces many of the challenges of peripheral and ‘left behind’ places – only amplified by their size and acute remoteness. The episode deals with the role of political reform and annual negotiations with the British Government for grant-in-aid to keep the island afloat fiscally. We discuss St Helena’s challenges of demography and decline in working age population, attracting and retaining talent, and blue and green environmental sustainability. All these agendas are familiar to LEDC listeners, and whilst St Helena’s approaches to planning and managing change are highly bespoke, they will have an unexpected resonance and relevance to geographies and communities in the UK and further afield.


What can we learn from the role of political reform in St Helena?

St. Helena began its transition from a committee system to Chief Minister and Cabinet governance in 2021. Constitutional reforms were approved by referendum following extensive consultation and local involvement. Stronger political leadership, vision and accountability has both enabled a fresh start in St Helena’s economic policies and priorities and given the island greater legitimacy in negotiations with UK Government and in their standing within the family of UK Overseas Territories.


How does St Helena negotiate its financial settlements with the UK?

The UK provides grant-in-aid fiscal transfers for most of the island’s public services budgets. The island needs to be very clear what results grant-in-aid buys, what it contributes to the wider priorities of the ‘UK family’, whilst being cogniscent of the UK government’s own fiscal constraints. The UK governmment needs to recognise needs and priorities of an island with which they have limited detailed knowledge, and that financial self-sufficiency is unachievable in the foreseeable future.


Why are St Helena’s demographic and environmental challenges important?

The island has an aging population and is experiencing a decline in those of working age. It also exports ‘talent’ to other Overseas Territories, the UK and further afield. The UKAID programme deploys technical cooperation with inbuilt counterpart training and capacity building to mitigate this. The island is developing new approaches to migration and local shortage occupations lists to attract and retain talent.


St Helena hosts 30% of UK biodiversity. It has unique blue and green natural assets. Leveraging these sustainably is critical to the island’s growth and development. But these need to be managed effectively and sensitively. This requires expertise and knowledge that is often in short supply. St Helena needs to constantly balance the costs and benefits of change across the triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social impacts.


The resonance and relevance of St Helena for LED and placemaking practitioners


Most places are experiencing acute demographic, environmental and fiscal challenges. St Helena might be thought to represent a special case and in some ways it does. But the amplification and self-containment of these challenges in a small, isolated community does allow us to distil some of the essential ingredients of how larger better-connected communities going forward can deliver LED and placemaking in negotiation with, in particular, the UK government. And this gives St Helena an unexpected resonance and relevance with many of the challenges LEDC listeners are facing in 2024 and beyond.


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