Falklands strategist

As the chief planner on the Falkland Islands, Dominique Giudicelli has relished the challenges of the life-changing experiences of her job, as she tells Catherine Early.

Living in a place where no-one locks their door and the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are sheep may sound like a step back in time.

But for environmental planner Dominique Giudicelli, this is the everyday reality of life on the Falkland Islands.

Giudicelli is halfway through a two-year stint on the islands. When she saw the job advertised in Planning, she was intrigued by a place that she had only seen in photographs. "I thought it would be a really challenging and exciting thing to do, although it is probably more challenging than I had expected," she admits.

With a role covering everything from applications for dog kennel extensions to oil exploration, she has her work cut out. The Falklands environment is under pressure from development, oil exploration and tourism. Around 1,600 visitors stay on the islands each year, but a further 40,000 come in on cruise ships. That is a huge number considering that the residential population is around 3,000.

With the South American mainland 480km away, life on the islands is low key. "I cannot begin to tell you how different it is. I used to hate shopping and now there are no shops so I miss it, and I miss cultural facilities like the cinema," says Giudicelli. But the benefits of working on the islands are inspiring. "The air is extremely clean and the sky at night is spectacular. The light is very bright and crisp. It is stunning."

The Falklands planning system is based on the UK's but it is much simpler.

"Legislation is far less comprehensive," says Giudicelli. "For example, there are fewer use classes. We have no urban conservation areas. Historic buildings are only listed if the owners are happy with it. There is no English Heritage here."

She finds that the single layer of government makes projects easier to implement, although she sometimes misses having people with whom to consult.

The less complicated system is evident in the amount of time taken to reach decisions on applications. The government receives around 200 a year and 95 per cent are determined within four weeks. While most are from householders, Giudicelli has also had to deal with trestles for cultivating oysters, pontoons and oil exploration facilities.

She was responsible for overseeing the delivery of a completely new mobile phone network. Local people found the plans contentious, but she persuaded the operators to place the masts in more suitable locations. "Initially they wanted to put a mast in the middle of a residential area. I managed to convince them to put it in open space. I also suggested putting one among some trees in the capital, Stanley, so they were less noticeable. I feel really pleased with the way it went," she reflects.

Her wide-ranging role has meant that Giudicelli has had to learn a host of skills. One major difference is that planning powers extend 12 nautical miles out to sea. "Suddenly I have had to gain knowledge about marine matters. I am fortunate that the fisheries department has a lot of highly-qualified scientists," she says.

One of her favourite parts of the job is dealing with wildlife. She has been asked to monitor the work of scientists so that she can grant them licences to continue their research. One day she visited a group studying seals. "We had to tag a one-year-old elephant seal," she recollects. "To get so close was breathtaking."

A conservation strategy covering all 700 islands needs to be developed and implemented. She is also tasked with protecting a number of rare species including albatrosses, five types of penguin and the elephant seals. While relatively limited information on marine ecosystems can be a problem, she hopes that this will change as the conservation strategy is put in place and more knowledge is gained. "Things are patchy, but they are getting more complete," she maintains.

She is also involved with an international commitment to conserve albatrosses that involves counting the birds and looking after their breeding sites.

The Falkland Islands government and its dependency, South Georgia, have the highest rate of success in preventing albatross deaths caused by fishing vessels, which she believes is a real achievement. "We are holding an international workshop on albatrosses and petrels in March and I am going to give a talk. I am really nervous about it, but it is all part of the challenge," she contends.

Climate change is another of Giudicelli's concerns. She is trying to get the Kyoto protocol adopted on the islands. "It seems that we are going to ratify it, but we have to clarify how we join it because we are a developing country," she explains. "We have a proposed wind farm and this should displace 12 per cent of fossil fuel emissions. But our biggest greenhouse gas emitters are 580,000 sheep and there is nothing we can do about them."

She finds that the islanders are highly conscious of environmental issues.

Until recently they have been used to life without roads. "They are very aware of their environment and how it changes with the seasons. This is possibly changing with the younger generation, the advent of roads and big Japanese cars," she warns.

A non-governmental organisation called Falklands Conservation is working with young people to help them understand the environment, which should help to keep awareness high. Environmental impact assessments have come into force in the Falklands in the past few months, which has helped to give the government powers to ask for a lot more information.

Giudicelli says that she has personally learned a lot from living in such a different environment. She explains that there is no recycling on the islands and no real waste facilities. "People use less to start with so there is less waste. There is only one weekly newspaper. Things like this have quite an impact on the waste stream. Sustainability is high on the agenda in Europe, but I have seen it from a different angle here," she reflects.

Altogether, she has found it a life-changing experience. "Being here has challenged the way I see the world. My job has made me realise that I am happy to tackle any issue when I go home. It has really enhanced my professional experience."

CAREER DETAILS

Age: 44.

Family: Married with two children.

Education: BSc in environmental planning, Chelmer Institute of Higher Education, 1985; diploma in urban design, Oxford Polytechnic, 1986; diploma in environmental impact assessment, University of Brighton, 1997.

Career: Planning assistant, Waverley Borough Council 1986-87; senior planning officer, Colchester Borough Council 1987-89; senior planner, Brighton Borough Council, 1989-91; principal planner, Lewes District Council, 1991-2001; environmental planning officer, Falkland Islands Government, 2004 to date.

Interests: Fishing, the public realm and travel.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Join the conversation with PlanningResource on social media

Follow Us:
Planning Jobs