This is what economic serfdom looks like

by | 10 Mar 2022

All of Scotland's problems with the abuse of power by the powerful and the way those without power are sacrificed along the way are neatly summed up by looking at one park in Aberdeen...

First published by Common Weal

If you want to know what is wrong with Scotland you would do well to have a look at a park (for now) in Aberdeen. It’s called St Fittick’s park and it sits next to Torry, a community of 10,500 people who are among the poorest in Aberdeen. It tells you about power, money, attitudes to poverty, policy-making and why Scotland is about to be burdened with ScotWind and ‘free ports’.

To set the scene, think of Torry like this; when Aberdeen needs a community to ‘take one for the team’, it is always Torry that ends up doing the taking. It is the site of a landfill waste site serving Aberdeen, has already lost its old village to a harbour expansion in the 1970s, is hemmed in by an industrial estate and a major road bringing noise and pollution, hosts an ‘odorous’ sewage plant and is currently seeing a waste incinerator being built 500 metres from the local primary school.

But Aberdeen’s wealthy industrialists are in need of ‘just one more’ sacrifice’ from Torry residents. It’s a long and complicated story which begins in 2013 when Aberdeen Harbour Board (a private company with a Board made up of senior, well-connected oil industry figures) eyes up the Bay of Nigg, a stretch of undeveloped coastline close to (and used by) the community of Torry.

They fancy it for a harbour, a commercial venture to expand Aberdeen Harbour’s capacity, but at the time little more is explained about it than that. Of course, this is a big money initiative with serious lobbying power and all the usual commercial confidentiality issues which means no-one locally really gets to know what is going on.

But the community was distinctly unhappy about losing its access to a natural bay, for very obvious reasons. By the time Barton Willmore (a powerful ‘design and planning’ consultancy) has produced a plan in 2015, Aberdeen City Council and Scottish Enterprise are on board. And yet exactly what they’re going to do with the new development still seems vague and speculative.

It claims that this development is to supplement the capacity at the existing Aberdeen Harbour for purposes such as large cruise ships, the biggest support vessels for the oil industry and potentially public ferry services. No mention is made of renewable energy – this is about oil and gas.

But it leaves big questions. The seabed geology appears to make it unsuitable for the biggest ships and crucially, the plans don’t include any serious proposal for access. It looks like a harbour you can’t get to either by road or in the ships that are supposed to be using it.

This was all underpinned by a report from Biggar Economics, the go-to consultancy for corporate PR development. In 2013 they confidently predict that expanding the harbour capacity in Aberdeen will be pressing because there will be be continual growth in demand.

They were wrong. From 2012 until 2019 there was fairly constant decline in demand – by 2017 cargo tonnage at Aberdeen had declined from 5.1 million tonnes to 3.8 million tonnes. Of course, by this point there had been the kind of cash investment in the project that no-one was going to walk away from.

It looks like a harbour you can’t get to either by road or in the ships that are supposed to be using it

Because by 2016 £250 million had been borrowed and this would need to be repaid. Quitting and moving on wasn’t an option they were likely to consider. They had made a risky gamble to build an expensive harbour and it wasn’t paying off. So berthing fees at the harbour were increased and there is widespread opinion that this just accelerated the decline. At least one significant business relocated to Montrose,

The only way they had got this far in the face of community opposition was to promise that there would be no eating into the greenbelt (part of the inexplicable reason there was no access planned sufficient to serve the extra-large ships that were projected to come). Locals had lost their bay but they were not going to lose their park.

Much takes place, including special dispensation being given to local councillors to allow them to remain involved in planning decisions despite a conflict of interests which would usually have required them to withdraw. The Scottish Government gives planning consent subject to very specific mitigation measures being included, particularly the improvement of St Fittick’s.

A Strategic Development Plan is published with no mention of any need to eat into greenbelt land. Then in 2018 this changes; Aberdeen Harbour asks for the plan to be revised to re-zone greenbelt land next to the development as “new harbour opportunity areas” – because protecting greenbelt they never asked for would be “overtly restrictive and would stifle further opportunities for development”. The local authorities involved state this revision is not necessary

By the spring of 2019 (six years since this all began) there is still no mention of an Energy Transition Zone. Then in June the incredibly powerful Sir Ian Wood floats the idea. For the first time words like ‘low carbon’ and ‘renewable energy’ appear. But no-one tells the residents of Torry anything about this until 2020.

By 2020 the project is all branded under this ETZ banner and is submitting evidence to the review of the planning framework at a national level claiming that protecting green space in urban areas (let’s say for the sake of argument St Fittick’s park) is a barrier to rapid economic growth.

Things get worse for the speculators involved in this whole show because at this point the price of oil is crashing to historically low levels. Desperation to get the land for the ETZ is growing rapidly. Now the claim is that the pandemic is making the need for economic growth even more urgent and so the need to reverse track on protecting green space even more important.

But more and more goes wrong for them – independent economic assessments are sceptical about the grand claims, BiFab loses orders for offshore (the whole development is now reliant on winning manufacturing contracts), academics raise serious concerns about the impact on the community and how ‘just’ this transition would be, medical experts warn there will be negative health impacts for the community, the Ports of Nigg And Cromarty Firth both emerge as a serious competitors, Forth Ports puts £40 million into improving its own competitiveness in the same market, the official reporter on the project is unhappy with their sketchy economic case…

Behind all of this something else is happening – in 2017 the UK Tories have announced that they are going to create free ports. The Scottish Government objects, is lobbied, changes its mind and gives £27 million to the ETZ project and appoints one of the key figures lobbying for the project to the Advisory Council which advised on the recently-published ten-year economic plan for Scotland.

ScotWind is also behind all of this and has become the prime argument in favour, an argument that had been entirely absent at the start of the whole affair. But by the end of 2021 the ETZ company (it is by now a limited company) still won’t explain its plans to the local community.

If powerful failures are bailed out over and over again, failure becomes embedded both in our democracy and in our economy

There is more – so much more. Because opposing all of this is a small, rag-tag band of local activists and community members. They have been keeping a timeline of all of these events with full references and details of everything above. It runs to 23 A4 pages and it would make you weep.

But this is where we are now – the country’s most powerful people against one of its poorest communities.

Why is all this happening? For three simple reasons. First, the rich never lose. If they take a punt on a speculative £250 million investment based on an over-optimistic economic projection and their punt goes wrong, they simply break promises and take anything they want to recover from their own failure.

Second, Scotland’s agencies are virtually all their personal play-things. They give almost unlimited access to the powerful (mostly in secret – there is no lobbying register for agencies or officials), and grant decisions and millions of pounds of funding like confetti as a result.

And third, Scotland’s politician object to all this – and then they stop objecting to it all and facilitate it. That is the space between ‘fighting for citizens’ and ‘fighting for big business’. They just need some codewords for their press releases. Those code words are ‘jobs’, ‘net zero’, ‘just transition’ and ‘recovery from Covid’.

The whole affair stinks and is why Scotland’s economy is in such a poor state. If powerful failures are bailed out over and over again, failure becomes embedded both in our democracy and in our economy. If the state helps the rich and powerful to break every promise they make, the promises are worthless (see ScotWind…). If the public rightly suspects that they are bottom of the pile every time, cynicism grows.

But that’s where we are. Welcome to Scotland. Enjoy your serfdom and for goodness sake don’t make a fuss. What will be done to you will be done to you and whether you like it or lump it is neither here nor there.

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