The transition to renewable energy is making headlines – at last.
And the First Minister has promised it will be a ‘Just Transition, where no one is left behind.’
But what does that mean if one of Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods must sacrifice its last open space for a green flagship project that could be sited elsewhere?
And what does it mean for democracy if that project has won £26 million from the Scottish Government (with almost matching funds from Whitehall) before it’s even applied for planning permission and the detailed scrutiny that should bring?
Is the transition from fossil fuel to green energy set to run roughshod over local people?
The focus for this dilemma is Torry in Aberdeen, one of the 500 most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland with a life expectancy 12 years shorter than Aberdeen’s leafy suburbs. According to one local, ‘we are the city’s sacrifice zone – any unwelcome development comes here.’
In 1971 the original fishing village was demolished to make way for oil developments. A sewage treatment works appeared in 2002 and two landfill sites containing toxic waste were developed just behind. In 2016, the council approved plans for a new harbour beside the sewage works and last year building also began on an incinerator.
So, Torry is encircled by heavy industry, dealing with Stonehaven’s sewage and Moray’s rubbish.
But at its centre, there is one wee gem – St Fittick’s Community Park.
Seven years ago, this neglected waste ground – owned by the council – was transformed into a multi award winning greenspace with a meandering burn, wetlands, woodlands, wildflower meadow, paths and reed beds to stop flooding and filter out contaminants like arsenic, which still wash down from neighbouring industrial estates.
The park was a particularly precious greenspace during the pandemic and since the council promised it was sacrosanct – a tiny, formal bit of mitigation for the harbour development – the future seemed secure.
But now it seems all bets are off.
St Fittick’s Park was rezoned for development as an industrial site in the council’s new Development Plan last year – without warning and mid-pandemic. An accompanying report said nothing of environmental significance was found there.
About the same time, oil magnet Sir Ian Wood announced plans for an ambitious energy transition zone (ETZ) with St Fittick’s Park as its favoured location. He says the shovel-ready project has ‘a comprehensive business case supported and endorsed by a wide range of private and public sector partners, to create 2,500 direct jobs, a further 10,000 energy transition-related jobs across the region and £400 million of added value.’
Impressive enough to have attracted almost £50 million in government funding so that Westminster and Holyrood can both claim credit for kickstarting Aberdeen’s long overdue shift away from fossil fuel dependency.
But no-one in Torry has seen this comprehensive business plan – despite freedom of information requests. ETZ Ltd say there’ll be ‘tangible community benefit in terms of jobs, green civic space and facilities’ if the transition zone goes ahead and there’ll be consultation ‘especially with the Torry Locality Partnership.’ As a council-led group it may be less likely to object than the entirely voluntary and local Friends of St Fitticks Park (Friends of SFP). The Friends do back the ETZ in principle but want it located on an adjacent brownfield site which also has waterside access, more space for assembling offshore wind turbines and was listed as another viable alternative location in a 2020 council feasibility plan. Local Green MSP Maggie Chapman and Labour’s Mercedes Villalba back the alternative location. Indeed, Ms Chapman wants the Scottish Government’s £26million made contingent on ETZ Ltd choosing this brownfield site.
Why isn’t that possible?
The Scottish Government says; ‘the location of the ETZ is primarily a matter for … Aberdeen City Council as planning authority.’
Aberdeen Council say; ‘This isn’t a council project and questions should really be put to ETZ Ltd.’
And ETZ Ltd won’t answer that question.
It’s a classic bit of buck passing.
So, the 10 thousand residents of Torry see powerful forces amassing before them and suspect this is a done deal. Aberdeen’s local development plan is currently with a Scottish Government reporter and could take up to a year to emerge. By which time COP 26 and the eagerness to have progress in energy transition will make the developer’s preferred location almost impossible to change.
But even if locals have to stop the ETZ in its tracks, they are determined to fight the removal of their last green space now.
According to Lesley-Anne Mulholland from FSFP “For decades Torry has been a dumping ground. There’s a great community, but poor health, low morale and high unemployment. We fought all the previous developments dumped on us here – now we’re determined to be heard.”
The group is consulting on plans for a community buyout of St Fittick’s Park, even though they should be able to simply request a transfer of the council-owned land under 2015 Community Empowerment legislation. Such is the current lack of trust in the council, few Torry folk believe such a request would be quickly or seriously entertained.
It seems David is fighting a veritable tag team of Goliaths.
All of which raises big questions.
For Aberdeen Council – why is the park in jeopardy when they promised to keep it intact? How can they guarantee Torry won’t flood with contaminated water if the natural flood prevention system in St Fittick’s Park disappears? With no alternative green space left, what can they offer locals in mitigation for the ETZ? Do councillors accept poor air quality is a large factor in Torry’s high premature mortality rate? If so, why zone yet more heavy industry there? Would the council cooperate with a community request to transfer the park? And since it’s a stopover point for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, does no-one see an irony in flattening one of Aberdeen’s most biodiverse locations, against the will of its people, to achieve a ‘Just Transition’?
Finally, for the Scottish Government, what can that phrase possibly mean if communities like Torry are just elbowed out of the way?

SAS Volunteer

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