September 9, 2013 12:02 am

Devolved power viewed as route to boost islands’ economic life

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Scotland’s northern Orkney Islands hardly look a likely hotbed of political discontent. The population is growing, local harbours are studded with expensive new piers; summer tourists fill the hotels, and the fields are well stocked with cattle fattening on the lush grass.

Yet when it comes to a rumbling industrial dispute affecting local ferries, the lifeblood of the archipelago, councillor James Stockan is scathing about the performance of “remote” political leaders hundreds of kilometres to the south.

“We are being treated very, very, very unfairly by the Scottish Government,” says Mr Stockan, who is chair of the council’s development and infrastructure committee.

Such dissatisfaction has more than local implications. Orkney has joined with the Shetland islands further north and the Western Isles in a push for more devolved powers and policy support – a campaign that comes against the backdrop of Scotland’s referendum next year on whether to leave the UK. Supporters say devolution of powers to the islands could help boost their economies and attract investment by allowing more flexible policy making that would create new business opportunities in areas such as renewable energy.

A key goal of Orkney is to wrest control of the seabed around the islands from the Crown Estate, a creation of the UK Parliament that manages and owns almost all of Britain’s seabed out to the 12 nautical mile territorial limit as well as about half of the nation’s foreshore. Although such assets have long held relatively marginal economic importance, the development of offshore wind energy – plus tide and wave machines being tested in Orkney – make the seabed a strategic resource.

While the Crown Estate says promoting renewable energy is a “key component” of its approach, some developers say development of the industry might be smoother if local authorities controlled access and stood to benefit directly from any resulting income.

Steven Heddle, convener of the Orkney council and a leading figure in the devolution push, cites the construction of millions of pounds of harbour facilities, funded largely out of the local authority’s oil fund, as an example of effective local decision-making.

The new piers have helped smooth the deployment of new devices being tested at Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre, one of the world’s most important proving grounds for tidal and wave power, Mr Heddle says.

“We are taking a lot of the heat off the Scottish and UK governments by making the investment ourselves,” he says, but notes that Orkney’s ability to self-fund such infrastructure will dwindle as North Sea oil revenues decline.

Another key demand of the islands’ devolution campaign is for faster action to improve electrical transmission connections with the rest of the UK grid in order to allow greater exploitation of local wind and marine energy. Development of wind power on Orkney, famous for its stiff breezes, is constrained by delays in upgrading cables to the mainland.

Some people in Orkney are also unhappy with the pace of telecoms development. While operators roll out services based on new 4G technology elsewhere in the UK, most islanders remain well beyond the range of a 3G signal.

Then there are the ferries. Councillor Stockan, who praises the Scottish government for its support on renewables, says his anger at Edinburgh over ferries stems from a dispute centred on what he sees as unequal treatment of Orkney routes.

Such complaints tie into widespread suspicions in Orkney – a Liberal Democrat stronghold – that the ruling Scottish National Party favours other areas such as the Western Isles where it is more politically competitive.

SNP politicians dismiss suggestions of favouritism and the Scottish government has stressed that, despite UK-imposed funding constraints, it is spending heavily to ensure reliable ferry links with Orkney and other areas.

But resentment of the Western Isles raises questions about whether the island groups, which have highly distinct local cultures and economic interests, can remain united in their devolution push.

Mr Heddle, the council convener, says the islands have plenty of shared interests to sustain the campaign – and that the initial response it has won from Edinburgh and London policy makers is encouraging.

Many Orcadians agree it would be wrong to waste the opportunity provided by the independence referendum to challenge the government status quo.

Norman Brass, a garage proprietor in the Orkney harbour town Stromness, says: “If we can get more power up here, then that will be great . . . and now’s the time to negotiate.”

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