20th November 2017

Shetland: a model for the future

, by , in Shetland Life

As tidal, wave and offshore wind power generation become ever more serious options for Shetland’s seas, we could lose control over their development. But, says Kate Johnson, of Heriot Watt University’s International Centre for Island Technology,  Shetland already offers a model of how local control could benefit communities throughout the UK.

Jo Grimond was very much a man for his time when he stood up in the House of Commons in April 1973 and moved the second reading of the Zetland County Council Bill, a private members bill. He was strongly backed by the whole of the Council and especially by the convenor, George Blance, and the Chief Executive of the future SIC, Ian Clark. Between them they had taken on the might of the oil industry and the government. They were to win. The Zetland County Council Act 1974 gave the new Shetland Islands Council extraordinary powers over the seas around Shetland. They are powers which, in the whole of the UK, remain unique to Shetland to this day. They fall into three main headings. First, SIC won special powers of compulsory purchase relating to Sullom Voe; second SIC were made the harbour authority for the whole of the territorial sea around Shetland (then 3 miles, now 12 miles); third, SIC were granted certain financial powers to borrow, invest and participate in business. These were the foundation for successful negotiations with the oil industry over the terms and benefits of their presence in the islands. Today, the pressure for economic development of marine resources is greater than ever. Marine renewables and aquaculture are making unprecedented demands for permanent installations in coastal waters. The ZCC Act could be a model for coastal governance everywhere in the UK. The similarities have been noted by bodies like the industry/government Offshore Valuation Group: “We find ourselves … [with marine renewables in 2012]… in a comparable position to that of the nascent UK oil and gas industry in the 1970s.”  In fact, marine governance is moving in the opposite direction in 2013. Central government control advised by local forums is taking precedence over delegation of powers. What has changed in the thinking?

Jo carried most of Parliament with him in 1973 arguing that Shetland was special and that the community had a right to share in the profits of oil. He described the general purpose of the Bill “…to ensure that the facilities required in connection with the discovery of oil off the coast of Shetland should be provided in an orderly, coordinated and effective manner…”. He said that the Shetland situation is special because of the impact on a unique island community. He argued that protection was needed and that there should be arrangements “…for the retention in the islands of a fair share of the income which will arise from these [oil] discoveries.” He referred to a way of life that “…certainly is distinctive and humane in scale…becoming very much valued in a world which has seen the squalor which arises from forcing human beings into great conurbations.

There was opposition. Some MPs argued that a small Council like Shetland could not possibly take on these responsibilities. They would be ‘overwhelmed’, it was argued. Others agreed with the Bill but argued that it should apply to the whole of the UK and not just to Shetland. Government ministers objected strongly to the financial provisions. In the end, however, the Bill was carried more or less intact. The full debate is worth a read and can be found in Hansard [http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1973/apr/30/zetland-county-council-bill].

In June this year, a partnership led by Marine Scotland hope to install scientific equipment at Sumburgh Head to measure ocean currents across the Fair Isle Gap. It is called the Brahan HF Radar pilot project and for six months it will gather data about the flows of Atlantic water into the North Sea. In real time it will capture a picture of ocean currents for at least 100 miles out to sea and deliver the data to the internet with full public access. Heriot-Watt University is a member of the partnership and for us we see it as shining a light on the seas. It is just one example of many new technologies helping to reveal the mysteries of the oceans. However, mystery remains and on a scale of one to ten (where ten is complete knowledge) we are probably hovering around about ‘one’, having hovered a little above zero for most of history. Lighthouse sites are used for the Brahan radar (a sister station will be sited in North Ronaldsay) because of the range of their view and the availability of power and communications. It seems apt that lighthouse sites make this new contribution to ocean research and marine safety – a link with their past. This is the first installation of this type of radar in the UK but it is already widely deployed around the coasts of the United States.

Increasing knowledge and understanding of marine systems helps to identify what is important in their function. It protects against thoughtless and systematic damage like the dumping of waste. At the same time knowledge reveals resources of economic value and developing technologies help to exploit them. The ambition to create jobs and economic growth from marine resources is strong. Last year the European Commission published a ‘Blue Growth’ strategy anticipating a future with a focus on energy and food security from the seas – marine renewables and large scale aquaculture. These uses differ from our past experience because they require permanent fixed installations occupying vast areas of sea. The planned Dogger Bank offshore wind farm in the North Sea could produce up to 9GW of electricity and occupy several thousand square kilometres of ocean. Traditional uses such as shipping and fishing are mobile and present no fixed obstacle to the right of free navigation. Even offshore oil installations present a relatively small footprint usually out of sight of land. In normal use oil rigs represent a relatively small environmental impact in sharp contrast to their risk of catastrophic damage if they go wrong. Marine renewables offer little risk of catastrophe but their day to day impact is high because of their physical scale and proximity to the coast.

With the immediate prospect of large scale occupation of marine space, society is faced with important and urgent decisions about how to govern and manage the seas. The long held concept of freedom of the seas as a commons is changing fast. Old rights will have to be curtailed and new rights created if investment in emergent marine industries is to prosper. Who is to make these decisions? How will coastal communities be protected and share in the potential benefits? Huge changes have already taken place. Only fifty years ago most maritime countries worked with sovereign rights over a territorial sea of about three miles. Increasing pressure for fishing and mineral rights led to United Nations action and the definition of international and national jurisdictions over all the seas. Each coastal state now has rights to a twelve mile territorial sea and a two hundred mile exclusive economic zone. A process of international jurisdiction is defined for the ‘high seas’ beyond two hundred miles. Even more recently, in the last decade, the development of offshore marine energy has placed a focus on planning in the coastal zone.

Land based planning extends only to the low water mark. It is a system made possible by land ownership, accurate boundaries and human settlement. The seas have long been thought to be undevelopable and therefore unplannable. The historical perspective is of space incapable of being tamed and the antithesis of modern developable land space. Offshore oil began to challenge this perspective but it is marine renewables and aquaculture in particular which have provided the catalyst for a complete re-think. Awarding exclusive development rights in marine space  raises all sorts of questions about jurisdiction, ownership, rights and benefits. Who decides between competing claims and potential conflicts between activities, conservation and questions of scenic importance? Marine spatial planning and development consent are two of the important provisions of the Marine Scotland Act 2010 but these tend towards central government control. Shetland has a say here as a result of the ZCC Act. No development can take place in Shetland waters without a works licence from the SIC. There are local powers which give a basis for negotiation. These are powers which exist nowhere else in the UK although many coastal communities, if not most, could reasonably repeat the case made by Jo Grimond.

Stromness is an exciting place these days. It is hard not to be enthused by the effort and ingenuity going into the research and testing of wave and tidal energy devices. With the test centre at EMEC (European Marine Energy Centre), Orkney has become the world leader in these disciplines. Many weird and wonderful machines are becoming a familiar sight as they are towed in and out to the wave and tidal test beds just off the coast. These in turn have been the catalyst for an unprecedented level of marine environmental research. However these devices are in ones and twos. Over a thousand will need to be moored or founded in large near shore arrays to meet the Scottish government target of 1.6GW installed generating capacity in Orkney waters by 2020. Several hundred are planned to be fixed under the scenic west coast cliffs just a few hundred metres from shore. Although these are marine devices, much of their operation crosses the sea/land boundary in the form of onshore generating stations and sub-stations. Fishermen and some individuals are worried but a real public debate about the costs and benefits to the community has not been ignited. Marine planning and consenting powers are held with central government and the questions of delegated powers have not surfaced to any great degree. The local authorities and the rest of us have to be content with a promise of ‘consultation’.

These are different times to the 1970s and these are different industries to offshore oil. Private sector instruments are now used to achieve public policy aims in preference to state intervention. Renewables depend on public subsidy for their existence. However, the argument put forward by Jo Grimond stands up today. Whether or not it is offshore oil or marine renewables, or something else not yet invented, is not the point. We, as a society, are certainly going to make enormously more use of our marine resources and marine space in the future. But, we are writing the rules today. Society has much to gain but we all as individuals and communities have something to lose. We lose the individual and community rights to the open seas as a marine commons. We should not let them go lightly, or cheaply.