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Letters / On ownership, apathy and autonomy

In this letter I’ll suggest that in Shetland we should be wary of welcoming energy projects (wind, hydrogen & battery energy storage systems) which are wholly owned by external companies, that more local ownership of our energy sector is possible, and that a concerted political push for more local powers is needed.

As Daniel Gear outlined in December, Shetland’s strategic advantages (our location, wind resource, infrastructure and workforce) are not going anywhere: our intrinsic advantage in this regard is amply demonstrated by the current level of interest from international energy companies.

Whilst the desire for economic development in Shetland and in particular places like the North Mainland makes sense, our ambition and our definition of success should extend beyond helping big businesses to just come here and build something. Inward investment of that sort may mean some jobs and a trickle of community benefit, but it will also likely mean disproportionate and unequitable extraction of our most valuable resources.

In Shetland we need to own a sizeable chunk of future energy projects – or find some other novel means of realising significant value from them – or we won’t be able to provide future generations with the same opportunities we currently enjoy. Shetland is not a cheap place to run: we’re fortunate in being able to maintain good social care, recreation and arts facilities, thanks to the foresight and determination of previous political leaders. Much of that is now at risk.

Our neighbours in Faroe, Iceland or Norway all have a significant level of municipal or state ownership in their energy sectors, so that local communities share in the profits from energy projects. It is worth asking why we don’t.

Perhaps the main reason is the UK Government’s wholesale privatisation of energy, which ironically has led to much of the sector now being owned by fully- or partly-state-owned companies from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and other countries. In that sense, there is actually a high degree of public ownership in the UK energy sector: it’s just not our public doing the owning.

It’s also true that the clout of Scottish local authorities has declined (see the Jimmy Reid Foundation report The Silent Crisis). The comparisons with empowered local authorities elsewhere in Europe – a recurring theme in Lesley Riddoch’s excellent films on Denmark, Estonia, Faroe, Iceland and Norway – are a reminder of how much better we could be doing.

Recent moves toward ‘community wealth building’ would seem to represent a positive policy shift: a more ambitious approach than mere ‘community benefit’ payments and one that recognises that a just transition away from our reliance on oil and gas will mean recognising the needs and rights of communities disproportionately affected by the energy transition.
The question remains: are we making the most of the hand we’ve been dealt?

The recently reported apathy towards local politics in Shetland is at least partly down to the fact that our politics is so non-political: tending more towards bureaucracy than democracy at times. To take the most obvious and pressing example, the SIC appears to lack a position on what is an inherently political question: who should own and develop the natural resources in this community? Going with the flow of the current economic orthodoxy risks a scale and pace of energy developments that the majority of folk living here won’t want, while the profits from those projects benefit citizens and shareholders from elsewhere.

As Daniel Gear’s piece outlined, there are specific and achievable policy positions the SIC could pursue to secure more ownership and control over our energy sector. Surely a large majority of Shetland residents would agree that we (or our representatives) should decide the scale and pace of energy developments here, and that energy projects in Shetland should include material ownership stakes for this community.

If increased autonomy for Shetland means anything, it should mean more control over our how we harness our resources. If others are extracting the opportunities and virtually all the profits, then Shetland is missing out.

Tom Wills
Bressay


Tom Wills is development director at Lerwick-based consultancy firm Voar Energy. This contribution has also been published at Tom’s Substack here.

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