In the transition from oil, local voices need to be heard

As a teenager I remember the harbor and the fish market with its rows of deep sea trawlers as far as the eye can see. The position as a fish market porter was very popular and was often passed on within families. Harry Yorsten, an international player and the ‘Golden Boy’ of Aberdeen’s 1950s champions team, quit the game to become a porter.

I accompanied my engineer father to the bottom of the Rubislaw Quarry, 140 meters deep and the source of granite for buildings around the world. A school field trip took me to the Crombie Textile Mill, which made uniforms for Confederate troops during the American Civil War. My uncle worked at the Hall Russell shipyard all his life and several friends found work at one of the local paper mills.

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What’s the common factor in this smug walk down memory lane? Quite simply: all of these industries have hit the wall. To be fair, by the 1960s some were already on the slippery slope. The gradual decline of these traditional industries was accelerated by the discovery of North Sea oil and the city’s identification as ‘Europe’s oil capital’. Those of us who weren’t familiar with the industry saw this with mixed feelings. We saw it for what it was: a mixed blessing.

This judgment is confirmed by a recent study by researchers at the University of Aberdeen entitled Just Transition for Workers and Communities in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. The report describes both the disadvantages and advantages of the so-called oil capital. It also looks to the future and the next challenge the region faces: the transition from the current unhealthy reliance on a single industry.

Benefits identified in Just Transition include reversing population decline as workers have moved to the area from other areas and countries. Relatively high wages both onshore and offshore remain a draw. In our cul-de-sac of five houses, we’re the only residents not connected to the oil business. Other benefits included below-average unemployment rates. All good things for those ‘in the oil’, but as late as 1988 wages for non-oil workers remained ‘well below the UK average’.

The scientists question whether the “oil capital” status brings any net benefit to local workers and communities. Any “leakage” largely bypassed local people and their communities, finding its way to central governments instead. The oil revenues camouflaged the disastrous British economic policies of the Thatcher years. Proceeds spent north of the border largely benefited the Central Belt.

Precious little found its way back in terms of foreign investment. A 2015 publication noted that oil-related infrastructure costs were “almost entirely covered by our local rates and council taxes.” In 1982, the area even lost its status as a development area, which was not restored even when oil prices collapsed in 1986. Today the area continues to enjoy the least generous financial settlements from the Scottish Government.

Oil sounded the death knell for already ailing traditional industries. Excessive costs discouraged non-oil companies from relocating to the region. The local economy increasingly became a one-trick pony. The arrival of the “big oil” crowded out many smaller local businesses, meaning important economic decisions were made outside the region. Multinational profits have done little to help Scotland, and the North East in particular.

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In addition, locals have been squeezed out of the housing market. For a time only southern England had higher house prices. Superficial affluence camouflaged growing social and economic inequalities and pockets of severe deprivation. In 2016, around 23% of the city’s households lived in energy poverty.

As the title suggests, Just Transitions looks to the future of the post-spill Northeast. The Scottish Government’s Joint Transition Fund is a step in the right direction. However, next time we should give more consideration to fairness, local rights, concerns and aspirations. In the transition from oil, local voices need to be heard

Grace Reader

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