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Lobbying: Is Orkney’s future being determined by a few ?

What is the future for Orkney’s Farming and Fishing sectors? Where is Orkney’s journey with Tourism leading to? In this opinion piece I examine our traditional sectors and the powerful lobbying influence of the new ones on our decision makers.

I start this article feeling deeply concerned about the future for Orkney’s fabulous Farming and Fishing sectors. These are the traditional economic sources in our islands and the providers of the food and drink we rely upon. Not just locally for our own sustenance, and for the production of Orkney foodstuffs , but onwards, as exports of the quality Orkney brand.

As Brexit bites in even harder to both Farming and Fishing with its implications to losing the largest free trade market in the world, that could be manageable. But what we have seen increasingly over the years is a disregard for this sector, our lifeblood, with policy makers in Orkney. I concede that they do appreciate that the Orkney brand is one of quality and that it should be promoted but decisions are being taken that threaten the ability of our farmers and fishermen to do what they have been doing for generations.

What we have to address is the role of lobbying – lobbying of councillors and officials and the manipulation of the media with attempts to control it.

What is lobbying?

Lobbying’ (also ‘lobby’) is a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions made by the government by individuals or more usually by lobby groups; it includes all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents, or organized groups.

Lobbying

Lobbying can be a good thing: charities, support groups, community groups etc can present their concerns or views to decision makers in a coherent and effective way. They can get their point across to elected politicians who might not be in touch with all the facts or not be totally informed about the consequences of policies they are discussing.

It can, however, when used by a powerful sector or organisation , skew decision making and influence politicians beyond what is reasonable.

In Orkney over the most recent years the Renewables and Cruise Ship industry has had an ever increasing say in what happens in our islands, to such an extent that the concerns of other sectors – farming, fishing, responsible tourism – is being drowned out. Many individuals don’t want to raise their worries about their genuine concerns because as individuals they feel they do not have a voice and that they simply won’t be listened to.

I have a history with the Renewables sector going back over 45 years so I’m very much in favour of developing our potential for green energy and making this affordable locally. But I recognise that some of the large scale developments on the Orkney horizon – and I refer most recently to the idea of transforming Scapa Flow into a reclamation centre for defunct large scale engineering structures – has serious implications for the marine environment and our fishing sector.

Since the late 1950’s tourism in Orkney has been important. It costs individual visitors a lot to get to our islands and for some it is a trip of a lifetime. I have met people in their 80s and 90s who have finally managed to take a holiday in Orkney – often a birthday gift from family. These visitors stay locally, spending their savings in our smaller shops and buying those unique gifts from the islands. Some come across on the day trip from John O’Groats and spend a day here, loving it so much they decide to return for a longer holiday. And at the start of the cruise ships coming, when there were but a few, even that was manageable.

We’re in the grips of a pandemic now. Cases are rising in Orkney and when people have to isolate it can affect their workplaces too. Local shops and businesses have to close for a short time. That’s a loss of trading. That’s a loss to islanders who shop local. The decision to resume cruise ship arrivals into Orkney, during a pandemic, might have some reasonableness about it when the visitors were kept in bubbles. Suddenly that protection to both islanders and passengers was removed – decision makers said this is what people wanted. How did they know what people wanted? They would know what the Cruise Ship sector wanted because they were busy lobbying for this.

Our farming sector in Orkney used to be seen as the pride of the islands. And rightly so. How did such an important sector find itself with no abattoir ? And because of that it lost the protected name status for Orkney Beef and Lamb before we even left the EU. How did a sector which has shaped the very landscape around us, which is praised around the world for producing quality beef and lamb, find itself so under supported by our local council?

Lobbying does not confine itself to decision makers it also makes its way into the media. Journalists receive Press Releases, invites to events etc, but it is the role of those reporting on the events or news items that they scrutinise them and do not merely accept it all at face value. When pressure is put on the media, especially locally where they are more vulnerable, that is deeply worrying. Reporters are doing their job when they ask questions of decision makers and those elected to represent the community. There is no place for threats to journalists. If you are living in a healthy democracy why is that even happening? What have decision makers got to hide when they try to suppress the public getting the facts?

Orkney is at a crossroads. Until we get balance into decision making. Until we have a council that properly consults and engages with all sectors in the islands, then decisions will be driven by those who can exert the most powerful influence through lobbying. Today that is not farmers, fishermen and local holiday businesses. I urge our elected councillors to scrutinise the plans and policies put before them and ask themselves if those have been unduly influenced by powerful, effective lobbying. And to the media in Orkney – keep asking the questions and reporting with honesty.

Fiona Grahame

photo B Bell

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