Dear Orkney News,
The recent announcement by Highlands and Airports Limited (HIAL) that they have cancelled the purchase element of the remote air traffic control system project is welcome, but it still leaves the question of how they dug themselves into such a deep hole. I believe that this is a problem caused by how arms-length government agencies are set up, and to whom they are accountable.
In the case of HIAL, it is owned by the Scottish Government, and is answerable to the transport minister. For a long while, HIAL would not recognise any problems with their plans, claiming falsely that there was no alternative to the remote ATC system plans. The Scottish government transport minister repeatedly gave full support to HIAL even though the Islands Community Impact Assessment (ICIA) which HIAL were forced to carry out through public and political pressure, found that the plans would be damaging to the communities served by HIAL. Why would HIAL continue in this vein for so long? Well, HIAL along with CalMac and other bodies is owned by the Scottish government and acts as instructed by the government.
This is not solely a Scottish problem. In January 2020 I wrote to Kwasi Kwarteng MP, the minister at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) concerning Ofgem blocking plans by SSEN to install new electricity transmission cables across the Pentland Firth. I pointed out that the new cables would have a huge impact in developing the renewable energy ecosystem within Orkney, thereby enhancing the economic life and wellbeing of Orcadians. The response from BEIS was that this was rightly a decision for Ofgem, and that the UK government had full confidence in Ofgem, as the independent energy regulator, to appropriately execute its expert judgement.
HIAL and Ofgem are linked by being owned by, and operating within the guidelines set out by government, but at the same time governments hide from responsibility by claiming that these bodies are independent. They are not. Such government owned entities don’t sneeze without reference to their political masters. The upshot is that both politicians and the organisations that they oversee are shielded from public scrutiny and control, by passing the parcel of accountability.
My dearest wish is that Scotland will regain the status of an independent nation, but I cannot see the point of regaining independence only to be a slightly nicer version of the current United Kingdom, with the same lack of accountability.
From the moment that the Orkney Greens group was formed in the autumn of 2014, our core aim has been to increase the accountability of all sectors of government and public bodies. The 2017 election of Steve Sankey as a Scottish Green Party councillor in Orkney had a significance which many, including the leadership of the Scottish Greens did not recognise immediately. Steve broke the cosy system of “Independent” councillors in Orkney, which had allowed a culture of secrecy and avoiding public accountability to prosper unchecked. The hard work, application and accessibility delivered by Steve has given the Orkney Greens a strong foundation to build on for the future as we prepare to contest the Council elections in May this year.
My personal aim is that the governance structure of Scotland is overhauled with our Community Councils gaining the responsibilities and funding that would be normal in countries like Norway. It is way past time that we reversed the power structures of our nation, so that local communities have true control of how our communities function, with all public bodies fully answerable for their actions, or lack thereof.
Yours, Jon Southerington, Orkney