Scotland Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

In Conversation With… Cllr James Stockan

Image: Orkney Islands Council

To kick us off it would be good if you could share your thoughts about current challenges that apply to Orkney Islands Council.

We are considering a more place-based government, possibly a single authority model. I think as an island group with only 22,000 people and we need to make sure that government is effective and it’s efficient, and so that you get the value for each pound that is spent to create the right services in some of the most challenging environments that we have in Scotland. By services joining together rather than being operated in siloes gives an opportunity for people to address the service needs across different agencies, and in Orkney we have probably more challenging geography than anywhere else. We have one main island with most of the inhabitants, but then a number of smaller Islands that are more difficult to provide services on. So for instance, for an island that has a hundred or even three hundred residents you’ve got to look to providing a fire service, an ambulance service, social services and education. For the services to be delivered on this scale it’s only part time jobs for people, so therefore how do we do something that makes it work? At the same time as these services being provided by government, people need to be trained and everybody being trained for everything seems a bit crazy. So if we can gather teams together, we can make better provision on the ground. Also the “back office” comes together that means we’ll be able to use the resource more effectively to provide the services which are becoming more challenging year-on-year and disproportionately so in remote and rural places, and the islands are at the far end of that pendulum.

Readers will be interested in understanding why Orkney Islands Council might look north to the Arctic and what benefits you think that would bring.

Orkney was the historic gateway to the Arctic, from the centuries of Norse rule to the Russian convoys in the Second World War and everything in between. Travellers and traders used our islands more than anywhere else as the last port of call going both East and West to the Arctic. The now famous explorer John Rae from Orkney discovered and mapped the last stretch of the North West passage so in these days of Brexit uncertainties it is time for us to look to the past to shape our future.

Kirkwall is now the busiest cruise port in Scotland with its new Northern routes so I believe the time is ripe to promote Scapa Flow, the second largest natural harbour in the world as a cargo Transhipment Terminal. This would support the new Arctic Shipping routes as the icecap melts. Many of the countries of the world are now looking to this new much shorter shipping route as a distinct possibility for world trade.

This is not our only interest as we have so much to align us with our Nordic and Arctic neighbours. Our culture, our remoteness, our climate challenge and of course our keen interest in the blue economy. I feel our council has a better fit with this agenda than that of urban Scotland.

It’s time to built partnerships with the Nordic and Arctic countries for future generations the opportunities seem endless and Orkney Island Council is central to this approach.

What is the thinking behind the energy projects that you’re leading in Orkney and especially how they might generate income and also perhaps tackle fuel poverty?

Energy is a really interesting question because it’s a commodity where things are changing fast. Generation used to be for electricity at the source and fuel was a carbon-based product that was tankered around the country and came from the central refinery and went out around the country. With renewable energy, the resource is in the periphery, so not at the centre for the greatest numbers. Around Orkney, we have several terawatts of power in tidal and wind and wave. For us to capture that energy, to commercialise production particularly marine energy, is a place that we lead in the world. There is no location that has had as many devices or opportunities, but not yet have we come to real commercialisation. If the UK government drops the ball on this one, it will be exactly the same position that we had with wind energy, which in the 1980s we had the first grid connected three megawatt wind turbine, and the UK at the time didn’t support it further, and all of that business went, and the development of the industrialisation of the wind happened on continental Europe, particularly Denmark and Germany. We must not let that happen to marine energy. We mustn’t lose faith just at this critical stage. So for us in Orkney we’ve experimented and we’ve seen the world come to our door.

Beyond that, the council itself is now looking to invest in wind so that we can realise our ambition to become a carbon neutral island. That’s a real challenge because we use more diesel and fuel oil than anywhere else because our base industries are farming [and] fishing. We’ve got ferries that have heavy energy usage. Our challenge is probably greater per capita than anywhere else; we are now coming into a place that we would like to engage with others building upon what we’re already doing. We have a number of projects on the go where we’re already looking at using extra capacity, we’ve got the wind from curtailed energy and we’re developing a hydrogen plants, running cars on hydrogen, running vans on hydrogen, heating schools with hydrogen and we’re looking at putting hydrogen into ferries in the first instance. The big trick with all types of renewable energy is to manage to get the bottom covering the intermittency, so energy storage is vital.

We now have a project coming forward that is just being funded by Innovate UK, which is a £28 million project, called the reflex project which is looking at making a virtual power plant in order to control storage in homes and in cars against the supply through the grid. Taking that idea also into new opportunities e.g. other types of transport and looking at smart ways to do things. We want to set ourselves up as that real testbed, that innovative place, that proving place, and some people call it the living lab. We want to be a place for people to come and say “if it’ll work in Orkney, it can work anywhere,” because you’re working in the extreme, not in the easy space and we’re setting up a research and innovation campus for people to come and actually start to do these things with us. Along with that, the council’s looking to produce energy itself, to be a developer in order to benefit from some of the wind energy production so that we can feed into the local community that benefit from the resource that’s on our doorstep. The very wind that causes you to have fuel poverty could be an enabler to make sure that you benefit in some other way and also to compensate and to change that dynamic into being more energy efficient.

What is your number one personal priority for the next 12 months or so?

I suppose there are a number of things in that basket. The tectonic plates of British politics is shifting, and knowing how Orkney falls out from that is a really interesting concept. We have many opportunities that other places don’t have. We have the chance to become an autonomous island group, a crown dependency, a crown protectorate for example. We can play an important part of whatever comes along, if you look to the past we were parts of other things, so now where do we fall? One of my personal priorities is to say to our community is, looking at these opportunities, where do you want to be? What are your hopes for the future and who will support our communities to best to meet our aspirations? So that is the question that will be asked and that’s a personal priority that I don’t have the answers [for], and I will look forward to listening to our people.