World-scale scandal in Aberdeen

Mike Downham explains why the fight to save St Fitticks Park is so important.

As I write this (on 22nd September) the Scottish Government Reporter has announced her decision to confirm zoning changes in the Aberdeen Local Development Plan which would allow St. Fittick’s Park to be industrialised.

St. Fittick’s Park

The 17-acre St. Fittick’s Park is owned by Aberdeen City Council and currently zoned as Greenbelt and part of the Greenspace Network. For centuries the land had been grazed by farm animals, until the 1960s when it became a rough field, much explored by children and known affectionately by the local community of Torry as “Our Fieldie”. The East Tullos burn which crosses the land had been channelised and over time became polluted with heavy metals and hydrocarbons.

About 20 years ago the Torry community came together to create a nature-based vision for a public park, with access paths and play equipment for children. £250,000 was raised to realise this vision, £168,000 by the community, with Aberdeen Council contributing the remainder. The new park was named St. Fittick’s because it includes a ruined church overlooking the North Sea at Nigg Bay. From here you can look across fields to the edge of Torry, and wonder how different this landscape must have looked when, according to legend, a religious foundation was established here by St Fittick in the mid 600s.

The story runs that St Fittick, an Irish monk, was thrown overboard by superstitious sailors when a storm blew up. He came ashore at Nigg Bay and established a church to give thanks for his salvation. Legend became history in the late 1100s  when a chapel was built on the site of today’s ruins, under the auspices of Arbroath Abbey. This chapel was consecrated in 1242 by the Bishop of St Andrews David de Bernham, and continued to serve the local community until the Reformation.

In 2012 Aberdeen City Council carried out a city-wide greenspace assessment and identified St. Fittick’s Park as a priority for nature-based improvements. The Council commissioned a feasibility study for a project with three objectives: 1) Improve water quality of East Tullos Burn, 2) Improve

biodiversity and 3) Create a public amenity. Combining Aberdeen City Council funds with funds from SEPA, Aberdeen Greenspace, and others, £365,000 was spent to complete the project in 2014. Using a nature-based design, the burn was naturalised with meanders and aquatic and riparian vegetation and reedbeds and wetlands were added to provide habitat and help clean the water of pollution. The project installed 180,000 native wetland and wildflower plants, 20,000 square metres of wildflower seeding, extensive woodland planting on the adjacent upland slopes and 800m of access paths. The community got to work, in one day alone planting 10,000 trees.

The biodiversity and aesthetic beauty of the Park have significantly improved year on year over the last ten years. The Park is now well used and well loved, with school children, families and seasoned or budding naturalists enjoying this rich and diverse landscape. Many species of birds, amphibians, invertebrates and mammals are observed and studied.

This summer an MSc graduate of Aberdeen University carried out an aquatic biodiversity and water quality study of East Tullos Burn and found statistically and biologically significant improvements in the burn as a result of the restoration project, notably an increase in species abundance and richness, an increase in the dynamics and complexity of the food web, and improvements in water quality. Additional studies have found an explosion in biodiversity since the restoration was completed, including 115 plant species, 42 breeding bird species, including eight red listed and eight amber listed, and dozens of migratory species. Invertebrate surveys found over forty species of moth, 11 butterfly species, and a range of other invertebrates. Two invertebrates found on survey were nationally threatened species.

The Torry Community

 St. Fittick’s Park is the last remaining accessible green space for a community of 10,000 people, in an area unfairly burdened by pollution, where few residents have private gardens. Before the advent of the Oil and Gas Industry, Torry was a centre for fishing, fish-processing, boat building and boat repair. Only the fish-processing remains. The old fishing village was destroyed in the 1970s to facilitate oil-related harbour developments.

An open letter from a local GP, signed by 22 doctors from across Aberdeen, points out that Torry is surrounded by two industrial harbours, an industrial estate, a railway line, a sewage works, landfill sites, a regional waste center, an incinerator that is currently being built, and one of the most polluted roads in Scotland. Much of the housing, the doctors say, is poor-quality – small, damp and affected by noise and light pollution. Residents frequently complain of high levels of exposure to antisocial behaviour. The doctors draw a comparison between the Aberdeen area of West End North, where the residents of two streets have exclusive access to 15 acres of mature riverside woodland, and the residents of the Torry community: “There is a 13-year difference in life expectancy between these two areas …The difference in healthy life expectancy is around twenty years. There is an eight-fold increase in the risk for someone in Torry being admitted to hospital with complications of chronic lung disease …Torry has a higher proportion of young people and children living in it … there is a significantly higher proportion of dependent children per household than in the rest of the city, and more often in single parent households. Child poverty is accordingly high. Access to private transport is less common in the area and access to distant green space is thus much more difficult …[Torry] also has the highest level of unemployment in the city. Median household income is more than four times greater in West End North … Rates of dental decay in Torry run at over 80% by the end of primary school. These schools have some of the lowest levels of attendance in the city. Teenage pregnancies are still more than twice the average for the city and around eight times more than for West End North. Prescriptions for antidepressant medication are more than twice those for West End North. Drug-related hospital stays are almost three-times the Scottish average, and drug overdoses are more frequent here than anywhere else in the city. There are also disproportionately high levels of domestic abuse and household fires.”

St Fittick’s Park, Torry, is being eyed for an energy transition zone business park. Photo by Kenny Elrick/DCT Media
The award-winning wetlands in St Fittick’s Park could be at risk if the ETZ goes ahead on the Torry site. Photo by Kath Flannery/DCT Media

The Threat

Now St. Fittick’s Park is under threat of industrial development, which would pave over with concrete a large part of the Park. Unbelievably, Aberdeen City Council has agreed with the Oil and Gas Industry to designate St. Fittick’s Park as an opportunity site for a new Energy Transition Zone (ETZ) in the local authority’s 2020 Proposed Local Development Plan. The Council and Energy Transition Zone Limited, the private partner in the proposed development, assert that industrial use of the park, adjacent to Aberdeen’s new South Harbour, is necessary to advance the North East’s transition to a low carbon economy. The new South Harbour itself is an affront to the biodiversity and well-being of the Torry area. As recently as one year ago, visitors to St. Fittick’s Park could walk along the shore of Nigg Bay and look out across the bay to the North Sea. Now this shore has been reduced to a placid pool blocked from the ocean by a high concrete wall.  

The Enemy

But this proposal is only ‘unbelievable’ if you continue to think, as it was reasonable to think in the past, that our elected representatives, whether in local or national governments, are serving the interests of their electorates. These days it’s the big energy corporations with their huge wealth who run things – through lobbying and bribing our politicians, and through their control of the media so that we get to be told only their version of reality. In relation to the proposed Energy Transition Zone in Aberdeen it’s the oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood who is the mover and shaker. He got control of economic development in the city in 2016 via the City Region Deal. Wood chairs the development company Opportunity North East (ONE) which is pushing the ETZ.  He has enormous influence on both Westminster and Holyrood. The Wood Review of 2014 led to the tax cuts for the Oil and Gas Industry and the principle “MaximizingEconomic Recovery of UK petroleum” in the Infrastructure Bill, 2015. Note the intentionally occult jargon of “Infrastructure Bill” and “Maximum Economic Recovery” – for which read extracting every last drop of oil and gas from the North Sea regardless of costs and climate impact. Inevitably Wood also has a huge influence on a Scottish Government which increasingly tails the Westminster Government in its energy policies.  He is the man behind the plans to industrialise the park. 

A Scam

If you look a little more closely at the purpose of the ETZ , you are told that “The project is based on using clean energy such as offshore wind, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage”, with a quote from Wood who says “We’ve got the opportunity in the north-east of Scotland to help balance the economy with a new industry, and at the same time, play a really significant role in one of the world’s greatest problems right now in global warming.” Wood said recently that it was only in the last two or three years that he realised that climate change was a serious problem.  

This is a classic example of being told only his version of the story because in reality neither hydrogen or carbon capture and storage have any chance whatsoever in reducing global warming in the necessary time-scale, nor can they be described as ‘clean energy’. For simple explanations about hydrogen energy and carbon capture and storagesee Microsoft Word – briefing 13.docx (wordpress.com) and Microsoft Word – Briefing 10.docx (wordpress.com). In reality these technologies are fake tickets to allow the oil and gas companies to continue to pay their executives and their shareholders and to remain in business. 

Collision of Crises

At St. Fittick’s Park we are seeing a head-on three-way collision between the Oil and Gas Industry, the Climate Crisis, and the Cost of Living Crisis. Neither the Climate Crisis nor the Cost of Living crisis can be sustainably resolved until extraction and burning of fossil fuels is stopped globally – see the report of a recent discussion which made this clear at North Sea Oil and Gas and the Cost of Living – Employment, Energy and Environment (scote3.net) . Stopping reliance on fossil fuels will mean different things for different countries, depending on their current energy sources. But for the UK and Scotland it’s primarily about stopping North Sea oil and gas extraction.

Collisions like this are of course not unique to Aberdeen. But what makes this one unusual is that it’s actually a four-way collision involving the Nature Crisis too, plus the visual proximity between a resource vital for Nature and a resource vital for the survival of the North Sea Oil and Gas Industry. This proximity makes obvious a choice which is often blurred by the topographical distances between the conflicting interests. Moreover in the case of St. Fittick’s Park it’s not only Nature which is being put under yet another threat which it can’t afford, but it’s also the well-being of one of the most deprived communities in Scotland. 

The Nature Crisis

The Nature Crisis is often side-lined, especially at times like the present when human beings are facing multiple crises. Exploitation of Nature by man goes back to the Garden of Eden. But for the roughly two hundred years since the crescendo of industrialisation in the West, we’ve become more and more conditioned to the arrogant idea that other species are here only for our benefit. It’s arguable that this arrogance is the most fundamental reason for the mess humanity is in now. Places like St. Fittick’s can help us shift our mind-set towards thinking in terms of every non-human species being important in its own right – not only those species which benefit humanity or those which are threatened by extinction. 

Large numbers of local community-driven initiatives, not necessarily as big or remarkable as the St. Fittick’s initiative, are more likely to make a real difference to biodiversity than top-down directives. The Scottish Government’s top-down Biodiversity Strategy Consultation closed a week ago, the Friends of St. Fittick’s Park having submitted a robust contribution. As well as telling the remarkable story of the Park’s restoration and enhanced biodiversity, the submission points out that the Scottish Government, led by the Scottish National Party for 15 years, has presided over a range of policies which have driven the current Nature emergency the Government is consulting about:

These policies have in common that they are designed to benefit wealthy people and are driven by profit. Some of these policies are entirely the Scottish Government’s responsibility, some are through collusion with the UK Government. Unless these policies are radically reformed any attempts to address the Nature Emergency will fail, sooner rather than later. The policies which have been most crippling for Nature include:

1.         Land ownership

50% of Scotland’s private rural land is owned by 432 individuals, mostly large estate-owners and industrial-scale farmers. As historian James Hunter has said: “Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic landownership system in the entire developed world”. In addition nearly all public land is controlled by central or local government, not by local communities.

2.         The sacrifice of biodiverse land for development

Weak regulation enables more and more biodiverse land to be paved over for industrial or unaffordable housing development.

3.         Farm subsidies

Huge sums of money continue to be paid to farmers, particularly large livestock farmers, to boost their profitability. Further money is paid to mostly large farmers and estate owners to improve biodiversity, but most of these people are primarily concerned with increasing their wealth, both profits and land values.  Biodiversity is not often their primary motivation.

4.         Bioenergy with carbon capture (BECCS)

The Scottish Government remains wedded to the concept of planting up huge areas of land with monoculture fast-growing trees, even to felling more diverse forests to make way for these new plantations. The plan is to burn the timber from these new forests in power stations and deal with the carbon emitted by “Carbon Capture” – a process yet to be developed and tested at scale. 

5.         North Sea oil and gas extraction

The Scottish Government is also wedded to extracting every last drop of oil and gas from the North Sea. This has a negative impact on marine species; fuels, literally, global heating; and is responsible for the current cost of living crisis.

6.         A one-nation perspective 

The Scottish Government’s current proposals for addressing the nature emergency are an example of its tendency to think in terms of only one nation. Biodiversity has to be considered internationally. We should be thinking in terms of what Scotland can do to contribute to the efforts of other nations.

If the Nature Crisis was brought centre-stage two benefits, beyond enhanced biodiversity, could follow. First, at least some of the many people who care strongly about Nature, given information which would help them to recognise that profit for the wealthy is what drives the Nature, the Climate, the Cost of Living and the Poverty crises in common, they would be more likely to join the fight to stop North Sea oil and gas extraction, which is fundamental to all four crises in the UK and Scotland.

Second, young people and children are in general more and more aware of the devastation to Nature they see around them. These are the people who will sustain the fight for a better world long after our time is up. It was because the young people of the Climate Camp movement feel an urgency to stop this devastation that they based themselves in St. Fittick’s Park this summer. When they arrived they were shown round the Park, having to take care not to tread on abundant tiny frogs.

Children in particular tend to be alert to the Nature around them. The younger the children, the closer they are to the ground to make observations that we may not notice. A few weeks ago, at an Open Day for the Strathblane Wildlife Sanctuary (a much smaller and more recent initiative than St. Fittick’s Park), it was my pleasant job to lead tours of the site. For the first tour of the day ten pre-school children and ten parents turned up at the gate. The tour was led not by me but by the children, who ran ahead to point out lady-birds, slugs and molehills. 

Our fight as adults must include ensuring that every child has the opportunity to explore wild land in their immediate neighbourhood.

If you want to join the fight to save St. Fittick’s Park by becoming a Friend of the Park please email

saint.fittick.torry@gmail.com

Follow the campaign on Facebook

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