Friday, 18 December 2015

Orkney: Green and top of the class

Saab 340 at Kirkwall
Bleak Midwinter
Electric buses for the 10 minute airport shuttle
December Red Admiral in Office
St Magnus cathedral

Dusk at 3:15pm

My last work trip of the year was to Orkney, the day it was declared the best place to live in Scotland for the third year running according to the Lloyds bank, although I do have some doubts about the methodology. The unpredictability of the flights to the islands persuaded me to fly early in the day. Unfortunately the closure of the Forth Road bridge had diverted all the Fife vehicles onto the M9 from via the Clackmannanshire bridge. It meant that traffic was reduced to a crawl at times and I was relieved that I had started extra early to arrive at Edinburgh airport in time for the flight. 

It was on time and flying conditions were pretty reasonable although the cloud cover prevented me enjoying the slice of geography that lies beneath the flight path. The Saab 340 plane with its distinctive engine whine and the rattles from almost 30 years service has a charm that veils its age but its reliability is now in question and there seem no obvious replacements for this plane, which was designed to cope with cross winds, but has not been built since 1999.

Kirkwall airport is a haven of peace compared to most airports and I was soon on the Orkney Green all electric bus to the centre of Kirkwall and my B&B. I called into the Council offices to discuss my brief for the following day and was surprised to discover a red admiral butterfly flitting round the customer centre. Apparently this has happened for the last couple of years and with the December temperature at 13ÂșC there was a summer feel right down to the steady soft rain, however by 2pm the foreboding darkness suggested otherwise. 

I prepared for my session in the afternoon and then went to see friends in the evening. It was great to catch up with the family after four years and our conversations were multi layered as we reprised and fast forwarded our lives. A hearty meal in a nearby hotel followed and I was well lubricated as I travelled back to Kirkwall by taxi. I discussed the reasons why Orkney was top place to live with the taxi driver and the local folk I came into contact with. The consensus was that it was about people, communities, good quality of services and absence of rapacious commercial practices. Then there was lots of space, freedom from restrictions, excellent local produce and no shortage of housing or jobs.

The next day was the hard reality of discussing how to cope with the Scottish budget, which had grabbed another 4% from the Council coffers. The Scottish Government had elected to implement the austerity measures handed down from Westminster and not to use their new powers to alleviate the damage to local services. How many lost jobs would this mean, what facilities would need to close and how could they square strategic decisions with the natural desire of local councillors to protect their services? 

It is the problem everywhere that I have been this year and I despair at the time and effort that goes into the liquidation of local services instead of focusing on how to inspire and deliver new and better services and identify new sources of investment. At least Orkney has access to new funding streams from marine activities, tourism and green activities that seem to be universally embraced by its communities. Osborne has performed the most devious trick of allowing more freedoms for localities but only within a straight jacket that squeezes harder each year. The issue in Scotland is whether and when this will be unlaced by the Scottish Government as financial accountability is devolved.

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