Big Oil in Green Clothing

The same interests that bulldozed Old Torry’s harbour are coming for Torry’s thriving park. Scott Herret is involved in the struggle to save it.

The Friends of St Fittick’s Park campaign fights to protect Torry’s last accessible greenspace from encroachment or eradication by an Energy Transition Zone. It has grown over the past four years, attracting support from trade unionists and climate activists, academics and artists, and receiving national and international coverage. Some argue the fate of the park serves as a Just Transition test case. Torry has seen no benefit from the black, black oil, and for many locals the proposal to turn the park into an industrial zone is just the latest in a long series of corporate land grabs from this working-class community on the edge of Aberdeen. Over half a century ago the historic harbourside of Old Torry was bulldozed to make way for big oil. Now the same people in new green clothes are wanting Torry’s emerald, St Fittick’s Park.

st fitticks park

The dominance of the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen means local politics is heavily corporatised. Councillors sit on the board of corporate development organisations, while the oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood chairs Opportunity North East (ONE), a private investment initiative which the Scottish Government calls ‘a key delivery partner catalysing public and private sector partnership’. There are joint public and private ventures such as the 2016 Aberdeen City Region Deal which sees public power over local economic planning passed between elected officials who come and go over time, while ONE remains ever present and ever powerful. Meanwhile, party-political norms are not upheld in Aberdeen. After the 2017 council elections nine Labour councillors were suspended from the party after forming a ruling coalition with the Tories.

In 2020, the ruling coalition decided to redesignate St Fittick’s Park from a ‘greenspace’ to an ‘opportunity site’ in the draft local development plan (LDP). It was to become part of Ian Wood’s proposed ‘Energy Transition Zone’. SNP and Lib Dem councillors opposed the move, but it was approved by one vote, backed by Labour, Tories and one independent. As the consent process for the final adoption of the LDP has see-sawed between the council and Scottish Government, campaigners have had to regularly pivot between attempting to influence councillors and ministers. The customary response from local and national government implies that they do not have any power to intervene and stop the redesignation, even though it is almost universally opposed throughout Torry and beyond. Government ministers often say, ‘it’s a local planning issue, we cannot get involved’, even though they have handed out over forty million pounds to ETZ Ltd to pursue its plans.

In early 2023, however, the planning minister did have the power to intervene when the draft Local Development Plan arrived on his desk for approval. A demonstration was held outside the Scottish Parliament to demand that the Scottish Government stand by its self-proclaimed ‘world leading’ policies on tackling poverty, health inequality, biodiversity loss and Just Transition. St Fittick’s Park is in the heart of a community already suffering badly from multiple levels of social deprivation, but the minister, Joe Fitzpatrick, chose corporate interests over the direct interests of ordinary people in deciding not to use his powers to remove the park from the ETZ. The Scottish Government’s fine words are entirely hollow.

Similarly, when we asked many Aberdeen City councillors to support our campaign they refused, saying that any support may mean they would have to declare an interest in future planning votes. This is confusing given that the co-leader of Aberdeen City Council sits on the board of ETZ Ltd’s parent company, Opportunity North East. It seems the planning process game is rigged for the Ian Woods of the world. Meanwhile we must wait for the final planning consent, by which time the developers will have produced a plethora of documents and compiled masses of ‘evidence’ making it very difficult for councillors to vote against the plans.

There was a glimmer of hope for a council intervention in September 2023. A full council vote was held on whether to lease land to ETZ Ltd. This was effectively the first time SNP and Lib Dem councillors (now the majority) who originally opposed the plans could use their power in a meaningful way. But to our dismay, the SNP and Lib Dems voted in favour of the lease agreement and against an amendment tabled by the Labour group to remove St Fittick’s Park from the ETZ plans. That’s right – the same Labour group that approved the plans in the first place.

Following the vote the SNP councillor representing Torry, who also stood on a ticket to do all he could to protect the park, was asked at a community council meeting why the SNP didn’t vote for the amendment. His response was quite startling. He basically said that there was nothing they could do now that the project had been set in motion by the previous administration. Asked what consequences the council would face by refusing to enter a lease agreement with ETZ Ltd, he told us that the council would be at risk of legal action. If true, it effectively means that the council would be taking itself to court, given the co-leader’s place on the Opportunity North East board. The web of influence runs deep.

Fittingly the council are being taken to court by the Friends of St Fittick’s Park. On Monday 29th April, 2024, Lord Fairley of the Court of Session accepted a petition for Judicial Review which focuses upon Aberdeen City Council’s failure to exercise its duties under the Equality Act 2010, and its apparent structural bias based on an apparent interest in ETZ Ltd resulting in consent for the Park to be leased and developed for industrial purposes by ETZ Ltd.

The hearing will be on July 19th. We will be there outside and inside the court in Edinburgh. Please join us. And irrespective of that decision, the campaign is already preparing to make the park’s fate an issue in the forthcoming UK elections. Labour has eyes on Aberdeen South and the big scalp of Stephen Flynn, who until now has given the campaign no support. We’ll see if that changes in the coming months.

Working for Friends of the Earth Scotland and being part of the Friends of St Fittick’s Park, Scott is a grassroots organiser based in Torry, Aberdeen focusing on an energy transition that centres the needs of communities and workers.