Monday, 31 August 2015

Toppled Chimneys Represent Towering Opportunity

The gas plant isn’t going ahead and the chimneys are coming down. East Lothian’s skyline is about to undergo its biggest change for a generation.

I grew up in Tranent in the 70s and 80s and summer holidays were always spent on the beach at Port Seton. I’ve never known the landscape without those twin towers, often belching black smoke. In the same way that I’m glad the sewer outfall pipes on the beaches are now redundant, I’m pleased the Cockenzie coal power station has been decommissioned.

On 26 September the chimneys are due to come down. I’m told that already people are trying to reserve chunks of the structures for souvenirs, like sections of the Berlin Wall. I’ll certainly have mixed emotions when they collapse.

My emotions are much more straightforward when it comes to the news that the replacement gas-powered plant that was given planning permission won’t now go ahead as Spanish-owned Scottish Power can’t guarantee a profit from it. It would have had a couple of chimneys but they won’t be gracing our skyline now.

It was always a silly proposal. Why on earth would we want to burn yet more fossil fuels when we already have access to more than we can use if we’re serious about limiting climate change? I know some people who hold out hope for carbon capture and storage but that’s yet to be made to work on a grand scale and until then it would be wrong to allow additional unabated pollution into our atmosphere. Scotland has failed its climate change targets since they began four years ago.

The question now is what happens next on the site. I was intrigued by a comment made by the Labour council leader, Willie Innes:

“I believe, as I have from the start, that it is in the public’s best interest to have it in public ownership and the council is the most appropriate vehicle to assume responsibility.”

Councillor Innes’ firm conviction came as a surprise to me, especially as the full meeting of the local authority in December 2012 agreed a submission to the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework that included the view that the Cockenzie site should be earmarked for “non-nuclear baseload power generation”. Not a peep about public ownership or even any alternative from the proposed gas plant.

Indeed, fellow Labour councillor Norman “Environment Spokesman” Hampshire went further. The minutes of that council meeting state:

“He [Cllr Hampshire] emphasised the requirement to retain the Cockenzie site for base load generation, based on the views of some energy experts in relation to renewable targets. He also called on the Council to protect the Torness site for a new nuclear power station, which would create a large number of construction jobs.”

So, since the start, the Labour-run local authority has had a position of supporting fossil fuel burning by a foreign multinational at Cockenzie and additional nuclear generation by a foreign multinational at Dunbar.

I think we can do better than that, and we deserve better than that. I can already hear Cllr Innes and Co insisting that local people will be consulted but we need to go beyond that. Let’s really put communities in the driving seat and construct a genuine vision. I’m aware there are already ideas out there relating to tourism and heritage, and there are moves afoot to buy the land for the community. We really need all interests working together to deliver a clear mandate from the wider area. As well as considering what we’d be happy to have on our doorstep after fifty years of a big box and chimneys, we need to consider the jobs we want as this is clearly an economic opportunity.

I commend to you "Jobs in Scotland's New Economy", a new in-depth report by Miko Minio-Paluello which concludes that by shifting away from fossil fuels, speeding up oil and gas decommissioning, prioritising renewables including offshore wind, tidal and wave, synthetic chemicals manufacturing, forestry and home insulation we could create far more jobs in our economy. I’d like to see us try for some of that for East Lothian, and there’s clearly a synergy with Edinburgh College and local high schools. East Lothian's under pressure to build 10,000 houses over the next ten years but very little has been said of the jobs, apprenticeships and training courses we could create.

Could the future of Cockenzie (and Torness for that matter) have a positive legacy by training a new generation in the skills needed to do the low-carbon, sustainable jobs Scotland will come to depend on?

That’s my hope. What’s yours?

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