An Oil Baron Wants to Build Over a Local Park for His ‘Green’ Energy Project

Locals are taking him to court.

by Rivkah Brown

10 April 2024

A grey-haired man with short hair a blue shirt and a navy jumper hung around his shoulders
Photo: Bronte Dow/Novara Media

When Scott Herrett moved to Aberdeen in 2016 to work in environmental social research, he quickly discovered not one city but two. In 1969, the American BP subsidiary Amoco accidentally struck oil while drilling for gas 135 miles off the Aberdeen coast and the city transformed overnight from a 1,000-year-old fishing port into Europe’s crude capital and the richest city in the UK. Yet just south of the city centre across the River Dee lies Torry, one of the poorest areas in the whole of Scotland.

“Wherever I’ve lived, there’s always one place which is the butt of the jokes. It’s often the economically disadvantaged place in the city. Torry is that place in Aberdeen,” Herrett told Novara Media.

The cavernous inequality between Torry and central Aberdeen is legible in the built environment. The towering spires of the so-called Granite City abut crumbling council terraces and bleak highstreets. Of the roughly 500 Aberdeen homes found earlier this year to contain collapse-prone reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), all of them were in Torry; 364 of them, a cluster of squat council-owned blocks known locally as the “hen houses” (a further 140 are now privately owned). The Raac crisis has frayed a close-knit community, scattering hundreds of Torry families across the city.

The tale of two Aberdeens is also borne out starkly in the city’s health data: residents of Balnagask, an area of Torry, die on average 13 years earlier than those in West End North, an affluent central district. Torry hospitals admit eight times as many patients with complications of chronic lung disease, while its doctors write double the number of antidepressant prescriptions. Drug overdoses are more frequent in Torry than anywhere else in Aberdeen.

To people like Herrett, the deprivation of the city’s margins has not happened in spite of the oil boom, but because of it. “As a consequence of that history [of] industrialisation,” he told Novara Media, “[you’ve had] things being dumped on [Torry].” The area is where Aberdeen has offloaded the unpleasant by-products of its oil boom: its landfill, sewage treatment works, a waste incinerator built 400 yards from a local primary school. “All these things … were opposed,” said Herrett, “but people get ground down by it all.”

Now, Torry is preparing to be the city’s dumping ground once more, as Aberdeen gears up for its most seismic shift since 1969: the much-prophesied end of fossil fuels.

If Aberdeen is currently the nucleus of the UK’s oil trade, it is determined to be ground zero for its energy transition. Yet the city has struggled to kick its oil and gas habit, in large part because its energy transition has been managed by a fossil fuel industry still deeply invested in it.

In August last year, the city’s new south harbour was completed. Built at a cost of £420m – £70m over budget – the harbour was to expand the capacity of the much smaller north harbour, which was struggling to keep up with the roughly 9,500 vessels that pass through it each year. It was also expressly built to expedite Scotland’s energy transition, supporting the decommissioning of oil rigs and servicing of offshore wind infrastructure, for which the north harbour’s waters were too shallow.

However, in the time since construction began in 2017, Saudi Arabia initiated an oil price war with Russia, Russia escalated its land war with Ukraine, and the rhetoric around the south port shifted rapidly from supporting renewables to safeguarding the UK’s “energy security” in an unstable market – in other words, continuing to extract fossil fuels apace. The shift has made the harbour’s few remaining green features even more integral to its PR: the harbour’s marketing material often refers to it as “Scotland’s premier net zero port”.

Yet in recent years, the harbour’s climate crusade has made it the poster child for the unjust transition, one that privileges the whims of oil barons over the needs of local people, and to which the local authority is acting as a hapless handmaiden. 

Greening a legacy.

The Energy Transition Zone (ETZ) is a plan to develop roughly a square mile of land in and around Torry to support renewable energy production at the south harbour. Like most of Scotland’s energy projects, it is the brainchild of the private sector: namely oil tycoon and local celebrity Sir Ian Wood.

Wood, a local Torry boy who made his £1.82bn fortune as chair of Wood Group, a company that provides engineering and consulting services to oil and gas firms, appears to have only recently discovered the dangers of the industry that enriched him: “Climate change is a huge issue right now,” he told Holyrood magazine in a 2022 interview, “but people weren’t talking about climate change five years ago.”

In 2021, Wood decided it was time to go all-in on the energy transition, establishing ETZ Ltd to oversee his incipient pet project. (Wood does retain a fondness for the oil and gas industry that made him, however, praising the government’s “hugely welcome” decision to greenlight the Rosebank oil field in September, which he confusingly insisted would “help us reposition the north-east of Scotland as a globally recognised renewables energy cluster”).

Described by Herrett as “a technologically-driven vision of energy transition”, the ETZ places exclusive emphasis on increasing energy supply rather than limiting demand, and gives a central role to hydrogen, a supposedly green energy source beloved by the fossil fuel industry since much of it is extracted from natural gas.

ETZ Ltd makes much of the fact that it is a not-for-profit that “operates on the basis of no commercial gain”. Yet while its board, which includes Shell executive Padraig McCloskey, isn’t being paid by the company itself, the project – which has so far received £53m from the Scottish and UK governments – stands to enrich them enormously. It will do this both by investing in the research, development and infrastructure for renewable energy sources, many of them speculative or (as with hydrogen) unproven at scale. It also offers companies a convenient way to green their PR, allowing them to continue extracting fossil fuels while limiting reputational damage.

“It’s difficult to see how much focus there is from Mr Wood and ETZ Ltd on the green credentials involved here,” said Hannah Moneagle, one of the legal representatives for Friends of St Fittick’s Park working with Govan Law Centre, which is helping locals challenge the development. “It feels more that Mr Wood is seeking to make a legacy for himself by putting Aberdeen on the map at the forefront of what is sold as a just transition.”

“We don’t even talk about it being an energy transition,” says Herrett, “we just literally say it’s a corporate land grab. … They just use the language of transition of energy transition. … [as] a form of greenwashing.” 

Wood claims the plan, which includes specialist campuses for manufacturing and researching hydrogen, marine and wind power, will create 2,500 jobs. He also insists it must concrete over Torry’s last remaining green space, in what locals have dubbed a “land grab” reminiscent of the Highland Clearances.

Our fieldie, their opportunity.

Overlooking Nigg Bay – Torry’s beach, built over as part of the south harbour development – St Fittick’s Park was established in the mid-seventh century supposedly after an unfortunate Irish monk came ashore there, and was used for centuries as pasture.

In recent decades, the community has poured its energy into polishing its tiny green gem. In the early 2000s, locals raised £250,000 to transform the affectionately known “Fieldie” into a public park, complete with paths and play equipment. 10 years later, another £365,000 was raised to improve the park’s biodiversity, plant a wetland and seed over 20,000 sq metres of wildflowers, which now bloom across the once rugged patch of land.

Yet the careful cultivation of the city’s green space came to a screeching halt in 2020 when one-third of the park, which is zoned as greenbelt, was rezoned as an “opportunity site” by the Labour-run Aberdeen city council as part of its proposed local development plan. The move didn’t go down well.

The colonisation of Torry by its wealthy neighbours has a long history.  In the 19th century, the city built a channel to straighten the River Dee, flattening Nether Torry in the process.

John Dunn, a member of the local heritage group, came to Torry in 1967 to work as a marine scientist. He remembers how the council promised residents that they would benefit from the oil boom: “You’re all going to have new bathrooms in your houses. We’re going to put planters in, and everything else.”

That’s not how it panned out. In 1974, Dunn returned from a research trip at sea to discover that the council had used a compulsory purchase order to buy up the houses in Old Torry, where he was living, and demolish them. The reason? Shell Oil had insisted that it needed what Dunn calls the  “postage stamp-sized piece of ground” as harbour-side storage for its oil and gas.

Burned by the memory of Old Torry, locals fiercely opposed the plan to include St Fittick’s Park in the ETZ. Friends of St Fittick’s Park – one of the hundreds of friends of parks groups around the UK, and of which Scott Herrett is an active member – mobilised an energetic campaign, holding numerous demos at the Scottish parliament and Aberdeen’s town house; gatecrashing a visit to the south harbour by first minister Hamza Yousuf; and organising a people’s assembly in the park.

Steadily, the campaign has made its way from the grassroots into the halls of power. Local councillors, both Labour and Conservative, have staged repeated attempts to have the park removed from the local development plan, while MSPs – among them the Greens’ Maggie Chapman, member for North East Scotland, and the SNP’s Audrey Nicholl, who represents Aberdeen South and North Kincardine – have implored the Scottish parliament to intervene. The Labour party that first tabled the park’s incorporation within the ETZ now vehemently opposes it.

The campaign has also attracted a considerable amount of press attention, both national and international, pricking the ears of climate activists. In July 2022, Climate Camp Scotland held its annual action-planning camp in St Fittick’s Park, culminating in a mass trespass on the south harbour (Chapman participated, much to the dismay of her Tory colleagues). The group plans to return to Torry this summer.

For his part, Wood has expressed immense regret at having to build over the park, citing his own personal investment in the area. “It’s a kind of corny story but it is a true story,” he told industry publication Energy Voice in 2021. “My father and my grandfather were born and brought up in Torry … I’m very conscious of the importance of communities like Torry and what should be done to help them.

“I feel we deserve to be condemned if we weren’t doing everything we possibly can to find alternatives [to building over the park]”, he added, “but I really believe we are.”

Alternatives have been put forward, however. As part of a project on enhancing Aberdeen’s community spaces, architecture students at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen devised a plan for how the ETZ might repurpose the area’s numerous brownfield sites rather than build over the park. At a local community meeting, architects Matthew Clubb and Erik Dalhuijsen presented a plan to retrofit Torry’s homes, reducing energy demand rather than increasing supply. All were ignored.

A spokesperson for ETZ insisted that the company takes a “brownfield first approach” to development, however “the brownfield estates do not provide the functional association with the port that offshore renewable projects of this nature require and, indeed, we are in advanced discussions with a number of companies keen, subject to planning, to locate on the site for these very reasons.”

They added that “whilst we fully appreciate concerns about utilising any of the land at St Fittick’s”, the park’s proximity to the port was “a fundamental requirement” for transporting large wind turbine components to and from the quayside, without which Aberdeen would be unable “ to capitalise on the vast opportunities provided by green energies”.

In return for building over one-third of the park, ETZ Ltd says it has offered a number of compensatory measures, ​​including restoring the park’s burn and wetland and installing a new filtration system to improve water quality. These interventions, it says “will not only mitigate, but significantly improve the quality and accessibility of St Fittick’s Park” and other opportunity sites. Chapman calls these “crumbs”.

In December 2022, the now SNP-run council signed off the local development plan in its entirety. A family-run farm for rare and endangered animal breeds, Doonies, was forced to close in August last year after it too was included in the plan. St Fittick’s fate still hangs in the balance.

Chapman says the bulldozing of local objections is the result of a “democratic deficit” visible across Scotland though particularly in Aberdeen, where the private sector wields enormous power. “It feels like if there’s anything in energy space that Ian Wood doesn’t want to happen, it won’t happen,” she said (a spokesperson for Aberdeen city council said that its decisions “follow a democratic process”).

Barney Crocket is an Aberdeen city councillor who quit the Labour party in June last year, citing Keir Stamer’s “brutal” position on new oil and gas licensing. He describes Aberdeen as “halfway across the Atlantic … more like an American city than a British city” (in 2016, it had the highest ratio of private sector employment to working-age population of any Scottish local authority). The result is that the city council “is uniquely low-power”.

There’s also a class component. “Imagine [this happening to] any middle-class community anywhere in Britain,” said Andrew Crofton, a local GP who’s lived in Aberdeen for 30 years, four of them in Torry.

“Imagine somebody … saying, ‘Right, we’re gonna take half of Hyde Park and build a factory on it. But don’t worry, you’ve still got the other half.’ Can you imagine the response? But you can do that to the working class.”

Or maybe you can’t.

Last chance saloon.

In early October, a group of Torry locals applied for a judicial review of the ETZ. Among the applicants’ concerns is a potential conflict of interest: one of the co-leaders of the council, Christian Allard, also sits on the board of Opportunity North East (ONE), the development agency that created ETZ Ltd and has since effectively been incorporated into it. Asked whether this posed any issues, the council said that councillor Allard had declared his appointment to the council, and that “he did not consider that he had an interest”. A spokesperson for ETZ Ltd said that “Cllr Allard has no role in the governance structure of ETZ Ltd”, though did not contest his role in ONE.

Moneagle, whose law centre is leading  the judicial review application, said Allard’s joint position meant ETZ Ltd was effectively marking its own homework: “You’ve got someone who is being exposed to intricate information surrounding the workings of ETZ Ltd, who then has to make a decision on planning applications [from ETZ Ltd].” 

The judicial review application – which will next be heard by the Scottish courts on 29 April – may have come at just the right time. Scotland recently introduced a new national planning framework that places greater emphasis on biodiversity and community consultation. It’s still weighted towards developers, but it’s progress. There are signs, however, that Wood, working hand-in-glove with the local authority, is hell-bent on pursuing the project.

Locals arrived at the park in early February to find bulldozer tracks and metal fencing strewn across the wetland. The council had agreed not to touch the park while the judicial review is pending but had found a way to bypass that agreement: by delegating the ground investigation work to ETZ Ltd.

At the time, a spokesperson for Aberdeen city council told the press that as part of “standard procedure”, it had granted ETZ Ltd a “temporary license [sic] … to assess potential for development”, but that the work was “entirely investigatory” and would be followed by “full reinstatement” of the park to its original state (though this had been delayed by adverse weather conditions).

Chapman said the thing that gives her hope is that locals have something Wood clearly doesn’t: patience. “If the community can drag this on long enough, the longer we keep the fight up for, the less viable it becomes.” In 2021, Wood described the project as “shovel ready”. Three years later, the park remains untouched. “Ian Wood will always have more money than us,” said Chapman, “but the folk of Torry are persistent. They are not just going to roll over or go away.”

Chapman pointed out that for all his hamming up of being a local boy, Sir Ian has long since “got out of Torry, so doesn’t have to deal with the consequences [of the ETZ]. … Torry could be wiped off the face of the earth, and it would make not one iota of difference to his personal wealth or wellbeing.” The people he’s up against, on the other hand – “they live in Torry. They will fight for their community.”

With thanks to Gisa Weszkalnys and William Otchere-Darko for sharing findings from their research on Torry’s energy transition with Novara Media for this report.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.


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