Time to con­sider scru­tiny of trust ports

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - AGENDA - David Ross

To­day is the last day for any new sub­mis­sions to the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment’s pe­ti­tions com­mit­tee in re­spect of PE1637/H. As read­ers of this col­umn may re­call, this is about the long-run­ning dis­pute be­tween the Cro­marty Firth Port Au­thor­ity (CFPA) – also known as the Port of Cro­marty Firth – and lo­cal cam­paign group Cro­marty Ris­ing. Many as­sumed this had all been set­tled, but MSPs are still con­sid­er­ing it and any wider sig­nif­i­cance

It be­gan in De­cem­ber 2015, with the port au­thor­ity seek­ing per­mis­sion to trans­fer 8,640,000 tonnes of crude oil an­nu­ally be­tween tankers at an­chor just out­side the mouth of the Cro­marty Firth. A dis­tin­guished ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist warned: “If you were try­ing to find a place in Europe that posed the max­i­mum risk to a pro­tected dol­phin pop­u­la­tion, this would prob­a­bly be it.”

Cam­paign­ers ar­gued any oil spill would be en­vi­ron­men­tally cat­a­strophic. It would also dam­age a lo­cal econ­omy, in­creas­ingly sup­ported by green tourism.

But the episode high­lighted other sig­nif­i­cant is­sues, not least the dys­func­tion­al­ity of the cur­rent de­vo­lu­tion ar­range­ments.

The Mar­itime and Coast­guard Agency (MCA), which an­swers to the UK De­part­ment for Trans­port, would de­cide whether to grant a li­cence to con­duct the oil trans­fers. But un­der Euro­pean law it was the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment that was re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing the pro­tec­tion of the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment.

An­other is­sue was that, un­like Eng­land, trust ports in Scot­land are no longer sub­ject to any di­rect demo­cratic scru­tiny.

It was also con­firmed that if lo­cal “stake­hold­ers” were con­cerned about the ac­tiv­i­ties of a trust port, they would ul­ti­mately have to take le­gal ac­tion. Scot­tish min­is­ters have no power to in­ter­vene, again un­like the po­si­tion in Eng­land and Wales. This is de­spite Scot­tish trust port pol­icy be­ing wholly de­volved.

As it was, the MCA was unim­pressed by the oil trans­fer ap­pli­ca­tion and in 2017 di­rected CFPA to sub­mit an­other one af­ter greater con­sul­ta­tion. The port said it would, but last De­cem­ber an­nounced it was shelv­ing the plan.

There is doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence that Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment civil ser­vants were ini­tially sup­port­ive of the oil trans­fers plan. But their min­is­ters were even­tu­ally per­suaded by the cam­paign­ers, and be­hind the scenes they ro­bustly “dis­cour­aged” a sec­ond MCA ap­pli­ca­tion.

But the eco­nomic im­por­tance of the CFPA’s ac­tiv­i­ties was recog­nised by min­is­ters and un­der­lined by the com­mit­ment of £7.75m through High­lands and Is­lands En­ter­prise to­wards a new £30m CFPA quay­side at In­ver­gor­don. This was an­nounced in Novem­ber, just be­fore the oil trans­fers plan was aban­doned.

But that is not the end of the story. Cro­marty Ris­ing’s pe­ti­tion re­mains live. It seeks leg­is­la­tion to pre­vent ship-to-ship trans­fers of crude oil in en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive lo­ca­tions; and mea­sures to en­hance the ac­count­abil­ity of all trust ports to their stake­hold­ers.

Re­spon­si­bil­ity for trust ports rests with the Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary for Trans­port, In­fras­truc­ture and Con­nec­tiv­ity Michael Mathe­son. His min­is­ter Paul Wheel­house (En­ergy, Con­nec­tiv­ity and the Is­lands) has now re­sponded to the com­mit­tee. On the is­sue of ac­count­abil­ity, he doesn’t see a prob­lem: “Scot­tish min­is­ters ex­pect trust ports to op­er­ate with ref­er­ence to the Mod­ern Trust Ports for Scot­land: Guid­ance for Good Gov­er­nance and our ex­pe­ri­ence is that trust ports across Scot­land do this.”

This begs sev­eral ques­tions, not least how do min­is­ters know the trust ports are be­ing run ac­cord­ing to guide­lines?

HMRC is­sues guid­ance on how to fill in our tax forms, but doesn’t take our word that we have done it cor­rectly.

How do min­is­ters know trust port boards have not ap­pointed fam­ily, friends, business as­so­ciates or their lo­cal darts team mem­bers as di­rec­tors?

They used to know, be­cause un­der the 1973 act which set up the trust ports, a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter had to ap­prove the ap­point­ment of di­rec­tors.

But af­ter de­vo­lu­tion a le­gal ap­proach by the CFPA per­suaded the then Labour/Lib Dem Scot­tish Ex­ec­u­tive that they should be al­lowed to ap­point their own di­rec­tors with­out min­is­te­rial scru­tiny. Other trust ports, in­clud­ing Aberdeen, fol­lowed suit.

It ap­pears that at this time, min­is­ters also gave up their right or in­deed duty to in­ter­vene in a trust port’s ac­tiv­i­ties, if nec­es­sary. MSPs never even got an op­por­tu­nity to de­bate the changes.

But south of the bor­der the sec­re­tary of state for trans­port still ap­points the chairs of the five largest trust ports in Eng­land and Wales – Dover, Har­wich Haven, Mil­ford Haven, the Port of Lon­don Au­thor­ity and the Port of Tyne and some non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors.

Cru­cially, if not sat­is­fied with a trust port’s re­sponse to a com­plaint, stake­hold­ers can ap­peal to the De­part­ment for Trans­port, which still has the power to in­ter­vene.

This col­umn has ques­tioned be­fore how it can be right that a body cre­ated by a UK act of Par­lia­ment to man­age a Scot­tish wa­ter­way cre­ated by mil­len­nia of ge­o­log­i­cal ac­tiv­ity is no longer sub­ject to sim­i­lar demo­cratic ac­count­abil­ity.

The changes were not made on the present Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment’s watch, but that of their po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. So surely it would be worth min­is­ters, who nor­mally pride them­selves in the com­par­a­tive trans­parency of gov­ern­ment north of the bor­der, ask­ing the same ques­tion. At very least mem­bers of the ru­ral econ­omy and con­nec­tiv­ity com­mit­tee should do so.

The episode high­lighted other sig­nif­i­cant is­sues, not least the dys­func­tion­al­ity of the cur­rent de­vo­lu­tion ar­range­ments

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.