Coastal Communities

Published date : 08 September, 2022
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and I shall do my best to stick within the guidelines that you have given. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing the debate. I understand that she hails originally from Northumberland, a county that has a particularly special place in my heart, not least because it is where I have my earliest memories of seaside holidays in places such as Berwick-upon-Tweed and Seahouses. It is certainly a place that means a great deal to me.

Throughout the debate we have heard a great deal about Members’ huge affection for our coastal communities, their way of life and what they have to offer as places to live and visit, and as places where people can work and raise families. Sadly, as we have heard, they are also places that face particular economic challenges. Despite the prosperity that openness to the sea can bring or has previously brought, our coastal communities can experience particular combinations of economic and social fragility. For example, they often have a heavy dependency on tourism and seasonal labour to take advantage of the economic opportunities. There is also a heavy dependency on a relatively limited number of industries in many cases, and such places are more prone to high levels of unemployment. Their attractiveness and proximity to the sea mean that there is real pressure on house prices and a lack of affordability, particularly for young people—all of which can feed into a cycle of decline that builds in business fragilities. Coastal communities are also at the sharp end of the effects of climate change, including coastal erosion and the impact on biodiversity. They are key to the success of our future energy policies, delivering energy security and tackling climate change.

My own constituency goes much further inland than it does up the coast, but I do have a very special, beautiful piece of coastline, from the northern part of the city of Aberdeen to the nature reserves up past Collieston. There has been considerable debate about not just onshore planning decisions but marine spatial planning issues, for example on the interaction between biodiversity on land and the development pressures for housing or, in one particular case, a golf course closely associated with a former occupant of the White House. There is a constant tension between the infrastructure that is needed for offshore energy, whether hydrocarbons or other types, and other demands on the sea, such as our traditional fishing industry.

A good local example of an extremely successful development is the Aberdeen Offshore Wind Farm, also known as the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre, which is made up of 11 offshore turbines just off the coast of Aberdeen and produces enough energy to power the entirety of the city. I had the great pleasure of going out on a boat just a couple of weeks ago to visit it. It also has a community benefit fund that supports community projects.

Beyond that, there is the ScotWind project. Scotland’s current peak energy demand is around 5 GW. ScotWind is set to allow for a capacity of nearly 25 GW. Certainly, our coastal communities are at the forefront of that energy revolution, as well as the development of hydrogen, as the means we might use to store excess capacity that is generated and not required in that moment. It is incredibly frustrating, at a time when we are experiencing some of the highest energy prices in Europe, for people to be able to look out of their windows and see the infrastructure but not be able to see the benefit of that infrastructure on bills due to the way we choose to structure our energy markets.

There is an elephant in the room here—the impact of Brexit, both directly and in the tardy nature of any benefits that might come through. I think particularly of our fishing industry in Scotland, but it also impacts our wider food and drink sector. Let me just take the example of langoustines. They are the most important shellfish species in terms of landed value and social economic support. In 2019, more than £91 million-worth of langoustines were landed in Scotland, making it the second most valuable stock after mackerel. We exported about 18,000 metric tonnes from the UK to the EU in 2010. That figure had halved by 2019.

I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on the impact on the Portavogie community, which I had the great pleasure of visiting with him. There are similarly sized communities along the north coast of Scotland, where processors are not only experiencing trade barriers to exporting but facing energy bills that have increased nearly fivefold. If that is a worry for the processing sector, we can only imagine the worries the catching sector has as a result. If they are unable to supply the processors, the market has gone, and the opportunities for fishing will be exported entirely overseas.

On funding for our coastal communities, Aberdeenshire benefited hugely from structural funding from the European Union. Between 2007 and 2012, for example, it received more than £23 million of European funding, leveraging in total funding to the value of £60 million, from funds such as the European regional development fund, the social fund, the fisheries fund, LEADER and Interreg. In contrast, the Aberdeenshire Council allocation from the shared prosperity fund for the next period is only £8 million. There is a great deal of catching up to do.

In my final minute, let me go back to a previous political life as a local authority councillor in Aberdeenshire, when I had the great pleasure of serving on the North Sea Commission and was vice-chair and then chair of the marine resources group, which concerns itself with themes such as achieving a productive and sustainable North sea, a climate-neutral North sea region, a connected North sea region and a smart region. It brought forward many policy initiatives and allowed regional representatives from Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Scotland to come together to discuss those shared opportunities and challenges.

I think I am correct in saying that at this point in time, although the chair of the overall North Sea Commission used to represent Southend—the council—no English authorities are currently represented. Our Norwegian friends and allies consider the organisation a very effective way of ensuring that bilateral links are maintained and of having discussions. It is a great shame that England, the largest country in the North sea, is not connected in to that organisation. I urge my English colleagues to go back to their local authorities to ask why not.

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