Opinion: City Deal – Where’s the Real Vision?

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Opinion by Energy Voice

The “City Deal” being proposed for Aberdeen apparently consists of spending a massive £2billion on transport, housing and skills development.

If such a deal is ever approved then Aberdeen City Council officials claim this will go a long way towards helping revive the oil & gas industry, the health of which is most certainly a cause for concern as would be the health of the entire economy of Aberdeen and Shire should there be a really prolonged downturn in North Sea and international activity.

To put it bluntly though, such claims are utter nonsense and should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Investment in infrastructure does not itself impact directly on the economic or industrial prospects of a City or indeed a country. Why? Because infrastructure can only act as a means of attracting private sector or joint private and public sector investment in companies, jobs, technology and so on and so forth.

In short, infrastructure investment presents economic opportunities but not economic certainties.

Much also depends on what sort of infrastructure is actually developed. Transport projects don’t necessarily improve economic prospects unless they actually satisfy a demand problem.

With the building of the western peripheral road, which will certainly speed up traffic passing through the Aberdeen area, it’s difficult to see what sort of transport project could improve the city’s economic prospects.

There’s a big difference between transport projects that improve convenience and ones that might have a positive role to play in growing and broadening the economy. For example – trams might make travel more convenient, improve the environment and all that good stuff but would have little or no impact on economic growth here, in my opinion and anyway, we’d have to import the trams!

So let’s forget spending money on any new large scale transport projects. Well, let me qualify that. If there was a proposal to lengthen and strengthen the main runway at Aberdeen airport so that it could take large aircraft such as the 747 freighter then that would certainly be worthwhile because it means we could stable or manufacture bigger/heavier items for overseas hire export and this would enable it to compete with companies with access to Heathrow in particular.

The idea of spending City Deal funding on new housing is equally ridiculous. It’s not that I don’t think Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire still needs new housing it’s just that I know neither council has the ability to see this as an opportunity to benefit the region economically.

If they had the imagination and courage, the council could work with a set of local contractors and architects to design, develop and build zero energy, super-efficient houses that we can export to the world – as the Germans and Scandinavians do. I could enthusiastically support that.

Sadly though, I’m fairly sure that will never happen and all we’ll get is a bunch of architecturally dull blocks of flats or expensive little boxes crammed together to reinforce Aberdeen’s newly found fame as the recipient of the award for the most dismal town in Scotland in the annual “Plook on the Plinth” Carbuncle awards! Only kidding! Or am I?

As to skills development then of course this is something that should be ongoing anyway. However, some thought now needs to be given to exactly what skills we need, particularly in the medium to long term.

Creating a sustainable hydrogen industry sector
I have this vague memory about something called the Hydrogen Highway which I believe started out as an ambitious project created by ACSEF (does that still exist?) to create a hydrogen industry sector in or around Aberdeen.

Sadly, but much as I predicted, it turned into just yet another property development exercise involving the building of another business park. It’s sad because industrial diversification is exactly what Aberdeen really needs and would generate a need for new skills.

However, this idea was rather crudely undermined when Aberdeen City Council opted to do a deal to run a clean transport demonstration programme using hydrogen fuel cell powered buses built in Belgium with the ancillary equipment (refueller, etc) also provided by overseas-owned companies. What a pity a UK bus builder wasn’t roped in with help from Holyrood, like Alexander Dennis.

That decision would have damaged any ambition that might have been harboured by local technology companies to diversify into that sector but perhaps we can now hope that a sub $50 oil price might shock Aberdeen City Council into thinking somewhat more strategically rather than concentrating its efforts on simply achieving a popular policy aim.

So, what to do with that £2billion? Well undoubtedly I’d fund a longer runway if it was technically feasible.

In addition, and remembering Aberdeen is an energy centre, I’d fund the building of test and development facilities for the production of advanced biofuels as well as a demonstration-scale advanced biofuel plant. This could lead on to new products being developed and manufactured.

And by the way, what became of maritime renewables? Is the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre ever going to happen or will Trump be allowed to crow triumphantly? And so-on.

Do you get the picture? We need a vision for Aberdeen. The old nonsense about conventional infrastructure investment on its own being enough will no longer do and we shouldn’t tolerate it. We need some leadership and I just get the feeling we’re not going to get it from this Council.