Oil Leak 74 More on the Highland Council……

Stitch-ups and smoke-filled rooms – can we trust the Council to act with integrity?

Oil Leaks 66 and 68 described how certain Highland Councillors were refusing to acknowledge representations and correspondence from their constituents on the ship-to-ship oil transfer issue. Councillor Isobel McCallum went further and  deliberately ignored and attacked those who sought to question her at a meeting.


If this were simple personal rudeness, or an isolated incident, it would be bad enough. But it raises the much more important question: can we trust our elected representatives to act with integrity and to reflect the views and concerns of those who elect them?


The Highland Council’s performance a year ago, when the initial CFPA application was submitted, does not inspire confidence. That first application was submitted (deliberately?) over the Dec 2015/Jan 2016 festive period, when the Council was in recess, The relevant Council committee (Planning, Development and Infrastructure – PDI) was not due to meet until after the deadline for consultation comments. So the formal response from the Council was sent in by a Council official without any public discussion or consideration by elected Councillors in committee. That official response identified some of the implications of STS transfers, but raised no objections.


On a matter of such significance, this was bad enough. But we subsequently learned that there had been a a stitch-up. On 6 February 2016 the two Nairn CCs had sent Audrey Sinclair, the Chair of PDI Committee, a copy of their statements of objection to the STS transfer proposal, and requested that the Council reflect this opposition in the Council’s formal response to the MCA. Her acknowledgement ducked the question. An internal email sent by Audrey Sinclair to officials at the time – which thanks to an FOI enquiry CR has since seen – revealed that without any discussion or reference to elected Councillors from the wards most directly affected, a small group meeting behind closed doors had already decided that the Highland Council “…. would assume a neutral position”.


This illustration of the undemocratic nature of Council decision-making is now history. But it is a disturbing sign. And it matters.


Why? Because the Highland Council is to be formally consulted on the new application – whenever it is put forward by the CFPA.   At the full Council meeting on 15 December 2016, and against the background of widespread public concern around the Moray Firth and across the region, numerous Councillors expressed their misgivings about the STS proposal. They pressed – successfully – for the Council’s draft response to consultation on the expected revised, or new, application to come before the full Council (at a specially convened meeting if necessary) to allow for proper consideration and debate. This was agreed.


However…….. the new application has not yet appeared. Comments from statutory consultees have not yet been invited. And in March, the Highland Council (and all others including Moray) will go into pre-election “purdah”. There will then be no full Council or committee meetings between 9 March and 18 May, by which time a new Council should be in place following the 4 May local elections.


So what happens if the CFPA submits its new application, and the MCA invites comments, during that period? Will the Highland Council once again duck its responsibilities? Will elected representatives again have no opportunity to express views and debate the terms of the Council’s formal response before it is submitted? Will it again be left to unelected, unaccountable Council officials to write and send a letter? Will the Council’s formal reply to consultation again fail to reflect the genuine and serious concerns of the local communities? Will the official comments again ignore some of the most serious implications and consequences of STS for the region?


The only acceptable arrangement, in such circumstances, would be for Highland Council to secure MCA agreement to allow sufficient time for its consultation-response to be considered by a full Council meeting – on 18 May, or whenever it is convened.


To deny elected Councillors the opportunity to consider and comment on the new application would be a flagrant breach of the agreement reached on 15 December.


To acquiesce in another stitch-up without full and transparent public debate would be a betrayal of all the communities and the many thousands of residents around the Moray Firth who oppose STS transfers and whose lives, businesses and environment will be affected by the CFPA’s proposed operations.


The Highland Council must be under no illusions. Those Councillors seeking election or re-election need to be aware that their attitude towards the issue of STS oil transfers will be explored and exposed, and will be a key factor affecting their prospects at the ballot box. And the Highland Council as the local authority representing the interests of the communities of the Highlands needs to know that its conduct and performance on this issue will be under the closest scrutiny in the weeks and months to come.