Scotland’s oil and gas city grapples with the future: Aberdeen election profile

It's been more than five decades since the discovery of vast quantities of oil in the North Sea catapulted Aberdeen into an energy revolution.

The Granite City was gripped by a black gold rush in the years following BP's famous announcement that it had struck oil in the huge Forties field 110 miles offshore.

Now it finds itself on the cusp of another revolution as the climate crisis sparks a move away from fossil fuels.

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Tens of thousands of jobs still rely on the oil and gas industry, however, and the UK Government has made clear it supports continued production in the “nearer term”.

Aberdeen's Union Street during the pandemic. Picture: Ross Parker / SNS Group

On the face of it, these issues are far beyond the control of councillors. Decisions over new drilling, after all, are in the hands of UK authorities.

But everyone agrees oil and gas will play a role in next month's local elections.

Jenny Laing, who is standing down as a Labour councillor in May, has been the leader or co-leader of Aberdeen City Council for the last eight years.

"That diversification of our economy is going to be really key to Aberdeen moving forward, so I think there will be a focus on that, particularly with the energy crisis that we're currently experiencing, and the cost of living crisis that people are struggling with," she said.

The state of play

"My frustration, I suppose, is that I think when it comes to local elections, we should try to get people's focus on the things that we actually directly control, which is obviously the delivery of frontline services."

She added: "But I fully accept that the current focus around fossil fuels and renewable energy will mean that oil and gas will definitely play into the campaign."

Conservative councillor Douglas Lumsden, who is also standing down to focus on his other role as a north-east MSP, argues his party is the only one sticking up for the oil and gas sector.

"I think it will be a factor, because everything we're trying to do within the city centre needs investment," he said.

An artist's impression of how the regenerated beach area might look. Picture: Aberdeen City Council

"It needs people, and if you're driving all those people away because there's no jobs here, then that's going to be an issue.

"So we will certainly be making it a big issue in the council elections - the support to the oil and gas industry - because so much depends on it within the city."

Alex Nicoll, leader of the SNP group, said the green revolution is an opportunity Aberdeen needs "to grab with both hands", but oil and gas will remain important “for a very long time to come”.

He argues the city can capitalise on its "hugely skilled workforce" going forward, a point echoed by Fergus Mutch, a policy adviser to the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC).

Focus on Aberdeen

"To pull the rug from underneath [workers] too soon, when the alternative jobs don't exist yet – now that's the worry," Mr Mutch added.

The AGCC wants the area to become the “net zero capital of Europe" but is also calling on local leaders to accept that oil and gas will remain crucial for decades.

Elsewhere, the chamber’s local election manifesto highlights another key issue in Aberdeen: the future of the city centre.

There are £150 million regeneration plans for both it and the beach area, including a pier and a state-of-the-art sports area that could provide a new stadium for Aberdeen FC.

But proposals to pedestrianise Union Street, the grand thoroughfare that runs for around a mile from Holburn Junction to Castlegate, have proven hugely controversial.

The Labour and Conservative-led administration want part of the street to permanently close to vehicles, but others, including the opposition SNP, have raised access concerns.

Mr Nicoll argues some of the busiest bus stops in the city are on Union Street.

"Certainly, the feedback that has come to me from the public is overwhelming that we want, at the very least, buses and taxis back into that central section of Union Street,” he said.

Mr Mutch said there needs to be a mix of retail, entertainment, hospitality and residential properties in the city centre.

"There are premises on Union Street where the floors above the shop level have sat empty for years and years and years, when people are crying out for available, affordable homes,” he said.

The AGCC wants local leaders to pilot free bus travel to and from the city centre after 7pm from Monday to Thursday, in a bid to boost the nighttime economy.

Ms Laing said shopping habits have changed, and so the council needs to look at ways of “repurposing" buildings.

She and Aberdeen’s eight other Labour councillors were suspended from the party in 2017 after entering into a coalition with the Tories.

Both she and Mr Lumsden insist it was the right thing to do for the city.

Earlier this year, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said he was against “pacts or deals or coalitions”, but Ms Laing is clear there needs to be “a degree of flexibility”.

"What I would suspect will happen this time round is what happened previously,” she said.

"Once the numbers are known within councils, people will enter into negotiations with each other about whether they can work, whether it's a formal or informal coalition, and then they will present that to their parties to see if they accept that or not.”

She said she had been a member of the Labour Party for more than 40 years and it is "incredibly" important to her, "but sometimes you've got to think about how best you can protect and push forward the city and the people you represent, and that will mean that you will have to work with others to do that".

Mr Lumsden said it would be good for the city if the coalition continued, adding: "I don't think anybody should be going in saying, 'We shouldn't do a deal with them' right at the start.”

Most voted party 2017: SNP

Current control: A coalition of Labour, Conservative and independent councillors

Leader: Jenny Laing

Number of elected councillors: 45

Number of electoral wards: 13

Key issues: The energy sector, the local economy and the future of the city centre

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