Professor Kerr: As the New Scottish Parliament Begins, We Can Support the NHS as it Recovers From the Covid Pandemic.

Professor David Kerr Professor of Cancer Medicine, in monochrome on a purple geometric background

Professor David Kerr | Professor of Cancer Medicine, University of Oxford, Honorary Consultant Medical Oncologist, Oxford Cancer Centre

Fifteen years ago I submitted the Kerr report to the Scottish Government, with the support of civil society and all political parties, providing a framework upon which Scotland’s NHS would plan for the future. 

The dominant issues of the day, which still resonate, were as follows:

Maintaining high quality services as locally as possible

Improving waiting times and access to treatment

Supporting Scotland’s remote and rural communities

Engaging clinical staff to meet the challenge of reforming the Health Service

Embracing new technology to improve the standard of care

Reducing the health gap between rich and poor

Ensuring that we get value for money across the NHS

I believed then that a truly Scottish model of healthcare would be to take a collective approach in which we generated strength from integration and transformation through unity of purpose.  The people of Scotland sent me a strong message that certainty carries great weight – a commitment to ensure the timeliness and quality of care, fairly, for one and all. We made a series of practical recommendations all of which were accepted by the Scottish parliament, but which were perhaps somewhat lost in the politics of subsequent governmental change. 

Never has the world been more interconnected, geopolitically, by air travel, in cyberspace, genetically and through generation of knowledge by transnational cooperation.  Our NHS is under extraordinary pressure at the moment, facing an unprecedented challenge posed by COVID 19, a challenge which crosses all borders and binds all nationalities together. For me, if we are to meet these challenges, it requires us to embrace the “three Cs” of my original report:  cohesion, collaboration and cooperation.

How far have we come?

If recent data are to be believed, not far enough. The envisaged Networks in which we hoped to see a greater degree of site specialisation and a better access to complex care have not come fully to fruition. I felt at the time that Scotland had done some great work in terms of delivering integrated care through telemedicine to more remote communities and would have hoped that more progress would have been made with a greater degree of governmental support.

Of course, many improvements have happened since I made my report. Importantly, we see that there have been improvements in outcome from the major chronic diseases, a tribute to my healthcare colleagues and their multi-disciplinarity of approach.

Avoidable mortality rates per 100,000 by sex: 2001-2019

Avoidable mortality rates per 100,000 by sex 2001-2019
Source: National Records of Scotland, Avoidable mortality report, December 2020

But current data shows that some key outcomes are getting worse, not better. For example, the National Records of Scotland’s most recent report shows that, after falling in every year from 2001 to 2014, avoidable mortality in Scotland has now plateaued (from 303.8 avoidable deaths per 100,000 people in 2014 307.8 in 2019). In 2019, nearly a third of all deaths – 27% – were considered avoidable. And, within Scotland, the gap between the health of the richest and the poorest is widening. The 10% most deprived Scots are nearly five times as likely to die from an avoidable death as someone in the top 10%. This is up from 3.5 times more likely compared to 2001. 

Avoidable mortality rates by deprivation, all persons: 2001-2019

Avoidable mortality rates by deprivation, all persons: 2001-2019
Source: National Records of Scotland, Avoidable mortality report, December 2020

Back in 2005, I invited over 2000 Scots to town hall meetings to give voice to their own aspirations for their NHS and a recurrent theme was to ensure equity of access to healthcare, across any social, ethnic or other perceived divides. This is a multifaceted problem which requires joined up thinking and joined up government, transcending Ministerial departments and a frankly better performance than current evidence dictates. When the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, we must act with a greater degree of urgency.

First of all, cohesion.

We need to improve  networks across healthcare in Scotland – the journey that patients take when they enter the health and social care system. In practical terms, this implies investment in patient pathways that span primary and secondary care, networks of rural hospitals linked to and supported by the major teaching hospitals, rational distribution of services between neighbouring hospitals and national planning of complex service frameworks like neurosurgery and specialised children’s services.

The technological revolution, accelerated by how we are dealing with COVID, can also support a more cohesive health service. Big data and artificial intelligence in medicine allows us to build better health profiles and better predictive models around individual patients so that we can better diagnose and treat disease and understand how individuals access the health service, to better match capacity and demand. Health care cannot be something done to us; with the help of technology, it must become a genuine partnership between health professionals and citizens. For example, the new wearables under development, track specific health trends, and relay them to the cloud where physicians can monitor them. Patients suffering from asthma or blood pressure could benefit from it, or monitors for blood oxygen levels to monitor COVID patients at home with alerts to signal when further treatment might be needed, all of which confer more independence and reduce unnecessary visits to the doctor.

The remorseless process of natural selection was summarised in October 2010 by Robert Brook of the RAND Corporation, one of the pioneers of the quality revolution 20 years ago, in a leading article in the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled ‘The end of the quality improvement movement – long live improving value’. 

As we emerge from the COVID pandemic, the ensuing global economic crisis will push value further up the health agenda. In every country, ‘value’ is the key concept, and increasing value by improving outcome and reducing expenditure are the key challenges for those who deliver healthcare and those who receive it.

Secondly, collaboration.

We are never more united than when we face an existential threat such as the COVID 19 pandemic. We see high level collaboration between the four Chief Medical Officers presenting a calm, united and rational front. I am honoured to work in Oxford and have witnessed the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues who have delivered an effective vaccine and who have conducted the largest and most globally informative trials of new COVID 19 treatments. Around 29,000 patients in 176 hospital sites across the UK have been randomised to nine treatment arms, or to receive no additional treatment. During the first wave, over 10,000 patients were recruited in just two months, making it the fastest-recruiting randomised controlled trial and, in the second wave, over 6,000 patients were recruited in three weeks, demonstrating the power of unity and the necessity for collaboration across the entire UK. In my own field, medical researchers can use very  large nationally collected data sets on treatment plans and recovery rates of cancer patients in order to find trends and therapies that have the highest rates of success in the real world, leading ultimately to better patient outcomes.

Finally, cooperation.

The Covid crisis has revealed just how much we require all levels of government to cooperate together when faced with a deadly, common threat. Whether it is in the supply of personal protective equipment, the roll out of a massive new testing system, or the delivery of the vaccine, we have relied on political leaders to find common cause. Together with Gordon Brown and the Our Scottish Future think-tank, we intend to make further recommendations over the coming period on how deeper cooperation across the UK can support the delivery of  better healthcare for all citizens. This isn’t a constitutional dividing line – it’s about finding practical ways to get the best out of our health care system, be it in the supply of medicine, the application of technology, or the fight against a pandemic.

I have taken this final slide from our report of all those years ago – as true now as then, and let me ask you to judge for yourselves how far the last 15 years have taken us towards this enlightened model of how we might better deliver health to all of our folk.

Professor David Kerr is Professor of Cancer Medicine at the University of Oxford and Honorary Consultant Medical Oncologist at Oxford Cancer Centre.

Professor David Kerr was author of the National Framework for Service Change, commissioned by the then Scottish Executive in 2005 – the most wide-ranging review of how to help the NHS in Scotland manage future demand and improve health. 

Scotland Can Lead A Hydrogen Revolution

Scotland should set out an ambitious “roadmap” to ensure it becomes a world leader in the hydrogen revolution to decarbonise economies, a new paper for ScotlandCan concludes today.

Written by Professor Ronald MacDonald of Glasgow University and Dr Don MacRae of HIAlba, the paper outlines how hydrogen could do for the Scottish economy what oil and gas has done for the last fifty years. 

“We have done it once and we can do it again,” the authors reason. 

It comes with the world’s first fleet of hydrogen fuelled double deckers already rolling in Aberdeen. Meanwhile, last month, Scottish bus maker Alexander Denis announced the production of its own new double-decker which has a zero emissions range of 300 miles.  

With both Germany and Denmark already developing advanced technologies as nations race to become world leaders, the new paper declares: “Many countries have already produced a hydrogen roadmap for the future of planning and development of the hydrogen economy. It is important that Scotland produces its own.”

Representing Skye-based think tank HIAlba, the authors are adept in assessing the economic, social and environmental benefits of producing hydrogen from renewable energy and integrating this with greening the processing of oil and gas, including in offshore realms. 

More powerful and much cleaner than fossil fuels, hydrogen is increasingly being trialled not just on buses, trucks, trains, ships and planes but also in industries such as steel and cement. It has been seized on as a way to fight against global warming because it emits only water when used, and production can be carbon neutral if powered by energy sourced from renewable sources such as wind.  

However, it is still out of reach for most consumers due to the continuing high cost and complexity of its production. 

With nations across the world racing to find ways to reduce cost and improve technology, Macdonald and MacRae argue that Scotland should invest heavily in research and development now. 

They reason that: “It is vital that Scotland invests in achieving technological leadership.” 

“This will require strategic targeting of financing of public and private investment in R&D, kickstarted by seedcorn funding from public sources.” 

Their paper argues that by backing renewable sources, Scotland’s strong financial services sector could position itself as a world leader in green investment.  

They are persuasive in outlining the case that: “The Scottish Investment Bank could play a leading role in creating the environment for this to happen along with the Scottish Funding Council and the University sector.” 

The paper stresses: “Scotland is clearly already a world leader in the transition to renewable energy-based electrification, is almost self-sufficient in renewable energy and has vast potential to expand its production of renewable energy in areas such as the North Sea. Given the maturity of the North Sea hydrocarbon sector, and its further increased fragility as a result of the price falls arising during the pandemic, the need to replace this sector with an alternative, given its immense contribution to the Scottish and wider UK economy, has never been greater. The adoption of the hydrogen economy would seem to offer the ideal opportunity to do so.” 

Moving from Yes to No on Scottish Independence

Scottish social justice campaigner and supporter of Scottish independence, Ewan Gurr

Ewan Gurr | Twitter

In 2014, I voted for Scottish independence but, like many fellow Scots, I periodically revisit the reasons I lent my support to Yes and reassess if it is necessary to change course. I was not a bloody-minded, independence at any cost-type, cybernat. I was only just over the line on independence but could see multiple benefits in the union. Having never really given independence much thought before, I was persuaded to back it but I often ask myself – what would it take for me to move from Yes to No?

State of the Union

It is clear the union is under threat. In January, the Sunday Times laid bare the state of the union under the headline: ‘Our Disunited Kingdom’. It contained the twentieth consecutive poll placing Scottish independence in the lead by a margin of 52 to 48%, revealing 50% of voters in Scotland and 51% in Northern Ireland would welcome a referendum within five years, showing growing support for Welsh independence and stating voters in all UK nations thought Scotland would be independent in 10 years.

In a podcast one year before his untimely passing, the late Conservative thinker Roger Scruton said: “Brexit was a cry from the depths.” His evidence being many votes to leave the European Union came from deprived communities. This is true for several fishing communities even in Scotland which voted by majority to leave in 2016 but I believe the same applies to independence when the four local authorities to vote for it by majority in 2014 were four out of the five most deprived in Scotland. 

The Journey Towards Independence

Initial support for Scottish independence was relatively low because many like me had never given the notion much consideration. Had a pollster ever asked me on which side I fell, I might well have said No but that was simply my default position. I remember the evening, my Damascus Road moment if you will, when I switched sides. It was in the first few months of 2014 when I attended a ‘No Thanks’ event in the Bonar Hall in Dundee. The event, organised by the Scottish Labour Party, was absolutely packed. 

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the main speaker. He was in charismatic, coherent and compelling form in his defence of the union. He spoke passionately and persuasively about Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh soldiers fighting fascism in the Second World War, followed by a wonderful period of job creation and housing boom as well as the pioneering of national health and social security provision but I was left feeling cold. Were our greatest inventions, successes and victories behind us? 

These were indeed moments of national progress, often introduced by progressive and visionary Labour governments, but they were no longer leading in Holyrood nor Westminster and were incapable of stemming the tide of devastating policies like the Welfare Reform Act 2012, voted for by only a fifth of Scotland’s elected members.  

The Pursuit of Solidarity

One of the stumbling blocks to my conversion was the notion of social solidarity. I felt a fondness for my compatriots throughout the United Kingdom and could not differentiate between binmen in Dundee or Durham. However, having spent my life unravelling the effects of UK Government policy alongside people experiencing poverty, I felt as if preserving a system that entrenched and exacerbated the misery I sought to alleviate was to undermine very solidarity I was actively building. 

We still see this juxtaposition. In advance of the UK Chancellor’s Budget, his party strained over whether or not to make permanent the £20 per week uplift offered to Universal Credit claimants in March 2020, which it extended only until September 2021. Meanwhile in Scotland, elected members welcomed the new Scottish Child Payment, which could assist 443,000 children and lift around 30,000 out of relative poverty. We have two governments taking two divergent approaches to poverty.

As the referendum neared, The Guardian columnist George Monbiot became an ointment in an arena of opponents and articulated ideas I had struggled to execute by suggesting Scottish independence was less about Scotland cutting off its neighbours and more about insulating its citizens from policies its elected members voted against.

Challenges Facing Both Sides

Various challenges bedevil the Scottish independence proposition. There are still no coherent answers on currency or the economy, momentum for independence is driven more by disdain towards Boris Johnson than a compelling vision for an independent Scotland and, after 22 polls showing consistent growth in support for Scottish independence, Survation published a poll with a marginal lead for the union ahead of the former and current First Ministers’ evidence sessions on sexual harassment allegations.

However, various challenges also bedevil the unionist proposition. The ascent of independence lies upon a void left by the absence of a robust counter-narrative. Katy Balls, in an article for The Spectator entitled ‘Can the Union be Saved?’, wrote: “A focused campaign could deny Sturgeon a majority in May.” The stated focus for unionists should be to stay low and say little because the SNP are doing a fine job of eviscerating their own electoral fortunes without any need for additional help.

A Compelling Vision for Scotland

First and foremost, I am a democrat. I lost in 2014 and respected that a majority of my fellow natives were not persuaded by the prospectus. That said, unless there is a large-scale, radical and sweeping change which enables Scotland to take a different policy trajectory from the United Kingdom then the ascent of independence will not abate. The most recent poll by Ipsos Mori shows how tight the margin is but it is incumbent upon both sides to construct a compelling vision for a future Scotland. 

But are there circumstances in which I could see myself switching sides? Yes.

Ewan Gurr is a columnist for the Evening Telegraph. He established Dundee Foodbank and is the former head of The Trussell Trust in Scotland. Separately, Ewan is a non-executive director for Social Security Scotland and the Treasurer of Restore Scotland. This article is written in a personal capacity. You can read more from Ewan here.

Lessons from Success and Failure in Scotland’s Education System

Education Consultant and Chair of Reform Scotland's Commission on School Reform, Keir Bloomer on a purple background with a child and building blocks

Keir Bloomer

For five years, between 2014 and 2019, an unusual – and highly successful – experimental school operated in Glasgow’s South Side. Newlands Junior College (NJC) was the brainchild of the well-known entrepreneur, Jim McColl. It aimed to meet the needs of young people who had disengaged from mainstream secondary education and whose future prospects looked bleak.

It is known that fairly consistently every year around 50% of Scottish statutory school leavers, those who leave at age 16 move onto a job, apprenticeship or further education. 30% move on to training of some kind. The last 20%, including the cohort described above, those of most concern, are completely lost. And that 20% is not spread evenly across Scotland, we see a concentration in our areas of multiple deprivation.

Literature and legend often feature highly successful individuals who were failures at school. The reality is that such people are few and the extent of their school failure is often overstated. In the case of the young people enrolled in NJC, their former schools estimated their chances of gaining a ‘positive destination’ to be around 1 in 4. The overwhelming probability is that they would gain no qualifications or, at best, a smattering of passes at the lowest level of recognised national award.

Positive destination is the term used by the Scottish Government to indicate that a school leaver has gone on to a further stage of education or into an apprenticeship or employment. The definition is broad and includes, for example, very short training experiences and dead-end jobs that few neutral observers would consider very positive. School leavers of the kind who made up the NJC student body seldom attain a genuinely positive destination. Insecure, low-paid work is often the best they can hope for.

This is obviously a personal tragedy but it is also a serious economic and social problem. Modern economies treat failure harshly. Poverty is increasing. The gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is widening. Opportunities to catch up are few and diminishing. The unsuccessful school leaver is much more likely to spend adult life as a benefit recipient than a tax-payer.

Almost all social ills are strongly correlated with each other. To be poor is often to be in ill health. Natural health problems may well be accentuated by substance abuse. Contact with the criminal justice system is likely to follow. And so on.

Technically, NJC was a school. It catered for young people below the age at which they could leave school. However, it did not look like a school or feel like one. It occupied premises on an industrial site and had much of the appearance of a workplace. At the same time, it was small and informal.

It had one other feature which made it almost unique. It could be described as a public/private partnership. A very significant part of its costs were met by McColl’s company, Clyde Blowers and its founding partners. There were other substantial private backers. At the same time, around a third of the costs were met by public funds, both from the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council. Such an arrangement is practically unknown in the school sector.

The public thus had a stake in NJC. Experiments may succeed or fail. Most fall somewhere between the two. The public can legitimately expect that, whatever the outcome, lessons will be drawn from the experience. In this case, that expectation has not been fulfilled.

In the course of its brief existence, NJC took in 134 young people. Their former schools had few expectations for their futures. When the junior college closed in 2019, 26 students were well short of the statutory leaving age of 16 and were returned to Glasgow schools. Their post-school destinations are unknown and, in any event, owe more to their school experience than their relatively brief experience of NJC. Almost all – 82 out of 89, or 92% – of those who completed their courses at NJC went on to positive destinations; almost all to apprenticeships or further education. 19 failed to attend, moved back to school or, for other reasons, did not complete their courses.

What lessons can be learned from this outstanding level of success? There are many but these are the most important. First and most vital; a small and intimate scale combined with a strong team of trusted adults created the kind of ethos in which positive relationships developed and flourished. The partnership with City of Glasgow College and some business partners created a customised and high quality vocational strand in the curriculum. A focus on personal development transformed attitudes and made of young people apparently headed for failure, the kind of people who can succeed. Other factors such as good meals and transport played a part.

Unfortunately, there is another lesson to be learned. After less than five years, Newlands closed. The public/private partnership disintegrated. The city council took back the young people and claimed to be learning from the NJC experience.

Unfortunately, they failed to learn the most basic lesson. Success depends on cultivating strong relationships above all. With these young people, that cannot be achieved in a school catering for many hundreds.

This lesson can be viewed in another way. Scottish school education has strengths but there are growing concerns about its weaknesses. It needs to be enterprising and innovative. One lesson of NJC, however, is that, even when faced with clear evidence of what works, it does not innovate but reverts to type, even when government has been enthusiastically supportive of the experiment.

What is it about the way that Scottish education is managed and about its culture that inhibits change? Unless that question is honestly addressed and remedies are found, an important section of young Scots will continue to be failed with all the personal and social consequences described earlier.

Dr Keir Bloomer is an independent education consultant, and chair of Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform.

Call For Innovation Fund to End “Risk-Averse” Scottish Education

Chief Economist at the Social Market Foundation, Aveek Bhattacharya, on a light purple background

Aveek Bhattacharya | Twitter

The next Scottish Government should create a new Innovation Fund for schools to combat Scotland’s “risk averse” educational culture, a new report declares today. 

Published jointly by ScotlandCan and the Social Market Foundation, the new paper concludes that Scotland’s schools system is “cautious, conformist, risk averse and stuck in its ways – in a word, stagnant”. 

Constrained by a middle-management layer which seeks to avoid “rocking the boat”, the report argues that the next Scottish Government should do more to incentivise innovative approaches and ask schools to come up with new ideas suitable for their students. 

These could include cross-discipline student projects such as engineering and software design, vocational options, inter-year classes, or programmes that get parents and families more involved in school life. 

In other recommendations, the report says that the Scottish Government should: 

  • Make innovation and experimentation an explicit part of the remit of educational bodies, especially Regional Improvement Collaboratives
  • Diversify hiring and appointments to key roles in government and agencies
  • Support forums for the exchange of ideas
  • Invest in research and knowledge exchange 

Written by SMF chief economist Aveek Bhattacharya – who was educated at Cults Academy in Aberdeen– the report is based on interviews with leading Scottish education experts and is based on evidence compiled on Scottish education by the OECD and others. 

In his report, Mr Bhattacharya says that claims Scottish education is failing are “over-stated”. Rather, the report concurs with analysis by Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University that it suffers from “stagnation” 

He concludes: “Though experts disagree about the state and direction of Scottish school education, there is a remarkable degree of consensus over its cultural malaise. The accounts of academics, journalists, activists and school leaders converge to present a picture of a system that is cautious, conformist, risk averse and stuck in its ways – in a word, stagnant. This will not do if the country is to meet the social, educational and technological challenges of the years to come, not least in the wake of the current pandemic.” 

The report concludes that a dedicated Innovation Fund could help to shift priorities, providing the impetus for broader cultural change. 

It argues that, in order to demonstrate the value placed on innovation, schools which come up with the most effective initiatives should be able to apply for an “Innovation prize”, perhaps presented by the First Minister. 

The report sets out the key blocks to innovation in Scotland: 

  • A culture of micromanagement which has led to teachers being overloaded with bureaucracy
  • The role of the “middle layer” – the local authorities and new Regional Improvement Collaboratives – which sit between schools and national government, and are seen as a “brake” on innovation
  • Senior personnel in leading educational bodies who are too insular and defensive of the status quo. The report declares that “there is a sense that to progress to senior position within the system, people have to conform and avoid ‘rocking the boat”. It adds that senior educational leaders form a “relatively insular group, rotating on a ‘merry-go-round’ with limited outside influence” the report adds.
  • The lack of time and resources – 63% of teachers’ time is in the classroom teaching, way above the OECD average of 43%
  • Too little opportunity for school innovators to compare and contrast new approaches
  • An overly rigid inspection process which discourages “out of the box” thinking
  • A lack of research and evaluation as to “what works”. 

Eddie Barnes, project manager for ScotlandCan said: “This important piece of research sets out some practical steps Scotland can take now to make our schools more dynamic and innovative. It’s now for all political parties at the coming Holyrood election to set out clear plans on how they intend not just to restore education, but to improve on what went before.” 

Aveek Bhattacharya is Chief Economist at the Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think tank. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics, comparing education policy in Scotland and England. He is available for interview on request. 

Good COP? Bad COP? Or Fair COP?

Ed Gillespie | Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook | Instagram

For those of us who might consider ourselves battle-hardened but weary ‘veterans’ of the Climate COP process over the last quarter of a century, the cycle of triumphant hope over realistic expectation and invariable disappointment is all too familiar. The dismal failure of ‘Hopenhagen’ (COP15) in 2009 during the contrived ‘Climategate’ scandal, followed by the cautious welcome for the ambitious aspirations of the Paris Agreement (COP21) in 2015, is just a snapshot of the wild rollercoaster we’ve ridden for most of our careers. The ‘good COP, bad COP’ narrative vividly embodies that hoary cliché of noir-detective interrogation techniques that exploit the disorientating dynamic of shrill threat and sympathetic trust to ‘crack’ the subject’s resistance. Will we get a ‘bad COP’ of corporate greenwash, political-posturing and self-congratulatory back-slapping for the delivery of insufficient targets that still send us all to Hell in a handcart? Or might we dare to entertain the idea of a ‘good COP’ the twenty-sixth time around? Maybe the public will just be bamboozled by the full spectrum media spin that will claim both as ‘real’ outcomes depending on your perspective?

Already the stage is set for the usual quixotic mix of lofty idealism, showboating commitments and behind the scenes gerrymandering. The UK, Glasgow and Scotland’s leadership positioning is bumping up against the wilful cognitive dissonance of a new Cumbrian coal mine, the economic justification of which is akin to Darth Vader describing the construction of a new Death Star as an ‘amazing job creation opportunity’ (or ‘absolutely ridiculous’ according to Professor Sir Bob Watson). Yes Darth. But it destroys planets. And merely consolidates a ‘do as we say, not as we do’ colonialist and patrician message to other emerging economies around the world.

Beyond these ‘Death Star Economics’ there is a more sinister movement of ‘predatory delay’, the deliberate slowing of the transition towards a genuinely zero carbon future by those who continue to profit from the status quo, whilst the devastating costs of those activities continue to be borne by us all, and  for whom the pace of the change required is genuinely commercially extremely uncomfortable, and in many cases untenable. 

But there is also always hope. ‘The Just Transition’ is the mantra. How do we redeploy the vast expertise and experience of Scotland’s fossil-fuel offshore engineering skills into renewable energy? The UK is a key global player in offshore wind, seven of the ten biggest turbine farms in the world are in our wind-whipped waters, and the Prime Minister himself has trumpeted the enormous potential for domestic electricity that can come from a resource the International Energy Agency has described as having the ability to provide all global electricity needs. Eighteen times over. At Greenpeace we’ve been saying this for almost two decades. 

“It’s a story we as the UK should be rightly proud of, engineering a second clean and green industrial revolution after our first rather less auspicious coal-powered version.”

When I lived in Orkney in the mid-nineties experimental wind turbines were built of concrete, were punishingly noisy (if you could hear them over the gales) and a parochial, remote outlier in the energy mix literally laughed at by the local oil industry. Now they are a genuinely international success story. Scottish Power has led the way, divesting all it’s fossil fuel and hydropower assets to focus exclusively on renewables. The next generation turbines being installed are as high as London’s Shard, multi-megawatt in output, and leaner, sleeker floating turbines will be next. And it’s a story we as the UK should be rightly proud of, engineering a second clean and green industrial revolution after our first rather less auspicious coal-powered version.

However maintaining the linear corporate industrial ‘pipe’ model of electricity is only part of the solution. Leaving power generation and distribution primarily in the hands of large corporations and the rest of us as passive ‘consumers’ misses an enormous opportunity for the vibrant, cohesive, decentralised, distributed and resilient model of community renewables.

It is hard to overstate the exciting possibility of an electricity and energy system powered also by smaller onshore wind turbines, millions of solar-roofed households and locally generated heat, from anaerobic digestion to ‘poo power’. An electric vehicle fleet operating collectively as a ‘national battery’ to store excess renewable energy. A system that is more significantly about power to, by and for the people as active producers, customers and crucially owners in a mutual web of connection. 

But that is not going to happen by accident. That will need to be demanded, and regulated for. We need to level the playing field to pay small electricity producers the same prices for their watts as the big boys and girls. We need to remove the barriers to entry. We need to make community renewables generate the same local pride, investment and sense of ownership that was felt in the former coal-mining communities of the past. 

This is real ‘people power’. It is also I believe wildy populist in the positive sense. We also have the not immodest target of somehow making the UK’s entire housing stock ‘net zero’, which involves retrofitting tens of millions of households. When surveyed in regard to national infrastructure spending that’s what people really want. Not new roads or heaven forfend HS2. But cosy homes.

The good news is people are engaging more. The ‘Marmite’ effect of Extinction Rebellion and Great Thunberg has brought our lack of genuine climate preparedness as a group of nations onto the agenda. ‘Tell the truth. And act like that truth is real’ is still the single most persuasive climate campaign slogan I’ve heard in over two decades of activism. And the UK’s first National Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change, an authentically representative cross-section of demography, drew up core principles along similar lines, the top 4 of which were: informing and educating everyone (i.e. ‘truth-telling’), fairness, government leadership and nature-based solutions. 

“It would be amazing in a city famed for its history of collective social activism to see us begin to realise the proper potential for a people-led mass transformation of UK energy and our homes.”

So what do I hope for from Glasgow? Well it would be amazing in a city famed for its history of collective social activism to see us begin to realise the proper potential for a people-led mass transformation of UK energy and our homes. To begin the reimagination of farming, land use and rewilding to change our diets. To relocalise our cities into convivial ’15 minute’ walkable, cyclable hubs in a post-pandemic world beyond the traditional commute. To ensure those with the highest carbon footprints are actively disincentivised through equitable mechanisms like the Frequent Flyer Levy, whilst improving the quality of life and comfort for the poorest  and most vulnerable with the lowest.

For me there is no fear in the prospect of this new world that is already being born in small pockets and enclaves across the UK, only the imaginative possibility of a much better tomorrow for us all. When the bunfight is over come November it would be fantastic to hear muttered in Glaswegian pubs: ‘Aye, now that was a fair COP’.

Ed Gillespie is the author of ‘Only Planet’ and a poetry collection ‘Songs of Love in Lockdown’. He co-presents two podcasts ‘The Great Humbling’  and ‘Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts –  How to survive the Future’. He is a Director of Greenpeace UK, a Facilitator at The Forward Institute and involved in numerous ethical start-up businesses as an advisor, investor or mentor.

“It’s Not Scotland’s Oil, or Anyone Else’s. Is it Time to Stop Drilling Now?”

Scottish political commentator, Blair McDougall, on a dark and light purple background

Blair McDougall | Twitter

In November the world will gather in Glasgow for a summit on climate change that is being touted as the world’s last chance to stop runaway climate change. As Glaswegians, we will feel pride as the focus of the world lands on our city. As Scots, we will congratulate ourselves that, once again, we are contributing to the development of all humankind. The reality is that the hosts of the summit will be hypocrites.

The summit will take place in a nation where the political class are committed to supporting irreversible climate change. Why? Because the government and main opposition parties support squeezing out as much of the fossil fuels from beneath the North Sea and we can. 

Before November Scotland must come together for a moment of honesty: it is simply not possible to support this policy, known as Maximum Economic Recovery (MER), and oppose climate change.

The Paris Agreement, secured at a previous summit, aims to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to aim for a no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius increase. Scientists tell us that the potential carbon emissions from burning the oil, gas, and coal in the fields and mines where extraction is already underway are more than enough to exceed the 2 °C limit. Even after removing coal from the equation, burning the oil and gas from these sources already under production is enough to exceed the 1.5 °C threshold.  

In short: if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we have a responsibility to stop production in oil fields already being exploited, sooner rather than later. 

This responsibility to leave our fossil fuels in the ground should fall more heavily on Scotland and the UK than other nations. It simply is not fair to expect the burden of halting extraction to fall equally on developing and developed countries. Firstly, as nations that have been industrialised longest, and so have been heavy carbon polluters for far longer, we are more to blame for the problem. With less than a fifth of the world’s population, industrialised countries are responsible for nearly two-thirds of historic carbon pollution. Secondly, it would be entirely unjust to make it more difficult for the nations that only now are developing the energy access we reached generations ago. Giving them more space to develop their energy infrastructure is essential to our efforts to tackle global poverty.

The leadership of our political parties understand this, yet we will host the summit weighed down with a huge contradiction. Other leaders have acted on the science, like Jacinda Ardern who has banned new fossil fuel exploration or the Danish social democrats who have done the same and set a date for the end of extraction. Meanwhile, we have enshrined in legislation both maximising fossil fuel extraction and minimising carbon emissions. 

Changes to the politics and economics of Scotland present an opportunity for a new consensus to be created ahead of Glasgow. North Sea Oil has been central to our national debate for my entire life, but its political power is waning. 

In 2014 the Scottish Government’s independence plans assumed oil revenues of around £8 billion a year that would pay for social change. Four years later the SNP’s Growth Commission contained familiar rhetoric on oil revenues but their fiscal plans, which assumed no oil revenues, reflected the reality of the near-zero tax-take from the industry. On the pro-Union side of the divide, we touted the financial firepower that backs the exploitation of ageing, uneconomic fields. Going forward does either camp really want to build their prospectus for the future on supporting environmental disaster? To do so would be both irresponsible and immoral. 

While there has been a big shift in the political context, there are still risks from taking a more honest position on climate change and fossil fuels. For socialists, the scars from communities abandoned by the loss of extractive industries is as deep in our emotional make-up as the sentiment behind ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ is for nationalists.

There’s good reason to fear that oil field communities will face a similar fate to the coalfield, steelworks or textile mill, communities, where well-paid jobs were replaced by any job you could get. Trade Unions representing both oil workers and renewable engineers are angry that of the 28,000 green jobs were promised by the SNP a decade ago, only 1,700 have materialised. They are left protesting as the Scottish Government loses green jobs at sites like Bifab or sources green manufacturing from overseas. Not so much the promised Saudi Arabia of renewables, more a jobs desert. 

The last decade hasn’t been entirely lost, there are many examples of companies diversifying into green industries, but as a nation, we haven’t grasped the opportunity to have a first-mover advantage. We can still be an early-mover. Aberdeen is uniquely well-placed for wind, wave developments but for these industries to develop it needs to be backed by meaningful government targets and strategic investment. 

The question isn’t whether the oil and gas industry will wind down. It isn’t really even a question of when it will begin. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost after the oil price crashed in 2014. Unions believe another 14 thousand oil and gas jobs have been lost during the pandemic. This isn’t just volatility; the decline is already happening. The question is when does widespread extraction end? Do we move into new greener industries sooner or later? It will be better if our engineering sector takes up opportunities at the start of this transition rather than fighting for scraps at the tail-end. Green energy is the global growth industry. It is better to be a seed of new growth than the last leaf on a dying tree.

Before the Holyrood elections, the three main political parties should give each other the political cover they need. They should stand together and declare that Maximum Economic Recovery should be dropped. They should put forward an amendment to the Infrastructure Act removing its legal basis and replacing it with a legal duty to immediately begin to transition out of fossil fuels in line with our net-zero commitments. Like Denmark they  should set a date for the end of extraction. For the world, it would be a powerful display of leadership ahead of Glasgow. For Scotland, it would be a much-needed moment of consensus in a bitterly divided age, a chance to give fresh life to our moribund politics.

Ending MER would be throwing our hats over the wall. Thus far, targets on climate change stretch so far into the future that they are forgotten and replaced before anyone notices they were missed. No politician ever resigned over missing a target set ten years and ten ministers ago.  Starting a countdown clock on the end of fossil fuels extraction would create the urgency, political competition and accountability that has been lacking. 

The counterargument, driven by well-founded fears, is that we cannot commit to ending fossil fuel extraction until we have a plan to create replacement jobs or replacing the role oil and gas play in our energy supplies. But the truth is we will never seriously commit to creating those green jobs or investing in new energy infrastructure until we commit to ending extraction. Governments will go on creating processes and making vague commitments. A promise without a hard deadline is a lie. The plan for transition should absolutely be built through consensus with workers and communities, especially around Aberdeen. That is about agreeing details, Governments still have to set the destination and how long we have to get there. Leaders have to lead, not just convene. 

Ditching MER will incentivise governments to give the birth of new industries the same sort of blank cheque that has been given at the death of an old one. Decommissioning, for example, will cost the taxpayers something upwards of £24 billion – those are the sort of numbers that should be attached to green industry announcements, not the single-digit millions that are put out in press releases to make it look like our governments are doing something. Think of the €40 billion of funds earmarked by the German Coal Commission to compensate for and adapt to the decision to end that industry as soon as 2035. 

As well as making significant investments, the UK and Scottish Governments will have to put aside other arguments to work together. For example, there is no good in the UK government investing billions in new industry in the North East of Scotland if the Scottish Government isn’t also investing big in skills so that the workers in the area transition can actually into these jobs. 

Congratulating ourselves for failure has become Scotland’s national disease. We prefer to tell ourselves a reassuring story about how special we are rather than confronting uncomfortable truths. This is an opportunity to break from that, a chance to talk big and act big. 

Sooner or later though, we’re going to have to stop extracting fossil fuels. For the good of our environment, it needs to be sooner. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to start spending serious money on creating well-paid jobs and oil and gas workers into them.  For the good of our economy, it needs to be sooner. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to pick a side in the war against climate change. For the good of our moral standing as hosts of the Glasgow summit, it needs to be sooner.

Blair McDougall is a former Special Adviser and ran the official No campaign in the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence. He now works as a strategist and with democratic activists in developing nations. You can subscribe to his newsletter on Scottish Politics here.

The Greta Effect: ‘It’s Our Future We’re Fighting For’

Greta Thunberg and young Scottish climate activists in a purple and white background

Lois Mackenzie

In 2015 our screens were flock with images of a young Swedish activist standing outside her school urging us to take note of the ongoing climate emergency. At just 15 years old, Greta Thunberg spent her days protesting outside of parliament and organising school strikes to protest the damage being done to the climate. Since then she has gone on to address the United Nations, challenge politicians and encourage her generation world-wide to step up and make a change. 

Many hoped to forget about this teenager and simply ignored her pleas as she’d eventually find a new hobby and move on. Unfortunately for them the ‘Greta effect’ is now being heard and felt worldwide; encouraging teenagers, adults even the elderly to make a difference and protect our planet. 

But especially encouraging teenagers. If one teenager can make such a difference to global thinking, imagine what an uprising of teenagers could do. And it’s happening. More and more teenagers are refusing to sit back and leave the work to the politicians, the grown-ups and the ones who got the world into this mess. 

With COP26 fast approaching, young activists all over Scotland are speaking up to make sure their voices will be heard and that climate change will no longer be ignored.

Young climate activist Finlay, one of Scotland's Greta Thunberg

Finlay Pringle is one such activist. Just 13 years old, Finlay hails his inspiration from the surroundings he has grown up with in Ullapool: 

“Living next to the sea it is fascinating being on the beach and in the water watching the fish and the amazing marine life we have here. Spending time underwater snorkelling and seeing all this life first hand made me realise that I had to do something to protect the place that I love.”

At just 13 years old Finlay has already reached his two year anniversary of striking for climate change, and is the first person in the UK to do a climate strike, with 105 strikes now under his belt. 

“At the end of the day it’s our future we’re fighting for. Previous generations have allowed these problems to develop by failing to take action and refusing to clean up the mess. So, it’s up to us young people to make the difference because if we don’t act by 2030 it will be too late.”

Finlay hasn’t just stopped at striking. Alongside his primary school he made Ullapool the first plastic straw free village in the UK. Finlay is also an active member of Ocean Heroes and has participated in the Young Activists Summit 2020 from UN Geneva.

Young climate activist Eric, one of Scotland's Greta Thunberg, speaking to a crowd with a microphone

Another young activist is Eric Ness. A member of Nairn Extinction Rebellion, 15 year old Eric first began taking part in climate strikes in in March 2019, saying his inspiration came from watching Greta Thunberg.

“ I feel that it is important for young people to stand up and make a difference because it is our future and we will be the ones that have to live with the effects of climate change.”

Eric has since arranged school strikes every Friday, as well as protests against fast fashion at Eastgate Shopping Centre in Inverness.

Young climate activist Florence, one of Scotland's Greta Thunberg

16 year old Florence Spreadborough from Moray too credits her activism to the Greta-effect. While teenagers worldwide had previously felt insignificant and unimportant in such political matters, they have been inspired to stand up and assured that their voice matters.

“I was extremely inspired by Greta Thunberg, before I knew about her I felt like no one would listen to me because of my age or take me seriously but thanks to Greta I felt a sense of urgency and purpose which was missing from my life previously”.

Florence is an active member of Forres Extinction rebellion and the youngest member of the red rebel brigade in Scotland, a performance artivist troupe dedicated to illuminating the global environmental crisis.

When talking about why young people have decided to step up and take action, Florence spoke of the effect of climate change on younger generations.

“When you grow up you are always taught that adults know best but how can they know best if this is the world they leave behind. In fifty years’ time many of the adults in power now won’t be around to witness the devastation that their inaction has caused. Young people must speak out as the decisions made today will affect our whole lives.”

To change people’s mind on climate change Florence doesn’t believe in blame or criticism, but simply asking, “what kind of future do you want?”.

What kind of future do we want is the question teenagers worldwide hope will be asked at the upcoming COP26 conference, as world leaders come together in Glasgow to stop the irreversible effects of climate change. 

Invest Now, Lead the World Tomorrow: The Transformation of the ‘North Sea’ into a ‘Green Sea’

Scotland can turn the North Sea into a “Green Sea” as part of a national effort to become a zero-carbon society and create thousands of new jobs, a new report says today

The paper – ScotlandCan‘s first – sets out three major steps Scotland can and should take to lead the world in cutting emissions, while creating new work opportunities for Scots. 

  • Decarbonise O&G activity in the North Sea – via investment in platform electrification and offshore power integration strategy
  • Take full advantage of North Sea decommissioning activities and exploit the c.£80 billion global market 
  • Take a ‘big bet’ on the next generation of renewables: hydrogen, the ‘fuel of the future’ and carbon capture technology

The report calls on the Scottish and UK Governments to agree a joint strategy which sets out ambitious and clear targets for investment and renewal.  

“A Green North Sea will bring exciting opportunities for Scotland, both in its ability to lead the way towards the renewable focused future and in transforming its economy at home.”

“The time is now to signal our intent – both politically and fiscally – into the future of the North Sea Transition.

“Scotland must collaborate with the UK government to achieve these Green Sea objectives. A divided island will only act to curtail progress and potential – streamlining policy and fiscal funding, with support for Scotland’s industries, will allow Scotland, and the wider UK to benefit.”

It concludes:  “As COP26 comes to Glasgow in November 2021, we have an opportunity to show our true ‘Green leadership’. The world is watching, the opportunity is there, it is now up to our governments to act.” 

The new paper, which has been written in consultation with Scottish energy experts and industry leaders, has been released alongside a report by leading energy expert and former BP executive Nick Butler which argues that “the best is yet to come” in the North Sea if Scotland and the UK cooperate on a joint plan.

We will use the coming two weeks to highlight the opportunities and choices that could be made by Scotland now, both offshore and onshore, to lead the world in carbon reduction. 

Today’s report opposes proposals to end oil and gas activity in the North Sea, warning that such a move would leave the UK short of energy and reliant on emission heavy imports we cannot control or de-carbonise. 

Instead, it supports a managed drawdown of oil and gas activity, combined with rapid investment in a new renewable energy plan for Scotland. 

With oil and gas activity likely to continue well into the 2050s, the report says we should invest in electrifying the rigs network, so they no longer rely on gas for power, and integrating where possible with other offshore power sources such as wind farms. This could cut emissions from the sector by 40% within a decade. 

It calls for the UK and Scottish Governments to power up a new decommissioning strategy, both to service old rigs in the North Sea, and abroad. Capturing decommissioning spend in the North Sea is worth c.£1.5 billion annually, whilst exporting Scottish expertise abroad will help Scotland capture a line share of the £80 billion global spend in the next decade alone.

And for the longer term, the paper says Scotland must catch up in the race to develop carbon-free hydrogen as the energy of the future, and to complement that with a major increase in carbon capture and storage. To support this end use applications utilizing this technology must also be developed.

Eddie Barnes, project manager for ScotlandCan said today: “The opportunities that lie ahead for Scotland in the new economy. Scotland can be a world leader in the new green revolution and show other countries the way in how to transition from dirty energy to a clean future.” 

Evie Robertson, the report’s author said: “The report makes clear that what Scotland needs is an unequivocal commitment from our governments that they are working side by side on a joint strategy for the long-term. Tens of thousands of jobs depend on it, as does our shared wish to become a zero carbon society over the coming years.”