Forth Green Freeport and Edinburgh's net-zero target at risk as SNP seek to make an ironic point – John McLellan

With Edinburgh Council still placing so much faith in its unachievable goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, it’s quite extraordinary that councillors are poo-poohing a project which could be at the heart of Scotland’s renewable energy sector.

The Firth of Forth Green Freeport plan would benefit Grangemouth, above, as well as Leith and other coastal places
The Firth of Forth Green Freeport plan would benefit Grangemouth, above, as well as Leith and other coastal places

It’s not at all clear how anyone in the SNP, Green or Lib Dem group expects this target to be reached without continued significant investment in sustainable power, but the upshot of their decision last week to go back on a letter of support for a Forth Green Freeport bid is a £6bn investment in the estuary could be at risk.

The UK and Scottish Governments agreed to establish two Green Freeports in February and will announce the winning bids by the end of the year, but the failure of a key council like Edinburgh to support the project, led by Forth Ports, to boost Leith, Grangemouth and Kirkcaldy, could be that it founders and takes the prospect of some 50,000 news jobs down with it.

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Announcing the deal, Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said the concept would help create “new green jobs, deliver a just transition and support our economic transformation”, and the UK Government put up £52m to make it happen. What, then, was not to like?

The problem is it appears Edinburgh Council officers thought the same, and in cahoots with newly installed council leader Cammy Day, went ahead and wrote a letter of support in June without referring details back to councillors, as had been specifically instructed in a previous council motion.

So, having presided over an authority which repeatedly played fast and loose with procedures in the past five years, the SNP is now on the attack because officers paid scant regard to a democratic decision because they were up against a deadline.

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Paul Lawrence, director of place, had no choice but to make a grovelling apology at last Thursday’s Policy and Sustainability committee, but for a department responsible for the construction of the vast Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens without the necessary planning permission, no-one should be that surprised.

But the combination of officer arrogance and now the resultant pig-headedness of councillors prepared to jeopardise a national infrastructure project on a point of principle has real implications far beyond Edinburgh’s boundaries.

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There are five Scottish bids for two projects, so success for the Forth Ports vision cannot be taken for granted, and because of this mess there is every chance that Fife and Falkirk councils could miss out on game-changing investment because Edinburgh Council couldn’t get its act together.

This is yet another example of how senior officers have taken councillors for granted, and if the letter of support is finally approved at December’s full council meeting, and even if the bid is successful, it should not be the end of the matter. The Conservative group has repeatedly raised questions about accountability at the heart of the authority, and just as often those concerns were dismissed by the SNP as petty politicking.

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With customary lack of self-awareness last week, SNP leader Adam McVey spoke about the irony of the Conservative group defending the council’s position, but as to how the conditions in which officers can treat proper process as an option were created and maintained, he should look much closer to home.