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‘Norway has an oil fund; Highland should have a renewables fund,’ urged Highland Council’s leader Margaret Davidson, calling for radical action to tackle fuel poverty in a region known as Scotland’s ‘engine for renewables’.
Speaking after the London Real Estate Forum, which brings together thought-leaders to consider how to shape better cities, Ms Davidson said: ‘We are massive exporters of renewable energy, and it’s only getting bigger. I’m astonished at the range of ideas coming forward.’
Earlier this year, councillors were told hydrogen could ‘evolve the region’s unique role as Scotland’s engine for renewables’. They threw their weight behind plans for a green hydrogen hub at the Cromarty Firth and to designate the area as a Green Port, a model adapted from the UK Government’s freeport scheme.
Mrs Davidson said responsible firms with clear 10-year strategies for moving towards net zero should be encouraged, but the council must ensure that it’s not just the big estates mopping up the money. Communities must also benefit from these development opportunities.
She says Highland communities continue to live in fuel poverty and rural isolation, and its time to reset that balance. ‘We need to be telling these big firms that they must leave more behind than just the scraps on the table,’ she said. ‘We have the landscape and we have the renewables. So yes, come up here and do hydrogen, do wind energy, but you will be expected to support our infrastructure and our socio-economic development.’
‘Norway has an oil fund; Highland should have a renewables fund,’ she argued.
Highland has some of the poorest housing in Scotland. According to the Scottish Housing Condition Survey this year, one third of Highland households are living in fuel poverty – significantly above the Scottish average of 24 per cent. The council’s own figures also show that around 12 per cent are living in ‘extreme’ fuel poverty.
These stark figures coupled with the council’s declaration of a climate emergency have led to an extensive retrofitting exercise across the council’s property estate, starting with its 15,000 tenants.
Mrs Davidson also wants the local authority to consider private sector housing and raise ambitions across the board. That said, the leader acknowledged that the council must also set its own house in order. While it settles to the task of moving its fleet electric, it also has a big exercise in shifting its HGVs and private cars to hydrogen fuel.
‘We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done,’ said councillor Davidson. ‘We need to be crystal clear about how we plan to get to net zero carbon. The big lesson I have taken from down south is that despite our geographical size and incredible opportunities, we have to work very hard to attract the investment. We need to get both governments in the zone to help us deliver benefits for the whole country.’
If Highland does its part, says Mrs Davidson, then both the UK and the Scottish governments need to deliver the legislation and the finance to crank up progress.