Coastal Communities

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd February 2022.

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Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I congratulate Ariane Burgess on bringing the debate to the chamber. As a fellow Highlands and Islands MSP, she will know that our region’s relationship with our seas is long, often complex and sometimes difficult. Standing as they do in the way of communication, travel and interaction, our seas have at times been an obstacle to be overcome. However, as Ariane Burgess suggested and highlighted, our coasts have also been a vital source of food, trade, employment and leisure since the earliest times.

Around a fifth of Scotland’s population, including me, live within 1km of the coast, which shapes the communities around it. It is because of the significance of our coastline to Scotland as a whole that work to preserve and revitalise coastal communities—with an emphasis on the preservation of our environmental heritage—is so pressing.

The challenge for those coastal communities is to find a balance between the coast as an essential working resource and as a habitat that merits preservation. Our impact must be sustainable because, when we look at climate change and ecological damage, our coasts are on the front line. Even subtle changes in the environment can have a considerable impact on plant and animal life. Coastal erosion can act as a wrecking ball and have an enormous impact on the communities nearby, most notably by increasing flooding and other risks.

Although inaction has its costs, poor-quality management can create enduring problems, too. Local communities are often best placed to find and balance the solutions and priorities that are most necessary to them. Public bodies, whether they are local authorities or national-level groups like NatureScot, are at their best when they work closely with the communities that they serve. Those communities also need to be sustainable. It is by recognising the human element—those who have, for generations, worked the sea—that we find a need to ensure that it can continue to be a valued resource.

Travelling home to Orkney, I pass the now deserted island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth. A hundred years ago, it had nearly 300 inhabitants, but it is now just an island of sheep and abandoned houses—a community lost.

Looking forward, inshore fisheries will remain an important part of our coastal economy, and working with that sector will be a key part of driving change forward.

Decades of oil and gas extraction have brought benefits to a number of coastal communities in my region—particularly Orkney and Shetland—so a credible, fair transition away from oil and gas will be essential. That is well understood by those communities, but it will need the support of Government at all levels.

Above all, our coasts can work for us, and they must play a key role in any sustainable economic transition. Their potential contribution to renewable energy—from offshore wind and marine energy to projects to harness hydrogen power and so much more—will be essential if we are to manage that process of change effectively. Give those communities the tools and they will thrive. All the while, if managed appropriately, the sea will remain the world’s biggest carbon capture and storage facility.

I appreciate that there has been a renewed interest in our coasts. The motion commends the work of the Coastal Communities Network, an organisation that is composed of community groups that are heavily concentrated in our region. The individual and collective work of those bodies has been impressive.

I am sure that the minister will have something to say about the Scottish Government’s efforts through mechanisms such as the nature restoration fund. I was also pleased to hear Scotland Office minister, Iain Stewart, speak yesterday about the role of coastal communities in the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda, including support for sustaining and repurposing ports and harbours, and additional backing to improve the long-term prospects of our fishing industry.

Working sustainably with our seas is deeply embedded in the traditions of my region. Today, we recognise communities that are taking up that mantle.

Our coast is a great asset for us and, on a note of optimism, much of it is in good condition and materially better off than a generation ago. However, more can be achieved and new challenges are on the horizon. Change must happen, and Government and communities must play an active and collaborative role in that process.