A stag in Braemar, Scotland. Photo: Getty
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John Burnside on nature: the threat to Scotland's wild north

A new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

I remember how, back in the 1980s, the Scottish Flow Country became an object of bemused controversy as rich celebrities and businessmen from south of the border acquired great tracts of this vast wetland in the far north in order to plant non-native conifer plantations that attract hefty tax breaks.

The RSPB describes the region as “one of the last remaining areas of wild land in the UK”. That anyone would even consider ploughing up the wilderness was cause for dismay, but the handing out of generous subsidies to ensure its destruction was so objectionable that the scheme was phased out in 1988. For once, it seemed, Abraham Lincoln’s old saw had been proven right: “. . . public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” And although immense damage had been done, the Flow Country was given a partial reprieve.

Now, a new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South, adding to its holdings in the north. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

The company has chosen land that was badly degraded by those 1980s “investments” – but its vague promises of a “restoration” programme do not arise from any kind of high-mindedness. It is all part of a nationwide circus of smoke and mirrors. And if we add to this the devastation that our subsidy culture has already wreaked in this part of the country – factoring in the Scottish Executive’s hawkish support for an ill-advised 103-turbine Viking Energy windfarm development on Shetland (previously mentioned in this column) – it is hard to avoid the impression that the Scottish National Party-led government cares less about the environment than it would have us believe.

This should not surprise anyone, however: Holyrood’s very active support in the mid-2000s for the now-infamous Trump golf resort at Menie showed a disregard for the environment that, with each “development” it has since pushed through, has become increasingly apparent – and increasingly worrying. Certainly the publication last month of a new map of Scottish wild land areas offered little encouragement to those who want to see Strathy South and Shetland protected from further encroachment.
Neither the Scottish & Southern nor the Viking site appears on the map – despite expert opinions that if these plans were to go ahead nature would suffer.

Of course, definitions of “wild land” vary and are ultimately determined by the people in charge. But surely it is clear that enough damage has been done, and that it’s time not to draw cosmetic maps (which, should commercial interests challenge them down the line, will almost certainly be redrawn) but to change our way of living?

With energy generation, the first step is to insist that all developments be appropriate in scale, cost-effective and judiciously located to reduce the impact on soil profiles and wildlife to the absolute minimum. (Really, it sounds like arrant cynicism when developers speak of “restoration programmes” while inserting hundreds of huge concrete stabilising plugs into sensitive peatland, such as that found in much of northern Scotland).

We must change – and the first change is to stop believing the lies. To do the research and follow the money trail. Most of all, to ask what “renewable” means, and whether a development is renewable when it destroys birdlife, soil structure and what remains of the last wilderness in an increasingly ruined land. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.