How to ‘rethink remote’ and put resources at the centre

by Magnus Davidson, UHI researcher, Thurso, Caithness, Scotland

We are grateful to Magnus for allowing us to feature this article which first appeared on 6 April 2022 in the John O’Groat Journal and Caithness Courier.

In the last few years there’s been growing momentum around ‘rethinking remote’. There are various definitions of remote but the most common currently suggests that remote communities are those furthest away from population centres.

It should come as no surprise why this definition is most frequently used – most people these days live in these centres.

With this definition, Caithness is remote from much of the Scottish population.

The lesser used definition can be summarised as ‘far away’. So, it’s equally as appropriate to describe Edinburgh, or London, and arguably their parliaments, as remote to those of us in the far north. Inverness, at 110 miles from my home here in Thurso, and for some could also fall within this definition of remote being far away.

‘Rethinking remote’ blends these two definitions into something that works better for those of us away from population centres, as opposed to the half of Scotland that live within 10 miles of the M8 motorway. ‘Rethinking remote’ highlights that actually ‘far away’ is a legitimate definition for remoteness when it comes to subjects like seats of power.

However, it also adopts the former definition of being far from centres but looks to challenge the assertion that these centres should only be centres of population.

If we consider the biggest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century, climate change, we can consider that urban places, which hold a large share of our country’s population, are remote from the resources they need to combat it.

In 2020, the Highland region generated 552 per cent of electricity consumption from renewable sources, up from 418 per cent in the previous year. Whilst Dounreay may, in part, have been built because it was in a remote location, Glasgow’s aspiration to have net-zero emissions by 2030 suffers because of its remote location from renewable resources.

Renewable energy is only one aspect of achieving net-zero, carbon capture and storage is also mandatory. Remote Glasgow hasn’t a carbon storing peatbog in sight, but in Caithness we have a few. We need to support our remote communities, but looking forward to 2045, the Scottish Government’s target for net zero, we’ve rethought who our remote communities are and what that support looks like.

Climate change hasn’t suddenly flipped our priorities, areas like Caithness have always supported urban populations with products such as those from the agricultural sector. Natural capital has now become the topic of conversation, but human capital shouldn’t be forgotten, many people went south throughout history to support these urban centres and industries.

It then begs the question, if we’re vital to national food, energy, and climate security, why are we not seeing the benefits? We pay the highest price in the country for electricity. Well, this comes back to the origins of our existing, non-rethought definition of remote, we lack the people to count for power. One can hope that our changing world and priorities rework benefit into our favour. I’m more convinced by hard work than hope.

There’s a role for everyone in rethinking and reworking remote. We can all work towards achieving this goal, and whilst holding those in greater positions to account by highlighting inequality, we shouldn’t forget the power of positive action. We’re here to help support our remotest communities in Morningside and Kelvinside but we need to see it done in an equitable way that benefits our communities centred in the resource.

As we look to a bonanza of offshore wind around the north Highland coast, a potentially long coming realisation of Caithness tidal power, and the inevitable repowering of older onshore wind farms, we can take inspiration from those further north. The Zetland County Council Act in 1974 led to unique, still to this day, local power in achieving benefit from Shetland’s oil and gas resources and can offer some inspiration to those of us in energy communities.

It’s time to get creative with how we approach the question of natural resources and local benefit.

This may read as a populist manifesto, but I would ask that it’s seen as a catalyst for community, county, and regional action. Our winds, tides, and peatbogs aren’t going anywhere, but the very real requirement from Scotland’s remote urban communities has come quickly.

Let’s ‘rethink remote’ and ask what we can do to support communities in our remotest cities and capture our equitable share of benefit from our local natural resources.

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