The Orkney Islands represent one of Scotland’s unique local authority areas. Comprising about 70 islands and skerries, and situated over six miles from the north-east tip of the Scottish mainland, the area is home to over 20,000 people.
Born and brought up in Kirkwall, Heddle attended Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities and gained a BSc and PhD in Physics before working in research and development and engineering. On returning to Orkney in 1999, Heddle took an active part in civic life through the community council and Papdale School Board, before being elected to the council in 2007. In May 2012, he was re-elected and became convener. Discussing his decision to stand as a councillor, he said: “I always fancied giving something back to the community – making a contribution, rather than criticising those that do.”
The past year has been very busy for both Heddle and the council. He said: “If I was going to sum it up in three words, it would be: relentless, diverse and high visibility. The relentlessness stems from the fact that Orkney Islands Council does an awful lot. Geographic isolation means that we are very much self-contained, we don’t just pop across to Thurso because it would be too inconvenient. Everything that can be done in Orkney, is. We are providing a wide range of services to the islands, we run an internal ferry service and a 24/7 harbour operation, and we have big business with visiting cruise liners. All this is happening at the same time that we have a large construction programme, we are building a new secondary school in Kirkwall, a new primary school in Stromness and a new arts theatre.
“We have been very fortunate in attracting funding for big capital projects and we’ve been investing in our own capital projects through having infrastructure for marine renewables. We have the European Marine Energy Centre here providing world-leading research and testing wave and tidal devices. We see Orkney as being at the centre of the commercialisation of this new industry going forward. We have the marine energy park designation in the Pentland Firth. We’re looking to develop a renewables campus in Stromness, bringing together a lot of the environmental and renewables businesses which have sprung up there, and also the International Centre for Island Technology at Heriot-Watt operates out of Stromness. So there is a cluster of renewables-related activity there already and I would like to see this brought together in a campus. We are delivering a lot of the Government’s objectives and we had support from the Government, for example, contributions towards our harbour infrastructure.
“A lot of the diversity stems from the fact that I’m both the civic and political leader. It is reasonably unique. On day one of being convener, I found myself plunged headlong into the centre spot of the Norwegian Constitution Day which we celebrate here. We have delegations who come across from Norway, a parade through Kirkwall, wreath laying at the Norwegian sailors’ grave and a public address. That was the toughest civic role of the year and it was my first day in the job.
“The other thing, as someone new in the post, is you must get up to speed with the political side of the role, as well as the civic. I have responsibilities on COSLA, the Convention of the Highlands and Islands, the Highlands and Islands Convener Group and we have our international links as well.”
Heddle admits the council has similar challenges to the rest of Scotland, such as welfare reform and the issues surrounding the ageing population, however, as an island authority, there are some unique tests as well.
He said: “Being islands, we are very conscious of our transport links. Our lifeline ferry is off route at present, it is currently tied up at Rosyth having its engine repaired. In the longer term, we need to look at how our internal ferry service is going to be replaced.
We’re having a constructive dialogue with the Scottish Government about how that goes forward in terms of their ferries plan. Orkney’s ferry is only partially funded by the Scottish Government. This is an issue.” Heddle and Orkney Islands Council chief executive Alistair Buchan recently held highlevel talks in Edinburgh over the current loss of this lifeline Stromness-Scrabster service.
Speaking after the meeting, Heddle added: “We were assured of the Transport Minister’s continuing commitment to the Stromness- Scrabster route and received a detailed update on the scope and extent of the work required to bring the Hamnavoe back into service. We were told that the work is on track to be completed on 24 May. The council and the Scottish Government have gone on record that a replacement vessel should stand in on the route and the search for a suitable replacement continues.
“We were given details of the four ship brokerages and three other governments that have been engaged in the search for alternative vessels for the route. However, it was explained that for a range of technical and other factors, none of the vessels considered so far has been available or suitable as a stand-in for the Hamnavoe. We were advised that for the future all options would be considered, including the provision of additional calls into Kirkwall from the Aberdeen- Shetland-Orkney service, or additional flights.”
Heddle said, in conjunction with their other islands’ colleagues, Orkney is taking a great interest in the potential opportunities around the constitutional reform debate. He said: “COSLA is pushing for a constitutional status for local government and we would like to see the constitutional status for local government in the islands to be similarly pursued. This collective group of islands has been advancing the idea that we could run local government in our islands if we moved away from the idea of [separate] councils, health boards – and previously police – to a single authority running affairs. This isn’t an outlandish idea. This would be a devolution of power to the local area that is consistent with the ethos being espoused by the Government and consistently the situation you find across Europe and the Scandinavian countries. We are pursuing this with detailed research, looking at the historic position, the European dimension, engaging the assistance of our European experts and hopefully, we will explore the willingness of various sides of the argument and use it to engage positively. This is a big piece of the work in the next year.
“One of the things which highlights this is we’re planning to have a conference around this matter, in Orkney, which will be addressing this at the end of August. We hope that will be a high-profile event and that it will interesting and productive. We are approaching this from the point of view that it is a sensible thing to do, that nobody could reasonably have an argument with.”