Aberdeen’s NHS centre for Guardian; its views on referendum for Beacon

Two articles on Aberdeen, one for the Guardian’s Society section, one kicking off my Ends of Britain series on Beacon. The Guardian piece focuses on the Aberdeen health village, a newly-opened NHS Grampian centre in the city centre. It’s of interest because it is the first to be funded by the Scottish Futures Trust, Scotland’s antidote to PFI funding. The detail is in the article, but essentially the public sector is involved on both the customer and supplier sides.

One detail I found interesting was that, because NHS Grampian could specify the contract in detail, it excluded the repainting of walls. This was partly because it saves money, but partly because it means the Aberdeen health village’s walls will not be painted more often than those in the health board’s other buildings – it wouldn’t be fair on users of the other buildings. The project manager Jackie Bremner described this as “equity of condition”. The Scottish public sector tends to take these sorts of things seriously.

I also made Aberdeen the first stop on the Ends of Britain series for Beacon.* I asked locals what they thought would happen in September’s referendum on Scottish independence, to hear that most doubted it would be a yes, with a pretty clear view of ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’. Aberdeen is very much not broken; it’s booming, thanks to the oil and gas industry. A little time hanging out airside in the airport terminal shows you how much.

After posting this on Friday morning, subscriber Paul Bradshaw tweeted his memories of this lovely location:

You can read the full article, as well as the weekly Ends of Britain articles I’ll be filing each Friday and everything else published on Beacon, for $5 a month (£3.10 or thereabouts) – and you can try it for free for 14 days. Most of your subscription goes to the writer through which you subscribe.

* The article is republished below.

Aberdeen doubtful about risking liquid assets

Scotland’s oil and gas capital is booming as part of Britain. A straw poll of Aberdonians suggests they would rather stay in the UK than risk independence, although some feel this with their heads rather than their hearts

An independent Scotland would have three types of high-value liquid asset. Two of them, oil and gas, flow through Aberdeen. The city, by the North Sea which provides most of the UK’s reserves of the fuels, is the centre for Britain’s expertise in the field. This is very big business: oil and gas are responsible for around 145,000 jobs in Scotland. (The third liquid asset, whisky – employing a mere 10,000 people – doesn’t really have a hub city.) “It’s Scotland’s oil” was a pro-independence slogan in the 1970s, as North Sea oil started to make a significant contribution to the UK’s economy. Aberdeen would be economically vital to the independent country that would result from a yes vote in this September’s referendum.

Surveys based on tiny samples are of course a bad thing. Nevertheless, when I asked people I met on a flying visit to the city – to see an impressive new public-sector healthcare facility in the centre, detailed in this article for the Guardian – Aberdonians seemed to doubt independence will happen. They don’t rule it out, but most don’t sound keen either. As one resident said, Scots currently get free prescriptions and university tuition, unlike the English, and Aberdeen’s economy is booming as part of the United Kingdom. Why fix what’s not broken, he asks?

In the best traditions of fly-by journalism, when I say ‘a resident’, I mean ‘a taxi driver’ – although if you want insights into the mood of a place, someone who chats to dozens of people every week is not a bad start. In other news, apparently the people of Aberdeen don’t mind Donald Trump developing a golf resort near the city – they just think that he should stop trading on the fact that his mother was Scottish. And he should lose the toupee, as apparently he nearly did on a windy golf course in the area.

Others, including those from the non-taxi-driving community, feel their compatriots are torn between pro-independence hearts and pro-union heads, and thought (and worried) that the former may win. But no-one I spoke to confidently predicted a yes vote. Separately, the most pro-independence Scot I have met – who will certainly be voting yes – also expects an overall no. This is all reflected by opinion polls which consistently predict a no vote, although with many still to decide.

Scotland already has a fair bit of independence, particularly in the public sector services that have most impact on people’s lives. Aberdeen’s ‘health village’ – a combination of health centre and outpatient hospital (again, the Guardian piece has the detail) – has been built under a funding system set up by the Scottish Government to replace Westminster’s private finance initiative, or PFI, derided for enriching the private sector at the expense of the public. It also takes advantage of the fact that Scottish health boards do all the National Health Service work in their patches, unlike the market-style split in England between service providers such as hospitals and the clinical commissioning groups that buy services on behalf of patients. It would be significantly harder to set up a similar facility in England.

Iron men: Aberdeen airport’s departure lounge
Iron men: Aberdeen airport’s departure lounge

Aberdeen’s Dyce airport on a Friday evening is full of burly men flying to northern English cities on budget airlines: Manchester, Humberside, Durham, Leeds-Bradford. Plaintive final calls ask for the last two or four passengers to board, so the flights can leave. It’s a matter of a few feet from the Globe Freehouse pub that takes up much of the airside lounge to the gates; but for a few, it appears to be the longest journey of the night.

In Dyce, advertising space that in most airports would be taken by mobile phone networks and management consultants instead features energy jobs: “Calling all wellheads” reads one. The evening’s Press and Journal newspaper (‘Local news since 1747’) includes a 24-page jobs section, with a big picture of a (female) oil and gas engineer on its cover. The first third of the section is taken up by ads for energy and engineering.

Aberdeen is booming as part of the UK, as the working-week economic migrants from England providing a chunk of its energy industry’s workforce show. During the week local hotel rooms cost more than those in central London – an Expedia search returned an average of £164 (US$269) for one recent Tuesday, compared with £110 for the capital of the UK – and a new development of 1,000 homes on fields at Nigg on the edge of the city looks set to go ahead.

Its people already enjoy the benefits of Scottish devolution in health and education, while remaining British. Your correspondent is cynical about independence as already disclosed, although all or much of Aberdeen’s successes could continue under independence.

But the driver’s question remains: why fix what’s not broken?