- Svalbard’s democracy in danger

Lederen av Longyearbyen lokalstyre, Arbeiderpartiets Arild Olsen, tar til orde for radikal vingeklipping av det statlige gruveselskapet Store Norske i Longyearbyen. (Foto: Arne F. Finne.)
- What do we really want with Svalbard? And what do we mean with having local democracy in Longyearbyen? These questions come from Arild Olsen (Labor), who heads Longyearbyen Local Council.


- What do we really want with Svalbard? And what do we mean with having local democracy in Longyearbyen?

That is the introduction of a reader’s letter in Svalbardposten, submitted by Arild Olsen (Labor), who heads Longyearbyen Local Council.

Who controls the development of the Svalbard community?

- Is it right that a state-owned limited company shall have a decisive influence on the development of the Svalbard community? Arild Olsen asks in a conversation with High North News – and he provides the answer too:

- If Svalbard is to reflect mainland Norway, as decided by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), then the publicly elected bodies should decide on the development of the community. Not the board or the administration of a limited company, however state-owned it is.

Historic ties

Historically, Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani (SNSK), the local mining company, has owned large parts of the properties in Svalbard. During the last crisis in the mining company the state, represented by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, took over the properties for an amount of NOK 380 million (2016). However, SNSK was still to manage the property mass.

- It is interesting to note in that context, says Arild Olsen, - that Store Norske still argues with former interest, historic ties and former economic initiatives in these areas. That would mean that the NOK 380 million are direct subsidies from the state.

SNSK wants to develop on its own

Olsen points to the Gruvedalen area in Longyearbyen, where the Local Council wanted to explore and develop a housing area. Longyearbyen has a significant lack of areas regulated for residences.

- We, that is: the Local Council, the municipality, requested permission from the state to develop this particular area, however, then Store Norske joined the discussion claiming they were proposing a development there. The Local Council was actually denied permission.

Pushes the Local Council aside

This is something that SNSK does in order to diversify its activities, especially now that the mining business is at a low point. They want to demonstrate their social responsibility, but at the same time they are void of any democratic control. That is just not sustainable, Olsen argues.

- Another example is the Hotellneset area in Longyearbyen, where an area planning process is ongoing at present. SNSK pushed the Local Council aside there too, claiming historic interest in the area.

From company town

“The history from company town to rule by the people is, despite a 30-year long process, still relevant. This is the story of separation of the SNSK ‘community companies’ in order for them to focus on mining, not operating a community.

In addition, resources, power and authority was to be allocated. In 2002, a democratic model was chosen because one wanted locally elected politicians to work for the best possible use of public resources, and for developing Longyearbyen according to overall goals. Norwegian politicians wanted Svalbard, however unique it is, to mirror mainland Norway to the largest possible extent,” Olsen writes in his letter in Svalbardposten.

Exercising local authority

Olsen says to High North News that SNSK clearly exercises an authoritative executive role in the local community, a role completely void of democratic control:

- Through their managing the state properties, they have a public executive role – quite obviously. I would argue that they cannot combine managing the state properties with their own operating a mining company, doing general business development, having its own business interest and also conducting housing developments and development of the local community.

In this way, Store Norske is left to define the public advantage of any project, also those in which they have an economic interest themselves. I believe that public authority tools should be under democratic control, so that public development can be steered according to the will of a public majority, rather than that of a company board.

Where is Stortinget?

The leader of the Local Council warrants involvement from Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament, when it comes to the developing of the Svalbard community.

- From my point of view, Store Norske should be given the opportunity to being a mining company and taking care of their mineral exploration licenses, which are time-limited, and SNSK could have the same role in Svalbard that the Norwegian Geological Survey has on the mainlaind; prospecting, mapping et cetera, while public planning and developing should be allocated to the Local Council.

Let the state have the property mass

When it comes to housing development, and it is assumed that the state will want to have a certain amount of housing on the islands at its disposal, in order to secure some control, then that is understandable. However, it is not a given that it is wise to allocate this to a mining company.

One could for instance let Statsbygg, a public administration company owning and managing a.o. state property, handle that. Statsbygg already owns a large portion of the houses in Svalbard, Store Norske owns some, the Local Council some and Unis (the University Centre) owns some. All these are state-owned bodies who each have their housing management organization. If one wants control, then these should be gathered, Arild Olsen says.

Exploits wide proxies

Olsen argues that Store Norske now has defined itself as a real estate and housing developer, and thus acts in direct competition with others, including private actors, in Svalbard.

- Now, I am not saying that Store Norske is doing anything illegal today. The company had principally very wide proxies, they have just been dormant for a while. I do not blame the company or those managing it today, they are just making the most of the proxies they possess.

Return to company town

But I want to bring both the owner (the Ministry) and the Parliament into the discussion. They are to define what the company shall be in the future. My main concern is the lack of democratic control, but also the decimation of the local democracy – we are entering into a process of reversal, where the Local Council in the end will only have the local school to manage.

Then we are reversing from Local Council to company town again. That is what I fear, Arild Olsen, leader of Longyearbyen Local Council emphasizes.

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