Conflict of interest, failure of democracy
ROBERT WISHART is totally opposed to the Viking Energy windfarm plan which he believes will desecrate Shetland’s landscape. Here he has a rant about recent reports on the windfarm, but by way of compensation promises readers not to quote a single statistic in support of his views.
Is that the drumming of angry little heels or the hooves of councillors’ galloping high-horses I hear? When their indignant protestations fade away they may reflect on how democracy operates.
We are asked to accept our elected representatives choosing for themselves which of the laws, rules and procedures of our – albeit imperfect – democratic system they will obey. This is a dangerous attitude. It has been clear for some time that councillors have serious conflicts of interest. This applies to all councillors, not just those who are directors of Viking Energy. This is a problem of their own making and one which they have had many opportunities to address. Maybe now they will, belatedly, use the current governance review to do something about the structure of “their” charitable trust.
Meanwhile, we look in vain to our elected Liberal “Democrat” members in London and Edinburgh for support for the democratic process. While recognising that the legal advice given to councillors is “faultless”, they are unable to accept the consequences. “The implication of all councillors saying they cannot sit as democratically elected members, and have a view on it, is that democracy has utterly failed,” says Tavish Scott.
Tavish is right. Democracy has failed. Utterly. A failure which has been clear for some time was coming our way. But Scott and Alistair Carmichael draw exactly the wrong conclusion. The solution is not to stamp our feet in frustration and proceed in defiance of the rules by which our democratic process functions and in total disregard for the obvious conflicts of interest in which the council is mired. That would be a far greater perversion of democracy.
The issue is clear. Councillors have been advised that, as trustees of the Shetland Charitable Trust and as landowners, they cannot objectively debate and decide on the issue as planning authority. There is an “irreconcilable” conflict of interest. Should councillors proceed and vote approval of the application they will most certainly, and rightly, face complaints to the Standards Commission.
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“Nickerson speaks out strongly for democracy” squeaks the second headline on page six of last week’s Shetland Times. He did no such thing. His egotistical outburst was nothing more than a little tantrum against those who hold views different to his own.
In particular, his conviction that he, despite his conflicts of interest, is qualified to decide on the windfarm planning application is wrong in principle, and probably, it now seems, in law. He takes umbrage at Sustainable Shetland: “I am not prepared to be cleverly outmanouvered by people who have no mandate, hold no elected office and can only claim to represent a small minority of the Shetland community.”
Outmanouvered? Certainly, Billy Fox and others have convincingly countered nearly every argument in favour of the windfarm. But this would better be expressed as out-argued.
Mandate? What mandate does Mr Nickerson or any other councillor have on this issue? Which of them told us that if elected they would despoil our islands and bury the community’s funds in peat bogs? They have no mandate whatsoever. They merely chanced to find themselves on the council when the issue rose up to bite them.
Represent a small minority? Support for Sustainable Shetland is much wider than its membership. I am not a member of Sustainable Shetland. And I can’t even remember if I signed their petition. But, like many others, I support their attempts to raise and air vital issues over the windfarm, to motivate support and in particular to explain how opponents of the windfarm can make their voices heard. If it is a minority it is a substantial one which should be respected.
Sustainable Shetland’s desire for open debate is in stark contrast to the council which we learned in last week’s Shetland Times had hidden away a report which says that the proposals for the “South Nesting plateau” has 30 turbines too many. Congratulations to Iain and Suzanne Malcolmson for digging that one up.
Mr Nickerson apparently thinks there is something undemocratic about this. That tells us something about the mind-set of some councillors. Like the derision they show to concerns over their conflicts of interest, it is something rather unsavoury.
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There is, of course, a fundamental flaw in my simplistic analysis of councillor Nickerson’s outburst. I have no idea where he, or the majority of councillors, stands on the application in particular or on the merits of a monstrous windfarm in general.
In our council-dominated – totalitarian? – mini-state it is widely assumed that there is a reluctance to express views which may offend or contradict the perceived wisdom of our political and economic masters or, in the case of a massive proportion of the workforce, employer. It is reassuring that many objectors we might have thought fall into this category have chosen to sign up their opposition to the industrialisation of the Shetland landscape.
While the general manager of Shetland Amenity Trust might be angered that anyone would have thought it would do otherwise, the independence shown by that organisation in their objection to the windfarm is notable. If any group in the islands is beholden to the charitable trust it is they. Since Mr Nickerson was present as a trustee and endorsed the amenity trust’s decision we cannot be sure which way he will jump when he casts his illicit vote on the Viking planning application.
As the continuing carnival over the high school shows, the capacity of our councillors to surprise is boundless.
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It’s a good trick. On the one hand appeal to our greed, on the other use our fear and guilt over climate change to stifle opposition. We know that the windfarm is driven by commercial interests and, on the whole, Viking Energy and the council have tried to sell us the windfarm on the basis of its potential financial benefit to the community. This at least is an honest approach, if one which is lost on those who would not wish to see the islands desecrated at any price.
But among the peripheral supporting arguments – frequently expressed in letters to this newspaper – are two which are little more than attempts to shame us into silence. We face the feeble charge of nimbyism. Our accusers should be reminded that care for the environment begins at home. We shall start by not fouling our own nest.
Then there is the minor issue of climate change. We know that even if the UK were to achieve all the targets in the government’s latest white paper it would make virtually no difference to global carbon emissions. China will continue to build its coal-fired power plants and high electricity costs at home will drive ever more industrial production to less carbon-efficient factories overseas.
We may have “a world class wind resource” – which I think means that sometimes it’s windy – but there are other ways of developing wind power. Put the windfarms somewhere nobody cares for. Or offshore. And closer to the big consumers – which will go some way to offsetting the higher construction costs. Then there is nuclear power: a safe, green, proven and practical way of meeting the country’s electricity demands.
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It is said that a referendum is not a normal part of our democractic process. Yet it has long been accepted that there are issues which cannot be otherwise resolved. Surely, given the inability of the council to maintain the trust of their electorate and the vastly destructive scale of the proposal, this is such an issue. The windfarm is highly divisive and has provoked strong emotions on both sides.
And so did the oil terminal at Sullom Voe, we are reminded: we didn’t seek a referendum then. Well, no. But that was a very different set of circumstances, hardly relevant to the Viking proposal and not only because they want our money. In any case, times have changed. Must we do things today as our ancestors did? With councillors hamstrung by conflicts of interest we need some other means to test and mollify public opinion.
Some in the council now talk of consensus. Even councillor Nickerson, who last week modestly claimed “… the integrity, intelligence, judgement and ability to make decisions in the best interests of the community …” says that here has to be a “political consensus”. But we can see that he would have been happier if Sustainable Shetland had allowed that political consensus to have been achieved behind closed doors.
What can consensus mean? There can surely be no consensus on the present application. We are told it must be big to be viable. And that makes it too big to be forced upon the community against its wishes. One sensible way to proceed is not to seek a consensus at all but to put it to “the people” to make the final decision – assuming it gains planning permission and that the technical and financial case has been “proven” to the satisfaction of investors and the whizz-kids of our charitable trust.
If a majority of Shetlanders was to say they wanted it, even the most hardened opponents would have to come to accept it, or at least learn to live with the fact that the majority of their peers were willing to. It needs a referendum.
The alternative would be to work out a compromise. That would imply a major reduction in scale and an end to the idea of exporting energy. Few are against wind energy per se and even those of us who would not like to see a single additional large wind turbine in the islands would surely accept that we could do something to reduce our carbon footprint and would tolerate a very much smaller scheme. That should be simple to size. It would be whatever could be absorbed into the local “grid”. Such a compromise would be the end of the Viking Energy project.
But the bogey man might come! Viking Energy chairman, councillor Bill Manson, says that if we do not accept Viking Energy and the council ruining the place some other nasty developer will. Well, that will be another fight for another day. Hopefully with Shetland Islands Council pitching in on the side of our environment against commercial interests and the politicos in Edinburgh and London.