Windfarm developer given permission to keep test mast despite conflict of interest dispute
Viking Energy is being allowed to keep one of its test masts on a Tresta hilltop for another three years despite an objection from the protest group Sustainable Shetland.
Chairman Billy Fox claimed councillors on the planning board could not make a fair judgment on the application because they also sit on Shetland Charitable Trust which part-owns the windfarm company.
In a taster of the tense encounters to come between councillors and windfarm protesters the board unanimously rejected Mr Fox’s case at Wednesday’s hearing. Councillor Cecil Smith took umbrage at his attack on members’ integrity, saying it was not doing him any favours when he came before the board.
Before attacking the councillors’ impartiality Sustainable Shetland had argued that the five-year-old mast at South Mid-Field should not be left in place for another three years because it was not sound, one of its guy wires having broken loose earlier this year and a similar mast above Kergord having suffered “catastrophic failure” in 2008.
Neither incident was reported to the health and safety executive, Mr Fox said, and the planning service had failed to investigate them. The mast’s planning permission also ran out two years ago which he said was one of several failures by Viking Energy to comply with the rules.
His most controversial point was saved for last, accusing board members of not being able to rule on the planning application when as trustees they own 45 per cent of the Viking Energy partnership. He said: “I fail to see how they can sit as both planners and developers and judge fairly on this application.”
Quoting an example to demonstrate the conflict of interests, he said when councillor Josie Simpson had moved approval of three other test masts for Viking at a planning board meeting in April he had commented it was important to get them in place to gather as much information as possible “to take the project forward”. Mr Fox said: “These are the words of a project developer not the words of a planning board member. It is impossible in our view for councillors to perform in these dual roles.”
He called for the application to be deferred until Sustainable Shetland’s concerns were addressed. None of the five board members present supported him. Two others, Bill Manson and Caroline Miller, who are directors of Viking Energy, had declared an interest at the start of the meeting and left the chamber before the hearing started.
Planning board vice-chairman Gary Robinson, standing in for the absent Frank Robertson, chose to declare a non-pecuniary interest because of his dual roles as a trustee and councillor but continued in the chair. The five other members did not feel it necessary to follow his example.
After hearing from Mr Fox and Viking Energy’s project manager David Thomson, Mr Simpson brazenly repeated what he had done before, moving that planning permission be granted to Viking because as much data as possible was needed for possible Shetland windfarms. “We’ve either going to have to be serious about this or forget about it once and for all.”
Mr Robinson warned Viking and any others seeking planning approval in future that they should ensure that previous consents are not allowed to lapse.
Earlier, councillor Laura Baisley had taken a pop at Sustainable Shetland, challenging Mr Fox about why the group failed to object to Total’s application to dig up masses of peat to build its gas plant.
Mr Fox gave a number of reasons, including the fact that the oil industry stood on its own two feet, not requiring the big subsidies of industrial wind power and because Sullom Voe is already an industrial zone whereas Viking proposes taking up around 20 per cent of the Central Mainland.
In his evidence to the hearing Mr Thomson of Viking explained the possible causes of the problems with the two masts. He said the Gruti Field tower above Kergord had collapsed in extreme weather after a concrete foundation block had been “nudged”, creating a bit of give in its support cables. The masts now use rock anchors instead.
The problem with the South Mid-Field mast had occurred when the buckle of a guy wire had failed but these had since been replaced with buckles that do not allow so much movement.
The planning application by Viking was recommended for approval by the planning service which said its environmental impact was low, the visual impact was negligible and the alteration to the landscape was only temporary.
As well as Sustainable Shetland’s objection to the mast another was submitted by Nick Brett of Walls. From across the windfarm divide there were 12 letters in support of the mast application from members of the Windfarm Supporters group.
According to Mr Thomson the test masts are used by Viking to gather data on wind speeds which is used to help decide where to site wind turbines and to impress bankers with wind speed records and to inform turbine manufacturers. He said the data was also available to help the developers of small-scale windfarms, such as the one proposed by the community in North Yell.