21st February 2018
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Decision on converter station delayed yet again after councillors’ interests leave board inquorate

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Shetland Islands Council’s planning board was unable to hold a hearing into the proposed Upper Kergord converter station after three members declared an interest, leaving this morning’s meeting inquorate.

The application from Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission (SHETL) to build two large metal-clad buildings at Kergord, which is an important part of Viking Energy’s controversial plans for a 127-turbine windfarm, is now expected to go before the Full Council at some point in the next few weeks.

Confusion appeared to be sparked among officials after two councillors, Iris Hawkins and Cecil Smith, joined Viking Energy chairman Bill Manson in deciding they could not take part in a vote. With councillors Caroline Miller (also a Viking director) and Gary Robinson both absent, that left the planning board one member short of the five individuals legally required for it to conduct its business.

Planning board chairman Frank Robertson had told members that the council’s interest in the project was “a normal consequence” of being a local authority and they had to ensure it was given a “full, thorough and open” hearing – just as the board would do for any private development.

Members of the public and the press were excluded from the meeting for around 15 minutes while legal clarification was sought, after which Mr Smith and Mrs Hawkins spelled out the nature of their declarations of interest. Both said they felt the converter station was inextricably linked with the Viking windfarm and referenced the board’s earlier deferral of a decision until the application for the windfarm itself had been determined.

At one stage Sustainable Shetland’s vice-chairman Kevin Learmonth interjected from the audience to suggest members ought to accept the meeting was inquorate and move on to the next agenda item, much to the irritation of councillors including vice-convener Josie Simpson.

Mr Simpson’s subsequent suggestion that the decision be “remitted” back to the Full Council was accepted by the board. In a statement following the meeting, Mr Robertson said he would be seeking “early discussion” with SIC convener Sandy Cluness to see whether the application could now be considered by the Full Council, possibly at a special meeting.

“Individual members are of course entitled to declare an interest. Under the councillors’ code of conduct, it’s their responsibility to consider the items at a meeting and then decide whether they feel that they are compromised and can’t take any part,” said Mr Robertson.

Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox said after this week’s meeting that he felt it had been conducted in a “highly irregular” fashion. He criticised Mr Riise’s role in proceedings, but praised Mrs Hawkins and Mr Smith for sticking to their guns.

“The irregularities of Jan Riise actually going and whispering in the chairman’s ear while the public were still in the room, then going and whispering in the councillors’ ears, presumably had to be an attempt to get them to rescind their declaration of interest,” said Mr Fox.  “If he felt that he needed to address the meeting to make a legal point, it should have been done through the mic.

“The most positive thing was that I believe it illustrated today that there are councillors … who I think have an idea and know what it is to be a councillor, to observe protocol and actually represent their constituents. That was shown by Cecil and Iris today and I think they have to be applauded for it.”

Mr Riise told The Shetland Times there was “nothing unprofessional” about his behaviour, he had merely been asking councillors to clarify whether they were declaring an interest and then taking part in the meeting, or whether they intended not to take part in the debate, leaving the board inquorate.

It is the second time a decision on the converter station has been delayed. In April the board decided to delay a ruling to allow further consultation with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) on the project’s carbon payback.

The buildings are required to convert AC to DC to minimise transmission losses and the two 150m long, 40m wide and 22m high constructions would require removing 50,000 cubic metres of peat on a 14-hectare site. They would house transformers and related electrical plant for the windfarm, along with a spare converter transformer.

Twenty-one objections to the application were received, with many feeling it should not be considered in isolation from the section 36 consent application for the main windfarm. Consultation on the addendum is taking place and, although the final decision on that falls to Scottish ministers, the SIC will have to meet to give its view on the contentious development before a 17th December deadline.

Work carried out on behalf of Viking Energy and project partners SSE by consultants BMT Cordah this summer claimed the emissions caused by building the converter station would be offset in no more than 49 days.

Planners earlier this year described as “surprising and disconcerting” a situation where neither the government nor any of its agencies could assess the carbon impact of a project. In its latest submission, Sepa stressed that its role in evaluating carbon was still subject to ongoing discussions with the Scottish government and it has not carried out a “detailed, technical audit” of this application.

But having reviewed the documentation submitted for the Kergord station it believes “the applicant has reasonably assessed, in the context of the presence of peat, the likely effects associated with the development”.

The long list of objectors to the converter station includes Mr Fox, the Tingwall, Whiteness and Weisdale History Group and several residents from the surrounding area.

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