Scotland’s public standards commissioner has thrown out three complaints against 14 Shetland councillors accused of breaching their code of conduct in making decisions on the controversial Viking Energy windfarm.
Lerwick community councillor Michael Peterson made three separate allegations, claiming that as directors of Viking Energy Ltd or members of Shetland Charitable Trust as well as councillors the 14 had contravened three separate sections of the code which regulates their behaviour.
But in his decision announced today commissioner Stuart Allan rejected the claims, stating that the councillors in question had participated in the correct fashion in meetings on 15th July 2009 to discuss conflicts of interest, 14th December last year to make a planning recommendation to the Scottish government and 2nd February this year to make a planning decision on the converter station for the windfarm. The complainant, he said, had “cast a wide net”.
Mr Allan stated: “I considered it appropriate to be unequivocal on this matter since it was of considerable public interest and had a significant bearing on the application of the code.
“I found no evidence of impropriety in the council’s original decision to invest in the windfarm project which appeared to hold out a considerable prospect of exploiting renewable energy potential for the benefit of the community and in meeting longer term renewable energy aims.”
He went on: “At all meetings of the council at which matters relating to Viking Energy Ltd had been raised the councillor-trustees were scrupulous in declaring their interests as required by the code of conduct, and those members who were involved more closely in the management of the project had withdrawn or not attended where appropriate.”
However Mr Allan said he was encouraged at proposed reforms of Shetland Charitable Trust to reduce the number of councillors sitting on it. It was to be hoped that this could be taken forward an at early date to introduce the element of independence and detachment from the council which would “more clearly demonstrate a separation of roles and reduce the potential for conflict of interest which was at the heart of this complaint”.
The subjects of the first complaint were Bill Manson, chairman of Shetland Charitable Trust and Viking Energy Ltd, Alastair Cooper and Caroline Miller (both directors of Viking Energy Ltd) and Allan Wishart, who is employed by Viking Energy as project co-ordinator.
They were accused of breaching section 6 of the code by seeking to promote the project at the council meeting called to discuss conflicts of interest on 15th July 2009. Mr Manson, Mr Cooper and Mr Wishart declared an interest and withdrew. Mrs Miller was not made a director of Viking Energy Ltd until September 2009.
Mr Allan stated: “Section 6 of the code bars the lobbying of councillors and requires members to be open, accessible and responsive to the needs of the public, and encourage participation by organisations and individuals in the decision-making process. No evidence was adduced to suggest to me that councillors Cooper, Manson or Wishart had acted in a manner such as would breach this part of the code.”
Mr Peterson singled out the nine councillors who voted on 14th December to recommend planning approval to the Scottish government – Leslie Angus, Laura Baisley, Jim Budge, convener Sandy Cluness, Addie Doull, Betty Fullerton, Robert Henderson, Rick Nickerson and vice-convener Josie Simpson – but not those who had voted against – Gary Robinson, Florence Grains and Jonathan Wills.
But in a trenchant section of his report Mr Allan observed: “It is important to note that the code does not make such a distinction in the relative position taken upon a matter by individual councillors. It is the existence of the interest and the relevance of that interest on the matter under consideration that will have a bearing on whether or not the member should declare, and, if appropriate, withdraw.
“In this case I considered that the [councillors] had made public their interest as trustees and made a conscious decision, no doubt taking their lead from the convener, to remain and participate in the meeting. As a matter of practicality their withdrawal would have negated the consultation process and failed to afford their constituents representation to the Scottish government.”
He said that although there was a close relationship between Viking Energy and the council and the trust the councillors derived no financial benefit from being trustees – “if they had such a benefit then different considerations would have arisen”.
“I considered that it was appropriate that the elected members should have active participation in such an important and controversial matter. The ruling factor was one of transparency and that was demonstrated by the declaration of interests, the patent recognition of the requirement to do so by all members, and the lucid preamble to the meeting by the convener in which he expressed his own view and guided his colleagues.”
The third allegation related to the participation of Mrs Baisley, Mr Budge, Mr Cluness, Mr Doull, Mrs Fullerton, Mr Henderson, Mr Nickerson, Frank Robertson and Mr Simpson in the 2nd February meeting on the planning application from Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Ltd to build the converter station at Kergord for the windfarm, which was approved.
Mr Peterson alleged that councillors had a conflict of interest as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust and should have been barred from taking part in the meeting.
Mr Allan pointed out, however, that the council had a “duty to determine the application and the scale of the proposal and the public interest did not allowed for its determination by [officials] under delegated powers”.
Councillors had registered their trusteeships of the charitable trust and complied with the code of conduct by declaring these as non-financial interests. “The link between the interest of the trust as a corporate body, or rather its subsidiary Viking Energy Ltd and the applicant Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Ltd, and their own position as individuals, was evident and certainly required such a declaration but I did not consider that it would require that members withdraw.”
Reacting to the decision the council’s political leader, Josie Simpson, said: “I’m absolutely delighted. This is very, very welcome news, particularly that the commissioner has made it clear that, as he says, there is no evidence whatsoever of impropriety.”
Mr Simpson said that he personally had never had any doubts that the councillors were acting anything other than properly.
“We had the best advice and that advice was correct. I think this sends a very good message, loud and clear to the people of Shetland that councillors have always and always will act in the best interests of the people of Shetland.”
Commenting on the divisions in the community, Mr Simpson said: “This was to be expected, and was perfectly understandable with a large scale windfarm project of this nature, but at least with the Standards Commission decision both sides of the debate will be able to accept that members have behaved in accordance with the code.”
Jan Riise, head of legal and administration services, said he was pleased with the report. “It makes clear that, at an early stage, there was recognition by members and by their advisors of the possibility of a conflict of interest and that this was carefully and correctly handled. It’s pleasing that the early attention drawn to this by councillors who were also trustees, and their correct handling, has been acknowledged and applauded.”
Mr Riise said that a key factor in the report was transparency. “Our pursuit of that in every aspect of this has been upheld.”
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox, who recently submitted a complaint against 10 councillors over their involvement in meetings relating to Viking Energy, said he did not want to say too much because he did not know the precise nature of the anonymous complaint. Mr Fox did say he would be “pretty astonished” if councillors were cleared of having had any conflict of interest.