Open letter to Friends of the Earth (Vic Thomas)
Since 2008 in response to plans by Viking Energy to build what was claimed back then as Europe’s largest windfarm here in the Shetland Isles, I have assisted folk who approached me for information, planning advice or anything relevant to the Viking Energy planning application, as I was trained to do. I have also kept up with the complexities of such a big and deeply contentious development while trying to keep out of the arguments for or against. Staying focused on the planning process, the recent announcement by Fergus Ewing, SNP minister for energy, enterprise and tourism granting the Viking Energy application, I have to express grave concerns about the SIC and the process that lead up to his announcement.
If the Shetland community had been given its say by either a vote or referendum and the majority voting for the development so be it. If on the other hand they hadn’t supported it that should have been the end of it as that is how democracy works. However this did not happen and the SIC has seriously failed this community by turning its back on inclusive local democracy.
There are many issues in this application that in my opinion would not survive close scrutiny but for the purposes of this request to Friends Of The Earth Scotland to support a call for a judicial review, I detail just a few of the irregularities and concerns.
It is claimed to be a community project, but the SIC did not conduct a proper or credible consultation. It skirted closely on the edge of what its legal responsibilities were and no more. It could see from day one that this was going to be the most contentious and divisive application to happen in the isles in the last 30-40 years and while I appreciate it is not a legal requirement for a local authority to hold referendums or votes on planning applications etc this development being so huge for such a tiny Scottish island community with high financial risks and enormous environmental impact, I believe the SIC should have held a referendum or vote throughout the isles to properly ascertain the level of support or opposition before proceeding with its political and financial support for the development. Either way how can an elected body honestly and fairly conduct a consultation with its electorate while it was supporting and funding the development at the same time?
People acting on behalf of part of the Shetland community thus far have not been allowed to see what has been agreed with project partners and Freedom of Information Act requests have been repeatedly denied.
The discrepancies between the original environmental impact assessment that gave a carbon payback of 48 years and the planning application that was approved claiming carbon payback of less than one year is unbelievable, as is the planning application going ahead of the inter-connector given that the inter-connector is the key to the existence of the windfarm.
On 20th December 2011 electricity watchdog Ofgem cast real doubt on the viability of an inter-connector cable to Shetland. Its consultation report states: “Shetland is not expected to become part of the Main Interconnected Transmission System (MITS)”. Basically this means no inter-connector for Shetland! How does Europe’s third largest windfarm work in this scenario? Could they really start building a windfarm without the cable signed, sealed and delivered first?
This consent puts the cart before the horse and uses dubiously sanctioned local public charitable funds on a development that has no system approved or agreed on for transmitting (selling) the wind energy off the islands. This alone should have rung alarm bells in the Energy Consents Unit and it beggars belief the application wasn’t put to a public inquiry immediately.
The Shetland Charitable Trust has a 90 per cent stake in Viking Energy Ltd. The trust is made up of all 22 SIC members + two non-council trustees and has been run like a council department, rubber stamping whatever the SIC wanted. Some SIC members/trustees are directly employed, involved or will benefit from the development. In addition OSCR has been warning the charitable trust to distance itself from the SIC and change its make up of 22 SIC elected members down to eight and 16 non-councillor members, if it wants to avoid interest from Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise and wishes to remain a charity. This advice has been resisted until a few weeks ago when OSCR threatened it would remove them and take over the running of the trust pending appropriate changes. This relationship should have excluded the SIC from the planning process as it is potentially a corrupt relationship for planning purposes.
Fergus Ewing stated that one of the reasons for granting consent was because the SIC had not objected to the application but given the SIC’s potentially corrupt relationship/involvement/partner status in the development its role in this application should have barred it from the process.
In addition the SIC ignored its own planning officials’ full and lengthy recommendations to oppose the development and went with a hastily prepared report from its development department. The SIC as elected representatives of the whole Shetland community have not facilitated, demanded or taken any lead on the planning application’s required health impact assessment promised two years ago along with the EIA.
Fergus Ewing, in his comments at the announcement of his granting of the application, ignored two serious issues. Firstly that of the SIC, effectively key partner in the development through its dubious operation of the charitable trust. This presented such an irregularity in the planning system he should in many people’s opinion have deferred it to a public inquiry.
Secondly he ignored his own Scottish planning guidelines which stipulate that turbines in these big windfarms should be at least two kilometres away from people’s homes.
The Viking Energy windfarm has about 60 homes within or less than this distance and no health assessment addressing this contravention of the guidelines, which were introduced into the Scottish planning system for best practice and to avoid known or perceived health issues.
Also after reducing the number of turbines due in part to objections from oil industry airport operators to machines in the approach and take off zone, the developers have addressed the reduction by opting for bigger capacity machines to recoup generating capacity. In a news article highlighting this it transpired that even at maximum output there would be spare capacity in the inter-connector (that doesn’t seem to be coming anyway) for other developments and this has alarmed local people previously unsure and even some former supporters of the development who now fear a proliferation of more large turbines in other parts of the islands, “swamping the whole archipelago” was a statement I heard from a former supporter at the Tingwall meeting.
There is a lot more that has raised eyebrows in this application process but this is a sample to explain why I am requesting that Friends Of The Earth Scotland support me in my support to those in the local community seeking a judicial review.
A judicial review is a very expensive matter for a individual or community reliant on its own pockets or supporter donations to operate and carries no guarantees either way, but it will take a serious look at the issues relating to the whole application process and rule accordingly based on due diligence, legalities, correct procedures etc. Even supporters of the development should welcome this as it will clarify matters one way or the other so we can all move on without the mess, suspicion, perceived vested interests and ill feelings.
The charitable trust is there to support the Shetland community so in the interests of fairness and in the light of the trust’s new governance, I hope the trust will respond favorably to any request that might come forward from anyone representing a significant section of the local community for financial assistance, to pay for a judicial review, if required – after all the trust has given £3.5 million and was only just stopped from handing over more to the development.