Shetland Charitable Trust has voted to continue its 45 per cent stake in the Viking windfarm project in the hope that its massive projected profits can pull Shetland out of its deepening financial hole.
In addition to investing a further £6.3 million the trust is to commission an independent in-depth study of the health impacts of the 103-turbine project. Talks are to take place to set up a special fund to compensate homeowners living near the turbines who decide to move.
Attempts are also to be made to shift or possibly remove individual turbines which are of most concern to people who will be living near them.
The trustees voted 10-5 today to invest £6.3 million on top of the £3.4 million already spent on Viking. The new investment is its share of the estimated £14 million to be spent by the partners Scottish and Southern Energy and local company Viking Wind to get the windfarm to the final decision stage where contracts can be signed.
The five who voted against the funding, led by George Smith, had proposed instead that only around £3 million be sanctioned at this stage until a clearer picture emerges about the value of the windfarm investment.
Everyone appeared to support the moves to address the concerns of nearby residents and windfarm opponents, although council leader Gary Robinson was convinced SSE would, as he put, continue to ignore the community and its wishes.
The health impact study was proposed by trust vice-chairman Jonathan Wills along with his own motion to approve the £6.3 million.
Mr Robinson said it would be “worthless” unless the findings were acted upon. But trust chairman Drew Ratter said if there were findings which required action then the trust would be “forced to move heaven and earth to act upon them”. The windfarm had been developed on the basis that, according to the Scottish government, there was no health impact from turbines so if the study finds there to be a detrimental impact he expects the government to pick up on that.
Frank Robertson, who is opposed to the windfarm, is now convinced it will go ahead. To try to mitigate some of the concerns of people near the site he called for work to be done to move or remove the most controversial turbines, although they may only be able to move up to 50 metres in any direction without requiring a fresh planning application.
Theo Smith succeeded in persuading the trust to look at setting up a fund to compensate unhappy householders who try to move but find that their properties are devalued. The trust is going to have talks with SSE and Viking Wind about the idea but if the partners decline to get involved the trust may seek to fund it itself.
The meeting in Islesburgh Community Centre was well-conducted by the trustees – in contrast to previous stormy or inquorate sessions about Viking. Recent private seminars about the trust and the Viking project had brought trustees, particularly the new ones, up to speed.
Several dozen members of the public, other than the media, watched the debate via videolink from a separate room. There were no placards, banners or any repeat of previous disruption by protesters.
In the past Dr Wills has made formal objections to proposals for the windfarm when a larger number of turbines were proposed. But he was content to support it now and he thanked those who had “the good sense” to get the trust involved in the first place.
He said the trust would be in a much better position to influence Viking policy if it remained a major shareholder.
He revealed that the windfarm could earn the trust up to £80 million a year from the 2030s after the major capital debt is paid off. Even the prospect of over £20 million a year was at least 10 times what the trust would get if it was to sell its share now, he said.
Dr Wills condemned the “pretty cynical” move by anti-Viking group Sustainable Shetland to try to halt the windfarm by seeking a judicial review of the government’s consent. No application has been made and, even if it is, the advice given to the trust is that it could not stop the windfarm.
The decision brought to an end months of uncertainty which saw three failed attempts by the trust to debate the matter and the intervention of the charity regulator OSCR to stop a decision being made by trustees in the dying days before the May council election.
Trustees were left in no doubt that failure to pledge the investment by the end of this week would see the trust’s share diluted as Viking Wind or SSE exercised their right to start buying up shares. The £6.3 million was meant to have been agreed six weeks ago to fulfil the trust’s contractual obligations to its partners.
Dr Wills said failure to agree the investment would “seem to people that this is a trust you can’t trust to keep their side of a bargain”.
In conclusion he said: “If we wish to deny our children, grandchildren and indeed our great-grandchildren several hundred millions of pounds’ worth of benefits from the world’s best example of community participation in a large windfarm then I think we need to have better explanations for our posterity than these: ‘I don’t like the look of it’, ‘Some of my council constituents are agin it’, ‘Some turbines are too near some houses, I think, even though they’re twice as far from them as in most windfarms on the UK mainland’, and ‘I don’t approve of the Scottish government’s decision to grant planning permission and I want to make a high profile protest’. That will not do!”
Allan Wishart said the windfarm was “the biggest opportunity that Shetland has ever had in its whole history to make a huge benefit and step-change to the way this community is run in the long term”.
He expects the trust, cash-rich from wind, will bail out the penniless council in the future, building schemes like tunnels to the isles.
Steven Coutts found himself in an unusual position, supporting the investment while also set to be living with his children within two kilometres of turbines in a house that might fall in value. As a trustee he said it was an investment to help Shetland go forward.
Council convener Malcolm Bell said he hated the way the community had been split by the windfarm, describing it as “tragic” and in need of repair. He felt the best way to curb the excesses of the project was for the community to have its own sizeable part of the company and he warned that the worst of all worlds would be hosting a large windfarm which it had no control of with all profits heading out the Sooth Mooth.
In opposing the investment and the windfarm itself, Vaila Wishart attacked the “men in suits” who live in concrete jungles and to whom Shetland’s concerns are irrelevant. She condemned the windfarm as “destruction on a major scale” which was already making people sick with anxiety. The community was being blackmailed into investing in a project which she said was simply a mistake.
Others, like Michael Stout, did not see what control the trust had over SSE and had serious doubts about the “gamble” of investing funds to build the windfarm in Shetland’s difficult conditions and in a difficult economic climate with uncertainties ahead, such as Scottish independence. He said it was “insane” to be talking about huge investment with a partner like SSE who trustees had not even talked to.
Those who voted for the full £6.3 million were: Jonathan Wills, Drew Ratter, Allan Wishart, Malcolm Bell, Gary Cleaver, Steven Coutts, Robert Henderson, Davie Sandison, Frank Robertson and Bobby Hunter.
Those who wanted to sanction just £3 million at this stage were: George Smith, Michael Stout, Vaila Wishart, Gary Robinson and Andrea Manson. Theo Smith abstained.
At the start of the meeting six trustees declared an interest and left the meeting. They were: Billy Fox, Cecil Smith, Allison Duncan, Mark Burgess, Alastair Cooper and Valerie Nicolson.
Mr Smith told trustees he was resigning from the trust because of the incompatibility of being a councillor and a trustee. Mr Fox said he was considering his position. The former chairman of Sustainable Shetland read a lengthy justification of his view that as a councillor-trustee he could not vote about Viking. As a trustee one of his reasons was that he could not support spending trust money on a scheme which would be a “disbenefit” to a significant number of people in the community.
Mr Cooper left because he is a Viking director while Mr Duncan said he was sticking the advice he had received in the past.
Mr Burgess has shares in SSE while Ms Nicolson did not disclose the nature of her personal interest.
Mr Hunter and Mr Wishart declared non-pecuniary interests but decided to take part in the debate and vote.
Two trustees were absent: Amanda Westlake and Peter Campbell.