By NEIL RIDDELL
CAMPAIGN group Sustainable Shetland this week launched a petition calling on islanders to oppose Viking Energy’s proposed windfarm.
The company, meanwhile, insisted that the public would get their chance to have a say on the project when a planning permission is submitted.
In a press statement, Sustainable Shetland said the petition was calling on the SIC’s elected members to “listen to what the Shetland community is saying, and oppose the windfarm scheme”.
Vice-chairman Kevin Learmonth said it was the first step in showing the community’s opposition to the project.
The petition, launched at Lerwick Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon, is addressed to Shetland’s 22 councillors, many of whom appear to be notionally in favour of the windfarm proposal, and reads: • SAY “NO!” TO VIKING ENERGY • We the undersigned oppose plans for the Viking Energy windfarm development.
• We support renewable energy projects in Shetland, which are fit for scale and fit for purpose.
• We call upon local councillors not to support any large-scale windfarm planning application.
Sustainable Shetland, which was formed in February, has been a fierce critic of Viking Energy’s plans to build the 154-turbine wind farm, with many of the turbines to be located in the Lang Kames. The group has held three large public meetings and now claims to have in excess of 380 members throughout Shetland, a figure which it says is growing steadily.
Among the issues the group has with the project is the huge financial risk of investing £50 million of Shetland’s oil money, plus £200m it will have to raise in equity or loans, along with potential environmental damage which it says could be wreaked by peat displacement and what it sees as the unacceptable scale of the project.
Viking Energy argues that a project on this scale is imperative in order to make a proposed interconnector cable to the mainland to link up to the national grid financially viable. Without such a cable the windfarm will never be built.
But Mr Learmonth again hit out at Viking Energy this week, accusing it of using Shetland’s money to lobby the Scottish and UK governments for their backing by “presenting the project as community controlled and supported”.
He said: “This simply isn’t true; in fact, the community is denied access to the very partnership agreement signed in their name. Far from being an ‘investigation’ as initially claimed, recent Viking Energy statements make it very clear that the project will pay scant regard to local opinion and will press for full planning consent come what may.
“Viking Energy chair, councillor Bill Manson, promised that if the Shetland people did not want the Viking Energy development then it would not go ahead; these claims are [at] odds with their determination to push for planning consent. This petition will give the Shetland population a well deserved voice in opposing the Viking development.”
Mr Manson told The Shetland Times that the group had every right to start up a petition and that the only surprise was it had not happened earlier. But he feels it is “premature” to make any judgment one way or another until all of the facts are before people.
He said that while there had undoubtedly been a small but vociferous number of people opposing the scheme, particularly in the letters pages of this newspaper, there was also “quite a strong body of opinion” telling him they wanted Viking Energy to get on with investigating the windfarm’s potential impact.
“I feel that expressing an opinion at this stage is premature and I have little doubt that the folk of Shetland will show their usual good sense and wait, before arriving at a considered opinion in light of all the information,” he said.
Mr Manson said that while Viking Energy was “enthusiastic” and “committed” to taking the project forward, the full range of information would only become available following the result of the planning application, expected to be submitted early next year. Should planning approval be granted, up-to-date costings would still have to be collated before trustees could take a final and informed decision.
He said: “Once we find out all the costs attached to it, if it still looks like a goer, the trustees will be faced with a decision as to whether to make the big investment in it. They’re all elected, apart from two [independent trustees], and if the folk of Shetland are solidly against it, I doubt whether trustees will want to go ahead with it.”
Viking Energy was in the process of finalising a number of documents, Mr Manson said, including an environmental impact assessment, in order to submit the planning application for the windfarm.
“We intend to publish this information early in the new year and present all the facts to local communities to allow them to make an informed decision.
“We are fortunate in this country to have a robust planning process in place that will allow everyone to formally say if they oppose, or are in favour, of the development.
“We want to make sure the Shetland community has the most up-to-date information, and so we’re revising our website, producing a leaflet and holding another round of exhibitions. The revised website will be live within the next few weeks containing up-to-date facts about recent changes to the development, many of which are a result of the community consultation.
“Every household will receive an information leaflet in the post before the exhibitions take place. These events will feature plans, models, images and information from the environmental impact assessment, as well as forms for questions and feedback. We will do this before we submit our application to the Scottish government.”
Meanwhile, at a meeting of the charitable trust last week, some councillor-trustees reiterated their concern about the potential for a conflict of interest when it comes to voting on reimbursing the council for the sum, now believed to be in the region of £1.5m, which it has spent on the Viking Energy project to date.
The council initially agreed to spend £3m – a 50 per cent share, along with £3m from its partners in Viking Energy, Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) – taking the windfarm proposal to the planning stage, before it was agreed to sell the SIC’s ownership of the company to the charitable trust last September.
It was argued at the time that the controversial decision, which cost the trust only £900 because the company has no assets, was necessary because a local authority is legally not allowed to sell power and because of the potential for central government interference in the affairs of the SIC. But it led to reformers campaigning for the trust to be made more independent of the council.
Independent trustee John Scott – who successfully argued that a verbal update on the project should be held in public – is one of those who favours reform and at last Thursday’s meeting he said he felt it “stretches credibility” for any councillor-trustee to be able vote on the matter without having a clear conflict of interest.
A report is due to go before trustees in the next month or two asking it to reimburse the council for the money it has spent on the project to date. Mr Manson said he believed the final figure for reaching the stage of planning approval would still be around £3m, unless a public inquiry is required.
Councillor-trustee Gussie Angus said that while he wished the project every success, he was “a bit nervous” and would declare an interest when it came to the decision. “It’s so obvious that I have a conflict, sitting as a councillor considering accounts which show this £3m,” he said.
Councillor-trustee Jonathan Wills said he shared that concern, but also added that when “excitable comments” and “unfair criticisms” of the project were made, he was keen to see as many of these as possible publicly rebutted by Viking Energy for fear that they would become “common currency”.
Mr Manson said he understood Dr Wills’ fears but the company – which has appointed PR firm Weber-Shandwick at a cost of £10,000 to help raise awareness of its plans ahead of the next year’s planning application – was “trying to avoid getting into slanging matches” and concentrating on moving the project forward.
If the plans – which Viking Energy claims will benefit the Shetland economy to the tune of between £25m and £30m a year to help the isles maintain the level of public services it has been accustomed to since the start of the oil era – are successfully adopted, the company hopes to have the windfarm fully operational by 2016.
Sustainable Shetland’s petition will be available in local shops and through an isles-wide network of petition co-ordinators. Anyone who wants more information can contact Joy Tait on (01595) 809789 or visit the campaign group’s website at www.sustainableshetland.org