By NEIL RIDDELL
Campaign group Sustainable Shetland is calling on the SIC to cease making payments towards the Viking Energy windfarm project and take urgent steps to recover £1.74 million already spent on behalf of the company behind the venture.
A 90 per cent shareholding in Viking Energy Ltd (VEL) was sold by the council to Shetland Charitable Trust in September 2007 but the local authority is continuing to meet the company’s costs after councillor-trustees – concerned over a potential conflict of interest – twice refused to take a decision on sanctioning the initial £2.25 million draw-down of an allocated £3 million budget from the trust’s funds, which would have included reimbursing the SIC for its expenditure to date.
In a press release this week, Sustainable Shetland’s vice chairman Kevin Learmonth said it was not good enough that the council was continuing to pay all of the company’s bills and allow it to use council staff, services and resources “without a single penny being repaid”. He said: “It is simply unacceptable that public funds are used in this way. I find it worrying that normal standards of scrutiny, accountability and ‘following the public pound’ can be set aside because of political motivation.”
In a letter to the trust earlier this year, SIC chief executive Morgan Goodlad said the council “cannot continue to meet these expenses for a company it has no locus in” and Mr Learmonth brought up that letter, written in late January, pointing out that no action – in the form of an invoice or otherwise – had subsequently followed.
But Mr Goodlad told The Shetland Times the council was “working towards resolution” with the trust and hopes an agreement can be reached before the end of the month. He said: “My letter is very clear regarding the continual funding of the activities of VEL and the recovery of that has to come from VEL – to get that VEL has to be capitalised, that’s the issue.”
Trustees were unable to take a decision last month after too many councillor-trustees declared an interest and said they would be taking no part in any vote, having received verbal and written advice from charities regulator OSCR.
Mr Learmonth said: “The failure of VEL to adequately capitalise itself to meet its debts is a matter for Viking Energy, not Shetland Islands Council. The inability of Shetland Charitable Trust to rid itself of conflicts of interest to enable it to allocate money to Viking Energy is also not a local authority issue. The council should stop spending public money to bankroll a company they have no financial interest in, and invoice Viking Energy immediately for all costs to date.”
The charitable trust was yesterday due to hold a private session to discuss how to resolve the conflict of interest issue and there is hope that a special trust meeting will then be held later this month in order to take a decision on the £2.25 million draw-down.
Councillor-trustee Allan Wishart, who is also a director of VEL, said he did not see any way in which the issue would delay the submission of a planning application for the 150-turbine windfarm. “It does highlight a bigger problem about conflict of interest,” he said. “He’s set down specific dates for this, that and the next … but we won’t be rushing to comply with Kevin’s instructions on that.”
He continued: “We have to deal with it – it needs sorting out as soon as we possibly can. If I wasn’t a director I wouldn’t feel in any ways at all inhibited by a conflict of interest, it’s all in the ultimate aim of doing the best for Shetland.”