The Shetland Times is to carry out a major test of public opinion on the proposed Viking windfarm in the absence of any official move to gauge the majority feeling in the community.
The poll will aim to ask 1,000 people the central question “Are you in favour of the Viking Energy windfarm?” with additional supplementary questions on some of the issues.
The decision follows last week’s rejection of a referendum by Viking Energy chairman Bill Manson, the councillor who also chairs Shetland Charitable Trust, owners of the community’s 45 per cent stake in the windfarm project.
Yesterday Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness cast his vote against a single-question referendum too, observing that had one been staged in the early 1970s the community might have voted against the coming of oil and Shetland would not be the affluent place it is today.
“In 1973 when the great debates were on and I stood for the council first, there was a very large number of folk thought that oil would destroy Shetland, not only because of its potential danger for wildlife and fisheries but also because of the social impact it would have. There was a strong opposition within the council as well to the local authority having any share in it. It was thought that these matters should be left to private enterprise.”
Meanwhile, the call for an extension to the 30th June deadline for comments for or against Viking Energy’s planning application has been answered with the developer agreeing to double the length of time available. The extra 28 days, announced late yesterday afternoon, sets a new deadline of 28th July.
This week has seen more questions asked about exactly how the Shetland public is to have its say over whether the £800 million windfarm should proceed – a right which is widely assumed to have been promised at an early stage in the project.
The council convener said he favoured leaving the ultimate decision about investing community money to the trustees of the charitable trust, of whom all but two are SIC councillors.
But opponents of the development say councillors appear unable or unwilling to represent constituents’ views on the issue and they call into question members’ ability to vote on the windfarm due to conflicts of interest.
The convener is more relaxed than some of his colleagues regarding perceived conflicts of interest when councillors wear different hats at different meetings, although he said trustees who are directors of Viking Energy will have to make up their own minds about involvement in decisions. “If trustees believe the decision they are making is in the best interests of the community then I don’t see a conflict of interest,” he said.
He warned a simple referendum might kill off the entire concept of a part-community-owned windfarm whereas his impression was that although opposition is “fairly widespread”, most people seem in favour of a windfarm but not on as big a scale as the 150-turbine complex proposed for the central and north Mainland.
“If it was simply a Yes or a No it is a difficult question for someone like me who thinks we should have a windfarm but maybe it shouldn’t be as big as it is,” he said.
He believed a smaller windfarm could be possible if the UK government revamped its system of charging for the transmission of electricity to the National Grid which discriminates against far-flung places like Shetland.
“In other parts of the Europe you get a connection at the same cost wherever you live,” he said. “In the UK the farther away you are the more expensive it is.”
He said it might be time for the SIC, other Highlands and Islands local authorities and the Scottish government to renew their campaign for equal treatment and equal charging which might mean substantially fewer turbines required for the Viking windfarm to generate profits for Shetland.
It will be several years before epic decisions have to be made about funding the £800 million windfarm by which time he said the situation would be much clearer and important factors could have changed. It would also be several years before a cable is laid. “I think there is plenty of time for everybody to have their say one way or another.”
The jump in costs from £552m to £800m in the space of one year he does not think will effectively kill off the Shetland community’s continued involvement in the project.
Indeed, if the power transmission costs could be slashed, fewer turbines would be needed and the price for the windfarm would come down. “The bigger it is the more expensive it is,” he said. “If the government were prepared to make it easier for us then perhaps our contribution wouldn’t need to so large as it is at the moment.”
Exact details of The Shetland Times’ opinion poll will be worked out in the coming weeks. Editor Paul Riddell said the poll would be conducted using the methods deployed by formal polling organisations “to establish what the balance of opinion in the community is”.
“A new member of staff will be appointed to carry out the poll, which will be properly weighted to take account of geography, sex and age, over the summer months. We are hoping to enlist the help of experts in the field of psephology, the study of voting behaviour. Our target is to poll 1,000 people – the same number polling organisations regard as representative of the whole country when surveying likely electoral voting intentions. A date for publication has yet to be determined.
“As well as the central question, a series of supplementary questions will be asked centring on the cost of the project, its environmental implications and whether there is or is not a democratic deficit in the planning process.”
News of Viking Energy Partnership’s agreement to extend the deadline for planning comments until 28th July follows pressure from Shetland’s MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott who backed a call initiated by the campaign group Sustainable Shetland for submissions to be accepted beyond 30th June.
The politicians approached energy minister Jim Mather with an extension request. Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox had criticised the 28-day response period allocated by the government as inadequate given the vast amounts of information included in the windfarm environmental statement, which took five years to compile and was only published just over two weeks ago.
In a letter he told the government’s energy consents unit in Glasgow it was “totally unacceptable” because his group had been told repeatedly by Viking Energy that the detailed information opponents were seeking, on issues such as peat removal and road building, would only be made available in the environmental statement.
Mr Scott and Mr Carmichael have also sought an opportunity for Sustainable Shetland to put its case to Mr Mather, Highlands and Islands MSPs and the Scottish Parliament’s energy committee. Mr Scott said he hoped to arrange the briefings for September.
He said he and Mr Carmichael were hearing from “many concerned constituents” by letter and at surgeries voicing worries about the windfarm’s potential impact on the Shetland landscape and environment and regarding the financial questions surrounding the gigantic project. At least seven Sustainable Shetland members lobbied the Lib Dem politicians at their hour-long surgery in Lerwick on Friday.
Mr Scott said: “The capital costs are rising and it is now beyond the ability of the charitable trust to fund Shetland’s share.
The project may end up being largely, or wholly, owned by a multi-national energy company, with the council’s role reduced to that of landlord and most of the promised profits heading overseas. People need a clear assurance that this won’t happen.”
The issue of potential conflicts of interest is destined to be the subject of exhaustive debate in the coming months.
SIC councillors are elected to represent their constituents, act as trustees of the charitable trust – which not only controls the local company Viking Energy Limited but may have to put up some of the funding – and as members of the planning board which will vote for or against the windfarm application before passing it back to the Scottish government for its verdict.
Mr Scott said: “One of the constant themes in the representations that we have received is a frustration that councillors are in an impossible position, struggling to carry out their duties to represent their constituents, because of the restrictions imposed by their other duties. This is a massive deal for Shetland and our councillors must be free to represent the views of local people.”
In today’s newspaper Sustainable Shetland has taken out a full page advert urging people to object to the planning application. It also includes a form to cut out and send to the energy consents unit.
The group’s main objections have been well publicised over the past year but have been refined in the light of the mass of new information included in Viking Energy’s planning application. They include:
● Changing the character of the landscape, affecting the view and putting off tourists;
● Disturbing massive amounts of peat which could trigger landslips and causes carbon pollution;
● Noise pollution for residents living within two kilometres of wind turbines;
● At least 5,700 bird deaths from collisions with turbines over 25 years and other affects on birdlife.
Mr Fox said yesterday the group would finally close its petition on Tuesday which he said had now been signed by over 3,000 people since it was raised nearly seven months ago. He said he believed many more people who work for the council would have signed it but have concerns about how the presence of their names on a form might be viewed by their bosses and elected members.
Sustainable Shetland now claims 560 members who have each paid at least £1 to join.