By JOHN ROBERTSON
Anti-windfarm protesters are to apply heavy pressure on SIC councillors and Shetland’s Lib Dem politicians to try to turn them against the £800 million Viking windfarm.
The Sustainable Shetland group believes at least 80 per cent of the local population is opposed and hopes elected representatives can be persuaded to reflect that feeling and help kill it off.
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox told a meeting of 152 members this week it was vital they each object to the planning application and write and write again to their councillors until they get a response.
However, recent weeks have highlighted the possibility that the 150-turbine windfarm, or a similar project, might happen even if councillors did oppose the Viking Energy plan and refused to sanction the community’s financial stake.
Viking Energy chairman Bill Manson this week repeated his view that a large windfarm may be inevitable. He said companies had been looking at Shetland for six years and had the council not intervened by forming Viking Energy there might have been up to three different proposals today without the community benefits promised.
He said: “Sooner or later energy resources around Shetland will be developed – with or without local involvement or participation. I strongly believe that it will be better to have this happen sooner and with a real local influence than later with no community element.”
The allegiances of Mr Manson and some of his councillor colleagues are now under legal scrutiny by Sustainable Shetland and its lawyers, raising the prospect of a complaint to the Standards Commission for Scotland over alleged conflicts of interest.
Addressing the group’s first annual meeting in Whiteness and Weisdale Hall on Tuesday, Mr Fox said there were already grounds for an official complaint against at least one councillor and revealed that the group’s lawyers are astonished by the “completely improper” arrangement where SIC councillors will have multiple roles to play in the big windfarm decisions lying ahead. The 22 SIC members are elected representatives of the people in their wards but they are the landowners of 43 of the 150 proposed turbine sites and they all serve as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust, which owns 45 per cent of the windfarm development company Viking Energy.
The nine members who also sit on the planning board and the three who act as directors of Viking Energy (Mr Manson, Alastair Cooper and Allan Wishart) are in a particularly awkward position in trying to mirror public opinion in their wards and perform their obligations to planning law or company profits. It is understood that the issue of conflicts of interest is being analysed by council lawyers who will brief the councillors in detail in the coming weeks.
Mr Fox said councillors’ predicament was “complete and utter madness”. “It’s a real can of worms and I think it’s one that’s going to get opened pretty soon.” He also drew attention to the fact that Viking Energy project officer David Thomson is also a private shareholder in the Viking Energy venture.
He criticised successive councils over the past 30 years for acting completely outwith their remit as a local authority by operating as business people and developers rather than simply representing their constituents and providing infrastructure and services. “They are not there to play at developers and they have made so many ill-judged decisions in the past they have lost us tens of millions. This project coming along now is going to be the granddaddy of them all.”
Sustainable Shetland vice-chairman Kevin Learmonth said the difficulties some people are apparently encountering in approaching their elected representatives showed “a fundamental failure of local democracy”. “This is the biggest project ever to face the public in Shetland and the councillors say nothing!” He urged members to force each of the three members in their ward to state where they stand on the windfarm.
The claim that 80 per cent, or more, in the community oppose the windfarm was made by Mr Fox, who accused Mr Thomson of Viking Energy of “a blatant untruth” in stating on television recently that the project had the local community onboard.
Membership of Sustainable Shetland is expected to climb above 600 due to new recruits on Tuesday, which Mr Fox said made it “pretty large” for any group in Shetland. The audience was made up largely of people from communities which would be close to wind turbines, including a sizeable showing from Aith and other parts of the West Side, Brae and Voe along with small numbers from Lerwick and other places further away. Critics who suspect that the bulk of those present were probably incomers are wrong.
The group’s petition against the windfarm has been signed by 3,558 people since November and will be presented to SIC convener Sandy Cluness at a meeting of the Full Council on Wednesday 1st July. Around 60-70 members are to turn up to show support.
The group welcomed news that Shetland Bird Club and Shetland Anglers’ Association, are to object.
Agnes Leask, one of the members who spoke at the meeting, said there was little hope of councillors supporting the protest so members should lobby MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott to represent their views.