There is something in the air at the moment it seems. A result, perhaps, of this warm weather we’ve been enjoying. Tempers are flaring in the Shetland summer, and all holds are suddenly unbarred.
Most of the debate surrounding the Viking Energy windfarm and the new Anderson High School could be fairly described as “healthy”. Opinions are being expressed – sometimes well, sometimes not so well – and the discussion, particularly on the issue of the windfarm, has spread from the letters pages to living rooms across the islands.
But it has been widely noted that a certain bitterness and anger has entered the debate recently, and a kind of language that had previously not been in evidence is now being widely used by parties on all sides. This is clear not only in correspondence to The Shetland Times, but also in private, with even discussions between friends and family members apparently spiralling into more aggressive and antagonistic terms. Councillors too are becoming embroiled in these ill-advised slanging matches, with Jonathan Wills’ furiously personal attack on the council’s head of planning, Iain McDiarmid, a particularly regrettable incident.
This development is certainly an unwelcome one, but it is worth considering why it has come about, and I suspect the weather cannot be entirely to blame.
At the root of the situation, I think, is a quite understandable frustration that the argument is never going to be won by words alone. And this is particularly clear in the case of Viking Energy. The pros and cons of the windfarm project have been discussed in great depth for some considerable time now, and the vast majority of Shetlanders have already placed themselves in one camp or another: for, against, or indifferent. Few of these people are likely to change their minds at this late stage, and for those who have put so much effort into convincing folk that their side of the debate is the right side, it must be exasperating to be faced with so many who remain stubbornly unpersuaded. But people’s choices on this issue are founded on more than just the basic financial and environmental arguments, they are based on deep-rooted differences in the way we value our natural environment, and these differences are very unlikely to be overcome by even the most well-rounded last minute rhetoric.
The other cause of people’s frustration is a feeling of impotence that arises from the planning system itself, which in the case of both the school and the windfarm seems stacked against objectors. It was this that councillor Wills was railing against in his very public assault on Iain McDiarmid, and it is this that is causing objectors to Viking Energy (VE) to tear their hair out in dismay: we can make up our own minds, we can argue and debate, but ultimately our opinions may count for nought. Registering our support or opposition to the project is an important act, and the Scottish government will have to acknowledge these declarations, but they certainly do not have to bow to the majority view. They will make their decision with their renewable energy targets in mind, and with the knowledge that Shetland is not an SNP constituency, so there are no votes to be lost here. While their support for VE is certainly not guaranteed, it does seem very probable.
Add to this situation the complete mess that councillors have got themselves tied up in regarding conflicts of interest, and suddenly the layer of protection and representation that the public need from their local authority has been entirely and disastrously lost. Some councillors – Bill Manson in particular – may well be crushed beneath the weight of their many hats. It is clearly impossible for someone to act as developer, charitable trustee, councillor and member of the planning board, and not fail to perform at least one of those roles properly. Ultimately, and inevitably, it is the public that is being failed: on the eve of the largest planning decision to face Shetland in 35 years, they are left shouting into the wind. No wonder people are getting angry.
While the public frustration surrounding these issues is regrettable, there is certainly no mystery as to its cause; nor is there any mystery as to who is to blame.