Councillors have defied legal advice that they face an “irreconcilable” conflict of interest and will proceed with a vote on the proposed Viking Energy windfarm.
At a special meeting of the Full Council on Wednesday they voted 15-2 merely to note a report from head of legal services Jan Riise advising them that because of their dual role as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust, which owns 45 per cent of the windfarm, they could not objectively debate and decide on the issue as a planning authority.
Instead, they have decided to hold a series of meetings with members of the public before convening to take a vote on the windfarm. The councillors will also apply for an extension of the deadline by which they must, as a statutory consultee, give their view to the Scottish government’s energy consents unit.
Mr Riise had warned them that they may be in breach of section 7 of the councillors’ Code of Conduct meaning that, should a complaint be submitted to the Standards Commission, they could face a maximum possible sanction of a five year disqualification. Other sanctions available to the commission include a verbal warning or a period of suspension from office.
The report to councillors this week noted that two formal letters of complaints had already been submitted to the public services ombudsman.
Mr Riise had suggested that the planning service should submit a recommendation on the 150-turbine windfarm project directly to ministers, bypassing a democratic council decision. He had suggested staging four public hearings in Aith, Brae, Dunrossness and Lerwick at which councillors would have been entitled to represent the views of their constituents from the floor along with the rest of the public.
But councillor Rick Nickerson spoke strongly against the notion that elected members could not take a decision on a matter of such huge importance, stating that an acceptance of Mr Riise’s recommendation would be tantamount to an abdication of their right to represent their constituencies to unelected officials.
He said: “I resent the implication and suggestion that I do not have the integrity, intelligence, judgement and ability to make decisions in the best interest of my community. I will fight rigorously any allegations that I have not acted in the fullest of my ability.
“I congratulate the opponents of this project in almost bringing democracy in these islands to its knees. However I am not prepared to be cleverly outmanoeuvred by people who have no mandate, hold no elected office and can only claim to represent a small minority of the Shetland community.”
Sustainable Shetland’s Kevin Learmonth took particular umbrage with the latter statement, telling Mr Nickerson outside the council chamber afterwards that his remarks had been “scandalous”.
Chairman of Sustainable Shetland Billy Fox said after the meeting that what was really bringing democracy to its knees was the councillors’ continued refusal to accept the need to address conflicts of interest and he reasserted his belief that the only solution was for a majority of non-councillor trustees to be appointed or elected to Shetland Charitable Trust.
Mr Fox said: “We’re not going to move forward from this until they actually recognise that fact and address the problems they do have sitting as trustees. They have commissioned a couple of legal consultants’ views on that, which have come back and said they must change their ways, but they’re still not doing that.”
Mr Nickerson said that while the council’s recommendation could come out for or against the Viking Energy project, it had to be arrived at by a “political consensus” as part of the democratic process, not by “weak governance”.
“Should we take our officials’ advice today we will be setting a dangerous precedent. Will we be abdicating all our major and controversial decisions to unelected officials in the future? We are skating on thin ice here. We are precariously close to looking like paralysed rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, and there is plenty of evidence of what happens to rabbits on our roads.”
Lerwick North councillor Caroline Miller said she wished to represent the views of both those who are for and against the project and moved an acceptance of Mr Riise’s proposals because she felt it was the best way to allow her to do so, but she was supported by a solitary councillor, Iris Hawkins.
North Isles councillor Josie Simpson was clear that he had been voted in to do a job and was determined to carry it out, adding that he was dead against the growing tendency to “hide behind” perceived conflicts of interest when it came to making tough decisions.
Viking Energy chairman Bill Manson and directors Allan Wishart and Alistair Cooper all declared an interest and left the chamber prior to the discussion taking place, though Mr Wishart first stated his view that local hearings should still be part of the process.