On Wednesday, Shetland’s councillors put democracy before their own self-interest. By voting to note the advice of the head of legal services, Jan Riise, and then ignoring it altogether by deciding to proceed (after a series of public meetings) with a vote before making a recommendation to Scottish ministers on the Viking Energy windfarm, they took a brave decision. It may yet land them in hot water.
At least two complaints to the Standards Commission, which regulates such things, are in the pipeline. If the commission decrees, as Mr Riise suggested it might, that by taking a vote they have breached the councillors’ Code of Conduct, they could face a maximum penalty of a five-year disqualification (although one wonders whether the commission could realistically censure 19 councillors in such a fashion).
Given that the controversial windfarm proposal is the biggest issue to have faced Shetland for more than 30 years, there can be little doubt that the councillors made the right decision. But what the whole messy episode illustrates in spades is the need for an end to the dual role played by councillors as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust. Only the most thick-skulled individual can now maintain that there is no conflict of interest between these two bodies. This newspaper understands that plans are being drawn up for reform by the trust to introduce more non-councillor trustees. But perhaps the only way to obviate such conflicts in future is to prevent councillors from sitting on the trust and vice versa.
On the wider question of democracy in Shetland, its reputation has not entirely been salvaged by the councillors’ decision. After all, as a collective body they instigated the Viking windfarm project before selling it on to the trust, which (surprise, surprise) was happy to buy it. A referendum, administered by an organisation such as Electoral Reform Services, must be held to determine the balance of opinion in the community on the windfarm. Only then will folk who feel disenfranchised be content that their views have been given due consideration.