Shetland “must play a part” in making Scotland the green energy capital of Europe, according to Scottish energy minister Jim Mather. But he has assured islanders that government approval for windfarms will only be for “good projects in the right places and not at any price to the environment”.
As the minister who will decide the fate of the Viking Energy application his words will be analysed for hidden significance by both sides in controversy over the 150-turbine project but Mr Mather was careful to avoid getting sucked into detailed discussion of the project during a round of engagements in Shetland on Thursday, including signing the single outcome agreement with Shetland’s community planning partnership.
He said all views and submissions would be properly considered in the planning process. “We’ve got to be very correct about the process. That is what we have assiduously sought to do and will continue to do.”
The minister has previously made it clear that his government’s “overarching purpose” is sustainable economic growth and it has set a target of 50 per cent of electricity coming from renewables by 2020.
But he denied that this piled pressure on him to approve even windfarm projects which might be undesirable. “There are lots of opportunities to meet our targets. Scotland is awash with energy,” he said, pointing to around 60 gigaWatts of power which might be harnessed by renewables such as wind, wave and tidal farms. “We have said all along that we will not go with projects anywhere at any price.”
The government has taken steps to speed up the planning process for renewable projects to ease the logjam which has hampered the industry, including setting itself a nine-month deadline to decide the outcome of applications under section 36 of the Electricity Act. The Viking Energy project comes into that category and Mr Mather said its outcome could be known within the nine months.
However, the timescale would be blown out of the water if Shetland Islands Council decides against the planning bid later this year, sparking a public inquiry which could delay a decision for perhaps a year. The minister said there were circumstances under which he might still call a public inquiry even if the SIC backs the project.
In an article commissioned by The Shetland Times, he said: “I want to make Scotland the green energy capital of Europe, using our vast natural energy potential to create a sustainable, low carbon economy. Shetland must play a part in that.
“The best windfarm develop–ments have environmental and economic benefits and our policy is to only approve good projects in the right places, and not at any price to the environment. That will remain our view.
“The current debate around the Viking proposal is hugely important, for the islands and for me. I support the public debate and welcome all representations on the plans as an important part of the public consultation within the consenting process. I can assure you that a decision will only be reached after careful consideration of all the relevant issues.”
He told reporters he had been learning a lot about mediation and arbitration recently as part of his job of guiding a bill on arbitration through the Scottish Parliament, skills which he hopes will be helpful in controversial issues like the Viking windfarm.
“What we need to do is sit down with people and try and work out an optimal future position that benefits everyone. That is clearly what we want to do and I think that is a natural hard-wired element of the whole consents process.”
The minister repeated earlier pledges to keep up the pressure on the UK government and regulators to change the charging system for transmitting electricity which currently sets higher charges the further away the power comes from.
“We are convinced that a proper and fairer transmission charging regime would be terrific for Scotland and really give us the added momentum we want,” he said.
He was speaking briefly at Islesburgh Community Centre after a seminar on economic recovery at which local industry and community leaders discussed Shetland’s future. Among those invited to attend by Shetland Islands Council were representatives of Viking Energy.
The public, the media and windfarm opponents like Sustainable Shetland were not on the guest list although the minister said it was a pity there had not been open access for what was a “conversation with the community” and he said the government wanted the SIC to open the doors wider in future.
Mr Mather has now conducted 115 such seminars and had expected the Shetland session to be open to anybody. By failing to grant access to all it breeds suspicion, he said.
“You allow the toxic concerns to arise. We are very keen to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is a new beginning in Scotland and that beginning is based on openness and accountability.”
Anti-windfarm group Sustainable Shetland attacked the SIC for allowing Viking Energy access to the minister during the seminar discussion on renewables while a group like his, with thousands of supporters, was excluded.
Chairman Billy Fox said he was “aggrieved” by the unequal treatment but was glad the minister had expressed his misgivings about the council’s decision not to open up the seminar.
“The example of how local democracy is being undermined through the council’s conflict of interest seems to actually be extending into visits like this where we are being excluded when we have got a fairly significant voice.”
Sustainable Shetland has already had one request for a meeting with the minister rejected because he felt unable to take part in a session arranged by MSP Tavish Scott in September with MSPs from the Highlands and Islands and those who sit on the economy, energy and tourism committee.
Mr Fox said the minister had replied that his position in the decision-making process for the windfarm meant he could not give Sustainable Shetland proper feedback at such a meeting.
Mr Fox said: “Viking Energy would appear to have the ear of the minister but the folk of Shetland don’t.”
* Mr Mather and SIC convener Sandy Cluness signed the single outcome agreement that will help public bodies in the isles to improve services in the years ahead at Isleburgh on Thursday.
Mr Mather said the deal would allow the isles to play their part in “creating a more successful Scotland”.
It follows the concordat signed by council convener Sandy Cluness and finance minister John Swinney at the Sumburgh Hotel last year.
Mr Mather said: “The Scottish Government and Scotland’s councils have a shared ambitio to see partnerships with community planning partnerships to improve quality of life and opportunities for people right across Scotland.
“I am pleased to be back in Shetland to sign the single outcome agreement. [It] reflects local circumstances and priorities in challenging economic times for Shetland.”
Mr Cluness, who is also chairman of the Shetland community planning partnership, said: “I feel that the council and its partner organisations have always worked well together and the signing of this latest single outcome agreement further helps to cement that.
“It also gives us a shared direction for delivery of our services to the people of Shetland in the coming years.”
The organisations involved in the deal, besides the council and the government, are Northern Constabulary, NHS Shetland, the Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service, Voluntary Action Shetland, Shetland Transport Partnership and HIE Shetland.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s justice minister Kenny MacAskill has praised the community service scheme operated by the social work service in Shetland.
Visiting the isles on Thursday to see how offenders have helped the social business COPE and the Shetland Bike Project, he described the set-up as an “excellent example”.
He said: “Successful community service projects such as the one involved with COPE bring real benefits to local people. The work placements at COPE have led to the offenders involved being able to move on to gain full time employment.
“This is an excellent example of not only requiring offenders to make real payback into the community but also giving them the chance to gain skills, make the move into employment and break the cycle of re-offending.
“It is success stories like these in Shetland that show why we are right to invest in a system of immediate and robust community penalties which are a credible alternative to custody.”