Viking Energy’s plans for a huge windfarm in the isles have received a qualified thumbs-up from all but one of the five candidates standing in the Orkney and Shetland constituency at next month’s general election.
A consent application for the highly contentious development initially proposed a 150-turbine windfarm down the heart of the Shetland Mainland, though the developers are currently working on an addendum which may reduce the size and number of turbines and is expected to be published in the coming weeks.
But the windfarm has sparked anger and some passionate opposition in recent years. In a representative 1,050-sample poll carried out by this newspaper last summer, 48 per cent of islanders were against the proposal, with 31 per cent in favour and 21 per cent undecided.
This week we asked each of the five candidates at the upcoming poll on 6th May the same five questions which were put to members of the public last year. Only Orcadian businessman and UKIP candidate Robert Smith is outrightly, and outspokenly, opposed. He describes renewable energy projects per se as “economic madness”.
Labour candidate Mark Cooper is 100 per cent behind the proposal, while the other three hopefuls – Conservative Frank Nairn, Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael and John Mowat of the SNP – are also notionally in favour of a project of this nature.
By far the most certain of his support for the scheme is Mr Cooper, telling The Shetland Times this week that it would benefit the community “in terms of the energy it will provide and the economic benefit for reinvestment in the islands and the jobs it will create”. He believes it will be “beneficial” to the isles’ environment and that the turbines’ impact on the landscape will be “neutral”. “I think they will blend into the scenery.”
Mr Cooper sees the project as a good investment for Shetland Charitable Trust (SCT) because the organisation “funds a number of groups in Shetland which in the current economic climate need a secure source of funding and I believe that the Viking windfarm will provide Shetland with a source of revenue for a number of years”.
Taking the polar opposite point of view, Mr Smith described wind turbines as “rubbish” and “absolute nonsense”. “I’m absolutely against all windfarms because without government subsidy no aero-generator would ever be built,” he said.
“They’re of no benefit to man nor beast. The government are now engaged in the swivel-eyed lunacy of forcing distributors to pay 30p per unit for unreliable wind energy. Imagine if people on low incomes had to pay 30p per unit. Renewables have already added at least 20 per cent to our electricity bills. How many old people have died of cold this winter because of this madness?”
Visually, Mr Smith said, they can be “very elegant-looking structures and add a pleasant contrast to the ancient landscape”, but it is “a pity they’re economic madness”. He sees no prospect of SCT getting a return on any investment: “The government are skint so any subsidies the trust are drooling over will dry up very soon in any case.”
Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael, who has held the seat since 2001, has no objection to a windfarm in principle, but said he was concerned about the scale of the original proposal. “That is now being revised by Viking and we shall see the scale of any revised application when it is published.”
He does not doubt there will be a significant environmental and visual impact and “local people must have a voice in deciding if that is an acceptable impact or not”.
“The role of local councillors in this is crucial,” he said. “When the impact assessment of the first version of the planning application was published I was instrumental in getting more time for local people and organisations to consider it and to comment on it.”
Mr Carmichael said the prospect of securing income for SCT was “one of the most positive features” of the proposed turbines. But he is clear that Shetland residents must be given the chance to see for themselves whether it represents a good investment: “The finances of the project must be completely robust and available for the Shetland community to make a judgement. The funding and financial implications for Shetland must be published before a decision is made by the council. We must know what we can expect in return for the development.”
Mr Nairn, meanwhile, said he was pro-Viking “in principle” but supported the development being the subject of a public inquiry “sooner rather than later”. “Objectors need to be able to argue their case and the developers theirs, with the opportunity for modifications, whether major or minor, to be made as one possible outcome.”
He accepted there would be negative impacts locally but that they needed to be balanced against the contribution towards the use of renewable energy. Mr Nairn said he did not know whether it represented a good investment opportunity for SCT but suggested it needed to be “assessed not only on its own merits but also in reaction to its size and the spread of the other investments”.
Mr Mowat said his support was “qualified”, because he was “initially surprised by the size and scale” of the proposal, but he was notionally in favour “provided there is community benefit to Shetland and a power cable is in place that takes power to the Scottish mainland”.
The visual impact was “a matter of personal preference”, he said, adding it would only represent a good investment for SCT “if the required infrastructure is put in place to take the electricity to where it is needed”. He was clear that “more realistic” Ofgem charges for power transmission need to be introduced but believes the investment could be critical in safeguarding Shetland’s future economic well-being.
“Shetland is a windy place and probably the best place in Scotland or the UK for wind turbines to work efficiently and regularly,” said Mr Mowat. “Oil and oil revenues will get less in years to come so an alternative source of income would be useful.”
As to whether trustees of SCT can take decisions as councillors without facing a conflict of interest, the nationalist candidate was somewhat ambiguous: “This would be a government matter, not a local authority matter in the neighbouring Faroe Islands – mature devolved government since 1948. Shetland and Orkney movements and the SNP used to explore this type of issue over 20 years ago. There used to be lively and healthy debate on this. Maybe we need to have that again.”
Mr Smith said there was a “clear” conflict of interest in councillors holding such dual roles, adding: “They are obviously going to be in favour of helping one of the trust’s subsidiary companies.” Again, Mr Cooper was completely at odds with his UKIP opponent, believing there was no contradiction because elected members “can serve in the public interest and be a trustee of the SCT because as councillors it is their job to serve their constituents and act in their interest”.
Mr Nairn said there was “bound” to be a potential conflict of interest and that trustees “should be independent and not be councillors”. Mr Carmichael’s view is that current law will require “a substantial revision of the structure of the trust and the relationship between it and the council”. He said individual councillors would have to take advice as to whether a conflict of interest still allowed them to take part in any decision, adding that it would assist public confidence if the advice was made available for all to see.
Trustees last month decided to postpone reform of SCT’s constitution until after the next set of council elections in 2012 by a margin of 12-3, with six abstentions. That means key decisions on whether to invest huge sums of money in Viking Energy are likely to be taken by the present set of 22 councillors, along with two independents. It remains to be seen what view charities regulator OSCR, which has been pushing for reform and making it clear to SCT that the status quo was not an option, takes of that decision.
The five questions asked of the candidates were:
• Are you in favour of or against the proposed Viking Energy windfarm?
• Do you think the windfarm would be harmful or beneficial to the environment?
• Do you think that the windfarm would have a positive or negative visual impact on the Shetland landscape?
• Do you think the windfarm would be a good or bad investment for Shetland Charitable Trust?
• Do you think councillors who are also trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust can serve the interests of the community when making decisions on the windfarm?