Isles MSP Tavish Scott is calling for a Shetland-wide postal referendum to categorically determine where public opinion stands on Viking Energy’s controversial windfarm proposal.
The Liberal Democrats’ Scottish leader said he had been contacted by many people from both sides of the argument in recent days expressing their concern at the SIC’s decision not to hold another round of public meetings on the addendum to Viking’s planning application for a massive 127-turbine windfarm.
Mr Scott told The Shetland Times he believes the only way councillors can get a full picture of people’s views is to stage a ballot asking for a straight yes or no answer on whether they agree with the proposals.
He said: “Sustainable Shetland say the majority are against and Bobby Hunter’s pro group [Windfarm Supporters] argue the opposite. In that sense, it puts members in a really impossible situation – the fairest way on this very difficult issue is for every Shetlander to give a view on it.”
Since the project’s inception, councillors’ dual involvement in the project (chiefly through their role as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust, but also as members of the planning board) has seen many constituents complaining about the difficulty of finding out their ward representatives’ view on the windfarm. Sustainable Shetland has described it as a “fundamental failure of local democracy”.
Mr Scott is writing to SIC convener Sandy Cluness suggesting a referendum by post could be held before the council meets to discuss the application in December. However, one council source said yesterday such a short timetable was “completely unrealistic” and suggested Mr Scott appeared to have “jolted into electioneering mode” ahead of next May’s elections to Holyrood.
Mr Cluness was out of the isles today collecting his OBE for services to the community and could not be contacted before we went to press. But he has previously said he does not favour referendums, observing that had one been staged in the early 1970s the community might have voted against the coming of oil and Shetland would not be the affluent place it is today.
A council spokesman said: “Some councillors have spoken publicly in the past about the idea of a referendum on the Viking Energy windfarm. However, we’ve not been made aware of Mr Scott’s letter, so really aren’t able to comment more fully at this stage.”
Meanwhile, The Shetland Times is to conduct a smaller follow-up to its opinion poll, carried out last summer, which indicated that 48 per cent of the adult population was opposed to the project, 31 per cent in favour and 21 per cent undecided. This time just one of the five original questions will be asked: “Are you in favour of or against the proposed Viking Energy windfarm?”
The paper’s editor Paul Riddell said: “Our poll of last year is the most definitive statement we have of public opinion on this enormous issue for the isles. It is now time to see whether, following publication of the addendum and the council’s decision not to hold a fresh round of public meetings, anything has changed since last summer.”
Mr Scott claimed that he personally has no strong views either way on the project, although he is understood to be privately keen on seeing the development go ahead. “A representative has to represent people’s views,” he said. “Over the last four years both views have been expressed pretty forcibly – my job is to make sure the government understands where public opinion is on this.”
He accepted the ballot could not be binding on the Scottish government, whose energy consents unit is expected to deliver a final planning decision in the first half of 2011.
But he said it would be a very useful barometer for him and other politicians in the isles.
“I will abide by a postal ballot, which would be helpful both to me and more importantly to elected members,” he said. “Quite a number of councillors are on the record saying if Shetland doesn’t want this, they won’t get it. As long as it’s a straight, simple question which is therefore fair, the result is the result. As a democrat you have to accept that.”
His Liberal Democrat colleague, Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said: “It’s very important that people in Shetland are able to resolve this one way or another, and to proceed with a decision without a definitive view of the community would be dangerous.”
Viking Energy project co-ordinator Allan Wishart said it was “not in our gift one way or another” to say whether there should be a referendum, but even if it came out 100 per cent for or against, it would make no difference to the statutory process the Scottish government has to go through.
“My concern is Shetland ends up with a huge windfarm that isn’t community-owned,” he said. “Whatever happens, that is my biggest concern. We have to keep our big community share in it for the benefits. If there’s a public local inquiry, that’s fine – the danger is if the charitable trust decides not to invest and it has consent, it will go ahead anyway.”
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox said his organisation would welcome a ballot of public opinion as long as the question being posed was clear cut. “It’s certainly what a lot of folk have been calling for,” he said.
“The critical thing for us is that the question would need to be clear, unambiguous, fair and seen to be fair. It would have to be to the mutual satisfaction of both sides of the debate, and it must relate specifically to the Viking Energy windfarm planning application, not to renewables or any other projects at all.”
Sustainable members point to last year’s four public meetings on the original application, where an average of 75 per cent of the audience expressed opposition, as reflecting the extent of hostility towards Viking. But the Windfarm Supporters Group suggests it was not an accurate gauge of public opinion.
Financial projections estimate the windfarm will provide a £23 million a year windfall for the charitable trust to spend within the community. New information released last month suggests that the trust’s financial exposure should the project fail would be limited to between £31 million and £62 million because of banks’ eagerness to invest in renewable energy schemes.
But opponents say its scale is much too big for the isles, are sceptical at new claims that the project will have a “carbon payback” time of less than one year and beli¬eve the huge investment represents a risky financial gamble.
● Anyone who wants to support or object to Viking’s amended proposal should contact the energy consents unit before Friday 19th November, by email to EnergyConsents@scotland.gsi.gov.uk or by writing to: Energy Consents and Deployment Unit, Scottish Government, 4th Floor, 5 Atlantic Quay, 150 Broomielaw, Glasgow, G2 8LU.