SIC planners are recommending that councillors should object to Viking Energy’s controversial windfarm when they meet to determine their stance on Tuesday.
Head of planning Iain McDiarmid’s 69-page report says Viking has not demonstrated that the 127-turbine project could be built without an “unacceptable environmental impact”.
Members will meet in Lerwick Town Hall on Tuesday morning to make a recommendation to the Scottish government’s energy consents unit, which has the final say on the project. If the council objects to the application it will automatically trigger a possibly lengthy public inquiry next year.
Mr McDiarmid’s report states that it will take up to three months to refer an application to a public inquiry and “depending on the nature of the inquiry” that can take between six and 18 months. It would then take a further two months for ministers to determine the case, meaning the whole process could take up to two years.
The deadline for the SIC’s response is 19th December. A number of consultees, including statutory body Scottish Natural Heritage, have maintained their objections to the project after Viking this autumn submitted an addendum to its original application. Sepa has withdrawn its objection subject to certain conditions.
While planners believe the development of a windfarm of “significant scale” could comply with its development plan, Viking’s project could not be built without compromising the area’s “high quality environment”.
The report notes that the carbon payback of the project is “as yet undeterminable” because Sepa has been unable to carry out work on the emission losses and savings which the project would cause.
Mr McDiarmid does point out that his department has not assessed the economic impact of the project, which Viking hopes will bring £23 million a year in profits to the community through Shetland Charitable Trust, which owns 45 per cent of the company.
That prompted a short statement from SIC convener Sandy Cluness urging councillors to carefully consider the report along with the economic impact: “I would urge all councillors to read the report carefully and weigh up the fundamental issues in its conclusion: do the economic benefits of the windfarm outweigh the environmental impact?”
Mr Cluness continued: “The report stresses that the prospective economic and social benefits of the windfarm are not part of this planning report, but must be weighed up politically. That is what the council must do.”
Although the public was encouraged to send representations directly to the energy consents unit, the planning department did receive 44 letters – the overwhelming majority of which were against the project.
Among the 37 objectors are Shetland Amenity Trust chairman Brian Gregson and protest group Sustainable Shetland, while Chris Bunyan of the Windfarm Supporters Group was among seven who wrote in support.
Viking project coordinator Allan Wishart said: “We’ve only had a few hours to look at the report. A lot of work is going on in assessing it very closely, and we’ll have a pretty comprehensive response on Monday.
“I’m not saying we accept or agree with the recommendations, but on the other side is the balance of the social and economic benefits and welfare well into the future.”
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox said he felt it was time for Viking, in conjunction with the council, to “go back to the drawing board” and try to come up with smaller scale projects which would have the full support of the Shetland public.
“I’m not particularly surprised, because I felt planning have been looking at this as the professionals that they are,” he said. “They’ve come to the conclusion that the development is not fit for purpose. I would sincerely hope that the councillors look at it very closely.”
While Mr Fox would welcome a public inquiry, it would be a “very costly, long drawn-out affair”. He said Mr Cluness was “misguided” in calling for members to weigh up the economic impact because the financial benefits are “speculative” and “far from proven”.
It is not clear how many councillors will feel comfortable participating in Tuesday’s meeting. The three councillors who are directors of Viking, Alastair Cooper, Bill Manson and Caroline Miller, along with Mr Wishart, will not be able to take part.
Others remain wary of facing what their legal adviser last year described as an “irreconcilable” conflict of interest because of their role as trustees of the charitable trust.
The full report is available on the SIC’s website at www.shetland.gov.uk/coins/Agenda.asp?meetingid=3138