SIC councillors have voted by a wide margin to give their backing to Viking Energy’s controversial 127-turbine windfarm, rejecting the recommendations of the local authority’s own planning department.
The decision on granting planning consent now lies with the Scottish government’s energy consents unit after members voted 9-3, with one abstention, to support a 457 megawatt project which has created deep divisions within the Shetland community.
An objection from the SIC would have automatically triggered a local public inquiry. The Scottish government may still decide to call an inquiry given that statutory consultee Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), along with a range of other bodies, has objected.
Immediately after today’s special SIC meeting, Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox said his members would be meeting to discuss submitting complaints against those who voted in favour of the project to the Standards Commission and to charities regulator OSCR.
Seven councillors, including the three who are directors of Viking Energy, declared an interest and took no part in the meeting. A further two, Viking project co-ordinator Allan Wishart and councillor Iris Hawkins, were absent.
Last year members were advised by head of legal Jan Riise that they had an “irreconcilable” conflict of interest in the project as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust. The trust owns 45 per cent of Viking Energy in partnership with Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE).
In a hearing-style format for the meeting in Lerwick Town Hall, the 13 councillors who remained in the room heard from both opponents and supporters of the project before deciding to back Rick Nickerson’s motion in favour of the project.
In a roll call vote, Mr Nickerson won the support of: Gussie Angus, Laura Baisley, Jim Budge, Sandy Cluness, Addie Doull, Betty Fullerton, Robert Henderson and Josie Simpson. The trio of West Side councillors, Florence Grains, Gary Robinson and Frank Robertson voted against.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills abstained, then put forward an unsuccessful motion that members should recognise that the community is divided, with “many unresolved conflicts of fact and opinion”, and recommend that a public inquiry be held. He lost out 9-4.
Dr Wills had also suggested acknowledging there is a “public perception, in some quarters, that councillors have conflicted interests in this case, due to their multiple and overlapping roles as representatives of this community”.
All members present declared an interest at the start of the meeting. Along with Viking directors Alastair Cooper, Bill Manson and Caroline Miller, a further four councillors – Allison Duncan, SCT vice-chairman Jim Henry, Andrew Hughson and Cecil Smith – decided to take no part.
SIC head of planning Iain McDiarmid was first to speak, introducing his detailed 69-page report. It was the culmination of “several years’ work” by his department and recommended the SIC should object to the project because it would have an “unacceptable environmental impact”.
That was followed by head of economic development Neil Grant presenting a four-page briefing note he had put together in the past few days. This was because of a feeling within the council that members had to balance the detrimental effects against the prospective economic benefits the windfarm could bring.
Mr Grant said he accepted the validity of Viking’s estimate that it will bring £930 million into the Shetland economy over the project’s 23-year lifetime. He said it was one of very few projects of its type in this country which boasted such a “genuine level of community benefit” in the form of a projected £23 million annual profit to the charitable trust.
First up for the objectors was Mr Fox on behalf of Sustainable’s 756-strong membership. He endorsed the environmental concerns voiced by the RSPB, SNH and the John Muir Trust, all of whom have objected, and lauded Mr McDiarmid’s report for reaching the same conclusion.
He said Mr Grant’s report appeared to have come “directly from the Viking Energy handbook” and described the financial projections as “misguided” and “speculative”.
Mr Fox fears the charitable trust’s £180 million reserves could be decimated to “teens of millions of pounds” if the proposed upfront investment of £60 million is combined with £40 million or more on a new Anderson High School and five or six years of spending £12 million a year without much income from stock market investments.
Two of the other objectors, local architect Iain Malcolmson and Weisdale resident Evelyn Morrison, outlined their alarm at the potential health impact. Many of the turbines are less than 2km away from properties, contrary to Scottish government guidelines.
Mr Malcolmson pointed out that Viking had “repeatedly dismissed health concerns” and had not carried out a full health impact assessment. Until it could prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was no cause for concern, the developer was “gambling with the health and wellbeing of the population of the Central Mainland”.
Living at the north end of the Weisdale valley only 1.7km from the nearest of 17 turbines in the area, Ms Morrison said she had a brain tumour, suffered from tinnitus and feared the low frequency noise of the turbines could exacerbate her condition. An elderly neighbour was “distraught with worry” at the prospect of living in the midst of a construction site for years.
Mrs Morrison described Viking chairman Mr Manson’s claim that a health assessment had been carried out as simply “a lie”. She feels the project would violate Article 8 of the Human Rights Act by destroying her right to a home.
The value of the properties was likely to reduce, she said, yet no compensation would be paid. Even those behind Donald Trump’s “despicable” plans for a £1 billion golf resort on a stretch of dunes and coastline in Aberdeenshire had offered compensation. Mrs Morrison urged councillors: “Please take into consideration the many lives this windfarm will ruin. Look at your conscience and reject it.”
Aith resident and retired head teacher Jim Nicolson said the windfarm was “much too big” and “strongly opposed” by those in his community. A survey by community councillors in Aith showed only 13 per cent were in favour, he said.
Speaking on the Windfarm Supporters Group’s behalf, Bobby Hunter said the impact on landscape would forever remain “a matter of taste and perception”. He said there were plenty of roads on many hills across Shetland, and he believed past activities including grazing had had more impact than any future developments would.
Mr Hunter pointed out that objectors had “not said one word” about Total digging up 350,000 cubic metres of peat for its new gas plant at Sullom Voe. The windfarm would be of “immeasurable benefit” to match that of oil’s arrival in the 1970s and without a replacement people would begin to leave the isles, he said – to one shout of “lies” from the public gallery.
Pelamis project development manager Laura Carse explained their plans for a 60MV wavefarm between Burra and Spiggie hinged on an HDVC interconnector cable to the UK mainland being laid. If Viking and its proposed interconnector did not go ahead, despite Shetland having “all the ingredients we would consider essential” for investment, Pelamis’ presence in the isles would be “sterilised for the foreseeable future”.
The meeting also heard from three other objectors – RSPB area manager Pete Ellis, semi-retired Vaila resident Richard Rowland and Caroline Henderson of Lerwick. Yell community councillor Dan Thompson spoke in favour of the project.
SSE representative Chris Marden pointed to his company’s experience in 50 windfarm projects either in operation or under construction. The project had to bear the cost of the 200-mile cable and he believed this autumn’s addendum reduced it to an acceptable level.
Viking project manager Aaron Priest addressed those asking whether shared use of the cable could enable the windfarm to be shrunk. He said that was unlikely as regulators were looking for projects which were a certainty when sanctioning the cable, which meant having contracts in place.
The findings of a review into transmission charging will be published next year, which could change the picture but that is “by no means certain”.
It was the first time many councillors had publicly expressed a view and a strong majority of the 13 who remained were firmly behind the project, perhaps unsurprisingly given they had initiated it before transferring the stake to the charitable trust.
There was uniform praise for the various contributions from both sides of the debate, Gussie Angus describing them as “well-reasoned, succinct and pertinent”.
Mr Nickerson spoke first and moved that members reject the planners’ recommendation, believing the economic benefits made the project too good to turn down.
Last week’s survey of opinion in <i>The Shetland Times</i>, a weighted sample poll which asked 1,050 Shetland adults for their views, showed 36 per cent were in favour, 33 per cent against and 31 per cent undecided. Referring to those findings, Mr Nickerson suggested that public spending cuts nationally had perhaps swayed some people’s opinion.
As an environmental campaigner for over three decades, it had been “one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make”, Mr Nickerson said. As long as conditions to minimise any environmental and health impacts were strictly enforced by ministers and regulators, he felt the project should go ahead.
There were audible gasps from several in the audience when Mr Nickerson said he was representing “unborn generations” – one voice calling out that those people had not yet cast a vote in his favour.
Mr Robinson, who is vice-chairman of the planning board, moved to back Mr McDiarmid’s recommendation. Any hope that the project would be embraced by the majority of the community had “long since evaporated”, he felt.
He was surprised to see SNH advocating the removal of turbines in the sparsely populated Kames area as he was much more concerned by those near to properties in Aith and Nesting. Parallels being drawn with Sullom Voe were not valid because it is in a “very confined area of our islands”.
While some comments on both sides over the past couple of years had been “hysterical”, he wanted to ensure that the various claims and counter claims were properly scrutinised. He saw a public inquiry as a good way of ensuring that happens. “It is too big and in the wrong place,” he said, adding that he believed economic considerations were not relevant to the decision at hand.
His West Side colleague Mr Robertson said he had received roughly the same number of letters for and against. He believed planners had done a “very good job” in difficult circumstances and said he found locating turbines less than 2km from occupied homes to be unacceptable.
But a procession of councillors said the money and jobs which could result were simply too significant to turn down. Some of those in favour acknowledged concern about siting turbines too close to houses and others apologised to constituents for not responding to large volumes of emails on the subject.
North Isles member Laura Baisley said fishing, aquaculture, knitwear, music and tourism would not be enough to replace income from the oil industry. If Viking did not go ahead she feared “piecemeal” developments without any profits going to the community and she did not see turbines as “hideous monsters”.
Mr Cluness said the situation was far from satisfactory for anyone involved. “Equally it may well be that a public inquiry will come whether we like it or not,” he said. “But this is too important a project to reject out of hand.”
Dr Wills felt the votes of nine of 22 councillors in favour did not lend the project sufficient democratic legitimacy. The large size of the project was being dictated by the need for the interconnector.
He said a “rigged market” was causing overdevelopment in island communities and suggested a cable should be paid for by government bonds rather than by the developer.
Following the meeting’s conclusion emotions ran high among some opponents, with one call of “shame on you” directed towards councillors.
Mr Fox said afterwards that he was not particularly surprised but believed there had been a failure of democracy.
He pointed to the latest energy consents unit figures showing that of those counted so far, it has received 2,300 objections – vastly outnumbering the 900 letters of support received.
“They’ve taken a decision on a development as developers, rather than councillors,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can possibly dispute that there is majority opposition to this project.
“They are certainly looking at it purely from an economic point of view. You can completely and utterly scotch any idea that this is to save the planet. This is purely about economic revenue, or perceived economic revenue, for Shetland.”