Shetland MSP Tavish Scott is refusing to budge from his position of neutrality over the Viking Energy windfarm despite growing calls for him to back opponents or admit he is still a supporter.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader also said this week he had “no role” in the decision and he condemned the often-aggressive debate as “personal, utterly divisive and unpleasant”.
Mr Scott did declare his support for the windfarm on several occasions during the early years before the groundswell of opposition in Shetland found its voice through Sustainable Shetland. He maintains he has strived to represent both sides and will not declare a preference in the biggest issue to face Shetland for a generation.
His stance is likely to come under further scrutiny during the Scottish election campaign which kicks off next week. It has already been challenged in the pre-campaign jousting by Sustainable Shetland, individual windfarm opponents and the Labour candidate Jamie Kerr who has come out as pro-Viking.
A government decision on the 127-turbine windfarm is not now expected before Wednesday’s cut-off point for ministerial announcements. That means it will fall to a new government to deliver a ruling, potentially one in which Mr Scott could feature if, as expected, he retains his seat.
But he reacted angrily to being quizzed on his stance this week and to being reminded of the public backing he gave the windfarm back in 2006 and 2007.
He declined to comment on a document that has freshly emerged relating to a private meeting of the Viking Energy board in May 2008. It records Viking director Allan Wishart conveying the continued support for the windfarm of both Mr Scott and his MP colleague Alistair Carmichael. Mr Wishart had been briefing the two politicians about the windfarm’s progress.
Anti-Viking campaigners claim the MSP privately still supports the application and is failing to represent their interests. Last month, Sustainable Shetland called on him to “properly represent the majority wishes of Shetland” – which it believes are firmly against the windfarm – and to “stop sitting on the fence with his ‘community evenly split’ cop out”.
The attacks come despite Mr Scott’s efforts to assist both sides. He organised access to lobby MSPs in Edinburgh and backed Sustainable Shetland’s call for an extension to the deadline for objections to the original planning application. He also called on the council to hold a simple Yes/No referendum before it voted on the planning application and his most recent move was to back Sustainable Shetland’s call for the windfarm to be considered at a public inquiry.
When contacted in Edinburgh on Wednesday Mr Scott was not keen to elaborate on previous statements. He said: “Why would anyone want to expand on the most divisive issue I have ever seen in 12 years of being an MSP?”
Prompted that it was inevitable he would be challenged about it during the campaign, he said he “had no role” in the windfarm decision. “I don’t have a vote in it do I? The council has had a vote on it and the energy minister has a say on it. Full stop.”
Told about another letter, from former Shetland Times editor Vaila Wishart, attacking his stance (see Readers’ Views), he said: “I’m just not going to respond. If people want to write what they want about Viking they can write it. But I’m not going to get into a debate on it because there are issues I can do something about in Shetland and there are issues I can do nothing about. This issue is utterly personal, divisive and unpleasant and if people want to write that kind of letter a la Robert Wishart [Ms Wishart’s brother] then that is up to them.”
Mr Wishart, The Shetland Times’ proprietor, had accused the MSP of being frightened to declare his support and called for him to be “ditched”.
In her letter Ms Wishart quoted the minutes of the Viking board meeting which refer to Mr Scott and MP Alistair Carmichael which reveal that “overall they continued to support the project”.
It is evident from The Shetland Times’ archives that Mr Scott did openly voice support for the windfarm in its early days. In November 2006 when he was reselected by the Lib Dems to stand in the Scottish elections in May 2007, Mr Scott looked forward to the year ahead as a crucial time for Shetland. He said: “Securing local jobs and strengthening traditional industries are vital. We must build too, new opportunities such as the community-owned Viking Energy windfarm proposal and the decommissioning of North Sea oil installations.”
At that time the community did seem to be almost wholly behind the 200-turbine venture which was seen as an ideal cash cow to replace dwindling Sullom Voe oil revenues. In December 2006 an ipsos MORI telephone opinion poll for Viking showed 76 per cent of respondents were generally supportive of the windfarm with only six per cent against.
A few weeks later, on 19th January 2007, the council and Scottish and Southern Energy convened at Busta House with an audience of local dignatories to sign their partnership agreement to work together on a single windfarm instead of two separate projects. Mr Scott was there to hail it a very important day for Shetland for decades to come. He said the windfarm was “an investment for the next generation of Shetlanders”.
One of the first voices of local public dissent had been heard just the week before the grand ceremony at Busta. It came from Stuart Dobson, living in Yell, who began writing letters to this newspaper and, encouraged by the response, set up the short-lived Shetland Against Windfarms Group.
In February 2007 protest letters began appearing from Billy Fox but it was not until March 2008 that Sustainable Shetland was established and he became its chairman, giving real voice to the growing rebellion.
Asked this week if he had since changed his position since that time, Mr Scott said: “No, I’ve always sought to represent all the people who come to see me about this but the big change since those quotes is that it is now utterly divisive and unpleasant and [The Shetland Times’ letters page] print those kind of divisive and unpleasant letters and I’m now a target for them – that’s politics. I accept that. Don’t expect me to like any of this. I’m not going to start getting into quotes I’ve given when there was a degree of understanding about this issue.”
He did not accept that his public attacks on political opponents and others, for instance in Parliament, and during First Minister’s Questions in particular, might be viewed as similarly divisive and unpleasant behaviour.
Asked to expand on his decision to not reveal his position on the windfarm, he said: “It’s not a case of revealing my position. I have sought to be scrupulously fair about this issue in terms of people who utterly oppose it for perfectly sound reasons, as they see it, to the pro-campaign who support it. The minute I say categorically one way or the other then that means that all those who are on the other side feel they don’t have an MSP who will make their case to the energy consents unit and to the minister of the day and I think that’s a failing in the role of a representative.”
When it was suggested to him that constituents unhappy with his representation could turn instead to the Highlands and Islands list MSPs of other parties, he said: “They can turn to them on any issue they like. That’s fine. It’s up to them. [The other MSPs] don’t live in Shetland and they don’t have to put up with what I get every day on this issue.”
He continued: “Yes, there’s an election campaign coming up. I’ll deal with it during the election campaign in exactly the same way but you are not going to get me to start changing my position just to suit The Shetland Times’ letters page.”
Reminded again that his position had been in favour of the windfarm in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and that the Lib Dems were in favour of large windfarms, he said: “When did it follow that you had to follow exactly what may be going on in national politics to something local where there is very strong local doubts about a particular project? That’s never happened in politics and no politician I know does that.”
The current Scottish Secretary, the Lib Dem MP Michael Moore opened a windfarm just four months ago and former Scottish Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen announced in September 2007 that he had just opened what was then the biggest windfarm in Europe on a restored open cast coal mine at Black Law in Lanarkshire, going on to attack the SNP for wanting to stop large-scale wind projects.
Meanwhile, the government’s energy consents unit is currently studying 34 applications for renewables, including Viking and 24 other onshore windfarms.