In spite of my opposition to Viking Energy’s windfarm, I recognise that many of those who support the plan are good and well-intentioned people. Some are motivated by the need to provide alternative energy sources for the sake of the planet; others welcome the predicted financial benefits to the Shetland community. These are important issues which cannot be disregarded. We have a global duty to use our natural resources of wind and water, and a local duty to sustain our services for the future generations. In contradicting these opinions, opponents say that it seems illogical to destroy one environment to save another – and that the financial argument is a bit like burning down your house to get the insurance, leaving you with money but nowhere decent to live.
The point is that there are merits to both cases, and honourable people on both sides.
However, that word “honourable” cannot apply to those who should have taken responsibility for managing this problem – our councillors. Because, with a few notable exceptions, their conduct has been shameful. I know that they are an easy target, and I also know that, as a former English teacher, I should be careful with my use of words. So when I say “shameful” I know that I’ll have to justify it to councillors who have had my respect and friendship for many years. But, in this case, it is the word I choose to use. Shameful because councillors have callously disregarded the feelings and opinions of half the people they represent – and particularly the people of central Shetland. Shameful because several councillors have avoided their responsibility by adopting prejudiced positions and abandoning any pretence of neutrality. And shameful because the fair judgement they should have made, to seek a public inquiry, was such an obvious and honourable decision. By failing to take that step, they have seemed to copy national politicians in the post-Thatcher/Blair era, public servants who roll over compliantly when faced by the seductive charms of big business.
There is a way forward: a way which could regain for our councillors both respect and self-respect. Since they cannot meet as a group to discuss the windfarm – a situation which almost beggars belief for such a vital issue – I suggest that each and every councillor should write to the Scottish government and ask for a public inquiry. Such a request would allow them to represent all their constituents, while allowing them to freely express a personal opinion to that inquiry.
A bitter contest needs a strong and neutral referee. That should have been the role of the council, a role which it has failed to fulfil because many councillors have been so hopelessly compromised in a process which has grown more dubious by the day. The only hope for fairness now lies in a public inquiry. I make this suggestion with a heavy heart, because I suspect that such an inquiry would support Viking Energy. The record of inquiries is that they tend to favour developers over communities. But at least the process would be seen to be fair. Supporters and opponents would have the opportunity to put their case in an open forum. All aspects – technical, financial, environmental, social – would be subject to scrutiny. The outside world, and future generations, would see that Shetland conducted a serious debate before making a momentous and future-shaping decision.
Also, and perhaps most important, a public inquiry might provide a basis for repairing the harm which has been done by the mishandling of this affair. One of the saddest aspects of Viking Energy’s behaviour has been its concentration on soliciting rich and powerful allies, while showing scant regard for the feelings of the ordinary people whose lives will be damaged by this development. Viking seems to think that winning the argument is all that matters. Not true, in my experience. As the song says: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”. The outcome of this dispute could be a community riven by bitterness and recrimination. It is never easy to persuade losers to accept a decision and move forward: but they will feel better if they know they have had a fair hearing and have been in a contest in which the “referee” was not biased against them. That is not the case at the moment. The council’s weak abdication of its responsibility leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
There is still time to heal wounds. I am pleading with each councillor, in the interests of fairness and justice, to request a public inquiry and make that request public. Such a responsible, caring and conciliatory action would show true leadership and remove the shame. An unwillingness to do so will, sadly, leave us to draw our own conclusions about their commitment to all the people they represent.