Trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust have sanctioned a £420,000 cash injection to help cover Viking Energy’s running costs between now and March 2012, provoking a fresh outburst of anger from those opposed to the controversial windfarm.
A decision on granting the money had been postponed last month after too many councillor-trustees declared an interest and chose not to take part in the meeting. Reconvening this afternoon, the trust was narrowly able to scrape together enough councillor-trustees willing to take part despite the view of several colleagues that their role with the SIC saddles them with an irreconcilable conflict of interest.
The decision takes the trust’s total investment in the project, which its backers hope will yield millions of pounds a year in profit once the turbines start turning, to £3.42 million.
Viking’s application for permission to erect 127 turbines in central Shetland remains in the hands of staff at the Scottish government’s energy consents unit.
Discussions between Viking Energy and statutory consultee Scottish Natural Heritage, which objected to the development, are continuing. It is thought that energy minister Fergus Ewing may be in a position to make an announcement in August or September. If he calls a public inquiry, it is expected the trust will be asked to cough up more money to cover that expense.
The £420,000 supplements a £3 million budget approved by trustees in 2007, when a decision was expected by 2009. An avalanche of objections to the original proposals led to long delays and changes aimed at addressing some of the concerns raised.
Charitable trust financial controller Jeff Goddard explained the extra funds were necessary due to various delays in the project’s progress. His report explained that money was required to cover planning fees, legal fees, staff costs, research into birds and the collection of wind data.
The decision required at least 12 of the 23 trustees to be present for the debate to be legally quorate. Three of the councillor-trustees are VE directors and so could not take part, while a further two were absent.
Four councillor-trustees – Gussie Angus, Allison Duncan, Gary Robinson and Cecil Smith – declared an interest before leaving the town hall chamber. Mr Robinson noted his disappointment that the fears of those living closest to the proposed turbine sites “have been totally ignored”.
Other councillor-trustees declared an interest as SIC members but opted to take full part in the meeting. Crucially, Frank Robertson remained in the council chamber despite saying he would not take part in the debate or vote, later clarifying that he would abstain from the vote. That meant that, despite initial confusion, the requisite 12 trustees were present to approve the money even after independent trustee John Scott decided to walk out.
Mr Scott said he fundamentally disagreed with councillor-trustees’ assessment of the conflict of interest. He was annoyed that, the trust having sought costly legal opinion, the advice was now being “ignored”. It was such a serious matter for the trust that he wasn’t prepared to sit and listen any longer. “Any decision we make today is challengeable,” he said, before making his exit.
SIC convener Sandy Cluness, who has persistently acted as a roadblock to reforms aimed at diluting councillors’ control of the trust, said many of the difficulties being faced emanated from transferring the community’s stake in the project from the council to the trust. “A lot of our problems stem from that decision,” he said.
Mr Goddard told trustees that refusing to invest a further £420,000 would not spell the end of Viking Energy, but would reduce the trust’s share in the project and so its projected share of potential profits if the windfarm goes ahead.
The council’s political leader, Josie Simpson, said his “great passion” for Shetland led him to propose approving the extra funds with “no hesitation whatsoever”. He believes Viking Energy spells the beginning of a “huge” renewable energy industry, including tidal and wave projects could only be triggered by a subsea interconnector cable joining the isles to the national grid.
Councillor-trustee Jonathan Wills tried to get members to add a caveat to their approval, asking Viking Energy to reduce the number of turbines by at least 20. Dr Wills lost the vote 7-2, his only support coming from political adversary Mr Cluness.
Betty Fullerton asked fellow trustees to approve the £420,000 while stipulating that, if the trust eventually decides to approve construction of the turbines, priority should be given to reducing the number of turbines “in close proximity to homes”.
She was thwarted by six votes to three, with Mr Simpson saying trustees ought to hold fire because there was a good chance that if the energy minister grants consent it will come with conditions attached.
West Side councillor and trustee Florence Grains feared payments to Viking Energy could become “open-ended” because its application seemed to “go on and on”. She was not happy with approving the money when it could not be demonstrated there will be a guaranteed return on the investment. She was defeated 8-2.
The decision provoked fury from protesters, around 20 of whom were present at Lerwick Town Hall. Sustainable Shetland vice-chairman Kevin Learmonth said the decision was a “damned disgrace” and suggested some councillor-trustees had been “gerrymandered” into taking part. He said a formal complaint over councillors’ conflicts of interest was “absolutely” in the offing.
The charitable trust owns 45 per cent of the Viking Energy partnership, with a further five per cent belonging to minority shareholders. They will have to decide whether to commit another £46,667 on top of the £333,333 they have already invested. Scottish and Southern Energy owns the other 50 per cent of the partnership and is thought to have invested in excess of £3.8 million of its money in the project.