Trustees approve extra cash for Viking windfarm

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.


Add Your Comment
  • douglas young

    • July 6th, 2011 18:36

    Cutbacks? Utter disgrace that £3million can be spent on nothing, topped up with a further £450,000. Where is the money going and how much has been taken in salaries?
    There needs to be a full investigation into this and the money tap turned off.

  • Christopher Thomson

    • July 6th, 2011 20:04

    “Any decision we make today is challengeable,” – John Scott.

    Presumably it is even more challengeable given that a quorum was only present with an abstaining member who had declared an interest and stated that he would not take part in either the debate or the vote.

    In the unlikely event that government subsidy is maintained at a comparable level, and interest rates do not rise significantly, and VE make a good deal of money and we, the people of Shetland, get our little cut, what’s to stop the council of that day from bending rules and blocking the will of their electorate (or let’s be honest, just conducting distasteful and undemocratic politics) to further destroy our islands for the sake of profit. After all, they’ll say, it worked for them back in 2011.

    However, when the VE investment goes bad and Shetland is bled dry, 25 years down the line, people will be looking back at the way in which business was conducted by the council and the trust, and all they’ll be able to say is: What on earth were they thinking?

  • Barbara Gray

    • July 7th, 2011 15:45

    The sheer arrogance of the Councillors sorry Trustees is breathtaking. If the rules don’t fit what they want to do, they simply igorne them. If they had a conflict of interest at the previous meeting then surely there is still a conflict of interest and until the Trust is properly reformed this state of affairs will continue and more and more of our money will be wasted.
    They [we] have paid a great deal of money for legal advise so isn’t it time they heeded it.

  • Ian Tinkler

    • July 7th, 2011 18:19

    Desperate people do desperate things. These cowboys have not much more to lose, apart from director’s fees. All credibility is long gone.

  • Billy Fox

    • July 12th, 2011 10:29

    Having witnessed the conduct at Wednesday’s charitable trust meeting where further funding of £420,000 was granted for Viking Energy Ltd, I believe serious questions must be raised on how this meeting was conducted.

    The meeting in my opinion was inquorate; it became so following the action of trustee John Scott when he expressed his concern on the legality of proceedings and decided to take no further part.

    At this point some minutes passed before it sunk in amongst trustees that the meeting had become inquorate.

    Trustee Frank Robertson who had declared a conflict of interest and stated he would not be taking part in the meeting was asked to clarify his position as he had remained at the table; he answered that he was taking no part.

    The meeting then began to break up with trustees and members of the public preparing to leave. However Frank Robertson’s position was revisited yet again by SCT general manager Ann Black and financial controller Jeff Goddard asking was trustee Robertson taking part but simply abstaining from the vote?

    Whatever his response it was deemed he formed part of the meeting and that it was still quorate and therefore reconvened.

    However a further report on the meeting has now appeared in the Shetland News, ‘Questions raised over trust quorum’ (SN 7/7/11). In this report chairman Jim Henry states that he was of the opinion the meeting had become inquorate, and trustee Frank Robertson is quoted as follows:

    “I was abstaining on all matters dealing with the meeting, I did not take part in the debate, voting or any part of the meeting. But if they were counting heads, then I was still sitting there.

    “My position did not change, but probably I should have sat back among the observers,” he said.

    I believe this statement indicates trustee Robertson was not forming part of the quorum. Given such ambiguity and the importance of the decision taken at this meeting (a further £420,000 on top of a previously spent £3,000,000) clarification is essential.

    I feel that trustee Robertson was put in a difficult position, the perception of the meeting, and in my opinion the perception of the public observing, was that he had declared an interest and was not forming part of the quorum, a position he had taken at the previously inquorate meeting on the 23 June 2011.

    For the benefit of the public and for his personal integrity I believe trustee Robertson would need to state categorically whether or not he was forming part of the quorum at the meeting.

    Billy Fox
    Sustainable Shetland

  • Kathy Greaves

    • July 12th, 2011 18:10

    Accounts for the VE project are indeed unclear, Mr Douglas Young asks how much has been paid in salaries. I read the Shetland Charitable Trust report dated 16th June, 2011: VE Investment Budget 2011-2012, items 3 and 4, shows a very sketchy ‘Spend to Date”, set of accounts.

    I am no expert on finance, but like many others (at various times) I have had to put together accounts for one reason or another, but these rounded large figures given to the SCT by VEL who have used up over £3mil of our funds is astonishing lacking in detail.

    However it is shown clearly that ‘four Shetland based people worked full time on the (VE) project in 2010/2011 and their costs were met by VEL”. Viz – staffing costs £193,074 (for one year, for four people, remember!)

    Mr Wishart, VE Project Co-ordinator, also draws his salary as councillor, remember, as payment for representing us; should he not be asking VE some searching and pertinent questions on our behalf? There appears to be a conflict of interest here.

    I understand that the full accounts can be viewed on the VE website, so that should make interesting reading.

    Mrs Kathy Greaves

  • ian tinkler

    • July 15th, 2011 12:08

    Can these people be held liable in law? Any informed legal advise would be most welcome. I would love to take thes self serving leaches to court.


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