Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness has admitted he was surprised his call for a referendum on the future of Shetland Charitable Trust won the day last month. But he has no regrets about setting in train an island-wide ballot, hoping it will take place next spring before the council elections so that prospective councillors can state their positions.
Although keen to test public opinion about membership of the trust he does not back calls for a similar ballot on the Viking Energy windfarm, believing that referendums are intended for constitutional matters, such as the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament.
He said: “I don’t think a referendum is appropriate for something like Viking Energy any more than it is appropriate for the Forth Road crossing or whatever.”
However, given the strength of opposition, he believes the Scottish government should call a public inquiry on the windfarm. His own feeling remains that with 127 turbines the venture is still too big.
In the Cluness referendum on trust reform he will campaign for a resounding “No” in the hope of winning a mandate for the trust to resist attempts to force change on the £200 million charity. But although he is the main champion of the status quo he says he would also be happy with a fully independent trust instead with all trustees voted on, if that is what the community wants.
He told The Shetland Times: “I still believe that the current system is perfectly okay for the way that we operate things in Shetland. But if the people of Shetland think it should be totally independent I wouldn’t have any problem with that either.”
However, he does oppose the compromise proposal thrashed out by the trust’s own reform working group which would see eight independent trustees selected, not elected, to sit with seven councillors. He believes few people are happy with that concept.
Recalling last month’s historic vote for a referendum, Mr Cluness said he had not canvassed support from fellow trustees before tabling his wild card proposal, which effectively trumped the alternatives.
The referendum was quickly dismissed by trust chairman Bill Manson as “a time-wasting tactic by the backwoodsmen” but the convener said the format of 22 councillors and two independent trustees had been so much part of Shetland’s way of operating for so long that the best way forward was to ask the people what they thought.
“I think the people of Shetland should be entitled to it. It’s their money and they should say – if the constitution is to be changed – what it should be changed to.
“As far as I’m concerned I think the present situation is a very democratic one whereby you elect the councillors who also become trustees and if you don’t like it you throw them off after four years.”
He has no say over the arrangements for the referendum but favours it being staged just before the council elections in May next year. Of course, delaying it until then would mean that even if voters backed reform it would probably not be enacted until well into the next council with the trust having to continue for a while longer loaded with councillors.
Mr Cluness was sceptical about the suggestion by Mr Manson that it might be illegal to offer the public the option of voting against change after the trust had obtained a legal opinion that there is no choice but to change to comply with charities law.
It was the convener himself who pushed for the legal opinion but he said this week that the view, from Roy Martin QC, was <i>not</i> conclusive or binding. “An opinion is just an opinion,” he said. It could be argued that Shetland’s case was unique, he said, inferring that the trust should not have to be subject to general charity rules.
“In most major cases you would have two expert opinions diametrically opposed and that might have been the case here. But in any event a referendum would qualify it one way or the other and I think that if there was a majority of people in Shetland that wanted to stay the same then we would have a strong argument to go to the court with.”
That mandate would be backed up by the trust’s 35-year track record of performing successfully. Armed with that case Mr Cluness said the trust might then engage a lawyer to argue for no change.
The latest progress on preparing a referendum will be reported to trustees at the trust’s next meeting on 10th October. The convener said he would be quite happy for the referendum to include islanders aged over 16, as suggested by councillor-trustee Allison Duncan, given that the future of the trust was their future.