Councillors were right to proceed with a planning vote on the controversial Viking Energy windfarm last December, according to Scotland’s public standards commissioner.
With the final decision maker being the Scottish government, if the council had not made a recommendation to ministers it would have been in breach of its duty as a statutory consultee, Stuart Allan said today.
He made his comment in a report which exonerated 10 councillors – Sandy Cluness, Josie Simpson, Rick Nickerson, Jim Budge, Addie Doull, Betty Fullerton, Laura Baisley, Gussie Angus, Robert Henderson and Allan Wishart – who had been accused of various breaches of their code of conduct by Sustainable Shetland.
It is the second time this year that Mr Allan has cleared councillors of such allegations. In August he rejected three complaints against 14 councillors made by Lerwick community councillor Michael Peterson.
In his report today Mr Allan stated: “To have frustrated the council’s duty to respond to the Scottish government as a consultee would have negated the statutory process and prevented all elected members from representing their constituents’ views to the decision-making body.”
In a febrile atmosphere and after a poor quality debate, councillors voted by 9-3 on 14th December to recommend planning approval to the government’s energy consents unit, which almost a year on is still considering the application.
The meeting considered a report from the council’s planning department which recommended rejecting the project. But that report was criticised prior to the meeting by councillor and Viking Energy employee Allan Wishart for containing several inaccuracies and failing to consider the socio-economic benefits of the windfarm.
After a meeting convened at the instigation of council chief executive Alistair Buchan, which considered Scottish government policy guidance, the council’s head of economic development Neil Grant was asked to produce a report on the potential financial windfall from the project.
Among its objections, Sustainable Shetland said a press release issued by Mr Wishart, who declared a financial interest and did not take part in the meeting, displayed his over-riding interest in furthering the Viking project.
But Mr Allan defended Mr Wishart: “Councillor Wishart’s press release prior to the meeting was made in his capacity as an employee of Viking Energy Ltd., from the company’s address, and using its email facility. He did so in his employment capacity rather than council capacity and was entitled to do so. It would be inappropriate to constrain an elected member’s employment by their role as an elected member – the code providing the necessary safeguards to prevent any potential conflict.
“While the press release issued by Councillor Wishart was critical of the planning report, and specifically drew attention to the absence of consideration of the socio-economic merits of the windfarm project, he made no recommendation to his fellow councillors as to their consideration of the report or their ultimate decision.”
Mr Allan added: “I considered that his conduct in issuing the press release did not breach the code. The criticism he levelled at the planning report related primarily to its accuracy and the absence of consideration of socio-economic factors. It was not directed personally at any individual council officer and as such did not breach the terms of Annex C of the code.”
Sustainable Shetland also alleged that nine of the 12 councillors who took part in the vote had failed to make a full and frank disclosure of their interests and that they took the decision as developers rather than planners.
But Mr Allan disagreed with the assertion, pointing out that they had each declared a non-financial interest as well a dual role as trustee of Shetland Charitable Trust, shareholder in the project. “Declaration will not necessarily lead to a requirement to withdraw from the meeting, the object being to make the interest patent so that colleagues and the wider public may be aware of the factors which may influence, or be perceived as influencing, the members’ stance.”
Sustainable Shetland has yet to respond to Mr Allan’s report.