Momentous decision (Drew Ratter and Jonathan Wills)
Next Thursday, 28th June, trustees of the Shetland Charitable Trust must take a decision that will affect the inhabitants of these islands for generations to come: whether to continue to invest in the Viking windfarm and earn the community several hundred million pounds over coming decades; or to sell the trust’s current shareholding now, for over £50m; or to do nothing. Doing nothing will result in the trust’s share in the project being diluted, with Shetland’s control over the now inevitable development lost, and eventually, possibly Shetland’s whole share lost, as the SCT’s share passes to the other partners, if we fail to meet our obligations under the joint venture agreement.
There has been much talk about conflicts of interest. Trustees now have clear legal advice from the foremost charity law experts in Scotland. They tell us that, when councillor trustees vote on the windfarm investment next week, they will not have a conflict of interest.
However, there still appears to be confusion over this point among some members of the public. We would like to clear up that confusion. It is easy to do so, as the situation is very straightforward.
Whichever way trustees vote next Thursday, the council, as a landowner, will still receive payments from the windfarm. Whether the trust remains a major investor or not is irrelevant to that. The windfarm is going to happen anyway because the Scottish government (not the council) has approved the planning application, whatever some of us might have wished. So the trust vote on further investment cannot affect the council’s interests one way or the other. So there is no conflict. We think it is important for the public to know that the mere fact of being both a councillor and a trustee does not prevent that person attending the meeting or taking part in this momentous decision.
If trustees’ interests are private ones they should, of course, be declared in the normal way, but that need not necessarily preclude such trustees from taking part in the vote. Legal advice on this will be available before the meeting.
If we have yet another farcical situation where the trust cannot muster a quorum to consider this question, it would not be a surprise if the Scottish Charity Regulator considered stepping in. OSCR’s options could include disqualifying some or all of the existing trustees; appointing new ones; directing the trust to invest or not to invest; taking direct control of the £200m assets; and removing for all time the direct connection between the trust and elected representatives of the community. That is how very grave and dangerous this situation has become.
In our view, all those trustees who are able to be present and to vote have a clear duty to do so, whichever option they decide to support after calmly and rationally considering all the facts, arguments and expert recommendations.
Shetland Charitable Trust.