OFFICERS from Shetland Islands Council’s planning department have been accused of overruling decisions taken by councillors.
The charge was made after planning staff allowed three meteorological masts to be erected, despite assurances that no activity could take place during the bird breeding season.
Sustainable Shetland, the group opposing the 540 megawatt Viking Energy wind farm, said they would lodge the “strongest possible complaint” after planning officials re-iterated their decision that work could go ahead on Monday.
Efforts to erect a 70 metre mast at Scalla Field, near Kergord, were suspended on Sunday when protesters turned up at the site, but work re-commenced on Monday afternoon.
Two other meteorological masts were put in place last week by specialist contractor Chillwind Ltd at Runn Hill, Nesting, and at Mid Kames, near Voe.
Viking Energy Partnership, a company owned by Scottish & Southern Energy, the Shetland Charitable Trust and four local share holders, plans to build a 150 turbine wind farm in the islands’ north central mainland.
The proposal has proved to be highly controversial despite promises of huge profits for Shetland’s community funds.
SIC planning board chairman Frank Robertson conceded that the public had been left confused as the minutes of a meeting of the planning board on 21 April clearly contradicted the written permission for work to go ahead as of 25 May.
Following a meeting with planning service manager John Holden and planning officer Janet Barclay Smith on Monday morning, he said he was content with the interpretation of the conditions which had been backed up by statutory consultee SNH.
But Sustainable Shetland vice-chairman Kevin Learmonth said the whole episode made a “mockery” of the planning process and didn’t bode well “for any future wind farm development”.
He said the minutes of the meeting were not left open to any interpretation as they clearly stated “no activity in the area during the bird breeding season”.
Being involved with development work in the island of Foula, where the bird breeding season is “sacrosanct” and no access to the hills is given at that time, Mr Robertson confirmed that he had assumed a similar course of action on this occasion
He said: “I agree that any member of the public looking at this would be confused and would not understand why the condition confirmed at the planning board was not transferred in total to the consent given to the developer.
“It is an interpretation of the consent that the planning case officer felt was acceptable.”
Following the planning board meeting on 21 April, Mrs Barclay Smith contacted SNH again asking the agency for their opinion on taking access to the hill during the bird breeding season.
Mr Robertson said: “SNH confirmed that there were no nesting birds in the area or on the route to the area, and were happy that access was taken during this period.”
He said he could state “categorically” there had been no pressure from the developer on the planning service.
But Mr Learmonth said planning consent for the three masts probably would not have been granted had the lead officer stated that work would go ahead during the bird breeding season.
“In answer to a question from the chairman what the planning conditions meant, John Holden confirmed that no work could take place during the bird breeding season.
“The planning department had done the exact opposite of what they had told the planning board. I don’t know why they even bother having a planning board, if the department tell the board anything in order to get a decision.
“It is entirely unacceptable for the planning department to say on Monday that the work can go ahead. We will make the strongest possible complaint that this decision is wrong and, more importantly, the way it has been reached is wrong.
“The planning board has either been wrongly informed at the meeting or appears to have been misled about what these conditions meant.”
Mr Robertson said: “The officers did not overrule the board. They gave the consent after expert advice that the work would not cause damage.
“I am disappointed that there has been so much misunderstanding and a lot of angst over the whole thing.
“In future, we certainly have to be clearer in how we word things – that would be one of the lessons we can learn from this.”
A spokesman for Viking Energy said he had been convinced that the company had the correct consent in place and expressed his satisfaction that this had now been cleared up.