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Trust in disarray over Viking

SHETLAND Charitable Trust was thrown into disarray on Wednesday after independent trustee John Scott left a meeting in protest about conflicts of interest over the Viking Energy wind farm.

Despite the confusion, the trust eventually voted through a further £420,000 to develop the project by seven votes to two.

The decision has triggered renewed calls for the Viking Energy partnership agreement between the trust and electricity giant Scottish & Southern Energy to be made public.

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Wednesday’s meeting was closely watched by around 25 observers, including supporters of anti-Viking campaign group Sustainable Shetland and new list Highlands and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart.

The meeting was convened after a previous attempt to authorise these funds failed due to a shortage of trustees, as so many felt they were barred by a potential conflict of interest due to their combined role as local councillors.

This time round, 11 councillors/trustees declared an interest, but said they would be staying to participate and vote in the meeting. Lord Lieutenant John Scott’s presence as independent trustee made the meeting quorate.

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SIC trustees Cecil Smith, Allison Duncan, Gussie Angus, and Gary Robinson declared an interest and left the meeting.

SIC planning board chairman Frank Robertson also declared an interest, saying that as a councillor he had voted against the project and therefore would “not be taking part”, but remained in his seat.

As the debate kicked off, the trust’s financial advisor Jeff Goddard called on trustees to approve the budget of £420,000 for the current financial year.

He warned the wind farm project would continue regardless and that the trust’s share could be “diluted” if funding had to be provided by other participants.

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Trustee Jonathan Wills offered to move the recommendations to release the fund on condition that the number of turbines near people’s houses and in environmentally sensitive areas was reduced by “at least 20”.

This was seconded by SIC convener Sandy Cluness who added that “with hindsight” all the difficulties the trust had in making a decision could have been avoided had the decision not been made to transfer the project from council into charitable trust ownership.

The council’s political leader Josie Simpson said that “it was premature to put any stipulations” on the project, and moved for the funds to be released without any extra conditions. He was seconded by Laura Baisley.

At this point independent trustee John Scott introduced a degree of confusion when he said he “admired” the bravery of some of his fellow trustees who were all going against high powered legal advice the trust had recently received from Roy Martin QC, who had echoed advice from the charity regulator OSCR that the trust needed to reform itself by removing the majority of council trustees from its board.

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Mr Scott said he was “dismayed” by the way council trustees were ignoring the advice they had received on conflicts of interest.

“This means that any decision made here today is challengeable,” he said. He then left the meeting.

A majority of those present clearly were under the impression that Mr Scott’s move had left the meeting inquorate, as some trustees prepared to leave the room while observers were already on their way.

It was then decided that Mr Robertson was indeed part of the meeting, although he had earlier declared that he was not taking part.

Later trust vice chairman Jim Henry, who chaired the meeting, said he initially also thought the meeting was over but was then told that due to the presence of Mr Robertson the trust was still able to make a decision.

Trustees then voted seven (Addie Doull, Betty Fullerton, Josie Simpson, Laura Baisley, Jim Budge, Rick Nickerson, Robert Henderson) to two (Sandy Cluness, Jonathan Wills) to release the funds without any further conditions attached.

An attempt by Betty Fullerton to consider reducing to the number of turbines in the proximity of houses once planning consent had been achieved was defeated by six votes to three.

Florence Grains was also unsuccessful when she tried to stop the release of any funds, as it was not known if the request would be the last one. She lost the vote two to eight.

Speaking after the meeting Mrs Urquhart said she felt the meeting had been confused and that trustees needed clear guidelines as to their position and status before making decisions.

After the meeting, Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox condemned the way the trust had reached its decision.

He also repeated his call on Viking Energy to make public the partnership agreement between the charitable trust and Scottish & Southern Energy.

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“This is not credible. The meeting was incredibly poorly run. This adds more fuel to the fact that the Standards Commission will look at this very closely. Our complaint is still not in, and the reason for that is that more and more ammunition is being added all the time.

“Jeff Goddard’s statement that the trust’s share in the project might be diluted is all the more reason for the partnership agreement to be made public. We the public need to know what we have been signed up for, because the charitable trust constitutes Shetland residents’ money,” he said.

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