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Fox calls for trust to debate Viking wind farm

SIC deputy leader Billy Fox

SHETLAND Islands Council’s deputy leader Billy Fox has called for Shetland Charitable Trust to hold a debate on the status of Viking Energy’s wind farm plans and not “set themselves aside” from the public.

His call comes a week after a written request from anti-Viking group Sustainable Shetland for the SIC to debate the wider implications on the community was rebuffed by council leader Gary Robinson.

Fox, who chaired Sustainable Shetland for a number of years before he became a councillor, said the public deserved to know whether the project is likely to be commercially viable.

“It’s Shetland Charitable Trust that has the financial stake in the Viking Energy wind farm,” he said, “and I think that any debate as to whether it’s going to be commercially viable or whether it goes forward has to actually lie within the trust and the trustee board.

Charitable trust chairman Bobby Hunter.

Leading Scottish merchant bank Noble Grossart was unanimously appointed at the trust’s last meeting to act as a financial adviser in relation to the wind farm project.“We really now need to get to grips with whether or not this is a commercially viable project.”

But Fox believes that “in terms of engagement with the Shetland public, for example, a debate within SCT is something they should do – they cannot set themselves aside from the Shetland public without engaging on an issue as important as this”.

In response, trust chairman Bobby Hunter told BBC Radio Shetland that he did not see how it could hold a debate at this stage.

“We have regular updates from our nominees on the board of Viking to the trustees,” Hunter said, “so we’re fully informed on what’s happening but it will at the very earliest be later this year when there’s a clear financial model for the project.”

At that stage “we can take and assess, and then take to the trustees to make a decision either to invest or not invest, and that’s when the debate will take place – not until we have something concrete to debate – as happened in the council with the request from Sustainable Shetland last week”.

The 103-turbine wind farm, which would have output of up to 457 megawatts, hinges on the final sanctioning of a subsea interconnector cable linking Shetland to the Scottish Mainland’s power grid.

While both the UK and Scottish Governments have said they are in favour of an interconnector in principle, sources indicate no decision will be taken this side of the UK General Election in May.

At the weekend, SCT trustee Jonathan Wills wrote to Sustainable Shetland saying it had “wasted a great deal of your own and the public’s money by pursuing the issue through the courts”, resulting in the SIC and SCT “foregoing income that they might have earned if the project had gone ahead when it was granted planning permission”.

That was a reference to Sustainable Shetland’s legal challenge against Scottish energy minister Fergus Ewing’s April 2012 decision to give Viking planning consent, which was eventually rejected at the Supreme Court in February.

However SusS chairman Frank Hay and vice-chairman James Mackenzie responded to Dr Wills on Tuesday rejecting his assertion that it had delayed the project and lost the community income.

“The delay is due to far more problematic factors,” they wrote, “such as the fabled interconnector, the needs case for it, and the vexed question of transmission charges. There is still a possibility that the whole project may be abandoned.”

According to Viking’s own website, the wind farm – jointly owned by SSE, SCT and local shareholders – is now estimated to be operational by late 2019. It estimates 140 people will be required for construction and around 35 permanent jobs could be created.

If the trust maintains a shareholding in the project “many millions of pounds could be injected into the Shetland economy annually” while there would also be £1.85 million in community benefit payments each year.