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Letters / Somebody else’s problem?

Councillor Jonathan Wills, as politely as he can, lectures us that we have wasted our and the public’s money by seeking and pursuing judicial review (‘Open letter to Sustainable Shetland’, SN 22/3/15). We disagree.

Other councillors have also written to us, in a less public and challenging manner, explaining their positions and attitudes, and we are grateful to them for doing so. Some have also made statements to the media, so rather than respond directly to all of Dr Wills’ assertions and claims, we’d like to reply more generally.

We fully understand and accept that the Viking wind farm has won its planning consent and that not much can be done about that in the council chamber. We are not asking for the council to tear itself apart as Gary Robinson (rather tellingly) said on Radio Shetland that Viking Energy had managed to do to the last one.

It is (1 and 2 below) the implications of this consent, (3) the status of the SIC in relation to the Viking wind farm, and (4) the fact that the interconnector’s – and the Viking wind farm’s – viability remains uncertain, that are our greatest concerns.

1. In 2010 nine councillors out of 22 voted to support the project, against the recommendations of their planning officers that they object on the grounds that the farm contravened the Shetland Local Development Plan. The nine that voted (and killed the chance of a local public inquiry) were in exactly the same position as those who left the meeting declaring a conflict of interest.

Thus different conflict of interest interpretations and absence of so many councillors prevented a full and democratic debate on the windfarm. A conflict of interest issue has already arisen in the new Shetland Charitable Trust and will rise again when Viking Energy seeks more public funding.

2. The spatial framework for onshore windfarms in Shetland, as required in each local authority by Scottish Planning Policy, was informed by the extensive landscape sensitivity study commissioned by the SIC in 2009, and at that time was open for consultation. Nevertheless it was clear that the size of the Viking wind farm greatly exceeded the parameters presented in that study.

For example the Nesting area was deemed to be capable of accommodating a “Medium group – a development of approximately 7-12 turbines, and/or with an installed capacity of up to 20MW.” The Viking wind farm has 40 turbines with an installed capacity of 144MW in this area.

By coincidence, the area in which the Beaw Field wind farm in Yell is proposed, with 20-30 turbines totalling 100MW, was deemed in that study to have the same “carrying capacity” as the Nesting area.

The same landscape sensitivity study is used in the present local development plan,  as far as onshore wind energy is concerned, and has recently (again) been open for consultation.

If councillors cannot grasp that there is a fundamental problem here, that requires to be addressed, then heaven help us all. The Viking wind farm has set a dangerous precedent: that local (and even national) planning policy can be easily over-ridden or ignored. In the drive for Shetland to be the power-house of Scotland’s renewable energy, our local development plan has already been, literally, thrown to the wind. What measures can be put in place to prevent this happening again?

In this respect, it is incredible (and implicitly insulting) that Drew Ratter can say that the council is not “a debating society” but “a mechanism for taking decisions”. Without proper, free and open debate – about this or any other matter of importance – how can anyone make an informed decision?

3. Many councillors feel that the present SIC has absolutely no role to play in the Viking wind farm, with one going so far as to say: “The whole thing is out of Shetland’s hands really”. Well, the SIC is owner of the Busta Estate, on which a considerable portion of the windfarm is proposed to be built. One would have thought that, as a responsible landowner, the SIC had some duty of care to its tenants who occupy the land. If the latter are concerned, for example, about impacts on their health, amenity, or property values, is the council just to sit back and scoff at them? For this is all that the two most vocal councillors – and avid supporters of the wind farm – who sit on the Shetland Charitable Trust, part-owners of Viking Energy – have done.

Indeed, as Dr. Wills points out, there have been conditions imposed on Viking Energy in the planning consent. Sustainable Shetland already has kept a watchful eye on breaches of planning conditions, and I am certain members will give up what they can of their free time in continuation of that exercise if required.

More to the point, however, it is on the SIC planning and environmental health services that the onus of monitoring the wind farm development will fall. We hope council members will ensure that they are in a fit state to undertake their duties; some discussion about that may be of merit, especially given the common knowledge of how stretched the resources of planning already are.

The Busta House agreement, which councillor Ratter signed on behalf of the SIC with SSE, still remains so confidential that all but a very few people are aware of its contents. It may now be the responsibility of Shetland Charitable Trust, as far as the “Shetland community” involvement in the project is concerned, but do all those councillors who are also trustees know what obligations are in the agreement?

4. Finally we believe that the letter of credit signed with National Grid by the SIC is still in effect, meaning that SIC is still liable to compensate for work done by National Grid in preparing for installing an interconnector and connecting to the mainland grid, if the Viking wind farm does not go ahead. As far back as 2007, Shetland Islands Council declared these aims in its Economic Policy 2007-2011 document:

  • Continue the development of the Viking Energy community wind farm project 
  • Establishment of a fixed interconnector to the UK mainland by 2012 
  • Gain full planning permission for Viking Energy 
  • Viking Energy community wind farm project to be at construction stage by 2011
  • Work with project partners to lobby government agencies to achieve interconnector
  • Provide full information necessary for planning permission to be achieved 
  • Identify correct financial and operational structure for bringing the project forward

Let alone what this meant for local democracy and debate in the ensuing years, we  are now in 2015, and 2020 is now being declared as the earliest start-date for the wind farm to be operational. 

We refute utterly that Sustainable Shetland, by its legal action, has delayed the project and thereby lost community income (another slur aimed at our membership from councillor Wills). The delay is due to far more problematic factors – 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.

What “exit strategy” does the council have? What credible integrated alternatives does it have for renewable energy and carbon reduction, which would be supported by the community?

Or will that, just like before, be somebody else’s problem?

For and on behalf of Sustainable Shetland,

Chairman Frank Hay, Burnside, Voe

&

Vice-chairman James Mackenzie, The Lea, Tresta

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