THE COMMUNITY fund which was set up to receive and disburse income from large wind farms in Shetland has “completely lost its way”, according to former council leader Gary Robinson.
The Lerwick community councillor said that “somebody needs to press the reset button” on the Shetland Community Benefit Fund (SCBF).
Speaking at a meeting of Lerwick Community Council on Monday night, Robinson said he was concerned that the SCBF now seemed to be the benefit fund for just Viking Energy and not other proposed wind projects in the isles such as two which are planned in Yell.
He also expressed worry that the fund, which could receive over £2 million a year if the Viking wind farm goes ahead, could only support projects that are outside the remit of the Shetland Islands Council and the government, which have “wide ranging powers” to spend.
Robinson said the cash would be “much better spent” if it was used to top-up council funding, for example.
Draft terms for Viking benefit payments say money should not go towards “activities that are generally understood to be the exclusive responsibility of the statutory authority”.
Community council chairman Jim Anderson noted that the Association of Shetland Community Councils had recently reaffirmed its support for the SCBF as draft terms on how money is paid out if the 103-turbine Viking project went ahead gets finalised.
Shetland Community Benefit Fund Ltd chair Chris Bunyan previously told Lerwick Community Council that after being “dormant for a number of years” the group has been forced into activity as Viking Energy wants “this part of the project settled” quickly.
He said he had previously raised concern, including with Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, about one particular island or community accruing “considerable sums of benefit” instead of wind farm benefits being spread across Shetland.
Bunyan had said it was likely that two proposed Yell projects – Peel Energy’s Beaw Field and Energy Isles – will “follow the local community’s view on benefits” and that the money was likely to stay in the island.
He later said in a letter, however, that “we are also in contact with the other two main Shetland commercial developers regarding their schemes”.
Peel Energy also has permission to develop the Mossy Hill wind farm on the outskirts of Lerwick.
This year’s government auction for renewable subsidies has now opened, with the 103-turbine Viking Energy wind farm expected to get the green light if its bid is successful and a subsea cable is then installed to allow the export of energy to the mainland.
All of the proposed large wind farms are dependent on the 600MW interconnector cable being installed.
Viking Energy is expected to pay up to £2.25 million into the community benefit fund each year if the project goes ahead – £5,000 per installed megawatt capacity.
The money would be used for community projects, while a portion of the annual payment – which could be 10 per cent – is set to be allocated directly to community councils across the isles, with areas featuring turbines in line to receive a greater share.
Shetland Charitable Trust, which has committed £10 million towards the project, also expects to see a “reasonable return” on its investment if the wind farm goes ahead.
Speaking after Monday’s meeting, Robinson said his concern over the SCBF was “two fold”.
“On one hand, I think Shetland Community Benefit Fund was originally envisaged as an umbrella body for all of the wind farm developments in Shetland,” he said.
“But I think as we’ve heard, it looks as though the developers in the North Isles are going it alone and cutting a deal with the community up there, which leaves the Shetland Community Benefit Fund as just the fund for Viking Energy essentially.
“Secondly I think there is an issue about how the money is going to be disbursed, because there was a suggestion to the community councils that it would be spent on things that the council isn’t supposed to spend money on.
“But I think given the wide ranging powers that the council and government have to spend money, I think it could end up being a very short list of things that the community benefit fund could spend considerable amounts of money on, because of the way it’s been set up.”
Shetland Community Benefit Fund Ltd was established a number of years ago as a separate legal body by the Association of Shetland Community Councils to “negotiate and manage community benefit schemes from commercial renewable energy developments in the islands”, with all 18 of Shetland’s community councils having a seat on the management committee.
The fund was set up in the early days of the Viking Energy project and as a result that development has always been the main focus.
Bunyan previously said the fund has had to “vigorously oppose moves by the SIC to try and take control of the community benefit funds” over the years.
Shetland Community Benefit Fund has agreed with Viking Energy that a final decision will be made on the terms by 31 July.