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Energy / Planners seek legal advice on Viking ground investigations

Work is presently stalled owing to Covid-19.

SHETLAND Islands Council’s planning department has sought legal advice on the ground investigation work being carried out in preparation for the planned Viking Energy wind farm amid questions over whether the company has all the necessary consents and permits in place.

Planning officials have confirmed that they are also seeking clarification from developer energy giant SSE, the company that is largely behind the project.

“We have received a number of queries on this matter, and our officers are awaiting further information from SSE so that those queries can be fully responded to,” a council spokesperson said.

It comes after a letter from Scalloway resident Kevin Learmonth to the planning service questioning if all the necessary permits and consents were in place for the ground investigation work to proceed.

He claims that the work being carried out already constitutes “construction” of the 103-turbine wind farm, and the raft of conditions attached to the planning consent for the development should therefore apply.

The main development would only be able to get under way if the local authority, for instance, approves a construction environmental management plan and details of a Shetland Wind Farm Environmental Advisory Group are given the green light.

From Viking Energy’s point of view the ground investigations are not “construction” as they constitute “permitted development”.

The company has always stated that the construction is due to start in 2020 – depending on whether it will win government subsidy under the Contracts for Difference scheme.

A spokesman for Viking Energy said all stakeholders had been informed regarding the ground investigation work and “every effort is being made to minimise disturbance to the community, wildlife and the environment”.

Ground investigation work, such as drilling and digging boreholes and trial pits, started a couple of weeks ago in Weisdale. Equipment and staff are being flown by helicopter to avoid trucks having to traverse the hills.

Sustainable Shetland, the group that opposes the wind farm, has always voiced its concern that the council’s planning department would be unable to properly monitor the wind farm construction phase.

The group said there should be “much closer independent scrutiny” of the ground investigation.

Chairman Frank Hay said that after the work started “it is becoming more apparent how destructive this project is going to be for Shetland’s environment”.

“Coinciding with, up to now, one of the wettest Shetland summers for many years, diggers, tracked vehicles and drilling rigs have been and will be churning up the moorland without many of the conditions attached to the wind farm consent being applied,” he said.

“Hiding behind the smokescreen of ‘investigative work’ they are proceeding with little restriction. This work has commenced during the bird breeding season, and red throated diver chicks are still being observed on the lochs.

“When their [the SIC’s planning department] attention was drawn to a possible breach of planning conditions we were informed that they were seeking legal advice on the matter. Surely that should have been done before the work started.”

A bird protection plan is in place for the ground investigation work, with Scottish Natural Heritage confirming it identifies all of the currently occupied diver nesting pools on the basis of surveys carried out this summer.

It also includes a 300-metre radius exclusion zone around of each of these, while helicopter flight lines could be changed if required.

The organisation’s operations officer in Shetland Jonathan Swale said “we are satisfied this is adequate mitigation to avoid an offence being committed”.

Hay, however, believes the current set-up provides “inadequate protection for birds during the breeding season, particularly where the use of a helicopter is involved”.

“A short delay would have ensured that the disturbance during the breeding season issue would have been avoided,” he said.

Learmonth, meanwhile, also questioned how members of the public can raise concerns over the activities with the planning department.

“I am considering commissioning the development of a smartphone app for free download which would assist members of the public in recording and reporting Viking Energy related on-site construction incidents and permission violations to yourselves,” he added in his letter to planners.