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Council / Planning committee approves Viking Energy construction compound application

Preparatory work for the wind farm is starting this week

Contractors for SSEN Distribution moving overhead lines underground south of Voe on Monday afternoon. The construction compound will be located nearby. Photo: Shetland News

A PLANNING application for a temporary construction compound south of Voe for the Viking Energy wind farm has been approved by councillors.

The application went in front of Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) planning committee on Monday because the local authority is the landowner.

Planning officers had recommended that the compound, which will be no more than 200m x 200m in size, should be approved with conditions attached.

Concerns were raised by councillors, however, over the impact monitoring planning compliance could have on the SIC’s already busy planning service.

Temporary construction compounds are included as part of Viking Energy’s existing consent, but it had applied separately for larger sites for a period of five years.

A main large compound at Sand Water has already been approved by the planning department, while an application for another near Tresta was withdrawn after a rare plant thought to be extinct in Shetland was found on the hillside.

For the west site Viking Energy will revert to original plans for a smaller compound.

Some of the features of the south of Voe compound include access tracks, office accommodation, lighting, equipment storage, parking, laydown areas and refuelling facilities.

The plans for the compound received one objection, from campaign group Sustainable Shetland, which expressed concerns over issues like siting, size, peatland and landscape.

A petition with over 200 signatures was also lodged late last week in support of the group’s comments.

Members of the planning committee were told prior to the meeting to leave any views on renewable energy projects at the door and to judge the application in isolation.

“We are not here to revisit the principle of the development,” committee chair Emma Macdonald said.

Macdonald added that as the petition did not raise any new material planning considerations the SIC simply had to note the submission.

Planning officer Sheila Bernard presented a short report on the application, noting that an environmental impact assessment on the development had been submitted by Viking Energy last year.

She said it was concluded that with mitigating conditions the residual effects of the development would be “minor, so not significant”.

Bernard also highlighted that initial objections from consultees such as environment agency SEPA were dropped on the premise of conditions being attached to any consent.

She said it was “inevitable” there would be an impact on areas like peatland and habitat but with conditions this could be adequately managed.

A report to councillors said that Scottish planning policy “supports sustainable economic growth and has a presumption in favour of development that contributes to sustainable development aiming to achieve the right development in the right place supporting the transformational change to a low carbon economy, but not development at any cost”.

Moraig Lyall was the most vocal when it came to opposing the wind farm construction.

During questioning Shetland central member Moraig Lyall referred to the Shetland local development plan, which guides planning decisions.

One strand of the plan shows that a “proposed development should make a positive contribution to maintaining identity and character”.

Lyall asked what was the positive contribution the construction compound will be on the site – with Bernard saying that the land would be reinstated, and that the developer is doing what it can around things like colouring and fencing.

“I’m not sure that constitutes a positive contribution,” Lyall responded.

The councillor also asked how long it would take until a driver travelling past the site would no longer know a construction compound had been there, and while there were no definite answers planning team leader John Holden said sites can be restored surprising quickly.

Responding to a question about keeping tabs on the compliance of planning conditions, service manager Iain McDiarmid added there is an enforcement officer in post at the SIC.

“We usually hope that all the planning conditions are complied with and that’s where we start from,” he said.

Shetland central Davie Sandison asked about the existing consent Viking Energy has for the compound, with Holden saying the developer has permission for two smaller sites in the area on either side of the road.

The councillor also expressed concern over the planning service’s resources and expertise in monitoring compliance of conditions.

North mainland member Andrea Manson, meanwhile, said she was worried over the impact construction traffic could have on the nearby road, especially on the area known locally as ‘the bumps’.

“It’s an unfortunate location to actually have this compound just purely because of state of the road at the moment,” she said.

Manson said “undoubtedly it’s going to have a detrimental effect on the road”.

Holden said that most of the traffic would be coming from the south side of the site, not the north, and he added that negotiations are ongoing between the developer and the council over the repair of any damage caused.

Manson also suggested that a quantity surveyor could be employed to be the council’s “eyes and ears” on the ground when it came to compliance.

She said the “strain on the planning department will be extraordinary”.

Holden said Viking’s existing consent included a planning monitoring officer.

Lerwick member Cecil Smith asked, as the landowner, if the council had offered an alternative site, but Holden said it was not the local authority’s place to do so.

During debate Lerwick councillor Malcolm Bell said he felt the application was a straightforward decision and in some ways unremarkable.

SIC convener Malcolm Bell said the decision in front of the planning committee was a straight forward one. Photo: Shetland News

“The only thing that makes it remarkable in some people’s eyes is the project it is intended to support,” he said.

“This is not an opportunity to fire off salvos in some sort of proxy war against Viking Energy.”

He said with the wind farm having consent the “quicker [the compound] is constructed the better”.

Bell also warned that if councillors wished to frustrate the process using issues that were not material planning considerations then the council would be open to legal action.

He moved that the application be approved, with Manson seconding.

Reiterating her concerns over the A970, the north councillor said the last major development in the area saw “thousands and thousands” of bus journeys along the road – claiming that the council previously had been sold some “mistruths” about the level of traffic.

Macdonald, meanwhile, said: “This is going to happen but we need to ensure that it’s going to happen as quickly and as safely as possible.

“We can’t change decisions that have been made in the past.”

Sandison said he had some concerns over the location of the site, as well as the “significant amount” of work planning officers will have regarding compliance.

He said he hoped there would be a developer contribution towards monitoring.

North Isles member Duncan Anderson added that he was “amazed” that the SIC received just over £2,000 in planning fees for the development.

Lyall, meanwhile, said it was difficult to look at the application in isolation as the only reason why it was in front of them was because of the Viking Energy wind farm.

She felt the council should not be giving permission for “such a large compound in such an area”.

The councillor stressed she was not in agreement with the committee’s decision.

Lyall also poured cold water on the level of economic benefit coming to Shetland from the wind farm as she felt the cost of monitoring and overseeing construction will begin to mount up.

Smith added that “I’m still opposed to the whole thing in general” but said it needed to be made clear that the reason the application was in front of them was because the SIC was the landowner.

If the council was not the landowner then the application would have been approved by planning officials under delegated authority.

No counter motions were presented, however, meaning that the application was approved.

Preparatory works for the wind farm, meanwhile, are getting underway this week.

Operations will begin with preparatory and protective works next to the existing Sandwater road and at the site for the main compound between Sandwater and the South Nesting junction.

The teams will be working to “protect and divert utility services including water pipes, telecoms cables and electricity cables in both areas”, Viking Energy said.

Preparations will also take place for building a temporary car park next to the Sandwater road and for the formation of an access junction and track up to the compound site.

The developer said that there is no requirement at this stage to introduce traffic control measures on the main A970 road.

Work on an access road to the planned converter station at Upper Kergord has already begun.