'Conflict of interest' clouds council's position on wind farm project vote

IT IS one of the largest wind farm applications ever to be lodged in Scotland – but the council that represents the views of local residents may not be able to vote on whether it should be granted permission.

Plans for a 150-turbine wind farm in Shetland are due to be considered by the local council before the Scottish Government has the final say.

However, the legal officer at Shetland Islands Council believes all 22 elected members have an "irreconcilable" conflict of interest that must prevent them voting on the application.

Each councillor is a trustee of a local funding body, the Shetland Charitable Trust, that has a 90 per cent stake in Viking Energy – one of the companies behind the wind farm application. In addition, one councillor, Bill Manson, is chairman of Viking Energy, and two others – Allan Wishart and Alastair Cooper – are directors.

In a report that is due to be debated at a special meeting of the council today, Jan Riise, legal officer, said the dual hats worn by councillors creates an "irreconcilable conflict".

"The individual trustees have a statutory requirement to act in the charity's best interest notwithstanding the functions that councillors otherwise have to discharge as councillors," he said. "This leaves it difficult, if not indeed impossible, to reconcile their position as charities trustees in a manner that would allow them to objectively debate and comment on an application."

He has proposed that councillors should not vote on the application, but instead unelected council officials should decide whether to recommend the Scottish Government approves or rejects the wind farm plans for north and central Mainland.

The officials should, he suggested, hear the views of local people and councillors at a series of public meetings before reaching a view.

Billy Fox, chairman of campaign group Sustainable Shetland, which is fighting the wind farm application, fears this would leave residents unrepresented by their councillors.

"I'm very concerned because what we are actually seeing is a breakdown of local democracy and proper representation in Shetland," he said.

There has been strong opposition to the wind farm, including a 3,600-name petition.

Mr Fox believes it has always been wrong for councillors to also be trustees of the Shetland Charitable Trust, which decides whether to grant funding for numerous community ventures.

"They (councillors] have known for years that they have had this problem, and they have just chosen to ignore it," he said. "The only reason it has come to a head now is because of the sheer scale of this project."

However, John Holden, deputy head of planning at the council, said: "The intention of the report is to actually enable the councillors, given they have so many different roles and responsibilities, to be freed up to be able to speak on behalf of their constituents."

And Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness said he did not agree there was a conflict of interest.

"I'm quite happy to make decisions both as a councillor and as a trustee in relation to Viking Energy or anything else," he said. "I don't think there is a conflict of interest. I don't personally see a problem. I have been both a councillor and a trustee for a long time."

He added that elected councillors, not unelected officers, should decide the council's view on the wind farm. This must be provided to the Scottish Government by mid-September.

Wind farm protesters raise concerns over impact on local businesses

TOURIST numbers in rural Scotland may be harder hit by wind farm developments than has previously been suggested, said a leading authority on tourism.

Although any loss of visitors caused by wind farms may be manageable at a national level, the effect could be significant locally, according to tourism consultant Professor Terry Stevens.

Prof Stevens was speaking at a public meeting called by Speyside Business Alliance (SBA) at Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown, Moray.

SBA, made up of global brand names Wm Grant and Sons of Glenfiddich whisky, Glenfarclas distillers and shortbread maker Walkers of Aberlour, is fighting plans for the largest wind farm in mainland Scotland on Glenfiddich estate. They fear it will affect local tourism and the image of Highland Speyside as an industry-free environment.

Prof Stevens said implications of research carried out by Glasgow Caledonian University in 2008 have not been fully appreciated:

"Although the overall scale of the negative impact at the national level may be minimal, the local effect of this displacement may be very significant.".

Alastair Robertson

COMMUNITY RIGHT BEHIND PROJECT

THE application to build the 540 megawatt wind farm has been lodged by Viking Energy, a partnership between Viking Energy Ltd and Scottish and Southern Energy.

Viking Energy Ltd was set up by the local community and will be funded by the Shetland Charitable Trust.

If the farm goes ahead, it has been estimated the trust would see returns of about 23 million a year to put back into the community.

Additional benefits from about 230 construction and 50 maintenance jobs, as well as rent payments, would mean the total benefit to the local economy would be an estimated 37m a year.

It is hoped this could replace funding that Shetland Islands Council negotiated from the development of the oil industry in the area, which came to an end in 2000.

This is the first time a community has been directly involved in the development of a large-scale wind farm, from which it could profit directly.

The wind farm could supply 20 per cent of Scotland's domestic electricity needs.

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