Councillors in Shetland have once again been accused of approving their own development as a planning authority after permitting in principle the construction of a huge electricity converter station in the Kergord valley.
The five hectare development will include buildings 150 metres long and up to 17 metres high.
These will form an integral part of the proposed 457 megawatt Viking Energy wind farm development, of which councillor-controlled Shetland Charitable Trust is a joint partner.
Wednesday morning’s meeting was Shetland Islands Council’s fourth attempt to decide on the application from Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Limited (SHETL), which was originally lodged in July 2009.
After several declared an interest in the matter, it was left to just nine councillors to unanimously approve the application after north isles councillor Laura Baisley moved the recommendations and vice convener Josie Simpson seconded.
In April 2010, the council’s planning board deferred the decision until the Scottish government came to a view on the proposed wind farm, or until more reliable information on carbon payback was available.
In autumn the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) said they were now confident in the developer’s carbon payback calculation, but too many councillors declared an interest for the planning board to make decision last November.
The decision was then transferred to the full council, but a special December meeting to determine the application was cancelled due to poor weather.
On Wednesday councillors faced the same question of whether to declare an interest and leave the meeting or go ahead and make a decision.
Councillor Jonathan Wills moved that the application be referred to the Scottish government, because councillors, as trustees of the charitable trust, had an “irreconcilable and irretrievable” conflict of interest. He did not find a seconder.
He then declared an interest and left the meeting, as did councillor Andrew Hughson, whose son has a long term contract with Scottish & Southern Energy.
Councillor Florence Grains also said she would not participate in the decision making, but wanted to make a presentation on behalf of the Whiteness and Weisdale community council who strongly oppose the development.
Councillor Betty Fullerton said that other forms of renewable energy, such as the proposed Pelamis wave energy project, west of Shetland, would benefit from the converter station in the future.
Councillor Wills described as “legal gymnastics” advice from the council’s chief legal officer Jan Riise said members only had a “remote” interest in the application as trustees of the joint wind farm developer.
Mr Riise insisted the application came from an independent organisation, and that the charitable trust had a mere “downstream” interest in the development, not shared by individual trustees.
However SHETL was adamant in its presentation that the converter station was only being built because Viking Energy partnership had requested it back in 2005.
Dr Wills said was a “clear public perception of a conflict of interest” and that if the wind farm was built this would have “massive implications for the body of which we are all members of”.
The meeting then heard a number of presentations, first from the Richard McNeil of the council’s own planning service, followed by Kevin Learmonth of the anti-Viking Energy campaign group Sustainable Shetland.
It was then councillor Grains’ turn to plea to her fellow members “to listen to the people on the ground”.
She said the development was too big, out of place and would be a bad neighbour. She added that the reason why councillors were minded to approve the application was money and not planning policies.
The final presentation was made by Dr Annie Say, an environmental consultant employed by SHETL.
She said the Kergord site had been carefully chosen, as it was “well hidden” at the north end of the valley, hardly visible form the populated area, and would be built on land that had already “been modified by man”.
She added: “The site has been chosen carefully to reduce the environmental impact. The converter station will only be built if the Viking Energy wind farm will be built. No other application for a connection has been received.”
This was followed by a little debate, mainly in the form of additional questions by councillors to planning officers and Dr Say as the representative of the developer.
Mrs Fullerton received an assurance that there would be no additional cost to the local authority for the necessary upgrade of roads once the development was under way.
SHETL envisaged using the road improvements that would be made as part of the Viking Energy project, she was told.
It was then up to Laura Baisley to move approval after admitting that she was “biased” on the issue.
“I have no problem in accepting this. Viking Energy is not the only potential user of this, we need to see this thing more holistically. Renewables is something I passionately believe we should be developing,” she said.
She added that she was convinced that members of Sustainable Shetland would work hard to ensure that the developer would adhere to the many pages of conditions attached to the planning approval.
Afterwards, Mr Learmonth said he was not surprised by the way the meeting had gone.
“The council has done it again and acted as a developer. The wind farm needs a converter station, and they voted through the converter station. Councillors have been voting for their own project,” he said.
During the meeting it emerged that the North Yell community wind farm development was no longer depending on whether or not an interconnector cable would be laid between Shetland and the northeast of Scotland.
Councillor Robert Henderson said the community group hope to feed energy into the smart grid Scottish & Southern Energy is in the process of developing for Shetland.
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