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Robinson: Viking advice was “misleading”

A Shetland councillor has questioned legal advice received from council officials concerning their involvement in the controversial Viking Energy wind farm, saying members may have been “misled”.

Shetland West member Gary Robinson is writing to the Scottish government urging them to re-examine a decision last December to dismiss advice from planning officials to reject the application for one of Europe’s largest onshore wind farms.

On Tuesday the Public Standards Commissioner Stuart Allan “unequivocally” exonerated 14 councillors, including leader Josie Simpson, after a complaint was submitted about conflicts of interest they held in the £800 million development.

Councillors are involved in Viking Energy as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust, which is jointly managing the 127 turbine project with Scottish & Southern Energy, with the hope of generating £23 million a year for the community.

Lerwick community councillor Michael Peterson had complained that 14 members had breached the councillors’ code of conduct by voting on key decisions relating to the wind farm between July 2009 and February 2011.

One Wednesday, Councillor Robinson welcomed the commissioner’s ruling, but said it implied they had been given misleading advice by Shetland Islands Council’s legal head Jan Riise.

Mr Riise had originally said councillors had “an irretrievable and irreconcilable conflict of interest” and that the decision should be delegated to planning officials.
Later they received conflicting advice that they could take part in decisions relating to the wind farm.

On 14 December 2010 planners recommended the council reject the Viking Energy application, but a majority of nine councillors voted in favour of the wind farm going ahead.

Mr Robinson said: “What’s clear is that the democratic process has been undermined by this conflicting advice, with several members consistently declaring interests and departing from meetings.

“We were also told that a dispensation had been sought on our behalf to allow members to take part in decisions regarding Viking. This dispensation never materialised so questions must be asked as to why. If the Standards Commission dismissed this request then the reasons for doing so must be disclosed.

“In the wake of this ruling it appears that our advice was misleading and members’ concerns regarding conflicts of interest were unfounded.”

He said he would be writing to energy minister Fergus Ewing highlighting his concerns and urging him to look again at the 14 December planning report.
“Under normal procedures, councillors must give a detailed justification for rejecting the advice in such a report. This did not happen.”

Mr Riise was unavailable for comment, but an SIC spokesman said: “The Public Standards Commissioner’s report published yesterday praised and fully backed the actions of council officials in advising councillors on this issue.

“All the advice given in this instance has been carefully assessed and unequivocally approved by the Public Standards Commissioner.”

Mr Peterson, who submitted the original complaint in March, described the commissioner’s ruling as “perverse”.

Anti-Viking Energy campaign group Sustainable Shetland has also submitted a complaint against the nine councillors involved in the 14 December decision.

The group’s chairman Billy Fox said the commissioner’s report raised more questions than answers and should set “alarm bells ringing”.

The Viking Energy application is currently with the Scottish government’s energy consent unit who are expected to make a determination shortly, once environmental issues have been addressed with Scottish Natural Heritage.