Shetland Charitable Trust has finally approved a further £6.3 million pounds of funding for the Viking Energy wind farm project.
Following a two and half hour meeting on Thursday morning ten trustees voted in favour of the investment, while five trustees were only prepared to give Viking Energy £3 million at this time. One trustee abstained.
Trustees also agreed to commission a health impact study, investigate the options to set up a compensation fund for house owners living in the vicinity of the planned wind farm, and also consider the planning implications of moving some of the turbines.
And, judging by the quality of the debate, trustees are likely to demand much more influence on a project that has polarised opinions in the isles.
Six trustees (Valerie Nicolson, Viking director Alastair Cooper, Billy Fox, Mark Burgess, Allison (Flea) Duncan and Cecil Smith) declared an interest and did not participate in the meeting.
Mr Smith also announced that he would resign as a trustee. Trustees Peter Campbell and Amanda Westlake had tendered their apologies.
The meeting was broadcast via a videolink to another room in the Islesburgh Community Centre from where is was followed by around 30 people, made up of Viking directors and members of both Sustainable Shetland and the Windfarm Supporters Group.
Thursday’s meeting was the third attempt by trustees to release further funds for the controversial 103 turbine project. Two previous attempts failed as too many trustees felt they had a conflict of interest and were unable to vote on the issue.
The wind farm that is proposed to be built in the central mainland of Shetland is projected to earn the trust hundreds of millions of pounds during its lifetime.
The debate was kicked off by trust vice chairman Jonathan Wills who warned fellow trustees that should they fail to make a decision, others, namely the four local shareholders, would happily start buying the additional shares currently reserved for the charitable trust.
“If we haven’t pledged it by tomorrow then our partners will take over part of our share in the company. And as further bills fall due and other partners pay them because we’ve backed out of the deal, the trust’s share will dwindle in proportion.
“We will cease to be a major shareholder and our influence on the company will wane,” he warned.
He then proposed to commission an independent health impact study, paid for by the trust, and demanded by many in the community for years.
He later said that the study would be a “reputable” one, and would take at least a year to conclude. Both he and trust chairman Drew Ratter insisted that the trust would act upon its findings.
“I do understand the concerns of the objectors and I do hope that the developers can deal with the remaining valid concerns, as they strive to be good neighbours,” he said.
Many trustees were highly critical of the “real influence” the trust as a 45 per cent shareholder had over Viking Energy, a partnership with utility Scottish & Southern Energy.
While acknowledging that it was better to have a stake and be engaged in the community owned project, individual trustees nevertheless launched scathing attacks on Viking’s record of responding to local concern.
Vaila Wishart said she felt to be blackmailed into making a decision, and blackmail should be resisted. The project was too large, too intrusive and constituted “destruction on a major scale”.
She warned fellow trustees of the misconception that the projected income would help the council to bring its finances in order. “The wind farm investment is not relevant for this”, she said.
And she urged fellow trustees not to invest into a project that faces a judicial review. “I think that would be irresponsible”, she said.
Others, such as the council’s political leader Gary Robinson, were highly critical of Viking Energy performance and accused the company of ignoring the views of the community and trustees.
And Michael Stout said that many of Viking’s income projections were “unrealistic” as they didn’t take into account the global banking crisis, significantly higher local construction costs and the implication an independent Scotland would have on the UK-wide subsidy regime.
Chair of the council’s planning committee, Frank Robertson, suggested investigating whether some turbines could be relocated to alleviate people’s concerns.
Former Viking project co-ordinator Allan Wishart said turbines could only be moved within a radius of 50 metres without triggering new planning application, but the meeting agreed to have the options further investigated.
It was Theo Smith who proposed that a fund should be set up to compensate house owners living near the wind farm for the expected loss in the value of their property.
Finally, George Smith made the attempt to unite the critical voices by proposing that just £3 million should be released at this stage, and further funding should depend on updated financial projections and the result of the health impact study. This was seconded by Gary Robinson.
He said it was not his intention to derail the project but demanded it to be more “adequately evaluated” and have more regularly updated reports to come before trustees.
“I welcome the health impact study and the compensation fund. These are important steps to keep control over this investment,” he said.
The trust financial controller Geoff Goddard responded by saying: “If you don’t give £6.3 million it would delay the project.”
For the motion to release £6.3 million, to commission an independent health impact study, and investigate how a compensation fund could be set up and whether some turbines could be relocated under existing planning consent voted: Malcolm Bell, Gary Cleaver, Steven Coutts, Robert Henderson, Bobby Hunter, Drew Ratter, Frank Robertson, Davie Sandison, Jonathan Wills and Allan Wishart.
Andrea Manson, Gary Robinson, George Smith, Vaila Wishart and Michael Stout voted for the amendment which was to release just £3 million at this time.
After the meeting, Mr Robinson said he was disappointed with the outcome of the meeting and predicted further resignations from the trust.
He added: “I am disappointed the community and trustees are being ignored in this process, or at least have been ignored up until now.
“We made an attempt here today to have that recognised, but I fear ultimately that Viking Energy will do what Viking Energy wants to do. It really is quite a sad state of affairs.
“I am somebody who supports a wind farm but unfortunately I can’t support what we have been left with.”
Spokesman for Viking opponents Sustainable Shetland, James Mackenzie, said the health impact study should have been carried out years ago.
“Mr Wishart when he was project co-ordinator of Viking Energy went on record saying that a health impact assessment was abandoned as it couldn’t be done because there weren’t the necessary parameters in place for doing one.
“So how can any meaningful health impact assessment be done now? How have circumstances changed in that respect? I would like to get some clarifications from trustees on that,” he said.
Meanwhile, pioneer salmon farmer and prominent member of the Windfarm Supporters Group, Gibbie Johnson, welcomed the trust’s decision and said it was a very important day for future generations in Shetland.