Digging up the council leaders’ family ties to EDF

Let’s get back to windfarms, shall we? It’s been a few weeks since I wrote anything about it but there has been a lot going on, in terms of the fight between the crofters and French multinational EDF for the right to develop renewables on the land around Stornoway.

There has been a huge amount of media attention over the past month –  including a seven-minute piece on Channel 4 News – and this has unearthed some apparent conflicts of interest as well as a lot of wheeling and dealing and general shenanigans. 

I’m not going to go over it all again – all my previous stories on the issue are available under the ‘renewables’ category on this blog – but a lot of people are now watching to see what EDF, along with project partners Wood Group, are going to do next in order to get their controversial 36-turbine Stornoway wind farm across the line.

EDF and partner Wood Group – going by the name Lewis Wind Power up here – have been given a 70-year lease to the ground from the Stornoway Trust. 

Their plans are bitterly opposed by a number of crofting townships who want to develop their own renewables schemes – and have the wherewithal to do so – but EDF are steamrollering ahead, with a hostile legal action that is currently working its way through the Scottish Land Court.

The main reason they have been able to get this far is because they have enjoyed the massive support of the Stornoway Trust, ironically the oldest and biggest community landowner in the country, and our local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

That is exceptionally frustrating – and, to be honest, somewhat distressing – for so many of the islanders who want to see more development of community-owned schemes.

For reasons we cannot understand, the Comhairle seems Hell-bent on making sure Electricité de France gets every single one of the 81 turbines it wants for Lewis, even though the four crofting townships involved in this are quite capable of developing 21 of the turbines themselves and returning much more money into the local economy.

The crofters would be using the same technical, financial and business model that has proved so successful for Point and Sandwick Trust.

I have been banging my David and Goliath drum for long enough and felt that we were getting nowhere. So, I admit, it has been very satisfying to see the issue finally hit the primetime news.

To get your story on Channel 4 News – it was also in The Guardian the month before (Crofters on Lewis fight EDF and Wood Group’s wind farm proposal) and then the Daily Mail and on Radio 4 shortly afterwards – is the Ace in pack when it comes to coverage.

And although the talk in the steamie is dying down now, the aftershocks are still being felt. 

I want to talk a closer look now at who said what in the Channel 4 piece (Crofters fight EDF wind farm plan) and the rather interesting connections that exist between some senior local politicians (clue: it’s more than one) and EDF. 

I also want to bust some myths, particularly the inaccuracies being peddled by EDF’s Kerry MacPhee about the interconnector – because, my goodness, we need to. 

But let’s start at the start. 

I knew the Channel 4 programme was in the pipeline for months and was very pleased to see Alex Thomson, its chief correspondent, arrive in Stornoway with a crew for a week in February – read about that in A Whole Lot of Media Activity. Yes, we had to wait weeks for the piece to be screened, but it was worth the wait. 

It was a slam-dunk. An extremely lucid piece of journalism. This is a complex issue and Alex – pictured here in a piece to camera at the Point and Sandwick Trust wind farm – just got it. (All the pictures used in this blog post are screen grabs from Channel 4.)

Channel 4 chief correspondent Alex Thomson

Take his summary at the beginning… “In what looks like a no-hope battle, four crofting communities are taking on the might of EDF, Europe’s biggest power conglomerate, and their landlord AND their local council.”

He cited the Point and Sandwick Trust (PST) turbines as an example of how the community had proven that it could deliver these schemes and how much more profitable the community-owned schemes were, compared to corporate ones. 

He gave the magic number of £900,000 – the amount of profit the community will get this year  from PST’s three turbines and also the amount that EDF will give the community from its 36 turbines.

As the crofters’ spokeswoman, Rhoda MacKenzie, explained to Alex: “A wholly-owned community option is 12 times better than the option that’s on the table at the moment, so to us it’s a no-brainer.”

Alex interviewed a number of people in his piece, including cyclist Kerry MacPhee who works for Lewis Wind Power – but is paid by EDF, as he pointed out – as a ‘community liaison’. 

Kerry was also speaking up for LWP in the Daily Mail piece (Island at war over wind farm millions) and again in Moira Hickey’s piece for the You and Yours programme on Radio 4.

I have to take issue with some of Kerry’s statements, particularly about the interconnector.

Firstly, she said: “We need the big developers to do this and Lewis Wind Power are ready to go. They’ve got planning consents, grid connection offers, they’re ready to go, to bid in…”

Eh, no they’re not, Kerry. They’re nothing like it. Lewis Wind Power are currently locked in a legal battle with the crofters in the Scottish Land Court and until they get a ruling in their favour – which they may never get – they’re not ready to go anywhere. 

Kerry then declared: “The interconnector is £600million and the build of the infrastructure is something like £400million and a community just does not have that.” 

This betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding about the financing of the interconnector – the new subsea cable which is seen as essential to the future development of renewables on Lewis, because the current cable is at capacity for exporting power.

The truth is the interconnector will not be paid for up front by any companies who are developing projects. Instead, it will be paid for by SHETL, that part of SSE which owns and operates the transmission grid in the north. 

The costs of construction and maintenance are recovered later on from the companies – who will be exporting their power via the interconnector – in a levy. That levy will be pro-rata for the amount of power they produce, so all the companies pay for their own share – later on, as they are using it.

Nobody, not even EDF with their deep pockets, have to pay for it up front. 

Kerry wasn’t the main star of the Channel 4 piece, though. Without doubt that was council leader Roddie Mackay – and for all the wrong reasons.

He was seriously on the ropes in that interview.

It didn’t begin well, with Alex challenging him about the view, held by the Stornoway Trust and the council, that EDF’s plan was “the only viable option”. 

Alex asked him: “How do you know that’s your view when the council has never called in an independent assessor of this, ever?”

Roddie Mackay replied: “The council has had no need to call in an independent assessor because all the information that we have to date is based on accurate calculations that have been made by the developer.”

AT: “Which developer?”

RM: “The only developer that’s here at the minute.”

AT: “So what you’re saying is you’ve no need to call in an independent assessor of this because you believe what EDF are telling you?”

RM: “Oh, no, no. Well, is there any reason why we should doubt it?”

AT: “Yes there is, because they are a commercial company with their own interests, not the people of Lewis.”

Then came the killer punch from Alex Thomson.

“Channel 4 News can also reveal that the council leaders’s son works for EDF…”

AT: “Well, that’s a conflict of interest for you, isn’t it?”

RM: “No, not at all. If at any point in the future we actually do some commercial arrangement with EDF, yes, I suppose I would ask my members if they wanted me to be involved in it.”

Finally, Alex tells the viewer: “The council says it simply trusts EDF and claims it has wide public support but EDF’s big offer here of a 20 per cent community stake, the company admitted to us, is un-costed. But for Kerry MacPhee, the council and the Trust, her employer – EDF – is the only way. There is no Plan B.”

When it comes to potential conflicts of interest for councillors, there is no guidance as such from the Comhairle. However, there is very clear guidance available from the Standards Commission, in its Code of Conduct. 

It gives a lot of advice, including how to behave when the financial interests of other persons are involved. It clearly states “you must declare” the financial interests of a number of other people, including “a close relative”. 

Interestingly, its main tenet is the ‘objective test’ – which is all about public perception. So, while a decision about whether to declare an interest is up to the councillor, they are obliged to think about how it looks to the outside world and “are advised to err on the side of caution”.

The Code of Conduct states: “You may feel able to state truthfully that an interest would not influence your role as a councillor in discussion or decision-making. You must, however, always comply with the objective test which is whether a member of the public, with knowledge of the relevant facts, would reasonably regard the interest as so significant that it is likely to prejudice your discussion or decision making in your role as a councillor.”

Another councillor said to me, in a recent off-the-record conversation, that the council leader could quite easily find himself the subject of a complaint to the Standards Commission over his EDF link because it arguably failed the objective test. 

Despite this, the main stooshie in the council corridors in the aftermath of the Channel 4 piece was not about whether there was a conflict of interest – but about who had ‘leaked’ the story about Roddie Mackay’s son, Michael, working for EDF.

It’s also interesting that Roddie Mackay said he would consider the question of a conflict of interest “if at any point in the future we actually do some commercial arrangement with EDF”. 

Okay, so there is no contract yet between the Comhairle and EDF – but let’s remind ourselves about what Roddie Mackay said at the opening of LWP’s Stornoway office earlier this year, where he announced the Comhairle would be pursuing a community share option in partnership with LWP and the Stornoway Trust.

Stornoway Inner Harbour and Marina

In his own exact words: “In the Stornoway Wind Farm project the Stornoway Trust has negotiated an ownership stake of up to 20 per cent and in the Uisenis project up to 30 per cent ownership has been negotiated by the Comhairle.”

Hmmmm. ‘Negotiating a stake’ – does that not sound like the language of commercial discussion to you?

What takes this whole thing up a level is that Roddie Mackay is not the first leader of Western Isles Council whose son has landed a job with the biggest developer in town. 

Alasdair Campbell, son of former council leader Angus Campbell, also works for EDF, having joined the Lewis Wind Power team towards the end of last year. 

These links were confirmed to me by David Morrison, who also works for LWP, and he explained that Alasdair Campbell was a consultant working in contracts (he is described in the Hebrides Business Guide as “Commercial Manager to support the LWP projects”). 

I first asked David about Roddie Mackay’s son and was told: “Michael Mackay is working for EDF on projects on the mainland. It’s a separate team to the LWP projects.”

I then asked if this particular Alasdair Campbell was Angus Campbell’s son. David said: “Absolutely. Yeah. He joined us towards the end of the year. Alasdair has been working with quite a few wind farm companies – 20:20, the Tolsta wind farm.

“He’s been involved in wind farms for the last seven or eight years, even 10 years. That’s how these guys go. They move around.”

The old and the new on wind farm turf on the Pentland Road

While he was in post, Angus Campbell was notably outspoken against those who were calling for greater community ownership of schemes.

He reacted strongly when community wind farm developer Calum Macdonald publicly urged the Comhairle to sit down with LWP to try to increase the community stake to 50 per cent, in line with what Shetland had secured with their Viking project.

His response was to say it was “a shame that Mr Macdonald and Point and Sandwick Power seem intent on working against the best interests of the wider community and the local economy”.

People with an interest in the renewables industry – not to mention the media – are watching with fascination and increasing incredulity as this story unfolds. 

After the Channel 4 piece screened, Alex Thomson tweeted this to his 98,000 followers: “Going forward, follow the award-winning @hebrideswriter for updates on the Lewis Wind campaign.”

That was a fine endorsement – and I hope that you do decide to follow this blog because there is a whole lot more to come. 

Katie

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