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Ethical storm over windfarm support letters

A Major windfarm developer has been accused of questionable ethics in using letter- generating software to help boost public support for its proposals on Shetland.

Viking Energy, the result of a partnership between Shetland Islands Council and Scottish and Southern Energy, wants to build a 127-turbine windfarm.

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It claims the scheme will generate £23 million a year for the community, create jobs and help maintain the high level of social provision in the islands, long after money from North Sea oil runs out.

However, many islanders believe that, with turbines of up to 476ft – higher than Orkney’s Old Man of Hoy – their landscape will be blighted and money wasted on a project whose benefits have been grossly overestimated and costs underplayed.

The project has fiercely divided island opinion ahead of today’s deadline for public submissions, with both sides urging residents to make their view known.

It has now emerged that a tick of a box on the Viking website will instantly generate a carefully worded letter of support to send to the Scottish Government.

Opponents of the £685m development see this as a cynical attempt to mislead ministers, while independent voices say it raises important democratic questions. Kevin Learmonth, vice-chairman of Sustainable Shetland, told The Herald yesterday: “I think it stinks that Viking Energy, prospective developers of one of Europe’s largest onshore windfarms, is now using letter-generation software to create letters for windfarm supporters, which are made to look as though they are written by the person themselves.

“As well as randomly selecting from generic words, phrases, opening and closing sentences, it also uses an algorithm to randomly select font and type size. It is clearly designed to produce tens of thousands of letters which all look unique.”

Mr Learmonth said he had tested the system a dozen times on identical settings and it produced 12 different letters.

The Herald visited the website and ticked the box that said support for the project was because “The Shetland community needs to find money to replace the revenue made from the oil industry.” A letter was immediately offered, raising the spectre of island depopulation if the development does not proceed. A second tick in the same box delivered a letter stressing that the money could be used to build care homes for Shetland’s ageing population.

However, a spokeswoman for Viking Energy defended the device and claimed to have taken a leaf out of the objectors’ book.

“The key thing about the letter-writing tool is that it merely provides a template based on statements the user selects from our website. Once generated, the letter can then be modified and personalised, and the user has to manually e-mail or post the letter to the planning officer. It is not automatically sent nor the text fixed.

“Our decision to offer such a tool was inspired by the local anti-windfarm group. During the consultation on our original application, Sustainable Shetland included an online form on their website directly linking users into the Government’s website where objections could be registered at the click of a button.”

Dr Peter Lynch, a senior lecturer in Stirling University’s department of politics, said: “I would say they are on questionable ethical territory here. It raises serious questions about the value of the public consultation process if letters generated by a computer software system are to have the same weight as those submitted in by members of the public in the normal way.”

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