from Sunday Herald, 18 October 2009
John Whittaker, a publicity-shy property developer who heads the Peel group of companies, is promising to go ahead with a new plant at Hunterston in North Ayrshire against furious opposition - and despite having lost his major investor last week.
Campaigners now fear he could now turn to the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) for help, and are launching a court action in London this week aimed at preventing the bank from investing in socially or environmentally damaging projects.
Investigations at Companies House have uncovered over 100 different firms registered under the Peel name. The group has assets valued at over £4.5 billion, including Clydeport, Mersey Docks, the Manchester Ship Canal, Liverpool John Lennon Airport and the Trafford shopping centre in Manchester.
Peel’s boss, 67-year-old Whittaker, was born in Bury, Lancashire, but now lives on the Isle of Man, where most of his companies are registered to help reduce taxes. He runs his businesses with the help of his four children, Mark, James, Kate and John.
The Peel group, in which the powerful Saudi Olayan family has around a 25% stake, was taken private in 2004 and delisted from the Stock Exchange. Despite having a 24% stake in Britain’s biggest coal producer, UK Coal, Whittaker has been named as one of the UK’s leading green businessmen.
In Scotland the Peel group is behind the scheme for a 1,600 megawatt coal station at Hunterston, which has been fast-tracked by the Scottish government. The plan suffered a major blow last week when the Danish energy company, Dong, pulled out as an investor.
Peel insisted, however, that the overall strategy for the power station was “unaffected” and promised to apply for planning permission “later this year”. This has provoked fury from environmental groups.
"We are surprised that any corporation or individual would want to be associated with a development that would not only result in major environmental damage to a designated wildlife habitat, but would also result in massive additional climate wrecking greenhouse gas emissions,” said Aedán Smith, head of planning and development for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland.
Friends of the Earth Scotland pointed out the Peel group had long had close ties with RBS, which helped fund the takeover of Clydeport in 2002, and the return to private ownership in 2004. The risk was that RBS would now be asked to bail out the Hunterston project.
Legal action to try and force the Treasury to prevent RBS, which is now publicly owned, from investing in such projects is due for a hearing in the High Court in London on Tuesday. The case is being brought by a coalition of three campaign groups, including the World Development Movement.
The aim, according to the movement’s Scottish campaigner, Liz Murray, was to stop taxpayers’ money being used by RBS to fuel climate change and human rights violations around the world.
“Peel's proposed new dirty coal plant at Hunterston is not needed for Scotland's energy security and will push us further towards irreversible global climate change, which is already ruining people's lives in the developing world,” she said.
Owen Michaelson, chairman of Peel Energy, pointed out that Dong was still helping to design carbon capture and storage for the Hunterston plan. “We remain completely committed to this project, which will help Scotland pioneer the drive towards clean coal,” he said.
RBS stressed that it recognised the reality of climate change and fully supported the transition to a low carbon economy. “We are committed to supporting customers as they address the challenges of progressively reducing their environmental impact,” said a bank spokeswoman.
A spokesman for the Treasury in London said it was be “inappropriate” to comment on ongoing legal proceedings. “The government's shareholdings in banks are managed in the best interests of the taxpayer,” he added. “This includes ensuring that the banks have strong corporate social responsibility policies.”