The Assynt Foundation’s claim that it has a mandate from the community to proceed to the next stage of its small-scale wind farm proposal has been challenged by local businesspeople.
Three Lochinver shopkeepers this week accused the Foundation of failing to ensure that all local people were adequately informed about the proposal and also criticised the way a public meeting in Lochinver Village Hall last week to discuss the issue was conducted.
Foundation chairman Claire Belshaw said after the meeting that the majority of those present were in favour of pressing on with the scheme, although one or two spoke against it on the grounds of its impact on the landscape. This week she wrote to the NT to “clarify” her remarks.
The Assynt Foundation, who in 2005 led a £2.9 million community buy-out of the Glencanisp and Drumrunie estates, are proposing a development of up to six wind turbines as part of their plans to regenerate the local economy and combat climate change. As presently proposed, they would be located in a National Scenic Area within sight of Suilven and Canisp – two iconic mountains in what is widely regarded as one of the finest landscapes in Western Europe.
Mark Campbell, who runs outdoor clothing and accessories store Assynt Advenutures, has joined with local newsagent John Simpson and sub-postmistress Anne MacLeod in a call for a more extensive consultation exercise to be carried out.
Mr Campbell said the turnout of about 60 residents at the public meeting was low and claimed that was because the meeting was not publicised well enough and was held on the night of the Scotland v Italy football match. He also feels the method used to gauge local opinion about the wind farm plan was flawed. Those present were not balloted but were simply asked to raise their hands if they had any objections, he said.
“I was extremely disappointed that they chose to ask for community support in such a way. It would have been better if they had asked for a show of hands in support, rather than against the proposal,” said Mr Campbell. “I did challenge the Foundation member present over this, and I did get an apology and an explanation that it was nerves that had led to the question being phrased in such a way.”
Mr Campbell subsequently placed drawings of the proposed wind farm, given to him by the Assynt Foundation, in his own shop and other outlets in the village. He said he discovered, as a result, that many local people had been unaware of the proposals.
“I am very concerned that the Assynt Foundation has jumped the gun. A proper consultation exercise should be undertaken prior to any public money being spent on surveys,” he said. “This is not about being for or against wind farms. It is purely about the consultation procedure.”
He also stated that during workshop sessions held two years ago as part of a feasibility study, prior to the purchase of Glencanisp and Drumrunie estates by the Assynt Foundation, the number one item the community least wanted to see in Assynt was a wind farm.
Lochinver sub-postmistress Anne MacLeod has joined Mr Campbell in his call for more extensive consultation. She said many of her customers were not even aware of last week’s meeting. She also disputed the Foundation’s claim that the proposal had the backing of the community.
Mrs MacLeod said she personally was horrified at the prospect of wind turbines in an area of such high landscape quality. “The community has not been asked and the Foundation is going ahead on the say-so of a meeting that three-quarters of the village did not attend,” she said.
Local newsagent John Simpson said: “The wind farm proposal seems to have been presented as a fait accompli. They have said ‘this is what we are doing’. Certainly that is the general opinion of my customers. They have come in to me this week and said this is the first they have heard of the scheme.
“In the Highlands people do not want to speak out at a public meeting. They don’t want to be seen to be going against their neighbour and are reticent in coming forward to express their views. They are okay on a one-to-one basis. My own personal view is that I am against wind farms on principle. They would not be built if it were not for the subsidies.”
Former Assynt Foundation chairman Alastair MacAskill, now a director of their business arm Assynt.Biz, said in his opinion the meeting had been well advertised.
“We are only at a very early stage as far as public consultation is concerned,” he said. “Nothing is cut and dried. We are only onto the next stage as far as the feasibility is concerned.”
Mr MacAskill added: “It is just the erection of a few wind turbines. Folk are getting het up about nothing. The turbines will be slightly visible from the road about a mile or a mile and a half from Lochinver, but will not be intrusive.”
A crucial factor in the eventual outcome of the Assynt wind farm plan is likely to be the support or otherwise of the John Muir Trust ““ one of the country’s leading guardians of wild land and wildlife ““ which helped finance the community buy-out and continues to work closely with the foundation. So close is the relationship that the trust has its own representative, partnership manager Mick Blunt, on the Foundation’s board.
Trust director Nigel Hawkins told the NT yesterday (Thursday) that the group was presently taking a neutral stance on the issue.
“The trust will view its position against its own policies on wild land and renewable energy,” he said.
“If it does not fit with our policies, then we will object. Equally, if it does then we will support it. We are opposed to large-scale wind turbine development on or near to the finest areas of wild land ““ and there is no doubt the landscape in Assynt is amongst the finest in the world.
“However, we do support smaller schemes that are well sited and fit in with the landscape and benefit the community.”
Mr Hawkins revealed he and other trust officials had met members of theFoundation’s board of directors on Monday to discuss the issues. He said he had been reassured the Foundation was well aware of all the issues involved and also the need to consult the community.
“The Foundation are very keen to consult with the trust and with others as to how this can be done in the best way. There is going to be continuing discussion,” Mr Hawkins said.
“It is a tricky issue. It is quite a dilemma, but we have been reassured we will be consulted and have the opportunity to comment on the proposals and options as they come forward. We are very supportive of the Foundation in their efforts to create a secure future for the estate and to achieve important investment into the community in order to help keep young people in Lochinver and Assynt.”
by Caroline McMorran
6 April 2007
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