A bitter dispute that has split a Ross-shire community took a fresh twist this week with a furious local group lamenting “the death of democracy” over a contentious £41million wind farm.
The jibe from Garve and District Community Council comes at an embarrassing time for Highland Council which last month saw councillors overturn the authority’s own guidelines by approving the Lochluichart scheme tabled by joint venture company, Infinergy Ltd.
With Ross-shire’s grass roots community councils expected to serve as a true sounding board of local feeling in the much larger new Highland Council wards that came into being this week, the latest twist throws up a major questionmark over just how much power they really have.
In an open letter, Garve and District Community Council slam the “injustice” it believes perpetrated by Highland Council’s planning committee when it last month approved further revamped plans at a heated meeting in controversial circumstances.
Opponents of the scheme say it’s simply a ruse to access millions of pounds of renewable energy subsidies and that it despoils an area of natural beauty on which its key tourism trade depends.
The community council is particularly aggrieved that, despite holding two ballots of local opinion ““ the second mired in threats of legal action ““ it’s views opposing the development have effectively been ignored, a claim denied yesterday by the outgoing Highland Councillor representing the area.
Claiming that discussion of the issue at a special meeting in Garve was “full of contradictions” and that the planning committee “went on to ignore the voice of the community”, the letter points to public meetings and ballots which saw people living in the area set to be affected by the scheme decisively rejecting the proposals.
It also casts into question the fact that the planning department allowed a last-minute revision of the scheme, reducing the wind farm to a 17-turbine proposal, to be considered at the meeting, without giving the local community an opportunity to make representations.
Claiming that the evidence “points towards the cash vote” and that Lochluichart Estate “will reap millions from the development via company connections”, the letter says it is people living and working in the area who stand to lose out.
Lochluichart Estate, whose owner Hamish Leslie Melville is a former chairman of the National Trust for Scotland, had not returned calls seeking comment as we went to press this week.
A spokesman for Infinergy Ltd, a joint venture company owned by Savills and Koop Duurzame Energie (KDE) of the Netherlands, said the application had been dealt with democratically and pointed to the support of locals he said had been expressed at a two-day exhibition of the initial proposals at Garve.
He also said that the Scottish Executive – which now has the final say over the proposals ““ had received nearly 5,000 letters of support for the scheme, compared to only half that number of objections. He further claimed that almost 1,500 of those letters of support were from an area within 40km of Lochluichart, compared to 149 in opposition. The Journal was not able to confirm those figures as we went to press.
He said, “We believe members of the planning committee considered all the arguments and reached a well-considered and democratic decision.”
Asked for clarification about the revised 17-turbine scheme, he said Infinergy will do as asked by the planning committee and submit a further amendment to the scheme.
He said he wasn’t able to give an exact figure for the proposed community fund – at Highland Council’s request – but confirmed a figure of £132,000 per annum over the anticipated 25-year life of the scheme had previously been agreed. That would amount to over £3million over the lifespan of the scheme. Further detailed discussions had still to be held with Highland Council, he said.
The amended scheme, it is claimed, would provide the equivalent average electricity consumption of 28,500 households.
Contacted for comment yesterday, outgoing Highland Councillor Ewen Mackinnon, whose former Lochcarron ward takes in the proposed scheme, confirmed he had backed a proposal to object to the scheme, based on the findings of the local community.
But he denied the decision reached had been undemocratic. “The views of the community were taken into account. It was done in as objective a way as possible as far as I am concerned. The decision of the committee didn’t accord with the community council but that is often the case. That is democracy.
“I didn’t get the decision I wanted to get for the community but that is sometimes how democracy works. It has gone through the local authority process and has still to go to the Scottish Executive.”
11 May 2007
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