Hundreds of thousands of pounds promised to communities as a recompense for living in the shadow of Sutherland’s only operational wind farm have yet to be paid, it emerged this week.
The £25 million Beinn Tharsuinn wind farm, straddling the Sutherland/Easter Ross border, came on stream two years ago, but local people have yet to see a penny of the community benefit pledged.
Groups whose applications for wind farm funding were approved in writing some time ago have had to put an estimated 80 projects on hold ““ or stump up the cash themselves.
Now angry community councillors have turned their fire on the Highland Council who negotiated the community benefit agreement with wind farm developer CRE Energy, a subsidiary of Scottish Power.
Creich Community Council chairman Monica Mouat has called on council officials to apologise to local groups whose projects have been held up.
Mrs Mouat this week described the issue as a “total mess” and said her community council were embarrassed at their role in recommending applications for funding which had not yet materialised.
She revealed she had written to North Highland area manager Ian Hargrave to inform him that the Creich council would not consider any further funding applications until the first tranche of money had been paid out.
A spokesman for the Highland Council claimed this week the delay was down to legal technicalities. He pointed out that a company limited by guarantee had just been set up to disburse the money, which it was hoped would be forthcoming shortly.
The 17-turbine wind farm, sited next to the Dornoch Firth National Scenic Area, controversially got the go-ahead in mid August 2004. The then Sutherland area manager, Graeme McLaughlin, took control of negotiations over community benefit. It is understood that the developers did not want to deal directly with community councils.
According to the minutes of the council’s sustainable development select committee, Mr McLaughlan concluded an agreement with CRE Energy as far back as September 2004.
The deal he negotiated secured a payment totalling around £58,000 a year ““ representing £2000 per megawatt of the wind farm capacity. In addition a bonus payment was agreed, linked to the productivity of the wind farm.
The minutes state that preparations were under way to establish a company limited by guarantee to distribute the funds, beginning September 2006.
The payment would be split in a complicated percentage arrangement between the 10 community councils within a 15 kilometre radius of the wind farm. The communities involved were Alness; Ardgay and District; Ardross; Creich; Dornoch; Edderton; Invergordon; Kilmuir/Easter Logie; Kiltearn and Tain.
Groups in these area were invited over six months ago to make funding applications which were then sent to Graeme McLaughlin who distributed them to the relevant community councils for recommendations. He then informed in writing those groups whose bids had been accepted.
But the first meeting of the Beinn Tharsuinn Windfarm Community Limited ““ the body which will disburse the money ““ only took place in Ardgay Village Hall three weeks ago, on Wednesday 9th May.
Company secretary is former Sutherland area economic development manager Phil Tomalin, who secured the post of ward manager under local government reorganisation.
He said this week: “I am a newcomer to this but I think the main hold-up has been to do with the legal paperwork tying up the arrangement with the company limited by guarantee and the energy provider. The original agreement was between the energy company and a community trust, but we ended up with a community company limited by guarantee.
“I accept that people are impatient and frustrated because they’ve got ideas they want to get going with. I understand the urgency and we are following it up. I am hoping the money will come through as soon as possible, but I hesitate to say when that will be because I do not want to be held to ransom. But there is no reason for it not to come through imminently.”
Ardgay and District Community Council chairwoman Liz Cormack has been appointed chair of the community body’s board of directors, which is made up of representatives from the various community councils.
Mrs Cormack said: “I am concerned that there is no money through yet and it does seem to have taken an awfully long time, but these things don’t happen overnight. I signed all the legal documents at the meeting we had, and I though I would give it six weeks for the money to come through. We are now three weeks into that time period.
“They cannot go back on their word now. It is not going to fall through. Once the first tranche of funding comes through I think it will be plain sailing from then on.”
Highland councillor for the Cromarty Firth area, Carolyn Wilson, is also a Beinn Tharsuinn community company director. She said she was particularly disappointed that a £5000 one-off payment promised to Alness, Ardross and Edderton Community Councils, in compensation for disruption during construction work, had not yet been paid.
“There has been a significant amount of co-operation on the part of the communities in the surrounding area, and in that spirit of co-operation it is only right and proper that Scottish Power make sure that the money is dispersed to the community,” she said.
Recently-elected Highland councillor Robbie Rowantree, who represents the North, West and Central Sutherland ward, said: “We need to apologise about the delay in this first two tranches of payment and we need to make sure that, in the future, awards are not made until the finances are ready to be delivered.”
Mr Rowantree added that he felt the formula used to calculate the community benefit in the Beinn Tharsuinn case was “arcane” and a ridiculous effort to “bend over backwards to be equitable to everyone who can see a tip of a turbine”.
“I think that the model that has been used probably was not the one that I would have preferred, but we are where we are. All I can do now as one of the councillors is to encourage a resolution of the situation as quickly as possible.”
Simon McMillan of Scottish Power said: “We are very keen to make the payments. We have now received all the documentation back to us after a delay and will make the payment by the end of June. We do this sort of thing across the country and have not had a delay like this before.”
By Caroline McMorran
1 June 2007