A senior Highland Council executive is being asked to probe claims that a Caithness community council has flouted planning guidelines in its handling of a wind-farm proposal.
According to a protest group, Watten Community Council has failed to gauge local opinion and has entered into improper negotiations with the would-be developer of the 30 turbines earmarked for Spittal Hill.
Spittal Windfarm Opposition Group (SWOG) also accuses community councillor John Swanson of breaching guidelines by failing to declare a financial interest in the development.
The 300-member group wants the council’s chief executive designate, Alistair Dodds, to investigate.
The move is the latest twist in the controversy which has created deep divisions within the community.
Community council chairman Jim Macdonald insists it has done nothing wrong and defends its right to explore the potential spin-offs the community could gain from the operation of the turbines. Its adopted stance is neutral ““ neither to object nor to support the development.
SWOG believes Mr Macdonald has been remiss in not making efforts to secure an objective assessment of the views of local people. This, it believes, could have been done by a survey or by holding an open meeting.
The group also takes him to task for having “private” meetings with Westfield farmer Tom Pottinger, whose family firm is spearheading the turbine development.
SWOG secretary Diane Craven said: “The Highland Council’s guidelines state that community councillors should ‘avoid taking part in discussions with applicants… except where they are part of a structured arrangement with planning officials’.”
Mrs Craven said the community council took a similar stance with the wind farm proposed at Flex Hill without properly consulting the public.
She said: “In all community council meetings that we have attended, Mr Macdonald has openly promoted development of the wind farm and has dismissed any comments contrary to his own views.”
In her letter to Mr Dodds, she questions the position of Mr Swanson, whose son Liam and daughter Morag own croftland near Dunn, where one of the turbines is planned. Mrs Craven said guidelines state clearly that councillors should declare interests before relevant items of business are transacted.
She said: “At a minimum, councillors should not speak or vote on any item where they have a declared interest, whether financial or merely by association. For interests of a financial nature, councillors should leave the meeting room during discussion.”
She also rejects Mr Macdonald’s claims that three members of the community council put themselves up purely to advance their own anti-wind-farm views. “We do not believe this to be true,” she declared. “All three were democratically elected and all are from rural areas of Watten parish, which will suffer significant impact from the wind farm.
“If they are taking an anti-wind-farm stance, it is reasonable to conclude that they represent the views of their constituents rather than their own.”
Mr Macdonald maintained yesterday that the community council’s stance does reflect local opinion on the issue. He questioned the value of carrying out a local survey.
“You can get the answer you want if you ask the right question,” he said. “If, for instance, you ask whether people are against the community getting benefit if the wind farm goes ahead you’d get a different response to asking whether people liked the idea of the windmills.”
Mr Macdonald went on: “Without going to great lengths or expense, I’m happy the position advanced by the community council is in line with local opinion.”
He said none of the anti-wind-farm lobby on the community council had suggested conducting a survey or holding a special meeting.
Mr Macdonald acknowledged that Mr Swanson had not declared an interest but said he had not spoken during the discussion. “There was agreement without opposition that we took a neutral stance on the wind farm,” he said.
He revealed that the community council has sought advice from Highland Council officials in the negotiations it has been having with the developer. And he said they had not been held in private. “Mr Pottinger has been invited to come along to community council meetings, as has SWOG.”
So far, there have been 890 objections to the Spittal Hill development and 10 letters. The planning application will be determined by the Scottish Executive.
By Iain Grant
8 June 2007
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