People living near the site of a contentious wind-farm proposal in Caithness are to be given a chance to have their say on the development.
The postal ballot is being held to enable Watten Community Council to confirm its stance on the £83 million venture to the east of Spittal Hill.
The Scottish Executive will have the final say on whether to give planning approval to the 30-turbine scheme. But the community council is being consulted and it will be viewed as a sounding board of local opinion on the development.
Rank-and-file members this week successfully challenged their chairman Jim Macdonald’s opposition to a ballot. Meanwhile, further discussions which had begun with the prospective developers about potential community spin-offs from the wind farm have been shelved.
The outcome of Monday evening’s community council meeting in the village hall was welcomed by recently-installed secretary Anne Alexander. She said the controversy had caused deep divisions in the community.
Supporting the ballot, she said: “It has got to be done, or at every meeting we’re going to be at each other’s throats. I’ve just got onto the community council and it’s been a real eye-opener how this issue is tearing the community apart. We really need to find out how the parish feels about it.”
Community councillor Ruth Sutherland said a ballot would enable the community council to represent local views properly.
Mr Macdonald had earlier queried the minute of the community council’s discussion of the wind-farm proposal at its May meeting. He claimed it should have indicated that members had agreed to adopt a “neutral” stance on the development. “That was proposed by me and no-one said anything to contradict it,” he said.
Ms Sutherland was among a number to take issue with him. She said: “I don’t think any agreement was reached at the meeting.”
Mr Macdonald later revealed that, after seeking legal advice on the issue, he was restricted in what he could say. “The advice I was given was not to say anything at all, and if you want to discuss this I’m willing to leave the room,” he said.
However, Mr Macdonald chose to remain in the chair during the subsequent debate.
Community councillor Elsie Fraser maintained that a ballot was the best way of gauging local opinion on the wind farm. “People then couldn’t say they weren’t consulted. Whatever the result of it, that would be the fairest way.”
She asked Mr Macdonald: “Would you not like to know what the people’s views are?”
Mr Macdonald replied: “Obviously, we feel we do. We live in the community and we speak to people. We’re speaking to people all the time.”
Mr Macdonald said they must always bear in mind that the community council cannot decide whether the development goes ahead or not.
“We could have a wind farm and get very little community benefit out of it,” he warned. “I think the community council should maximise the benefits the community get from it if it is to go ahead.”
Community councillor John Swanson felt that the ballot paper should include an indication of how much benefit the community stood to gain from the development.
That, according to Ms Sutherland, would amount to “blackmail”.
Mr Swanson persisted: “It’s going to the Scottish Executive and they will decide that it should go ahead. We would be wasting our time fighting it, and it would mean the community of Watten losing out on a lot of money.”
Mr Swanson, who farms at Bylbster, has been criticised for not declaring a family interest in croftland near Dunn, on which one of the turbines is due to go.
Ms Sutherland said: “We have to respect that people in the community feel strongly about this and we must do our best to represent their views.”
The Highland Council’s newly-appointed Caithness ward manager, David Sutherland, made it clear that community councils have a fairly free hand in how they come to their views on particular planning applications. He said codes of practice and guidelines are not mandatory.
“Community councils can come to any decision they see fit through their meetings and through their consultations with the people in their area,” Mr Sutherland explained. “There are no hard and fast ways of engaging with the community.”
Mr Sutherland offered his department’s help in balloting the 600 or so electors in Watten parish.
As previously reported, Spittal Windfarm Opposition Group has asked the Highland Council to investigate alleged flouting of planning guidelines in the community council’s handling of the wind-farm proposal.
By Iain Grant
13 June 2007
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