Community representatives in west Caithness have refused to rethink their opposition to a wind farm planned for Stempster.
They deny they are out of step with local opinion and insist their stance would not preclude them seeking to maximise community benefits from the development were it to get the go-ahead.
The chairman of Caithness West Community Council, Bill Brown, spoke out in response to a claim that the body was acting against the wishes of a “silent majority” in the area.
Mr Brown maintains that the community council cannot get involved in the potential community spin-offs from the 21-turbine scheme when it has lodged an objection to the planning application.
Baillie Wind Farm Ltd is seeking the go-ahead to erect the turbines on ground at Stempster Hill and Bardnaheigh Hill.
Local farmer Tom Pottinger gave an update on the venture at the community council’s meeting in Lieurary Hall on Thursday. After he left, the community council opted not to reconsider its stance despite a plea from James Manson.
Mr Manson, Forss Hall committee’s representative, chairs West Caithness Community Fund (WCCF), a company limited by guarantee set up to channel income from wind-farm companies into community projects. It is close to finalising an agreement with the owners of the four new turbines that have just gone up at Forss and has already had preliminary talks with Mr Pottinger.
Mr Manson said: “It seems to me that the community council doesn’t want to benefit the community.”
Mr Brown responded: “It’s quite clear to me that we do represent the views of the community.”
Mr Manson hit back: “Do you really? Quite a few people in the community have thanked us for setting up the community fund. They say the community council doesn’t represent them and question why it doesn’t seem to do anything to ensure the community benefits.
“I don’t see why the community council is opposing the development, as the community could miss out. The community benefit will only happen if there’s a wind farm.”
Mr Brown said the community council had objected to reflect the views expressed at public meetings held on the issue. “We’ve held public meetings and have judged the views of the community, and these views are that they don’t want it – we have to reflect that,” he said.
He added: “We don’t want to discuss community benefit in advance of the planning application being determined, as that would put us in the position of approving the wind farm. We have put the community benefit to one side while we dealt with the wind farm.”
Mr Brown said this has been wrongly interpreted as it being against community benefit. “We need to separate the money from the wind farm – but, if the wind farm does come here, we’d want to maximise the amount of benefit it brings to the community,” he added.
The treasurer, Derrick Milnes, said the two issues needed to be kept apart if the community council’s opposition to the scheme was not to be compromised. He said: “If you start discussing community benefit, it causes you major problems in opposing the proposal.”
Community councillor Rhona Manson agreed, saying: “It’s really like a large carrot on a stick. It’s at the back of people’s minds all the time.”
Fellow member George Carson defended the community council’s stance. “The community council is against the wind farm but it supports the group trying to get the funding,” he said.
Mr Manson persisted in his claim that the community council had misjudged local opinion. He said: “There’s a silent majority who are in favour but who don’t want to stick their heads above the parapet.”
Mr Milnes commented that the community council cannot represent people if they do not make their views known.
David Sutherland, the Highland Council’s local ward manager, said the community council could only do its best to gauge public feeling. He told the meeting: “Whatever decision you take, you are not going to keep everybody happy.”
Mr Sutherland said the local authority keeps any discussions about community benefit separate from the planning process.
Community councillor Anne Chard noted that wind-farm developments were causing ructions throughout rural Caithness. She said: “Every single community has been ripped apart over this – it’s terrible.”
Earlier, Mr Pottinger had said his family-run firm was committed to optimising the community spin-offs. According to the firm’s website, the total could run to over £100,000 a year.
Talks with WCCF have included an option of a community share in the development. He said: “If that can be done with a minimal amount of hassle, that would be the most welcome route if it yielded the most money to the community.”
Mr Pottinger explained that this option is more tax-efficient if it is activated in advance of the development. He added: “We’ve had a couple of meetings with WCCF and have made it clear to them that we’re very serious about what we are offering to the community.
“Times change and the community council may want to reconsider its position in light of the efforts we’re making towards helping the financial well-being of the community.”
Mr Pottinger revealed that he is looking into setting up a trust with charitable status which would distribute community dividends from turbine ventures in Caithness on a county-wide basis. He believes this common good fund would prevent local bickering over pay-outs and help bankroll large schemes that would benefit all of the county.
Mr Pottinger said he was confident the four-year groundwork undertaken had left the Baillie scheme well placed to go ahead.
On public feedback, Mrs Manson believed the make-up of the questionnaire circulated in the area was slanted in favour of the scheme. That was denied by Mr Pottinger, who said the nine per cent response rate led the company to commission a telephone survey of 156 people living within 10 kilometres of the development.
Mr Pottinger said the feedback to the latter survey was generally “positive” towards his venture and wind farms in general. Asked for their views on the Baillie scheme, 44 per cent approved; 30 per cent were against; and 25 per cent were neutral. The application is expected to go before the Highland Council before the end of the year, though the final decision is to be taken by the Scottish Executive.
By Iain Grant
18 July 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding