Issues surrounding wind-farm proposals for north Sutherland – in particular the prospect of community benefit – were aired at a meeting in Strathy Hall this week.
It had been requested by members of Strathy Community Council as they found themselves in an invidious position given that two major wind-farm developments were proposed for their area while a groundswell of opinion was building up locally against such schemes.
The meeting was chaired by Ian Hargrave, the Highland Council’s Wick-based corporate manager for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who was accompanied by Andy Mackay, the North, West and Central Sutherland ward manager.
In attendance along with community councillors and interested individuals from other parts of the North Coast were the three Highland Council members for North, West and Central Sutherland – George Farlow, Linda Munro and Robbie Rowantree.
Mr Hargrave stressed that while the Strathy community may be considering opposition on planning grounds Monday’s meeting could not concern itself with that as the councillors present were bound by a strict code of conduct which expressly forbade them to form or solicit an opinion on any planning matter before it came to committee and all relevant information was available.
Apart from short-term jobs in the construction phase, wind farms conferred very little employment benefit to the areas in which they were situated during their operational phase and it had become the practice for developers to offer some form of community benefit, usually in the form of a local trust fund, to communities affected by these enterprises.
The Highland Council’s policy was to argue for as high a level of community benefit as could be negotiated and, though its target figure of £5000 per megawatt per year had not yet been reached, current wind-farm developments were offering around £2000 per megawatt per year, which was double what had sometimes been on offer in the early years of these projects.
The proposal for the Strathy area was for two wind farms – one of 80 MW installed capacity and the other of 170. At the going rate of £2000 per year per megawatt, this could amount to a community benefit of up to half a million pounds a year.
However, a number of restrictions would apply on the uses to which such money could be put. It could not be used, for example, to finance services which it was the duty of local or national government to provide, nor could it be used to fund activities that would be against the interests of the wind-farm developers.
Also, wind farms had an extraordinarily long development lead-in time and, even if all went according to plan, the Strathy farms would be unlikely to be operational until perhaps 2014, which meant that any potential benefit was a long way in the future.
Others at the meeting expressed distaste for the profit element entailed and felt that, while the developers’ hand-out may seem generous, it would represent a fraction of the generation income and was merely a sweetener intended to ensure that the enormous change to the appearance of the area – and possible restriction on its future potential for other, less obtrusive, projects – would pass by without too much fuss from the locals.
While that might be so, it was pointed out that the planning process had a pyramidal structure in which real power lay at the top and that, if the Scottish and Westminster governments decided that the northern Highlands – because of their open landscapes, high wind speeds and low density of population – was the best place to situate this source of non-fossil fuel energy then that was where the wind farms would go, no matter what local people thought.
If opposition to wind-farming was the community’s wish then they should certainly resist but, while they may hope for the best and that their pleas will be listened to, they should prepare for the worst by negotiating the maximum possible in community benefit if the opportunity affords itself.
Strathy community councillors felt that they might lose the confidence of their own community by negotiating benefit as, merely by taking part, they might, to the developer, seem to be acquiescing – but the firm view of the councillors was that there was no conflict between resistance and negotiation.
Concern was also expressed over the high legal costs that could be incurred in engaging with high-powered companies. But assurances were given that support for this would be forthcoming and, in particular, that an “arm’s length” trust, set up at the expense of the developers, would administer community benefit at no cost to the communities involved.
Finally, there was some discussion about what “community” actually meant and how the extent of a community might be determined. There was considerable potential for divisiveness in these developments as adjacent communities could find themselves at odds if one had access to the “pot of gold” while the next did not because an accident of history placed them on opposite sides of the same windy hill. However, councillors felt that it should be possible to find an equitable way to determine the extent of “community” – perhaps through a combination of community of locality and community of interest – and that the communities affected would be able to find a way round this thorny question.
Finally, Mr Hargrave undertook to find out what the Strathy developers’ proposed community development scheme consisted of and urged the community council, and other interested parties, to look closely at this when it became available.
2 November 2007
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