Rows over how to spend a multi-million pound windfall from a proposed wind farm south of Inverness are causing bitter divisions in two close-knit communities.
Local people stand to gain more than £6 million over the next 25 years if controversial plans for a 20-turbine wind farm at Moy are given the go ahead.
But The Inverness Courier has learned that a working group set up last year to discuss ideas for spending the cash in Strathnairn and Strathdearn will be disbanded next week following vitriolic exchanges and hundreds of residents balloted on whether to suspend the process.
“It’s an absolute can of worms,” said Pat Wells of the campaign group Strathdearn Against Windfarm Developments. “I think community benefit does split the community. With one or two exceptions that is the case with every single place in the Highlands where there have been wind farms. It splits friendships. It splits families.”
The dispute highlights growing doubts nationally about the policy of providing millions of pounds in benefit to people living close to wind farms, often in tiny communities which may have difficulty spending the cash. Highland Council is already looking at whether it should claim a share of community benefit payments to spend on region-wide services.
The Strathnairn and Strathdearn community benefit group was established last summer and comprises community councillors and representatives from developer Carbon Free Developments (CFD). Ironically, one aim was to prevent division by drawing up a list of major projects which would leave a lasting legacy rather than providing non-specific cash payments which CFD said often tore communities apart.
But matters came to a head earlier this month when some Strathnairn residents raised concerns about the process. The group’s chairman, Richard Cooling acknowledges that discussions became “quite confrontational”. Consequently, the group plans to hold its final meeting in the next week and await the outcome of the referendum.
“I am disappointed people have taken so long to raise these concerns and bring them to the fore,” Mr Cooling said.
He explained the crux of the disagreement was whether the group should consider how to spend the cash before planning permission was granted for the wind farm.
Some people felt this gave the impression that approval was a “done deal” and prejudged the planning decision.
Others argued that discussing options at this stage gave more leverage over the developers, that some projects took a long time to develop and that it was normal practice to discuss community benefits before the application was submitted.
Vivian Roden, chairman of Strathdearn Community Council, was reluctant to talk of a split, although she agreed that wind farms could cause “tensions”.
Several more residents declined to comment or even acknowledge their membership of the working group.
A statement from Strathnairn Community Council said: “Strathnairn Community Council seeks to ensure the best outcomes for the population of Strathnairn through an on-going dialogue with all those involved in developing ideas for community benefit, securing the best community benefit and taking the views of the community on planning matters to the authorities.”
Dominic Farrugia, CFD’s managing director said the company intended the Moy wind farm community benefit to contribute to a sustainable rural economy.
“Our approach has been to ensure that decision-making in respect of the use of community benefit is transparent and that objectives for the use of community benefit are set by the community as a whole,” he said.