A Mexican wave of raised eyebrows was performed by members of Golspie Community Council and the public on Monday night, as they listened to local representative Ian Ross explain the Highland Council’s wind farm benefit proposals.
Amid continuing concern, a high degree of scepticism energised the room as they were told of the local authority’s decision to divert some of the community benefit into a pan-Highland pot.
Community council chairman, Iain Miller, told Mr Ross: “I have to say there is much disquiet about the Highland Council getting involved in wind farm community benefit. Many people are asking what it has to do with the Highland Council?”
Said Mr Ross: “This is nothing new. The Highland Council has been involved for a few years now and I was involved at the very beginning. What we want to do now is move things on a bit.”
As reported previously in the NT, the Highland Council have decided that any benefit offered by a developer would be split, with the first £100,000 going to the communities directly affected, and of the remainder, 55 per cent would go to the same community, 30 per cent to the rest of Sutherland and 15 per cent to a pan Highland “pot”.
They were also hoping to increase developers’ benefit commitment from an average £2500 per Mw per year to £5000.
However, no community would be obliged to opt-in to the Highland Council scheme.
From the audience, Jim Sutherland said: “There is indeed much disquiet about the Highland Council getting any percentage at all. We all know what will happen – the money will go straight over the Kessock Bridge and there it will remain.”
Mr Ross replied: “That will not be the case. The money could be bid for by any group across the Highlands and may be just what is needed to kick-start a project. For instance, somewhere like Embo, which gets no wind farm benefit – and no longer gets Common Good Fund money – could apply to assist a project in the village.
“What this is doing as well is trying to prevent what the Scottish Government is proposing which is a pan-Scotland fund.”
Said Mr Sutherland: “I can see the money going to prop up something like the Scottish Housing Expo in Inverness which made a huge loss last year. The Highland Council have poured hundreds of thousands into it.”
Also from the floor, John Ford asked: “I am wondering who is going to administer this? If Highland Council do so, then they will charge an administration fee.”
Explained Mr Ross: “Any scheme which has an outside administrator involves an administration fee but it is usually paid by the developer.”
Community councillor Campbell Port said: “I think all the money should stay locally. Take something like the huge wind farm development that is going to happen on Lewis – why should they not keep all that money for the massive disruption it will cause.”
“Lewis does not fall under the Highland Council,” said Mr Ross. “No,” said Campbell Port, “but it would fall under any pan-Scotland scheme.”
Community councillor Allan Barclay agreed that all the money should remain in the affected community. “I think every community would say the same. Otherwise we all know it will end up mainly in Inverness,” he said.
And he continued: “You say you are keeping it pan-Highland to prevent it going pan-Scotland. Well, we want to keep it local to stop it going pan-Highland!
“If any application came in from east Sutherland to the pan-Highland pot, they will say ‘well they have enough wind farm benefit, we won’t give anything to them’. It will inevitably go to the Inverness area.
“I think it is different with off-shore benefit which will encompass a much wider area.”
After the meeting, Ian Ross told the Northern Times: “The Highland Council wants to ensure the communities of the Highlands gain long term and substantial benefit from renewable energy generation and community benefit is an important part of this.
“We want to increase the level of community benefit payment and ensure the new and developing area of off-shore renewables is clearly included. The Locality and Regional fund provision would mean all of the communities of the Highlands could potentially gain in some way from community benefits and it would not be a case of ‘haves and have-nots’ – which has existed in the past, with both past community benefit and the historical common good funds.
“This is about being fair and inclusive, but ensuring the communities most affected get by far the lion share of the community benefit. The Highland Council cannot impose its community benefit policy, but it can encourage and promote it.
“The money will not come to the Council and any funds will be administered by a body yet to be agreed – it could be an existing organisation such as Highland Opportunity Ltd or the Scottish Communities Foundation or an entirely new organisation.
“The regional and locality funds – Sutherland as a whole would be a locality – would be able to support such areas as community projects, community ownership, fuel poverty initiatives and embryonic social enterprise projects. This is about supporting our communities and creating opportunities.”