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Turbine firm in Elsdon ‘bribery’ claims

A wind farm developer has caused outrage in Northumberland amid claims it offered villagers financial incentives not to object.

Air Farmers Ltd told people living at Elsdon it would make hundreds of thousands of pounds available to the community if it did not raise objections to its turbine plans for the village.

The offer was last night condemned by the MP who covers Elsdon, who branded it “unacceptable” conduct, as well as by villagers.

The offer was made at a meeting of Elsdon Parish Council at which Bob Morgan, planning consultant for the company, attended to give details of the scheme.

Air Farmers propose to erect nine 125m turbines at Middle Hill, close to the Grade II-listed Winter’s Gibbet historic landmark and beside the boundary of the Northumberland National Park.

Mr Morgan told the meeting, attended by scores of local residents, that the company had set around £400,000 aside to fight a public inquiry in the event that the application is rejected but 50% of that figure would be given to the community if it does not object to the application.

The offer is separate to the community fund of £54,000 per year which Air Farmers has vowed to set up should its scheme be approved, apparently doubled from its initial figure of £27,000.

Several angry residents raised the offer with Berwick Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith at his surgery in the community.

In a letter to the parish council, the MP says he is “concerned” at the company’s move, and adds: “I regard this as an unacceptable form of conduct from the developer.”

Last night, Sir Alan told The Journal: “There is a huge difference between community benefit going to a village which is affected by a development and a benefit which is made conditional on a village not opposing something because what that does do is influence people not to exercise their democratic rights.

“It is the first time I have come across it in my constituency. I just regard it as an unacceptable way to conduct these things.”

Keith Maddison, chairman of the Parish Council, said villagers would be “concerned and probably a bit shocked” by the offer.

The move would “probably have the opposite effect” to its intention of preventing objections, he added, in that it might make people more likely to oppose the application.

Coun Maddison said: “It is unusual to get anything like that and I am a bit uncomfortable with it really.”

Prof Stephen Foti, interim chairman of the Middle Hill Action Group, set up to fight the scheme, added: “Isn’t this trying to thwart democracy because it would cause people not to make a decision based on principals but on potential money to be received?”

The Journal contacted Air Farmers Ltd to clarify villagers’ claims but the company failed to respond.

The action group, meanwhile, has the backing of the Duke of Northumberland and North East TV presenter and author John Grundy, who signed its petition.

It is holding a public meeting in the village on November 16 to allow discussion of the proposal.

Air Farmers Ltd is also behind plans for 16 125m turbines at Middleton Burn, Belford. The Middleton Burn Action Group has been set up to fight that project. The developer has offered Belford an annual community fund of £48,000 if the proposal gets the go-ahead, the equivalent of £1.2m over 25 years.

At a recent public exhibition, one villager called the fund a “bribe” while another said the figure was too low.