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Community benefit or company bribe? Council agrees renewables cashback policy

A new council policy which urges developers behind multi-million-pound schemes, including wind farms, to pay money into a community pot has been likened to a bribe by a Highland councillor.

Highland Council wants companies behind major renewable developments to voluntarily stump up cash into a fund to compensate local residents for the disruption and inconvenience caused.

The cash, which could amount to thousands of pounds, would be divvied up and awarded to the immediate and surrounding communities and also directed towards a pan-Highland fund.

However, during a discussion of the new policy in Inverness recently Councillor David Henderson (Inverness Ness-side), who is a long-term critic and opponent of wind farms, claimed it could be viewed as a potential bribe from the developers to curry favour with local residents.

“I consider the community benefits, to use the euphemism as incentives, one might say bribes, by very profitable companies to local communities to go easy on their opposition to planning permission,” he said.

“I regard it therefore as tainted money.”

Councillor Henderson, a member of a working group which helped shape the policy, also claimed the local authority would be compromised because it would promote community benefit and said the public would agree with him.

However, Councillor Ian Ross, the chairman of the local authority’s planning, environment and development committee, disagreed and said he “utterly rejected” Councillor Henderson’s views.

Councillor Ross (East Sutherland and Edderton) added the work of planning officials would be kept completely separate from community benefit discussions and would have absolutely no bearing on applications.

Meanwhile, council leader Michael Foxley was delighted about the emergence of the policy and said it had been almost 20 years since the local authority had first discussed introducing a community benefit fund.

He said companies had done very well out of the Highlands over the years but given nothing back to the local communities.

“For too long and too often, outside interests have come in, they develop the resource, they exploit and benefit and then leave nothing behind,” said Councillor Foxley (Fort William and Ardnamurchan).

“They leave no jobs and no income. This is about the community benefitting so they get something. At the moment we have no say in the management and no say in the benefit – this is a change to that.”

Councillor Foxley added several organisations including Forestry Commission Scotland and energy company SSE had already indicated their backing for community benefit.

A community benefit conference will be held at the council’s headquarters in February and formally launch the policy.

The following month several public workshops will be hosted in Inverness, Wick, Lairg and Fort William in March to explain the community benefit.

The council can promote the new fund but developers are not legally obliged to donate and there are no enforcement powers.

Developers will be asked to pay a minimum of £5,000 per megawatt of generation capacity per year.

However, Wick Councillor Graeme Smith said he was “very suspicious” about community benefit and would prefer a policy which had legal powers instead of a voluntary agreement.

“It would regularise things,” said Councillor Smith, who added the policy’s success would depend on the participation of communities and developers.