November 24, 2012

Councils clamour for a piece of the pie

Tim Webb | The Times | 24 November 2012

People who live near onshore wind farms are fighting cash-strapped councils that are trying to seize substantial community benefit funds paid by energy companies, The Times has learnt.

Communities in windy parts of northern England, Scotland and Wales are enjoying a bonanza, thanks to the millions of pounds in compensation they receive each year in return for living near the turbines. The cash, which is funded from consumers’ energy bills, goes towards local projects such as refurbishing community centres and restoring castles.

But with the national funding pot set to balloon to more than £1 billion over the next 25 years, councils are claiming a large slice to shore up their strained finances. They want to extend the largesse farther afield through new regional funds to be spent on projects such as repairing roads, even though they could be miles away from the wind farm providing the cash.

Rachel Searle-Mbullu, head of community investment for the Scottish Community Foundation, which liaises between energy companies, communities and councils, said: “There is fear in some communities that this golden opportunity is going to be snatched away from them because the public purse is so strained. Distribution models shouldn’t be imposed on communities, which is what is starting to happen in some cases.”;

Relations between local communities and councils are particularly fractious in the Highlands of Scotland, an area of 30,000 sq km where more than a tenth of the UK’s onshore wind farms are located.

Infinergy, a renewables developer, has submitted a proposal for a 17-turbine project at Tom nan Clach, near the Dava Moor beauty spot. Its community benefit fund would provide £4.9 million over the project’s 25-year lifespan, potentially including the restoration costs of the nearby Lochindorb Castle. But the Highland Council wants nearly half the cash of all such funds to be spent regionally.

Drew Millar, a councillor, said: “The way things are going, the amount of money wind farms are paying, communities will have so much money they won’t know what to do with it. But other areas are missing out. It’s a fair way of distributing the wealth and funding everywhere is becoming tight.”;

The local residents are arguing with the council, saying that, because they have to put up with the disruption caused by the construction and operation of the wind farms, they should keep all the money.

Vivian Roden, chairman of Strathdearn Community Council, said: “We are rebelling and saying no.” She said that if all seven affected communities and Infinergy agreed, none of the cash would go to the Highland Council.

Energy companies are not obliged to pay community benefits, which began as a gesture of goodwill. Payments of £1,000 per megawatt installed were typical in Britain for the earliest wind farms. Last year SSE, a leading developer, paid £5,000 per MW, with half going to local communities and half to regional funds, and this has become the norm.

The Scottish government is compiling a database of existing funds, and those registered so far are paying about £2.3 million a year. SSE estimates that its payments will total £240 million over the next 25 years.

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