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Highland wind farm community benefit divvy-up in spotlight

The construction phase of new wind farms in the Highlands will no longer be a factor when potentially lucrative rewards for communities are calculated.

Energy companies are encouraged by Highland Council to pay money into a community benefit fund when they construct major schemes.

The policy was only introduced by the local authority last year and the cash, which can amount to thousands of pounds, can be directed to communities for key local project or new facilities.

But councillors have now backed a move to axe the disruption or inconvenience caused by the “construction impact” as one of the factors used to work out which communities will benefit from the money.

It had been one of four different cash allocation factors, including the community’s proximity to the wind farm site, the visual impact and the number of households in the particular area.

The move, endorsed by the authority’s community safety committee in Inverness, was prompted following public feedback.

William Gilfillan, the council’s corporate manager, said “well-attended” community benefit workshops in Inverness, Wick, Lairg and Fort William last year saw participants question why the construction phase should be used.

“This issue came up quite strongly with communities,” he said.

“They were saying, ‘Why do we have it there? Why don’t we have it when we are constructing our schools, hospitals or care homes?’ The communities said we should concentrate more on the other factors.”

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

The cash is divvied up and awarded to the immediate and surrounding communities affected by major renewable developments and also directed towards a pan-Highland fund.

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

The recommendation to scrap the construction impact factor will be ultimately decided by the full council in May.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that offshore wind farm developers have so far refused to commit any cash to communities affected by their plans.

Committee chairman Drew Millar asked what efforts were being undertaken to persuade the developers behind huge offshore wind farms to direct cash to communities affected.

Councillor Millar said it had been brought into focus after the authority backed Moray Offshore Renewables Ltd offshore wind farm proposal in the Outer Moray Firth earlier this week.

Consent for up to 339 turbines across three offshore wind farms, located 13.5 miles from the Caithness coast, could be granted by the Scottish Government later this year and construction is scheduled start in early 2015.

Mr Gilfillan said companies behind offshore developments were reluctant to commit cash, claiming they were operating in an embryonic industry.

“At the moment developers are very reluctant to move on community benefit – very reluctant,” he said.

“The reason being is that they say this is still a developing industry, personally I feel it is the same [as onshore wind farms].”

But Mr Gilfillan said discussions with an unnamed developer connected with the Pentland Firth tidal energy proposals about community benefit were at an “advanced stage” but could not provide more details at this stage.