No one needs reminding that renewable energy projects are controversial – particularly for the communities affected. So companies that want to build a wind farm or install a solar park have a responsibility to win over the neighbours.
That means ensuring the installation meets the highest environmental standards possible, is effective at generating power and operates efficiently. It also means honouring any agreements entered into as part of the planning permission, like providing some cash support to the community to offset the inconvenience of having turbines or solar panels on the doorstep.
Many residents around the Haye Road area of Callington were sceptical when plans for a five megawatt solar farm were submitted by Sunpower. Their doubts were assuaged somewhat by the company’s pledge to give £25,000 a year to the community over 25 years – a total payment of £625,000.
Yet Sunpower was taken over by another renewable energy firm, Inazin, and they were able to successfully knock down the original promise of £625,000 to a one-off payment of just £20,000. In anyone’s book that is a pretty big discount and has understandably left a very bad taste for the people affected, some of whom expressed their outrage at a meeting of Callington Town Council this week.
It seems no laws have been broken. The original offer to pump regular sums of cash into the community, made by Sunpower, was not binding and their successors would have been free to withdraw the payment altogether. On that basis a consolation prize of £20,000 from Inazin might not seem so bad.
Yet there is a lesson here for communities and the local authorities that serve them. Callington residents were told by Cornwall Council’s legal officer Julian Kitto that payment in any such deal is entirely voluntary. “The council had no lawful basis to refuse planning consent,” he said.
In other words, the agreements made between renewable energy developers and the communities they potentially damage are not worth the paper they are written on. Companies can refuse to pay up and, if they change hands, their successors are certainly not liable for any commitments made.
That is bad news for the people of Haye Road, Callington. For the rest of us, however, it could be a very useful lesson: “Beware renewable developers bearing gifts.”
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