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A much-vaunted financial policy which urges companies behind multi-million pound developments in the Highlands, like wind farms, to pay grants to communities has been dubbed a “spectacular flop”.
Highland Council’s community benefit fund was launched amidst much fanfare in 2012 with a high-profile conference in Inverness and several public workshops across the region.
But the controversial voluntary scheme has been labelled a “white elephant” by Councillor Donnie Kerr who said developers have not paid a penny into the specific region and pan-Highland pots of the flagship fund.
At the time the then council leader Michael Foxley said the fund’s idea was first discussed 20 years ago and said it would see developers put something back into communities heavily affected by the disruption of major projects.
However, the controversial policy was likened to a bribe by critics amid warnings it could be seen as an attempt to curry favour with local residents to secure planning consent.
Developers are asked to pay a minimum of £5,000 per megawatt of generation capacity per year but there are no enforcement powers and they are not legally obliged to donate.
Companies have paid out thousands of pounds to community organisations in the local areas where new developments have been built nearby but Councillor Kerr (Inverness Central) said it was unfair that surrounding districts and the wider Highlands had missed out.
He claimed major wind farms can affect more than just the local community and vital Highland industries. “In the present format, community benefit is a waste of space,” said the Independent Nationalist.
“Wind farms have an impact Highland-wide. I would like to see it go to the wider areas, these things [wind farms] could have a major impact on tourism, for example.
“It is turning out to be a white elephant, fair enough the community benefit gives direct to local communities but I think we have to review it. At the moment it is non-functional and seems to be a spectacular flop.”
Councillor Kerr suggested the fund is revamped so a percentage of the companies’ payouts automatically goes outwith the immediate location.
But Thomas Prag, the authority’s planning, environment and development committee chairman, said it was powerless to cajole companies into spreading the money around the region and did not support a review.
“I have strong sympathy with what Donnie is saying but we always have to remember that community benefit from a wind farm is entirely voluntary from a developer’s point of view so they are in control, we are not,” he said.
The Lib Dem councillor was disappointed that no companies had signed up for “the complete package” but said there was an increase in cash being awarded locally.
Councillor Prag insisted the policy had provided a useful framework for developers and community groups to tap into and added that some companies, like energy giant Scottish and Southern Energy, had created their own funds for local groups to bid into.
Half of the company’s cash pot is set aside for the area hosting the wind farm and the rest is used to support projects across the Highlands.
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