Hundreds of crofters are fighting an attempt by the energy giants EDF and Wood Group to build a windfarm on the island of Lewis.
More than 200 crofters have objected to proposals to build on communal land close to Stornoway, the biggest town in the Outer Hebrides. The crofters want to build their own development, with the profits going to the local community.
The row started because under Scottish law crofters have rights over the land even though the multinationals have bought a lease through a joint venture called Lewis Wind Power. Crofting is bound by complex rules that give both landowners and smallholders rights.
EDF and Wood have now applied to the Scottish land court to force through the development of 36 turbines on the “common grazings”, triggering the objections to the plans. Wind is increasingly seen as a key natural resource in the Western Isles, with the potential to boost the economic future of the islands.
The contested area is moorland called the Stornoway General, a few miles from the main town. Stornoway General is divided into areas for different villages and owned by the Stornoway Trust.
One township, Point and Sandwick, has built three turbines on its section, borrowing £14m from Santander bank to finance the development, and the turbines now support a drug and alcohol programme, a hospice and a local arts centre.
Calum MacDonald, a former Labour MP for the area who was involved in developing the first three turbines, said the earlier development proved that the crofters’ plans were viable. “We absolutely believe we can make it work and that we would be able to borrow the money for the development,” he said. “EDF would not be doing it unless they believed it would make money.”
MacDonald said crofting rights were particularly important to locals. “After the Highland Clearances, the crofts were protected by statute. Like so much land in Scotland, two different interests have rights over the land – the landowner and the crofter. It’s because of the history that people get so upset, the idea that their rights to the land would just be handed over to a multinational, just like that.”
Angus McCormack, a local councillor and chair of the Point and Sandwick Trust, said a larger community-owned project could finance more local causes, as well as create jobs on an island with a high poverty rate.
“We have to do it for the young people. There is nothing else to stay for,” said McCormack. “Building our own windfarms would be transformational to the islands. One of the key things is trying to keep hold of the young people. They go away for their education, and they never come back.”
Rhoda MacKenzie from the Sandwick and North Street township said the 70-year lease was too long. “In a few months’ time, it could be gone for two or three generations,” she said. “If this were oil, they would be treating it differently, but wind has always been here. It’s just we’ve proved that we know how to harness it now.”
The rules governing crofting evolved because, traditionally, crofters had small pieces of land next to their houses, where they raised livestock during the winter. During the summer, they would travel to the moor. Crofters’ rights include grazing sheep and cattle and cutting peat, and they have extended to planting trees and building windfarms.
In their 2017 general election manifesto, the Conservatives announced that, although onshore wind power would no longer be subsidised, an exemption would be made to support the development of wind projects in the remote islands of Scotland provided they “directly benefit the local communities”.
This means that Lewis Wind Power could bid for subsidies under the “contract for difference” (CfD) scheme, which guarantees a minimum price for electricity. EDF recently agreed a CfD deal for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, which has been criticised for the vast projected cost to electricity consumers.
Supporters of Lewis Wind Power said that multinationals’ involvement is critical to support the construction of an interconnector, carrying electricity to the mainland grid. Although EDF and Wood Group would not invest directly in the interconnector, it will not be built unless there is a guarantee of largescale electricity generation.
Kerry MacPhee, from Lewis Wind Power, said: “Without the interconnector, there won’t be any more community windfarms or any project on the island. We need this interconnector. Lewis Wind Power have been working on this project for years. It’s not as simple as just bidding into a contract for difference. You’ve got to have the critical mass.”
Iain Maciver, the factor (agent) of the Stornoway Trust, said the interconnector was vital. “If they do their maths, they will realise that 100% of nothing will always be nothing. If we don’t get this project through, the island economy is on its knees.”
Patrick Krause, the chief executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, said the crofters’ objections were important. “This is something that the government should be looking at as part of their infrastructure development anyway,” said Krause. “The Scottish government’s plans are to increase our dependency on renewable energy, and if the best places for turbines are on the islands, or offshore completely, then we need interconnectors. I don’t like the fact that the Scottish government are maybe getting out of their duty on this and leaving a community to fight with a big transnational syndicate.”
Donald John MacSween, the general manager of the Point and Sandwick Trust, said that the crofters’ plans justified the interconnector. “For generations, we’ve been living in a gale, and now that we’ve finally found a way to make money out of it, I don’t see why EDF should take it,” said MacSween. “Mind you, if we can find a way of making money out of rain and dark nights, then we’ll really be in business.”
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