Wind farm developers are being encouraged by the Scottish Government to offer community benefits – some might say bribes – to local communities when submitting planning applications.
Communities are being invited to negotiate benefits with developers in advance of planning decisions. This is a threat to the impartiality of our planning system.
Rural communities in the Borders are already being torn apart by wind farms. As developers rush to make substantial financial gain, often with scant regard for the impact on neighbouring residents or the beauty of the landscape, how can any single body fairly represent the interests of bitterly divided communities?
At least community councils are elected and accountable. Yet the Scottish Government is now encouraging community groups to negotiate with wind farm developers to secure significant payments.
In a sparsely populated rural area, how many villages have people willing and competent to develop a community plan and take on the management of substantial funds and complex projects paid for by a wind farm that is itself the subject of deep and lasting tensions?
The field is open for self-appointed groups of individuals, possibly representing minority interests, who may not even be locally based, to take over decision-making on how community funds are spent. Surely this is contrary to the principles of local democracy and social justice.
Some developers are inviting individuals living close to proposed wind farms to invest in co-operative ownership schemes, in which community benefits are paid only to those motivated by personal financial gain. By definition, the concept of community benefits should provide gain for the community as a whole. The co-operative ownership model privileges shareholders unfairly by giving them power of decision on how community funds are spent.
The promise of big cash sums for our rural communities is very seductive.
However, tight budgetary constraints mean that Scottish Borders Council will inevitably note how much money a community receives from a developer, particularly when the register of benefits comes into effect. Public spending on these communities will be adjusted accordingly – as already happens with lottery funding.
Those communities duped into accepting extra money in the form of community benefits will soon discover that any wind farm pay-out will actually decrease the value they receive in return for their council tax payments. It is unlikely that their council tax will be reduced – in effect they will be disproportionately funding other communities.
There is no legal requirement for a developer to pay community benefits and these voluntary cash payments will be negotiated annually. This will lead to uncertainty in funding levels, especially if payments are linked to turbine output. Developers are interested in maximising profit for their shareholders, not for Borders villages.
We all need to wake up to the realities which lie behind the shiny promise of community benefits deriving from wind farms. The impartiality of the planning process is under threat and the democratic principles which underpin the way we live in our communities are being subverted.