Is­land at war over wind farm mil­lions

How French en­ergy gi­ant’s 36-tur­bine plan has split Lewis – and trig­gered a le­gal bat­tle with crofters

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - by Gavin Made­ley

THE dark rib­bon of the Pent­land Road cuts sharply through the pur­ple-tinged peat moors that make up the croft­ing lands of North­ern Lewis. Part of a failed mas­ter­plan by Vic­to­rian ty­coon Lord Lev­er­hulme to in­dus­tri­alise the trans­porta­tion of fish catches on his is­land es­tates, the road was orig­i­nally a rail­way track bed in­tended to link the ports of Car­loway and Stornoway.

The pop­u­lar­ity of Lev­er­hulme’s vi­sion was never tested as the screech­ing and clank­ing of steam lo­co­mo­tives over the moors never came to pass. The only noise that now as­saults the senses in this great ex­panse of noth­ing is the near-per­ma­nent howl of the He­bridean wind.

Lev­er­hulme may be long gone, but the great nat­u­ral re­source that still blows across the is­land is at the cen­tre of fresh ef­forts to drag the Western Isles econ­omy to the fore­front of the mod­ern tech­no­log­i­cal age. The fo­cus is a 36-tur­bine megawind farm strad­dling the Pent­land Road, which could gen­er­ate enough elec­tric­ity to power 135,000 homes and cre­ate dozens of con­struc­tion jobs in an area starved of em­ploy­ment.

On pa­per, it sounds an ap­petis­ing prospect, but the scheme has be­come mired in con­tro­versy af­ter dozens of crofters – whose com­mon graz­ings will be af­fected by the de­vel­op­ment – claimed their wishes have been ‘bull­dozed’ in the name of cor­po­rate greed. Their anger is fu­elled by a be­lief that they were kept in the dark about the scale of the pro­pos­als and the de­tails of a 70-year lease deal struck by their land­lord, the Stornoway Trust, with French-owned en­ergy gi­ant EDF.

Un­der the deal, they point out, EDF – a multi-bil­lion-pound con­glom­er­ate – has pro­posed pay­ing £900,000 a year into a com­mu­nity ben­e­fit fund, even though a three-tur­bine com­mu­nity wind farm the crofters run al­ready churns out that same sum for good causes de­spite be­ing a tenth of the size of the EDF project.

Part of the crofters’ an­noy­ance stems from the fact that the trust was cre­ated to man­age the land in the in­ter­ests of lo­cals and yet seems un­will­ing, in their eyes, to back their am­bi­tions.

IN an in­creas­ingly ac­ri­mo­nious war of words, the trust has hotly con­tested ac­cu­sa­tions of in­com­pe­tence in ne­go­ti­at­ing the lease, which, it claims, all but a vo­cal mi­nor­ity of crofters have ac­cepted as ‘fair and rea­son­able’.

But four croft­ing town­ships re­main far from con­vinced. In the lat­est twist to a saga that has rum­bled on for al­most 20 years, this small but de­ter­mined band are locked in a le­gal bat­tle with EDF and its part­ner Wood Group in an au­da­cious bid to build their own smaller project.

They have ap­plied to the Croft­ing Com­mis­sion for an area big enough for 21 tur­bines to be ef­fec­tively re­moved from EDF’s con­trol and given to them. If they suc­ceed, it would be the sec­ond time they have dis­rupted the multinatio­nal’s plans for the area – some­thing EDF seems keen to avoid. Its op­er­at­ing arm, Lewis Wind Power, has filed a pe­ti­tion at the Scot­tish Land Court, ask­ing it to throw out the crofters’ ob­jec­tions and ap­prove its lease.

Both sides in this David and Go­liath strug­gle are re­fus­ing to back down – and the only thing they agree on is that the out­come will have far-reach­ing con­se­quences for the fu­ture of the en­tire Western Isles.

Who­ever is vic­to­ri­ous faces a fur­ther cru­cial hur­dle. They must con­vince the UK Gov­ern­ment in about a year from now that they can pro­duce enough power to jus­tify the con­struc­tion of a £1bil­lion sub­sea in­ter­con­nec­tor to link Lewis to the main­land. Without that, no new wind farms, big or small, are likely to be built.

Crofter Rhoda MacKen­zie, who leads the cam­paign for the Gang of Four town­ships, said: ‘The odds are stacked against us but we have to keep fight­ing be­cause it’s not just a piece of land we are talk­ing about, it’s the fu­ture of our com­mu­nity and our chil­dren. Our econ­omy needs this; we missed out on the oil in­dus­try and this will be one of the big­gest missed op­por­tu­ni­ties in a gen­er­a­tion if we don’t get it right.’

Their anx­i­ety at another en­ergy jack­pot pass­ing them by is en­tirely un­der­stand­able in an eco­nomic cli­mate where one in ten chil­dren in the Western Isles lives in poverty and the num­ber of house­holds suf­fer­ing from fuel poverty is run­ning at more than 50 per cent, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures.

More than 40 per cent of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion are in pub­lic sec­tor em­ploy­ment, ei­ther with the lo­cal au­thor­ity or the health ser­vice. Tourism is the main growth in­dus­try.

The crofters on Lewis have been throw­ing jeal­ous glances to­wards their north­ern neigh­bours on Shet­land, where a com­mu­nity-led 50/50 part­ner­ship with SSE named Vik­ing En­ergy aims to build 103 tur­bines, pro­duc­ing enough power for 335,000 homes. When it goes live, it is ex­pected to gen­er­ate many tens of mil­lions of pounds in com­mu­nity ben­e­fit over its life­time.

Mrs MacKen­zie, 56, said: ‘Vik­ing En­ergy say that they stand to make more money out of wind than they did from the oil and gas in­dus­try.

‘The dif­fer­ence in Shet­land is that the res­i­dents did all the ground­work first be­fore part­ner­ing with SSE.’

Her words be­tray an im­plicit crit­i­cism of those who struck a deal that she and oth­ers re­gard as ‘rot­ten’. Mrs MacKen­zie moved to her 64-year-old hus­band Ian’s fam­ily croft at Sand­wick in 1980. Their son, An­drew, 30, took over the croft in 2011 and built another house on the land for his fam­ily.

SHE said: ‘Croft­ing is dif­fi­cult to make a liv­ing from and has di­ver­si­fied hugely. Nowa­days, peo­ple are look­ing for new ways to work the land.

‘We fought hard to get the croft­ing rights and we feel the land should be used for the good of the is­lands, not for the profit of EDF. We are share­hold­ers in the trust and are an­gry there was no proper con­sul­ta­tion prior to the lease be­ing signed with EDF.

‘I think the trustees have left them­selves open to ac­cu­sa­tions of in­com­pe­tence.’

Mrs MacKen­zie de­nied the

crofters – from the four com­mu­ni­ties of Mel­bost and Branahuie, Sand­wick East Street, Sand­wick North Street and Aig­nish – were act­ing out of per­sonal gain.

She said: ‘We have al­ways made it clear that we want ev­ery­one in the Western Isles to ben­e­fit, from Lewis to Barra.

‘We will re­ceive around £900,000 a year for com­mu­nity schemes from EDF, which is not in­con­sid­er­able but hardly trans­for­ma­tive. Our cost­ings show a com­mu­nity-led project of 21 tur­bines would bring in around £5mil­lion a year, which could make all the dif­fer­ence.

‘We could help al­le­vi­ate the high travel costs in­curred by busi­nesses, we could help start up schemes and cour­ses and busi­nesses in IT and mi­cro-elec­tron­ics or other re­new­ables. We could help care groups for the el­derly and vul­ner­a­ble. So­cial care has a huge fund­ing gap this could help plug. But we can­not do all this on £900,000 a year.’

Part of the crofters’ an­noy­ance stems from the fact the trust was cre­ated to man­age their in­ter­ests and yet seems un­will­ing, in their eyes, to back their am­bi­tions.

One of the old­est in Scot­land, the trust was formed in 1923, when Lev­er­hulme, in­dus­tri­al­ist, politi­cian and one half of the Lever Broth­ers soap em­pire, gifted his 70,000-acre Lewis es­tate to its 10,000 res­i­dents.

Over­seen by a board of ten trustees and man­aged by an es­tate fac­tor, the trust em­ploys 32 staff and turns over £1mil­lion a year. It serves the in­ter­ests of around half the adult pop­u­la­tion of the Outer He­brides, in­clud­ing 1,300 crofters, all of whom are el­i­gi­ble to vote in its elec­tions.

Tra­di­tion­ally, men have dom­i­nated the trust’s board, but polling last month to fill five va­cant posts saw a woman top the list of suc­cess­ful can­di­dates.

CA­TRI­ONA Mur­ray, a col­lege lec­turer and Free Church blog­ger, was one of four new trustees who stood on a clear pledge of main­tain­ing the is­land’s cul­tural ortho­doxy – in par­tic­u­lar, Sab­bath ob­ser­vance.

The fifth suc­cess­ful can­di­date was Nor­man Maciver, a strong ad­vo­cate of the trust’s wind farm part­ner­ship with EDF. He has al­ready served 12 years as a trustee and hap­pens to be a cousin of its long-serv­ing fac­tor, Iain Maciver.

It has left dis­af­fected crofters be­moan­ing their lack of in­flu­ence over the land they croft.

‘The trust have be­haved more like a feu­dal land­lord rather than a com­mu­nity land­lord over this,’ said Don­nie MacDon­ald, who helped es­tab­lish the three-tur­bine farm at Point and Sand­wick, the UK’s largest com­mu­nity wind farm, af­ter a ten-year strug­gle.

‘When we made it known that we wanted to build three tur­bines on our land, EDF wouldn’t give us per­mis­sion. We had to fight and fight to get a lit­tle piece of our own land for three tur­bines. How out­ra­geous is that? The trust sided with EDF. It was very much, “Who do you think you are, you silly peo­ple, to think that you can build tur­bines on your own land? Leave it to the big boys”.’

Mr MacDon­ald said the Point and Sand­wick wind farm’s sup­port for lo­cal char­i­ties – Bethesda Hospice, the is­land’s only one, was first to ben­e­fit and will re­ceive £55,000 a year for 25 years – was proof they did the right thing. He is ready for another long fight.

But even if the Gang of Four win the le­gal bat­tle, noth­ing will hap­pen un­less UK min­is­ters are per­suaded of the need for an un­der­sea connector to be laid be­neath the Minch as the cur­rent one is run­ning at ca­pac­ity.

The cost is as­tro­nom­i­cal and can only be achieved with the help of a Gov­ern­ment sub­sidy known as a ‘con­tract for dif­fer­ence’ – and Lewis will have to have its bid ready for a sub­sidy ‘auc­tion’ to be held in spring next year.

EDF says it has the fi­nan­cial mus­cle to guar­an­tee win­ning at the auc­tion. Its com­mu­nity li­ai­son of­fi­cer Kerry MacPhee said: ‘Without the in­ter­con­nec­tor, there won’t be any more com­mu­nity wind farms or any project on the is­land.

‘We need this in­ter­con­nec­tor. It is £600mil­lion, with as much as £400mil­lion for in­fra­struc­ture costs – and the com­mu­nity just doesn’t have that.’

The crofters ar­gue they could be part of a suc­cess­ful com­bined bid if EDF agreed to mod­ify its plans.

PIE in the sky stuff, ac­cord­ing to trust fac­tor Mr Maciver, who claimed that if the crofters’ ac­tions pre­vented EDF from win­ning a sub­sidy it ‘would kill re­new­ables on the Western Isles po­ten­tially full stop’. He said those who crit­i­cise the lease for­get it was signed in 2001, when re­new­ables were in their in­fancy and the fi­nan­cial sec­tor was far more ner­vous about in­vest­ing in the in­dus­try.

He added: ‘It meant the de­vel­oper had to in­vest a lot of time and ex­pense into es­tab­lish­ing where a wind farm could go. To give all par­ties se­cu­rity, the trust said it would grant a lease to set the ball rolling. A com­mu­nity ben­e­fit el­e­ment was in­tro­duced, which was un­heard of then – this project was the first to have that – and an op­tion to buy 20 per cent of the project was se­cured, worth tens of mil­lions po­ten­tially.

‘We al­ways strived to se­cure a fair and rea­son­able deal. Al­most 10,000 peo­ple live on trust land, in­clud­ing 1,300 crofters, just un­der half of whom live on land af­fected by the wind farm. You have 16 town­ships; 12 of them ap­pear very con­tent with what’s on the ta­ble.’

Fi­nan­cial ex­perts have ques­tioned the trust’s abil­ity to af­ford a fifth share in the scheme, con­ser­va­tively es­ti­mated at £40-50mil­lion.

Mark Ste­wart, head of in­fra­struc­ture and re­new­able en­ergy at char­tered ac­coun­tant John­ston Carmichael, dis­missed it as a ‘hol­low of­fer’. He said: ‘On the face of it, this looks ap­peal­ing; but in re­al­ity, it is prob­a­bly an of­fer that can never be taken up as the Stornoway Trust does not have that sort of cash and no one will lend them money without hav­ing any se­cu­rity over the in­come stream of the project. EDF has all the con­trol.’

Mr Maciver said the trust was ex­plor­ing fi­nan­cial ‘ve­hi­cles’ to pur­chase the stake, but in­sisted se­cur­ing the in­ter­con­nec­tor was still the main prize. He added: ‘There’s a dan­ger that we don’t have any­thing and end up with noth­ing. And 100 per cent of noth­ing is still noth­ing. And your com­mu­nity ben­e­fit stake in that will also be noth­ing.’

As the two sides con­tinue their un­easy face off, the wind whips up over the Pent­land Road and is lost over the hori­zon for another day.

Tak­ing on the big boys: Crofter Rhoda MacKen­zie, be­low, and Don­nie MacDon­ald, left, are stand­ing up to EDF

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