Our community wind project – the Village Turbine – is proceeding apace with our project managers Locogen Ltd moving ahead on several fronts readying for construction and a ‘switch on’ date of March 2017, with funds then beginning to roll in for community projects. Busy and exciting times!
Of the many things on the list to do, finalising the agreement with the crofters on the Achiltibuie Common Grazings is but one. With a vast 3,500 hectares (over 8,600 acres) of ground on the grazings the Village Turbine will take just 0.98 hectares out of the lightly-grazed area available, and apart from the base of the turbine itself the rest of that 0.98 hectares will be a new access track and an area of hard standing both of which will be unfenced and open for the crofters to use. It will be an excellent help in managing their stock and feeding them over the winter. For the loss of the 0.98 hectares for the track and hardstanding, the shareholders of the common grazing who claim agricultural subsidies will see a very small loss of subsidy which will be more than made up by the compensation being offered to them over the 20 year life of the community project. The compensation money will come out of the funds which were otherwise destined to be spent in the wider community.
The process to arrive at an agreement with the crofters inevitably involves the Scottish Land Court who adjudicate on such matters, and so we are going through that process now – something which couldn’t be done previously as details of the project were being finalised. The process is referred to as a ‘Section 19A application’ (it is made under Section 19A of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993) and it sees the land being taken out of crofting not permanently but just for the 20 year lifetime of the project – it’s the process that other communities have used for their community wind turbine projects throughout the crofting counties. Up until our case, all Section 19A applications have gone through the court system as simple administrative procedures, but in our case a court case has been triggered by objectors.
There are 35 shareholders of the Achiltibuie Common Grazings and there were no objections from any to the Village Turbine proposal except for three who claim that they are not being compensated adequately for the loss of the 0.98 hectares. Two of the objectors are part-time crofters and neither is the third wholly dependent on income from grazing livestock. We’ve tried to negotiate an acceptable position with these three crofters but they refuse to meet with us or to enter into any form of discussion. We’ve offered to increase the level of compensation although it will take money away from community projects. We’ve also cleared up several misunderstandings they had about the project as the objectors have not attempted to inform themselves about the project by attending the many public information meetings and events we have held up to this point. One objection is that if the Village Turbine was allowed, they would not be able to put one up on their own on a private commercial basis for no community benefit; another objection is that the fences will disrupt their gathering – but there will be no fences.
The Scottish Land Court is there to protect the rights of crofters and in this case is concerned that shareholders of the Achiltibuie Common Grazing are fairly treated. We heartily approve of this. The Scottish Land Court’s advertising of our Section 19A application in the Ullapool News also resulted in five objections from resident and non-resident holiday home owners who are not shareholders of the Achiltibuie Common Grazing who generally raised planning matters that have already been considered and dealt with when the project got the unanimous approval of Highland Council’s Planning Committee – planning matters are of no interest to the Scottish Land Court.
With the objections still in place, the Land Court process will now move to a formal hearing, due to take place on May 9th. Given the overwhelming benefits the project will bring to the crofting and wider community of Coigach with the £2.2 million of funds it is forecast to bring us (a figure that could be doubled with matched funding for projects), we are confident that the court will find in our favour and approve the Section 19A application. There then remains the matter of the cost of going to court and as with the normal course of things we expect the Land Court to award costs in accordance with their ruling. If this were to be the case, as seems likely, we have been advised by our lawyers that the objectors would be faced with a bill of around £15,000 for our costs alone. Given that the objecting crofters are the ones who the Scottish Land Court are particularly concerned with, and they have refused to discuss anything at all with us we asked our lawyers to write to them to ensure that they are fully aware of the situation they might be getting themselves into by taking us to court – not threatening letters by any means but rather ones which will encourage reflection, for it’s in the interests of nobody in Coigach that this matter proceeds to a court hearing.