The benefits of renewable energy for society as a whole are in no doubt, however the hashing out of the direct benefits for communities playing host to wind turbines has been argued over long and hard in the Western Isles.
In the latest twist for the control of land locally and its potential as sites for renewable energy development, a ruling by the Scottish Land Court, has dealt a blow to the ambitions of four Lewis townships hoping to realise the huge community benefits of wind turbine projects on grazings land.
In 2016 the townships of Sandwick North Street, Sandwick East Street, Melbost and Branahuie and Aignish submitted four applications for developing community turbines to the Crofting Commission under Section 50B of the Crofting Act.
But, the townships’ wind turbine plans would have used the same land already earmarked by Lewis Wind Power, a private consortium led by French power giant EDF, which has a 70-year lease from the Stornoway Trust, to develop a 36-turbine scheme.
The applications were rejected by the Crofting Commission last year, but the townships hoped the Land Court would ask the Crofting Commission to review its 2018 decision.
Talking about the ruling, the Stornoway Trust, said: “The Trust is relieved that the decisions of both the Scottish Land Court and the Crofting Commission clearly recognise the importance of what the Trust is seeking to achieve in the wider interest of the community, despite the obstructive actions of those few townships attempting to put that at risk.
“The Trust has maintained from the outset that development of the type proposed by the townships was incapable of meeting the legislative requirements clearly spelt out in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 and was disappointed to find that crofters were persuaded otherwise.
“Of equal concern to the Trust was that by their actions the townships were actually undermining the case for the interconnector cable on which any development - including their proposed development - would also depend.
“It was however not lost on the Commission who stated that the townships’ proposals were to the detriment of the landlord, or on the Land Court, who in recognising that the landlord is the community, stated that ‘the 50B schemes are not just potentially detrimental to the Trust’s plans, they are potentially fatal’.”
However, the fight may not be over yet, as crofters said this week that they are considering taking their fight to develop community wind farms on their common grazings to the Court of Session.
SHOCKED BY RULING
Rhoda Mackenzie, the spokesperson for Sandwick North Community Energy, is astonished the Land Court has accepted the landlord’s claim of “detriment” on the face of it without any evidence.
She said: “It’s unbelievable. They never proved how it was detrimental to the landlord. It’s hard to understand but I think credence was given to the fact it was the Stornoway Trust, because they are supposed to act in the best interests of the community.
“I don’t know if the Land Court’s decision would have been the same if it was a private landlord they were dealing with. If the Duke of Buccleuch had said ‘it’s detrimental to my interests’, would that also have been acceptable to the Land Court without evidence?
“I couldn’t see any way that the Trust were going to win that argument legally, so I was really shocked by the ruling. I didn’t consider for a minute that they could win that without evidencing their claim. ‘We have said so, so that’s it’ – that’s the kind of ruling this appears to be to us.”
Rhoda added: “We obviously do not agree that our proposals are to the landlord’s detriment. Our proposal would replace some EDF turbines with community turbines, which would pay the landlord the same rent, while putting much more money back into the whole islands’ community.
“I don’t know how anyone could believe that our turbines would in any way ‘impede or stop’ the remaining EDF turbines from progressing – and who pays the land rent to Stornoway Trust should make no difference to them.
“We are extremely disappointed by the Land Court judgement and are considering our options, including the possibility of taking a special case to the Court of Session.
“We’ve got a statutory 21-day period to decide if we’re going to appeal to the Land Court’s ruling and that decision will have to be taken collectively by the township, as all the decisions have been, and we’ll need to take legal advice on the points of law before we decide whether we’re going to appeal.”
The piece of law used by the crofting townships when they made their original development applications to the Crofting Commission was Section 50B, which has been inserted into the Crofting Acts by successive Scottish Governments.
Section 50B was created to allow crofting communities to make sustainable use of their common grazings land.
Rhoda continued: “The Land Court’s decision in our case seems to make Section 50B redundant. If this ruling isn’t examined more closely, what community will ever go through this Section 50B development process again?.
“If this decision is allowed to stand, Section 50B might as well be crossed out of the Crofting Act. The Land Court’s ruling has given the landowner a veto and that is a blow to crofting communities right across the Highlands and Islands.”