What is community benefit?
It is a voluntary contribution paid by a wind farm developer for the benefit of a community affected by development where this will have a long term impact on the environment. (1)
What constitutes a community for the purpose of a wind power development?
In relation to wind power developments it is usually those within the local geographical area, often those within viewing distance of the project. The Dumfries and Galloway Governance Framework is explicit that the benefit relates to Community Councils within a 15km radius of the windfarm. (2)
What is a benefit?
Community benefits come in various guises:
An introductory payment to the community;
An introductory payment and an annual payment to the community throughout the life of the operation;
An annual payment to the community throughout the life of the operation;
Advice or technical support;
“In kind” support;
Developer retains a fund and community seek support for projects as and when needed.
Some may regard it as a community benefit if local contracts arise from the installation phase but there are no guarantees on this score and every likelihood that the contractors will be sourced outwith the area and anyway such contracts are generally very short term. As the turbines are usually shipped in from distant regions, often from abroad, there is no improvement in the economic profile of the area from this source.
It would be difficult to regard the large annual payments made to the landowners by way of rent as a community benefit, they may or may not live locally and are unlikely to give their riches to the community. Indeed the letting of land by absentee landlords has been a huge source of contention.
How much is paid?
There is a timely warning from Ms Davis of Invernessshire reported in the Northern Times of 3 February 2011, entitled Our money is being dribbled back behind a façade of ‘generosity’. (3) The title says it all and her letter exposes the flaws in the system whereby the community believes it is getting a substantial reward but in effect people are paying for it through their electricity, which, when the sums are properly worked out, amounts to a paltry sum per person. Her figures show that in relation to a promised £8 million over 25 years in relation to a wind factory of 28 turbines of 150 metres high, the per capita annual sum amounted to just £9.60.
Whilst on the surface the payments may seem very attractive, they may also be hedged about with conditions imposed by the developer so the local community does not necessarily have a free hand in how the money is used.
The financial formulae in the Dumfries and Galloway framework indicates that the community benefit should be paid on the basis of not less than £1per kilo watt/hour actual output. And can be negotiated upwards. The document asserts that, the benefit will not fall below a figure of £2,000 per mega watt of installed capacity and payments are to be index-linked and reviewed as appropriate. (2)
The Highland Council is recommending some £4/5,000 per megawatt per annum throughout the lifetime of an operation. (4)
Why is a community benefit paid?
It is paid as compensation to mitigate the long term affects to the environment or local amenity. In other words, it is a payment to offset the loss or losses to a local community resulting from the development of a wind factory in the locality.
“The routine provision of meaningful benefits to communities hosting wind power projects is likely to be a significant factor in sustaining public support and delivering significant rates of wind power development.” (5)
Whatever the intention, there is no doubting the underlying message that public support can be bought!
How does this relate to the planning application?
It doesn’t. Or shouldn’t. There is no legal requirement for a wind power developer to provide the local community with either monetary or “in kind” benefits and such benefits do not form a material consideration in the planning process, therefore, they cannot be used to support or object to a planning application.
How is the planning process protected from undue influence by the developer?
As community benefit is not a material consideration in relation to planning applications, officers and councillors directly involved in influencing the planning decision itself, including statutory consultees, i.e. community councils, should not be initiating discussions on community benefit. This procedure is supposed to ensure probity whereby planning applications are decided by the planning committee solely on the material considerations and the related planning policies of the council.
Thus we are to be assured that the money to be given to a community by way of compensation for hosting a wind factory is irrelevant to the planning process and should not be seen as an incentive to pass the application.
However, there is a twist in the tale in that it apparently does not prevent officers and councillors who are not directly involved in the planning decision engaging in negotiations about the community benefit. (6) This seems a surprisingly weak and opaque arrangement for an issue as important as a wind power development.
In the case of Dumfries and Galloway the main decisions of their Planning and Environment Committee of May 2005, contained in their Community Benefit Governance Framework, are as follows:
60% of the funds be used for Community projects (criteria as per report) and 40% for
projects relating to Energy Efficiency.
40% for Energy Efficiency to go towards a region-wide fund.
That Solway Heritage be the approved Third party administrative body for all the funds (but, in respect of the 40% ring-fenced for energy efficiency and conservation projects, they must ensure close working with the Energy Agency to ensure maximisation of match funding etc)
Decision on spend of the funds be made by the Community Councils concerned subject to compliance with agreed criteria and developers approval.
A Strategic Management Framework, individually geared towards each project, be
entered into with Developers to maximise benefits to the Dumfries and Galloway region from renewable energies. (2)
In this case then the planning authority is set to gain 40% of the community benefit, albeit for energy efficiency related projects. Surely this leaves the council exposed to charges of bias and creates an obvious conflict of interest?
To quote further from the same document:
The 40% fund is also in-line with developers’ wishes to target spend towards renewables and
energy efficiency and therefore its existence and use may advantage further funding from
developers for communities developing suitable projects.(2)
It is highly questionable as to how a local authority can make transparent, dispassionate and objective decisions when its processes are so outrageously skewed to the developer’s interests and its own?
It should be noted that Dumfries and Galloway Council is in the process of revising their 2005 framework.
How is the community benefit managed?
The payment may be managed by the local Community Council or it may be managed by a dedicated local Charitable Trust. In some cases it may be managed by an external agency. In the case of the D&G protocol the fund is to be administered by The Solway Heritage.
Not every community has the necessary expertise, time or motivation to administer the funding over the proposed time span of a wind power development and there is evidence that problems have arisen.
At the Community Benefits On-Shore Wind Seminar in Glasgow in 2007 several problems were identified in relation to administration, including, need for better co-ordination, breakdown in communication between communities and Councils, mismatch between Council need and community need, autocratic attitude of Community Councils, the need for strategic use of grants, lack of a defined legacy, etc. (7)
Is the sacrifice worth it?
If the community benefit is provided to offset long term losses, what then are the perceived losses to the community? For the 230+ UK groups who have set themselves up to oppose wind power developments they are many and varied. At the fundamental level there is the belief that wind power is an inefficient, destructive and costly means of securing renewable energy, that is, there are other more efficient, less intrusive and ultimately less costly methods by which renewable energy targets can be met.
The costs are not only those enormous sums paid to wind power developers via the Renewable Obligation Certificate, and which are subsidised through household electricity bills, nor are the backup costs incurred when the wind does not blow, but also the costs to the community through the destruction of the local landscape and amenity, the affect on wildlife and habitat, the reduction in property values and what some people find is an intrusive, repetitive, pulsing noise emanating from the turbines with resulting effects on their health. A less obvious cost is the long lasting harm to community relations.
For those who are trying to sell a property or whose business relies on income from property sales, e.g. solicitors, estate agents, small businesses reliant on the money spent on refurbishment, a wind power development can have negative consequences for their livelihoods as sales slow down or stop altogether.
For the tourism industry, the largest private sector industry, the losses to the economy and jobs are quantifiable although for some unknown reason they are seldom given prominence in the overall equation.
On the one hand it is claimed by some that a wind factory development will bring with it associated short term employment – this might well sway a community towards a favourable response, even without any guarantees that jobs will be delivered.
On the other hand, tourism is a known quantity, its contribution to the Dumfries and Galloway economy was estimated at £360 million per annum in 2008. (8) Those in the tourism sector argue that wind power developments will reduce visitor numbers and consequent visitor spend and will affect the overall visitor experience such that it will adversely affect the number of repeat visits and ultimately impact on jobs. The Scottish Government report of 2008 indicates that within Dumfries and Galloway “there is extensive exposure [to windfarms] over prolonged lengths of road” and “Over 237km of roads in Dumfries and Galloway will see at least 4 turbines at a distance of 15km or less, concluding that “it is difficult to see any routes in Dumfries and Galloway where, at some stage, holidaymakers will not be exposed to wind farms”. (8) In an area like Dumfries and Galloway where tourism is a key player in the local economy this could have significant negative impact.
A Visit Scotland Survey dated 2002 projected the scale of potential losses to tourism resulting from the impact of wind sites. In relation to Dumfries and Galloway the loss projected from the 25% of visitors who said they possibly would not return was £6.41 million and 209 jobs and for those who indicated that they definitely would not return the loss was estimated at £3.84 million and 125 jobs. (9) All of this before the most recent mass of operational wind power developments and flood of applications running through the pipeline.
The Scottish Government report of 2008 indicates a loss of £3 million and 200 jobs in Dumfries and Galloway and, in relation to accommodation alone, a fall of £1.08 million and 77 jobs. (8)
What price community cohesion?
It is rarely focused on explicitly but there is evidence that there is a substantial cost to community relations in terms of the divisions that arise locally in association with wind power development as most, perhaps all, of the 230+ UK opposition groups will testify.
The breakdown in relations between landowners hosting wind turbines and their neighbours affected by the development is well documented; the controversy is even more acrimonious when it is an absentee landlord.
It does not require a huge leap of imagination or empathy to see the cumulative adverse impact on community cohesion. That there will be those who will want to defend their environment and wider quality of life from exploitation is easy to see. Considering the pervading extent of the losses, some very obvious, others more subtle, it is difficult to see who can justify such developments even with the promise of a large community benefit payment.
The sacrifice is too much for too many for too little for too long.
1 Community Toolkit: Could your community benefit from renewable energy development? Highland Council / Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Inverness, 2004.
2 Dumfries and Galloway Council Windfarms Community Benefit Governance Framework. DGC, 2005.
3 Our money is being dribbled back behind a façade of ‘generosity’, Davis, D, The Northern Times, 3 February 2011.
4 Community Benefit, Highland Council advice leaflet, 2003.
5 Community Benefits from Wind Power: Policy Makers Summary, Centre for Sustainable Energy, 2005.
6 Delivering community benefit from wind energy development: A Toolkit, Renewables Advisory Board, 2009.
7 The Community Benefits of On-Shore Wind, Seminar, Glasgow, 2007 and drawn from the dissertation of Elaine Macintosh on ‘An evaluation of wind farm community benefit funds in Scotland’, 2008. The author indicates that these are the main points of relevance and are not accepted Government policy.
8 The Economic Impacts of Wind Farms on Scottish Tourism, Scottish Government Report, 2008.
9 Investigation into the potential impact of wind farms on tourism in Scotland, Visit Scotland Survey, 2002.