In true David and Goliath style, a group of crofters from the Isle of Lewis are taking on the might of the multinationals by using a little known and relatively new piece of crofting law to try to claim back the rights to develop their land.
The crofters come from the townships of Melbost & Branahuie and Sandwick North Street, and they have submitted development applications for wind farms on their common grazings — which directly rival plans for the same areas by Lewis Wind Power, the private consortium led by EDF and Amec in partnership with Stornoway Trust.
The crofters have submitted their plans under section 5Ob of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2007 which, crucially, gives the Crofting Commission powers to approve a community’s development plans even when the landowner opposes them.
The landlord in this case is the Stornoway Trust — who, having signed the development lease with EDF in 2003, without prior community consultation, can only be expected to oppose the applications.
It is somewhat ironic that the oldest community trust in Scotland is likely to find itself playing the part of a hostile landowner — a role usually reserved for the most remote, private interests — in the debate that will unfold over the coming weeks and months.
Melbost & Branahuie want to erect eight turbines and Sandwick North Street want one. Their grid references are said to correspond to nine out of the 36 that LWP want in their Stornoway scheme.
It’s thought that this is the first time the clause is being exercised and if the Commission backs their applications, it would be seen as a major boost to the rights of crofters to manage and develop their common grazings. It would also put the cat deep among the pigeons as far as the Stornoway Trust and Lewis Wind Power are concerned.
The crofters complain that the LWP lease prevents them from developing their own community energy schemes and they are adamant they were not asked about it beforehand.
Section 50b makes provision for crofters to use their common grazings, despite landlord opposition, for sustainable development outwith the traditional uses of grazing sheep, cutting peat and planting trees, so long as a majority of crofters have voted in favour.
At meetings held by the Grazings Committees in Melbost & Branahuie and Sandwick North Street earlier this month, the development proposals gained unanimous approval from all those voting. The applications have been submitted to the Crofting Commission in parallel with planning applications to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and will be formally advertised in tomorrow’s Stornoway Gazette (Thursday, September 29).
The crofters hope to replicate the success of the nearby Beinn Ghrideag community windfarm, run by Point and Sandwick Trust which returns all its profits from the award-winning scheme — an estimated £500,000 a year — back into the community.
Beinn Ghrideag — built with a £14million loan from Santander Bank and the Scottish Government — is the largest community windfarm in the UK in terms of output and was named ‘Best Community Project‘ at the Scottish Green Energy Awards last year, in recognition of outstanding performance in the Scottish renewables industry.
There are three turbines at Beinn Ghrideag, just off the Pentland Road outside Stornoway. This area is known as ‘Stornoway General’ and is where most of the villages from Point and Sandwick have their common grazings. The land was apportioned off years ago to village grazings committees in recognition of the fact they had very little useful crofting ground around their houses.
The crofters have rejected claims by LWP that their application to the Commission threatens the case for the proposed grid inter-connector between the Western Isles and the mainland.
The crofters argue out that the case for the inter-connector will be strengthened if there is a diversity of developers on the islands rather than just one or two multinationals, and greater local economic benefit.
Willie Macfarlane, Grazings Clerk for Melbost and Branahuie Grazings Committee, said: “We want to develop our common grazings along the same principle of benefitting the whole islands community that has been successfully demonstrated at Beinn Ghrideag.
“The Melbost and Branahuire common grazings should only be developed with the consent of the crofters in the village. That is why we have made this Section 50b application.
“The Stornoway Trust never asked us before they signed the lease with EDF, ‘do you think it’s alright?’ That lease was a done deal a dozen years ago and as far as I’m aware they never asked any grazings committee because they didn’t think they had to.”
“It’s up to the Crofting Commission now. We have no idea how it might go but we hope that the Commission will support the development rights of the crofting community over our grazings and not favour the landowners or the multinationals.”
Rhoda Mackenzie, a representative of the North St Grazings Committee, said: “We’re in a different position to Melbost and Branahuie in that we already have the three Point and Sandwick turbines on our land. This application is for one more community turbine on our grazings and would replace a proposed turbine from EDF — it’s the same grid reference.”
“The benefit for us is that this would increase the income that the township shareholders will get as well as making the net profit available for wider community benefit.”
“There was no consultation with the community before the Stornoway Trust signed this lease with Lewis Wind Power. That is a point of contention across all the townships in the area, not just North Street and Melbost.”
Former Western Isles MP, Calum MacDonald, who was the development advisor to Point and Sandwick Trust on the Beinn Ghrideag project, commented: “EDF seem to believe that the lease they signed with the landowners gives them exclusive rights to develop the crofter’s grazings and that the crofters have no rights at all except to graze sheep and cut peat.
“That is a Victorian conception of crofting and community rights and has no place in modern Scotland.
“Community-owned energy such as at Beinn Ghrideag has been the biggest success story in the Western Isles over the past few years. There are now 15 community turbines from Ness to Barra returning £1.8million a year of profit to local community Trusts. That is two times bigger than what LWP are now offering the community although their wind farm would be 10 times larger.”
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One thing is sure: the crofters of Melbost & Branahuie and Sandwick North Street should be applauded for standing up to Big Business, for putting their heads above the parapet where the Stornoway Trust is concerned and for trying to pull off something bold, on their own, when it is much easier to just take what you are given.
Whatever your views on wind farms — personally I like their aesthetic, provided they’re not on top of the Clisham and there’s not too many of them – there can be no doubt that if they are to go ahead, it should be the communities who get the benefit and not the corporations.
Declaration of Interest: I work as a PR consultant for community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust. All views and opinions are entirely my own.