The ‘no other way’ fallacy – Redlands history repeats itself

Sticking with wind farms for a wee while – I have a guest blogger today, who is looking at the similarities between EDF’s massive wind farm schemes for Lewis and the Lingerbay super quarry controversy.

In particular, he is looking at the parallels between the narrative around French multinational EDF’s attempted exploitation of Lewis with its offshore turbines and the argument, last time round in Harris, that we should accept such large-scale, industrialised corporate development as being somehow necessary for our economic salvation.

The Lingerbay proposal – where English company Redland wanted to extract 600million tonnes of rock from Roineabhal in a designated National Scenic Area in South Harris (thanks to Alastair McIntosh for this picture of Roineabhal from St Clements Church) – became the subject of a lengthy planning inquiry. After the inquiry, Redland was taken over by the French Lafarge who ultimately made the decision to withdraw from the project.

The power players who are pushing today’s big schemes, being developed by French multinational EDF and American-owned Forsa in Tolsta, need to start answering the question about why they have given no space to the crofters who want to (and are able to) develop their own, community-owned schemes which would return 12 times as much money to the local economy.

The line we keep hearing, over and over again, is that EDF are “the only game in town”. But are they?

Alasdair Nicholson was a councillor with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar at the time of Lingerbay. Here’s his take…

In the course of completing a recent MSc module on Environmental Decision Making, part of a wider development postgraduate study, I looked back at the proposal by Redlands Aggregates Ltd, taken over by French multinational Lafarge, for a giant super quarry at Lingerbay, Harris.

In reviewing that I was struck by the similarity of some of the same institutional power elites using the same type of language that there is “no other way”, both as a lazy defence of their positions and to seek to marginalise dissenting voices, repeated in the contested contemporary clash over the wind farm developments on Lewis today.

At the time of Lingerbay, I was a councillor who asked many questions and challenged both the information provided and demanded access to papers that senior officers and council members were deliberately seeking to hide from other councillors.

At the heart of the problem was a collective groupthink that could not envisage nor contemplate alternative opportunities for development other than dependency on a large external commercial interest arriving from outside as the saviour of the economy.

While I do not pretend to know the level or degree or quality of scrutiny – either by councillors during the planning consideration of the wind turbine application, nor by trustees of Stornoway Trust, when considering a 70-year lease to the French company EDF and their partners – it does feel that the idea of the local authority as an honest broker appears to be misplaced.

DELEGITIMISE

What appears to be the case, however, is a deliberate blindness by Lewis Wind Power and their supporters, both to the prospectus of a community alternative and an attempt to diminish, reduce or delegitimise crofting voices.

This especially appears to be the case regarding those from the four townships of Sandwick North, Sandwick East, Melbost and Aignish who aspire to take a community approach on their own common land.

Thus, “Stornoway Wind Farm Ltd” seek, in the Scottish Land Court, to strike out the legitimacy of some of the crofting community objectors as “interested parties” and thereby narrow the construct of what a crofting community is.

During the Lingerbay public inquiry of 1994/5 Redlands legal team (according to researchers from Carleton University, Ottawa) argued it was Redlands testimony that carried weight and “arguments of third parties with no statutory right to participate – arguments based on emotionalism, personal interest or spirituality – could not provide the grounds for any material finding” and that “Experts (for Redlands) were imported to cast the case for the quarries in language that pretended precision, imputing objectivity to an exercise that was profoundly political”. 

POLITICAL

While the nature of both developments are quite different, they are indeed both political.

What was implied then and what is implied today is that the capacity of the community to understand and act in their own development agency is limited – and that, of course, is nonsense as has been evidenced already by the development of the community owned and managed Beinn Ghrideag wind farm also sited on common land.

The crofters who now seek to use crofting law to develop their own schemes speak truth to power and do so on the basis of similar reasoning to the pioneer Beinn Ghrideag enterprise and to maximise community benefit. 

Meanwhile, the latest proposals by EDF Energy/LWP to increase the turbine size to 200 metres tall with increased capacity even before the Land Court has finalised its deliberations, raises the stakes and increases the gulf between multinational interests and any community-based compromise.

ENGAGEMENT

This reduces the space for brokerage, negotiation or dialogue.

EDF should recognise that community engagement is not a passive listening exercise made by experts in pursuit of company aims. In addition, these new proposals, I suggest, should not be treated as a minor amendment to the existing planning consent but should require new planning consent, given size, proximity and scale, as well as visual impact on a National Scenic Area.

It should, in my opinion, be called in by the Scottish Government for a public inquiry if the new proposals gain new consent by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Lingerbay and the current wind farm development represent not only forks in the road in terms of conflict between alternative development routes – between local versus multinational – but are also about the future capacity of the community to direct and control its own decision-making.

In addition, it is how we as an island society are able to challenge and pursue dialogue together, in a healthy way, with respect for competing ideas and personalities.

SELF-SUFFICIENT

Irrespective of how long it takes for a new Interconnector cable to be laid between Lewis and Harris and the mainland, perhaps now is also the time to pursue how we can maximise use of the energy the islands can produce in order to meet local demand and be more self-sufficient. 

In Harris the community rejected the quarry and the council changed its view. Now, once more, is the time to look afresh at community-based solutions as well as time to do business differently. 

Alasdair Nicholson MBE MALLB has been involved in development work for 30 years. He was a councillor for nine years and made a submission to the Redlands public inquiry on behalf of 12 councillors which was later adopted by the full council. He is in the final stages of completing an MSc in Development with the Open University.  

Katie

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