It’s been nearly a month since the deadline for objections to the Scottish Land Court over the plans by Lewis Wind Power — AKA multinationals EDF Energy and Amec-Foster-Wheeler, in partnership with landowners Stornoway Trust — to develop a 36-turbine wind farm around Stornoway.
It’s also a year since four crofting townships launched a rival bid to develop turbines in some of the same places, with their landmark Section 50B applications to the Crofting Commission.
The Crofting Commission have still not made a decision on that. It’s fair to say the situation is in an unhappy kind of stasis. We are still no closer to knowing who will get the green light.
What has happened recently though — and is of much interest and significance and encouragement to the crofters — is that the Scottish Crofting Federation, who have members on both sides of the argument, in the crofting townships but also within the Stornoway Trust, have come out very much in favour of community renewables projects.
Representatives from the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) have made statements that have been warmly welcomed by the crofter campaigners, who believe fervently that we should be in charge of our own destiny, driving our own developments on common grazings and ultimately getting the profits from these developments and deciding how they should be spent.
The main source of this recent encouragement was an article written by Patrick Krause, chief executive of the SCF, where he described what was happening over the wind farm proposals for Stornoway as “quite disturbing”.
He expressed concern that Lewis Wind Power had applied for permission to develop 36 turbines on common grazings when they do not have the agreement of the crofters concerned.
Let’s remind ourselves that Lewis Wind Power, the disingenuously titled double act of EDF and Amec, have applied to the Scottish Land Court for permission under Section 19A of the Crofting Act, which allows for developments to be approved even when there is crofter opposition.
Given that EDF, the main player in this, are a French company, there isn’t much that’s “Lewis” about them.
And given that there is much known opposition to the plans — more than 200 objections have been lodged with the Land Court — Mr Krause said their application was “being seen as a hostile intrusion on crofters’ rights”.
He said: “SCF has always held the position that, whatever the development on croft land, crofters with an interest must be consulted and must be in majority agreement.
“Furthermore, SCF has taken the view that community-led schemes for development are generally preferable to developments led by large commercial interests, being more directly beneficial to the community.”
The four island townships wanting to develop community turbines of their own are Melbost and Branahuie, Sandwick East Street, Sandwick North Street and Aginish, inspired by the success that Point and Sandwick Trust have made of their wind farm at Beinn Ghrideag.
Theirs were the first applications ever to go in under Section 50B of the Crofting Act, which allows for any kind of sustainable development even when the landlord (in this case the Stornoway Trust) is opposed, provided a majority of crofters have voted in favour.
The fact the townships are still waiting for a decision from the Crofting Commission is something that Mr Krause also makes reference to, saying: “This is a landmark opportunity for the Crofting Commission, as regulator, to be seen to be acting decisively and in empathy with the crofting community and we urge them to make the decision soon as the clock is ticking.”
Another voice from the Crofting Federation, director Donald MacKinnon, also spoke in support of the community, describing the Section 50B applications as “a landmark case” that was “about what crofters’ rights are to their land — whether these rights are just to graze sheep and plant trees or whether these rights extend to actually what happens on the land”.
He said: “The Crofting Commission needs to speed up their decision making process and give a definitive answer on the Section 50B application as soon as possible.”
He stressed that the Land Court decision could not be made before the Crofting Commission decision, in any fairness, because they conflict.
“I think that the Land Court decision has to be paused to allow the Crofting Commission to make their decision. It’s good that both parts of the law are there but if 50B can be actioned, if it’s not just words written on paper, then that decision has to be made (first) by the Crofting Commission because it contradicts 19A that’s already in with the Land Court.”
Rhoda Mackenzie, spokeswoman for one of the townships, Sandwick North Street, said the statements from the Crofting Federation were “very welcome”.
She said: “We were delighted that the Federation acknowledged ‘community’ as the way to go. I thought the Patrick Krause piece was very positive.
“The fact that they are the official voice of crofting and they are acknowledging community versus corporate — we take a lot of positives out of that.
“It did give us a boost that they were coming out in favour of community projects, not just ours but across the crofting sector, that they were backing that kind of thing, and it maybe gives other communities the incentive in the future.”
She added: “I am critical of the Commission in the delay in dealing with this, but I suppose, in a way, that’s because it’s a test case. It’s a bold move for the Commission to take because it changes the future of crofting, so they are probably nervous about it.
“If we win this Section 50B, it is a landmark case for all crofting grazings committees to develop and that’s probably why the Commission is taking so long about it because it will change the face of crofting. It will give crofting back a future.”
Calum Macdonald, the former Western Isles MP who now develops community wind farms, also welcomed the statements from the Scottish Crofting Federation.
Commending “the bravery and the vision” of the four townships in making the first Section 50B applications, he said: “I am particularly pleased that they are using this new power to develop community energy on their common grazings.
“Like everybody says, this is a landmark case. If the crofters get their applications approved, it will transform land management and land ownership in the whole of the Highlands and Islands, not just the Western Isles.
“It will confirm that the crofting community is in the driving seat when it comes to development on the common grazings and people will be able to start seeing the common grazings not just as a very restricted bit of land for traditional agriculture uses, but as a common resource for the whole community to use for other sustainable economic purposes that benefit that community.
“Common grazings committees will become really community land development committees — and that will be a complete transformation in the power of crofting communities and it’s exactly the right thing to do to take crofting into the 21st Century.”