I made a mistake in a press release for one of my clients last week. It was a piece on Gaelic resources and made a passing reference to Deputy First Minister John Finnie.
A wee Freudian slip, but possibly understandable as John Finnie, the Highlands and Islands Green MSP, had been giving me some brilliant quotes for other causes – and before I knew what I was doing, I had inadvertently booted one John out of his job and given the other a promotion!
The mistake hadn’t registered with me at all, until I got this following message from the client.
“Noticed you’ve got John Finnie instead of John Swinney in the press release… I used to work with John Finnie and he’d be very chuffed at the promotion!
“John Finnie would make a good Deputy First Minster anyway, he’s very capable…!”
I have to say, I quite agree with that as John Finnie has been a massive support to the community renewables cause in the Outer Hebrides lately.
Around the same time as he was tabling a Parliamentary Motion to congratulate Point and Sandwick Trust on winning the title of UK Environmental Social Enterprise of the Year 2018, he was also talking to me about the looming Land Court hearing between the crofters and Lewis Wind Power – and making it very clear where his support lay.
“It’s an easy call,” he said, adding that Stornoway Trust – who gave the lease to Lewis Wind Power without prior consultation with the crofting townships whose grazings would be affected – needed “to have a look at whose interests they were serving”.
I cannot tell you how much it means to everyone in the campaign, me included, to have the public support of people like Mr Finnie. It is not an easy campaign to be involved with – although we feel we have right on our side – and there is quite a lot of pressure.
A lot of people in high positions are very hostile to the crofters’ determination to develop their own schemes – the usual argument is that they are risking the interconnector, by potentially thwarting LWP’s ambitions – and a lot of the same people also seem to be hostile to Point and Sandwick Trust, despite their obvious successes (or maybe even because of them).
On the face of it, what it looks like they are hostile to is the community renewables movement – which I find really difficult to get my head round. Over a certain size of project, the message coming down, over and over again, is that we cannot do it ourselves… and we should not try.
There really is a lot pressure. So it was a great relief for the crofters to have had such a success with their public exhibitions last week, which were being held as part of the planning process for their proposed wind farms.
The whole of last week felt like a game changer, actually, as far as the issue of community ownership of wind projects is concerned.
For a start, more than 100 people came in to the Town Hall over the two days, to find out more about the crofting townships’ plans – altogether, they want 21 turbines, which they exactly displace 21 of the 36 turbines that LWP have planned.
Of those 100 or so people who came to see the exhibition, not a single person objected against the crofters’ plans. Not one. There was a handful of people who circled ‘neutral’ on the feedback form but not one single objection.
It was massively encouraging and heartening for the crofters and the consultants who had been involved in organising the consultation exercise were also blown away by the response.
One of them said to me: “I’ve never experienced this level of engagement or positivity for a wind farm in my career. It was a great event. It was so positive. Never experienced anything like it!”
The exhibition was on the Monday and Tuesday. Then, on the Wednesday night, came the news that Point and Sandwick Trust had won the title of UK Environmental Social Enterprise Award of the Year 2018, at the UK Social Enterprise Awards in the Guild Hall, London.
What a vindication of community-owned renewables.
Point and Sandwick Trust – my main PR client, by the way – run what is the largest community-owned wind farm in the UK, near Stornoway, and its model of community ownership means that all the profits go back to the community.
This is the principle the four townships are fighting for, in their battle for the rights to develop renewables on their common grazings. They – and I – do not believe that multinationals should be allowed to have control of community land, for exploitation and profiteering.
Developments – high-value ones included – should be owned and managed by the community, and the community should get the maximum financial benefit.
So the award for Point and Sandwick Trust came at a really good time. The fact it is their third award this year, and their fourth so far, made their success even more impressive. I have to say, though, that many of our Western Isles ‘leaders’ were not rushing forward with the congratulations.
There has been nothing at all from MP Angus Brendan MacNeil, who had tabled a Motion of congratulations in the UK Parliament earlier this year when the Harris Distillery won the award for Scottish Gin Distillery of the Year.
Instead, the cheerleading for Point and Sandwick Trust was led by John Finnie – so thank you, John, for that Parliamentary Motion, which has been supported by other MSPs too.
So far, at the time of writing, it had been supported by 12 other MSPs and it was good to see that our own MSP, Alasdair Allan, had added this name to it.
But he did at least support it. Elsewhere, the silence was deafening. And that’s why support, when it does come, is so, so precious.
For those who didn’t see it, John Finnie’s Parliamentary Motion was this:
“That the Parliament congratulates Point and Sandwick Trust on being named the Environmental Social Enterprise of the Year at the Social Enterprise UK Awards 2018; notes that the awards recognise organisations for their business excellence and contribution to society, as well as the achievements of people working at the heart of the sector; understands that funding managed by the trust is gifted from the profits created by ownership and operation of the Beinn Ghrideag community wind farm; understands that the three-turbine 9MW scheme is built on common grazing land on the Isle of Lewis and is the biggest community wind farm in the UK; congratulates everyone who works so hard to make the trust a success, and wishes them all the best for the future.”
That was great, but when he also came out so strongly in support of the crofters ahead of the Land Court hearing, I was made up.
He said: “It’s an easy call, to be honest. Let’s see, local folk or a multinational corporation? It’s no contest, really.”
Lawyers for the four crofting townships of Sandwick North Street, Melbost and Branahuie, Sandwick East Street and Lower Sandwick, and Aignish will be facing lawyers for Lewis Wind Power (EDF and Wood Group, with their lease partners Stornoway Trust) on Wednesday and Thursday when the Land Court hearing takes place in Rev MA Macleod Memorial Hall on Kenneth Street (it begins at 10am and is open to the public).
John Finnie acknowledged that big companies such as EDF have the advantage of “a full suite of highly paid corporate lawyers who can lend their weight to any case” – the planning system is “unfortunately” not a contest of equals – but he was clear about where his support lay.
“I will be on the side of the local population – the people who live on and use the land, who should be the people who share in the benefits of having that land and that includes the natural resource of wind. And I think communities have every right to be wary of large corporations coming in, purportedly bearing the gifts…
“For a global corporation that makes billions of dollars, it’s not a big deal to them to send a couple of baskets of fruit to the local primary. They are tiny crumbs from a very large table.”
“If there’s one thing that’s clear from the Highlands and Islands, we’re better when we’re doing things for ourselves rather than holding onto the coat tails of powerful outsiders.”
Mr Finnie stressed the necessity of wind-generated power but sounded a note of caution about scale, warning that turbines should be “as unobtrusive as possible”.
Lewis Wind Power are hoping to be allowed to use supersize turbines – the size normally used in offshore locations, reaching to 187m high.
Turbine size is a matter for the planning authorities but Mr Finnie warned “the mere mention of jobs” often held undue sway in planning matters.
Given the controversy over Stornoway Trust’s involvement in the Lewis Wind Power schemes, Mr Finnie believes the case has raised issues of accountability.
“I am not an expert on the finer details of the Stornoway Trust but I would have thought there’s a community obligation that has to consider all aspects, not just financial shillings and pence.
“There has to be democratic accountability in any organisation and a clear understanding of who they are answering to, rather that a self-determined requirement to constantly chase profit.
“I’ve raised issues around Trust Ports in Parliament and I think there’s a dearth of local accountability and democracy associated with significant concerns in many of our communities in terms of the sway they hold.
“The Trust is a significant landowner. Straight away that has significant implications. I think they maybe need to look at whose interests they are serving. I think any cursory examination would acknowledge there are issues around that.
“I would want to be respectful to everyone but I have to say there’s phenomenal deference still shown to individuals and groups that I don’t think their conduct merits.
“I’m talking about the situation about large estate owners and corporations.”
The MSP added that there were “very few” party political issues in life but “many things” which required people to take a position. He stressed: “My obligation as an elected representative is to look after the interests of the community, not corporations.”
Rhoda Mackenzie, a representative from the four townships, thanked John Finnie for his “constant support throughout the project”, adding: “It’s heartening to get an MSP showing his support. It does boost the morale that somebody in his position actually supports you.”
Pressing the crofters’ claim, she stressed: “We are simply trying to replace 21 multinational turbines with 21 community ones. The overall total of turbines will remain the same. The interconnector case is not affected – if anything it is strengthened by having community turbines as part of it.”