Developers fund the winds of change

Money paid out to communities for projects near wind farms can be a valuable resource for the whole area, says Rachel Searle-Mbullu

Wind farms, such as this one above Ardrossan, are very much a part of Scotlands landscape. Picture: Donald MacLeod

LOVE them or loathe them, onshore wind farms are doing more than generating electricity. In some areas, the voluntary funds paid by developers operating the wind farm are helping communities implement projects which are changing people’s lives for the better.

A wind farm given planning consent now is likely to be providing index-linked annual voluntary payment of circa £5,000 per/MW to the local communities near the wind farm for the operating life time of the wind farm. This can create a valuable resource for the local area. A recent study by Foundation Scotland – Taking Stock revealed an annual current value of community benefits from onshore wind farms in Scotland to be in excess of £6.92 million, potentially reaching as much as £18.87m annually by 2017 and up to £50m by 2020. The scale of the opportunity is highlighted by comparing these figures with the European Union rural development programme, known as Leader in Scotland, which over the 2007-13 period invested approximately £60m into rural communities – an average of £10m annually.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

There is no doubt that the scale of the opportunity is potentially transformative. But it can take time for communities to grasp this and turn it into a reality for themselves, even once they’ve got past the bribery allegation that is sometimes made, or local tension that these funds can expose. Conventional community development practice is about developing plans and projects from the bottom up, at a pace suited to the community and in a manner that reflects its capacity and aspirations. But funding will often need to be secured. These community funds can provide the finance – or at least some of it. In some cases, the community that is set to benefit will have a vision and plan in place, and can therefore “hit the ground running” when the funds become available. However, in most cases communities, with help from others such as Foundation Scotland, must take the time to debate, discuss and form consensus on what is needed in their area.

Three characteristics single these funds out. They are unusually flexible in what can be supported, the decision-makers can be community members themselves and their unprecedented 20 to 25-year lifespan offers a platform from which communities can plan for the longer term. As a result, communities in rural areas with sparse resources which are low down the pecking order in negotiations over local developments and service provision may quickly find themselves part of a new picture of collective wealth, opportunity and empowerment.

This is evident in stories of local transformation that are emerging. A local organisation in Dumfries and Galloway, Nith Valley Leaf Trust, has invested £35,000 from the SSE’s Clyde Community Fund towards the purchase of a new-build three-bedroom house. The house will be let on a short-term lease to maintain flexibility and the monthly rent will be pitched at an affordable rate. It follows that 30 families could benefit from this community asset over the 90-year life of the house, helping stem forced outward migration from this small rural community.

Investments like this are likely to become more commonplace as larger funds become established. Some communities are using income from community funds to purchase other kinds of assets – pubs, shops, woodlands, a cinema – that can begin to not only reverse decline, or stagnation, in some rural areas, but earn the community further income for re-investment locally. In other instances, the fund is contributing to the cost of apprenticeship schemes, running vital transport, care or recreational services that otherwise may not be provided locally.

To help maximise the potential benefit for communities from these funds, Foundation Scotland has recently published the UK’s first community-led charter on community benefit from onshore commercial wind farms.

It has been developed with a group of community representatives from across Scotland involved with community benefit funds. The charter sets out some key principles and minimum standards for communities, developers, local authorities and other stakeholders to consider when establishing funds and that will help achieve positive social and economic outcomes that endure well beyond the lifetime of the wind farm.

Taking Stock and the charter are available at Individuals, developers, community organisations and government are encouraged to endorse the charter on the foundation’s website.

• Rachel Searle-Mbullu is head of community investment, Foundation Scotland,