TAKE ABSENTEE landowners, tenants too scared to speak out, precious private water supplies, the industrialisation of the rural landscape and the transfer of monies from the poor to the rich and you have a picture, not of Nineteenth Century Ireland but of North-east Scotland in 2012.
I am fighting a wind farm development on the hill above my house. I should say from the outset that I am no Delingpolean climate change denier, in fact I believe strongly that we are not doing enough to consider our current and future energy needs. Why do my urban friends think I have taken a massive political lurch to the right because I choose to fight for the countryside surrounding my home? Why do they smile and shilpitly suggest that they find turbines ‘majestic’? It’s because they are not directly experiencing the rapacious galloping momentum of wind farm development in rural Aberdeenshire. In fact they may not experience them at all until they book a holiday in one of Scotland’s most beautiful areas and a National Geographic ‘Must See’ destination.
I live at Breda Estate nestling under Coiliochbhar Hill a few kilometres to the west of Alford. Renewables developer Infinis wishes to build six 115 metre turbines at the summit of this hill and far from the photomontage of ‘majestic’ and static turbines framed against a white sky background, the wind farm comes with accoutrements that include electrical control buildings, construction compound, 25 parking spaces and 4km of wide load ‘forestry’ tracks. Disingenuously, the wind farm is to be called Tibberchindy after a derelict 19th Century farmtoun, rather lovely with its original mill leat, that lies just below the site. If you’ve never heard of Coiliochbhar Hill (eulogized by North-east poet Charles Murray no less) then Infinis can be absolutely sure you’ve never heard of Tibberchindy. All this is 8km outside of the Cairngorms National Park, one of the most protected tracts of land we have in Scotland. Look at the map of cumulative turbine effect that Infinis are obliged to supply with their planning application and you will see I fall into the ‘ring of fire’- a wide band of turbine development covering Aberdeenshire, Speyside and the Highlands- A donut if you like with the Cairngorms National Park as the jam in the middle.
Fourteen months ago I tentatively emailed an anonymous website, the No To Tibberchindy Wind Farm Group, offering my support. I had all the stereotyped ideas of anti wind farm campaigners, staring-eyed Tories, with all the green credentials of Donald Trump. Actually they turned out to be a small group of incomers (like myself) who have chosen to come to Scotland, set up businesses here and enjoy the high quality of life that Donside provides. All were successful in their business fields and enjoyed living and contributing to the local community.
Interestingly all wore their own green credentials with great pride- sheep’s wool insulation, biomass boilers, lovely properties of interesting energy saving design. These were people who really cared about this country. Yes they were nice middle class folk but then they had to be. We all put in a sum of money to start off the campaign. We had a few other generous supporters. For nearly a year we’ve met at least every two weeks and produced two leaflets, various banners and a website. We organised a protest walk to Coiliochbhar Hill and generally enjoyed the intellectual rigour of debating with like minded and informed people. We are lucky in Aberdeenshire as we have many retired scientific professionals. Our supporters (signed-up through our website) gave invaluable professional submissions to our Group objection. As a core group we knew nothing about sound or the law or dry heath moorland but we found supporters who did. Then we met every night for two weeks to shape up our arguments. Wind Farm objection takes over your life.
And then right in the middle of the October school holidays, eleven months after the first public exhibition by developers Infinis I got the phone call I was beginning to think would never come - Tibberchindy Wind Farm had been lodged with Aberdeenshire planning department. Because wind farms are not recognised as a blight on properties there was no onus on Infinis to make its submission by any given date.
Infinis describes itself as providing 10% of the UK’s renewable energy. I can’t begin to guess how many staff have been working on the Tibberchindy Project since 2007, the date they acknowledge that they first ‘assessed’ the site. As residents we had just 4 weeks to lodge objections. A wind farm proposed to generate less than 20MW of electricity is subject to the same planning criteria as a conservatory or a fence with the same time scale for public comment. Not to be defeated we have, through our network of supporters, managed to distribute leaflets and put up several banners in strategic locations. Our local press, in common with most regional journalism, is made up of cut and paste amateur press releases with little political bite and no political bottle. Beyond the first bonny photo of Coiliochbhar we struggled to get any meaningful coverage once the application had been lodged.
The Infinis application itself, when paper printed, is three and a half inches thick. This is intimidating to both the internet savvy and to vast swathes of the rural community. No person visiting the local planning office can possibly be expected to peruse the whole document. While I want the submission to be robust and detailed I want it to be intelligibly accessible to local residents. As you would expect, it is a master class in euphemism and obfuscation. Eight scheduled monuments and ten Grade A listed buildings will look on to all six turbines but this is to have “negligible effect”. 13,021 HGV movements will have, you guessed it, “negligible” effect. With hindsight I realise now that we should have spent the last twelve months whacking in FOI requests as each new wind farm in the area was constructed. This is what happens when you have a scattergun approach to renewables development and a highly protected core. The FOI requests would have started to inform us of the off-balance sheet (Infinis’s that is) costs of renewable development. The costs to Grampian Police for the managed LGV movements in getting the turbine parts to site: the cost to Aberdeenshire Council for strengthening local roads and extending curb edges to accommodate wide loads. It’s now apparent to me why there has been a flurry of road ‘upgrading’ in the local area.
When the application closed for submissions, local objections stood at a remarkable 366 (with 3 in favour). I say remarkable as one of the revelations to me in this whole exercise is the very feudal nature of North-east rural life. I return to my opening lines.
I have heard many stories of people who are too frightened to object to any local development whether housing or turbines when the land belongs to Estate owners. In an area where many people have a private water supply originating in some distant, unplotted spring, I have heard several people suggest that the local laird can interrupt water supply in retaliation for an objection; others fear that the loan of harvest machinery will be withdrawn; if an estate tenant then an objection will not be forthcoming for obvious reasons. I know of ‘undercover objectors’ who feel strongly but don’t want their name used. When enjoying lunch at an Inn recently, on reporting that the toilets where broken it was whispered, yes the wind farm developers broke the water pipe and there is sediment in the cisterns. The Inn landlords can’t complain because they are tenants of the estate.
I have a friend who is an estate tenant. She has no central heating, no insulation and the original windows on the house freeze on the inside in winter. The ‘kitchen’ – which any one else would recognize as a 1950’s scullery – is black with mildew. She is too scared to have upgrading work which Aberdeenshire Council would pay for because she fears the ‘Laird’ would increase her rent. The house has been subject to a rent tribunal which found that as no work had been done since 1970 then there could be no rent increase. I am fighting this wind farm for her. It’s a question of old fashioned class war. The renewable levy is an inequitable tax. It takes from all households including my friend and deposits subsidies into the hands of Scotland’s wealthiest landowners. I believe it might be around forty thousand pound per turbine.
Wind farm developers have a new weapon to use against local protest groups. It’s called the Advertising Standards Agency. Infinis reported the No To Tibberchindy Wind Farm Group for misleading advertising namely a photomontage of a wind turbine alongside Craigievar Castle, our nearest ‘tall’ building. I could revisit our response here but I won’t. Depressingly we lost and have ended up on the naughty advertisers listing. Public money was wasted on an investigation and referral to the ASA committee where the only sanction is ‘don’t use that advert again’. We are not a commercial enterprise and have no commercial reputation to protect. I have no doubt this is done to intimidate and wear down. Anyone thinking of starting an anti wind farm group beware – you need time and money and a very robust attitude to official letters dropping through your door in Christmas week.
Historic Scotland, The Cairngorms National Park and the RSPB are all statutory consultees in this process and their submissions on this development are to say the least disappointing. I wonder if they have the manpower, budgets and, more importantly political will to really dissect the plethora of wind turbine applications.
Tibberchindy is a ‘big one’ with ‘big turbines’ in an area of landscape significance. I just hoped they might. The only organisation to really impress me so far is the Donside Community Council. By their own admission, this is the biggest issue they’ve ever had to deal with and they are the organisation who gets to administer the proposed planning gain/community bribe, for them a monster £26k (Infinis’s suggestion and should be seen in comparison to the millions of pounds in subsidy that Infinis will earn from the development and the tens of thousands per turbine for landowners). Ok, the DCC’s public consultation was only advertised on their notice board in Alford village and in the local papers, which have a falling circulation of less than 5000, and they conducted a survey. But impressively one committee member had read the entire 3 and a half inch thick Infinis submission and when he presented it to the rest of the committee he was impressive in his clarity, understanding and impartiality. Despite 96% of those surveyed opposing the development, 2 committee members still voted with landowners.
Coiliochbhar Hill is a special place. Largely dry heath moorland with a magical Tolkienesque woodland close to the summit. Few people ever go there. It’s a strenuous walk. But the views from the top are sublime. And by definition the views of six 115 metre turbines will be visible for 70km along the Aberdeen- Cairngorms National Park corridor which is the designated Highland Tourist Route.
Coiliochbhar Hill creates the saucer shape that is the land formation of the Howe of Alford. The sun sets behind the hill darkening the land below and creating a silhouette of the skyline. I make no comment about noise, or flicker effect or ice throw; but equally I make no comment on our need for alternatives to fossil fuels.
This is a story of local democracy and the challenges to it.
Tibberchindy Wind Farm is still to come before Marr Planning Committee.