A SMALL Sutherland community is challenging the method used to make pay-outs from a multi-million windfarm community benefit fund.
Rogart has been pushing for some time to have its annual share of the Gordonbush fund ring-fenced for its own exclusive use.
At present groups from the four communities covered by the fund – Helmsdale, Brora, Golspie and Rogart – are invited to make bids into a central “pot”.
But Rogart feels this system does not allow it to make best use of the funding available.
Community council chairman Alasdair Waddell, who is also chairman of Rogart Development Trust, said: “The fund is currently operating in a way that is not best suited to longer term, strategic projects that can add lasting value to any community.
“Ring-fencing would mean that just because a community did not come up with a way of spending money in any given year, it would not lose access to that year’s ‘pot’.”
SSE, the power company behind Gordonbush, has confirmed that it is now consulting over the issue.
Gordonbush fund manager, Fiona Morrison, and head of community investment, Morven Smith, attended a meeting of Golspie Community Council on Monday and are due to meet with the other three community councils in the New Year.
The £100 million, 35-turbine Gordonbush windfarm, sited on a Strathbrora sporting estate, came on stream in June 2012. Consent has just been granted to erect a further 15 turbines.
When it was first established, the Gordonbush fund, worth around £144,000 per annum, attracted criticism from then Helmsdale development officer Peter Carson.
He claimed it was “miserly” and represented just 0.5 per cent of the total profit the windfarm stood to make.
He also called for the fund to be split on a per centage basis between the four communities rather than be kept in a central pot.
However the “pot” system was established and a panel, with local representation, formed to decide on funding applications.
At the time the fund was set up, Rogart Community Council was in disarray, following the resignation of three long standing members.
But two years ago a re-established Rogart council set up a steering group to look at the way allocations were made, not just from the Gordonbush fund but also from the Kilbraur windfarm fund.
The group felt that Rogart was not benefiting to the same extent as the other communities in each fund.
It recommended that the communities should be able to ring fence a quarter share, should they so wish. It was also felt that allowance should be made for groups which covered East Sutherland as a whole.
SSE responded that Rogart would have to meet three objectives before it would consider any changes – the community had to set up a properly constituted body to apply for funding; undertake a community consultation; and establish a track record in delivering projects.
These objectives have been met with the creation of Rogart Development Trust which is spearheading an exciting project to transform the historic Rogart auction mart into a multi-purpose venue.
Morven Smith, speaking after Monday’s community council meeting, said: “The meetings are about us being fair to all of the communities. If Rogart gets its quarter share, then we wanted to offer that to the rest of them.
“It is about getting a fair solution and us being flexible enough to look at what might work for everyone and that is one of the beauties of us administering the fund and not having a third party doing it on our behalf. We have the flexibility.
“This has been something that has been going on for a couple of years. We have written and contacted the community councils to update them on progress and it is fair to say that nobody really expected Rogart to meet the objectives as quickly as they have done, but they have done and it is now about the next step.”
Ms Smith said SSE was keen that, whatever happens, the Gordonbush panel stays in place.
She said: “We have a number of different models. The Achany Fund is ring fenced and still operates a panel system and it works very well. We want the panel to stay in place because it acts as a sounding board and we do not want communities to retreat away and operate in isolation.”
Golspie Community Council chairman Iain Miller said: “We will be discussing the issue further to decide on the council’s view."