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The Highland Line: why wind farm plans were a no-brainer for Harris community

Congratulations are in order for the movers and shakers on the North Harris Trust who announced this week that they had finally reached an agreement to build a three turbine wind farm at Monan about five miles north of the island's capital Tarbert.

As the estimable trust chair Calum MacKay, declared: "We set out in 2003 to develop the Monan site. Directors have worked doggedly to find a way through the many set-backs thrown their way. After over ten years, it looks as though this year we will see turbines on the site. This project will bring much-needed new income to the Trust and the local community."

The income for the community should be more than £1m over the 20 year life of the turbines, certainly not to be sneezed at on an island that has suffered decades of chronic depopulation.

The community-led trust had been desperate for years to find a secure and long term source of income to help finance other project that would help Harris keep more of her people and attract others to settle.

So there was local outrage when Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) decided to object when the proposal began its journey through planning. This was a set-back and a half. SNH was worried it would impact on the mountainous character of the South Lewis, Harris and North Uist National Scenic Area, (NSA), and on visual amenity.

Even some of SNH's natural allies had thought they had gone too far on this one. Many saw that the NSA could stand three turbines, better than Harris could tolerate the loss of any more people. The island's population has been falling steadily since 1921. Between 1951 and 2001 there was a loss of 50%. It started to stabilise but between 2001 and 2011 it still fell by 3%.

There were more than a few in the Scottish Government who had the same concerns and appeared to call SNH's bluff. In July 2007 a couple of months after forming a minority administration in Edinburgh, SNP ministers announced there would be a full public inquiry because of SNH's objection -very costly, very time consuming.

The agency, never the most popular body in the islands, was the target for even more Hebridean anger. But by early September of that year it had changed its mind: "We stand by our advice. This development will have an impact on the national scenic area and visual amenity. With SNH as the only objector however, this is something of a special case and we are doubtful of the value of a full Public Inquiry. We have therefore retained our advice but withdrawn the objection."

Result!! However other hurdles appeared but one by one the trust overcame them and this week the news came through that Windflow UK Limited and the North Harris Trust had reached agreement to construct the three turbines on an elevated ridge at Monan.

Windflow UK Limited sells, builds, owns and operates wind projects, and is wholly owned by Windflow Technology Limited, the New Zealand based manufacturer of mid-size wind turbines. The turbines for Harris will be manufactured in New Zealand.

A joint venture company called Monan Wind Company Limited has been set up to build and operate the project. North Harris Trust owns 10% of this joint venture through its trading company and will receive a rent on behalf of the community for the life of the project.

It will be within a mile of the Clisham, the highest mountain in the Outer Hebrides at 2,621 ft. But despite that it is being backed by the likes of the wild land charity the John Muir Trust (JMT) who have something of a reputation for fighting wind farms proposed for inappropriate places. And none more so than Helen McDade JMT's head of policy.

But she said: "The John Muir Trust congratulates the North Harris Trust in getting this scheme back on track. This is the kind of community-scale, well-designed and sensitively sited renewables project that we believe should be encouraged as an alternative to the unsightly and ecologically damaging industrial-scale wind developments driven by energy corporations across much of the Highlands."

Even the Mountaineering Council of Scotland appears relaxed about the development.

Rarely has there been such support for turbines in the Highlands and Islands.

Meanwhile over in Moray councillors have also been debating matters green and now a major new cycle route could be created on the back of Elgin's £86million flood alleviation scheme.

Moray councillors have agreed to apply to Sustrans - the national agency which promotes sustainable travel - to meet half the cost of the £1.3million initiative.

It is proposed that the cycleway would follow the River Lossie corridor from west to east through Elgin and using some of the features - such as raised embankments - being built as part of the flood scheme.

As well as creating an easy route to Elgin's business parks and train and bus stations, it would also provide a link to visitor attractions and everyday destinations such as Elgin library, the Cooper Park, Moray Leisure Centre, Johnstons of Elgin, Boroughbriggs and Elgin Cathedral.

A report to the council said: "It offers potential for cycling and walking facilities remote from the A96 by linking key destinations and other cycling and walking facilities."

The route which had been identified would be within a five-minute walk for 95% of people living in Elgin.

So stopping damaging flooding could help the good people of Elgin get fit and reduce the town's carbon foot print at the same time - bit of a no-brainer really.

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