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A turbulent turbine: Highland community torn between income and landscape

A single wind turbine could transform a Highland community's fortunes, but at what cost to the sublime landscape, asks RICHARD BAYNES in a special investigation

A mock-up of the proposed turbine
A mock-up of the proposed turbine

"I'd like to talk to you about the wind turbine." The clipped, anglo-accented tones of Gabby Rex ring down the phone.

The call is about something else, but she diverts the conversation to the planned wind turbine in Coigach, just north of Ullapool, where her 8000-acre Badentarbet estate lies.

The turbine proposal is for a site above Achvraie, part of the long coastal straggle of crofts and houses around Achiltibuie, and for 20 minutes Mrs Rex talks about how she feels it will damage tourism, and scenery, and is not needed.

These days, any wind turbine will generate opposition as well as electricity. Highland communities are installing them to generate cash they need to survive.

I love Coigach, and one thing she says next makes me curious: "It's on Scottish Wildlife Trust Land: I don't think a conservation organisation should allow it."

The trust's Ben More Coigach estate is 14000 acres of some of the finest Torridonian sandstone scenery. Its central peak, Sgurr an Fhidhleir, or the Fiddler, is a mighty wedge of rock to match the crumbling magnificence of Stac Pollaidh across the broad glen to the north.

SWT is the lead partner in the Coigach Assynt Landscape Partnership, which at the end of October received £3m Lottery cash "to conserve the landscape of Coigach-Assynt".

This is a National Scenic Area (NSA) running from just north of Ullapool for 30-odd kilometres up the coast and perhaps the same inland: lochans and rocky hills, fringed by sea-cliffs, coves and the lovely Summer Isles. Its scenery matches - beats - any UK national park.

Rex is fierce in her opposition to the turbine. Equally adamant is Reiner Luyken, a German journalist, tourism operator and something of a controversialist who lives in Polbain, another hamlet of the Achiltibuie cluster.

Over the phone he tells me there are plenty of objectors, saying: "You cannot have the idea of a wind turbine in an NSA. The Highlands are increasingly spoiled with these things, and it's on us to preserve these last areas that are exempt from industrialisation.

"We have put years of effort in to show this place off as it is and people come here for the landscape. They don't come here for a nice little Highland community, they want this phenomenal landscape, and if you plonk a turbine there it's gone."

But Coigach Community Development Company's website and that of its Coigach Windpower Ltd subsidiary are confident, speaking of broad community support and a ballot giving 68% backing to the turbine idea.

The turbine could raise vital cash for the townships strung along the Coigach coast. The community of 300 has the classic symptoms of fragility: shrinking school numbers, ageing population, lots of second homes, inadequate infrastructure and dependence on tourism.

The company has convinced not only locals but the SWT that it's a good idea, and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and wild land charity the John Muir Trust have decided not to object. So just how strong are the arguments?

The best way to find out is to go and have a look so, after asking Scottish Wildlife Trust for an interview, I head for Coigach.

Author and land reform campaigner Alastair McIntosh once wrote that it's easy for a journalist to enter a small community, possibly at the behest of malcontents, win unsuspecting folks' confidence maybe over a beer or two, then air everybody's washing in ways that few would want or recognise.

He was in fact writing about Luyken's foray some years ago on to Eigg, to write about community ownership there, which ended in controversy.

It's a good point, but that shouldn't stop a journalist with a genuine interest in the place taking a look: better, surely, than a knee-jerk news report letting naysayers excoriate a conservation body for backing a wind farm, or ignoring it because a loose cannon such as Luyken is involved?

Luyken writes the Mail from Achiltibuie column in German weekly paper Die Zeit, and has been a correspondent for the paper for years.

I imagined him a plump and choleric Helmut Kohl, an incomer irritated by the un-Teutonic chaos of Highland life. At his home at Polbain, to the north of Achiltibuie proper, I find he is slim and humorous, and has lived here for 35 years, most of his life, working in fishing as well as writing.

His wife is from Achiltibuie and he is part of the extended family tree of village folk, most backing the turbine.

He shows me his holiday homes, the Brochs of Coigach. The luxurious cottages set into the hillside and clad in stone with turf roofs have stunning views of the Summer Isles and Loch Broom.

They cost £750,000 to build two years ago and are decorated with expensive art - I see John Bellany, and some unattractive Tracy Emin prints.

He says the quality of the place keeps them full all year round. The turbine five miles away won't be seen from here, but it would be seen from nearby.

At his kitchen table he declares: "Landscape, landscape, landscape - there's just no doubt that's the thing they are coming for.

"I have an objective measure for that too - from the Facebook site for the business. Every day I put a new photo on Facebook ... If I compare the landscape photos and other photos - there's no comparison, it's landscape. If I put in a photo saying that's a real character it might get 150 views. If I get good landscape shots I get up to 50,000 views, and 40 shares.

"From that it is so obvious that if you want to develop tourism here landscape is the only thing that counts."

He contests the development company's argument about economic and social fragility: "They always say there is nothing here and we're all so poor, the community is dying on its feet. It's all a load of crap, the community is very, very wealthy."

For him, halting the school decline just means people having more children, although many in the ageing population have had children elsewhere and returned when careers and middle-aged wealth allow it.

We head out to the turbine site in his pickup and I see why he might raise hackles: he makes personal criticisms of some of the turbine's backers, and I get the impression he thinks helping yourself is the only way you should get on.

We half-walk, half wade up to the site in winter rain and sunshine. It is starkly beautiful, a patch of glittering wet bog above the village with the sea and Summer Isles below, and the dark cone of Conmheall - Conival - as backdrop.

The turbine will have an overall height of 77m, and at the site the CDCC has erected a slim 50m mast to get an idea of the wind energy available.

"I really don't know why they think it will be OK to put this industrial installation here," Luyken says. "It's all about money." On that he's right, but that doesn't mean CCDC is wrong.

From Luyken's house I go a few yards to the home of Iain and Lesley Muir. When I visit, Iain Muir has just stood down as founder chairman of the CCDC and a new chair is to be appointed soon. His wife was head of the village school: she left when lack of pupils shrank it to a one-teacher setup, and is now establishing a pottery business.

He radiates calm; she fizzes with feeling and concern at the fragility of the community - it seems that the school's decline is a personal insult to her.

I am supposed to be interviewing Iain but she cannot keep silent when I suggest the turbine is easy money. The figures are rough but Muir says £2m would be borrowed: once the turbine is running, it could bring in £150,000 a year for the first 10 years, while the debt is repaid. After that it could bring in £250,000 a year, with no-one actually doing anything on a day-to day basis.

She says: "It's absolutely not money for nothing. We've worked at this for 10 years of volunteer time. I was a member of the very first group that got together as an offshoot of the community council to look at this: it's a massive effort from a small group of people, an incredible amount of work."

Iain Muir explains that some years ago the local community council could see the problems of the school, the lack of social housing, no premises for new businesses and an over-reliance on tourism and creel fishing, and decided to tackle them.

The development company was launched with Highlands and Island Enterprise backing and two part-time staff.

Top priority is housing. More than half of Coigach's houses are second homes, but many second-home owners including the Muirs are local people who let them as self-catering accommodation, an economic necessity where decent incomes are hard to come by.

Neil MacKenzie, the builder working on Lesley Muir's new pottery workshop, is a recent arrival. He lives in what used to be a holiday home owned by his family.

He has young children and Lesley is delighted he's here but the holiday home is the reason he's been able to move in. "We just wouldn't have been able to buy here," he says.

People hang on to property, adding inflexibility to the market, because getting a house here is impossible for their children.

"The market here is a south-east England house price level," says Iain Muir. A nearby bungalow went on the market for £240,000 but sold for just under £400,000. He says it is not much used.

Building a social housing scheme in the village 30 years ago brought a rush of new blood. "But what are the chance of the local authority building more social housing here now?" asks Iain Muir. "None. So we are masters of our own destiny when it comes to that sort of thing."

The concrete pier in the middle of community serves fish farms and tourism, but it was built 100 years ago and is falling apart. There are fears it could be closed, and Highland Council won't have cash to repair it, while Old Dornie harbour, where fishing boats moor, is tidal, restricting when boats can move, and lacks facilities. Businesses are working out of sheds.

Much of this could be fixed with an income for the community from a turbine, which would also make the place carbon neutral.

Iain Muir spells it out: "This community needs an income. We have identified an awful lot of projects that need funding, so for us it's a no-brainer. If someone were to come along and say 'we'll give you the same money by some other means', we would go for it."

He says there is no evidence a turbine will damage tourism. His wife and other local artists sought visitors' views: "These tourists said to me 'Good on you'", she says. "I asked will this single turbine put you off? 'No', they said, 'It's good to see a community standing on its own feet.'"

The site was chosen with care: it has an existing road to a water treatment works, and CCDC is also developing a hydro-electric turbine on the site. Iain Muir says the wind turbine will only be able to be seen from 4% of the land of the national scenic area, and be invisible from the area's summits.

They insist it will be seen as part of the settlement, and when I point out it will be ten times the height of a house Iain responds that it's only a tenth the height of the mountain behind, and won't be seen on any skyline.

The arguments in favour roll on: there is a 120-page environmental impact statement backing the plan, Scottish Natural Heritage is happy with it, and 95% of objectors listed by planners at Highland Council have no connection with Coigach.

Iain Muir says that there is one principle objector in the community and "others go along on his coat tails." Luyken has not pointed to any personal animosity over the issue, but when I ask the Muirs how they get on, Lesley indicates her anger with him and alleges dirty tricks, saying she has contacted police about an internet stunt in which he used her picture in what looked like a clumsy attempt at satire. "He is a master of misinformation," she says.

The landscape here continually distracts me here: the view to the snow-capped An Teallach; the looming ogres of Cul Mor and Stac Pollaidh on the road from Achiltibuie to Polbain.

Thinking about the Muirs' points, I walk down to the beach at Achnahaird, on the north of Coigach, and see clean, sweeping breakers with streamers of spume, momentarily a surfer's paradise, against heartbreakingly beautiful mountains.

I drag myself away to head to the home of Gabby and Peter Rex, who own much of this landscape. The elderly couple live in a comfortable but far from grand home just outside the village.

By their log fire Mrs Rex directs me to their objections logged with Highland Council rather than giving an interview. The objections are similar to Reiner Luykens - they write of the enjoyment visitors take in the landscape, call the turbine an alien machine and point to the National Scenic Area status.

Mrs Rex does, however, want me to note what she says about SWT: "I am sure they are going against their members' views," she says. "It is a conservation organisation yet it is allowing the turbine."

She says she and her husband are more willing than some to speak out against the turbine, but adds: "It can get very difficult to oppose things."

Working out which locals object to the planning application is difficult because addresses are redacted on the Highland Council website, but the CCDC says more than 100 local people have supported the scheme, while around 15 have objected.

One crofter who said on the phone he is against the turbine will not speak now because, he says, of the potential effect on his business.

After knocking on several more doors, I phone Kenny MacLennan, 61, a tenant of Badentarbet, and a crofting assessor for a large stretch of the local coastline.

He believes the costs of the turbine will be too high, and projected income is over-optimistic, saying: "It's not sustainable and it's not green."

But he has not formally objected: he would if it was on the same estate as him, but his croft at Blairbuie near Reiff is about as far away in Coigach as you can get from the mast site.

Coigach Community Hall is a hive of activity, with a crew using it to build a set for a forthcoming feature film. They're here for the scenery. The hall is the base for Peter Muir - Iain's cousin and a part-time local development officer for the development company.

Peter Muir is passionate about the turbine project, and defensive when I suggest it might seem inappropriate for the wildlife trust to back it.

He leafs through the 120-page environmental impact assessment, and for the first time I see photomontages showing how the turbine would look in the landscape.

Some are startling: one tenth of the height of the mountain, from sea to summit, is a big chunk of a view. One shot in particular reveals what I think is a big intrusion on the view of Achiltibuie from Polbain, an attractive picture of a crofting community strung along the shore with fine hills behind. With the turbine it is diminished.

Peter says: "I don't mind the turbine in the view. It's doing something positive. Every time it goes round, it's 7p earned for the community."

In the community hall kitchen there I share tea and biscuits with older members of the community who meet here. They talk of when Coigach had 2000 people, four schools, many more shops: the little store at Polbain, a personal favourite, closed last summer.

They want the turbine: "You have to do something when a place like this is struggling," says one woman.

I head for the Fuaran bar at Altandhu, another local township, to hear other views and yes, maybe tongues loosened by drink. But no-one among the early-evening crowd is caught out, none to be quoted by name.

Feelings on the turbine mixed, but most agree one phrase sums it up. "It's a necessary evil," says one man. "We will put up with it because we need it.

"We would probably rather not have it but nothing else will generate income and if you want to generate green energy too there has to be some cost."

Weeks later, I sit down to talk to Mark Foxwell and Bruce Wilson of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Foxwell has managed the Ben Mor Coigach estate for more than 10 years. Wilson is the trust's Living Landscapes Policy Officer.

Foxwell says they back the development company: "It's very much the way forward and we will do whatever we can to support them in their ambitions, partly indeed because some of the money from this [the turbine] will be used to do environmental stuff."

I ask them how the turbine squares with the ideals of a conservation charity and Wilson

tells me: "The primary aim of the SWT is to do with biodiversity and not landscape."

Though the two areas often overlap he has to judge schemes on their impact to wildlife and habitat. The impact on them of the turbine is "not significant."

Foxwell points out it there is a rigorous planning process, and although what I have seen looks very much like wild moorland, he says: "It's in-by land and has a history of intense human activity ... to suggest it's a wild landscape is incorrect."

So will SWT members and donors, many central belters who probably love landscape and wildlife, be comfortable with the turbine ?

Wilson explains the plan has gone through a well-developed Trust council system where members views are reflected, and Foxwell returns to the community benefit: "I think the vast majority of our members will probably be unaware of the turbine but what they will be aware of is that as an income starts being produced and things start happening on the estate and as the school role goes up because folks can afford to live there, because there's something to do, and they start doing up some of the infrastructure, that's what our members want to hear about."

I wonder how they would feel about it if the project was put forward by a big energy firm or a local businessman, and Foxwell suggest that they would be unlikely to approach SWT in the first place.

As the Trust official asked to judge the application, Wilson says he was careful to treat it like any other application. But did they feel forced to back the turbine by fear the community might turn against them? Conservation organisations may not be Dutch millionaires, but are still an outside landlord, and Peter Muir hinted to me that a conservation group might not be immune to community buy-out.

No, says Foxwell , pointing to the Living Landscape project and its £3m grant: "Whereas down in the central belt you manage little pockets of land for nature conservation benefit as the primary objective, that is not the overarching objective of owning places like Coigach. We were very keen to work with the community in Coigach bringing as much benefit from the landscape and land for community benefit as we can."

There are clearly disadvantages to the turbine. Pictures of how it will look I find worrying. The vote among local people, 68% in favour, also makes me uneasy. A majority might vote for change, but those against have made the not-unreasonable assumptions that something like this is impossible - it's a national scenic area and the ground is owned by SWT. I can't help feeling sorry for the Rexes at least.

From figures on the Ofgem website and talking to a wind turbine expert, I see the level of subsidy in the turbine income: it appears between 60% and 80% of it will come from the feed-in tariff, the subsidy paid over and above the market price of the electricity for green power, which in turn is derived from the extra that power companies charge us.

The money is needed by the community but it is money for things which many would feel local or national government should supply. Should communities have to implement a controversial policy to earn it?

For the Muirs - all three - and most of the community the undoubted benefits the project will bring make it unequivocally the right thing to do, and the consent of conservation groups is understandable.

Highland council planners are expected to consider the plan on Tuesday February 18. If it is built, it will do a lot of good but many people will regret the intrusion: a necessary evil indeed.

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