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Wind farm firm accused of attempt to sway planning bid with cash payments

A WIND farm developer has denied paying money to supporters as he defended hiring people to assess backing for a controversial project.

Ministers refused Spittal Hill Wind Farm Ltd permission to build a 30-turbine wind farm in Caithness last year, but the company has now re-submitted plans for seven turbines near the village of Spittal.

Local opponents say it is still too many, as the county already has 100 large turbines with more on the way. They also question the company's tactics.

They claim that those in favour of the original development were paid £20 each in cash to go to a meeting and be part of an invited audience.

Meanwhile, members of Caithness Windfarm Information Forum (CWIF) said they had received reports about the company paying a team to collect signatures in Inverness in support of green energy projects in general, and Spittal Wind Farm in particular.

Tom Pottinger, director of Spittal Hill Wind Farm Ltd, said people ­attending the public hearing had not been paid but were offered expenses.

He added: "We have recently submitted a revised planning proposal to ­Highland Council and engaged a small team to promote the merits of renewable energy development, both locally and to the wider Highlands area, with the opportunity to support the Spittal Hill scheme if they wished to. "

One opponent who claims supporters were paid cash to attend the meeting is Diane Craven.

She said: "Someone I knew received an invite to the meeting and they gave it to me. I wasn't invited. Neither were any of the other critics. On the way out we got £20. I said thank you very much and immediately gave it to the local opposition group."

But Mr Pottinger said: "During the public inquiry in 2012 for our original application, those attending were offered expenses to cover the likes of childcare and travel. This was not specific to those speaking in support for the proposals and Spittal Hill Wind Farm Limited did not pay people to attend the hearing and speak on their behalf."

Mr Pottinger said his firm would make a capital investment of around £27 million, and a community benefit fund of £105,000 annually.

When Energy Minister Fergus Ewing refused the 30-turbine application, he said it was due to the cumulative visual effect, when considered with existing and consented farms nearby.

The company has stressed a lot of work has been done on its revised application, dramatically reducing the number of turbines.

Stuart Young of CWIF said seven turbines would be less intrusive than 30. He said the argument was made in the planning process that the first development has the greatest "magnitude of change" and succeeding ­additions a lesser impact, but added: "If you can't watch the telly with the curtains open because of four turbines, it is just as big an imposition as not being able to watch the telly because of a dozen windmills in the view."

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