CONSERVATIONISTS have accused large power companies of effectively bribing communities into supporting wind farm developments, undermining the integrity of the planning process.

Ramblers Scotland spoke out after energy firm SSE announced £50 million for community projects in the Highlands over the next 25 years, to coincide with the firm submitting two new wind farm applications to the Scottish Government.

The applications are for wind farms in Inverness-shire – 83 turbines at Stronelairg, east of the Glendoe hydro scheme at Fort Augustus, and 36 at Bhlaraidh, north-west of Invermoriston. Both have been scaled down from earlier plans, which were for 140 and 138 turbines respectively.

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland said the developments would result in the industrialisation of a large part of the otherwise unspoilt uplands around Loch Ness, but SSE said the plans were designed to minimise impacts on the main tourist routes and attractions of the Great Glen and Cairngorms National Park.

It has summarised its commitments to the communities and people of the Highlands in a statement of intent issued with the applications and insisted yesterday all it was trying to do was ensure a positive local legacy is left.

It includes a commitment to maximise local job opportunities, as the investment would create more than 800 job years in the local area; provide £50m over 25 years for community projects, including skills and training initiatives; actively promote new business opportunities to local companies; and create apprenticeships and skills opportunities for young people in the Highlands.

But in response, Helen Todd, development officer with Ramblers Scotland, said: "The levels of financial support that developers are able to offer local communities in order to persuade local communities to support wind farm developments is little short of bribery to get planning approval.

"As we have said before, the integrity of the planning system is at stake."

Helen McDade, head of policy at wild land charity the John Muir Trust, said: "Although community benefits sound like a good news story, and it is for some, it should be remembered that a lot of this money is coming from electricity consumers.

"The John Muir Trust would argue this money should not be given to private companies to decide which community or project is deserving and which is not."

David Gardner, SSE's director of onshore renewables, said yesterday: "We believe that, following many months of working closely with key consultees, we have refined our proposals for both Bhlaraidh and Stronelairg and have come up with extremely well-designed and sensitively-sited projects.

"Many people in the Highlands know us as 'Scottish Hydro' and we are determined to continue building a positive lasting legacy. "