The Campaign to Protect Rural England alleged that wind developers were sweetening neighbourhoods with lunch clubs and sport pitches in return for their acceptance of a new plant in their area. This, said the CPRE, was bringing England's construction permissions system into disrepute. A cynic might say that, whatever the ethical rights and wrongs behind the payments, there must be a large question mark over the sweeteners' effectiveness, for they have failed to usher in a wind boom. As this column has noted before, England has huge potential for wind, yet boasts fewer megawatts per head than many of its less wind-blessed international competitors. In England, as in other windy nations, once the anti-wind brigade finds its voice, the promise of a new community centre or sports hall will rarely change its view.
Yet there is more than one way for developers to engage a community. Indeed, it is often better when communities engage the developer. Developers have found that when a project is genuinely community led, it can bring a whole suite of benefits. When communities come in at the very beginning of the development as equal partners, helping use local contacts to assemble sites and secure rights of way, as well as winning the hearts and minds of people in the area, they can help a project flourish where it might otherwise have foundered.
By contrast, when all a community brings to a project is goodwill, it brings very little. Goodwill is important, of course, but when local people are not prepared to take on any risk, nor do any other preparatory work, opening negotiations with them can become unattractive at best, at worst pointless. Less appealing to a developer is the community that says, "Give us a slice of your wind farm's returns and we'll support your project" than the one that says, "Let's join forces at the start, as equal partners".
As our feature this month illustrates (p55), when local people get properly involved in wind development the results can be impressive. Projects where communities work with wind developers - as genuine partners - can bring huge benefits to developer and local community alike. But developers should be wary of neighbourhoods that ask for a piece of the action from a wind farm without doing any of the work. And regardless of whether they are ethically sound, sweeteners such as a sports hall or community centre are unlikely to be enough to silence committed wind power antis or mobilise those that are quietly pro.
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- Ben Walker is editor of Windpower Monthly