Community councils ‘best placed’ to represent communities regarding windfarms

Following our recent report on a planning application for a wind farm at Tralorg, two former chairs of Carrick biggest community councils have got together to comment on the issues raised.

Alec Clark, former chair of Girvan and District CC and now a South Ayrshire Councillor, and David Kiltie, former chair of Maybole CC although no longer a member, both believe that community councils, the only community bodies recognised in statute, are the best placed institutions to reflect the needs and aspirations of the people whom they represent.

They say: “Community councils are a living part of their community and are aware of the concerns and wishes of all strands of that community which therefore allows them to make representation for and on behalf of that community.

“This makes a good community council the first stop for all types of groups, individuals and organisation who either need help or advice to help them move forward with issues to enable the improvement of community life.

“They are also the body which works with local elected councillors, who are ex-officio members of their community councils, to either make them aware of local issues or the potential effect on the community of planning developments.

“All of this is recognised by the Scottish Government in the form of The Community Empowerment Bill. They are also, of course, the major lobby group for issues affecting their local and wider communities such as the Ayr Hospital Accident and Emergency provision, the Maybole Bypass and the Girvan Swimming Pool and associated leisure facilities.

“Other major developments which need input and guidance from local communities and community councils are of course wind farms. Planning Advice Note (PAN) 3/2010 provides more up to date guidance on community engagement.

“Community councils represent the wishes of their community on issues such as wind farms and other planning developments through representation either in favour or against when these applications are considered by the South Ayrshire Council Regulatory Panel.

“During the application presentation they should be given the right to speak to their supporting statement or objection without fear or favour and to hear this considered in a fair, reasonable and professional manner at all times.

Mr Clark added: “During this process on March 21, the Chair of Girvan and District Community Council exercised this right in his statement to the Regulatory Panel in favour of a wind farm development at Tralorg, to the east of Girvan.

“Members of the panel then behaved in a quite unprofessional manner and made statements based on individual opinions which brought into question not only the integrity of Kenneth Johnstone but also the integrity of Girvan and District Community Council who had acted with the best interests of the community at all times in their dealings with wind farm developers PNE.

“In doing so they called into question the impartiality of all community councils in their dealings with major planning developments.

“This behaviour is unacceptable and is a threat to democracy and the democratic processes which community councils adhere to.

“Add to this the statements to the press by members of the Regulatory Panel which were totally unfounded and unsubstantiated and the whole process was brought in to disrepute.

“Training and guidance should be given to the Regulatory Panel members to ensure that this debacle does not happen again and an unreserved apology should be give to both the chair and members of Girvan and District Community Council both past and present, hopefully allowing all community councils to regain trust in the due planning process.

Mr Kiltie commented on the statement by the chair of the panel Peter Convery, “Community Councils have a role to play, but you can’t get totally and utterly in bed (with developers) in the way they did. It became increasingly clear they had gone well beyond what the guidelines are.

“This is totally wrong,” said Mr Kiltie, “and Councillor Convery should not have used the term of ‘getting in to bed with’ as I’m fairly sure that under the Code of Conduct for Councillors he is out of order.

“He should also know that the guidelines he was referring to have been superseded. Councillor Nan McFarlane apparently raised the issue of the Scottish Government’s Planning Advice Note 47 for community councils, suggesting GDCC had gone too far.

“However, later advice has been issued which they should certainly be aware of.

“PAN 3/2010 actually encourages such discussions!

“It says that the Scottish Government expects engagement with the public to be meaningful and to occur from the earliest stages in the planning process to enable community views to be reflected in development plans and development proposals.

“This PAN points out that prospective applicants are required by law to consult communities before a planning application is made for a national or major development.

“It states that the purpose of pre-application consultation is for communities to be informed about development proposals and to have an opportunity to contribute their views before a formal planning application is submitted to the planning authority.

“This is to improve the quality of planning applications, mitigate negative impacts where possible, address misunderstandings, and air and deal with any community issues that can be tackled. During pre-application consultation the dialogue is between the community and the prospective applicant.”

Mr Kiltie continued, “It would seem that what Maybole Community Council and Girvan have been doing is indeed correct practice. Ken Johnstone did not deserve the intemperate language used by councillors on the Regulatory Panel. Members who mistreated him in this way should personally apologise to him and possibly congratulate him on knowing more about planning than they do.”

“It is interesting that PAN 3/2010 also says behaviour should be open, honest, respectful and non-discriminatory. Perhaps members of the Panel should reflect on this.”

He went further, adding, “Community councils are unique. They are statutory, but they are not another tier of local government. The council can’t dissolve them. The Acts of Parliament governing Community Councils allow for them to take any action they deem appropriate to improve their community.

“Does it not make sense, therefore, that community councils should be able to discuss with developers what is being proposed?

“For many years, Maybole Community Council has been doing just that and councillors have known about it with some even attending meetings between the community council and developers.

“There have been talks with supermarket chains, and other private companies as well as wind farm developers.”

“Apparently, Councillor Convery says an investigation has now been launched by an executive director of South Ayrshire Council into the contact that took place between GDCC and the developers PNE Wind.

“This must be halted and indeed perhaps an investigation into the impartiality of Panel members started?”

The present Maybole Community Council chair, Mark Fletcher, has also stepped in saying they have written to the Council to express concerns as wind farm companies are contacting them and other community councils.

“We in Maybole CC are obviously not aware of all that has gone on between Girvan and PNE except what we read about in the paper. They would appear to have been involved in conversations with the wind farm company regarding the number of turbines, the height of the turbines and the possibility of work on the site, if approved, for local people and then finally an agreement for a community benefit fund.

“We are not sure if there isn’t a single community councillor that would consider anything they have done here to be wrong - particularly in light of PAN 3/2010 which effectively replaces PAN 47 which was quoted at the Panel meeting.

“However, it would appear from the articles in the newspapers that the Regulatory Panel does not agree. We would say that we feel the language and choice of phrases used by the councillors is often very harsh and that they are unnecessarily attacking individuals personally, and their remarks could also be considered very inflammatory and without question unprofessional.

“Comments of ‘they have got into bed with developers’ suggest that they have taken backhanders. It is accepted that community councillors and community benefit companies can handle the benefits given by developers.

“We don’t see how trying to get the best deal for their community can be seen as getting into bed with the developer as a community council that didn’t secure the best deal for the community would be sharply criticised and would be derelict in its duty to its community.

“Other comments from a councillor states that they have been selfish - in what capacity? There is then a reference to them going too far and against Planning Advice Note 47, which has been replaced.

“We are curious to know how many CCs are aware of, or familiar, with this document as we have members with 30 years of service on our CC who had not heard of it. It would appear that SAC has never sent it to our elected planning person and at no time, though we have not had a lot of contact with the planning department, have they ever suggested referring to it.

“This advice note is a little difficult to follow in our opinion and furthermore somewhat irrelevant. As it has been quoted we should look at it as it raises questions for us over the Tesco and Co-op applications.

“Section 4 says that we have a statutory right to be consulted on planning matters; effectively giving developers the right to talk to us.

“Section 6 says that “a community council’s local knowledge and newly extended responsibility in commenting on applications will make them a key stakeholder in local planning policy. (something we feel was ignored in the Tesco/Co-op considerations by the Panel).

“Section 8 states that “the government sees a community council’s key task as helping to provide an informed local context within which sensible decisions can be made. Also included in this section is that the authority will work within local development plans (again Tesco is outwith the plan and was granted whilst the Co-op which was in the plan zones was rejected, against local input.)

“Section 10 states that all community councils are different and the areas they cover will vary greatly, so the planning authority should get to know the areas and people they are effectively over.

“Surely this can only be achieved by meeting with all the CCs individually and regularly. In our experience councillors on the Regulatory Panel choose to leave meetings when planning issues are discussed. This is their right but then how can they say that they understand local opinion.

“Section 20 states that discussions between applicants and community councils are strongly discouraged. Does this then not take away our statutory right of consultation and also our wealth of local knowledge and ability to inform in a local context - effectively taking out section 4,6 and 8. However we now know that this has been amended in PAN 3/2010 .

Mr Fletcher adds, “We feel that the accusations made against Girvan CC are unfounded and they were not the only CC involved in this process. We understand that Pinmore and Pinwherry CC were also involved but get no mention.

“We would certainly hope that, because they supported the plan where the others did not, Girvan has not been used as an example. If that were the case it could also suggest that the Regulatory Panel is an anti wind farm lobby. We are certain that neither of these are the case.

“We would like to see an apology to Girvan and a retraction in the papers of the comments made, simply because any prospective developers looking at this must surely be thinking, if it is so difficult to work in this area because CCs and council aren’t working together, why bother and go somewhere else.

“Towns in Carrick featured in the top ten most likely to disappear in the economic downturn according to documents issued last year, and without investment from developers, and we are not talking just wind farms here, where will new jobs and better infrastructure come from?

He is looking for clarification and concludes, “PNE have requested meetings with Maybole CC and Crosshill, Straiton and Kirkmichael CC to discuss a proposal for a wind farm out towards Straiton.

“Will there be similar issues if we continue down this route or is all this simply a misunderstanding?”

Peter Mason is the present chair of Carrick Community Councils’ Forum and the Association of South Ayrshire Community Councils.

He commented, “Having served as a community councillor for over 15 years, I really think SAC should clarify what the position is with community councils.

“Their own handbook says that CCs should ‘ascertain, coordinate and express opinions on behalf of the population they represent.

“Is this now a new position SAC is taking when they say a CC is going to be investigated for talking to a developer?

“You must take wind farms out of the equation. Is SAC now saying that CCs can no longer talk to any developer - be it about housing or even SAC themselves?

“Only a short time ago Maybole CC members were asked their opinion on a new school campus.

“Is it now not correct for CCs to even talk to SAC about things that would effect their area?”

Both Mr Clark and Mr Kiltie were involved for many years with Carrick Community Councils’ Forum and The Association of South Ayrshire Community Councils.