A FORMAL complaint casting doubt on the fairness of a crucial community vote on contentious proposals for three turbines on the Black Isle is being lodged by a local resident who believes “the whole thing stinks”.
The plan by Black Isle Community Energy (BICE) for community-owned turbines on Forestry Commission land at Millbuie Forest has divided local opinion and feelings were running high this week when ballot papers asking people if they were in favour of the scheme were sent to 8,000 residents.
Steve Horsfall of Culbokie was shocked to find a “thinly disguised campaign leaflet” from BICE was included with the voting slip he received on Monday.
He claims he, and many others he has spoken to, believe the background information included with the ballot papers is not balanced as it doesn’t include the opposing views of the pressure group No Black Isle Wind Farm which is against the proposal.
However, BICE responded this week by saying it had “bent over backwards” to ensure the supporting information is “fair and reasonable”.
Highland Council, which is overseeing the vote, also gave its assurance this week that it is being run entirely in line with procedures and appropriate guidance.
Mr Horsfall, who is not a member of No Black Isle Wind Farm but agrees with a lot of its arguments against the project, said he is in the process of writing to Highland Council and the Electoral Reform Services to complain.
“When the ballot paper arrived on Monday, I was shocked and stunned that the so-called background information leaflet only presented one side of the argument regarding the wind farm proposal. And they even had the cheek to put their logo on it and a link to their website,” he said.
“In my opinion it is a very loosely disguised campaign leaflet which is designed to hoodwink the people of ward 10 into voting yes.
“It’s beyond belief that anyone could say that this is ‘fair and balanced’, which is the main criteria of the Forestry Commission’s ruling on this, as the vote is being arranged on their behalf.
“How can this be so when the public are only getting one side of the story in a so-called background info leaflet? The more I think about it the angrier it makes me. In my opinion the whole thing stinks.”
Martin Sherring of BICE said the guidance for the ballot came from the Forestry Commission as his group wants to rent the land for the turbine development through its National Forestry Land Scheme.
He said the commission recommended the ballot included a question as well as some supporting information that should be fair and reasonable.
He said the draft wording of the background information for the ballot was circulated to seven local community councils, who were also contacted by No Black Isle Wind Farm.
He said two community councils responded by saying no supporting information should be included with the ballot papers, two others said they had no view on the matter and the remaining three community councils did not reply.
The local Black Isle councillors were also contacted and Councillor David Alston intervened by contacting the returning officer of Highland Council, who considered there were no issues with the wording being fair and reasonable.
Mr Sherring said one No Black Isle Wind Farm member wrote a letter with suggestions for the wording and some changes had been made in line with some of his valid recommendations.
He said that BICE had bent over backwards to meet the requirements laid down by the commission.
Highland Council has appointed the Electoral Reform Society to administer the ballot on its behalf.
A Highland Council statement said: “The ballot is being run under the National Forest Land Scheme (NFLS) and we are following exactly what is required in the guidance on conducting the ballot. Part of the ballot is the requirement for the community body to outline its proposals for the land.”
The statement continued: “We are aware that within the community there are widely opposing views and diverse opinions, but we can give the assurance that the ballot is being run entirely in line with procedures and appropriate guidance.”
A spokesperson for Forestry Commission Scotland said: “The guidance we give to NFLS applicants makes clear that a community body is entitled to actively promote its proposals. We also advise that supporting information provided to eligible voters should be balanced and factual.
“The community ballot is intended to demonstrate the level of local support for the NFLS application and the process allows for opposing views and challenges to be lodged with our NFLS team. The applicant is then allowed to respond to any issues raised.”
He added: “We do not seek to comment on or support background information but will be pleased to receive opinions from the wider public during the open consultation period."