Make Renewables a Charitable Purpose and Reap a Community Windfall
There’s been a lot of attention paid to community owned renewables in Scotland, with the Dancing Ladies of Gigha generating power and saving money for the community. Many other mainland communities have also been investing in power. Sadly, none so far has been urban. This is partly because of difficulties with the Castlemilk project in Glasgow.
Wind power may become the most significant funding stream for community action in the next 20 years. Where communities are not in receipt of amenity payments from commercial wind turbines, they’ll be seeking to build their own.
The community group I’m involved in – PEDAL -> Portobello Transition Town is currently working on a project for Portobello Promenade. And here lies another problem with community renewables. The process is long, drawn out and expensive. Just to get the turbine proposal through the planning process is likely to cost around £70,000. We have committed as a group to holding a community ballot on whether the turbine should go ahead and ensuring the money generated is used for community benefit.
We’re also currently looking at becoming a charity. Once we’ve got the turbine and become a charity we’ll need to create a subsidiary company which owns the turbine and passes any surplus to PEDAL, which could then be put to community use.
That’s a pretty complex process. But it could be solved at a stroke if the government were to add generation of renewable energy by community organisations to the list of charitable purposes. This would mean there was no need to set up a subsidiary company (a bureaucratic headache in itself) and be liable for more VAT and corporation tax on the earnings.
The government should also streamline the planning process for community owned projects where a ballot is needed. It seems daft to have projects planned by and for the community subjected to the same processes as potentially predatory private developments. Removing some of the obligations for community consultation would seem to be a sensible start to this process.
It’s also probably the time to add a more general provision for sustainable development to the charitable purposes. Several groups have had difficulty registering as charities where their sole charitable purpose has been “the advancement of environmental protection or improvement” and their main aim has been dealing with climate change. Obviously the outdated wording of this purpose should be updated to include sustainable development.
The government could also ensure that local authorities and other public agencies, like the NHS, make roof-space available so communities can use this to generate solar electricity.
With the sort of income that renewables can produce for communities, there will be a very real shift in the power to fund local activities. This can only be a good thing for the many community groups that have to rely on the vagaries of Council funding. Community activists will be the obvious beneficiaries of this windfall.
It seems so obvious that sustainable development is something we have to focus on closer. I think better now than later.
The UK Charity Commission agreed some years ago to accept ‘sustainable development’ as a charitable purpose
I don’t know if any explicitly Scottish charities have tested the water here.
Thanks for your response. I agree that there shouldn’t be a ‘get out of jail free’ for community groups. It’s just that where (and I think only where) your group has had a community-wide ballot, and won more than 50% of the vote I can see a good case why you shouldn’t then have to do more of the consultation elements of the planning process.
I see that I wasn’t quite clear enough about the restriction of this exemption to applications where there’s been a community ballot.
And I think these developments should be open to a Third Party Right of Appeal as well.
Agree with most of what you say esp that charitable purposes should be amended to include generation of renewable energy, but I can’t go with you on the notion that community groups should be exempt from some/all of the obligations of community consultation/ planning laws.
It may be frustrating and expensive, but just because a group is based in a geographical community, doesn’t mean it represents everyone in that community. It’s possible to set up a charity with three members!
So, any developer proposing a major development, of any sector or legal status, should still need to prove it has the support of the wider local community.
We can’t look both ways. Greens shouldn’t promote open government in the public sector, and a third-party right of appeal against private sector developers on the one hand, whilst giving the third sector a ‘get out of jail free card,’ to build giant renewable installations all over the place! (However good that might sound to most the readers of this blog).