A RURAL community benefit fund in west Caithness is sitting at over half a million pounds that is going nowhere fast.
The Caithness Courier can reveal that at the recent seventh AGM of the Halkirk District Benefit Fund it was struggling to find applicants for the approximately £600,000 in its bank.
The six trustees of the fund – which reaps money from the operators of the Causewaymire wind farm – are desperate for people to apply for funding, chairperson Katherine Cartwright said yesterday.
"It’s surprising we haven’t had more applications for support," she said.
"I think too many talk themselves out of applying when they could well qualify. We’ve tried to make the application forms as easy and user-friendly as possible."
She added: "The money is sitting there and I’d urge people to think about how they can access it."
The fund’s ‘patch’ includes Altnabreac, Banniskirk, Calder, Georgemas, Halkirk, Harpsdale, Spittal, Mybster and Westerdale.
"We cover a large geographic area and there is a surprising number of clubs and organisations active within it," said Mrs Cartwright. "We’d encourage both clubs and individuals to apply if they believe they could be eligible for support."
Set up in 2004, the fund is underwritten by annual contributions from Npower Renewables, which operates the 21-turbine wind farm.
Groups to have benefited include 1st Halkirk Guides, Halkirk F.C., Halkirk Primary School and Halkirk Village Council.
The biggest single donation was £100,000 to help renovate Spittal village hall. It also benefits individuals such as talented young local sports performers.
But uptake of the money has been slow and Mrs Cartwright now believes there is merit in groups working together on a joint project which could qualify for support from the fund.
The fund had one of its bigger applications from those behind the proposed new sports complex at Halkirk’s main playing fields.
But while a contribution had been agreed, it was towards phase two of the plans, involving the creation of an indoor sports centre. As this phase has been delayed, the application was time-barred though a new application would be entertained.
Looking at the bigger picture is something that ex-Highland Councillor and Halkirk resident David Flear reckons could be a wise choice for the fund’s trustees.
"If people are not using it then they need to look at the criteria for people getting access to the fund," he told the Courier.
"It maybe needs to be rethought for what the fund can be used for, maybe even stimulating some training for young people.
"There’s quite a lot of unemployment in the area so is there something they could do with the college or another similarly positive move?"
Mr Flear cited the fact that there are already several funds active around the county as a possible reason for the money gathering interest rather than benefitting the local community.
"Maybe they need to speak to other funds around the county to see if there is a gap in what they are providing that needs to be filled?" he said.
"The last thing you want to see is a fund that’s meant to benefit the community sitting with a massive bank account."
Potentially opening up the money – which is meant to be spent in the directly affected radius of the windfarm – to a larger area is something Highland Council is keen to see developed.
But its three-tier strategy for local, county-wide and regional "pots" from renewable developments does not cover the threshold income of the Halkirk fund.
"Sometimes the area that the fund covers is limited in terms of population when you think of how much money is coming in," said Mr Flear.
"You have young people that see Thurso as their main town but the resources there can’t access these rural funds, yet these young people use the bigger towns like Wick and Thurso as their main centre for recreation. That’s a difficulty," he said.
Funding is available for constituted groups and individuals within the community who wish to apply to become a member. Applicants should be registered on the electoral roll for the area and complete the appropriate application form which is available at either Halkirk or Westerdale Post Office.
The decision of how funding should be used and distributed is made by the directors who meet approximately ten times a year.
See www.halkirkdistrictbenefitfund.org.uk for information.