Executives at state-owned Prestwick Airport have been accused of unlawfully demanding compensation payments from wind farm developers, we can reveal.
ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) wants to build 18 turbines 30 miles south of Prestwick but claims the airport is offering to withdraw its objection in return for payments for the next 25 years.
The company’s lawyers said the need for the annual payments has not been detailed by the airport, adding: “Prestwick is obviously anxious to apply its standard approach to wind farms: namely to force the applicant to sign a confidential agreement on terms acceptable to Prestwick that will secure a long-term commercial income stream.
“We submit that Prestwick’s approach is unlawful.”
Documents seen by The Sunday Post show the Ayrshire airport has already received more than £8 million from wind farm companies in the past four years, including £4.4m in the past financial year when profits of £5.5m were reported – the first time the airport had been in the black since being bought by the Scottish Government for £1 in 2013.
Prestwick managers claim the proposed Clauchrie wind farm will interfere with the radar system and have refused to withdraw an objection to the plans unless SPR offers an annual compensation payment to the state-owned transport hub.
SPR, which has already handed over millions in compensation payments to the airport in exchange for withdrawing an objection to another local wind farm, has so far refused to agree to the latest demands.
The airport says the request is justified because the wind farm will impact on air space in the region. However, operators say cash from developers has already paid for a new £5m turbine-tolerant radar, which will be brought into service this summer.
In planning papers, the renewables firm suggested compensation payments from existing wind farms accounted for a substantial proportion of the airport’s profits in 2020.
TS Prestwick Holdco – a private company owned by the Scottish Government – issued an upbeat press release in December last year when it posted a profit of £5.5m, with chief executive Stewart Adams claiming it was down to the “development of new revenue opportunities and customers”.
However, in evidence to a planning inquiry, Anne MacKenzie, SPR’s senior aviation manager who previously worked at Prestwick, said: “The £4,452,000 received in 2020 would appear to be a significant contributor to TS Prestwick Holdco’s overall profit of £5.5m.”
Sources close to the process said: “The airport is using money from wind farm developers to prop up their business and include the wind farm mitigation money as revenue.”
With the exception of 2019/20, the airport made huge losses every year since the Scottish Government bought it in 2013 to protect jobs when then-owner Infratil failed to find a buyer. Ministers have propped up the facility with £43m of taxpayers’ money to save it from closure.
Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson has been trying to sell the airport and announced an unnamed preferred bidder in February, two months after the airport posted a profit, but the deal has stalled.
A cargo plane’s jet engines ripped up the asphalt on the runway at the airport last month, prompting a safety alert.
Sources claimed an internal management report two years ago flagged the need for remedial work on the runway but some of the repairs have not yet been commissioned and are unlikely to be done before world leaders are expected to fly in to the airport for the COP26 climate summit in November.
The airport has objected to SPR’s plans, claiming its existing radar will detect 11 of the 18 turbines.
The airport states it will only remove its objection if SPR offers an annual contribution for each of the 25 years Clauchrie operates. Zoe Kilpatrick, the airport’s commercial director, insisted there remained long-term safety concerns about the development of wind farms near the airport and insisted there would be additional costs from staff training, as well as upgrades to the radar system.
She said: “For the years ended 31 December 2018 and 2019 SPR reported a net profit of £150m and £284m, respectively.
“Given SPR and the airport are both commercial organisations, the amount to be charged should therefore be left to negotiation as would be expected in any commercial environment…it is part of its cost of doing business.”
However, SPR last week submitted a report to the planning inquiry that accused airport bosses of unlawfully attempting to squeeze them for cash.
The report, by law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn, said unchallenged evidence at the inquiry showed the airport received £8.2m from wind farm firms in the last three years and ring-fenced £6m for radar upgrades.
The report stated: “The evidence shows wind farm developers have already paid the full cost of installing Prestwick’s wind farm tolerant radar system and expanding it at some point in the near future.”
SPR lawyers went on to accuse the airport of acting unlawfully: “Perhaps most surprising of all is that Miss Kilpatrick was unwilling to disclose in public the amount of money Prestwick seeks from the applicants in relation to the proposal.
“In the absence of that disclosure and any clarity from Prestwick as to what they would spend these secret sums on, it is impossible to conclude that such payments would be reasonable never mind lawful.
“Prestwick’s approach to negotiating payments might be appropriate in a negotiation between two commercial organisations discussing a private contract to provide goods or services…we have no hesitation in submitting that Prestwick’s position on ‘mitigation’ in the context of the proposal is unlawful.”
SPR aviation expert Anne MacKenzie, who worked for Prestwick’s former owners Infratil for six years until July 2011, said: “GPA seems to be seeking perpetual support of its essential surveillance infrastructure by electricity consumers via wind farm operators, rather than from its customers, ie passengers.”
MacKenzie also gave a withering assessment of the transport hub’s future.
She said Prestwick was now the fifth-busiest airport in Scotland for passenger numbers, having been overtaken by Inverness. It was already behind Aberdeen, Edinburgh and close rivals Glasgow.
She said: “Ignoring 2020, during which Covid-19 had a catastrophic impact on pax (passenger) numbers, by 2019, GPA had the lowest annual pax numbers of the five airports.”
Prestwick is also at the bottom of the league table for aircraft movements, a crucial revenue stream.
The airport conceded in its evidence to the planning inquiry that its Wind Farm Radar Mitigation Scheme had already been purchased and was in the final stages of operational trials.
South Ayrshire Council has referred the application to an independent Scottish Government Reporter and a decision is expected later this month.
SPR said: “The comments represent ScottishPower Renewables’ position on planning issues and were raised in the appropriate forum of the planning inquiry. We now await the Reporter’s decision.”
The Scottish Government said: “It would not be appropriate to comment on a live application, which will be determined by Scottish ministers in due course.
“Glasgow Prestwick Airport is operated on a commercial basis and at arm’s length from the Scottish Government. Ministers do not intervene in commercial discussions at the airport.
“The process to return Glasgow Prestwick Airport to the private sector continues and we have committed to updating Parliament on the sale process at the appropriate stage.”
Shadow Transport Secretary Liam Kerr said: “Serious questions must be answered. Ministers must urgently confirm whether they were aware of airport bosses demanding these payments and when.
“The Scottish Government has thrown millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money at Prestwick Airport without any coherent plan to turn it around.
“Now a questionable picture of the airport’s finances may be presented to potential buyers. The public deserve to know what is going on. It is, after all, their money.”
ScottishPower Renewables last week sent its final submission to the inquiry into the proposed Clauchrie wind farm.
The report by law firm Shepherd & Wedderburn includes several sections raising concerns about the airport’s demands.
It says: “A wind farm-tolerant radar – the Scanter – will be brought into service this summer. Then, any clutter from wind farms that presents on radar screens will be removed.
“That is the purpose of the Scanter and that is the reason wind farm developers have paid Prestwick millions to fully fund the cost of installing the new radar system.”
The report gives a withering assessment of the airport’s insistence that unspecified amounts should be paid by SPR each year for 25 years: “We have no hesitation in submitting Prestwick’s position is unlawful. The point is that Prestwick believes it should be entitled to charge what it considers appropriate and to do so in private with no external scrutiny whatsoever. That is clearly an unreasonable approach.”
The report goes on: “The suggestion that an unspecified Department for Transport policy allows Prestwick to charge the applicants unspecified sums to cover unspecified risks at an unspecified date should patently be given no credence.”
It adds: “(The airport is) unwilling to disclose the amount of money it seeks from the applicants in relation to the proposal. In the absence of that disclosure and any clarity from Prestwick, it is impossible to conclude that such payments would be reasonable never mind lawful.”
The report concludes: “For the reasons set out above, we submit that Prestwick’s approach is unlawful.”
What the airport says
Prestwick Airport denies acting unlawfully in demanding payment from the wind farm operator and yesterday a spokesman said: “Wind farms cause considerable impacts upon radar performance and, for that reason, can pose a risk to aviation safety, which is the airport’s paramount concern.
“Glasgow Prestwick Airport has invested in radar technology which has the ability to mitigate some, but not all, of the impacts upon radar performance.
“However, there are costs and risks associated with considering each individual wind farm planning application, calibrating the technology to allow it to deal with any particular wind farm and thereafter ongoing costs associated with maintaining the performance of that technology over the lifespan of a wind farm, which is clearly essential in the interests of aviation safety.
“It is typically recognised and the industry norm that the party benefiting from the wind farm should provide compensation to radar operators for the associated costs and risks.
“SPR operates its own radar technology at Kincardine and typically enters into similar agreements with other wind farm developers who benefit from access to their radar technology.
“We gave full evidence to the inquiry that if permission is granted for the proposed development, the airspace above it will be compromised and that the airport will require to bear the costs and risks for the lifetime of the development in minimising that impact.
“SPR dispute that the airport has any legal entitlement to the payments. When SPR used the word ‘unlawful’ in submissions, it was arguing that the airport had ‘no legal entitlement’ rather than the airport had broken the law.
“The airport maintains that it has a legal entitlement to the charges it is seeking.”
Aviation has had to accept wind farms are a vital part of our future
by David Learmount, an aviation journalist and former RAF pilot
Airports use radar to monitor – and where necessary control – aircraft in their vicinity.
For a long time there have been two main types of radar: primary and secondary.
Primary radar is what most people think of when they visualise radar systems: a pulse of electronic energy is sent out, the reflected “return” from an aircraft is received, and the aircraft’s position displayed as a “blip” on a screen.
Secondary radar, on the other hand, sends out an interrogative signal that is received by a transponder in the aircraft, and the transponder replies with a signal that reveals not only the aircraft’s position, but its identification, and other information like its altitude and destination. Airports such as Prestwick usually have both types.
Radar works well with aircraft, because when airborne they are the only large objects up in the sky, so they can be seen distinctly.
If aircraft are close to the ground, primary radar picks up “clutter” caused by reflection from hills, buildings, or even trees and flocks of birds, and this can obscure the aircraft’s “blip” return on the radar display.
That includes reflections from wind farm turbines. Indeed, the latter are a particular problem because they are big, very high, and their moving blades confuse conventional radar, causing on-screen clutter that can obscure aircraft returns at low altitude.
Radar signals work in line of sight. They cannot “see” anything over the horizon – or beyond a hill – any more than the human eye can. If large objects such as wind turbines are close to a radar installation, they can render it almost useless, but many miles away
they are much less of a problem.
Wind turbines are not allowed to be built close to airports because they are a collision risk to aircraft taking off or approaching to land.
Aviation has had to accept wind farms are a vital part of the world’s future, so the industry is being forced to adapt to this new status quo. Fortunately, new types of radar – generically referred to as “smart radar” because installed software distinguishes between useful returns and clutter – have been developed and are becoming increasingly widely used by airports all over the world.
Prestwick itself is installing a smart radar called Scanter, which can mitigate radar returns from wind farms and other ground clutter, but it also provides additional surveillance capabilities that bring benefits for airport management.
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