In the coming weeks the Deputy Enterprise Minister, MSP Allan Wilson, intends to approve energy company Airtricity’s plans for a wind farm at Greenock’s Muirshiel Regional Park, despite the development’s rejection at a Public Enquiry, and advice from his own civil servants. The proposal near Greenock has also been objected to by government consultees such as Scottish National Heritage, Inverclyde Council, BAA/National Air Traffic Services and by non-government consultees such as the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park Authority among others.
Documents seen by insider contacts at the Executive show that Wilson has consistently pushed for approval of the application, since and despite of its rejection at Public Enquiry. Instructing civil servants to advise him how best to circumvent or reject the remaining objections, in tandem with the developer making amendments to the development, so that the path is clear for him to give it consent.
Wilson has also been advised to consider removing himself from the announcement and associated flak of the decision so that he avoids any accusations thereafter of bias towards the developer. Particularly in light of concerns being raised by members of the puclic regarding a possible conflict of interest. This is due to the Minister being a good friend of Brian Wilson, his former election agent, who has since been appointed Chairman of Airtricity’s UK operations group. Wilson made no reference to their friendship in his official register of interests despite the obvious overlap between their friendship and their work together on respective sides of the application process.
Inverclyde Council, the relevant planning authority, were reportedly surprised by Airtricity’s choice of site and objected to the development because they found it to be contrary to a number of its development plans, forcing a Public Enquiry to be held in March 2005. The Public Enquiry’s reporter, Karen Haywood, submitted her report to the Executive almost a year ago. Where it lays on the desk of the Deputy Enterprise Minister, awaiting his ultimate decision and an end to protracted speculation over the proposal, which has exasperated residents since the application was submitted in 2003.
The reporter’s objections to the application were that the development would be contrary to a number of the council’s development plans, that it would have a detrimental impact on the current operation of Glasgow Airport and have an unacceptable adverse impact on Clyde Muirshield Regional Park.
She reported that if the wind farm went ahead, the radar returns from the turbines at Glasgow Airport’s air traffic control would create a potential safety hazard with regard to airspace in the vicinity of the development. Effectively creating a potentially dangerous radar black-spot by cluttering the radar returns at air traffic control. Thereby limiting the potential for future increases in air-traffic. Radar issues are now the only obstacle to approval of the application and civil servants are working at Wilson’s insistence to find ways to reject the reporter’s findings in relation to the park, and satisfy the relevant aviation authorities.
The site is located in the far north-eastern corner of Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park and the developer acknowledges that there would be a significant impact on the landscape around the site, including views from two of the park’s main walks. The reporter described it as an exceptionally important access and recreation area for locals, due to its proximity to a deprived urban area where car ownership levels are low. Scottish National Heritage have also objected to the proposal for its impact on the Park, calling it an important recreational “˜lung’.
Yet there is scope for Scottish Ministers to overrule a development’s rejection at Public Enquiry if they are satisfied that the social and economic benefits of the proposal are of national importance. This is how the Minister intends to get round the reporter’s findings in relation to Muirshiel park, despite there being only two other Regional Parks (Pentland Hills and Fife) in Scotland.
The Scottish Council for National Parks in their submission on the proposal state that the first renewable energy policy in a structure plan prepared by them in 1995 and approved by the Executive, indicated suitable sites for wind farms. This excluded developments in regional parks in order to preserve their fine landscapes. Yet there are now several applications to build wind farms within Clyde Muirshiel Park currently under consideration at the Executive. Approval of the proposal is therefore likely to open the floodgates to wind farm developments in the park, and on other supposedly protected landscapes.
The Scottish Executive’s own June 2000 Circular on the Habitats and Birds Directive states that a potential SPA such as the Park must be treated in the same way as a classified SPA when considering proposed developments. If the proposal is likely to have a significant impact on the SPA then Scottish National Hertiage must be consulted. If SNH’s assessment is that the development will adversely affect the area, states the circular, then alternative solutions must be considered. It goes on to state that any such development should only be permitted where a) there is no alternative solution, and b) there are imperative reasons of over-riding public interest, including those of a social and economic nature.
So keen is Wilson to get the development consented that he has even suggested and is working to impose a negative suspensive condition, which would allow the development to be consented before a solution to the radar issues has been implemented, so long as it does not have an adverse impact on the future operational effectiveness of Glasgow Airport.
It had seemed that any such consent would first have to be referred back to a Public Enquiry or almost certainly be subject to a Judicial review or legal challenge, which could be raised by concerned groups such as Keep Corlic Wild. However Wilson is trying to prevent a legal challenge, or the case being referred back to Public Enquiry by arguing that so long as BAA/NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority are satisfied, there would be no need to ask the other consultees for their input. This limited consultation is another of Wilson’s ideas to push through approval of the development and circumvent the remaining objections.
The Minister is also emphasising that the developer has offered “˜significant undertakings’ for local economic benefit which surely raises issues regarding EU competition law. Urging in a recent memo to senior civil servants; “˜I would be grateful if officials would engage closely with the company in order to try to ensure that local economic and Scottish manufacturing benefits are maximised’. Despite the fact that the Minister must be well aware that local economic benefits should not be the overriding or main consideration in his final decision.
All of which begs the question; why is the Executive bending over backwards to approve a badly sited development that has been objected to by Scottish National Heritage, the relevant council, BAA/NATS and at a Public Enquiry and which could reduce the potential for increases in air traffic at Glasgow Airport. Why have the reporter’s findings not been released to the public eight months or more after being submitted to the Executive and why have the public not been kept informed of developments while the Executive works closely with the developer at Allan Wilson’s insistence towards approval of the proposal.
At a time when the Executive has recently increased its target for renewables to 40% of Scotland’s energy portfolio by 2020, and with wind farm applications in the offing which amount to more energy production than Scotland currently generates in total, the follies of the application and consent process need airing in public. The Greenock case in itself suggests that the public’s right to be made aware of all the facts, to expect an open and transparent application and consultation process, and for its Public Enquiry verdicts to carry weight, is not being met by the Executive.
The need for renewable energy is fundamentally driven by environmental concerns yet environmental protection and the preservation of wild land are being marginalised by the Executive under Wilson’s supervision in order to meet its renewables targets.
posted by Jamie Ellis at 2:34 PM
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