Highland councillors and officials could end up in the European Court if they approve plans this month for one of the north’s most controversial windfarms.
Arrangements were being finalised yesterday for a site visit and special meeting in Portree on October 27 aimed at ending a 13-year wrangle over a proposed development at Edinbane.
But a last-minute conflict over the environmental impact assessment required as part of the planning process could leave the local authority in breach of European law.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has criticised the document compiled for the power firm Amec, telling council chiefs the environmental statement “has lost its cohesion due to the number of submissions and revisions”.
Research into the potential risk for golden eagles and other protected species, SNH said, “lacks transparency”.
Because all senior Highland planning staff were on holiday yesterday no-one could confirm whether officers would be recommending approval of the scaled down 18-turbine proposal.
The council’s principal solicitor Karen McLeod said: “Given that SNH has objected, and, if members (councillors) therefore wished to recommend approval contrary to that objection, I think we, as officers, would be duty bound to indicate to them that they would be required to refer it to Scottish ministers for notification.”
SNH has demanded a revised environmental statement, reminding the council that, because the nearby Cuillin mountains are within a Special Protection Area, EC law dictates the need for “an appropriate assessment of the implications for the conservation interests” of the area.
Agency chiefs insisted they had no objection in principle to an Edinbane windfarm, but had lodged a “holding objection”.
Kristin Scott, SNH west Highland area manager, explained: “Our position is to ensure that the developer provides further clear and accurate information on the impact of this proposed windfarm.
“In our view, the environmental statement addresses the majority of issues adequately and most topics have been largely resolved. However, it has become confused on the matter of golden eagles due to the number of submissions and revisions, and lacks transparency in a number of places.”
David Hodkinson, managing director of Amec’s wind energy business said: “It was disappointing to see SNH moving the goal posts again so close to the hearing and without any attempt at communicating their concerns with us.”
Consultant Simon Lawrence, who contributed to the company’s environmental assessment, told the Press and Journal: “I’m definitely taking legal advice. Maybe the best we can do is to get them (SNH) to retract this.”
Highland planning chief Sandy Park, who will chair the Portree meeting, defended its timing. Asked about the legal position, he said: “I’m not up to speed with all the European laws, but I’m sure we’ll be properly advised on the day.”
John Hodgson, chairman of the Skye Windfarm Action Group (Swag), said: “Highland Council blatantly broke European law by granting planning permission for the Ben Aketil windfarm. Should they once again contravene Scottish and European law by approving this application, we will take immediate action.”
Police and the local government ombudsman have spent some months investigating Highland Council following a complaint that they were negligent in approving the neighbouring 10-turbine Ben Aketil windfarm. It has been alleged that, in that case, proposals were based on geographically-specific information gleaned from planning applications elsewhere.
By Iain Ramage
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