Highland councillors have dramatically gone back on a decision they made last month to grant planning permission for a 23-turbine wind farm next to a National Scenic Area in central Sutherland.
At a special planning hearing in Lairg last week, they reversed the planning approval previously granted to international power company Airtricity Developments (UK) Ltd and instead voted 19-11 to refuse the development at Beinn Rosail, Strath Oykel, near Invercassley.
The move has delighted opponents of the wind farm, who were bitterly disappointment that the go-ahead had originally been given in the face of widespread local hostility. They also claimed the permission had made a mockery of the council’s own recently completed and much-lauded renewable energy strategy because the site was completely outwith any preferred area identified as suitable for large-scale wind developments.
They also feared that, with one wind farm already in the pipeline for the area and another currently under review, they would be surrounded by turbines which would wreck attempts to attract tourists to the district for its scenic beauty and through initiatives such as the Rosehall mountain bike and walking trails.
Stephen Mouat, Durcha, said after last Thursday’s meeting in Lairg: “We are very pleased that common sense prevailed at the end of the day. I don’t think it was a suitable application. I think it was a mistake to approve it in the first place.”
The U-turn has angered Airtricity and international businessman Mohammed Al Fayed, on whose Invercassley Estate the wind farm was set to go. Mr Al Fayed was represented at the hearing by his factor, Gordon Robertson of Balnagown Estates.
The power company said beforehand that if the development got the go-ahead then the revenue from one turbine would fund training places for local people at Inverness College UHI. They also claimed it would underpin a housing development planned for the Rosehall area. But opponents of the scheme claimed these inducements were merely “bribes” designed to influence the outcome.
It is understood that prior to last Thursday’s hearing, some councillors received letters from Inverness College UHI relating to the training places on offer. A letter detailing the community benefit to be gained from the development was also sent to the six Sutherland councillors by Peter Campbell of Balblair Farm, Bonar Bridge.
Planning and develop-ment director John Rennilson advised coun-cillors at the outset of the second hearing that they must disregard the letters because they did not relate to material planning issues.
Airtricity Scotland’s chief executive, Alan Baker, said following last week’s refusal: “We are extremely disappointed that the council refused planning permission for Invercassley, despite a clear majority for consent at the planning committee in September.
“We believe the wind farm at Invercassley would not only have generated green electricity but would have brought economic and employment benefits to the area’s communities which the council and the community councils say are economically fragile.
“The wind farm would have complemented the developments at the Balnagown Estates and the tourist centre at Falls of Shin, the biggest visitor attraction in Sutherland. The decision means there will be no wind farm at Invercassley to fund the renewables energy training initiative we promised for up to 20 students a year from the Highlands.”
Mr Baker said Airtricity would now consider whether to pursue an appeal against the decision.
Members of the council’s core planning, development, Europe and tourism committee considered three applications for wind farm developments in the Rosehall area – including the Invercassley application – at an initial planning hearing at Lairg on Friday 29th September.
Councillors at that meeting voted 12-6 in favour of the Invercassley wind farm and also approved a 19-turbine development by E.ON UK Renewables some 2.3 kilometres north-east of Rosehall. They turned down an application for a 23-turbine development at Achany Estate. That application is now the subject of an appeal.
Three days after the meeting, Highland Council convener Alison Magee, who represents Central Sutherland, tabled an amendment asking the full council to overturn the Invercassley decision. This was signed by all six Sutherland councillors along with Councillors John Green (Caithness North East) and Bill Smith, Provost of Inverness.
The issue was set to be discussed at a meeting of the full council in Inverness in October, but was postponed because storms and floods prevented Sutherland councillors from attending. It was agreed the full council would hold a second site visit and planning hearing at Lairg last Thursday, at an estimated cost of £10,000 – criticised by some members as unnecessary.
Only 30 of the council’s 80 members attended last week’s hearing and one Sutherland councillor, Duncan Allan of Dornoch, was unable to vote because he had not been on the site visit.
Councillors heard strong opposition to the development from planning director John Rennilson, who said the wind farm would be skylined on a ridge and highly visible from a number of viewpoints. He also said planners had received 38 letters of objection to the proposal.
Objections were also lodged by Scottish National Heritage and the Royal Society Protection Birds, who were concerned about the effect on the golden plover population in the area. The council’s transport environmental and community services (TEC) services also expressed grave concern that the fragile single-track roads would be unable to cope with heavy construction traffic. All three community councils – Creich, Ardgay and Lairg – lodged objections.
Councillor Magee told the hearing: “It is extremely important that we bear in mind the Renewable Energy Strategy. It is absolutely ground-breaking and the first such exercise undertaken in Scotland.
“It was undertaken because we felt there needed to be some guidance on where national and major scale renewable energy projects could be sited. If almost the first time we put it to the test we go against it, then it calls into question the whole strategy and why we did it.
“There are unresolved objections from SNH and from three community councils who have done their utmost to consult the public by holding public meetings.
“Rosehall is a very small community that is trying to regenerate itself. They are making a tremendous effort based on the quality of their environment. I do not think we should jeopardise that. I do hope, members, that you will support what the local community has said and what planning officials are advising us to do.”
Golspie councillor Ian Ross said he had a record of supporting wind farm developments, but a strategy had been put in place after considerable debate and discussion and if the go-ahead was given to Invercassley, the council would be encouraging a free-for-all.
Touching on the issue of so-called inducements, he said: “There has been a particular emphasis from a number of quarters today on non-material issues and I think that is extremely unfortunate. It seemed at times that members are being encouraged to consider non-material issues when making their determination.”
Sutherland County Committee convener Francis Keith (North-West Sutherland) told fellow councillors: “You and I and others spent many, many months consulting the wind farm industry and objectors in order to devise what we thought was a robust strategy.
“I am very disappointed that Airtricity has chosen to ignore that. They are one of the better wind farm operators. There are several dreadful ones. I had better not name them or I will be sued.
“I was seriously concerned today to hear that one of the other wind farm companies are appealing, and perhaps we now have two wind farms in the Rosehall area.”
Councillor Keith was particularly scathing about the “parallel line” layout of the 100-metre high turbines planned for Invercassley. “I am getting to the end of my tether now, but the thing that really sticks in my gullet is the two parallel lines. It is totally artificial in our environment and has never been seen in the Highlands before. Airtricity made no effort to blend this into the landscape whatsoever and I think its is quite disgraceful,” he said.
Those who spoke in favour of the development included Wick councillor Graeme Smith and Inverness councillor Clive Goodman.
Councillor Smith said: “I was very disappointed to hear we have got to support this amendment because it would put in jeopardy the renewable energy strategy. That is a horrible argument for anyone to use.
“I do not think anybody can doubt that what they have got here is an excellent wind resource. Why this site is not in the energy strategy I am not quite sure. It is a very good site and there is a very good source of wind. Sutherland is a big county and can absorb this wind farm.”
Councillor Goodman told the hearing: “The community’s views are largely based on fear of the unknown. I personally do not believe the wind farm will destroy tourism. It can potentially be an asset to the tourism industry and there are tremendous benefits to be gained for the local economy.
“I believe the renewable energy strategy is a complex and difficult document for people to understand and it is flawed in places. Once this council has agreed a strategy, it does not mean every one of us has to agree with it.”
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