Some of the Highlands’ finest landscapes will be spoiled for generations if a public inquiry beginning tomorrow in Perth goes against the 17,295 people who have objected to plans to double the size of pylons running through them, according to a leading campaigner.
The claim, which is made on the eve of the 11-month hearing, is expected to dominate the multimillion-pound event.
All four council planning authorities along the 137-mile Beauly to Denny route and a wide range of organisations including the Cairngorms National Park Authority oppose Scottish and Southern Energy’s planned £320million “upgrade” of the existing power line.
SSE argues it is needed to accommodate an influx of energy from wind and tidal projects expected to come on stream.
Opponents have demanded the cables for an upgraded 400,000-volt line are either buried underground or laid on the seabed as far as power stations further south.
The company insists undergrounding is excessively expensive and its refusal to bow to public pressure has forced the Scottish Executive Reporters’ Unit inquiry.
SSE wants to reduce the number of pylons from 800 to 600, but many would double in size.
Retired police chief Eddie Hughes, a guest-house owner in Wester Ross who will present the case for the Highlands Before Pylons pressure group, has pledged to closely monitor proceedings at the inquiry amid widespread concern about recent events.
There is anger at the Scottish Executive’s refusal to keep a verbatim record. It has no legal obligation to do so. The official inquiry website, controversially run on the executive’s behalf by SSE, only became active last Friday despite a promise it would be sooner.
Objectors say vast quantities of complex documents outlining SSE’s proposals hit doormats a few days before Christmas and left little time for people to digest the information.
Mr Hughes said: “If this application is approved, landscapes would be despoiled forever when they should be preserved for generations to come.
“There is a sincere health risk to a lot of the communities along the route and an immense risk to Scotland’s £4.5billion tourist industry.
“I can’t tell you how disgusted I am with SSE which has been late with its submissions of pre-inquiry evidence.
“If this had been a court of law or a civil law case, late submissions would have resulted in the case being dismissed.”
He added: “This is taking up a lot of time. Not only have we got the preparatory work for this inquiry to contend with, we’ve also got SSE’s consultation document for the Ullapool to Beauly link to respond to along with the application for the Lewis windfarm before February 5.
“It’s just been an absolute shed-load of paper coming at us.
“To get five boxes, 3ft by 2ft by 2ft full of documents three days before Christmas left a lot to be desired.”
Helen McDade, representing a coalition comprising the John Muir Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Ramblers Association Scotland and the Scottish Wild Land Group, refuted SSE’s use of the term “upgrade”.
She said: “It’s not. It’s a new scheme which doesn’t use any of the existing infrastructure.
“We don’t accept that to deliver on the Government’s renewable target that this line is needed.
“We will bring evidence that, economically, Ofgem has overestimated the financial imperative and from the point of view of getting electricity south if all these developments go ahead the subsea option is the best option.”
She added: “This sort of short-termism could be the final nail in the coffin for preserving what is recognised worldwide as a great expanse of natural landscape.”
SSE spokesman Alan Young dismissed every criticism, arguing there was a far greater risk to the Highland environment and its tourism if its proposals were blocked.
“We are talking about a replacement line – one, for example, which will be a lot shorter in the Cairngorm National Park than the one which it will replace,” he said.
“The biggest risk is posed by over-exaggerated claims of those opposed to the replacement line. We believe the real threat the Scottish tourist industry faces is the effects of global warming. Just ask the ski-ing industry, for a start.
“Bear in mind that this power will be needed in Scotland as well as England and Wales.
“The replacement line is required to provide reliable connections for over 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy in the north and west of Scotland. The most effective way to facilitate these connections is by upgrading the existing line.”
Responding to alleged tardiness in its submission of evidence, he said: “It is possible that some of those making these claims are the same groups which requested – and were given – extensions to our consultation deadlines in the past.
“Our aim, at every stage of the process, has been to keep all interested parties fully informed. We have been accused of withholding information and of providing too much information.”
Grant Thoms of Scottish Renewables, a forum representing green energy developers, said: “There is no study that shows that 400Kv power lines or increased development of onshore wind will have any impact on tourism.
“If anyone would like to show us the studies that say otherwise we’d be happy to make comment and look at that in more detail.”
The official website can be found at www.beaulydenny.co.uk
The inquiry begins tomorrow in Perth before switching to Inverness on May 29, Newtonmore on August 28, back to Perth on October 16 and on to Stirling on November 20.
The last scheduled hearing is expected to end on December 20.
The verdict will be decided by Scottish ministers.
By Iain Ramage
5 February 2007
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