Scottish Natural Heritage recruited developers to devise a system of photomontage which has since been adopted as part of the decision-making process in windfarm planning applications, it has been revealed.
To the horror of politicians and landscape lovers, the trade’s Scottish Renewables forum played a lead role in shaping it and largely funded work on drafting the new guidelines.
But SNH failed to advertise its conclusions, failed to put it on the internet and councillors have not been briefed on the complex 200-page document.
The Scottish Executive refused to respond to the P &J’s questions on the issue, saying it was “for SNH to field these questions”. SNH commissioned the work and states in its completed document that “many windfarm developers participated”. There is currently no uniformed method of photomontage to assess turbines and the issue has consistently baffled Highland councillors who decide the fate of most planning bids. Critics have pressed for years for a definitive system of accurately assessing the visual impact of turbines.
The SNP’s Fergus Ewing, a consistent critic of SNH, is disgusted by the collusion and awaits an explanation from agency chairman Andrew Thin.
He said the report gave “carte blanche to the developers to continue to ride roughshod over the wishes of communities”.
He added: “This is a conflict of interest on the part of SNH. Once people can see for themselves just how the industry has distorted the images and misled the public they will draw one conclusion that this must end.”
Architect Alan Macdonald, the boss of Inverness-based Architech, has had 15 years’ experience of producing accurate visualisations for planning purposes worldwide.
He claims his own method – outlined on a new website, at www.thevisualissue.com – is considerably more accurate than those accepted by Highland Council and SNH. Mr Macdonald, 60, said he was not opposed to windfarms, but had been amazed by the council’s constant reference to “best practice” as something rigidly adhered to in windfarm planning. “I’m disappointed that the council has not been more supportive in resolving the issue on behalf of the public,” he added.
Highland Council was condemned for inviting the forum onto its own renewable energy strategy working group a few years ago. Mr Macdonald was unable to access a copy of the SNH report until the P &J obtained one for him. He subsequently described it as something that would “bamboozle” people.
It began life as an independent report by John Benson of the University of Newcastle who died suddenly before seeing his work come to fruition. It was taken forward by the developers however little of Professor Benson’s input remains.
The dossier – Visual Representation of Windfarms, Good Practice Guide – was finally published a year ago without fanfare, cost taxpayers £28,916 and failed to provide a definitive methodology.
Hillwalker and broadcaster Cameron McNeish described the SNH-developer partnership as “almost unbelievable” . Helen McDade of the John Muir Trust was “very concerned”.
In a statement, SNH said: “The involvement of the forum helps ensure that guidance is realistic and encourages best practice. We are currently preparing the material so it can be published on our website.”
There was further evidence of the lack of guidance to councillors after this month’s decision to approve a windfarm at Lochluichart in Wester Ross.
Ross and Cromarty area planning chief Val MacIver said a uniformed system of visualisation was “worthy of consideration”.
Highland planning chairman Sandy Park agreed that a uniformed method of visual montages would be useful, adding: “Planning officers give the councillors simple guidance by the distance you hold the picture away from your vision. That’s the only guidance we get.” Highland planning director John Rennilson was on holiday and unavailable for comment.
Jason Ormiston, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, claimed the “good practice guidance” was published by SNH last year and it was being “widely used by specialists”.
By Iain Ramage
30 April 2007
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