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Ministers pressed over Highlands power line inquiry

SNP ministers are coming under increasing pressure to decide whether there is a case to halt the controversial public inquiry into the Beauly to Denny power line.

News of the mounting pressure emerged yesterday as the inquiry opened its first local session in Inverness, which is expected to last five weeks and take evidence from 60 witnesses.

It will then move to Newtonmore, Perth and Stirling and will be one of the longest and most expensive inquiries in Scottish planning history before it closes in December.

Almost three months ago, in Perth, three legal submissions were made by different groups objecting to the power line which would carry all the extra energy generated by windfarms and other renewable projects in the Highlands and Islands.

The submissions were based on what campaigners claimed were major flaws in the case presented by the applicants, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) and ScottishPower. One flaw was that the regulator, Ofgem, had failed in its statutory duties to consider environmental impact, sustainability and alternatives to the power line before approving the £320m the companies are proposing to invest.

There was also a challenge on European environmental legislation, and another on the future development of renewable energy projects.

As a result, campaigners argued that the inquiry should recommend refusal of the application immediately and not hear any further evidence about the proposed 400,000 volt transmission line.

The inquiry reporters immediately forwarded the legal submissions to Scottish Executive ministers but there has still been no ministerial response.

John Campbell, QC, for Eilean Aigas and Lovat estates and Aigas Field centre, told Tim Brian, chairman of the three-strong inquiry reporter team, that the delay was becoming a problem.

“I respectfully suggest that it is now too long and parties are entitled to a decision either from yourselves or from Scottish ministers. It is not acceptable and frankly not responsible for this matter to have dragged on as long as it has.

“So, I would urge you to either commit to delivering a decision or give me some assurance a decision will be forthcoming from ministers in the not too distant future.”

Mr Campbell accepted that the inquiry now had its own momentum and was unlikely to be halted, but a decision was still needed.

Davie Black, a wildlife campaigner for Ramblers Association Scotland, said last night that there was still a case for halting the inquiry “at the very least until these issues are resolved.”

A spokesman for the executive would only say that ministers were still considering the submissions but could not say when a decision was likely.

By David Ross
Highland Correspondent

The Herald

30 May 2007