Highland Council taxpayers face a bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds following the council’s decision to drop its objection to a wind farm development at Achany near Rosehall, local residents said this week.
In an 11th hour turnaround on Tuesday, Highland Council solicitor Susan Blease told a three-week-old planning inquiry into two wind farm applications for the area – the other is for a 23-turbine development by Airtricity on Mohamed al Fayed’s estate at Invercassley – that there was no basis in law to refuse the 23-turbine Achany application by Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE).
However, she confirmed that the council still submitted that the Invercassley application be refused.
The sudden withdrawal of the council’s case shocked local residents who have resolutely fought the two proposed wind farms over the past few years.
Stephen Mouat of Durcha told the Northern Times yesterday (Thursday): “This was an unbelievable decision by the council. Part of their reason for dropping their objection, as I understand it, is that the Scottish Executive have brought in new guidelines on wind farm developments which supercede the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy previously issued by the council. But if that is the case, the new guidelines were introduced way before this enquiry started, so why did the council not withdraw their objections from the outset?
“If the council’s own wind farm strategy has collapsed, then I think we need an inquiry into why thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted producing the document. On top of that there is the prospect of the council also having to pay Scottish and Southern Energy’s legal costs and experts’ costs. This is all council taxpayers’ money gone to the wall.”
Scottish Executive inquiry reporter Janet McNair was conducting the joint hearing of both SSE’s and Airtricity’s appeal against refusal of planning permission last year. The Airtricity proposal had originally been approved, along with a 19-turbine development at Rosehall Hill Forest by E.On UK Renewables, but was then overruled following a challenge by eight Sutherland councillors.
The decision by the council to back down on Tuesday does not automatically mean that the Achany project will now get the go-ahead, as the final decision will depend upon the reporter’s eventual findings and she could still, on considering the evidence put forward by all parties, consider that the development should be refused. She will also decide on whether the Invercassley appeal is upheld or not.
A spokesman for Highland Council said this week: “The council’s solicitor deemed that having heard all the evidence in the case, she had no option but to concede that the objection to the Achany application was no longer sustainable. A major consideration was the introduction in March of this year of new Scottish Executive guidance on renewable energy – presuming more in favour of renewable energy.
“While we have accepted that our objection cannot be sustained, the reporter may accept some of our arguments and those of objectors to confirm rejection of the appeal.
“The council accepts that should the appeal be successful, it will have to refresh its renewable energy strategy in the wake of the new Scottish Executive guidance, which was published after the council took its decision on Achany. The council has sustained its objection to the Invercassley application.
“As to costs, it will be for the reporter to determine who pays the costs of the inquiry. We are not in a position, at this stage, to estimate our own costs. We used our own solicitor and planning official and engaged one external consultant, Gareth Davies from Aquaterra.”
A spokesman for the Rosehall Wind Farm Group, which has fought the applications for four years, told the NT: “It should be remembered that there is already one approved wind farm at Rosehall Hill for 19 turbines and some 250 hectares of clear felling.
“The community have participated in the planning process which has lasted some four years. During the last day of closing submissions, Highland Council revealed that they no longer had any legal reason to oppose the appeal of Scottish and Southern Energy Generation Limited.
“We were shocked to find this change of mind, particularly in the last hours of the inquiry, and also the implications for the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy.
“This could be a very expensive decision for the Highland taxpayer.
“Throughout this inquiry, the third party participants have tried to maintain an objective view whilst working to ensure that community concerns relating to roads, noise, loss of amenity value and access to emergency services have been fully considered and, should a further wind farm be approved, that the community does not suffer as a result. We now leave it to the reporter to conclude on the outcome of the two appeals.”
Local Highland councillor Robbie Rowantree said: “The surprising U-turn of Highland Council in the removal of all objections to the Achany wind farm and the council solicitor Susan Blease’s comment that the council’s renewable energy strategy was, in effect, in tatters, is deeply concerning. Why did it take three and a half very expensive weeks to come to this conclusion?
“The strategy is only months old and was not a cheap exercise to undertake. The possibility that the developers may well seek to recover their costs in attending the inquiry, as they did successfully in Perth and Kinross, will be another cost that Highland Council, struggling with budgets, will have to meet.
“I will be asking questions at the most senior level about why Highland Council finds itself in this apparently embarrassing situation. The council taxpayers of the Highlands have the right to expect a high level of competence from the authority and this situation merits a serious investigation.”
A Scottish and Southern Energy spokesperson said: “We’ve been engaged in the public inquiry process and we are confident in the strength of our sound proposal for a wind farm at Achany, and we’ve argued that during the public inquiry. It is now up to the reporter to make her mind up, based on everything she’s heard.”
Russell Smith, spokesman for Creich Community Council and Ardgay and District Community Council, said: “We are astounded and disgusted by this U-turn. The point is that this has made a complete mess-up of the council’s renewable energy strategy, which was over-complicated from the start. There needs to be a more coherent approach. I believe it opened the door for Achany once Rosehall Hill was approved, but really this all needs to be further investigated.”
By Alison Cameron
17 August 2007