The handling of the controversial public inquiry into the Beauly to Denny power line was attacked by MSPs from all parties last night.
They labelled it a biased and uneven contest that is losing credibility in the eyes of those who have taken part.
And there were calls for ministers to intervene.
But the Scottish Government refused to undermine the inquiry’s independence or pre-judge its findings.
The inquiry is the largest in Scotland’s history.
It is looking at an application by Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Ltd (SHETL), a subsidiary of Scottish and Southern Energy, to upgrade the line from Beauly, west of Inverness, to Denny, west of Falkirk.
SHETL and SP Transmission, a subsidiary of ScottishPower, want to replace the 132kV line with a 400kV one and pylons roughly double the size of the existing ones – up to 220ft high.
The Scottish Parliament heard the four local authorities whose land is involved have all objected, as has Clackmannanshire Council and Cairngorms National Park Authority. In addition, there were 17,295 objections to the former Scottish Executive, and it was revealed last night that a 10,000-signature petition is to be handed in.
MSPs heard objectors had been denied the opportunity to submit new evidence because it was too late or already submitted – unlike the applicant.
There was criticism that the lack of a public record meant objectors were unable to check if evidence had been submitted, a situation one MSP compared to “Alice in Wonderland” and branded “bizarre”.
MSPs said SHETL had expensive legal representation which objectors could not afford. They claimed it was unfair SHETL had applied to energy regulator Ofgem to charge customers more in order to recoup its £7million costs while the objectors had no access to public money.
The debate was brought by Mid Scotland and Fife MSP Murdo Fraser who said the inquiry offered no chance to explore options like underground or subsea cables.
He also criticised Scottish Hydro Electric’s cross-examination of witnesses as being “aggressive and demeaning”.
The deputy Scottish Tory leader quoted former Scottish-Power chairman Sir Donald Miller who said the inquiry reporter’s lack of concern at establishing the facts or hearing evidence which did not support the applicant’s case, made it difficult to avoid the conclusion that “the whole exercise is a sham”.
Sir Donald said the procedures were without precedent in his 50 years experience of public inquiries.
Mr Fraser said: “That is the crux of the problem here. Many of the people giving evidence do not have faith in this public inquiry.
“I do not want to see this public inquiry give a decision when it has lost the trust and faith of the people giving evidence.”
Perth SNP MSP Roseanna Cunningham said almost from the start, the conduct of the inquiry had caused problems and the way it had been handled amounted to “harassment of witnesses”.
She said: “The rules are making it hardly worthwhile going along. I have personally come to the conclusion there would be little point in my attendance to give evidence.
“It has been almost impossible to work out what will and will not be admissible.”
John Farquhar Munro, Lib Dem MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West, called the inquiry “a disappointment” and said it demonstrated how large commercial interests with expensive lawyers can “trample on the interests of small communities”.
Richard Simpson, Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, said one of the flaws was that the proceedings were not being fully recorded.
He said: “It seems to me an Alice in Wonderland situation that an objector can stand up and be told they cannot make a statement because it has been made before, when unless they have attended all the other sessions up and down the country they have no real idea whether that has actually been done or not – that is just bizarre.”
But Energy Minister Jim Mather told MSPs: “It would be entirely inappropriate for ministers to seek to interfere in the independence of the inquiry process, so calls to stop or redirect the inquiry would be at odds with the objective process that listens and reaches a balanced judgment.”
20 September 2007