Leading environmentalists expressed horror yesterday that Scottish Natural Heritage was likely to lodge fewer objections to planning applications that could have an impact on the nation’s wild landscapes.
The agency, which is approached as a statutory consultee on more than 3,000 applications a year, is reviewing its policy in the wake of an academic report it commissioned to examine its internal planning procedures.
Angry critics insisted that input into substantive planning issues affecting the natural environment is SNH’s main purpose. But the nature watchdog, which objected to Donald Trump’s plans for a golf resort in a protected area of Aberdeenshire, appears likely to cut back on future formal objections in the wake of the Heriot-Watt University report.
Agency chairman Andrew Thin said: “We spend about a third of our resources (from a £68.2million budget) on giving advice to planning authorities on planning applications and our concern has been to make sure that money is wisely spent.
“What the report is recommending is that we really need to think hard about the difference between a planning application which will have a local impact and a planning application which will have a national impact.”
He denied it would result in SNH stepping back from its role as environmental guardian. “These are recommendations at the moment,” he said. “There’s a great deal of discussion to be had between ourselves and local authorities and the Scottish Government before we decide precisely where we might go with it.”
Hillwalker and broadcaster Cameron McNeish asked: “Isn’t this what they’re supposed to be doing? If we have a countryside watchdog that steps back from making valid points about various planning developments then we’re really at the mercy of the developers.”
Adam Watson, a biologist and expert on the Cairngorms, said: “The whole point of designating areas is that they should be given greater protection. So if you start saying some aren’t quite so important that’s an argument for saying they shouldn’t have been designated.
“It’s got to respond to planning applications. That’s what it was set up to do, among other things.”
David Alston, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats on Highland Council, welcomed the prospect of change.
“It sometimes is almost to developers’ advantage to create an antagonism with SNH, so as to swing local opinion in their favour.
“That does not help the democratic planning process,” he said.
28 December 2007