Jobs or bogs? Environmental considerations won the day yesterday when the Scottish Government said that effectively it would reject controversial proposals for a £500m, 181-turbine wind farm on Lewis. Or did the green lobby come out on top? It did in the specific bitter battle over this scheme. Lewis Wind Power, the developer, learned yesterday that SNP ministers were minded to refuse the application on grounds that it would have a significant adverse impact on a site protected by EU wildlife and habitat directives.
The impact of what would have been a massive development on one of the biggest peatland habitats left in Europe, supporting rare birds and insects that would also have been threatened had approval been granted, was a decisive weapon in the armoury built up by opponents of the scheme. They were able to marshal other arguments. Local habitat considerations caused the development to be rerouted away from sensitive bogland but close to communities. This, too, was no mean consideration, given the scale of the development, the likely noise from the giant turbines and the impact of the transport and power transmission aspects of the development. Also, there was the prospect of crofters taking their case to the Scottish Land Court, which has authority to resolve disputes.
The prospect of legal action could have held up any development. Going to the land court would, justifiably or otherwise, have raised the old issue of land tenure and the emptying of areas for development, a highly emotive matter in the Highland consciousness. Considerations against the development had to be weighed against factors in its favour, chief among them the prospect of sustainable economic development coming to a part of Scotland desperately in need investment and jobs. Migration, to find a better life elsewhere, is a fact of life in Scotland’s hinterland communities, and addressing it is one of the biggest challenges facing the Scottish Government. There is no doubting the economic gain that would have accompanied a scheme of this magnitude. Stable employment and rising incomes would have followed in its wake. But at what cost? On balance, ministers are correct to think the way they do about the wind farm. It cannot be taken for granted that it would have reversed population drift, given the new environment in which people would have been expected to live and work.
There had been speculation that ministers would avoid a tough choice by ordering a public inquiry into the proposals. Government is about tough decisions and ministers deserve credit for addressing this difficulty head on, given the likely economic gains from giving the go-ahead. It would be wrong, however, to blame the EU for the decision or conclude that Brussels directives must always be paramount. Each development must be considered on its merits, and if an economic gain outweighs other considerations ministers should have the stomach to fight the fight. The likely decision does, however, leave them with a problem. They have challenging targets to meet on carbon emissions which would probably have been made less difficult to hit had the Lewis wind farm been approved. In this case, they have rightly put other, conflicting, green considerations first.
26 January 2008
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