Protesters have labelled the decision to give the go-ahead for a £90 million wind farm in east Sutherland as a disaster.
The Scottish Government announced this week that it had approved the 35-turbine wind farm at Gordonbush, Strath Brora, which will generate 87.5 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 37,000 homes.
First Minister Alex Salmond said it was a milestone in the drive to harness Scotland’s massive clean, low-energy potential.
Energy minister Jim Mather called it “a good example of a sensitively scaled and sited wind farm operating in harmony with the environment”.
But opponents pointed out that approval had been granted even though no habitat management plan had been agreed and the access route was still uncertain.
Sutherland landowner Edward Reeves of Suisgill Estate, a supporter of local anti-wind farm action group Landscape, claimed the decision represented a failure in democracy.
“This is a disastrous decision for Brora and Helmsdale and for the few remaining stretches of wild land in the Highland,” he said. “When democracy fails, where do you turn?”
Developers Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) are to erect the wind farm on hill ground on the Gordonbush sporting estate which is held in a trust on behalf of the Tyser family.
The site is just metres from the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area and is also close to breeding grounds for golden plovers.
Planners received 449 objections on a wide range of issues including the impact on wildlife, the landscape, roads, tourism, local archaeology, energy production and planning.
Highland Council, which does not determine developments of more than 50 megawatts but was required to give its views, held a planning hearing in June 2007 that ended up mired in confusion.
Councillors supported it by default, by voting in favour of a confusing motion that there were no planning grounds on which it could be turned down.
At the same time, they agreed that the Scottish Government be asked to hold a Public Local Inquiry because of the strength of local feeling.
Scottish Natural Heritage also came under fire at the hearing after they withdrew their original objection which had been seen as the major stumbling block to the development getting the go-ahead.
Angry protesters this week pointed out that approval had been given despite the fact that number of important issues had still not been settled. In particular, there is deep unease over the access route to be taken to the site, which has not yet been decided.
East Sutherland and Edderton councillor Ian Ross said: “The main outstanding concern I hold is the question of the main transport access route. Any proposal to use the A9 through Golspie and Brora remains unacceptable and can only be a cause of nuisance, extreme disturbance and potential structural damage to the road and to neighbouring properties.
“It is essential the developer is required to secure an access using the established Kilbraur wind farm route, with a comparatively short extension to Strath Brora.
“This would leave the A9 south of Golspie at Drummuie, travel up to Dunrobin Glen and on through the existing Kilbraur wind farm development.
“I shall be writing to the Scottish Government and Highland Council reiterating my concerns and seeking reassurances on the final access route.”
Mr Reeves added: “Highland Council’s planning committee asked the Scottish Government to hold a Public Local Inquiry into proposals for the Gordonbush wind farm in order to allow the local community to be part of the decision making process.
“It is disgraceful, therefore, that they should give the go-ahead to this huge development while the Habitat Management Plan is still a work in progress and the consented access route has not been made public.
“Although the wind farm will come within 50 metres of a protected site, Jim Mather the energy minister believes it will be sensitively sited and operate in harmony with the environment – nothing could be further from the truth.”
Mr Reeves pointed out that a moderately sized wind farm at Clashindarroch in Alex Salmond’s own constituency had been rejected because of its unacceptable impact on the landscape.
John McMorran, chairman of Brora Community Council – which also objected to the development – said: “As yet I have not heard anything official as regards the Gordonbush wind farm application. To the best of my understanding, there were many issues that had to be overcome before this could proceed and I was not aware that they had all been fully reconciled.”
Ornithologist Alan Vittery of Brora commented: “Landscape is astonished that the minister feels able to approve an applications when elements of it – including the revised access route and necessary habitat plan –- have not been subjected to the necessary public consultation. It is just horrendous. Extraordinary.
“The Gordonbush development is now being looked at seriously by Europe. They are using it as an example of deficiencies in the British legal system.”
However, the wind farm decision was welcomed this week by SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Rob Gibson, who called it great news.
“The size of the wind farm is sensibly scaled to the area in which it is situated,” he said. “It is also reassuring to see that special conditions, such as the development of a habitat managing plan to minimise the affect on local bird life, have been stipulated so that the wind farm does not adversely affect the environment in which it will sit.
“Gordonbush could be a model for other areas in the north on how to develop sensibly sited and scaled wind farms.”
Conditions attached to the approval include:
* A legal agreement to stipulate the use of the site in relation to community benefit, crofting interests and transport and access requirements.
* Prior to construction starting, a habitat management plan covering 5500 hectares designed to minimise impacts on birds will be agreed and implemented.
* An ornithological steering group must be convened prior to work starting to undertake monitoring of breeding birds.
* Research on the golden plover population must be carried out in conjunction with SNH and RSPB.
* Construction close to the vicinity of the previously recorded bird activity will be phased to avoid the breeding season.
* Before construction begins, a construction method statement, pollution prevention plan and road traffic survey designed to safeguard environmental and community interests will be approved by Highland Council.
10 April 2008
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