A call for the local authority to scrap costly visits by councillors to proposed wind farm sites has been criticised by campaigners in Sutherland.
Colin Gilmour, secretary of pressure group Kyle of Sutherland against Braemore (KoSAB) said site visits were invaluable in assessing the likely impact of turbines on the landscape.
And KoSAB treasurer Michael Baird suggested that if expense was a problem, then wind farm developers rather than the authority should be made to foot the bill.
Heated discussion on the issue arose after members of the north planning applications committee visited the site of the planned 34-turbine Glenmorie wind farm, straddling the Sutherland and Ross-Shire border, south of Ardgay, on Monday, only to find the area shrouded in mist.
Wick councillor Bill Fernie spoke out at a planning meeting in Inverness the following day, branding site visits a “waste of time and money”.
He said that the increasing number of wind farm applications meant the council was shelling out thousands of pounds providing transport and refreshments for site visits.
It is understood the cost of the Glenmorie trip amounted to £380 for coach hire and catering.
It was pointed out that the authority did not even have the final decision on many wind farm applications as those with an output of over 50MW are called in by the Scottish Government.
Councillor Fernie maintained that councillors already knew the areas well enough beforehand and technology such as Google Earth could be used to inspect sites without the need for lengthy travel.
He said: “I think we should discuss at some stage whether we should be undertaking these site visits.”
Councillor Drew Millar, Skye, said: “I really don’t see much merit in site visits. There must be a cheaper way of doing this than spending days going round the Highlands looking at hills and trying to imagine what they are going to look like with turbines on them.”
But Ross-shire councillor Margaret Paterson and Thurso councillor Donnie Mackay disagreed, claiming site visits were vital in helping councillors visualise the impact wind farms would have on the landscape.
Councillor Mackay said: “The only way to visualise a development is by going to the site. Wind turbines are one of the biggest talking points in the Highlands.”
As well as being secretary of KoSAB, Rosehall resident Colin Gilmour was chairman of the now defunct community liaison panels for the Rosehall and Achany wind farms.
He said earlier this week: “I’ve been on one or two site visits and there is nothing better than seeing the actual site to get a picture of what a wind farm will look like.
“You are also able to see the proximity of neighbouring windfarms and houses.
“You can’t get the same impression by looking at a picture or photo montage or paper plans. It just isn’t the same.
“Site visits also give opponents the chance to make their point of view on the ground.”
Mr Gilmour refuted the claim that most councillors knew the Highland area well. He said they probably had a good geographical knowledge of their own “patch” but not necessarily of elsewhere.
He added: “Although it costs more money to go out on the ground, it is money well spent. My feeling is that if site visits were to be abandoned, it would be a retrograde step.”
Michael Baird supported Mr Gilmour’s view.
He said: “Without seeing the site for yourself, you are not getting a clear picture. You can’t really tell what it’s like from photographs and maps.
“You really do need to see the site, particularly for the cumulative effect if there are other wind farms nearby.
“If they don’t want the money to come out of the council budget, could it not be put back on the developers? After all, it is they who are wanting the developments in the first place.
“To do the job properly, a site visit has to be taken into the equation.”
Landscape conservation charity the John Muir Trust has also come out against the suggestion that site visits be abandoned and has called for developers to be charged more for planning applications.
In a letter to the Northern Times, policy officer Fraser Wallace said: “Site visits are key. The visualisations from companies frequently understate the impact of these developments.
“The Scottish Government should untie the hands of the councils and allow them to charge appropriate fees for these industrial applications.”
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