Campaigners against the “further industrialisation” of the Scottish landscape by wind turbines have reacted sceptically to claims of an about turn on the issue by Alex Salmond.
The First Minister has previously claimed that wind farms do not deter visitors or damage the landscape, despite tens of thousands of objections to projects around the country.
But he is now said to be ready to support “turbine-free” areas to protect the country’s best mountain scenery.
The environment agency Scottish Natural Heritage is drawing up maps identifying about 28 per cent of the countryside as “wild land”.
These areas are mainly in the Highlands and it has been suggested that in future planning guidance will suggest applications should not be approved in these areas unless it is a “special case”.
The Scottish Planning Policy document, and the National Planning Framework, are to be revised to reflect the change, according to reports.
However, a spokesman for Scotland Against Spin, the anti-wind farm group, said the proposal left 72 per cent of Scotland unprotected.
Linda Holt, for the group, added: “It may be that Mr Salmond is reacting to having been so deaf to people for so long. It is high time he started listening.
“If things are going to change, we would also like to see the guideline that suggests wind turbines should be at least 2km from homes being made mandatory. At the moment that guideline is routinely trampled over.”
David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, said the Allt Duine wind farm on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park was a hugely important test case for any change of policy.
The 31-turbine proposal is in the heart of the Monadhliadth Mountains, near Aviemore, and the MCofS has warned that it will scar an area of national importance.
Mr Gibson said the alleged about turn would mean Fergus Ewing, the Energy Minister, “saying no” if the project – which was the subject of a public inquiry – landed on his desk for a final decision.
He added: “My reaction to the latest news is that the devil is in the detail. But if this is evidence of the Scottish Government is listening, then that is encouraging.” He added that Scotland had already reached “saturation point”, and that thousands of turbines were still in the planning pipeline.
Pat Wells, of the Stop Highland Windfarms Campaign, said that if the mapping plan was “not simply a PR exercise” then there was an urgent need for a more robust and transparent planning system in which the voice of local communities was not ignored.
She also called for statutory designation for wild land to spare it from “further industrialisation”.
She added: “Effective protection for Scotland’s wild land is overdue and some special areas have already been, or will be, damaged by wind farm developments such as the approved Dunmaglass wind farm on deep peat in the heart of the Monadhliath Mountains.”
Ms Wells said the standard Scottish Government comment that it was committed to “suitably located” wind farms had become “something of a sick joke” as numerous large projects over 50 MW that had been refused by councils had been rubber-stamped by ministers.
Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative MSP, said it was the first hint that the SNP may be prepared to ease off on its wind farm obsession, but added that it did not “tie” with Mr Salmond’s aggressive rhetoric on the issue.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it was committed to suitably located onshore wind farms that gave the “right level of protection to important landscapes”.
He added that there would be consultation process soon on a new draft Scottish Planning Policy and the National Planning Framework.
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