Two controversial windfarms which critics claim would “blemish” part of the nation’s most important wild countryside have been given the green light by Highland councillors.
The developments for Glencassley and Sallachy, near Loch Shin and Ben Assynt, total 48 turbines, all at least 125 metres tall.
The Glengasslecy project, backed by SSE, was given unanimous backing by the council’s North Planning Committee, while WKN’s Sallachy development went through on five votes to three – with chairwoman Isobel MacCallum objecting to the proposal.
The applications had opposition from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland.
SNH claimed the windfarms would impact “an area of the strongest wild land character – as confirmed by the wildness mapping work carried out” by the Government agency.
They said there would be a negative effect on the Assynt and Coigach National Scenic Area.
Andrew Bachell, SNH’s director of operations, said: “Wild land is a valuable national resource. It makes a crucial contribution to our quality of life and we know that most Scots consider wild places to be important to them.
“Wild land makes an important contribution to our tourism industry and images of wild places also help support Scotland’s world wide reputation as a beautiful and impressive country.
“SNH supports the principle of renewable energy with the right development in the right place.”
Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s chief officer David Gibson said the projects, which also include 33km of access tracks, would be a “disaster”.
He added that it would put councillors on the wrong side of the conservation debate, the wrong side of public opinion and would do a “great wrong” to the natural heritage they are supposed to protect, and which is so important to their constituents’ tourism businesses.
But the planning committee approved the advice of planning officials to raise no objection to the applications.
SSE director of onshore renewables, Colin Nicol, said: “We welcome the committee’s decision.
“It is an important step in the consent process for the project and reflects the hard work that we have put into developing the proposal, as well as the open and positive consultation we’ve had with key stakeholders.
“As a responsible developer, we have taken considerable care with the design and setting of the scheme, and a wealth of environmental work has been undertaken to identify and reduce any potential impacts.
“In addition, feedback received has helped to shape the design, including the recent removal of three turbines from the south of the site, and there were no objections to the scheme from local community councils.
“The scheme will deliver significant economic and employment opportunities to the local area, as well as other important benefits such as skills and training initiatives linked to our industry leading community investment programme.
“SSE is proud to have been part of the Highland community for generations and we want to make sure local people continue to benefit from the responsible development of the area’s natural energy resources.”
Oliver Patent, Head of International Development at WKN, said: “We appreciate that the committee has recognised that the project will benefit local communities, the wider highland region and Scotland as a whole.
“For WKN it is the first key step in making our potential investment into Scotland a reality. We look forward to the Scottish Government making a final determination following this positive decision by the North Planning Applications Committee.”
Iain Thomson, Manager of Sallachy Estate said: “This is an excellent decision by the Highland Council today and I welcome the support of the local members that understand the fragility of businesses in this area and the importance of job security.
“This crucial first step in consenting Sallachy Wind Farm is vital to securing the long term viability of our business and providing opportunities to diversify our operations ensuring security for years to come.”
Helen McDade, Head of Policy at the John Muir Trust said: “Local councillors have numerous demands on their time and are understandably forced to rely on advice from planning officials, but the advice upon which this decision was based has been one-sided and misleading.
“Both the Search Areas for Wild Land, which are referred to in current planning policy, and the core wild land areas in Scottish Natural Heritage’s updated 2013 map should mean no major industrial development on these sites.
“Also the recommendation in the Scottish Government’s Scottish Planning Policy draft consultation paper, that wild land character should be safeguarded clearly shows the direction of Scottish Government thinking.
“The importance of these national guidelines has been downplayed by the Highland planning officials.
“Since these developments would be on peatlands, the Trust is also concerned that not enough consideration has been given to the release of greenhouse gases by the degradation of peat soil, because the retention of gases in healthy peatland plays a vital role in locking in carbon and reducing greenhouse gases.
“Meanwhile, far-fetched promises by the developers of jobs and financial windfalls appear to be accepted at face value by planning officials, even though other, similar, industrial-scale wind developments locally have created very few local jobs.
“The industrialisation of the Highlands under forests of steel turbines has been a bonanza for energy corporations and landowners, but little of that wealth trickles down into local communities.
“Rigorous scrutiny of these projects will require a Public Local Inquiry, and, since a statutory consultee, SNH, has put in an objection to both developments, the standard procedure would be that the Scottish Government would call such an Inquiry, regardless of today’s vote.
“Beyond that, the decison underlines the need for robust protection at national level for Scotland’s core wild land as mapped out by SNH. Wild land is not a commodity to be industrialised and exploited for profit, but a precious natural resource that should be protected and enhanced for future generations.”