MSP Rob Gibson is backing a proposed 22-turbine wind farm on wild land in central Sutherland in defiance of Scottish Government planning policy which defines it as an area with “little or no capacity for new development”.
He claims the scheme would reap economic benefit. Critics say it would backfire by affecting lifeline tourism.
The Creag Riabhach scheme, slimmed down from a 38-turbine proposition two years ago, has been drawn up for Altnaharra Estate.
A planning application has been submitted for turbines up to 410ft tall. Almost 150 people have responded via Highland Council’s planning website.
Building contractors and visitors are among those who have registered support for the plan.
Government advisers Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the conservation charity the John Muir Trust (JMT) are among the objectors.
The developers have this month pledged a £700,000-plus community windfall through a newly-launched Altnaharra Foundation – in addition to community benefit trusts that promise a £9 million payout over the 25-year lifespan of the proposed wind farm.
They say a local trust would be formed for the benefit of residents, while a regional fund would include five community councils in north and west Sutherland.
Caithness, Sutherland and Ross SNP MSP Mr Gibson has backed the planning application as part of a new promotion by the developers in conjunction with renewable energy firms.
The convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee at Holyrood said: “I hope this development gives the community a real and long-lasting boost.
“It is important that local businesses and communities in Sutherland are involved so that Sutherland keeps working.”
SNH, a statutory consultee in the process, has stated in its objection: “This proposal would have an adverse effect on the wild land character of two areas whose protection is in the national interest. This is contrary to Scottish planning policy.”
The government agency raised concerns about the sensitivity of the location as part of basic guidance to the applicant in June 2012, stating at the time that “the landscape and visual impact assessment supplied with the (initial 2012) application was of a poor quality.”
In its objection, SNH also warns that a wind farm in the area would pose “a significant adverse effect on an extensive area of wild land not significantly affected by wind farm development at present.”
It continues: “These wild and remote areas have a distinct and special character which is increasingly rare to find and the desire to retain such places is identified within Scottish Planning Policy.
“A key component of Scotland’s identity, they bring significant economic benefits, attracting visitors and tourists. Many people derive psychological and spiritual benefit from their experience, and they provide increasingly important havens for Scotland’s wildlife.”
JMT policy officer John Low told the Northern Times: “This is a classic case of an inappropriate development in the wrong place. It would fall within one of the 42 new Areas of Wild Land mapped by SNH.
Scottish Planning Policy 2014 spells out that these are sensitive areas with “little or no capacity to accept new development”.
“We believe it would have a destructive impact not only on the landscape and ecology of Creag Riabhach, but would jeopardise local businesses which rely on tourism.”
Hoping to swing things in their favour, the developers have formed a new partnership with North Highland College promising training and skills, employment opportunities and apprenticeship funding for local employers.
The initiative was unveiled at a procurement partnership event involving the trade body Energy North.
Altnaharra Estate, owned by the Gray family, is proud of a track record of working in partnership with local business. A recent forestry project with a £1 million turnover benefited several companies locally.
Estate spokesman Tim Philpot said: “We are delighted to continue to show our commitment to Sutherland. I hope our commitments to the north and west community council areas as well as our new partnership with North Highland College demonstrate how serious we are about our area.”