First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is being asked to investigate the conduct of her own Energy Minister Fergus Ewing after he was accused of blocking one wind farm to pave the way for another backed by the Duke of Buccleuch, Britain’s largest private landowner.
The accusations – which are denied by the Scottish Government and Buccleuch – have been prompted by Ewing’s shock decision on February 18 to reject a popular plan to erect 30 wind turbines at Sandy Knowe at Kirkconnel in Dumfries and Galloway. The planning application attracted 81 representations of support and only two objections.
The Buccleuch estate had originally objected to the application, but withdrew its submission in March 2014. On February 12, 2015 a company involving Buccleuch gave formal notice that it would be applying for planning permission for eight wind turbines at nearby Glenmuckloch, an old open-cast coal mine.
One of the reasons given by Ewing for rejecting Sandy Knowe was that the landscape could be damaged by a “coalescence between potential clusters” of wind turbines. He was concerned that the cumulative visual impact of multiple developments could turn the area into a “wind-farm landscape”.
This has led political opponents to accuse Ewing of rejecting Sandy Knowe so that Glenmuckloch would have a clear run. They question whether his behaviour complies with the Scottish Government’s code on ministerial conduct. The accusations are dismissed by the Scottish Government, which insists that every wind-farm application is considered on its merits.
Buccleuch also took strong exception to the allegations, describing the suggestion that undue influence had been exerted on Ewing as “offensive, inaccurate and absurd”.
Critics, however, point out that this is the second time Ewing has come under fire over his decisions in relation to Buccleuch projects.
The Sunday Herald reported in January that he incurred the private ire of his fellow SNP MSP Joan McAlpine after carpeting her for criticising Buccleuch’s plans to mine coalbed methane at Canonbie.
Labour’s frontbench legal spokeswoman and the MSP for Dumfriesshire Elaine Murray is this weekend writing to Sturgeon requesting an investigation into Ewing’s conduct.
“My worry is that the minister has been unduly influenced by Buccleuch,” she said.
Prospects for the estate’s Glenmuckloch application would have been damaged if Sandy Knowe had been given the go-ahead because of the cumulative impact of the two developments, she argued.
Murray added: “I am furious that when communities across my constituency are having wind farms foisted on them against their wishes, an application which has strong community support had been refused for what seems to be dubious reasons.”
She pointed out that Sandy Knowe had been approved by Dumfries and Galloway Council. Although the Government’s landscape adviser Scottish Natural Heritage had expressed “serious concerns” about the visual impact, it had decided not to object to the application.
The developer, Burcote Wind in Dunfermline, had promised to pay £11.25 million over 25 years into a community development fund if the Sandy Knowe proposals had gone ahead.
“All those involved in the process are totally shocked that this opportunity has been taken away with a stroke of the Energy Minister’s pen,” said local Labour councillor John Syme.
The Green MSP Patrick Harvie backed the call for a probe by Sturgeon.
“If the local community are to have any confidence in the decision,” he said, “the First Minister must investigate what influence Scotland’s wealthiest landowners enjoy within her ministerial team.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “We strongly rebut this allegation – every wind-farm application is considered on its own merits.”
She pointed out that Ewing had recently refused consents on three other wind farms.
She added: “After careful consideration of the environmental information, consultee responses and public representations, ministers came to the view that the wind farm would have had unacceptable landscape and visual impacts.”
Buccleuch’s chief executive John Glen said: “Any suggestion that Buccleuch exerted undue influence over a Government minister is offensive, inaccurate and absurd. Anyone making such an accusation clearly does not know what they are talking about.”
He explained that Buccleuch’s objection to Sandy Knowe had been withdrawn because the estate’s position on onshore wind energy had “evolved” in recent years.
“From an initial general opposition to wind farms, we went on to take the view they could be supported in appropriate locations,” he said.
“We withdrew our objection because we felt it would be an inconsistent position if we were to proceed with our own project in the same location at any time in the future.
“Any suggestion that that decision, or the fate of the Sandy Knowe application, was dependent on the progress of our own small scheme is preposterous.”
Glen pointed out that the plan to restore Glenmuckloch open-cast coal mine involved four other major partners and had been widely welcomed across the political divide.
The application would be determined by councillors, and neither the Scottish Government nor any minister would be involved.
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