A review of wind farm planning was branded “a whitewash” by campaigners last night.
The two-year investigation by consultants commissioned by the Scottish Government found that guidelines were not consistently followed in the development of major turbine schemes.
They focussed on 10 sites – three in the north and northeast – to consider visual impact, and the noise and “shadow flicker” of turbines.
The first study of its kind compared today’s reality with what developers had promised in their planning applications.
It found most “mainly followed planning guidelines”.
But the 192-page document reveals that some guidelines “were not consistently followed” and that developers’ claims “were not consistent with actual impacts”.
The report also says that “assessments and public engagement did not always adequately prepare residents for the impact of visual, shadow flicker or noise”.
Consultants ClimateXChange selected 10 wind farms of varying scale and regions for monitoring.
The 10 represented 4% of the total number of built onshore windfarms at the start of the inquiry, in 2013.
The most northerly schemes it studied were SSE’s 19-turbine Achany wind farm near Lairg in Sutherland, the 21-turbine Baillie windpark operated by Stratkraft at Thurso in Caithness, and Stuartfield Wind Power’s three-turbine West Knock project near Mintlaw in Aberdeenshire.
Retired construction consultant Stuart Young, who used to live near the Baillie scheme, said: “The review was an obvious ploy not to come up with an answer to inform Scottish planning policy.
“Why it took two years to look at windmills is absolutely beyond me. It was just a whitewash.”
The Scottish Government and trade body Scottish Renewables are content that improvements to the planning system have followed and that “high standards are in place to ensure the right developments are in the right places”.
That contrasts sharply with wind farm objectors’ reading of the document.
Each side of the divide agrees, however, that the exercise was necessary and illuminating.
The study identifies improvements already made to the planning system and recommends other steps that could ensure more consistency in predicting, measuring and documenting visual, shadow flicker and noise impacts throughout the design and operational phases of wind farms.
The researchers heard from residents affected by turbines and concluded that “the majority of assessments presented at planning stage identified and mainly followed guidelines”.
But, for some of the case study wind farms, “guidelines were not consistently followed and-or the impacts predicted in documentation submitted were not consistent with the actual impacts as assessed in this study or as reported by some residents”.
It adds: “Assessments and public engagement activities have not always adequately prepared residents for the impacts of the operational wind farm in terms of visual, shadow flicker or noise impacts.”
ClimateXChange project manager, Ragne Low, said: “The findings point to several possible improvements in planning guidance. Some have been implemented.”
There was input from local and national interest groups representing people living near windfarms, developers and operators.
As part of the exercise 2,303 households were invited to take part in a residents’ survey on the issues.
Of those, 106 lived near Achany, 141 near Baillie and 252 near West Knock. Only 309 (17%) responded.
On the question of visual impact, 38% of respondents said the nearby windfarm appeared “expected” or “similar” to what they had envisaged based on the planning information.
But 32% said the windfarm was “different” or “very different” from what they expected.