A top Scottish economist who has been appointed to advise Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, is embroiled in a conflict of interest row over his support for wind farms.
Graeme Blackett, the founder of consultancy firm Biggar Economics, has provided evidence to public inquiries into controversial wind farms such as the 59-turbine Dorenell scheme on the Glenfiddich estate, and Stronelairg, a 67-turbine wind farm in Inverness-shire.
Blackett’s reports, submitted as independent evidence, often highlight the economic boost that wind farms can generate and, in some cases, have challenged claims that planting giant turbines in some of the country’s most scenic areas can harm local tourism.
Blackett, recently unveiled as an adviser to Sturgeon’s “growth commission”, a body set up to explore the economic potential of an independent Scotland, is facing allegations of a conflict of interest after it emerged that he had previously endorsed the SNP’s renewable energy drive.
In 2011, speaking as a trustee of think tank Reform Scotland, he said the Scottish government’s policy had been “successful” and that “it is now the time to go even further”.
Conservation bodies such as the John Muir Trust and Mountaineering Scotland said Biggar’s reports “carry weight” at public inquiries and have suggested that Blackett’s apparent support for a renewable energy drive should be made clearer.
On Friday, Blackett said suggestions of impropriety “are entirely without foundation” and insisted: “I don’t have political links with the SNP.” He added: “It would not be reasonable to consider the paper that I co-authored for Reform Scotland in 2011 as support for the Scottish government’s renewable energy policy.”
Blackett unwittingly provoked a row with conservationists last month after his firm Biggar published a study asserting that wind farms had not affected tourism in parts of rural Scotland.
The John Muir Trust described the report as “misleading” while David Gordon, a director at Mountaineering Scotland, said “a fatal flaw” in Blackett’s study was a failure to consider tourism trends in areas where wind farms are not present.
Blackett’s links to senior members of the SNP have come under scrutiny after he confirmed that he worked for Alex Salmond in the late 1990s, before Salmond became first minister. Blackett was also closely involved with N-56, a pro-independence group.
Dean Lockhart, economy spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “This only appears to confirm the widely held belief that when it comes to economics, the SNP prefers to start with a political goal in mind and work backwards.”
Helen McDade, John Muir Trust’s head of policy, said: “If a professional witness has developed their expertise through an ongoing financial relationship with one side of a debate, in this case wind developers, it may be seen as misleading if their evidence is branded ‘independent’.”
David Gibson, chief executive of Mountaineering Scotland, said: “Mr Blackett makes regular appearances at public inquiries into wind farm planning applications in support of developers’ proposals. Our analysis of his most recent research concluded that there were a significant number of flaws with its design, methodology and data analysis. We find it difficult to understand how the renewables industry, which promotes its otherwise professional standards and credentials, can repeatedly justify the promotion of such research which is inherently flawed and misleading.”
Blackett has said that he believes “none of the criticisms made of the methodology is reasonable”. He said his firm, which he set up in 2002, had been hired by up to a dozen wind farm developers to provide economic and tourism assessments, adding: “We work to the highest professional standards and we are motivated by the desire to produce high-quality analysis and to provide an evidence base that will lead to better policy and improved economic performance.”
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