A conservation charity has called for reform of the planning process after it had to pay £50,000 to an energy company.
The John Muir Trust said the final settlement with Scottish and Southern Energy brings to an end its campaign against the Stronelairg windfarm development in the Highlands.
The trust was forced to pay the sum in legal costs after it lost a legal appeal. SSE originally pursued the charity for £350,000 but the lesser sum was agreed between the two parties. The John Muir Trust has also had to pay £75,000 to the Scottish Government over the case.
JMT head of policy Helen McDade said: “The trust took this legal case because the Stronelairg development will destroy a large area of wild land.
“We believed that the consent of a massive windfarm in the Monadhliath Mountains was the result of a defective planning process. The trust won the initial judicial review with the judge stating that the case was taken in the public interest. Losing the case at appeal more than doubled the trust’s potential liability and prevented us from continued action.
“This case has highlighted in planning and legal circles the urgent need for planning reform.
“Two weeks ago SSE were pursuing the Trust for costs of £350,000, which would have been devastating for any environmental organisation and a deterrent for anyone that might consider seeking environmental justice in the future.
“Naturally the John Muir Trust is relieved to have negotiated to reach a much reduced settlement. The generosity of more than a thousand supporters means that the trust could take this important case on behalf of people and nature. Undeterred, we will continue to stand up for wild places, while working towards a sustainable future.”
The energy company said: “SSE has accepted an out of court settlement, with the John Muir Trust, of £50,000 in relation to the expenses it incurred in the judicial review of the consent decision for Stronelairg windfarm, and sees this as an appropriate and reasonable conclusion to this matter.
“SSE is passing on the full amount of this settlement to Visit Inverness Loch Ness, which is a not-for-profit organisation in the Great Glen. The funds will be used to contribute towards the South Loch Ness Trail, which is a project to complete a walking and cycling trail round the whole of Loch Ness.
“SSE is proud to have already played a part in the construction of this trail, and hopes that this contribution will help achieve its completion and allow the benefits to be enjoyed by both locals and visitors to the area.
“SSE is committed to being a sustainable company, helping to achieve environmental, social and economic wellbeing for current and future generations. This includes the appropriate development and delivery of renewable energy projects as an environmentally positive way of meeting people’s energy needs and addressing the key issue of climate change.
“The Stronelairg project was designed in keeping with this ethos. Following statutory requirements it was democratically approved by the Highland Council planning committee, was not objected to by the local ward councillors hosting the development, and was granted consent from Scottish Ministers in 2014.
“Construction work is progressing well on the project, which is sensitive to environmental considerations and will continue to bring important employment, supply chain and sustainability benefits to the communities around the project. This includes community funds established by SSE with a total value of £28.5m over 25 years. The contribution to Visit Inverness Loch Ness is in addition to these community funds.”
Paul Cooley, SSE director of generation development, said: “We are pleased to reach a reasonable conclusion with the John Muir Trust on the issue of expenses for the judicial review process.
“We are also happy to be able to gift those funds to the excellent South Loch Ness Trail project which will allow many members of the local community and tourists alike to enjoy all the Loch has to offer for years to come.”
Graeme Ambrose, chief executive of Visit Inverness Loch Ness, said: “We are absolutely delighted that SSE has chosen to pass on this £50,000 to Visit Inverness Loch Ness.
“The South Loch Ness Trail was established in 2011 and has progressed with the support of SSE, public agencies and local community groups. The completion of the final section above Fort Augustus has remained elusive but we are confident this contribution from SSE will ensure that it happens very soon.
“This transformational trail will then link up with the Great Glen Way and create a ‘360 degree’ long-distance trail around Loch Ness.”
A JMT spokesperson said: “Looking ahead, we see several challenges emerging, especially in the far North of Scotland. These include the Caplich windfarm, near Assynt, which goes to public local inquiry in June and the re-submitted Limekiln windfarm, in west Caithness, which is likely to go to inquiry.
“Our campaign will focus on obtaining expert advice, attending public local inquiries, and delivering reports and consultation responses to influence government policies.
“The trust believes in a more positive vision for this remote and beautiful area, and is actively supporting the campaign for world heritage status for the Caithness and Sutherland Flow Country peatlands.”
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