Scottish Government ministers are ignoring local views when it comes to determining applications for major onshore wind farms in the far north, it has been claimed.
New figures show that Highland communities objecting to wind farms have been overruled on at least 40 occasions in the last five years.
A Freedom of Information request shows that in the last five years, the tax-payer funded energy consents unit – which determines major energy applications with a generating capacity in excess of 50 megawatts – approved 35 developments objected to by community councils and a further five when Highland Council raised an objection.
The revelations sparked an angry response from Caithness councillor Mathew Reiss, a critic of the planning process for renewable energy.
Part of the problem stems, he says, from an “unholy alliance” of large profit-driven power companies and the Scottish Government which will not even consider its application system might be “imperfect”.
He said: “The figures revealed by this FOI lay out in unambiguous terms the undemocratic and Orwellian planning system that allows the government to airbrush out sincere objections to some developments, even when hundreds have objected.
“The Scottish Government proclaims localism as an aspiration or objective – these figures ridicule that claim. South of the border local people have much more say in such matters.
“It is not dissimilar to the Clearances, when profitable sheep-rearing industries, some with their origins in the south, drove Highlanders off the land.”
Cllr Reiss said he had approached the minister for energy, connectivity and the islands Paul Wheelhouse to call for research into the impact of repeated wind farm applications on communities, but says that all he got were evasions.
“Specifically, my request to the minister last August for a simple piece of research into the effects of multiple local on-shore wind farm applications in a relatively small area has been carefully not answered, using Orwellian language,” he said.
“This research would cost little and would inform Scottish Government officials in their deliberations about some of these repetitive planning applications, which I think amounts to a form of corporate bullying of small, fragile rural communities by the system.
“An unholy alliance of a government unable to even consider that their current systems might be imperfect, money-driven largely foreign investment from energy companies and a few landowners who, perhaps understandably, are tempted by the easy millions of pounds offered up on a plate.”
Highland Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said the issue indicates how much faith the SNP places in local views.
He said: “The Scottish Government trumpets the need for local decision-making and yet this proves how much they ignore local democracy.
“The result of their actions is that local councils have to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds defending local decisions, which the central government overturns.
“I believe that the Scottish Government needs to listen much more to community and local councils and not to do so demonstrates a true lack of trust.”
Liberal Democrat candidate for the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross seat, Molly Nolan, said the information does not come as a shock.
“The Scottish Government has a reputation for centralisation, so it’s no surprise that local voices are being ignored in wind farm planning, with both Highland Council and community councils being overruled by SNP ministers in the central belt,” she said.
“Even more galling is the fact that so many Highland residents are in fuel poverty, while living in sight of wind farm developments.
“We all welcome renewable energy, but these developments must benefit Highlanders too.”
SNP MSP Maree Todd, who will also contest the north seat against Ms Nolan, said decisions were based on established planning policies.
“As a local MSP, who has no formal role in the planning process, I have always been supportive of the benefits that wind energy can bring in terms of clean energy, community benefit and good quality jobs to the Highlands.
“Decisions on individual applications, whether they are taken by local authorities or by the Scottish Government, need to be taken on the basis of planning policy that is in place to ensure that the right developments take place in the right locations.
“Where a planning authority objects to a proposed onshore wind development, and that objection is not withdrawn, it is mandatory that a public local inquiry be held.
“This provides a public forum for issues raised by the authority and other objectors to be fully explored, and for ministers to consider the detail of that inquiry, before a decision to consent or refuse is reached.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to providing clean, green energy from the right developments in the right place as we strive to meet Scotland’s statutory greenhouse emissions reduction targets. Assessing the effect on landscape forms a key part of determining any wind farm application, and the issue is fully considered together with a project’s potential to contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, any environmental impacts, as well as impacts on cultural heritage and its socio-economic impact.
“Our planning and consenting system ensures that local communities have their say and all applications for wind farm developments are subject to consultation with the public and statutory and local bodies, including community councils.
“We also ensure all relevant factors, including any impacts on local communities, are considered alongside advice from consultees throughout the planning consent process for wind farms, before any decisions are made. In addition, we encourage early and meaningful engagement by developers with any communities who would be affected by wind farm development proposals to allow for early design changes.”