I received notification the other day of a neighbour’s plans to convert an outbuilding on his property into habitable accommodation.
Should I wish to object I have 28 days to do so but, says the notice, if my challenge falls on deaf ears, I have no right of appeal.
Happily, I’m fine with my neighbour’s building project and wish him well with it.
We are not, after all, talking about a proposal which would change the entire character of my area of Glasgow.
I anticipate minimal impact on my quality of life, still less on the value of my property.
As you may imagine, my reaction would have been less sanguine if I had learned he was planning something drastic like, say, throwing up structures four times the size of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument. If that were the case I’d be staring long and hard at that Neighbour Notification Notice.
‘You will be advised in writing of the Council’s decision,’ it says. ‘You do not have the right of appeal against this decision.’ The words ‘do not’ appear in bold and are underlined.
In the same week I learned of my neighbour’s plans, residents in New Cumnock, Ayrshire, learned of a project one of their neighbours has in mind.
This neighbour is called Banks Renewables and it wants to plonk the world’s biggest onshore wind turbines a short distance away from their homes.
They will measure 853ft from ground to blade tip. That is more than four fifths of the height of the Eiffel Tower.
In the whole of Britain, only two buildings – the Shard and 22 Bishopsgate – in London, are taller. Scotland has never had a building even half these turbines’ size.
Now, it is not for me, a resident of Glasgow, to presume the reaction of East Ayrshire folk to the prospect of these enormous steel structures going up in their back yard.
Many may view the plans favourably, possibly even derive pride from the notion their area could become home to the world’s tallest monuments to renewable energy.
But let us suppose for a moment their attitudes to vast wind turbines on their doorsteps mirror those of dozens of other rural communities in Scotland.
Let us imagine that, like many townsfolk and villagers in the Highlands say, or Dumfries and Galloway, or Aberdeenshire, or Fife, they believe that their environs are already saturated with turbines and the last thing they wish to see is more still bigger ones.
Well then, of course, they will want to make their objections known.
But here we come to the part of the planning process which, for sheer brass neck, is even more breath-taking than the most outrageous proposals ever to be submitted to it.
Ultimately, the decision to allow or reject the bid to site these steel monsters in a town’s midst may well be a unilateral one by a single civil servant.
And what the locals think of the plans will be neither here nor there.
Indeed, there is already inescapable evidence that this is the norm for wind farm applications.
A recent Freedom of Information inquiry revealed that, out of 24 wind farm proposals rejected at council planning committee level, 19 of them were subsequently given the go ahead on appeal by a Scottish Government reporter.
Consider for a moment the significance of that. It means that, in around eight out of ten cases where elected councillors reached an honest decision on a planning matter with substantial ramifications for their area, a single, unelected government official who lives elsewhere overruled them.
Imagine if such principles were applied in other areas of the law. What might we say if eight out of ten juries’ verdicts were overturned by a single judge because, in his or her sole estimation, they had got it wrong?
This may be an appropriate place to remind you of the wording on my Neighbour Notification Notice for next door’s outbuilding conversion: ‘You do not have the right of appeal against this decision.’
What the notice doesn’t say is that, while objectors have no right of appeal, applicants certainly do – and they frequently use it.
Why wouldn’t they when such an appeal involves convincing just one remote Scottish Government reporter of the merits of their plan rather than a group of councillors who live in the area in question and, for simple electoral reasons if nothing else, may have the best interests of their constituents at heart?
Can local communities appeal Scottish Government reporter decisions? Nope. Not unless they fancy saving up all their pennies and taking the matter to a judicial review, the legal costs for which come in north of £100,000.
Horror stories abound of residents who have lost their life savings in such noble but high-risk endeavours.
If, when release from lockdown finally comes, you are driving past a forest of turbines, their blades scraping the clouds, and you happen to wonder how locals stand for them, it is worth remembering that many don’t.
They probably wrote in vast numbers to their council planning committees. Councillors sitting on them almost certainly listened and, in many cases, voted accordingly.
Then a civil servant in an office in Edinburgh waved the application through anyway, steamrollering local opinion, brushing aside the democratic decision of mere elected representatives.
You may conclude that the Scottish Government’s fixation with wind farms is hardly incidental in all of this. You certainly wouldn’t be alone in that view.
But it would be wrong to conclude that it is simply in the realms of clean energy that the planning system stinks. It is rotten across the board. In 2019 residents in a quiet corner of St Andrews were delighted to learn Fife councillors had listened to their many objections to plans for a 90-bedroom hotel and accommodation for 100 students only yards from their homes.
Having considered their fears about noise, overcrowding and increased traffic, the planning committee unanimously threw out the plans, ending many months of worry for these locals.
When the developer appealed, residents took comfort from the fact that their councillors’ decision was unanimous. Surely one man would not overturn local democracy so decisively expressed.
Well, ten months later, that is exactly what happened. ‘We are astounded,’ said Sandra Stewart of the Abbey Park Residents’ Action Group.
‘The reporter has overturned the decision of the democratically elected members of the planning committee who voted unanimously to reject the planning application.’
The truly astounding thing is that such brazen betrayals of democracy are routinely happening across Scotland.
They are leaving the people with the most invested in communities – those who actually live there and cherish their surroundings – with the least power over what happens to them.
They are making fools of the local councillors who put themselves forward for election in the hope that they can represent these constituents and protect their interests.
And they are leaving neighbourhoods, villages, even entire towns with a despairing sense of impotence in the face of an imperious centralised Scottish Government drunk on its own authority.
This SNP Government never tires of fine words about democracy. The ‘will of the people of Scotland’ is its supposed guiding light, the unassailable driver on its unimpeachable path.
The truth is democracy is a wonderful thing when it suits their purposes.
When it doesn’t, the autocratic stitch up gets the job done.
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