A Highland councillor has claimed there is a growing risk of a “21st-century Caithness clearances” following the Scottish Government’s decision to approve a wind farm that had generated widespread local opposition.
Councillor Matthew Reiss accused government ministers of “riding roughshod” over the wishes of the community by giving consent for the 19-turbine Golticlay Wind Farm near Lybster and of “violating our unique and diverse landscape”.
Highland Council objected to the Golticlay plan in September 2017, saying it would have “a significantly detrimental visual impact on the Caithness landscape”. A public inquiry was held in October the following year and the application was granted last month.
Ministers had received 246 objections and three letters of support.
Councillor Reiss said: “I believe I’m a moderate person in outlook. However, I’m independent and I truly believe that this latest decision at Golticlay – which overrides hundreds of objections – is dangerously close to the start of a 21st-century Caithness clearances.
“The situation now bears remarkable similarities to the original clearances in that rich vested interests from ‘the south’ saw lucrative financial pickings and, just as the sheep forced people off the land, so it seems to be starting now, dressed up in a false cloak of green respectability.
“The irony is that the Scottish Government champions independent thinking and the rights of the individual. The bleak reality is the opposite, significantly damaging the real environment, riding roughshod over hundreds of local objectors and violating our unique and diverse landscape which is prized and loved by so many.
“A familiar combination of pylons, tracks, turbines, substations and red aviation lights together with broken roads and a non-existent local democracy – what a unique example of money driving through the wishes of a centralising government.
“For the future, the answer lies to the seaward horizons – namely the Beatrice offshore wind farm and others that will follow. Beatrice had a handful of objections and it produces more than double the power of all the existing onshore wind farms in Caithness.”
Golticlay was originally planned by E.On and is now being taken forward by RWE Renewables. The site is around 4.5 kilometres north-west of Lybster.
Councillor Reiss backed his fellow Thurso and Northwest Caithness member, Councillor Struan Mackie, who last month argued that communities had been left with no trust in the way applications are handled. Councillor Mackie, who is standing as a Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate in the Holyrood election, said: “Right across Caithness, Sutherland and Ross we have seen local planning decisions overturned by unelected Scottish Government officials.”
Councillor Reiss said: “Councillor Mackie was absolutely correct to term the planning system ‘rotten’ – the same system that I have termed Orwellian in the past, and I do not use such a phrase lightly.
“The reporters who look into applications such as Golticlay are not independent, as the Scottish Government states. Their salaries are paid by that very same government. It is simply not true.”
The Golticlay application was dealt with by ministers under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. The maximum turbine height will be 130 metres and the wind farm is to have a generating capacity of up to 64.6 MW.
Councillor Reiss said he had been elected partly on a commitment to protect landscapes. “I had that on the front of my leaflet,” he pointed out.
However, he emphasised that he is in favour of offshore wind generally and acknowledged that there are “a few places left where onshore wind farms might be fitted in to the Caithness landscape”.
He added: “Each application has to be looked at on its merits. It seems to me offshore wind attracts very few objections and produces a vast amount of power in comparison to onshore.
“Caithness is producing a massive amount of power, and can produce more offshore, without driving the people away.”
The Golticlay decision letter issued on March 24 stated that Scottish ministers were satisfied that the developer had done what it reasonably could “to mitigate any effect which the proposals would have on the natural beauty of the countryside or any such flora, fauna, features, sites, buildings or objects”.
The Scottish Government’s communications activity is restricted during the pre-election period. However, in February a spokesperson said: “We are committed to providing clean, green energy from the right developments in the right place, through a planning system which ensures local communities have their say, and all applications for wind farm developments are subject to consultation with the public and statutory and local bodies. This is the case regardless of whether applications are determined by planning authorities or, as the case may be, Scottish ministers.
“We also ensure all relevant factors, including any impacts on local communities, are considered alongside advice from consultees… Assessing landscape and visual effects together with effects on cultural and natural heritage and the economy forms a key part of all wind farm applications.”
Councillor Reiss also claimed that NatureScot, the public body responsible for Scotland’s natural heritage, had become “less effective” over planning issues because of budget cuts.
“We will never know for sure if iconic Scottish wildcats were present at Golticlay because Scottish Natural Heritage – now NatureScot – refused to fund research I had asked for, quoting that Caithness is ‘not a priority area’,” Councillor Reiss said.
“In my opinion there are genuine reasons to believe there are wildcats on or near the Golticlay site.
“NatureScot had its budget cut in recent years and will only object to planning applications that have a major or national aspect. The reality is that the Scottish Government’s national environmental organisation has been weakened and is less effective.”
A spokesperson for NatureScot said: “In recent years, no verified wildcat sightings have been recorded north of Lairg and all cat records from the northern Highlands with photographic or genetic evidence have been found to be hybridised cats with a mix of wildcat and domestic cat genes. It is clear from all the evidence gathered to date that there is no longer a viable wildcat population living wild anywhere in Scotland right now.
“That’s why NatureScot is working with partners – including national and international experts from more than 20 respected organisations – on the EU LIFE supported Saving Wildcats project, which is pursuing an evidence-based action plan to ensure the sustainable future of wildcats in Scotland.”
RWE Renewables has called the consent for Golticlay “a significant milestone for the project after many years in planning”.
A spokesperson said: “We look forward to working closely with the community and to the delivery of the community and business benefits which a project like this can bring to the local area.”
The spokesperson said the project was being developed on the National Forest Estate owned by Forestry Land Scotland and Latheron, Lybster and Clyth Community Development Company.
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