A pressure group says the decision to approve Golticlay Wind Farm in Caithness underlines the need for reform of Scotland’s planning system to take greater account of local opinion.
Scotland Against Spin (SAS) has submitted a public petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for power to be given to local authorities and communities so they can make their own decisions on wind farm applications “and not have them overridden by Scottish ministers”.
SAS believes its case has been strengthened by the Scottish Government’s recent decision to clear the way for the 19-turbine Golticlay scheme, around 4.5 kilometres north-west of Lybster.
Highland Council objected to the wind farm 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.
The group wants the Scottish Government to bring planning legislation for determining wind developments in line with the system in England, where any project must comply with the local development plan and have majority backing from the community before it can be given consent.
It says the Golticlay project – originally planned by E.On and now being taken forward by RWE Renewables – would have been “binned” had an England-style system of local accountability been in place.
SAS chairman Graham Lang said: “Once again Scottish ministers have taken it upon themselves to overturn democratic decision-making by the local planning authority with the consent of the Golticlay Wind Farm in an area of Scotland which is already overwhelmed by giant turbines.
“Local residents should have greater influence as they are the ones who ultimately have to live with the decisions and not government ministers in Edinburgh.
“If the Scottish Government really believes that democracy matters, and wants to give more power to communities to make their own decisions and have their voices heard, then they must support the requests outlined in this petition.
“Golticlay would not have been consented if we currently enjoyed the same rights as communities in England because it did not have the backing of the local community. The scheme would have been binned.”
SAS points out that with parliament being in recess ahead of the Holyrood election no signatures can be collected for its petition. Once the election is over, however, and a new petitions committee has been formed, it will be “fast-tracked”.
The group says this “should give some hope to the many communities being overwhelmed by wind farm applications”.
Founded in 2013, SAS describes itself as an independent, non-political alliance which campaigns for the reform of the Scottish Government’s wind energy policies. It is run by volunteers from across Scotland and is funded by voluntary donations.
Its membership includes people from all over Europe.
SAS argues that communities are often left “disadvantaged” in a public inquiry where they face “experienced professionals and the applicant’s consultants, who present wind farm applications in their most favourable light as meeting Scottish Government climate change targets while at the same time seeking to marginalise the evidence from public witnesses and avoid expert scrutiny of potential adverse environmental impacts”.
The group is calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to increase the ability of communities to influence planning decisions for onshore wind by:
- Adopting English planning legislation for the determination of onshore wind farm developments
- Empowering local authorities to ensure communities are given sufficient professional help to engage in the planning process
- Appointing an independent advocate to ensure that local participants are not “bullied and intimidated” during public inquiries.
The SAS petition has been lodged at http://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/windfarms
The group says: “Onshore wind development is considered, by some, to be particularly lucrative for developers, owing to lower development costs. Some areas of rural Scotland are, we believe, at saturation point with large-scale industrial wind power station proposals and developments which have been built or are currently going through the planning process.
“In Scotland, wind energy schemes with generating capacity of 50MW or less are determined by local planning authorities. Community councils are statutory consultees for such planning applications. A refusal of planning permission regularly leads to an appeal by the developer. That appeal, delegated to the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division by Scottish ministers, is often very costly to the local planning authority, particularly if a reporter decides that an appeal should be determined by means of a hearing or public inquiry.
“Larger wind farms exceeding 50MW are determined at the outset by Scottish ministers under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 rather than by the local planning authority. However, the local planning authority remains a statutory consultee for each section 36 planning application submitted to the Scottish Government’s Energy Consents Unit. Should a local planning authority formally object to a section 36 application, a public inquiry is automatically triggered. This results in significant expense to the local planning authority, in order for them to defend their objections. In the majority of cases, the objections of these local planning authorities and the community councils are overruled by the Scottish ministers, acting on reporters’ recommendations.
“In contrast, wind energy schemes in England are determined by the local planning authority, irrespective of size.”
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.”
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