Campaigners have raised fears over a “democratic deficit” after new statistics revealed that on dozens of occasions SNP ministers have determined controversial windfarm applications after local councils failed to do so within the permitted timescale.
Information released from the Scottish Government has shown a host of windfarm applications which have been “deemed refusals”.
Deemed refusals are applications submitted by developers to a local council, but the authority either runs out of time to decide whether to approve or refuse permission, or fails to do so, within the six-month timescale.
With councils failing to adjudicate the contentious windfarm applications, the proposals are automatically refused – meaning a developer can then go straight to the Scottish Government on appeal to decide and bypass procedures at local councils.
The statistics show that on 45 occasions in the last decade, local planning processes have been bypassed – with 14 applications winning permission from the Scottish Government.
The process has been bypassed for plans for a windfarm at Mochrum Fell in Dumfries and Galloway, which has led to hundreds of locals protesting against proposals.
Campaigners have described the situation as a “democratic deficit” – warning the power to approve the highly controversial windfarms is signed off by an SNP minister after a recommendation by a Scottish Government reporter.
Iain Milligan, spokesman for Save Our Hills, said: “There is a clear democratic deficit when it comes to dozens of windfarm applications across Scotland.
“When these proposals are lodged, the public expectation is that they will be thoroughly scrutinised. That means robust consultation, a rigorous debate in the local council chambers, and then a decision reached by those directly elected to rule on such matters.”
He added: “But now we can see much of this has been bypassed because local authorities are simply far too stretched to deal with all these enormous applications.
“These statistics show that, very often, the end result is Scottish Government approval for a highly controversial project. That’s extremely unfair on the rural communities who then have to live with the consequences.”
The Scottish Conservatives have called on SNP ministers to give local councils more funding to help officials be better able to determine applications within the six-month timescale to avoid the plans being determined by a central team.
Scottish Tory spokesperson for net zero, energy and transport, Liam Kerr, said: “It’s alarming to see under-funded and over-stretched councils not being able to meet these timescales and when they do, they are constantly being overturned by the SNP Government.
“The SNP continue to take the attitude that they know better than local communities when it comes to vital planning decisions.”
He added: “They simply don’t want to listen to local authorities and residents but instead want to grab power from them.
“The Scottish Conservatives want a law which ensures local planning decisions can never be overturned to respect the wishes of local people.”
Colsa, the umbrella organisation for Scottish councils, has stressed that local councils are better equipped to determine planning applications but has warned that funding is needed to keep on top of a soaring number of planning applications, particularly with a backlog caused by the pandemic.
A Cosla spokesperson said: “Cosla is a strong supporter of renewable energy and local decision-making, but we cannot comment on individual planning decisions.
“In general, there can be many reasons why a planning application is not approved and we believe that local authorities remain best placed to take decisions on windfarms and other related developments.
“To support local authorities in this, we are actively working with the Scottish Government to ensure they are better resourced to deal with planning applications of all kinds. This is made more urgent by a need to manage increased demand on the planning system as we recover from the pandemic.”
Earlier this year, The Herald on Sunday revealed that only one-fifth of onshore windfarm projects being considered by the Scottish Government have come from Scottish-owned developers with ministers accused of selling off renewable assets overseas.
As of April, only eight out of 39 proposals in front of the Government, which are either too large for councils to determine or are subject to appeal, are from Scottish firms.
Statistics showed that 19 of the bids have been submitted by overseas companies and another 10 are from English-owned firms
Scotland currently has an onshore wind capacity of around 8.5GW. Plans are in place to rapidly expand offshore wind capacity to 11GW, as part of a blueprint to transform the country into a carbon neutral nation.
But short-term capacity increases for renewable energy will come from onshore wind – with 4.45GW of capacity already approved and another 4GW in the planning stage.
Experts have stressed that renewable energy through offshore and onshore wind power will provide both economic and environmental benefits for Scotland.
The Scottish Government’s statutory adviser, the Committee on Climate Change, has said the Government should focus on ensuring “a favourable planning regime for low-cost onshore wind” and maintain electricity generation from renewable sources at high levels if targets are to be met.
The Scottish Government’s updated climate change plan points to a pledge by Scottish Power to “invest over £10 billion in North Sea renewables in the coming decade”.
The document also highlights a “new renewable, all-energy consumption target of 50 per cent by 2030, covering electricity, heat and transport”, adding that “there will also be a substantial increase in renewable generation, particularly through new offshore and onshore wind capacity”.
But the BiFab fiasco over wind-turbine contracts has ignited anger that Scottish jobs and supply chains promised as part of boosting the country’s wind capacity have not materialised.
There were 13,547 decisions on local developments in the final six months of 2020/21, 833 more than the same period in the previous year.
The average decision time for 12,279 of these which were not subject to processing agreements was 10 weeks, just under a week slower than the corresponding time of 9.2 weeks for the final six months of 2019/20.
A government document warns that “some applications will have longer decision times as a result of delays resulting from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Despite the pandemic exerting unprecedented pressures on our budget, the 2021/22 local government finance settlement of £11.7 billion includes an additional £375.6 million, or 3.5%, for day-to-day spending.
In addition, the value of the Scottish Government’s overall coronavirus (Covid-19) support package for councils totals more than £1.5bn.
“It is the responsibility of individual councils to manage their own budgets and to allocate the financial resources available to them on the basis of local needs and priorities.
“The right to appeal the non-determination by the local planning authority of certain planning applications forms an important part of the planning system.
“As with decisions made by local planning authorities, independent reporters, who make most decisions on planning appeals, are required to do so on the planning merits of the case, having taken full account of all the evidence before them, including any representations from members of the local community.”
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