Talladh-a-Bheithe Wind Farm (Objections)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 30th September 2014.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-10744, in the name of Murdo Fraser, on objections to the proposed Talladh-a-Bheithe wind farm and national planning framework 3. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes objections to the planned Talladh-a-Bheithe wind farm on Rannoch Moor from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the John Muir Trust; considers that, if granted, the Talladh-a-Bheithe project will be visually detrimental to an area of outstanding natural beauty and one that is included in Scottish Natural Heritage’s wild land map; believes that the 24 turbines planned for two kilometres north of the Loch Rannoch and Glen Lyon National Scenic Area will be visible from 30 Munros and Corbetts, including the popular Schiehallion mountain; understands that this case presents the Scottish Government with its first real test following the announcement of the Third National Planning Framework (NPF3), in which 19% of Scotland was identified as national parks and national scenic areas and therefore out of bounds to developers, and notes calls for the Scottish Government to reaffirm its commitment to preserving Scotland’s precious natural heritage.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I start by thanking colleagues from across the Parliament who signed my motion and enabled this debate to take place. I welcome to the public gallery those who have come along to watch the debate, among whom are members of the John Muir Trust and people from the community in Rannoch. The trust, Ramblers Scotland and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland have all been vocal in support of the motion, as has the local campaign group, keep Rannoch wild.

I appreciate that it is unusual to have a parliamentary debate on a live planning application. I also appreciate that, in responding to the debate, the minister’s remarks on the subject will be somewhat limited and that he will be unable to say anything that could prejudice the outcome of the planning application. However, this particular application raises important issues and I wanted an opportunity to highlight them and enable the Parliament to discuss them.

In my view and that of many other interested parties, the Talladh application represents a test case to determine whether the Scottish Government is serious about protecting our wild land. The proposal is for 24 turbines of 125m in a moorland area between Loch Rannoch and Loch Ericht. Crucially, the turbines that are proposed for the site would be erected in an area that Scottish Natural Heritage has identified on its map as wild land. Anyone who has visited the location will understand why it has done that. Rannoch Moor is at the very heart of wild Scotland, and there are views from more than 30 Munros and Corbetts that would be irreversibly affected if the application got the green light. I use the word “irreversibly” advisedly, because although the turbines might be temporary, the infrastructure that goes with them, such as the tracks—I understand that in this case there would be some 12.8km of access tracks—would be visible for a lifetime if not longer.

A few weeks ago, I climbed some of the hills to the north of Ben Alder. This area is as close as we get in the central Highlands to a true wilderness and it would be a tragedy to see it despoiled with an industrial development.

This debate is important for not only the communities in the area around the proposed Talladh wind farm, but the 41 other areas across Scotland that Scottish Natural Heritage identifies as wild land. Their unspoilt status is also now in question. I use the term “our wild land” deliberately. Scotland’s wild places are a gift to everyone in this country and they should not be sacrificed for the sake of some additional megawatts of renewable energy, particularly when existing and consented renewable energy projects are very close to reaching the 2020 electricity generation target.

The Talladh application is attracting a huge amount of interest both locally and nationally. The Scottish Government has received nearly 1,000 statements in opposition to the development, in contrast with just 23 in support. Those statements have come from all parts of the country; indeed, some are international. There is also, however, local opposition to the application. A recent survey that was undertaken by the Rannoch and Tummel community council showed that three quarters of local residents oppose the proposals. Many of those in opposition have livelihoods that depend on tourist revenue, earned thanks to the natural beauty of the area. For example, more than 30,000 people a year climb the popular Schiehallion mountain and walking tourism is a major contributor to the local economy.

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander books—which are now a TV series being filmed in Scotland—has also voiced her opposition. She has said that we cannot put a price on our landscape and believes that, if approved, the development will be a “tragedy” and a “disaster” for wild Scotland.

In its submission on the application, Scottish Natural Heritage highlights the “significant damage” the development would have on the Rannoch moor peatlands and blanket bog—features that have been identified as nationally important under Scottish planning policy.

SNH has also given a damning verdict on the diligence of the environmental statement attached to the application and believes that, if approved, the peatlands and blanket bog resource would be “permanently lost”. That is important because peatlands are carbon sinks, and destroying them to build wind farms is an illogical move that could result in higher rather than lower carbon emissions.

I will concentrate the remainder of my remarks on SNH’s wild land map and what that means. Just over two months ago, the Scottish Government released its third national planning framework, which included a commitment to protect 19 per cent of our landscape from onshore wind turbines. When announcing NPF3, the Minister for Local Government and Planning, Mr Mackay, assured the Scottish public that

“We have taken steps to ensure that no wind farm developments can go ahead in our cherished National Parks and National Scenic Areas, and we have strengthened the protection of wild land”.

However, the Talladh wind farm would be located just 2km north of the Loch Rannoch and Glen Lyon national scenic area.

At the time, I cautioned that the guidelines do not go far enough, as developments would still be possible on wild land. In 2013, that was confirmed by comments from the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse, who said:

“Wind farms could be built—” on wild land—

“but only if substantial mitigation were to be put in place”.—[Official Report, Public Petitions Committee, 28 May 2013; c 1372.]

Many will have seen the recently published map from the John Muir Trust highlighting the visual encroachment of wind farms across most of southern and eastern Scotland and, indeed, increasingly in the Highlands. If approved, the Talladh wind farm would substantially add to the parts of Scotland from which wind turbines would be visible, and one of the last truly wild places in Scotland would join the long list of casualties that have fallen to the impact of wind turbines.

I would like to hear the minister say, in responding to the debate, that the site is unsuitable for a development of this nature, but I appreciate that he is prohibited from making that statement. Instead, it would be helpful if he could clarify the precise status of the SNH wild land map and in what circumstances renewable energy projects would be permitted on the wild lands identified.

The Scottish Government talks tough on protecting wild land and this application represents its chance to prove it. We have heard a lot from the Scottish National Party over the past week about honouring vows and promises. It is now time for the Government to honour its commitment to protecting Scotland’s precious wild land.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

I congratulate Murdo Fraser on securing this evening’s debate. Although I am not a local member for the area affected by the wind farm proposal, the debate gives me an opportunity to revisit an issue that I raised in March in relation to the failure of NPF3 to set out how much we can protect our wild lands. In that debate, I noted that the NPF3 “Main Issues Report” of April 2013 stated:

“In addition to our nationally important, most scenic, landscapes, we also want to continue our strong protection for our wildest landscapes.”

Yet for all of those welcome words, the core area of the wild land map was removed from NPF3. That was a grave omission and is one of the main reasons why the debate that Mr Fraser has brought before Parliament this evening has to happen.

If we do not recognise the need to protect our nationally important and scenic landscapes, those areas of Scotland will continue to fall victim to the onward march of the renewables industry at the expense of our natural environment. I make it clear that I am not opposed to wind farms in principle: I fully accept that they have a part to play in our future energy production capacity. However, I am far from convinced that the right balance is being struck between wind farm development and the protection of our wild lands.

As I said in March, I cannot agree with Scottish Renewables that NPF3 presents a significant risk and would create a barrier to the economic and environmental benefits that renewables could bring to Scotland. The reality is that our natural landscape, not the renewables industry, is at risk if we fail to ensure its protection. If we do not site wind farms appropriately, we will continue to lose more of Scotland’s greatest natural assets.

If the plan for the proposed Talladh wind farm is approved, it will undoubtedly transform Rannoch for the worse. As Murdo Fraser said, it will adversely affect views of more than 30 Munros and Corbetts, with the wind turbines being visible from the west Highland railway line and the A82, which—as everyone knows—is the main tourist route through the west Highlands.

If a developer was to suggest building a multistorey building taller than Glasgow’s Red Road flats on Rannoch Moor, they would get laughed out of any planning committee, and yet there is a proposal to put turbines that are taller than those flats on that natural landscape because we have no proper control over the siting of wind farms in Scotland. The threat that a wind farm would pose to that particular Highland vista is concerning enough in itself, but the harm that would be done to rare bird species is equally worrying.

The proposed development is located almost entirely within an area of deep peat and priority peatland. The Scottish planning policy 2014 identifies the habitat as being “nationally important” and worthy of “significant protection”.

Rannoch’s reputation for natural beauty is the main driver of tourism to the area, and it is hard to see how that reputation will not be damaged. It is one of Scotland’s last great wild land areas and the need to protect it will be a major test of Scotland’s planning framework. If the land cannot be protected by using NPF3, what other wild land area can be protected? Which area will be next on the agenda for our renewables companies?

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, although I did not sign the motion because I cannot agree with it.

We should look at the history of the Loch Rannoch area over 300 years. It was a cattle-herding and small-tenant area that was swept away by the 1745 uprising—fortunately, the forfeited estates commission managed to save part of the black wood of Rannoch on the south side of the loch. As the Forestry Commission says, it is one of the largest areas of the ancient pine forest that once stretched across Britain and Europe, and which we hope to expand again.

Alexander MacKenzie, who compiled “The History of the Highland Clearances”, was informed by a correspondent that in the 1830s a large amount of clearance took place along the north side of Loch Rannoch. The book details those places, some of which are in the Talladh-a-Bheithe estate.

People were removed, although there were still some families there, which brings us forward to the discussion in 1885 that preceded the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886. The members for Perthshire, Banffshire, Bute and Aberdeenshire kept their areas out of the crofting law. The law ensured that there would be communities in those areas, as there still are in most crofting areas; it is a pity that Rannochside was not one of them.

Today’s landlords know that shooting and fishing alone will not pay their running costs, hence they look for other uses of their natural resources and make wind farm applications. That is occurring in the context of a renewed concern for land reform, which I hope will lead to taxes on landowners of large properties, including Talladh-a-Bheithe. That is one example of income that could be generated in the form of taxes, which such landowners probably do not pay at the moment or perhaps pay in another country.

After the second world war, forestry and hydro schemes gave employment, but the local population kept dwindling. Today, just over 30 pupils are to be found in the local primary school and nursery. It is very likely that, under the current economic system, 99 per cent of those young people will leave their home area for education and careers and will never return. Should local people not benefit from the development of natural resources such as wind power? Should they not have the benefit of a cash source that is constant and that is not affected by potential cuts in local and national government funding, such as those that are threatened by the Tory-Lib Dem austerity programme, which is set to bite even deeper in the next few years?

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

No—I do not want to take any interventions.

We have a fragile community that should benefit under Scottish Government spatial planning guidelines, which aim to create a low-carbon place, a natural place to invest, a successful and sustainable place and a connected place. That is how the Minister for Local Government and Planning and the Minister for Environment and Climate Change see the issue. During consideration of NPF3, they told the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee that

“In their view the identification of land as a core area of wild land does not mean that there is a ban on development taking place, development can still take place as long as it can be done in a way that it is fully mitigated and the environment can be protected.”

The clinching factor is the inexorable pressure of climate change. The clearances removed the small farming economy, while the lure of the city robbed small places of their most basic services. Now, climate change, if unmitigated, could destroy the very scenery that some people talk about. I have climbed Schiehallion, Ben Alder, Meall a’ Bhùiridh and many other hills in the area. We have to take into account the distance between many of those things and any proposed wind farm. It is a pity to pity the plumage and forget the dying bird. As far as I am concerned, the socioeconomic issues and the potential for a small community to expand rather than dwindle must be looked at seriously.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The proposed wind farm is not in my region and will not particularly affect my constituents on a daily basis, but the consequences of its approval, if it happens, will be felt far and wide. If the wind farm proceeds, it will be viewed as having met the conditions of the new planning framework and Scottish planning policy, which stipulate that

“any significant effects on the qualities of these areas” must be

“substantially overcome by siting, design or other mitigation.”

How on earth can we design out the impact of 100m-plus high turbines against the background of one of Scotland’s most rugged and wild landscapes? That is a very basic question that we have to ask.

I wanted to speak in the debate to highlight the concerns of my constituents about their landscape, which is very different from that around Loch Rannoch. For the people of villages such as West Calder, Kirknewton, Addiewell, Longridge and Fauldhouse, their landscape is just as cherished. It is an insult, whether it comes from planners or whoever, to infer that their natural heritage has any less value than any other natural heritage.

At this point, it seems appropriate to refer to a letter that I have kept for around 15 years. It is the evidence that was presented by Mrs Mary Allison of Blackridge in West Lothian to a planning inquiry into an opencast coal application that affected the village that she grew up in. Mary’s contribution is as relevant today in relation to wind farm development as it was then in relation to opencast development, so I would like members to listen to what she said.

Of the so-called experts who are paid to provide evidence to any inquiry, she said:

“Many of the presentations (heard prior to mine) have the lure of scientific objectivity. However, I would contend that these presentations do not give us answers. They provide a collection of research facts which are neither wrong or right, they are simply facts that have no meaning until we bring our values and judgements to their interpretation. The developer”— we can say the wind farm developer in the scenario that we are discussing—

“has a set of corporate values, the government has a set of political values, the community a set of community values. None of these are of value free, neutral or objective. We see each in a different light because we stand to gain or lose different things from the proposal. I would contend that the community can only lose—any economic gain will be short term whilst the longer term consequences will be negative.”

Speaking of her community, Mary—a senior research fellow—said:

“These landscapes and experiences are what gave me my sense of place in the world—where I came from, the communities that made me. These are valuable to me and could never be recreated.”

That is the same irrespective of where we live. Beauty and the value that we place on our community are in the eye of the beholder. I love the Five Sisters shale bing in West Lothian just as much as I love the landscape that we are discussing. We might be here to debate the construction of a wind farm on Rannoch Moor but, as of today, 12 wind farms housing 83 turbines have been given approval to go ahead and are operational in West Lothian.

The problem with the Scottish Government’s wind farm policy is overconcentration, which I fear may happen with the wind farm at Talladh-a-Bheithe. When one application succeeds, the developers pile in with a whole lot more applications and communities feel under siege. It is a free-for-all, and I fear that it will get worse under the new planning policy.

That is not to dismiss the necessary move towards renewable energy. It is vital that Scotland plays its part in reducing carbon emissions. However, one of the main issues is ownership. The application that we are discussing is by Eventus BV, a Dutch company—probably a Dutch multinational. The applications in my area come from Spanish, French, Italian and Danish multinationals. A recent one came from an Austrian prince. None of those wind farms is owned by the community, local government or the public sector. Therefore, the money flutters off to the boardrooms of Madrid, Paris, Rome, Copenhagen or wherever.

We need a national spatial plan that avoids overconcentration and the ruination of natural landscapes such as Rannoch Moor while ensuring that, when we have wind farm development, communities are rewarded for wind technology being applied in their area. We need a plan that takes into account everybody’s views in Scotland. Each voice should be heard on an equal footing and each community’s view should be respected.

The Scottish Government must be careful, because its imbalanced and mismanaged pursuit of renewable energy targets is turning people against renewable energy. That is very dangerous. What I can say is that some of the applications in my area are as likely to turn people against wind farm development as the Talladh-a-Bheithe application is in Rannoch.

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

As has been mentioned, the Scottish ministerial code is clear that I must take particular care to avoid conflicts of interest when dealing with planning matters, including the granting of energy consents.

This is the second time in recent months that a members’ business debate that focused on a live planning application has come forward. It is well-known that ministers cannot comment publicly on live planning applications because that could prejudice the final decision. Therefore, I have concerns that such debates have been conducted.

I should also make it clear that the Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, who cannot attend today, takes decisions on applications under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 and, rightly, as the code states, I cannot publicly express an opinion on a particular case that is before ministers for decision.

Following the debate, I will write to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to seek its views on whether the guidance on motions and amendments can be reviewed in the light of Parliament’s accepting for debate motions on live planning applications.

No current planning decision should be considered as setting a precedent. Future proposed developments will be assessed on their own merits, given the unique circumstances of each case, and always in the context of relevant policy and guidance.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

So, despite all the talk about an open Parliament discussing and debating the issues of the day, we are now to get a political fix that prevents us from discussing the issues that all the people in the public gallery want to discuss.

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

That is quite an unfortunate intervention, when what I am trying to do is uphold the integrity of the planning system, which should work in a way that inspires confidence in the system. If we indulge in quasi-judicial debates in the chamber, that risks the rights of objectors within the planning system as well.

To his credit, Murdo Fraser has raised issues of concern and due parliamentary process in terms of the committees studying national planning framework 3 and Scottish planning policy. Neil Findlay has not taken the same approach in terms of supporting the changes to SPP and NPF3. I suggest that, if Neil Findlay objects to Scottish planning policies, he should do so on the basis of policy objections in the right place, as opposed to trying to use mechanisms that might be counterproductive to the people he seeks to represent.

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

I need to make progress on the issues that have been raised. If Michael McMahon wants to come in later, when I have made further progress, I will be happy to take his intervention then.

I want to emphasise the clear position that I set out when I published national planning framework 3 and the Scottish planning policy in June. On all matters, I appeared before Parliament and offered to return to the committees of Parliament on any matter of policy. NPF3 is quite clear. It says:

National Scenic Areas and National Parks attract many visitors and reinforce our international image. We also want to continue our strong protection for our wildest landscapes—wild land is a nationally important asset ...

The pressing challenge of climate change means that our action on the environment must continue to evolve, strengthening our longer-term resilience. A planned approach to development helps to strike the right balance between safeguarding assets which are irreplaceable, and facilitating change in a sustainable way. We must work with, not against, our environment to maintain and further strengthen its contribution to society.”

In setting that out in NPF3, supporting delivery of a low-carbon place, the new Scottish planning policy provides clear guidance on the preparation of spatial frameworks for onshore wind energy development. Parliament did not comment on the detail in that policy, but called for greater clarity. Therefore, I will clearly state again that the Scottish Government has stated that wind farms will not be acceptable in national parks and national scenic areas. That is our policy.

I also set out in the Scottish planning policy that I expect significant protection to be given to national and international designations such as Natura 2000 sites; other nationally important mapped environmental interests, such as wild land; and an area around settlements in which visual impacts need to be considered. That is our policy.

Proposals outside national scenic areas still have to be assessed for their impacts on landscape, including effects on wild land. Not only do those new policies provide certainty about our natural heritage interests and parity for our communities, they set out a clear approach to planning for onshore wind that I expect to see in development plans across the country. It is an approach that is appropriate to the scale of development.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am grateful to the minister for setting out all of that on the record. Could he specifically address the point that I made towards the end of my speech and tell us in what circumstances he could see a renewable energy project being permitted in an area that is designated as wild land?

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

I am being careful to avoid reference to any live application, but I believe that the detail is set out in NPF3 and SPP. All those considerations have to be taken into account and a judgment made.

I reinforce the point that one decision is not a precedent for another. Every case must be judged on its merits, with all the relevant material considerations to hand. It would, therefore, be wrong for me to pick a live application or a hypothetical situation to make the policy point, when I believe that the policy guidance is much stronger and supportive of the environment than it was before—a point on which a number of organisations, including the John Muir Trust, agree.

On a related point, it is the responsibility of planning authorities to prepare spatial frameworks. Since the publication of SPP, many such frameworks are in preparation and my officials are working closely with planning authorities as they come through our development plan gateway, and as proposed plans head towards examination. We are working closely with our environment agencies, industry representative bodies and planning practitioners and all others across Scotland, either face to face, in gatherings, at events, or by conducting research on the impacts of onshore wind developments. We will continue to draw on verifiable evidence in order to implement those policies in such a way as to ensure that we steer development to the right places, so that benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts.

In relation to climate change and decarbonising our electricity production, the Scottish Government has made its energy policy a top priority and it has achieved great progress despite having limited responsibilities. The industry has expanded rapidly during the past decade, bringing millions of pounds of investment to areas throughout Scotland, and empowering often remote rural communities to the tune of £13.5 billion since 2010. The renewables sector now supports at least 11,695 jobs in Scotland, approximately 3,000 of which are in skilled engineering jobs. Some companies report rising tender activity during the past three months, which is showing scope to return to the same workload level as in 2013.

Reducing energy demand by 12 per cent by 2020 and focusing on energy efficiency are important elements of our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. We want to meet at least 30 per cent of overall energy demand from renewables by 2020.

I hope that members agree with me about the importance of the direction of travel in relation to renewables so that we can strike the right balance. Climate change is a huge challenge and we saw demonstrations across the globe just last week. Climate change mitigation is a European obligation and our domestic climate change legislation needs to secure decarbonisation of the energy sector, underpinned by efforts to meet the range of targets that I have just mentioned.

I am by no means implying that all onshore wind proposals will gain planning permission. Of the 310 wind turbine related planning appeals that have come in since May 2007, 194 or 62 per cent were refused and 116, or 38 per cent, were allowed. Ministers refuse or modify inappropriately scaled wind farms routinely and, of course, ministers will consent to appropriately scaled and located wind farms, too. To demonstrate our balanced approach, Parliament need look no further than the policies that I supported when I published NPF3 and SPP. They are designed to secure the right development in the right places and to protect our natural and built heritage and communities in equal measure.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes Murdo Fraser’s members’ business debate, but before I close this meeting of Parliament, I note the minister’s intention to write to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee about the issues. That is a matter for the Scottish Government, but with regard to the debate this evening, parliamentary business, including members’ business, was agreed by the Parliamentary Bureau and by the Parliament.

Meeting closed at 17:38.