I’M not against wind energy but I don’t want to set eyes on towering metal structures every time I climb a mountain, says David Gibson of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland
ANY champion of Scotland’s natural environment would surely want to protect the wild, open beauty of the Highlands. This would make even more sense if they were trying to boost a stumbling economy by encouraging tourists to spend their money enjoying our world-famous countryside.
But then again, if you are a Scottish Government minister, maybe not.
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland, a representative organisation with 11,000 members, has been running a vigorous campaign to win proper protection for our best mountain landscapes from wind farm industrialisation.
Recently hopes were raised when murmurs began being heard from government that action was afoot. When the detail emerged it was difficult to muster more than a single, muted, cheer.
One proposal is that our National Parks and National Scenic Areas should be turbine-free, which is good, but many people might be surprised that these areas don’t already have proper protection.
However, the government does not propose to have “buffer” zones around these areas, at a time when a major problem is that companies are feverishly jostling to throttle internationally important gems such as the Cairngorms National Park in a noose of turbines.
The government says it accepts that wind farms can cause unwarranted visual intrusion, and that this is made many times worse where there are lots of them together, causing a cumulative impact. So it is odd that it can then permit squadrons of 125m tall turbines to be plonked just outside a national park boundary.
The government wants maps drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to be used to give guidance on areas in which wind farm developments would be unwelcome. It is also suggesting that the next National Planning Framework (NPF3) should include greater recognition of the value of wild land.
Again, this is good.
But Scotland already has umpteen policy documents filled with fine words which tend to be ignored when power companies such as SSE start to put in planning applications.
Highland Council has just sidestepped existing guidelines which would have allowed it to oppose the awful schemes for up to 48 turbines, many miles of access tracks, concrete buildings and metal masts at Sallachy and Glencassley, near Ben More Assynt, in Sutherland.
Under the NPF3 proposals it’s difficult to see how these unwelcome schemes, or many others, would be halted as there would be huge loopholes. They would still allow applications on wild lands “where it can be demonstrated that any significant effects on the qualities for which the area is identified can be substantially overcome by siting, design or mitigation.”
Lawyers must be rubbing their hands with glee at the ease with which they will be able to trample weak safeguards that depend on subjective terms like “significant” and “substantial”. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS), along with many other countryside organisations, still hopes that NPF3 can yield something positive.
But the government must get serious about defending our remaining wild places.
At present the suspicion is that they are simply trying to put a lid on an issue that is corrosive for SNP support ahead of the 2014 referendum. After all, for years they have acted like a pet Chihuahua, yapping indignantly at those who question their planning policies while frequently rolling over to be tickled when ministers have to make the final decision on huge schemes backed by big business. We believe there is no necessary contradiction between having clean, green energy and protecting the best of our landscapes from harm. The MCofS has only raised objections to six per cent of onshore wind farm applications – ours is not an anti-windfarm crusade.
The issue, for us, is about harmonising energy generation with countryside conservation.
This can only be achieved if government takes a strong strategic stance and recognises, as SNH does, that the percentage of Scotland which remains free from intrusion by man-made structures is in a nosedive. After all, when the countryside is gone, it’s lost forever.
Every generation claims some overwhelming need to cover yet more of what remains with concrete, steel and plastic. Normally it is actually about putting profits in the pockets of corporations and landowners. Sadly the current march on the mountains is being made under cover of combating global warming. Yet those who really care about the environment would be sensitive to where wind farms are built.
Even worse is that this government has declared 2013 the Year of Natural Scotland and has been promoting our wild mountainscapes all round the world – while merrily approving schemes that blemish those self-same landscapes.
There is still time to save many beautiful areas. To do this ministers have to start using their existing powers to reject applications which despoil our precious landscape. Then they must make sure that NPF3 becomes a genuine bulwark against unwelcome developments. That means full and unequivocal protection for many more sensitive areas, plus buffer zones, to keep the turbines at bay.
• David Gibson is chief officer of The Mountaineering Council of Scotland