The Ministry of Defence has gone to court to try to prevent wind farms being built in the Western Isles amid fears the schemes could disrupt radar serving Britain’s largest missile-test site.
In the Court of Session action between the government department and the islands council, the MoD is seeking to overturn a council decision which gave the green light to three turbines in South Uist.
The MoD could not confirm last night whether it had taken such steps in the past to prevent a wind farm project going ahead, but it is understood to be a first.
The Hebrides Range offers the largest area in the UK for the firing of rockets and missiles, including the Rapier surface-to-air system.
The leader of the Western Isles Council told The Scotsman last night that it was “unfortunate” the issue had ended up in the courts, and called on the MoD to “sit down” and discuss the plans.
The turbine proposals have already been subject to controversy after councillors went against planning officials’ advice to approve the schemes, claiming the MoD’s case against them was not robust. However, the dispute shows no sign of ending, with the ministry raising judicial review proceedings at the Court of Session.
The plans would see the turbines erected on the west coast of South Uist, but the MoD has stressed that such developments would hinder its radars on the island, which serve the test site.
The Hebrides Range, which was set up in the 1950s, has sites on Benbecula, North and South Uist and a radar station on the remote St Kilda archipelago. In raising the Court of Session action, the MoD hopes to have the council’s decision declared outside its powers and to have it set aside.
The ministry maintained that wind turbines can interfere with air defence radar, showing up on the system as an aircraft, or resulting in “clutter”, which desensitises radar and increases the risk of a detection failure.
It claimed the risks arise when a certain level of proliferation of turbines in an area is exceeded.
In its submission to one of the planning applications for a turbine outside a croft on South Uist, the MoD stated that trials carried out in 2005 concluded that wind turbines can have “detrimental effects on the operation of radar,” and added: “The probability of the radar detecting aircraft flying over or in the vicinity of the turbines would be reduced, and the RAF would be unable to provide a full air surveillance service in the area of the proposed wind farm.”
Brian Gill, counsel for the ministry, told the court yesterday that the judicial review proceedings relate to three planning applications by three crofters on South Uist.
Efforts had been made to arrange a meeting with elected members, MoD representatives and other experts in November but it had to be postponed and attempts were made to reschedule it in the new year.
Mr Gill told the court councillors on the Western Isles Council committee had effectively made the decision to ignore that and “bash on”.
The council was not represented at yesterday’s hearing but one of the planning applicants sought a continuation and judge Lady Wolffe allowed it to let him seek legal representation.
Angus Campbell, the leader of the independent council, said: “It’s really unfortunate that it’s had to go to court. It would be much better if the MoD would sit down with us and see how we could mitigate the effects of the turbines in Uist and that’s a process we’re still trying to undertake.
“The [turbines] are relatively small and I think the argument for the MoD was there is a cumulative effect in the area because there are already three or four turbines there.”
The issue has been a bone of contention on South Uist for more than six months. Applications for two of the turbines – located north-west of Bornish in the west of South Uist – first came before the local authority’s environment committee last September, when councillors agreed to defer any decision.
The council stated that “given the nature and size of the proposals,” the committee did not consider it had a “full understanding of the technical reasons” cited by the MoD as part of its objections.
At a meeting of the same committee in November, officials recommended that both 60kW and 50kW schemes be refused, warning that the turbines would cause “unacceptable interference” to the MoD’s air defence radar systems and went against their own local development plan.
At the meeting, however, councillors disregarded the advice, approving the turbines, which have a blade tip height of 26.6 metres and 19 metres respectively. The decision ratified an amendment which stated that the MoD “had not demonstrated to the committee’s satisfaction that this development would have an adverse impact on defence”.
Keith Bray, the council’s head of development services, had warned councillors that the move would be “rather irresponsible as a planning authority”.
The other turbine subject to the proceedings, located further south on the island, was approved in January. The 10kW Frobost turbine will have a 15.1-metre blade tip height.
The process which led to the Court of Session action was criticised last month by Donald Manford, leader of the SNP group at Western Isles Council, who said the administration had unnecessarily invited the MoD to submit representations about the applications for the turbines.
Mr Manford believes there was “no statutory requirement” for the council to consult with the MoD, claiming the turbines are well outside the minimum distance from the radar bases on the archipelago.