Exclusive:Call for public inquiry as plans for high-voltage power line from Isle of Skye to Loch Ness opposed

Highland councillors have performed a last-minute U-turn on their decision to back plans for a major new high-voltage power line running from the Isle of Skye to the shores of Loch Ness.

They have decided to object to proposals to upgrade the existing power line, after previously marking the scheme for approval.

The move comes in response to an application by energy network provider SSEN to erect a new double circuit 132kV transmission line stretching 68 miles from Ardmore on Skye to Fort Augustus on the mainland.

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The plans have been lodged with the Scottish Government Energy Consents Unit and will be decided by ministers.

The project, expected to cost £480 million, will include hundreds of giant steel pylons and overhead wooden poles carrying lines, as well as sections of underground cabling in some of the most scenic areas. Highland Council is among the statutory consultees.

The decision to object – proposed by the SNP’s Drew Millar and seconded by Ruraidh Stewart, of the Scottish Conservatives – was made after new environmental information came to light. The reason given was that concern raised by NatureScot over the development’s impact on designated nature sites had “not been resolved”.

But many locals have also been calling for a rethink of the plans, which they claim are centred on installing a line that is much more powerful than is currently required, with a view to accommodating a massive future expansion in wind farms on Skye and the Western Isles.

Mr Millar also accused the electricity company of a lack of clarity over the scheme.

“Having read over the original papers and the recent set, plus having received information from other sources, I was uncomfortable that members were being drip-fed information to suit SSEN and if all the information had been available initially then a different stance would have been taken,” he said.

“It has become blatantly obvious that this upgrade is purely a commercial project for SSEN, with deals being done with developers, not to benefit the residents of Skye by ensuring a reliable supply into the island, but to allow electricity to be sent out of Skye, which will be of no benefit to the island.

“A simple upgrade would give an increased capacity for the island and allow power from the Uists to join the grid. There are many residents who would like to have a public enquiry to look at all aspects of renewable power on Skye.”

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SSEN says it has undertaken extensive studies to find the best route, while minimising the impact on local communities.

As a result of feedback, the company is proposing to bury nine miles of the line where it passes the world-famous Cuillin mountains, as well as a further five miles where it connects to Fort Augustus substation.

Members of the recently formed Skye Windfarm Information Group (Swig), which has raised concerns over plans for new wind farms on Skye, have welcomed the councillors’ decision.

They claim building the schemes and the high-powered line will bring little economic benefit to local communities, which depend heavily on tourism, and cause potentially irreparable damage to landscapes and nature.

The group is now calling for a public inquiry that will consider the bigger picture rather than each scheme in isolation.

SWIG campaigner Andrew Robinson said: “Why should permission for a larger power line be given when it is not known if the wind farms will ever be built? As the larger power line is dependent on the wind farms and the wind farms need the power line, the only way to make good planning decisions for Skye would be for there to be a public inquiry into all the proposals faced by the island.

“Are ten wind farms, with nearly 150 turbines – many 200m high – appropriate for a top tourist destination with a world-renowned landscape?” He said the councillors who chose to object were to be “congratulated”.

“This sends a clear message to the Scottish Government, energy companies and wind farm developers that the wind farms and power lines being proposed piecemeal for Skye are not appropriate for such a beautiful place,” he said. “The Isle of Skye is not for sale.”

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There are two operational wind farms on the island, between them generating enough electricity for 55,000 households – around ten times the number on Skye. Now plans have been lodged to build 149 new turbines, some nearly six times the height of the Skye Bridge.

SSEN representatives say they are “extremely disappointed” by the council’s objections, which goes against the recommendation of planning officers and the previous decision by the planning committee.

A spokesperson for SSEN Transmission said: “The existing overhead line was built in the 1950s and is fast reaching the end of its operational life – as demonstrated by two major faults earlier this year, which resulted in the temporary loss of power to over 20,000 customers – with its replacement critical to keep the lights on for homes and businesses across Skye and in the Western Isles.

“It will also enable the connection of new renewable electricity generation along its route, supporting energy security and climate change targets.”

The company is now awaiting a “timely determination” of the application from ministers.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We need bold action to tackle the climate emergency and Scotland has some of the most extensive renewable generation capabilities in Europe with which to accelerate our just transition to net zero.

“We also have some of the most stringent environmental impact regulations anywhere in the world and our planning and consenting systems ensure that local communities can have their say.

“Consultation responses and representations in relation to applications, including responses from local authorities, are taken into account when determining each application. While we are aware of these proposed developments for grid and onshore wind, it would not be appropriate for us to make comment on any application while it has still to be determined.”



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