Leader comment: Councils don’t have a monopoly on right

Councils don't have monopoly on right. Picture: John Devlin
Councils don't have monopoly on right. Picture: John Devlin
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Over the past year, 17 wind farm applications have been refused by Scotland’s local authorities. After appeal to the Scottish Government, 11 of these 17 were approved.

The latest numbers, revealed today in this newspaper, have understandably prompted concerns over local democracy.

Councils, who should understand the local area and the arguments best of all, are having their wishes overturned. Opposition parties, as well as groups opposed to wind farms, are crying foul.

But a few points are worth considering.

Firstly, it is not just wind farm planning decisions which are being overturned.

Figures from the independent Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) show that recently around half of all planning decisions are reversed on appeal, including mobile phone masts and housing developments as well as wind farms.

For context, the overall appeal success rate when the SNP came to power in 2007 was 41 per cent. And back in 1999 it was 32 per cent.

So, it is clear that since devolution Scottish ministers – and their reporters – have become more confident in reversing the decisions made by Scotland’s councils.

This was demonstrated recently in Edinburgh when an application was submitted to demolish the popular Earthy restaurant in Canonmills, to be replaced with two restaurants, three flats and six townhouses.

Edinburgh City Council’s planning committee unanimously rejected the plan, yet it was still overturned on appeal in the face of the entire council and a 7,500-signature petition.

This prompted local MSP Malcolm Chisholm to argue that developers should lose their right to appeal over any planning proposal where a council committee has been unanimous in rejecting it.

Of course, just because a council has approved or rejected an application does not make it right. And it is entirely correct that an appeal procedure is in place, given that councils have been accused of failing to take decisions because they feared a local backlash.

But what is becoming clear is that the level of intervention from Scottish ministers is growing. Is this evidence that our councils are making a growing number of poor decisions, or that the Scottish Government is seeking to exert ever greater control?