Leaders: Only testing will prove if rules work

A map identifies areas which are described as having the 'highest wildness in Scotland'. Picture: Ian Rutherford
A map identifies areas which are described as having the 'highest wildness in Scotland'. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Planning is to developers a source of delays and frustration to their visions for what people want. To people, planning is an important safeguard of their property, environment and rights.

The trick for government is to get the balance between the two sets of interests right. Has the Scottish Government achieved that with the latest sets of new policies now unveiled?

Some of the themes look uncontroversial. Scottish Natural Heritage has published a map identifying 42 areas covering just under a fifth of the country and which are described as having the “highest wildness in Scotland” and therefore to be protected from significant development, for which, read wind farms.

Walkers and landscape conservationists seem pleased that Scotland’s most scenic areas and National Parks are to be protected and Scottish Renewables, lobbyists for the onshore wind industry, appear to be happy too, although they did add a few cautionary footnotes. On this crude measure, the balance test seems to have been passed.

The map is part of a suite of documents lyrically called Scottish Planning Policy and National Planning Framework 3. The latter sets out areas such as Dundee’s waterfront and the former Ravenscraig steelworks site in Lanarkshire where regeneration and redevelopment have become a national priority. Again, this is largely uncontroversial.

It also sets out types of development which are also regarded as nationally important, such as the construction of high-voltage electricity transmission lines. These are a little more problematic. Everyone may agree Scotland needs an efficient and modern electricity system, but when it comes to particular lines of pylons, as has been seen with the long, drawn-out saga of the Beauly-Denny line, things can get controversial.

The aim of the document is not to rule out opposition to such projects, but to attempt to speed up the process so that the arguments get heard and decisions get made but in a shorter time-scale than the near decade it took to eventually approve the Beauly-Denny project.

It also seems to load the argument a little in favour of the developers by introducing a presumption in favour of development outside the Wild Land areas where there is a prejudice against development. The presumption is, however, carefully worded with emphasis on the word “sustainable”. This sounds fine, but “sustainable” can be a slippery concept. What is one person’s sustainability can be another person’s irreversible damage – the low-carbon versus landscape environmental conflict which is at the heart of controversies surrounding wind farms. How this will work out in practice, and whether it will actually speed up the planning process while giving people the protection they believe planning should afford them, will not be known until the new rules have been tested against some live proposals.

Small victory might end up a defeat

David Cameron has won a small victory in his struggle to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the president of the European Commission. He seems to have persuaded European Council president Herman Van Rompuy to organise a vote on Mr Juncker at the next meeting of the council where the EU’s heads of government will decide whether he gets the job or not.

It is the right thing to happen. The process through which Mr Juncker came to be the top candidate was decided by the European Parliament. MEPs agreed that each of the main party leaders should be their preferred choice, with the outcome decided by the voters according to whichever party, or grouping of parties, won the most seats.

The process leaves a lot to be desired, not least because Mr Juncker, with his loud trumpeting of the fact that his party won most seats, was victorious. He seems determined to press on with a centralising agenda with which most European citizens are uneasy and many vocally oppose.

But Mr Cameron’s little victory may turn out to be as unmemorable as most MEPs if the council vote confirms Mr Juncker. Mr Cameron says that many European leaders share his concerns but it currently seems improbable that there are enough of them willing to overturn the democratic die cast by the parliament, flawed though it is.

In that event, this episode may turn out to be a signal defeat, used by Mr Cameron’s opponents as evidence that the prime minister has little influence in Europe and therefore stands little chance of success in securing the reforms he now needs to persuade Britons they would be better off inside the EU.