Power-line muddle shows urgent need to protect landscape

Existing pylons near Denny, where the new line of 600 will end

Helen McDade

LAST week’s announcement from Jim Mather, the energy minister, giving the go-ahead for the new Beauly-Denny 400kV transmission line, following the longest-running public local inquiry since devolution, has brought to light major problems with the inquiry and decision-making process.

This process has led inexorably from a poor decision by Ofgem, the electricity regulator, to a disastrous decision by the Scottish Government. Surely, getting the right decision for the country should be paramount and the process should have some flexibility to achieve that?

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The inquiry procedure seemed to make examination of some key issues almost impossible.

Crucial evidence from a key independent witness, Sir Donald Miller, was ruled out by Reporters, who said it could not be lodged late. Sir Donald, former chairman of ScottishPower, tried to put forward a detailed alternative, the “east coast” route, to demonstrate that the overhead Beauly-Denny line did not need to go ahead before 2020.

His evidence was essential to help make the case for the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group (BDLG) – a coalition of environmental organisations including the John Muir Trust – that there were alternative routes for transmitting power south that had not been properly considered.

It was the view of the environmental organisations that any mitigation along the overhead route, eg running it underground, would be inadequate and that the east coast alternative and/or subsea cables meant the line did not need to proceed.

The government seems confused about whether Sir Donald’s evidence was considered after the inquiry. The minister has a duty to consider all relevant material submitted following the inquiry, and he stated in parliament that he had done so, including the “east coast option”. However, his own department’s letter to the developers said to allow consideration of this submission would have been unfair… and it had not been considered.

Certainly, a Scottish Government response to a legal submission from BDLG during the inquiry had categorically stated that the ministers did not consider that either the east coast or subsea option was a main alternative.

Another issue where there has been complete confusion has been whether the decision could require some undergrounding. Many months of objectors’ lives and thousands of pounds were spent making the case for undergrounding at the inquiry.

Then Mr Mather delivered a bombshell in parliament, saying: “We hear from a member who thinks that we have the power to dictate that undergrounding should happen. We do not.”

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In that case, why was discussion of undergrounding not excluded from the inquiry?

This inquiry has demonstrated that the current planning process is not protecting wild land or our best-loved landscape areas. It is often suggested that, if anything, we have too much regulation protecting our natural heritage.

However, even our best landscapes do not have the regulatory protection that other aspects of nature, such as birds, species and habitats, have from European regulation.

Much of our wild land has no special protection. The Beauly-Denny inquiry clearly showed that representations on natural heritage were considered to be outweighed by claimed commercial gains – unless a statutory designation applied.

Today, the John Muir Trust is launching a campaign to ensure adequate protection for wild land so we don’t see another Beauly-Denny. If you want to help, visit www.jmt.org

• Helen McDade is head of policy at the John Muir Trust and chairwoman of the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group