Roger Cox: Scotland's wild land last place to build wind farms

There's something more than a little melancholy about re-reading the triumphant press release issued by wild land charity the John Muir Trust (JMT) last December, following what must have seemed like a notable victory '“ the reversal of the decision to build a 67-turbine windfarm at Stronelairg in the Monadhliath mountains.
The Highlands is set to be the building site for a wind farm the size of Inverness. Picture: John DevlinThe Highlands is set to be the building site for a wind farm the size of Inverness. Picture: John Devlin
The Highlands is set to be the building site for a wind farm the size of Inverness. Picture: John Devlin

The Scottish Government had initially given planning consent for the development in 2014, in spite of objections from their own specialist advisers, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Perhaps, like that radical contemporary philosopher Michael Gove, they had had enough of experts. Evidently not everyone these days is a Gove-ite thinker, however, because following a judicial review precipitated by the JMT, the Government decision was overturned, and one of the reasons given for this reversal was that ministers had failed to take SNH’s objections into account. In an official statement, Stuart Brooks, the JMT’s chief executive, described this second ruling as “great news for all those who love Scotland’s wild land and wish to see it protected” and went on to point out that an appeal for contributions towards legal costs “brought a tremendous level of support from over a thousand well-wishers, allowing the Trust to proceed”.

At the time, the outcome of the review really did seem like that rarest of things: a victory for ordinary citizens over big corporate interests. Here was a development where objectors outnumbered supporters by a margin of 15 to one, defeated in the courts because enough people were prepared to give whatever they could to allow for a legal challenge. What a great example to set to the rest of the world – that here in Scotland big business doesn’t get to trample all over the will of the people.

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Only, apparently, it does. It now transpires that all those well-wishers might as well have hung onto their cash. In spite of Brooks’s suggestion in last December’s statement that SSE should “recognise that this was the wrong development, of the wrong size and in the wrong place” the company and the Scottish Government subsequently appealed against the judicial review, and earlier this month succeeded in having it overturned, clearing the way for what has been described as an “industrial scale” windfarm roughly the same size as Inverness.

So what do we stand to lose? Well, the Monadhliaths aren’t as spectacular to look at as their celebrated near-neighbours, the Cairngorms – more rolling moorland, less craggy peaks – and they don’t enjoy the same protected status either, falling as they do just outside the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park. They do, however, offer the kind of soul-enriching wilderness experience it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find. This is one of the last few places in our crowded little archipelago where it’s still possible to roam and roam and roam some more and never come across a man-made structure. It’s hard to put a cash value on something like that, hard to weigh it accurately in the scales of profit and loss, but it would take a hard-hearted capitalist indeed to argue it has no value at all.

For the windfarm developers, it seems, getting to build turbines on unspoilt hillsides is a numbers game – submit enough applications and even if only ten per cent of them get accepted, you’re still quids in. The cruel logic operating here is a little reminiscent of that which applies to terrorist attacks: like terrorists, the windfarm developers only have to get things right once for an area of wild land to be ruined; like the intelligence services, organisations like the John Muir Trust have to get things right every time. Where this analogy falls down, of course, is that in the battle of wits between the terrorists and the spooks, it’s the spooks who have the greatest resources at their disposal; in the case of Big Energy vs the conservation charities, it’s Big Energy holding all the trump cards, with the charities in the role of the under-resourced underdogs.

As the John Muir Trust have always been careful to stress, arguing that windfarms shouldn’t be built on wild land is not the same thing as arguing that windfarms shouldn’t be built at all. Yes, of course climate change is a threat and yes, of course switching to renewable energy is an important part of dealing with it.

But there is no law that says these developments must be sited in areas of outstanding natural beauty. Turbines aren’t fussed about aesthetics. Once every other suitable site in the country has been used, perhaps then it would make sense to start looking at wild land locations. But surely our most dramatic landscapes should be the last places we think about building windfarms, not the first.

At the risk of sounding like a blithering Gove-ite, surely we don’t need experts to tell us that. n