Can new planning proposals protect Scotland’s finest landscapes?

IN over thirty hears of landscape campaigning I don’t think I’ve ever come across an issue as divisive as onshore windfarms.

It’s probably safe to say that for most folk wind turbines are not really an issue at all, and poll after poll shows considerable support in Scotland for the Government’s renewable energy programme.

Onshore wind is part of a mix of renewables that will include biomass, hydro, wave, tidal and offshore wind but onshore turbines need wind, and lots of it, and the only place you’ll get enough wind is on a hilltop. That’s where the problems lie.

Our hilltops and mountains are beloved by many and attract different kinds of visitors, those who see climbing to the summits as a challenge, those who want to experience the solitude and remoteness of such wild places and those who are happy enough just to gaze on such enduring natural monuments from below.

But while most of the polls support the concept of wind power a number of alternative polls indicate there is also considerable support for protecting the finest of our wild land from spinning turbines. Could it be that you can support wind energy and champion our wild lands at the same time?

I believe you can.

I have to confess that I’m no great lover of windfarms but I do believe we have to tackle the problem of climate change and do what we can to ensure a future energy supply faced with the reality of diminishing fossil fuels.

Nuclear power in Scotland has been ruled out by the present administration and the nuclear generators we have are being run down with little prospect of them ever being replaced. We are all now suffering because successive governments in the past haven’t done enough to plan for our future energy supplies.

Faced with this stark reality the Scottish Government has decided to encourage sources of renewables, which could make Scotland a leader in this form of green energy. I personally like the idea of Scotland having a thriving renewable energy industry once the oil runs out. But we also have a thriving tourism industry in Scotland and tourists don’t come to Scotland to see turbines and electricity pylons.

In an earlier post I asked what the next throw of the dice would be for Scotland’s wild landscapes? I suggested that in years to come we could live in a country where energy is plentiful and secure, where we will be seen as a world leader in the fight for climate justice and where the best of our wild lands are safeguarded for future generations. I thought there might be an opportunity for us to get the best of both worlds.

I remember writing those words without any real feeling of optimism but two new documents, just published by the Scottish Government, have given me renewed hopes that we might be able to protect the finest of our landscapes in a way I had previously thought unlikely.

In the recent Scottish Planning Policy and the National Planning Framework the Scottish Government announced an outright ‘ban’ on turbines within National Parks and National Scenic Areas.

Additionally, those areas that fall within the much-discussed Wild Land map that Scottish Natural Heritage has been drawing up and which are not covered by the National Scenic Area designation, will be recognised as a precious national resource where large scale development would be discouraged.

Such developments would be assessed on a case-by-case basis but the general presumption would be against development. The new planning guidelines will make it much more difficult for developers to win approval for large-scale windfarms in such areas.

As a result the proposed guidelines will mean that the Scottish Government will set aside about 30% of Scotland’s land mass as protected areas.

Needless to say the proposals don’t meet everyone’s approval.  The renewables industry and many landowners have been horrified at the prospect.

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland wants to see ‘buffer zones’ around all the protected areas and a national spatial planning policy which protects mountain areas.

Various anti-turbine groups claim the proposals are “too little too late,” but most of those groups are anti-wind energy per se, and want nothing less than a complete moratorium on windfarms throughout Scotland, something I don’t believe is likely to happen unless Scottish voters, against all the odds, decide to back UKIP!.

I’ve always believed that pragmatism has to play a large part in any environmental campaigning and it’s clear that wind energy, with it’s public and strong cross party support, will continue to be a major player in this country’s energy mix. According to a recent YouGov poll 77% of SNP supporters, 71% of Liberal Democrat supporters, 64% of Labour supporters and 53% of Conservative supporters said they were in favour of wind energy.

An Ipsos-Mori poll in April 2012 for UK Renewables indicated that 67% of the UK population support wind power while a OnePoll survey in 2011 for VisitScotland showed that 80% of people would not be affected in their choice of UK holiday destination by the presence of a windfarm.

It’s clear that those of us who want to protect our wild places from the visual effect of wind turbines are very much in the minority, so it’s all the more surprising, and welcome, that the Scottish Government has in this Year of Natural Scotland, suggested protecting almost a third of the country from the visual intrusion of spinning turbines.

Both of our National Parks will be turbine free, but that’s always been the case. What is new is the complete ban on turbines within Scotland’s National Scenic Areas, an area based on WH Murray’s Highland Survey commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland in the early sixties.

That list was originally meant to represent areas worthy of National Park status and it’s interesting that all these years later we only have two National Parks in Scotland, the birthplace of the father of the National Park movement, John Muir, but that’s another story. What encourages me are the glorious landscapes that will now receive a much greater protection from development, a safeguard against the visual blight if enormous spinning turbines.

You can find a map of Scotland’s National Scenic Areas on the Scottish Natural Heritage website. It’s well worth looking at. (www.snh.gov.uk/docs/B691407.pdf).

Just look at those areas that could be turbine free, including some of the very best mountain areas in the country – South Lewis, Harris and North Uist; the machairs of South Uist; Hoy and West Mainland Orkney; North-West Sutherland and the Kyle of Tongue; Assynt and Coigach; the Dornoch Firth; Wester Ross; Trotternish and the Cuillin of Skye; Glen Strathfarrar, Kintail, Glen Affric and Knoydart; the Cairngorms, Deeside and Lochnager; The Loch na Keal area of Mull; the Small Isles, Morar, Moidart and Ardnamurchan; Loch Shiel, Loch Rannoch and Glen Lyon; Loch Tummel and the Rivers Tay and Earn; Scarba, Lunga and the Garvellachs; Knapdale, Jura, Kyles of Bute; Loch Lomond and the Trossachs; North Arran; Upper Tweedale, Eildon and Leaderfoot; the Nith Estuary, the East Stewartry Coast and the Fleet Valley.

There will also be increased protection for those areas of prime wild land as contained on the new map of wild land just published by SNH. Needless to say some of those areas overlap.

Andrew Thin, the chairman of SNH, told me that he believes this policy will offer clarity to developers, as well as protecting some of the most compelling and beautiful scenery in the country. The RSPB and the John Muir Trust have given a cautious welcome to the proposals while outdoor writer and well known hillwalker Chris Townsend said the plans were “excellent.” He went on to say “I think the Scottish Government is to be congratulated for listening to those of us who have called for such protection and for realising the importance and value of wild land.”

There has been a consultation period and the new planning policy isn’t  finalised yet, but I’m confident there won’t be a lot of change to the proposals as they stand.

I suspect there will be considerable angst from people who live in areas where there has been a lot of windfarm development already, like the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. I’ve no idea why Bill Murray didn’t include more from these areas in his original National Scenic Area list and I guess it’s difficult for Scottish Natural Heritage to define areas where there are a lot of conifer plantations as ‘wild land.’

It’s just a pity that there wasn’t more planning regard for scenic areas and wild land when it was first decided that wind power was going to be part of Scotland’s energy mix, and you can’t blame the SNP government for that. But, like Chris Townsend, I congratulate the government on its actions now, even if it is too late to save many areas.

In particular I’ll be delighted to see a new level of protection that will safeguard the integrity of the whole of the north-west highlands, from Glen Coe and Ben Nevis and north to Knoydart, Kintail and Glen Affric; all of Wester Ross including Torridon, the wilds of Letterewe, An Teallach and the Fannichs; the glorious hills of Coigach and Assynt like Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag and Cul Mor, Suilven and Quinag, and all of north-west Sutherland with the likes of Ben Stack, Arkle and Foinaven.

For me these are amongst the most glorious landscapes in the world, but add to that areas like the Ardnamurchan peninsula, Moidart, Morar and its cockleshell sands and the Small Isles of Rhum, Eigg and Canna, the Cuillin of Skye and the Trotternish Ridge, and you’ll begin to understand why I welcome these proposals.

What’s been done in the past in the name of renewable energy has been done. We can’t change it. But we can look to the future with a much greater measure of confidence now, knowing that Scotland has all the natural resources to be completely self sufficient in green energy, while protecting those magnificent areas that attract people from throughout the rest of the UK and from the rest of the world.

Taken from a feature first published in the Scots Magazine earlier this year

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