Scots Planning Minister defends wind-farm land-use mapping survey in Holyrood ‘Jobs v. Environment’ battle

Holyrood logoIn the increasingly trenchant ‘Jobs v. Environment’ debate surrounding the Scottish government’s National Planning Framework and Scottish Planning Policy – which will set new rules for approving wind-farm (and other energy) developments in rural areas, Scotland’s Planning Minister yesterday mounted a strong counter-attack in defence of the ‘land mapping’ preliminary work on which the planning framework will be based.

A number of trade bodies and private-sector windfarm development companies last month launched a pre-emptive attack on the ‘land mapping and land use’ survey being undertaken by Scottish Natural Heritage (as reported in the Scottish Energy News).

They criticised Scottish Natural Heritage for ‘only carrying out a desk-top survey’ and have attacked the underlying methodology of the survey, and a spokesman for Scottish Renewables commented: How can someone sat in front of a computer capture how wild a specific landscape is hundreds of miles away and then grade it according to such basic criteria? There is no substitute for an on-the-ground assessment on a case-by-case basis.”

“However, the difficulty we have lies with the methodology behind the mapping exercise for wild land and its proposed role in planning. There’s a real danger we are starting with something that is both inaccurate and out of date.”

However, after MSPs on Holyrood Energy’s committee – which is scrutinising the government’s National Planning Framework V3.0 and Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) – heard a number of similar objections from Scottish Power and Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) plc, Derek MacKay, Minister for Local Government and Planning, rounded on the critics.

Advising MSPs on the Energy Committee, the minister said that – on his instruction – Scottish Natural Heritage was not required to give evidence to the committee and he said:

“The land-mapping survey report by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is credible. It is scientific. And it is robust.”

Outlining the purpose – and vision – for the new proposed new rules which will govern future energy-related developments in Scotland’s ‘wild lands’ and remote areas, the Minister added;

“The National Planning Framework gives spatial expression to the Scottish Government’s economic strategy for economic recovery and sustainable growth.

“Whilst we do not wish to see wind turbines in our national parks, the framework identifies energy hubs across Scotland – especially in our coastal communities where there is so much opportunity for new jobs in offshore {wind energy} developments.

“However, as we make the transition to a low-carbon economy, we have to be, and are, careful to balance economic with environmental interests. A balance has to be struck between jobs and environment and I believe we can do with under this new framework.

“But we are not declaring large parts of Scotland to be dead to development.”

In response to a question casting doubt on the validity of the SNH survey, the Minister replied; “We have not changed our view on (use of ) ‘wild land’. SNH mapping of wild land is ongoing and will inform our final thinking and it would be premature of me to come to any final decision while that process continues.

Yes, I am very confident in the work that Scottish Natural Heritage is doing and have confidence that this work will lead to an even more robust map (on land /permitted use) which will be more credible than what went before.”

Having stoutly defending the validity of the wild land mapping process, the Minister also addressed the economy and jobs issues raised by windfarm developers. He said “The national planning framework and Scottish Planning Policy is all about consenting developments – not shutting things down.”

The fact that the existing  Whitelea and Blacklaw windfarm developments in Renfrewshire are situated closer to the  2½km ‘buffer zone’ proposed as a future planning condition for such developments does not set a precedent for the future, said the Minister.

Energy committee MSP Joan McAlpine (SNP) asked about a ‘hierarchy’ of ‘planning buffer zones’ of different lengths depending on what type of energy-related developments may be proposed in future and fellow MSP Mike MacKenzie said: “The proposed 2½km ‘buffer zone’ is fraught with difficulty and uncertainties. Is it 2½km from specific homes? Or general communities? Or between different windfarm developments or turbines?”

The Minister replied: “Planning is about making difficult choices – not about making competing Local v Central policies and decisions are often best left at local level. The aim for the National Planning Framework is to achieve greater consistency.

“I do not have the wisdom of Solomon with regards to every individual case, but I do try to bring clarity and wisdom to the NPF an SPP.”

“Planners can and do make different conditions and planning policy should be proportionate and locally-sensitive. There is no pre-set hierarchy of different buffer zones.”

Earlier, in arguing for greater environmental protection for Scotland’s ‘wild lands’, Helen McDade, Head of Policy, John Muir Trust, said that the vast of majority of people who responded to the consultation on Scottish Natural Heritage’s wild land survey supported it.

When asked why it was that some of the major commercial windfarm developers are opposed to the Scottish Natural Heritage land-use map, McDade replied: “You’ve got to look at where the vested interests (of those who responded) lie.”

See also:

Save our wild land from damaging development’ John Muir Trust tells MSPs

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