By Alan Hendry
A Caithness councillor has branded the planning system “broken,
over-centralised and undemocratic” after being denied an opportunity to
speak to Scotland’s energy minister about a major new wind farm in the county.
Councillor Matthew Reiss says his experience of the controversial Limekiln
Wind Farm application has convinced him that the Scottish Government
regards local voices as “simply not relevant” and that they are airbrushed
out of the decision-making process.
He spoke out after requesting a meeting with Scotland’s minister for
energy, connectivity and the islands, Paul Wheelhouse, to discuss the
decision this summer to approve the 90MW Limekiln scheme – only to be told
in a written reply that “the minister does not believe a meeting is
appropriate”.
In a letter published in the John O’Groat Journal this week, Councillor
Reiss writes: “I find it really quite Orwellian that Mr Wheelhouse cannot
find 15 minutes of his time – or one of his taxpayer-funded deputies – to
have a polite discussion with a local democratically elected representative
on a matter of great local concern.”
In a subsequent interview, Councillor Reiss, who represents Thurso and
Northwest Caithness on Highland Council, described the response from Mr
Wheelhouse’s office as “beyond the pale”.
The 21-turbine Limekiln development, south of Reay, was approved by the
Scottish Government in June. The turbines will measure up to 139m to blade tip.
The proposal from renewable energy firms Infinergy and Boralex had
previously been refused planning permission by Highland Council but was
then resubmitted and combined with an application for Drum Hollistan.
Esbjorn Wilmar, managing director of Infinergy, said at the time of the
approval: “We are delighted that the Scottish Government has given consent
to Limekiln Wind Farm. We always knew that the site was an excellent one,
and would ultimately prove its credentials.”
Limekiln will have a community benefit fund amounting to nearly £8 million
over its lifetime.
Reay Area Windfarm Opposition Group and Caithness West Community Council
were among the groups that opposed the wind farm. Retired solicitor Gilian
Macpherson had lodged a petition with over 1500 signatures against it.
Speaking this week, Councillor Reiss said: “As far as I can see there has
been no research done by government at any level into the effects of
multiple onshore wind farm applications in a relatively small area like
Caithness.
“In fact I’m pretty certain that for the size of the county there’s nowhere
else that has the number of wind farms that we have. There are
approximately 12 more at different stages of the system, ranging from just
being spoken about to being formally in planning.”
“It seems to me with this wind farm that virtually nobody wanted it –
hundreds of local people did not want it, despite the substantial community
benefit that was being offered with it.
“If the system allows a large wind farm to be built close to a village,
against the wishes of the vast majority of local people, that tells me that
local people’s voices are simply not relevant – they are airbrushed out of
it. The local view is not, apparently, something that is considered.
“Even when a local councillor asks for a short meeting with the man who
made the decision, just to get told in a very short letter that it is ‘not
appropriate’, I think that’s beyond the pale.”
He went on: “The other crucial point is that our landscape is basically
flat. Some of the new applications are for turbines nearly 200 metres tall
– that’s roughly double the height of the Causewaymire ones.
“There’s a presumption that you’ve got a 2km buffer zone between
settlements and wind farms. Some areas might have quite a collection of
houses but it doesn’t necessarily count as a settlement in planning speak.
“Another point is that if the height of the turbines is going to double
then logically the buffer zone, you would have thought, should also increase.
Councillor Reiss argues that it is time to look again at onshore wind
policy against a backdrop of efficient offshore wind generation, as seen
with the Beatrice development off the east coast of Caithness.
“The Beatrice offshore wind farm has been highly successful,” he said.
“Only a tiny number of people have objected to it. I spoke in favour of it
personally.
“It [Beatrice] seems to be producing about two-and-a-half times the amount
of all the power of all the existing and consented onshore wind farms in
Caithness. So for one offshore wind farm with a tiny number of objections
you’re getting more than double the power of all the onshore ones, both
already up and consented.
“What it boils down to is that the vast majority of people will accept an
offshore wind farm but they don’t want one two miles from their village,
despite the offers of community benefit. One person in Reay just said to
me, ‘We just want to keep our own clean green environment.’
“There are other [onshore] wind farms that people have accepted – Strathy
North is an example. Wind farms tend to be more acceptable away from where
people live. And that really is not rocket science – it should be
blindingly obvious.
“What really concerns me about Limekiln is it’s close to a village and the
village said no. I just fundamentally think it’s wrong.
“I offered to travel down to Edinburgh, because I know that he’s a busy
man. But just to get the brush-off like that, it confirms the view of large
numbers of people that the system is centralised and the decisions are
being taken by people a long way away.
“We need to be thinking carefully. We’ve got this fantastic offshore wind
that is becoming much cheaper and much more efficient and supplying
spectacular amounts of energy. Is the system for onshore wind fit for
purpose? The purpose of my letter is that, in my view, in terms of
democracy, it is most definitely unfit.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “All Electricity Act applications
for wind farm developments are subject to consultation with the public and
statutory and local bodies, including community councils.
“We have measures in place to ensure all relevant factors, including any
impacts on local communities, are considered throughout the consent process
for wind farms, before any decisions are made. We encourage early and
meaningful engagement by developers with any communities who would be
affected by wind farm development proposals.
“It would not have been appropriate for the minister to meet Councillor
Reiss at this stage of the process, but officials in the Energy Consents
team can and do meet elected members and community bodies to discuss
matters of policy and if Councillor Reiss wishes to have such a meeting
that would be entirely appropriate.”
Construction of the wind farm – on a site 2.8km south/southwest of Dounreay
– is expected to start in 2021 and the developers say it is likely to be
fully operational before the end of 2022.

 

 


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