Consultation is one of those words that make you reach for the air freshener. Governments tend to use it when they’ve decided on a policy but want a bit of added democracy to make it look better.
Thus, and most recently, the plan to blanket Scotland in wind farms: “Subject to public consultation, we will set an ambition for between eight and 12 gigawatts of installed onshore wind by 2030,” says a Scottish government spokesman. “We will ensure that the planning system enables the growth of this zero-carbon sector while continuing to protect our natural heritage.”
Every word of that is open to question. If consultation means anything, then rural communities, already hemmed in by wind farms, are bound to object. Will their voice be heard? How can an “ambition” for 4,000 new turbines be realised in the next nine years, when local authorities have the first word on planning consent, and each scheme needs detailed appraisal? Who decides whether natural heritage is “protected” by a string of turbines straddling an unspoilt hill?
Wind power — like it or loathe it — is here to stay. You cannot realistically argue against it when climate change is heating the oceans and we desperately need emission-free electricity. The drive for renewable energy has made the windswept — and most beautiful — parts of Scotland centres of green power, and, ultimately, the world benefits from it. On a good day the country is 100 per cent driven by green energy, mainly supplied by wind.
We thought — and government encouraged us to think — we had reached saturation point for land-based wind farms. Off-shore was the future, we were told, and so advanced was the technology that it was actually proving cheaper than any other source of energy. A recent report from Imperial College London concluded that offshore wind power would soon be so cheap to produce that it would undercut fossil-fuelled power stations, with energy bills being brought down for the first time ever.
It comes as a shock, therefore, to learn that the number of onshore turbines is set to double by 2030, reaching something like 10,000 in Scotland. Not surprisingly, the areas which will feel the impact are likely to be Dumfries and Galloway in the south, and the northern Highlands, where wind farms already dominate the landscape. Natural heritage is the loser here.
The time has come for a bit of honesty on what this means for Scotland. No one can seriously claim the countryside is undamaged by the intrusion. As you drive north up the M74, those great rounded hills, once the signature Borders view, now resemble an industrial site. In Caithness, where once you looked out over virgin flow country, you see only revolving propellers.
We boast about the natural beauty of the land but it is becoming harder to project the Highlands as “the last unspoilt wilderness of Europe” when it is actually beginning to look like Denmark or the Ruhr, because one turbine is much the same as another.
Saving the world may depend on more of this but we need to know about the implications. On jobs, for instance, what is the prediction? Once we were told by the SNP there would be 130,000 green jobs by 2020. In fact, as Sir Keir Starmer inconveniently pointed out on his recent trip to Scotland, there are fewer direct jobs in the industry now than in 2014, with less than a fifth of the projected total delivered. Once a wind farm is created it is not a big employer. Even the construction period has limited potential. There is no major UK-based manufacturer of wind turbines, and much of the work is farmed out to cheaper plants in southeast Asia. Most of the big offshore projects are foreign-owned, such as the giant Neart na Gaoithe site off the Fife coast, owned and run by EDF Renewables, a wholly owned subsidiary of a Paris-based group.
It is idle to pretend that jobs lost in the North Sea oil and gas industry will soon be made up by employment in renewables. Sooner or later Nicola Sturgeon will have to come clean over the Cambo oilfield off Shetland, which waits for drilling approval from the UK government. The deal between the SNP and the Greens avoids a commitment either way on new oil and gas exploration, preferring to shelter behind something called a “pre-production oil and gas licence climate checkpoint review”. Sturgeon knows that thousands of genuine jobs in Scotland depend on the oil sector, which is why she avoids saying where she stands, preferring to leave that difficult decision to Westminster. It is curious to hear a first minister who was unequivocal in her opposition to fracking and nuclear energy passing the buck to Boris Johnson on the Cambo oilfield.
There is a perfectly respectable argument to be made for these new North Sea oilfields. For all our success in renewables we still need fossil fuels to fill the gap — and will do for some years to come. Domestic production is less damaging to the environment than shipping imports from Qatar or Russia. It is also morally more principled. Managing what Sturgeon refers to as the “transition” period between the fossil era and a carbon-free future is surely better done if we have control over our own production than washing our hands of the issue and leaving it to others, whose management of the environment may be less scrupulous.
No one doubts these are difficult issues but sheltering behind woolly statements is not the way to address them. If this is to be a genuine consultation process, then it must be a two-way affair. We need government to be as straight with us as they want us to be with them.