'Orwellian' planning system means local voices are ignored, says Caithness councillor
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.
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.
"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.