Protecting wild land - the Caplich PLI

Published: 17th September 2017

Policy Officer John Low recalls some of the highs and lows involved in Public Local Inquiries.

Caplich inquiry june2017 johnlow

The background

Our Policy team first became aware of the proposal for the wind farm at Caplich in May 2014, and shortly after submitted our comments. By 2015, when the full application was put forward, the SNH Wild Land Area Map had been published, which alongside the National Planning Framework gave planning guidance for Wild Land for the first time.

The Trust appeared to have gained some ground: “We want to continue our strong protection for our wildest landscapes – wild land is a nationally important asset’’ said the document. And in Scottish Planning Policy, the words “Plans should identify and safeguard the character of areas of wild land as identified on the 2014 SNH map of wild land areas.’’ It wasn’t all good news, however – there was room for manoeuvre: “In areas of wild land, development may be appropriate in some circumstances. Further consideration will be required to demonstrate that any significant effects on the qualities of these areas can be substantially overcome by siting, design or other mitigation.’’

That caveat is why, in June this year, I arrived at Lairg Village Hall to attend the Caplich Public Local Inquiry. The developer proposed erecting 20 turbines with the associated infrastructure, half of which were to be within the boundary of Wild Land Area 34 in the north west of Scotland. Area 34 is more than a number: Assynt is a world-class landscape, it really doesn’t get any more dramatic.

Preparing for the Caplich case

I spent weeks trawling through the developer’s planning application and the associated documents, which ran into thousands of pages. As an environmental charity with finite resources, we focus our attention primarily on the impact to landscape, habitat and wildlife, but when preparing the case for a PLI it’s just as important to have a solid grasp of the socio economics of these big energy developments. They may employ relatively few people directly, but they have serious knock on effects for local people, businesses and tourism in the area.

John-LowA more enjoyable aspect of the research process offset all that desk time. In preparation for the PLI, I also spent several days walking the Assnyt hills, accompanied by Romany Garnett of the Land team (for Health and Safety reasons)… and in my hand, the developer’s ‘visualisations’ which are supposed to represent what you would see if the wind farm was built.

More sun and no midges on Stac Pollaidh – but this time I wasn’t indoors. I am working, honest! Policy work doesn’t often allow for much time outside, but in this case it was an essential part of the process. In order to rebuff the forthcoming interrogation with confidence, I needed to fully understand the visual impact of these huge structures in such a sensitive and beautiful place. There’s really no substitute for being there.

Caplich-developersThe photomontage on the left shows what the developer’s landscape architect thinks it would look like from Breabag in the Assynt – Coigach NSA and WLA 34. Their view is that it is not intrusive and would not have any significant impact. The turbines planned are 135m high (that’s about one and a half times the height of Big Ben).

Taking the stand

The PLI itself was a strange affair, with all the Objectors and Supporters taking part and involving dozens, if not hundreds of documents, with both Hearing and Inquiry Sessions. Hearing Sessions allow time for everyone to challenge and question each other’s comments and are usually fairly civilised. They ‘set the scene’, if you like. The Inquiry sessions are a different matter – more a ‘trial by fire’! You read your statement, before the Opposition’s Queen’s Counsel attempts to destroy both your evidence, and often your credibility. QC’s are an incredible breed - the most urbane and rudest people I have ever met, but with such style and panache.

Caplich-john-lowWhat’s it like on the witness stand at one of these PLI’s? I’m reminded of my time as a Secondary School Head, questioning a pupil who was involved in a fight. Then too, the conversation was devious, with facts omitted and liability denied. This experience stands me in good stead for my exchanges with QC’s, who can be every bit as economical with the truth. The trick is not to let them faze you; remain calm, take your time, challenge their assumptions, and stick to your point of view as they try to wrong foot you.

After all parties have given evidence on every aspect of the Inquiry, a ‘Reporter’ (appointed by the Scottish Government) writes up their report and submits it to the Minister. In turn, they can take as long as they need or want to make a decision.

As another example, the Strathy South PLI wrapped up in April 2015, and the report has been with the Minister since February 2016, but at the time of writing (August 2017) we’re still waiting for his response. Arguably, a lack of decision at least delays development for the time being, but that does mean more uncertainty for the local community. It’s a system of sorts, I suppose, but it’s far from an efficient use of resources. Doubly ironic, since the best ‘use’ of a finite resource – land - is what we’re all there to resolve.

Update 30 April 2018:- Caplich refused

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