Winds of change

Published: 13th June 2016

Recent UK and Scottish Government energy decisions have brightened the prospect for wild land protection.

Helen McDade examines the background to these changes including the role played by the John Muir Trust. Note - this article was originally published in the John Muir Trust Journal in Autumn 2015.  

Five years ago, the outlook for wild land looked bleak. Jim Mather, the then Scottish Planning Minister, had just given the go-ahead to the Beauly-Denny power line after a seven-year controversy over the plan to construct a chain of 600 giant pylons through 137 miles of Scotland’s uplands, including through the Cairngorms National Park. Around the same time, the Scottish Government consented a huge wind farm Muaitheabhal on Lewis, involving 39 pylons each 145 metres tall.

At that point, it would have been easy to throw in the towel and concede that that it was an impossible task to take on governments and energy companies. Onshore wind was also a complex and contentious area for an environmental charity, because of the public perception at the time that major wind firms were essential to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. We could have decided to restrict our limited policy resource to seek easier progress in other policy areas. After all, there is no shortage of threats to wild land.

However, the scale of the threat to wild land from this particular type of development and its associated infra-structure was and still is hugely significant. Recent figures set out in Scottish Natural Heritage’s Natural Heritage Indicator, showing the changing “visual influence of built development” has reveals the massive impact on Scotland’s landscapes of the proliferation of wind turbines over recent years. In 2008, the visual influence of turbines extended across 20% of Scotland; by 2013, that had risen to 46% of Scotland in 2013. In comparison, the next largest increase in visual impacts from mad-made constructions was just 0.8%, from minor roads.

Even as far back as in 2010, evidence was already coming to light that concentrating the vast majority of financial support for renewable energy into onshore wind would fail to either maximise greenhouse gas emissions or produce the best mix of energy production.

So the Trust took a brave step by launching our Wild Land campaign.  We brought an extra part-time staff member on board, Mel Nicoll, which allowed us to raise awareness and gather public support, by launching online petitions aimed at the UK and Scottish Parliaments.  These called for a new environmental designation for the best areas of wild land in Scotland, and improved protection for wild land elsewhere in the UK. Our campaign explicitly recognised that the biggest threat to wild land was from onshore wind development. In days gone by, it would have been commercial forestry planting – and in the future, who knows?

So, to address the immediate threat, the Trust worked on strategic energy policy and continues to seek a National Energy Commission. This would comprise of independent experts whose role would be to advise the government on the development of national energy plan, based on a holistic view not just of the economic and technical considerations, but also of but social and environmental questions.

Where are we now?

Trust members have supported a long hard fight to get wild land areas protected from inappropriate energy development – from the Beauly-Denny campaign onwards.  Sometimes it seemed as if there was no end in sight and little reward for all our efforts.  However, in the last 12 months, both at UK and Scottish government level, significant policy shifts and planning decisions have brought real hope for the protection of wild land areas from industrial-scale wind farms.  These decisions range from the new UK government’s decision to cut excessive onshore wind subsidies, to a series of decisions by Scottish Ministers in favour of protecting wild land. 

In 2014, the Scottish Government brought in planning policy which recognised and gave partial protection to Wild Land Areas (WLAs). Although it was not the fully fledged designation as we had campaigned for, it nonetheless marked a major advance for the Trust.  After a nerve-wracking wait while many key wind farm applications in or near wild land seemed stuck in the system, four wind farms – Glenmorie, Bheinn Mhor, Limekiln and Allt Duine –  have since been refused by ministers, with adverse impact on Wild Land Areas cited among the reasons for the decisions.

This is great news – although we continue to hope that we can obtain recognition of the value – economically, socially as well as environmentally – of protecting wild land as an asset,  rather than as a constraint on development, which is its current place in Scottish planning policy. 

Following the 2015 UK general election, the UK government delivered on a manifesto commitment to withdraw Renewable Obligation Certificates subsidy from onshore wind developments unless they had progressed to a certain stage, which included having planning permission as of 18 June 2015.  The Minister Amber Rudd’s statement recognised there is now sufficient development of this type to achieve 2020 renewable energy targets.

The Trust has long campaigned for public money to be moved away from excessive and unsustainable subsidy to one particular and uncertain renewable technology in favour of stronger support energy conservation, as well as research and development into newer renewable technologies. Such policies would deliver greenhouse gas emissions reductions and energy generation more effectively, with less environmental impact. 

With this major signal that it will not just be “business as usual” for renewables companies that wish to expand onshore wind development regardless of suitability of site or impact on neighbouring communities, the Trust looks forward to working with others to shape a more rational policy. We will work for a National Energy Commission to advise governments on a coherent energy and climate change policy.  Meanwhile the Trust will continue to set out a vision of wild land being protected, enhanced and sustainably used to ensure thriving communities – human, animal and vegetable.

Members need to know that their unflinching support for our work has contributed significantly to these changes.  So we thank you with real gratitude for your support – and let’s congratulate ourselves on getting to a far more optimistic place than we were at five years ago.

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