Keep it Wild Campaign update

Holyrood committee votes on amendment to Planning Bill calling for stronger protection for Wild Land

Holyrood nov 18 0002 detail

There was disappointment for the Trust last week as the Scottish Parliament continued its deliberations over the Planning (Scotland) Bill. As part of its Keep it Wild Campaign the John Muir Trust had been urging MSPs on the Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee to support an amendment to the legislation which would increase protection for Scotland’s 42 Wild Land Areas. Many Trust members and supporters had added their voice over recent weeks by contacting their MSPs.

Amendment #322, tabled by Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western), would have given Wild Land Areas a similar level of protection as National Scenic Areas and National Parks. It would have helped to address the Trust’s long-held call for greater clarity in the decision -making process with respect to development proposals such as large-scale wind farms - currently these are expressly prohibited in National Scenic Areas and National Parks, but considered on a case-by-case basis in Wild Land Areas, with the result that there is no certainty that these vitally important areas will be protected. 

Here we take a look at the key points that were made by the MSPs on the Committee as they considered the amendment.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is not a member of the Committee so did not have a vote. However, he was able to address the Committee and made a compelling case, saying that the amendment was not “an assault on onshore wind farm development, nor is it an assault on the growth or repopulation of remote and rural communities.He considered that “there is a view that is, I think, widely held among stakeholders and the general public that we could be doing more to recognise and protect areas of wild land in Scotland. Indeed, there is empirical evidence of that in a variety of opinion polls that show that the public do not believe that we have done enough to take that agenda forward. He said that he had received “a good deal of correspondence” on the issue and recognised that there were differences of opinion but considered that the amendment would give Ministers an important power to define and protect areas of wild land whilst still fully taking into account the need to meet climate change targets, housing development targets and the need to sustain and repopulate remote and rural communities. He reminded the Committee that “wild land defines our nation. People think of wild land when they think of Scotland, whether that is through what they see in Hollywood movies or in photographs from their holidays as tourists.” He also noted that wild land is an important part of our ecosystem, citing the role of peat bogs in absorbing carbon and how the importance of protecting peat bogs – a key feature of wild land – had been a key reason for proposing the wild land amendment.

Unfortunately, although there was support for wild land protection expressed by members of the Committee, none of them voted for the Amendment.  However, there are comments made by Committee members which leaves the door open to identify what measures each political party would support in the common aim of protecting and enhancing wild land.

Graham Simpson MSP (Central Scotland, Conservative) noted that:- “We all value Scotland’s wild lands. They are among some of the most diverse natural environments in Europe.” He acknowledged that “the rapid expansion of onshore wind farms has led to the worrying infringement of wild land. Fragile ecosystems and peatland are often disturbed by the installation and operation of wind turbines.” However, he had concluded that “if we say no to any development in these areas, there is a danger that we will thwart change that might be welcomed by locals and economically beneficial.” He also referred to concerns expressed by Community Land Scotland that the amendment, if agreed to, could have a “significantly detrimental impact on rural repopulation.”

These concerns about the potential impact of designating wild land were also shared by Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands, Labour) who referred to Community Land Scotland research which showed that communities feel “locked out” of Scottish landscape policy due to the participation deficit that leaves the designation process largely the preserve of landscape professionals.” She also challenged the concept of wild land, saying that:- “Many people say that they are wild lands, but they have been managed through the generations ... they are not wild lands but lands that have been managed in the past, and if we do not encourage people to move back into these areas and to manage them, we will not have the lands that we seek to protect.” 

Annabelle Ewing MSP (Cowdenbeath, SNP) was concerned that the amendment would not be supported by people in the Highlands due to concerns about the potential impact on rural homes and crofting.

Andy Wightman MSP (Lothian, Green) noted that if we had time, we could debate amendment 322, on wild land areas, for a very long time. There is a substantial policy question.” He expressed some sympathy with the issue and said he could see the arguments on both sides but did not support the amendment, also raising concerns about putting wild land protection on a statutory footing. This, he considered, would be “a major policy change” and not something he felt was appropriate “at this moment.” He also challenged the concept of wild land.

In response to the debate the Minister (Kevin Stewart MSP) noted how:- “the amendments highlight a key tension around how we manage our wild and scenic areas, which are so important to Scotland’s identity and international image, while ensuring the sustainability of the communities who live and work in them.” He was, however, also concerned about “projecting an urban-centric view of our landscapes on to rural areas” and the “significant repercussions” for rural communities if wild land were to be designated formally. He considered that current national planning policy adequately recognises and protects wild land, striking the right balance “between protecting these areas and not unduly restricting rural development.” He also referenced the Community Land Scotland research and view that communities feel “locked out” by landscape-driven policies. He concluded that the amendment should not be supported and that “there should be a fuller and more open and inclusive debate on rural planning as part of the next national planning framework” (the next stage in the proposed reform of the planning system once the Planning Bill has been agreed).

Wednesday's meeting concluded Stage 2 of consideration of the Bill. It now moves to Stage 3, during which the full Parliament (rather than Committee) will consider further amendments put forward and also hold a debate.

Reflecting on the outcome of last week's vote, Helen McDade, Head of Policy for the John Muir Trust, commented:-

“The Committee’s decision last week not to support the amendment and reasons for this were somewhat misguided. The Trust does not seek to prohibit all development within Wild Land Areas and has worked hard to communicate this message during its long campaign to increase protection for wild land. The Trust also recognises that there is no pristine wilderness in Scotland, but we do have more than our share of rugged, mountainous, awe-inspiring terrain. This can accommodate sustainable economic activity provided it is sensitive in scale and siting. Opinion polls have consistently shown the extent of public concern about the impact of large-scale development and the strength of feeling – in both urban and rural areas – for increased protection. So the Minister’s view that this is projecting an urban-centric view of our landscapes on to rural areas is not supported by repeated opinion polls. In a recent poll, 80% of residents in the Highlands and Islands wanted wild land protected.

Continued Helen:- “It was always a tall ask to bring this aspect of the environment into the Bill which was very focused on planning process, rather than the principles needed for joined-up planning and environment policy. Thank you to everyone who supported our call to action. The amendment may have been defeated but we have succeeded in ensuring wild land has been given continued profile and this ensures a better debate going forward into the next round of planning reform. We will continue to press home the positive benefits of protecting and enhancing wild land, demonstrating the value to rural communities socially and economically, as well as environmentally.”

Photo:- Trust staff outside the Scottish Parliament ahead of the Local Government & Communities Committee consideration of the Planning (Scotland) Bill on 14 November 2018.

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