Covid-19 highlights ongoing planning issues

The Trust continues to monitor problems within the planning system, currently under additional pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic

Fran lockhart harebell 6 detail

Local planning democracy is under more pressure than ever due to the coronavirus pandemic. Responding to social distancing measures and faced with limited IT resources, the Highland Council conducted two planning meetings in partial secrecy at the end of April. Meetings on 21 and 27 April excluded all other committee members and convened with just one council planner and the Chair to make decisions. After challenge from planning committee members, Highland Council agreed to make future meetings available online, and to defer disputed decisions, but there still appears to be some uncertainty on whether papers will be accessible for comment to those not present.

While the Covid-19 situation represents exceptional circumstance, the Trust remains concerned by the fragility of our current planning processes. The ease with which local accountability was swept aside highlights the lack of resilience within the system. We are pressing for planning reforms to better ensure better protection of local people and wild places.

Elsewhere, the pandemic is being used to justify planning decisions with a long history of poor accountability. Energy regulator Ofgem have just agreed to Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) plans for a subsea power cable to transport large amounts of energy between Shetland and the mainland. Ofgem’s CEO was quoted as saying the announcement would help stimulate economic growth after Covid-19.

The decision follows Scottish ministerial approval of the long contested Viking windfarm in May 2019, which included an increase in the scale of the development. Viking Energy’s plans for 103 turbines were set back by their failure to win a Contract for Difference (CfD) contract in Government auction in September 2019, but with finance for the interconnector now approved, construction would appear to be more likely.

As well as objecting to the industrial nature of the scheme on wild land grounds in 2009, the Trust also supported local community group, Sustainable Shetland, in its 2013 legal challenge to the lack of a public local Inquiry. The group was concerned by the environmental impact of this large scale development, and made the case that investment should be focused instead on reducing energy consumption, and supporting local economic and environmental sustainability.

Ahead of the Government’s upcoming National Planning Framework (NPF4), the Shetland case illustrates other issues of accountability in the planning system. There are several distinct approval processes – one for grid infrastructure, deemed a ‘national development’ and decided upon by Scottish ministers, one for energy transmission as regulated by Ofgem, (whose role is also to estimate future demand and match it with suitable energy infrastructure), and yet another for local renewable energy developments – the turbines themselves, decided on a case by case basis by the local authority. While these are all clearly related, there is no single line of decision making that allows overall assessment and includes public oversight in one place.

Should the public have the same right to appeal decisions on large scale development that developers do – decisions that will affect their communities? Should NPF4 include a more coordinated and transparent process, and one which captures environmental impacts and mitigation for developments as a whole – on both a local and national level? As it stands, already hard pressed local authorities are required to balance existing national requirements on carbon net zero, against local environmental and visual impacts – often in very fragile, wild places just like Shetland.

The Trust will continue to make the case for a more joined up approach.

Read our response to the Scottish Government’s ‘call for ideas’ on NPF4. We anticipate responding to the full draft NPF4 in the third quarter of 2020, as well as contributing to the Scottish Environment LINK response.

Thanks for your ongoing support on policy issues. We’ll share more as it happens.

Photo of harebell by Fran Lockhart