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Highland Council blocks bid to give public more say amid surge in major electricity infrastructure applications amid controversy over planning stampede towards UK Government’s Pathway to 2030 clean energy transition


By Alasdair Fraser

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A high voltage electricity transmission pylon.
A high voltage electricity transmission pylon.

Highland Council’s refusal to debate a plan to empower communities to better assess major energy infrastructure proposals has been described as a “democratic outrage” by protestors.

Nine Highland community councils and the Communities B4 Power Companies pressure group have united in anger at the local authority’s rejection of councillor Helen Crawford’s motion.

If passed, the Aird and Loch Ness member’s blueprint - which attracted cross-party support - would have sought to give local people greater clarity and transparency in considering complex issues arising from a flurry of electricity schemes, wind turbines and super-pylon lines being rolled out across the region.

There has been an outpouring of concern over the potentially destructive nature of these developments in obliterating scenery, natural habitats and residents’ quality of life.

SSEN is investing over £20 billion to upgrade network infrastructure with giant new substations and overhead lines across northern Scotland as part of the UK Government’s Pathway to 2030 clean energy transition.

Windfarm
Windfarm

There has also been a surge in planning applications for battery storage and hydro-electric pumped storage schemes.

Opponents say the sheer volume of developments and complexity of issues surrounding them merits a more cohesive and coordinated planning approach.

Instead they describe the piecemeal nature of consultation in local communities as a “salami-slicing” exercise that obscures the true nature and scale of development.

Councillor Crawford’s motion proposed a real-time online mapping of all proposed energy developments for public viewing, with deferral of applications until it was in place.

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It called on Highland Council’s leader to lobby the Scottish Government to end “salami-slicing” and “specific planning training” for community council members from planning experts on major energy infrastructure developments.

And it demanded a full review of actions Highland Council can legally take to ensure that local views are fully considered.

If approved, the motion would have been debated at the full council on June 27, but it was rejected by council convenor Bill Lobban.

Councillor Lobban said: “Councillor Crawford was initially advised by me, nearly a month ago, and subsequently by the council’s head of corporate governance that her motion was unlikely to be deemed competent.

“Unusually a number of alternative versions were also touted amongst members and communities.

“The final version presented was little different to the initial version and was therefore deemed not to be competent.

“It is entirely the responsibility of members to make an effort to ensure that any motion they present will be acceptable.

“Quite why Councillor Crawford chose to ignore the advice she was given, by me and others, is a matter for her to explain.”

A council spokeswoman said: “In line with Standing Order 12, the proposed motion was determined not to be competent”, but declined to elaborate on reasons for denial.

Cllr Helen Crawford, Aird & Loch Ness
Cllr Helen Crawford, Aird & Loch Ness

Conservative member Councilllor Crawford said people in local communities were “confused” and some “utterly distraught” about the possible impact on life, health, jobs, businesses, and the Highland landscape and cultural heritage.

While some were supportive, others felt powerless and resigned to the inevitable in terms of projects being approved.

Councillor Crawford said: “Our communities are looking for us to take action now, but I will press on, look at how it can be strengthened, and hopefully lodge it again for the September 19 (full) council meeting.

“It’s crucial that the views of communities directly impacted are fully taken on board. They know the land, they live here and they know how their community functions.

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“If we do not crack on with that now, it’s going to be too late, given the avalanche of applications that we are receiving.”

A Communities B4 Power Companies spokeswoman said: “It is a democratic outrage that Councillor Helen Crawford’s motion has not been accepted by the powers that be.

“It is high time that our elected representatives recognise the trauma rural communities are suffering at the hands of developers (given) the tsunami of developments put forward, woefully inadequate public consultations (and) the indecent haste of proposals.

“This piecemeal approach is not only unfair, it is confusing and stressful for those expected to live in the shadow of this industrial onslaught.”

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Dan Bailey, from Strathpeffer & Contin campaign group Better Cable Route, added: “It’s crazy that developers can submit endless applications for ostensibly unrelated projects, while our planners and communities lack oversight of the whole picture.”

The council’s refusal of the motion also provoked united condemnation from Kilmorack, Strathglass, Kirkhill & Bunchrew, Kiltarlity, Melvich, Halkirk and District, Thurso, West Caithness and Strathy and Armadale community councils.

A joint statement read: “Cllr Crawford’s motion was welcomed and supported by many community councils in the Highlands who find themselves overwhelmed by the huge influx of planning applications in their areas.

“It sought to address several unsatisfactory aspects of the existing planning process that would have helped these struggling community councils.”

Cameron Kemp, chairman of Kirkhill & Bunchrew Community Council for the last 10 years, said the least Highland residents deserved was for the motion to be debated.

SSEN's 3D mock-up of the giant substation planned for Fanellan near Beauly
SSEN's 3D mock-up of the giant substation planned for Fanellan near Beauly

He said: “My time is now overwhelmingly taken up with reading through and trying to understand massive complex proposals.

“We are crying out for this help and need all of our Highland councillors to get behind us.

“The onslaught of major energy infrastructure proposals is overwhelming and we, as members of the public, feel disenfranchised in the decision-making process.”

Donna Peacock, of Kiltarlity Community Council, added: “This motion exposes the bombardment of consultations and planning applications for infrastructure that communities like ours have been experiencing.

“There is a void of joined-up, accurate real-time mapping and scale visuals to show the cumulative impact.

“Instead we have to wade through reams of what are often very complex and technical designs, specifications, analyses, and environmental studies.

“How can we – as community volunteers – assess the cumulative effect of all these many projects in the absence of any overall map?

“It is a bitter disappointment to learn that this motion has been rejected.”


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