Holyrood has been reviewing the current planning system since 2015, and a new Planning Bill is due to come before Parliament soon. David Lintern casts an eye over just some of the issues at stake for lovers of the Scottish outdoors.
Planning is dry stuff, but it’s essential. Without proper planning, the places we live lack the infrastructure and resources we need, corporations offload impacts of new developments to communities and taxpayers, and little by little, Scotland’s green belt and wild places are encroached upon.
The planning review has been largely focused on housing issues, but energy developments are cause for concern too. In the 2014 Scottish Planning Policy document, there’s a table called ‘Spatial Frameworks’, and in that, there are 3 categories of land listed. In group one – National Parks and National Scenic Areas – windfarms are expressly forbidden. Group three consists of land deemed favourable for this kind of development. Group two is the middle ground. I was surprised to learn that this group includes World Heritage Sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) and National Nature Reserves. Since 2014, it’s also included 42 Wild Land Areas, mapped by Scottish Natural Heritage.
An historical aside perhaps, but one worth mentioning: This map of Wild Land Areas follows in the footsteps of mountaineer Bill Murray’s survey work for the National Trust in 1962; called Highland Landscape, which in turn informed the Countryside Commission’s Scotland’s Scenic Heritage as the basis for those most highly protected places in group one. Murray’s work itself owes a debt to Frank Fraser Darling’s Highland Survey, to which I’ll return at the end.
Scottish Government acceptance of the Wild Land Areas Map in 2014 improved the chances for the areas covered, but it didn’t guarantee them. There’s a presumption against major development, but in cases where effects are deemed mitigated, large scale industrial development can still take place. Group two is where the ambiguity lies – both on paper, and in the flesh. This is the contested ground.
Following refusals of wind turbine developments on wild land grounds on eight occasions, in October 2016 a development on Creag Riabhach, between the Crask Inn and Altnaharra, was approved. This will see 22 turbines, each 125metres high, either on or immediately adjacent to wild land designated as such for both its scenic and ecological value. ‘Area 37’ includes Foinaven and Ben Hee and is rich in blanket bog and carbon storing peatland. The new North Coast 500 route runs around it, and the Sutherland Trail goes through it. All of these turbines would be directly visible from Ben Kilbreck, and many would also be visible from as far away as Suilven and Ben Hope.
Has a new precedent been set? I met with writer, broadcaster and Walkhighlands columnist Cameron McNeish in a Kingussie café to discuss: “The changes in the planning from 2014 worked fairly well until Creag Riabhach. In PR terms that’s been a disaster, because there was a feeling after 2014 that the Government had done the right thing in protecting the best of Scotland’s landscapes. I told the energy minister Paul Wheelhouse exactly that. He told me there were ‘special circumstances’ around the decision, but was not at liberty to say what they were.”
The John Muir Trust recently launched a campaign called ‘Keep it Wild’, timed to coincide with the forthcoming Scottish Planning Bill. The campaign aims to bump protection for Wild Land Areas from group two to group one, and the Trust see the Planning Bill as a good opportunity to do this. Head of Policy Helen McDade explained why: “The Scottish Government pledge to ‘safeguard wild land character’ in 2014 sounded great, but if we have to keep attending Public Local Inquiries and arguing the same points in the same way as we would before the Wild Land Areas advice was adopted as government policy, then where is the additional protection? The evidence of the last 3 years shows that clarity is needed on industrial scale developments. We’re not looking to object to small scale community energy initiatives.”
Helen’s last point is important to underline. Upgrading the level of protection for Wild Land would only ever apply to big energy projects. Small developments (under 12 metres high or 0.5 hectares), as well as new homes in towns and villages, for example, might require planning permission anyway, but would never be subject to an outright ‘ban’.
The American conservationist Dave Brower once said “Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress” which seems to sum this position up fairly well.
The John Muir Trust is not alone in questioning some of these landscape scale industrial developments. Bob Reid’s CV is a humbling list of activism and advocacy for the public good. A town and country planner by trade, he’s advised the Government on land reform and the housing crisis, helped develop Scotland’s formidable access rights, and chaired the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (now Mountaineering Scotland). We met in Aviemore, where he’s now development director for Wildland Limited, the property company owned by billionaire fashion retailer Anders Holch Povlsen. Povlsen is now close to being the largest landowner in Scotland, and alongside two other neighbouring estates led a legal appeal against the decision on Creag Riabhach by Judicial Review.
I asked Bob Reid about the ‘special circumstances’ that Cameron McNeish had mentioned, but he could only comment off the record.
As had been reported in the press, there was an alleged issue with the consultation in this case, with many of the supporters writing from outwith the area, with postcodes matching places close to the landowner’s business interests.
On the record, Bob told me that on 7th June, 2017 – the first hearing of the appeal – they made a strong case for protection, and by the second hearing a week later, the judge agreed that their case was robust enough for further consideration. Despite this, on August 30th the judge then ruled that the decision should be upheld. He made it clear he was only ruling on the basis that due process had been followed, and that decisions about whether to build or not were political. The development will now go ahead.
Wildland Limited are also concerned about news of American arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin planning a ‘spaceport’ in neighbouring A’Mhione (Wild Land Area 38). This is where the Moine Thrust meets the sea, the place first returned to by Sea Eagles in the wild, before human reintroduction elsewhere. It’s also home to virtually all the UK’s nesting Greenshanks. For any climbers reading this, it’s also where Tom Patey fell to his death after a first ascent of the Maidens. For Bob, a climber and environmentalist as much as a planner, the place has weight for all of these reasons. “Industrial scale development in these Wild Land Areas simply should not be happening. The North Coast has had more than it’s fair share over the years with Dounreay (which, by the way, is a perfect brownfield site for new industrial development, if it’s needed) and the bombing ranges at Cape Wrath. In between we have a geography of remarkable unspoiled landscape forming a vital section of the North Coast 500. It is an area covered in layers of designations aimed at protecting scenery and wildlife, but in spite of this there are still threats.”
Best laid plans
The current planning system is beset with issues and the devil is in the detail. Creag Riabhach may be the lone development planned on a designated Wild Land Area so far, but recently another near Nairn – within sight of the Cairngorms National Park, and on carbon storing blanket bog – was given the go ahead, while another in Perthshire was rejected. There seems to be little consistency at work… but regardless of whether it’s accepted or rejected in the end, each application costs time, effort and money to assess.
Most applications take between two and four years, but the longest has taken ten. Local councils, other NGO’s, planning officials, the Scottish Government and local communities all bear their own costs in this process too – an incredible drain on public finances. Staff time and expenses for the John Muir Trust alone can amount to £10,000 for each case, and should a planning professional or landscape architect need to be brought in, that figure can more than double. The rules around who collates landscape visualisations also need streamlining to allow the sharing of costs.
Another case – at Limekiln – highlights some of the frustrations built into the current system in broad stokes. In 2014, the John Muir Trust objected to 24 turbines on the edge of Wild Land (Area 39) in Caithness, sited on the largest area of blanket bog in Europe. The objection was upheld on Wild Land grounds, and that could have been the end of it, but the developer came back… with more of the same.
Helen McDade, who grew up in Caithness, explains: “When the new application was submitted in February 2017, it was virtually unchanged, and now we’re going to another Inquiry, for the same site, with no significant difference in the planning, and we’re all paying to do that, all over again. And that’s alongside the cost to the public purse.”
If Wild Land were given the same protected status as National Parks and Scenic Areas, a clear message would be sent, big energy would have to look elsewhere, and the time, money and effort assessing speculative applications could be saved. Cameron McNeish agrees: “I’m in favour of renewables, but there are places where there are too many turbines, and places they should not be at all. I’ve been telling the government for years we have to strike a balance. Upping the level of protection for Wild Land is the next logical step.”
Perhaps most disturbing of all, the protracted legal process can be intimidating and divisive within close knit communities. The government has responded to this by reducing the number of aural sessions required in court, but a recent study by Brodies law firm shows that as verbal testimony goes down, so do the chances of having an objection upheld. Without the support of NGO’s like the JMT, local people can struggle to present their legal evidence in a way that convinces at the Inquiry.
Helen also sits on the board for an advocacy charity called Planning Democracy, one of many organisations calling for an ‘Equal Right of Appeal’. Even for smaller developments, the system is structured in favour of the developer, regardless of local consequences. Helen talked me through: “If an application is refused at a council level, the developer can appeal, but if it’s consented, then objectors can only use the expensive court system of Judicial Review.”
At that stage, those who lack the resources to fight their corner in court against big business are simply priced out of the planning process.
This is so serious that the Scottish Government has recently faced an official reprimand from the UN for failing to ‘remove or reduce barriers to access to justice’, thereby falling foul of the 1998 Aarhaus Convention. This inequity has meant that charities have had to retire from significant cases or risk bankruptcy, but it’s not just about big ‘Wild’ landscapes or environmental charities – it includes individuals like Molly Forbes objecting to Trump’s infamous golf course at Menie. The current system favours Goliath at David’s expense.
It’s clear that the planning system needs reform. However, recent government documents published ahead of the forthcoming Planning Bill barely mention the environment, and explicitly deny the benefits of an equal right of appeal. A recent National Trust for Scotland survey has pointed to some of the same issues, with 60% feeling disempowered from planning decisions in their local area, and 90% wanting equal rights of appeal for communities. 49% of those surveyed prioritized outdoor areas.
A landscape fit for people
“Ecological restoration is a growth industry and the work of the future: since we humans have degraded so much of the planet, we have almost endless opportunities to return ecosystems to health” – Doug Tompkins
There’s plenty evidence to show just how important tourism is in the Scottish Highlands. According to new employment data from Highland and Island Enterprise, it supports 29,000 jobs (up 4,000 since 2010), amounting to nearly one in ten in the region. That figure is not all full time equivalents, but it does exclude businesses under the VAT threshold, so the actual employment count is likely higher.
By contrast, HIE show that onshore wind provides just 300 long-term full time equivalent jobs, with another 500 that fluctuate depending on what’s under construction.
Tourism also provides a more even spread of wealth and employment than the energy sector. It’s a key part of modern crofting through provision of holiday accommodation, mountain guiding and a raft of related service industries and occasional work. It’s already part of a more ‘sustainable’ future for those trying to make a living in rural Scotland.
A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the John Muir Trust shows 55% of Scots avoid visiting places with large-scale infrastructure – that number jumps to 63% for those who live in the Highlands. An overwhelming 80% support keeping big industry out of rural areas – up 5% on a similar study in 2014. A 2016 survey by Scottish Natural Heritage backs this up, with 73% agreeing that Wild Land should be protected, and 69% agreeing with the value of landscape to tourism. As Bill Murray understood all those years ago, the ability to sustain a rural future for Scotland is directly tied to our scenic heritage.
Our high opinion of Wild Land is beyond doubt. Why build on it, when that’s what the paying public value most?
Tourism may be a force to be reckoned with, but it cuts both ways. Skye has attracted press attention recently, with locals concerned about a groaning island infrastructure struggling to cope with the summer influx, and the Loch Lomond Park Authority has taken controversial steps to limit access, justified by visitor impact.
Given the political will, Scotland has plenty of potential to spread both the load and the benefits of tourism throughout, if planning were for the benefit of the population as a whole, not just a few. With the dualling of the A9 access to the ‘far north’ will only improve. The potential of Caithness and Sutherland is illustrated by the success of the North Coast 500 initiative, ironically the area now freshly targeted by energy companies for large-scale development.
Povlsen has been instrumental in the growth of the North Coast 500 and wants to develop the area in a sustainable way, which includes assisting with a bid for World Heritage Status. What’s in it for him? I asked Bob Reid “He is an environmentalist, but also a pragmatist. He wants people to enjoy and value nature, but also wants to demonstrate that green tourism can work economically – both for the estates and the country as a whole. That’s how you achieve change. And he admires those other famous clothing magnates – the late Doug Tompkins (The North Face) and Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia) – who have done so much good environmentally, and wants to contribute in something like the same way.”
The recent profile of the NC500 has generated some issues too; noise, littering and traffic congestion in peak season, but Bob Reid is now seeing proof that tourist spend is making a difference in the local economy, and believes the infrastructure will catch up. The Scottish Government have recently announced a £6m fund aimed at improving infrastructure – parking, toilets and footpaths – in rural Scotland from 2018, which can only be positive.
In the meantime, Reid’s team is doing what it can on the land that it looks after – putting resource into the regeneration of Tongue as a much-needed pit stop on the north coast. The aim is to build local capacity, which for a town and country planner like Bob means building new houses and a care home, with more to come. Development, but on a human scale.
Nature tourism is not a panacea for all worldly ills, but for entrepreneurs like Povlsen and planners like Reid, it is the chief mechanism available in the region to influence social and environmental justice. To paraphrase one of Scotland’s (other) premier exports – John Muir – people and place need hitching back together in the highland universe. Helen McDade: “Community and Wild Land interest are sometimes cast in opposition to each other, but actually it’s about taking into consideration all aspects of people’s well being and environment. Sometimes that’s about where we live, and sometimes that’s about where we can go to enjoy nature, and how that nature is getting on.”
Finally, we could do a lot worse than heed the words of highland historian Professor James Hunter. In a recent lecture at Edinburgh University (the recording is available online), he reminds us of what Frank Fraser Darling called “a devastated terrain”, drained of it’s ecological productiveness in the same way it was drained of people, the low impact of cattle and shieling replaced by sheep farming on an industrial scale. Some of this land, he challenges, is now designated ‘wild’.
He then lays out his vision of a more positive future for the Highlands, a future in which a replenished environment would sit alongside a re-peopled landscape.
Fiercely critical of blood sports as the dominant land use in the Highlands, Hunter cautiously praises Povlsen’s vision for a rewilded Glen Feshie and other regeneration efforts, as a means of creating a more liveable environment for both people and animals – places that people will want to both live near, and visit from further afield. “Rewilding and re-peopling are not mutually exclusive at all”, he says. They are both part of “restoring life and community.”
Personally I’d like to see all of the land categories in group two – World Heritage Sites, SSSI’s and National Nature Reserves, as well as Wild Land Areas – granted the same protection as National Parks. Without that security, threats to Scotland’s natural heritage ranging from Creag Riabhach to Coul Links, where a developer is now planning a golf course on a rare salt marsh and dune system, will continue.
The John Muir Trust’s ask is actually more modest than that; they are simply suggesting extending protection to Wild Land Areas, and redressing the inequities in the right of appeal to give local communities some redress. It’s a question of degree… but something needs to give. It’s now up to us to encourage the planners and policy makers to give Scotland’s landscape, and the people who belong to it – our rural economy – a chance to reconcile and be renewed.
What can you do?
You can write to your constituency or regional MSP’s (energy is controlled by Westminster, but Holyrood decides on Planning) and ask them to amend planning policy to increase protection for Wild Land Areas and institute an Equal Right of Appeal. If you live outside Scotland, you can write to the Scottish Government Planning Minister, Kevin Stewart.
You can find more information on the John Muir Trust ‘keep it wild’ campaign page.
A different version of this article first appeared in the John Muir Trust Journal, Autumn 2017.