WILD land. We all love it and want to defend it, but what exactly is it in a political and planning sense? How can it be defined?
For years I celebrated ‘wilderness’, and I habitually used the term in a rather loose fashion before I came to realise that I was using the word as an adjective rather than a noun, an adjective that described a quality which produced a particular mood or emotion in me whenever I came face to face with a particular kind of landscape.
Since time immemorial the word ‘wilderness’ has been symbolic of a landscape that is wild, remote, spiritually uplifting and mercifully free of man’s touch. My dictionary defines it thus: “tract of land uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings; waste; desert; wild; state of confusion.”
I must confess that this particular definition fails to enthrall me but definitions are notoriously difficult. One man’s wilderness could be another person’s back garden but when you have to define a concept like ‘wild land’ for legislative purposes then it potentially becomes much more difficult and complex. That’s why, when the Scottish Government asked Scottish Natural Heritage to produce a map of wild land in Scotland, I didn’t envy their task.
Probably wisely, SNH has steered away from giving a straight definition of ‘wild land’, but officials have recognised my own adjectival dilemma when they offered the following in their own Policy Statement:
“Wild land can be described as extensive areas where wildness (the quality) is best expressed. National Planning Policy Guidelines helpfully defines wild land as: ‘uninhabited and often relatively inaccessible countryside where the influence of human activity on the character and quality of the environment has been minimal‘.”
Using some lengthy criteria, SNH eventually came up with a map containing 42 wild land areas, from Dumfries & Galloway to the Northern Isles. Essentially, these selected areas have a distinct and special character, show minimal signs of human influence, contain stretches of undeveloped coast or large areas of peat bog and, most importantly in my view, are a key component of our national identity! They also attract considerable economic benefits in tourism terms.
All the selected areas are important havens for wildlife and offer people vital spiritual and psychological benefits, but here is the rub – while these selected areas of wild land are now identified under Scotland’s National Planning Policy guidelines as nationally important, wild land has not been given a statutory designation, nor has it been given full protection.
Despite this the recently published Scottish Planning Policy and the National Planning Framework indicates wild land merits ‘strong’ protection. Planning Policy sets out how this should be achieved – this includes the identification of wild land and its safeguard in Development Plans and in Spatial Frameworks for onshore wind farms, and the need for development to “demonstrate that any significant effects on the qualities of these areas can be substantially overcome by siting, design or other mitigation.”
I’m not sure how the effects of a windfarm with enormous turbines can be mitigated against in an area of wild land, unless it’s invisible! So what’s the point of this ‘strong protection’? Why not simplify matters for everyone and just ban developments from areas that are on the Wild Land map?
The very same NPP Guidelines, published last summer, put a complete ban on wind development within our two National Parks and 40 National Scenic Areas, but, despite the assertions that wild land is now seen as ‘nationally important’ in planning terms, these precious areas sadly remain potentially susceptible to development.
Having said that, since the Guidelines were published last summer, several proposed developments have been knocked back by the Scottish Government because they were within the Wild Land map areas, although a crucial decision about the Allt Duine development in the Monadh Liath has been continually delayed.
Additionally, an alarming number of proposals are still being put forward for wind-related developments in wild land areas including one close to the Rannoch Moor and another, the Caplich windfarm, on the very edge of Assynt in Sutherland. A large electrical substation has been proposed close to the historic Garva Bridge, at the foot of the Corrieyairack Pass.
It seems windfarm developers, spurred on by huge Westminster subsidies, are more than happy to continue to deluge the planning authorities with proposals, whether they be in the Wild Land map areas or not and it would appear the suggestion that wild land ‘merits strong protection’ is no deterrent to subsidy junkie developers!
A few weeks ago I had a meeting with the Energy Minister Fergus Ewing and put the point to him that wild land should be put on the same footing as National Scenic Areas and National Parks and that developments like windfarms should be completely banned within the areas of the Wild Land map.
Mr Ewing wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea but preferred to await the outcome of May’s General Election when, depending on the result, renewable energy subsidies could possibly be cut. That of course would remove the Golden Egg from developers and windfarm planning applications would vanish like snow from a dyke!
Despite that possibility, and with a lot of public opinion now turning against large-scale private windfarm developments, I believe now is the time to press home the argument for banning turbines, and other major developments, from Scotland’s wild land. Like the Scottish Government I believe in renewables but like them, I’ve constantly said that the turbines have to be in the right places. Wild Land map areas are not the ‘right place’.
Now I’m well aware that what might be the ‘right place’ in the view of the Scottish Government may not be the right place if it happens to be within sight of your front door. The NIMBY element is, not surprisingly, a strong motivational factor in opposing windfarm applications but I’m most concerned with wild land and how we go about protecting it.
First thing is to define what wild land is and where it is and Scottish Natural Heritage, in my view, has fulfilled that function rather well. The next thing to do is find some way of protecting that wild land from inappropriate developments like wind turbines. As I’ve suggested to the Energy Minister, a ban on wind turbines in areas contained in the Wild Land map, as in National Parks and National Scenic Areas, would go a long way to preserve the integrity of the finest of our cherished landscapes. It’s a move that could reap rewards and is not a million miles from the Government’s own description of ‘strong protection’ that already exists. But it would go a long way to reassure voters that the SNP government does genuinely care about the Scottish environment.
And while subsidies may well be cut by an incoming Labour government, or even by a future Tory government, I don’t believe we can take that risk. I would urge everyone to write to their MSP or to the Energy Minister and demand that areas on the SNH Wild Land Map have the same protection as National Parks and National Scenic Areas. It would be a fairly small step for the Scottish Government, but potentially a huge step forward in protecting the best of our wild landscapes.
Editor’s note: The Mountaineering Council of Scotland have today launched a petition on 38 degrees calling for remaining wild land to be fully protected from industrial development.
You can sign and share it on the following link: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/p/wild-land.