Landscape Matters

2015 - a good year for landscape?

While the Scottish Government accepted Scottish Natural Heritage's wild land map, the question hovering over it has been whether planning authorities, reporters and the government itself would take it seriously when considering specific proposals as the map carries no new statutory weight. The good news is that the map does appear to be a touch stone regarding decisions in the areas covered. It is now being referred to as a material consideration when individual planning applications in relevant areas are being considered. John Swinney's statement, quoted in the last edition of Mountain Views, regarding the need to strike a balance between protecting Scotland's finest landscapes and the importance of continuing to exploit Scotland's potential for green energy is being reflected in a number of decisions rejecting large scale infrastructure projects in sensitive areas. While vigilance continues to be needed, with current uncertainties regarding wind farm subsidies making the future unclear, those who have been campaigning to prevent the Highlands from becoming industrialised can now, perhaps, relax just a little. The hope must be that further moves to decarbonise the economy can go hand in hand with the protection of wild places.

Wind Farms - decisions, decisions

NEMT wrote to the Scottish Government in support of the John Muir Trust's campaign against the Glencassley and Sallachy wind farms in wild land area 34 which stretches North West from Lairg. The Scottish Government has rejected these two applications, and Highland Council has rejected a third in the same area (Caplich) with this now lying in the hands of the Scottish Government.

The situation regarding Stronelairg (the North side of the Monadhliath) remains unresolved. The judge presiding over the judicial review instigated by the John Muir Trust found in JMT's favour on two key points:

Unsurprisingly, both the Scottish Government and Scottish and Southern Energy are appealing. JMT is seeking pledges of funding to continue to fight the proposal and NEMT has offered a small sum of money if required. Meanwhile approval was given to the application for a substation for Stronelairg in the Melgarve/Garva Bridge area on the South side of the Corrieyairack.

The Reporter to the public enquiry rejected the developers appeal regarding the Carn Gorm wind farm on Little Wyvis; this will now not go ahead. In his decision, the Reporter cited the visual effects on a wild land area and the cumulative effects of wind farms in the vicinity. Campaigners considered that proposals for a major wind farm on the South West corner of Loch Ericht (Talladh-a-Bheithe) presented a major test of the seriousness with which planning authorities were taking the wild land map.

NEMT, along with other bodies, had raised strong objections to this proposal in a remote area of the Central Highlands. The Scottish Government has thrown the application out on the basis that the company involved was not properly registered. Was this incompetence or was the application speculative, aiming to test the level of opposition? This one may well come back in a different form.

Another proposal which NEMT objected to was the Cullachy wind farm on the North West side of the Corrieyairack. Highland Council rejected this application; if it had gone ahead, the Pass would have effectively been industrialised. However, a temporary track in the same area, built to facilitate the construction of the Beauly-Denny line, will remain (see below).

Aberdeenshire Council rejected an application for a wind speed mast in the Glen Dye. NEMT had objected to this precursor to a wind farm application as this area is well used by a wide variety of walking groups, including those less likely to venture into the remoter or higher hills. Aberdeenshire's rejection cited the proposal's detrimental effects on the landscape and the recreational amenity of people who enjoy walking in the area. These issues were central to NEMT's arguments. However, an appeal against the decision has been lodged and plans are still being drawn up for a major development in the area.

The developer has withdrawn the application for a wind farm adjacent to Back Water Reservoir in Angus, citing uncertainties regarding subsidies. While a number of bodies had objected to this, after some heart searching NEMT decided not to. Although the turbines would have been visible from the Dreish-Mayar plateau, it would not have been in a wild land area and other developments are visible looking to the south from those hills.

Hill tracks update

LINK has been monitoring the new system of Prior Notification whereby developers must advise the relevant planning authority of proposals to build hill tracks which are 'permitted development' by virtue of their being for forestry or agricultural purposes. Each week, volunteers across Scotland scan planning lists, this is carried out for Aberdeenshire by a member of the Cairngorm Club and an NEMT member, and flag up any tracks causing concerns to a small group on which NEMT is represented. This group has been logging applications and their outcome and so is in a position to contribute to the evaluation of the new system being undertaken by consultants contracted by the Scottish Government. This evaluation appears to be based on the 'cheap and cheerful' approach. It is unlikely that the government, having altered the law, will have any enthusiasm for a further change at this early stage; nevertheless NEMT continues to believe that all tracks should require full planning consent.

What are the benefits of the new arrangements?

What are the disadvantages and what problems have emerged?

To date, few tracks have gone through the whole Prior Notification/Approval process, some having been given permission without Prior Approval being deemed necessary; questions remain, therefore, regarding the practical application of the new arrangements. One track in the Monadhliath has provided an example of the complete process through to Prior Approval. This gave the LINK monitors the opportunity to raise questions with Highland Council regarding the purpose of the track and the standard of construction. Highland Council did request fuller information from the applicant and ensured that issues regarding line and construction were addressed. In this case, the system seemed to work effectively.

NEMT continues to monitor applications for the retention of temporary tracks constructed to facilitate the building of the Beauly- Denny line. Retaining these requires full consent. Since the last Mountain Views, the Cullachy estate applied for the retention of a very significant length of track on the North side of the Corrieyairack. NEMT, along with others, put in strong objections to this. The track is parallel to, and quite close by, Wade's road and the only reason for retention that we could see was the 'simple convenience' of an estate which had managed for decades without it. Highland Council chose to approve it.

SNH is producing a check list for people applying to construct hill tracks to supplement their full guidance (Constructed Tracks in the Scottish Uplands (2nd edition, updated 2015). LINK was consulted on the draft of this and NEMT had an input to this. The full guidance on the construction of tracks is available onine).

Barytes mine on Farragon Hill

When traversing Meall Tairneachan, a Corbett South of Loch Tummel, many NEMT members will have been surprised to find a large mine. This extracts barytes, essential to the oil industry, and the mine is the major source of the mineral in the UK. Perth and Kinross Council is considering a proposal for the closure of this mine and the creation of a new one to the North East of the neighbouring Farragon Hill. If approved, this new mine will be less visually intrusive to people climbing the two Corbetts than the existing mine. Barytes is of national importance and so NEMT decided not to object. The proposal includes welcome plans to reinstate the existing mine area. A track to this starts on the road to the West and is used by walkers to access these hills. The application states that this track will be needed for some time to monitor the reinstated ground. NEMT has written to Perth and Kinross Council arguing that the track should be made into a walker's path once it is no longer needed for access to the area where the mine was.

Abandoned baryte mine shaft nr Aberfeldy © Vincent van Zeijst

Small Scale Hydro - is restoration work adequate?

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland wrote to the Minister, Alex Neil, and to the heads of planning in twelve local authorities and the two national parks concerning the restoration measures being taken for the tracks and pipeline work of small scale hydro schemes. NEMT members will, no doubt, have come across hydro works in many glens in recent years. If restoration work is carried out well, what is left visible after vegetation has re-established itself is primarily a small dam and a single access track to this; turbines are normally in small building near the road. However, there are questions as to how well restoration is taking place. Dave Gibson, Chief Officer of MCofS said:

"We believe planning authorities must act by requiring that developers specify high quality restoration, then by monitoring completed schemes on an ongoing basis to ensure that this is achieved, accompanied by a readiness to take enforcement action where it is not."

David Gibson says that he has been somewhat reassured by the replies received to his letter, although he did not hear back from all the planning authorities. While some planning authorities employ enforcement or compliance officers, financial restrictions limit the ability of others to provide as full oversight as they would like and they rely on third parties to bring concerns to their attention. With this in mind, it would be helpful if readers could let MCofS (or NEMT) know if they come across hydro tracks, or associated works, which seem to have been completed but where restoration appears to be unsatisfactory.

NEMT has not, to date, objected to any small scale hydro schemes.

The case of Brown Cow Hill and the shooters hut

Brown Cow Hill, with its plateau of interminable peat hags, is not a Corbett which particularly stirs the blood, nevertheless, with its ease of access, it is a hill enjoyed by many for a half day or for the longer round it provides when combined with other hills. An application was submitted to Aberdeenshire Council for a shooters hut to the South East of the hill and an NEMT member raised concerns about this. After a flurry of emails around NEMT Council members, it was decided not to object because:

This is the sort of decision which taxes NEMT. We would rather such intrusions into the landscape weren't built and we don't see why shooters can't enjoy their nip and grouse pate sandwiches out in the fresh air (or torrential rain) like other hill-goers; nevertheless objecting to all developments could undermine our arguments when it comes to larger scale and more intrusive proposals. There are risks in being seen as a body which takes a negative view of other people's activities in the hills. What are the views of members regarding this type of dilemma? The application was approved.

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