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Protecting our Mountains – The MCofS manifesto on onshore wind farms

Summary and introduction

The mountains and wild places of Scotland are a national asset beyond price, yet they risk being irrevocably damaged by commercial wind farm developments.

This document reflects the determination of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) to defend this precious resource. It examines some of the issues and proposes practical action to balance the need for clean energy with the need to conserve our natural heritage.

As the recognised representative body for Scottish mountaineers and hill walkers we believe our uplands and wild places are at risk from climate change. They are also in danger from our response to climate change – industrial-scale wind farms in landscapes which should remain wild. The threat is not just from individual schemes, but from their cumulative impact. With ever-more schemes in the pipeline we need urgent action.

Scotland can achieve its aims for renewable energy without industrialising our most important mountains. We should lead the world in clean energy good practice as well as generation. As a pragmatic response the MCofS is calling for an immediate moratorium on commercial wind farms which encroach on our highest mountains, the Munros (peaks over 3,000ft) and Corbetts (2,500-3,000ft). These are among our finest mountain landscapes and are vital to our cultural and historical identity. They form a clearly identifiable group and are among the last parts of the UK free from obvious, or extensive, human presence.

The MCofS calls for clear policy statements by the Scottish Government, local authorities, political parties and developers that commercial wind farms will not be permitted to impinge on the Munros and Corbetts – or their visual amenity (ensuring the visual quality of these areas remains exceptionally high). Policies must be tightly defined to end the current situation where piecemeal regulation allows varied and subjective interpretation, sometimes putting the interests and profits of energy companies and landowners ahead of our countryside, and ultimately, Scotland’s national interest.

Our mountains are of essential importance for many reasons including:

  • Scenic beauty and Scottish culture – they are among our defining features
  • Recreation – for activities like hill walking and ski touring
  • Employment – sustainable jobs in remote communities
  • Tourism – Scotland’s countryside is a leading attraction
  • Wildlife – providing habitats for threatened species
  • Health – getting people out of doors and active

The MCofS wishes to engage with all those who have an interest in conserving our natural heritage in order to strike a proper balance between the need for clean energy and the conservation of our natural heritage.

Scale of the issue

No technology can be considered truly green if it harms the very environments that we as a society seek to conserve. The SNH wind farm footprint map of July 2011, while incomplete, gives some idea of the huge extent of development proposals.

It is claimed that SNH has recorded some 400 wind power projects of 3MW or more, with 130 operational or approved and the rest in the consent process (for Scottish Government figures see also 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy in Scotland).

The norm is increasingly for turbines of 100-125 metres from base to blade tip. Wind farms may also require many kilometres of service tracks, usually 6 metres wide, to be cut through unspoilt countryside. Transmission cables and pylons can cause further damage. Construction work can harm some bird species and the removal of peat releases carbon into the atmosphere. Large schemes occupy many square miles of land, transforming their character and degrading the visual amenity for miles around.

In 2011 the Scottish Government raised the country’s renewable energy targets to 100% of domestic demand by 2020. Wind power generation is now big business with large profits available to companies and landowners. But a heavy price is being paid – the industrialisation of our countryside. The profit motive must always be constrained by wider public and national interests.

The Scottish Government’s claim that strict planning guidelines are preventing unacceptable harm to the environment looks increasingly questionable. We would cite the RSPB’s concerns about the scale of the Viking development in Shetland, and our own objections to proposals such as those for Sallachy and Dalnessie, which are based on existing planning policies, as examples.

The James Hutton Institute asserts that climate change is having a lasting impact on the Scottish landscape. Much marginal land will become viable for agricultural use – potentially increasing pressure on our wild places. More generally we face an erosion of our natural capital with habitat loss and over-exploitation of land. We strongly agree with the institute’s emphasis on balancing economic, cultural and environmental demands to achieve more sustainable use of land.

In common with the Scottish Government we are impressed by the prospects for renewables in Scotland – with an estimated 10% of Europe’s wave power and 25% of its tidal potential, combined with tremendous offshore wind capacity. We welcome the investments being made to make Scotland a pioneering force in the exploitation of these resources.

So great is Scotland’s renewables potential that it can choose the best way ahead. The MCofS suggests that this opens the way for a new strategy to determine how to reach its renewables targets while keeping onshore wind farm developments away from the Munros and the Corbetts.

A strategic approach

The Scottish Government has been quick to recognise that our planning policies and guidance need updating. We welcome the ongoing process in which local authorities are drafting new local plans.

However, Scotland needs a national strategy to protect its mountains from unwelcome developments and to provide clear guidance on where wind farms will and will not be permitted. In some cases we would be keen to see a distinction drawn between types of project, recognising the value of certain small-scale developments which bring power and some income to local communities. At present there is little consistency about which landscapes are designated for protection. This is despite the admirable work of many planners, and organisations such as SNH, and efforts at standardisation using Special Landscape Areas.

Change is needed urgently, with clear and firm protection for the Munros and Corbetts in particular. Their futures should not depend on factors such as whether they happen to be in a National Park.

Scotland’s Munros and Corbetts form a coherent and internationally-recognised group and are of great worth to the tourism industry. Access is relatively easy yet they provide a real sense of wildness, tranquillity, adventure and solitude. They are also places where the local communities are very small, so weight of public opinion cannot be relied on to deter unwelcome development proposals. The Munros and Corbetts hold some of our highest-quality environments and must remain free from further major visual intrusion.

The Scottish Government has a strongly stated belief in the contribution that wind farms can make to our clean energy needs. This can encourage decisions which favour the desires of developers and landowners over the interests of our natural heritage, despite the emphasis on landscape conservation in the National Planning Framework 2 (NPF2) and the 2010 Scottish Planning Policy. Indeed, there are cases where implementation has failed to meet the aspirations of policy.

We also share with SNH, and others, a deep concern that the scenic value of our landscapes can be corroded by an accumulation of wind farms within sensitive areas, or around their edges. With so many proposals going through the planning system the reality of their cumulative impact may only be recognised when it is too late. As a result we are joining the RSPB in its call for an evidence-based strategic energy policy taking a holistic view of all relevant economic, social and environmental factors.

A central plank of such a policy would be the explicit protection of Munros and Corbetts as landscapes which are, to use the words of SNH, ‘recognised as being rare, unusual, highly distinctive or the best or most representative example in a given area’.

In this way Scotland can be even more effective in championing the cause of renewable energy. As WWF says, wind farms must avoid causing environmental harm and need to have public acceptance. It is essential to build and maintain a consensus in favour of renewables, the poor siting of wind farms can undermine public support – which is already showing signs of strain.

Economic factors

The Scottish Government claims that research shows wind farms are not incompatible with tourism. This is probably true, so long as the developments do not encroach on landscapes specifically valued for their openness, wildness and absence of obvious human presence and industrialisation.

But it is a potentially serious error to give too much weight to the findings of reports such as The Economic Impacts of Wind Farms on Scottish Tourism or the VisitScotland survey commissioned in 2011. Such work tells us little as it is being conducted at a time when relatively few wind farms have been built in the locations of key interest to tourists.

The MCofS wants to ensure that wind farm developments do not damage our tourism and recreation industries. The value to the economy, especially in remote and fragile communities, is enormous. Wind farms create few lasting onsite jobs, but Scotland’s reputation as a place for relaxation and adventure leisure pursuits underpins many permanent and sustainable jobs which our rural areas desperately need. These jobs are highly dependent on the fact that visitors enjoy our wild landscapes.

The country attracted 14.7 million visitors in 2010, spending £4.1 billion. The top reason for visiting Scotland was the scenery and landscape (58%). Some 40% of visitors went on longer walks (two miles and above). Long walks, hikes and rambles were among the most popular activities for 35% of visitors.

Mountaineers and hill walkers are often young people from the most affluent social groups – a valuable tourism market as HIE’s Economic Impact report of 2003-04 underlined. Scottish Government figures show that 5% of Scots go hill walking on a regular basis.

Our tourism industry has suffered serious and unexpected shocks in the recent past which show that visitor perceptions are sensitive to change. Nowadays Scotland faces tough competition from overseas markets which offer wild mountain areas and superb countryside at lower cost. Scotland has to compete at the premium end of the market on quality of experience. Our international image is of a country offering beautiful and open mountain landscapes. We cannot allow a situation to emerge where visitors are disappointed because the countryside is seen as spoiled by industrialisation.

Most mountaineers see Scotland’s landscape and wildlife as being as important as adventure and physical challenge. The great scenic beauty of our mountains gives them a powerful appeal. Nature-based tourism and recreational activities in the mountains are of immense value to Scotland overall, and to our more rural communities in particular. The Macaulay Institute found that hill walkers and climbers contributed an estimated £245.7 million in expenditure to Scotland’s rural economy in the HIE area in 2002-03. In order for this contribution to be sustained and enhanced, the landscape quality of our mountain areas must be conserved.

What can be done?

The sparsely populated areas we seek to protect from wind farm industrialisation have small or no local populations so weight of local opinion cannot be relied on to resist undesirable change. As the representative body for Scottish mountaineers and hill walkers (with a membership of more than 11,000 and a 40-year track record) the MCofS fights to protect our mountains.

Far from opposing wind farms, we argue that it is in the interests of Scotland and of the renewables sector to get their location right so they are a popular and accepted part of life. In mountain areas we also appreciate that low capacity, small-scale projects sited sensitively (and probably close to existing buildings) may well be more acceptable if their primary role is to generate power and income for the community. In order to balance the need for clean energy with the interests of our natural heritage the MCofS is calling for:

  • A halt to all commercial wind farms encroaching on the land of the Munros and Corbetts, or having an adverse or significant impact on their visual amenity.
  • Clear, unequivocal national and local policy statements declaring that there will be no future commercial wind farm developments in these areas.
  • A holistic Scottish energy strategy which includes the siting of wind farms.
  • Firm commitments by parties, politicians, planners and wind farm developers that they will protect Scotland’s mountains from unwelcome change.

The MCofS will be supportive of planning authorities in preparing positive policies and supplementary guidance to protect our upland landscape. It will also seek to influence how such policies are implemented.

Conclusions

Scotland’s upland landscape is under threat from many directions. The proliferation of wind farms is one of them and must be controlled. Our mountains have a scenic, cultural and economic worth which needs to be balanced with their value to renewable energy companies and their marginal contribution to the reduction of Scotland’s carbon footprint. Preventing wind farm developments that encroach on the Munros and Corbetts – among the finest Scottish landscapes – would be a bold step forward.

The mountain landscape provides venues for recreation, exercise and participation in a wide range of outdoor sports – and as such is of huge benefit to public health and wellbeing. It is also an asset for the tourism industry, supporting thousands of local jobs.

Scotland’s renewable energy targets can be achieved without recourse to extensive wind farm industrialisation. But urgent action is needed to secure the future of our mountains and wild places so they can continue to be enjoyed for recreation and relaxation.

Scotland needs coherent policies, strategies and implementation to replace the current piecemeal and subjective approach. These must guarantee that the Munros and Corbetts are protected. In doing this, the country can become a leader in renewable energy best-practice, contributing to the long-term success of the switch to clean energy by maintaining public support and by protecting places that are of irreplaceable scenic, cultural, social and natural significance.

Published 6 June 2012

For further information please contact David Gibson, Chief Officer davidg@mcofs.org.uk

Tel: 01738-493942