Almost everyone involved in the “poisonous guddle” that is Scotland’s renewable energy policy has come under blistering attack from a leading Scottish Nationalist, who is calling on the government to draw up a new national energy plan.
Alyn Smith MEP, the SNP’s spokesman on Europe, has launched a fierce assault on developers, environmental groups, government agencies and politicians for the way they have dealt with wind farm applications. As a result, he warned, Scotland is at risk of losing the “glittering prize” of becoming Europe’s green powerhouse.
He put the blame for the mess firmly on the previous Labour and LibDem government. “We inherited a poisonous guddle that puts an intolerable strain on a planning system not designed to cope with it, and leaves nobody satisfied and everybody angry,” he said.
“Developers interested only in a quick buck are making different offers in different bits of the country, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are at the throats of councils, quangos at the throats of everybody, communities disquieted, and the national strategic interest forgotten about.”
The lack of leadership and the absence of a national energy plan had made some developers “unscrupulous”, Smith claimed. “Irresponsible mischief” had been made by environmental groups and politicians, while Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency had been “curiously inflexible.”
To combat climate change “either we get real about renewables or the game’s a bogey”, he said. “The alternative is awful. In the absence of a coherent framework unscrupulous developers and unhelpful NGOs will be able to run rings round local planners.”
Smith, who is a member of the SNP’s National Executive Committee, sent a letter last week to the Scottish government’s energy minister, Jim Mather. “I am aware that you are producing a coherent energy strategy which will allow local planners, developers and communities a much greater clarity in what sort of developments are desirable,” he wrote.
“I cannot emphasise enough how important this is as I have seen projects the length and breadth of Scotland floundering, usually amidst increasing acrimony and upset, because of the lack of a national framework to refer to.”
Smith is also encouraging Mather to review the way that European environmental directives have been used to block some developments. “In the absence of leadership you can find an European Union rule to stop pretty well anything happening,” he said.
Smith declined to name the environmental groups he was criticising, but one of the main opponents of land-based wind farms, Ramblers’ Association Scotland, welcomed his remarks. “Renewable energy policy is in a complete shambles, driven by the wrong financial incentives,” said the association’s director, Dave Morris.
“The SNP government has a once in a lifetime opportunity to establish an energy strategy which stops massive wind farm development on our mountains and moorlands and promotes community-based wind, solar and geothermal energy sources.”
The renewables industry, however, was less enthusiastic. “This is not a description I recognise,” said Jason Ormiston, chief executive of Scottish Renewables. “There are problems with the planning system but both the previous and current governments have been trying to rectify them”.
The Green MSP Patrick Harvie said: “By now Scotland could and should have made much more progress towards green energy, and ministers need to listen to this warning if they want to meet even their limited climate targets.”
Smith, who addressed a major energy conference in Aberdeen on Friday, didn’t talk about individual wind power projects. But the one on most people’s minds at the moment is Europe’s biggest, proposed for Barvas Moor on the Isle of Lewis.
Scottish ministers have said they are “minded to refuse” the Lewis scheme because it damages a nature conservation area. But the developers, Amec and British Energy, have been fighting a fierce rearguard action to try and get them to change their minds.
Amec was also the company behind another large wind farm planned for Clashindarroch Forest near Huntly in Aberdeenshire, but rejected last September by the SNP government. The Sunday Herald has discovered that before last year’s election, Labour ministers had been intending to approve the scheme.
According to the former enterprise minister, Allan Wilson, civil servants had mistakenly allowed the scheme to go to a public inquiry because all the statutory authorities had ended up approving it. The SNP’s decision to turn it down was “astonishing”, he claimed.
There was a “suspicion” that the decision was influenced by the fact that Clashindarroch was in Alex Salmond’s constituency, Wilson argued. Internal government documents released under freedom of information legislation show that the First Minister took an interest in the decision, and wrote to the energy minister, Jim Mather, conveying a constituent’s concern about it.
In a reply to Salmond last August, Mather promised that a decision on Clashindarroch would only be made “after careful and thorough consideration of all material issues”. In response to Alyn Smith’s remarks, Mather insisted yesterday that ministers were committed to maintaining a coherent approach to renewable energy policy.
“The Scottish Government will set out shortly an overview of its energy policy to put in context the many strands of work we are undertaking,” he said. “Our focus, as in everything we do, will be on delivery.”