The Duke of Buccleuch lobbied the Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, and government officials behind closed doors to fast-track a £1 billion plan for one of Scotland’s biggest-ever wind farms, according to internal documents obtained by the Sunday Herald.
In a “private and confidential” presentation last November, Buccleuch’s chief executive, John Glen, urged Ewing to “debottleneck” the approval process for building 140 wind turbines across a large swathe of moorland east of Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway. He also named the senior civil servant whom he thought should assist with the project.
If it goes ahead, the wind farm will reap multi-million pound profits for Buccleuch, the UK’s largest private landowner. But critics fear that it could damage the prospects for popular, smaller schemes that could bring more community benefits.
The Buccleuch estate has been attacked by politicians, community and environmental groups for using “insider influence” to try and get its way behind the scenes.
Joan McAlpine, the SNP MSP for the South of Scotland, accused Buccleuch of “breathtaking arrogance” and of acting covertly to avoid public scrutiny. “I have serious concerns about the secretive way in which Buccleuch operates,” she said.
“The Sunday Herald’s exposure of such behaviour by Buccleuch will anger many SNP members and supporters who want to see powerful landlords brought to heel.”
Glen denied being secretive and insisted that the estate had “acted in good faith and with the utmost propriety” to promote rural development.
Documents released by the Scottish Government and its conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), under freedom of information law reveal that Glen made an initial presentation on the proposed wind farm on 16 April 2014. A meeting was held at the government’s Atlantic Quay offices in Glasgow.
It was chaired by Professor Russel Griggs, a consultant based in Sanquhar and appointed by ministers to cut regulatory red tape. It included government officials, SNH, and other public agencies, all told in an email to treat the matter “with strictest confidence”.
An official minute of the meeting recorded that officials were in principle “supportive” of the wind farm. But concerns were expressed about the implications for other smaller wind applications in the area.
According to an account by SNH, Buccleuch’s plan “had been taken to Fergus Ewing who expressed significant interest.” SNH pointed out that it “will make money for the landowners and investors” and questioned whether community benefits were sufficient.
Buccleuch’s stated aim was to win consent by 2017 or 2018. Its original plan, called “Project Grousemoor”, was for 160 turbines and involved moving part of a conservation area giving legal protection for birds – an unprecedented step that was rejected by SNH and the Scottish Government because it could breach European law.
Glen then made a second presentation to Ewing and officials at the Scottish Parliament on 13 November 2014 proposing a slightly scaled-down development with 140 turbines. Like his earlier presentation, it was marked “private and confidential”.
He set out the case for a rebranded “North Sanquhar Moor wind farm” to generate up to 400 megawatts of renewable electricity to help meet government targets. A map showed turbines scattered over a large area of land around the two small villages of Leadhills and Wanlockhead.
Glen asked for “help and support” from Ewing for the wind farm, along with a proposed hydro scheme. He wanted a “realistic” approach to environmental studies, “pressure” to be put on power companies to accelerate electricity grid upgrades, and “private connections” to the grid to be considered.
He added: “We need a dedicated point person in the civil service to help debottleneck the process. Our suggestion is that Frances Pacitti oversees the process.” She is now head of energy consents and, according to the Scottish Government, has had “no involvement” with Buccleuch’s plans.
Three months later, on 1 March 2015, the Sunday Herald reported allegations that Ewing had turned down a planning application for a popular 30-turbine wind farm at nearby Sandy Knowe in Kirkconnel to avoid conflict with another small development planned locally by Buccleuch at Glenmuckloch. The allegations were denied by Ewing.
Claims that Ewing might have breached the ministerial code of conduct were investigated and rejected on 30 March by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who concluded that Sandy Knowe was refused “solely on the planning merits of the application”.
But at the time Buccleuch’s plan for a massive new 140-turbine wind farm in the area was still secret. It wasn’t announced until 22 April 2015 - the day before it was disclosed in a freedom of information response from SNH to the Sunday Herald.
Elaine Murray, Labour’s front bench legal spokeswoman and MSP for Dumfriesshire, was concerned about the impact on smaller wind farm proposals that could bring community benefit. “Buccleuch’s latest plan must be considered in an open and transparent way which involves the communities affected, rather than being discussed behind closed doors,” she said.
Bill Frew, chair of Canonbie and District Residents Association, which has been in dispute with Buccleuch over plans for exploiting coal, claimed that local people were afraid to voice their opposition because of the estate’s influence. “Buccleuch has a breathtaking capacity to unilaterally decide what is best for local communities, and then tell us,” he said.
Buccleuch’s behaviour was also criticised by Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. “Community-owned renewables are a growing and vital part of Scotland’s clean energy future but they are threatened when the big boys try to gain privileged access and exert insider influence,” he said.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds welcomed the government’s rejection of the bid to move a bird conservation area. But the charity’s head of planning and development, Aedán Smith, stressed that wind development “must be an open and public process”.
According to Glen, however, it was “wrong and a distortion of events” to say that Buccleuch secretly lobbied for its wind farm. He confirmed that he had attended two government meetings in 2014, after helping to restore an opencast coal mine and discussions with Professor Griggs.
“We engaged in these conversations as a significant long-established local business wishing to play a constructive role in economic development,” he said. A particular civil servant with expert knowledge had been requested to help deal with the proposed hydro scheme.
Although Buccleuch made a public announcement about the wind farm in April, it had not yet submitted a planning application. “We are now beginning to engage with community bodies regarding the initiative, but as we are in the early stages no decisions have been finalised,” Glen said.
“Landowners are criticised for not encouraging rural development yet when they do, they are criticised for that too. Buccleuch has acted in good faith and with the utmost propriety at all times in these matters.”
The Scottish Government stressed that it was an essential part of Ewing’s role to discuss potential energy developments with businesses. He showed “significant interest” in all energy proposals because it was his job to do, said a spokesman for the minister.
“We strongly refute any suggestion that engagement with energy companies – or indeed any organisation – is anything other than appropriate,” he added. Developers were told that government policy was to encourage renewable energy.
“But this is an entirely separate matter from the planning process and proposed developments must be considered via the planning process on their merits, which is the approach the Scottish Government always takes,” the spokesman said.
The main documents released under freedom of information law can be downloaded below:
Glen presentation, 13 November 2014 (4MB pdf)
Glen presentation, 16 April 2014 (2.6MB pdf)
Minute of meeting, 16 April 2014 (150KB pdf)
SNH note on meeting, 16 April 2014 (117KB pdf)
Email about Glen presentation, 17 April 2014 (64KB pdf)
Scottish Government emails (9.9MB pdf)