Minute of Special Meeting of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross Planning Applications and Review Committee held in the Ross Institute, Halkirk on Tuesday 15 January 2008 at 1.05 p.m.
Mr D Mackay, Mr G Farlow, Lady M Thurso, Mr W Fernie, Mr D Bremner, Mr J McGillivray, Mr W Ross, Mr R Durham, Mr R Rowantree
Non-Members also present:
Mr D Flear, Mr W Mackay
Mr G Mooney, Principal Planner, Miss K McLeod, Principal Solicitor, Mr D Sutherland, Ward Manager, Miss A Macrae, Administrator
Mr D Mackay in the Chair
1. Apologies for Absence
Apologies for absence were intimated on behalf of Mr G Smith, Mr M Rattray, Mrs C Wilson, and Mr A Torrance (on other Council business) and Mr R Coghill (who attended the meeting as a member of the public and did not participate in the hearing).
2. Electricity Act 1989 – Section 36 Application to Construct and Operate 21 wind turbines, 70 metres to hub and associated infrastructure at Westhill, by Thurso by Baillie Wind Farm Limited ref: 4/00342/s36CA PLC-38-07
In terms of Standing Order 13.2, the following Members had applied for and been granted a local Member vote: Mr D Flear and Mr W Mackay.
The application was subject to a formal hearings procedure. In attendance in relation to the application were:
Mr S Pottinger – Baillie Windfarm Ltd
Mr T Pottinger – Baillie Windfarm Ltd
Mr K Graham
Mr S Laybourne
Mr D Manson
Mr D Craig
Mr A Macdonald
Mrs C Macdougall
Mrs A Chard
Mrs K Loombey
Prior to the meeting all Members present attended a site inspection.
Prior to commencement of business the Chairman summarised the Hearings Procedure, and confirmed that all parties had received a copy and understood the process.
The Principal Planner introduced the application, and explained that the application had been made to the Scottish Ministers under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. The Planning Authority had therefore been consulted by the Scottish Executive (now the Scottish Government) on the proposal. He gave a brief description of the proposed development and the site, identifying the planning policies against which the application was to be assessed and drawing attention to other key material considerations. He clarified that the Council had received 42 letters of representation to the proposal and that the Scottish Government had received 269 letters of representation, and 843 letters in support.
The Principal Solictior advised that a request had been made that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds be afforded a separate time slot apart from the other objectors, and indicated that, if Members agreed to this request, the applicants be afforded the equivalent amount of additional time. She also confirmed that a letter of objection received from Mrs Macleod of 2 Mackay Terrace, Shebster had been circulated to Members.
The Committee agreed to proceed on this basis.
The Chairman invited the applicants to present their case.
Mr T Pottinger outlined the background to the formation of Baillie Windfarm Ltd in 2003. He proceeded to detail a number of points in support of the development as follows;
The topography of the site and the available natural wind resource will combine to produce an extremely efficient windfarm. The energy available will be double that of more typical wind farms. The site also benefits from having close connections to the grid.
The Council’s landscape architect and Scottish Natural Heritage have no objections to the site
Referring to neighbouring schemes, Baillie provides the only suitable large scale site in Caithness, and will comply with the Council’s renewable energy strategy in achieving a geographical spread of development
The development will generate energy sufficient for the needs of 35,000 average households, and with construction costs of approximately £70m there will be significant financial benefits for both local and Highland based contractors. A wide range of contractors will be required such as plant hire, engineering, road haulage etc
Locally the development will create 3 full time engineering posts and 2 full time administrative posts, and will provide diversification for 5 farming operations
Referring to Polices L1 and K1 of the Renewable Energy Strategy proposals for local consultation and the establishment of a community fund were outlined
Studies in relation to the impact on natural heritage had been carried out with both SNH and SEPA being satisfied that there will be no significant impact on the Caithness Lochs Special Protection Area
Turning to cultural heritage, and the impact on the historic environment, Scottish Ministers will take account of the concerns raised by Historic Scotland in their assessment of the proposal. However it was noted that the Council’s archaeologist was satisfied with the proposal subject to appropriate conditions
Both SNH and the Landscape Architect were satisfied with the amendments made to the application in terms of visual impact, SNH stating that the siting and design had been carefully considered to minimise the impact, and that the character of the landscape had the capacity to accommodate the proposals without unacceptable visual and cumulative impact
If areas of wild land are to be avoided then wind farms will have to built near settlements
The development complies with the requirements in terms of noise levels, and reference was made to other sites in Scotland where wind farms are located within the vicinity of houses, demonstrating that the Baillie proposal is not unusual in this regard
Those houses closest to the development are occupied by either stakeholders or supporters of the wind farm. The other properties have their principal views facing away from the development
The Forss House Hotel had reported to the applicants that the nearby Forss wind farm development had not affected their trade
Concluding Mr Pottinger reported that the layout of the site and excellent wind resource will produce a highly efficient wind farm, with close connections to the grid, and will make a significant contribution to both the Government’s and the Council’s targets in relation to renewable energy output. He opined that the development is acceptable with no objections having being received from the key consultees, the proposals having been revised to minimise the impact. He stressed that Baillie Windfarm Ltd is a local company which will deliver local benefits, in terms of employment and community benefit.
Responding to questions from Members both Mr T Pottinger and Mr S Pottinger confirmed that it is envisaged that 5 full time jobs would be created for the duration of the wind farm. The impact of any peat disturbance on the environment will be minimal, and a peat slide study had identified the risk on the site as being the lowest possible category. The environmental benefits would outweigh any loss of peat or effects from CO2 emissions within 1 to 2 months of the wind farm being in operation.
The applicants also responded to questions in relation to other possible sites being investigated, confirming that Baillie had proven one of the better sites, and clarified how any noise nuisance would be mitigated and managed. Specifically they indicated that there is a noise issue at nighttimes for a short period of time in relation to the property at Achiebreaskiall, and this will be mitigated by a control system that will automatically shut down the turbines. There is also a forest behind the house which will filter out the noise. The applicants had met with the owner of the property who appeared content with the development and Mr T Pottinger confirmed that the control measures to be put in place will be robust.
The Chairman invited Caithness West Community Council to state their objections.
Mr W Brown, Chairman of Caithness West Community Council observed that the visual impact of the development will be unacceptable and that it would be inconceivable that local amenity would not be affected. The recommended separation distance between turbines and houses is 1km even when the principal views of those properties face away from the wind farm. He also advised that 136 people lived within 2km of the development.
Mr Brown advised that the community council had organised a postal ballot of all voters in the community council area, a total of 1099, to gauge opinion. The result of the ballot was that 82.3% of those who responded opposed the wind farm. Within 2km of the development this figure was 76.3%, and from 2 – 5km the figure was 87.6%. In summary he advised that there was overwhelming local opposition to the proposed development, and noted that of the letters of support received by the Scottish Executive, only two of those persons resided in Caithness.
Responding to a question from Members, Mr Brown confirmed that of the 1099 people who had been balloted, 470 had returned their ballot papers, a response rate of 42.7%.
Third Party Objectors
The Chairman then invited the objectors to state their objections.
Mr K Graham, on behalf of the RSPB, advised that the organisation supports the development of renewable energy technologies, including wind turbines, provided the location is suitable. However this development will be located close to two SSSIs, both parts of the Caithness Lochs Special Protection Areas, and will impact on the wintering populations of Greenland white-fronted goose, greylag goose and whooper swan. The RSPB advocated from the outset that a smaller proposal should be considered, however this was not deemed appropriate on economic grounds. The predictions concerning bird collisions with turbines are questionable and should be regarded as broadly indicative, and concerns exist that 275 greylag geese are predicted to perish over the lifetime of the wind farm. The mitigation proposals will not remove the risk of SPA qualifying bird populations being affected.
Concluding Mr Graham advised that the risk to wildfowl is greater than presented in the Environmental Statement, it cannot be concluded with certainty that there will be no risk to SPA qualifying bird populations, and that the proposal is therefore contrary to both national and local planning policy. Accordingly he recommended that the Committee object to the proposal. However if Members are minded to recommend approval of the application then additional conditions should be attached to any permission requiring that a dedicated research project be carried out with the results being reviewed by a steering group with the power to review, act upon and publicise the ornithological findings, and that further options for mitigation be explored.
Mr S Laybourne expressed concern at the impact the development would have on the Greenland White-fronted geese, currently afforded the highest protection under Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive, and a species he had studied for over 30 years. The wind farm site encroaches on their core feeding area, and he noted that the birds are site faithful from year to year. There is therefore a considerable nature conservation interest in this site. He queried the fact that SNH maintains that it adopts a precautionary approach in dealing with vulnerable species and yet raises no objections to the data presented as part of the developer’s case. He queried the method used by to survey the birds, in fair weather with good visibility, and SNH’s use of criteria which concluded that the birds will take avoidance action 99% of the time. He suggested that a precautionary approach should be applied in respect of the development, and urged Members to refuse permission on the basis of the unacceptable nature conservation risks, in direct contravention of the Annex 1 Directive.
Both objectors then responded to a number of questions from Members concerning the prospect of birds being displaced from their habitats during construction and through the period of operation of the wind farm, migratory habits, the numbers of Annex 1 species on the site, the conditions that create suitable feeding grounds, and the percentage of the total population of Greenland White-fronted geese located in Caithness
Mr D Manson reported that the majority of the community had consistently opposed this application as it will act as a significant disincentive to people moving into the area, and will affect property prices locally, referring to the case of a local family who were unable to sell their house. The community relies on attracting and retaining younger residents to survive, and thus the spectre of the proposed wind farm was effectively strangling the community. He also advised that shadow flicker associated with the turbines will be an issue for some properties, referring to the experience of a resident living near the Forss Wind Farm where this has been a serious problem. From experience elsewhere the turbines will be more prominent viewed through the window of a house, due to the magnifying effect this creates. He observed that while wind farms have a role, this site represents a poor location for such a development. He noted that a similar development at Lieurary Hill had been rejected by the Scottish Government on the basis that the site is at the top of a hill, and the surrounding land is flat and open. This development is situated in a similar location and will be visible from Caithness and beyond. Given the adverse impact on local amenity he advised that the application should not be supported.
Mr D Craig reported that in view of the time constraints he had circulated his submission on transport issues to Members separately and it was confirmed that all parties had received a copy.
Mr Craig proceeded to make a number of points in relation to the application as follows;
The report states that public representations should be given the same weight as other factors, and in terms of policy renewable energy targets are not relevant planning issues. Policy E7 of the Council’s renewable energy strategy states there is a presumption against development in this area, and that a precautionary approach should be applied. No alternative sites have been considered by the developer, and approximately 28 houses lie within the minimum separation distance of 1 km. The development is therefore contrary to policy.
Policy SPP6 states that Scottish Ministers would support 2km as a separation distance between turbines and communities. To comply with policy the proposals also require to demonstrate that its impacts are not seriously adverse or significantly detrimental to the locality of the site. This has not been demonstrated in respect of the impact on the historic environment, nearby properties, amenity or the visual experience of the area.
The report states that a distance of 1km between houses and the wind farm is recommended but fails to mention that there are approximately 28 houses within this distance, and that the nearest house is 400 – 500m away, which is not considered to be at a safe distance.
The transport impacts have not been fully assessed and, the modelling carried out in respect of perceived noise levels is flawed, levels being based on smaller turbines than will be erected on this site
The impact arising from the construction process is contrary to the Environmental Statement in terms of abnormal load movements.
The developer has not assessed the likely impact on tourism, which is contrary to the Renewable Energy Strategy’s requirements for job creation
Mr Craig concluded by stating that the report confirms that there will be seriously adverse and/or significantly detrimental impacts arising from this development and therefore it is contrary to the Development Plan and National policy, HRES and planning guidelines. The reports concludes that the fact that this will contribute to the Government’s renewable energy targets places the balance in favour of the proposal. However this is not a planning requirement, the relevant policies stating that applications should be determined on their planning merits. Approval would set a dangerous precedent allowing turbines to be located anywhere, and would discredit the Council’s Renewable Energy Strategy.
Mr A Macdonald expressed concern that copies of the objections received by the Scottish Government should have been copied to the Planning Authority, noting the discrepancy that exists with the list of objectors detailed in the report. He related his concerns in relation of the proximity of the development to houses, in terms of the adverse visual impact and the fact it will not achieve the relevant safety requirements, explaining that his property is located 500m away from the site. He also expressed concern that the proposal cannot meet the required night time noise levels, and therefore will be in breach of noise regulations, and that the noise impact will be exacerbated by the direction of the prevailing wind. Turning to the Caithness Local Plan he reported that the site lies in a Primary Policy 3 area which presumes against development and he displayed the relevant map extracted from the Local Plan. The report also suggests that there are no bats in this locality, however as a local resident he confirmed that bat population exist in this area.
The Chairman then asked whether there were any other Members of the public who had made timeous representations and wished to speak.
Further objections were then heard from Mr J Webster, Mrs C Macdougall, Mrs K Loombey and Mrs A Chard where the following additional points were raised;
Policy SPP6 had not received sufficient consideration, and there will be a significant long term impact on the amenity of those who live nearby. Both the developer’s proposal and the report are flawed.
Given the disparity which exists in relation to the number of objectors to this proposal, concern was expressed that some parties had not had the opportunity to address the Committee
The Reporter in upholding an appeal in respect of another wind farm in the Highlands stated that it is not the numbers whose amenity will be affected which is important but the fact that the impact exists
Noting that a petition with 830 signatories had been submitted to the Scottish Government, it was observed that petitions are not seen as relevant by the authorities, and that many of the signatories lived outwith Caithness
The location of the development and the size of the turbines will double the visible landscape, noting that the decision to refuse an application for a wind farm at Lieurary Hill had been made on the grounds of adverse visual impact. The cumulative impact of this proposal is also unacceptable
The site will be visible further west of Strathy Pojnt and from Orkney. The site boundary is extensive and there is passing traffic on roads all around the site, and therefore will impact significantly on the landscape
Concern was expressed in relation to the transportation of the turbines from Scrabster, in terms of the capacity of the network to cope with the abnormal loads and the Police who will be responsible for escorting the loads
The noise studies were incomplete, and reference was made to the modelling exercises which had been carried out
SPP6 refers to a 2km separation from houses
The Principal Solicitor read out a letter from an objector Mr R Godfrey, who had been unable to attend the meeting.
Applicants Response to Points Raised
The applicants clarified the following points;
The report erroneously recorded that a petition had been received. However the Scottish Government had confirmed that 843 letters of support had been received, 260 of which were from Caithness
Reference was made to a wind farm in Campbeltown, where there are geese on the site. No collisions had been recorded and the RSPB had not objected.
SNH had advised that no further mitigation is required in relation to the impact on the Caithness SPA, the recommendation being that the Government as the determining authority conduct further assessments before Ministers decide the application
Historic Scotland has no clear methodology to assess proposals. The site will be restored and there will be no impact on historic monuments.
Referring to the outcome of a Public Local Inquiry at Achany, Lairg and in light of the Reporter’s comments concerning a sequential approach, the Council had acknowledged that HRES would have to be reviewed
SPP 6 refers to a separation distance of 2km for cities, towns and villages but states that individual applications should be considered on their merits.
Shadow flicker will not be a problem in relation to this development on technical grounds, and current evidence concludes that there are no associated health risks. The nearest neighbour had not expressed any concerns, and the five houses in closest proximity are owned by supporters of the development.
The allegation that the development will affect property prices in the locality was refuted, the applicant advising that he had recently sold a property in the area for in excess of the asking price
The transport arrangements had been fully assessed and there were no objections from TEC Services
A considerable community consultation exercise had been carried out by the developer, involving a newsletter and postal and telephone ballot. A contact point had also been provided for any local residents with concerns. A meeting had been held with the Community Council to discuss the proposal and the issue of community benefit.
The Community Council ballot had confirmed that 35% were against the proposal.
Responding to a question from a Member, the Principal Planner explained that the Council’s Renewable Energy Strategy had been tested in respect of appeals for two wind farms at Achany and Invercassley and referred to the Reporter’s comments relating to to sequential development. However he indicated that he did not envisage that the strategic overview of the Strategy will change significantly other than some re-writing of the document.
Additional comments from Members related to concern being expressed that neither representatives from TEC Services or SNH were present at the meeting to answer questions, and at the lack of reference in the report to the PP3 designation of site within the Local Plan which presumes against development.
The Principal Planner explained that TEC Services would only object to a proposal if there is a noise issue that cannot be mitigated or controlled by conditions attached to the permission. If there are complaints, readings will be taken on site, and if necessary enforcement action would be taken under the relevant legislation. He also confirmed that most of the residential properties were in covered by PP2 in the Local Plan but that part of the site was deemed a PP3 area. He advised that the Structure Plan carries more weight than the Local Plan, and that a presumption against development did not necessarily mean no development.
Thereafter and in accordance with the procedure, the Chairman sought confirmation that there were no further parties wishing to speak.
All parties confirmed that they were satisfied with the conduct of the hearing.
The Chairman indicated that the Hearing had been completed.
Summing-up and discussion
The Principal Planner summaried matters relevant to the application and suggested that the impact associated with the development will not be significantly detrimental, those impacts being controlled either through conditions or mitigation. The major issues in considering the application relate to visual amenity, and compatiblity or otherwise with the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy and planning policy and guidance. He confirmed that the Strategy, currently under review, will essentially remain in its existing form. The recommended separation distance of 1km is generally regarded as a good practice, having being used for other wind farm developments in the Highlands. The reference to 2km in SPP6 will be assessed as part of the HRES review. The visual impact of the development is a subjective matter. The Council is required to provide sites for wind farms by the Government and a development of this scale will make a significant contribution to renewable energy targets. Overall therefore he suggested that the balance lies in favour of the proposal and he recommended that the Council does not object to the proposal subject to the conditions detailed in the report.
Discussion followed, with a range of comments, including
The site visit had demonstrated that visual amenity would be significantly impacted upon if the development was to proceed
The unacceptable cumulative impact of an additional wind farm in Caithness must be considered
The unique landscape of Caithness must be recognised and protected
There is both a national cycle and tourist route in Caithness and the development will impact on both routes
The development will be visible from Dunnet Head and Strathy Point, both of which are Areas of Great Landscape Value
While the principal views of houses less than 1km from the development may be away from the wind farm, local residents are not boxed in their houses and enjoy the amenity that the landscape offers
The site is covered by PP3 designation in the Local Plan and officials should investigate why there is no reference to this in the report. The proposal is therefore considered to be contrary to this Local Plan policy
Birds protected under Annex 1 of the European Directive will be affected by the development, and confusion existed in the report concerning the presence of bats in the area, local evidence confirming they are resident, noting that this is a protected species under EU regulations
The opportunity exists to exploit the archeology of the area in a sympathetic manner, and to expand tourism, as has been achieved in Orkney. There are important monuments in the area which do attract visitors. Therefore the development does not comply with Policy T1 which refers to minimal intrusion into a historic landscape
The Renewable Energy Strategy contains a presumption against development in this area and therefore the Council should be careful not to approve a development which will be contrary to the recently adopted Strategy
The recommendation contained in the report which referred to a significant impact on the few in the interests of the many, was queried
A ballot of the local community had confirmed local opposition to the development
While welcoming the applicants attempts to diversify, concern exists over whether this is a robust application, given the number of conditions listed in the report, and issues relating to noise
Caithness has a unique and open landscape, which enjoys special views and provides a desirable area in which to live in, and this should be protected. The visual impact of the wind farm will be extreme given the size and number of turbines, the development will create an industrial landscape, and it will not be possible to screen such an operation
The only compelling reason for supporting the application is that it will make a significant contribution to the Government’s energy targets, which is not sufficient reason to support the proposal. Therefore the development does not accord with the Development Plan.
A question was asked about whether approving the application would result in a deemed planning permission, it was confirmed that if the Scottish Ministers approved the application before them, this would include a deemed planning permission
There will be significant adverse impact on tourism excaerbated by the cumulative impact of such developments
If the Committee is to object to the proposal there should be substantial material reasons for this, cautioning against putting too much emphasis in the Renewable Energy Strategy at this stage
The Government should review the method by which such applications are considered, the current process being costly particulary if an application reaches the stage of a Public Local Inquiry, and will act as a discincentive to any farmer wishing to diversify.
Following further discussion the Committee AGREED to OBJECT to the application for the following reasons:-
i. the proposal is contrary to the provisions of the Caithness Local Plan,
the site being covered in part by a PP3 designation, which presumes
ii. the proposal is contrary to SPP6, in relation to the proximity of the
proposed wind farm to existing dwellinghouses;
iii. the proposal is unacceptable in terms of its cumulative impact with
other windfarms in the vicinity, and in relation to the likely adverse
impact on tourism, tourist routes and tourist destinations such as
Dunnet Head and Strathy Point;
iv. the proposal is unacceptable in terms of its adverse visual impact and is
contrary to the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy policy and
v. the application should be the subject of an appropriate assessment
carried out to the satisfaction of Scottish Natural Heritage to address
the issues rasied by the RSPB and Historic Scotland.