Minutes of Special Meeting of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross Planning Applications and Review Committee held in Bettyhill Village Hall, Bettyhill on Tuesday 17 March 2009 at Noon.
Mr D Mackay
Mr R Rowantree
Mr G Farlow
Mr G Smith
Mr R Coghill
Mr J McGillivray
Mr R Durham
Non-Members also present:
Mrs L Munro
Officials in attendance:
Mr A Todd, Area Planning and Building Standards Manager
Mr C Stewart, Area Roads and Community Works Manager
Mr B Robertson, Principal Planner
Miss K McLeod, Principal Solicitor
Miss A Macrae, Administrator
Mr D Mackay in the Chair.
1. Site Inspections
Prior to the commencement of the meeting all Members present attended a site inspection in relation to item 3.1.
2. Apologies for Absence and Declarations of Interest
Mrs L Munro declared a financial interest in Item 3.1 on the basis that she was a shareholder in the common grazing which formed the development site.
The Principal Solicitor advised that as this was a financial interest, and in accordance with the Council’s Code of Conduct and Standing Orders, Mrs Munro should not participate in the determination of the application.
Mrs L Munro left the meeting for the duration of item 3.1.
Apologies for absence were submitted from Lady M Thurso, Mr W Fernie, Mr D Bremner, Mr W Ross, Mr M Rattray and Mr A Torrance.
3.1 Construction and Operation of Onshore Wind Development Comprising Two 2 Wind Turbines (Installed Capacity 5MW) Access Track and Infrastructure, Switchgear Control Building, Anemometer Mast and Temporary Control Compound at Land on Skelpick Estate, 3km, East South East of Bettyhill for North British Windpower Ltd 07/00448/FULSU
There had been circulated Report No. PLC-12-09 by the Area Planning and Building Standards Manager recommending approval of the application 07/00448/FULSU by North British Windpower Ltd for the construction and operation of onshore wind development comprising 2 wind turbines (installed capacity 5MW), access track and infrastructure, switchgear control building, anemometer mast and temporary control compound at land at Skelpick Estate, 3 km east south east of Bettyhill.
Prior to commencement of business the Chairman confirmed that the application would proceed under the Hearings procedure.
The Principal Planner summarised the application, the consultations carried out and the representations received, together with the relevant planning policies as set out in the report.
Responding to a question from a Member, the Principal Planner advised that the switchgear building was not judged to be significant in terms of visual impact. The access track was an existing road, with the exception of 0.3km stretch which would be added, and confirmed that it would not be visible from the view points Members had observed in the earlier site visit.
The Chairman invited the applicants to present their case.
Mr C Wilkins reported that of 220 potential sites investigated, 12 had been selected to go forward, one of which was the application site at Bettyhill. The scale of the development had been reduced from the original proposal of 58 turbines after reviewing the associated social, landscape and environmental impacts. At a public meeting held in 2002, the benefits of the proposal to crofters, the estate and the local community had been presented. The applicant had been encouraged by the level of crofter interest, and at the time the support of the local community council, and further encouragement had been provided by the Tongue and Farr Local Plan which sought to protect crofting and in this regard encouraged opportunities for diversification.
Referring to SNH’s concerns regarding the visual impact and the impact on the landscape character, Mr Wilkins advised that the site did not lie within any sites designated for their natural heritage interests, and was located within a preferred development area in the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy (HRES). He observed that visitors to Sutherland were overawed by the magnificence of the landscape and the question of whether or not turbines were visually acceptable in such a landscape was a subjective judgement. The development would be visible from a limited number of points along the A836. The visualisations had been prepared some months ago to SNH specifications, and had not been questioned until now. He confirmed that the site would be reinstated after a period of 25 years, and that the development accorded with national and local planning policy, and would help maintain the local crofting lifestyle.
Mr M Mackay, Clerk to the Bettyhill Common Grazings Committee spoke in favour of the application, indicating the development was sited on commercial common grazings, and subject to peat workings, and was therefore not in pristine condition. Crofting activities which had protected the local environment, were becoming increasingly uneconomic, and a steep decline in the level of activity had been observed. The proposal would bring financial benefits to the local community, particularly to local crofters, and he did not accept the conservation arguments which had been put forward. He commended the proposal to the Committee, which would help to maintain local crofting and the environment.
Further questions from Members raised the following issues;
Referring to the distribution line, it was queried whether the local distribution network would be used. The applicant confirmed that they would use the local distribution network and were not dependant on any grid enhancement.
Whether there had been an offer of community benefit by the developer. At this point the Principal Solicitor advised that the committee could not take the issue of community benefit into consideration when deciding on the application.
Whether the visualisations met current SNH guidance regarding viewing distances. The Area Planning and Building Standards Manager confirmed that they had been prepared in line with the guidelines which prevailed at the time, and it was the Council’s accepted practice that the visualisations be produced as per the SNH guidance.
Whether the proposal had the unanimous support of the shareholders. Mr M Mackay confirmed that the crofter shareholders strongly supported the scheme.
The Chairman then asked the community council representatives to address the meeting.
Mr J Kirkham, indicated that at a public meeting organised by Bettyhill, Strathnaver, and Altnaharra Community Council in January 2008 it had been unanimously agreed to object to the wind farm application. Although this was a reduced planning application for two turbines, if approved, it could open the way for an extension at a later date. Further objections related to the possible destruction of peat bogs, natural habitats for rare birds and animals, and the detrimental impact on the landscape from an area deemed as an official tourist viewpoint. Additional concerns related to the impact on archaeology and on the water courses in the area, and in relation to preservation of flight paths for rare birds.
Mr B Kitchener, Bettyhill, Strathnaver and Altnaharra Community Council, indicated that peat workings were ongoing on the site, and expressed concern that local people may be denied access if the site was blocked off. The estimated wind speeds provided by the applicant and set out in the report, had been underestimated, based on measurements he had recorded over recent months. There was a concern that after 25 years the site may be extended rather than reinstated. He also noted that Melvich Community Council had no comment on the application rather than ‘no objection’ as stated in the report. The carbon footprint associated with the construction of the wind farm raised questions over whether the development was justified.
Responding Mr C Wilkins confirmed that access through the site would be maintained, and Mr M Mackay gave an assurance that the site was under the control of the Grazings Committee, and that access would not be denied.
The Chairman invited the objectors to state their case.
Mr Donald Clarkson read out in full statements on behalf of both Sir Donald Miller and Mr Stuart Young.
Sir D Miller’s statement drew attention to the high costs to the consumer of building a wind farm in the north of Scotland, advising that it was not generally recognised that there was an enormous cost associated with the transmission of the energy to England, and that none of the energy generated will be used in Scotland. There would be a cost of £4.5b for the extra transmission alone, and proposals for additional wind farms would result in the Highlands being carpeted in pylons. A recent report had also concluded that the wind programme would increase the cost of electricity by 38%. While such matters were not within the Committee’s remit it was right that Members should consider the facts.
Mr S Young’s statement referred to the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy and advised that the degree to which local communities were served was a significant consideration in terms of the Strategy, and also expressed concern that the application did not contain the level of detailed information required by HRES in relation to the levels of local benefit.
There was the potential for this small scale wind farm to develop into a larger scheme. He outlined the substantial subsidies paid in respect of wind farm developments and the energy sold, and stated that the electricity generated would be transmitted to the south of Birmingham and would lose 10% output in transmission. This would add to the pressure for projects to upgrade power lines such as that proposed between Beauly and Denny. HRES also stated that developments should not overpower and dominate landscapes in sensitive locations. The Committee should also consider the effect on tourism in spoiling the views in this area should the development proceed.
Mr Graham Best submitted a number of objections to the applications which included;
The development was contrary to Policy T6 which sought to protect rural views
He queried the methodology used in relation to the consultation process, and the fact that the category of ‘tourists’ had not been included in the assessment
The visualisations provided by the applicant did not meet SNH guidelines, and they should not present the best case scenario as with this application
Concern that there was insufficient available information in relation to the sequential cumulative impact of the development
The proposal did not accord with the Local Plan which stated that the Council would encourage the development of alternative energy schemes where these provide economic benefits and are environmentally acceptable. Proposals for wind farms should be located outwith the National Scenic Area, the coastal fringe. However this development was located within the coastal fringe.
The deposit draft Sutherland Local Plan was a material consideration in relation to the Plan on a number of fronts
The survey undertaken by the applicant in relation to plant life was carried out in September as opposed to May/June when the level of plant activity varied considerably, and the survey on fauna should have been carried out over the period March to October for the same reason
Pattern of flight activity and fact that site lies within the coastal fringe, meant this site was the first landfall for many migrant birds
Concern that 31 conditions were to be attached to the permission
Referring to the recommended condition that no construction take place over the period 15 May to 31 July, he questioned how these conditions would be met or policed, and whether there would be a penalty imposed if the developer did not comply with the planning conditions.
In response Mr C Wilkins, advised that the size of the turbines had been based on the fact that the rotor blades turn at a slower rate than on those of a lesser height. He confirmed that there would be 8% seepage of electricity generated during transmission to the south, but that this was also the case for transmission in the opposite direction.
Mr R Rowantree, one of the local Members, questioned whether the mitigation proposed by the RSPB as set out in their objection to the proposals and detailed in the report had been incorporated into the conditions. The Principal Planner confirmed that he was satisfied that this had been covered in the recommended conditions.
Referring to the photomontages he indicated that he was not convinced about the quality of such visual representations and expressed the view that as a generic point the current system needs to be reviewed, to improve the availability of accurate information in future. He observed that while SNH had objected to the application he was disappointed that no SNH representative was present at the meeting and therefore no opportunity for Members to put questions to the agency at the meeting.
Mr Rowantree queried the statement contained in the report that if the application was approved prior to other proposals in the area then the baseline would alter and the cumulative assessment of the proposals would need to be reviewed, expressing concern that the approval of one application should not lead to the approval of other proposed developments. The Principal Planner explained that each application would have to be considered on its merits, and that approval of one development may result in a reappraisal of other applications.
Mr Rowantree referred to the comments by the Landscape Officer, which highlighted the shortcomings of the visualisations provided by the applicant. The Principal Planner advised that due to resourcing issues and the volume of applications in the system, there had been a delay in receiving the Landscape Officer’s comments.
Mr G Farlow, one of the local Members, expressed concern at the ability of construction traffic to negotiate the corner at the Melvich/Strathy East crossroads. He also asked for further details on the consultation undertaken with community councils in respect of the application.
The Area Roads and Community Works Manager advised that it had been assessed that there would be no technical problems or specific concerns at the proposals for transportation along the A836. He noted that there would be a dummy run before construction commenced, and that the local community would be notified beforehand regarding the transportation of heavy loads.
The Principal Planner indicated that the Council had a statutory obligation to consult with the Bettyhill, Strathnaver and Altnaharra Community Council. Both Melvich and Tongue Community Councils had also been consulted as a matter of courtesy. He acknowledged that Strathy Community Council had not been consulted. However he advised that the application was advertised publicly and that plans were available on request, indicating that no such approach had been received. Community councils also received copies of the weekly lists of planning applications.
In accordance with the procedure the Chairman declared the Hearing to be at an end and sought confirmation that (i) there were no further parties wishing to speak, and (ii) the parties were satisfied with the way in which the Hearing had been conducted.
Mrs S Munro, Chairperson, Bettyhill, Strathnaver and Altnaharra Community Council, clarified that the vote to reject the wind farm proposal had been recorded at a public meeting organised by the Community Council in January 2008.
Thereafter it was confirmed that there were no members of the public wishing to speak, and the applicants and the objectors confirmed that they were satisfied with the way the hearing had been conducted.
The Principal Planner summarised the application indicating that Government and the Council’s policies broadly supported renewable energy developments. He advised that there would be intermittent visibility of the wind farm, and any impacts would be limited and localised, and in his judgement the proposal would not be significantly detrimental to visual amenity. He recommended approval of the application subject to the prior conclusion of an appropriate legal agreement and subject to the conditions detailed in the report, and additional conditions requiring the developer to undertake a trial run in respect of the transportation of turbine components along the A836 to the site prior to construction commencing, and to condition 18 detailed in the report being amended to safeguard public access through the site, following the erection of the development.
During the debate Members expressed the following views;
Confirmation was sought as to whether the Planning Officer was satisfied that all necessary conditions in mitigation would be incorporated into any permission.
There were insufficient planning reasons to refuse the application contrary to the recommendation contained in the report
It was suggested that as part of the main recommendation an additional paragraph be added asking the Council to review the established SNH photo montage practice and consider the use of a “negative” system that would allow Members to individually match the landscape being shown during site visits with the ‘negative’ and so allow much more effective perception of the scale of impact wind turbines have on the existing landscape, than the existing SNH photomontage practice does currently. The Principal Solicitor advised that it would be appropriate for the Committee to make any such recommendation directly to the Director of Planning and Development.
Notwithstanding the quality of photomontages, there would always be a degree of subjectivity in assessing visual impacts
There were good planning reasons for refusing the application, referring to SNH’s objection to the application on the grounds that the proposal would have significant visual impacts to the appreciation of the North Sutherland regional landscape character alone and in combination with other wind farm proposals. Such an objection from an external consultee was a significant material consideration and it could be that the application may founder on this point if submitted to Scottish Ministers, in their assessment of the environmental statement
Acknowledge both the environmental and economic issues, tourism, quality of life and visual amenity being important to the north coast communities, but also have sympathy with the crofters
The importance of tourism, quality of life and visual amenity to the north coast communities was emphasised
Views of the development along the A836 would be intermittent. It was suggested that a second picnic area along from the existing viewpoint at the Bettyhill be created nearby, where the turbines would not be visible. The Principal Solicitor advised that there could be land ownership issues associated with this, and indicated that such a requirement was outwith the realm of the conditions that could be attached to any permission, but that the matter could be raised with the developer
Scenically the area was not unspoilt as suggested by SNH, indicating that from the view points telecommunications mast and equipment, peat workings etc had been visible
There was sufficient mitigation proposed within the conditions to render the proposals acceptable
The Landscape Architect’s comments provided sufficient planning grounds to refuse the application
A condition of permission was that no fencing be erected on the site, however at the same time the Committee was being asked to approve the construction of two turbines on the site
The application would be acceptable if the turbines were reduced in height so that they would not be visible, it being suggested that a height of 80m would be more appropriate
Following further discussion the Committee agreed to grant the application subject to the conditions detailed in the report, prior notification of the application to Scottish Ministers, and conclusion of an appropriate legal agreement covering wear and tear in respect of the local road network, and a financial bond for the restoration of the site, and to additional conditions, requiring the developer to undertake a trial run in respect of the transportation of turbine components along the A836 to the site prior to construction commencing, and to Condition 18 being amended to safeguard public access through the site, following the erection of the development.
Additionally the Committee agreed that the possibility of a second viewpoint being created on the A836, from which the development would not be visible, be raised with the developer, and to recommend to the Director of Planning and Development that the established SNH photo montage practice be reviewed and the use of a “negative” system be considered that would allow Members to individually match the landscape being shown during site visits with the ‘negative’ and so allow much more effective perception of the scale of impact wind turbines have on the existing landscape.
Mrs L Munro rejoined the meeting at this point.
3.2 Erection of House and Garage at 154 Portskerra, Melvich for Mark O’Brien (08/00055/FULSU)
Mrs L Munro had applied for and been granted a local Member vote in relation to this item.
There had been circulated Report No. PLC-13-09 by the Area Planning and Building Standards Manager recommending approval of the application 07/00448/FULSU by Mark O’Brien for the erection of house and garage at 154 Portskerra, Melvich.
The Committee agreed to grant the application subject to the conditions detailed in the report.
The meeting concluded at 2.15pm.