A leading conservation charity has won a legal battle against Scottish Ministers approval of a controversial windfarm proposal.
The John Muir Trust said it was delighted that a judicial review of the decision to give the go-ahead for the Stronelairg development found in its favour.
Lord Jones today delivered his decision at the Court of Session, ‘reducing’ ministers’ consent for the windfarm in the Monadhliath Mountains, effectively reversing their approval for the Scottish and Southern Energy plans.
The trust urged the Government and Scottish Natural Heritage to designate the area as wild land. SNH had removed the area from its wild land area maps after the initial approval for the windfarm was granted.
The 67-turbine development, which would have extended over an area the size of Inverness, was given the go-ahead by the energy minister in June 2014. The John Muir Trust said 70 per cent of the Stronelairg site consists of wet peatland, Scotland’s miniature version of the rainforest, which would have faced severe disruption as a result of the excavation of 22 million cubic feet of stone from the area.
Lord Jones ruled in his decision released today that members of the public had been denied the opportunity to comment on a revised planning application for the proposed windfarm, and that Scottish Ministers did not take into account Scottish Natural Heritage’s objection in principle to any windfarm development at Stronelairg.
Due to these errors, Lord Jones reduced the Ministers’ decision to grant consent for the wind farm.
Stuart Brooks, John Muir Trust chief executive said: “This is great news for all those who love Scotland’s wild land and wish to see it protected. A financial appeal brought a tremendous level of support from over a thousand wellwishers, allowing the trust to proceed. Lord Jones has now decided the Trust’s court action was well founded.
“Due to the impact this approval had on a wild land area – which led to Scottish National Heritage removing a significant area from its wild land areas map – the trust very reluctantly took this judicial review against the government.
“Crucially, in rejecting an argument by the Scottish Ministers that the trust was not prejudiced by the minister’s decision, Lord Jones concluded that the trust was taking the action for the public good. He said: ‘The interest of any non-governmental organisation, such as the trust, is deemed sufficient. The question, therefore, is not whether the trust was prejudiced, but whether members of the public were prejudiced’.
“Lord Jones rightly identified that this case was taken and won in the public interest so the right thing for Scottish ministers to do is not to appeal this decision.
“The trust will now be asking Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Government to reinstate the Stronelairg area in the wild land areas map, giving an important piece of our natural heritage – including vast swathes of peatland which help to mitigate climate change – some measure of protection.
“SSE should recognise that this was the wrong development, of the wrong size and in the wrong place. The company now has an opportunity to show that they are listening to communities and tourism bodies and to engage with others to revitalise the natural environment there rather than pursue this damaging development which would cover a footprint the size of Inverness.
“Lessons need to be learned from the lack of proper procedure and incorrect decision-making by the government.”
The National Trust for Scotland also welcomed the ruling. Director of conservation and projects Terry Levinthal said: “This is an incredibly significant decision and a tribute to the persistence and bravery of the John Muir Trust in going to law to address clear weaknesses within the planning system.
“The National Trust for Scotland supported the JMT because the evidence from Stronelairg, as confirmed by the judicial review, was that the Scottish Government appeared to ignore its own advisors on the detrimental ecological impacts of the 67 turbines on an exceptional area of wild land.
“As a nation, we count on the Government to have in place a fair and transparent process that ensures proposed developments like Stronelairg are properly scrutinised. All factors must be considered fully, and not ignored if they happen to be inconvenient in respect of political priorities.
“Together with the JMT and RSPB Scotland, we raised our concerns in an open letter earlier in the year and were promised a meeting with the First Minister as a result. This has not materialised but we are going to meet with Alex Neil, the Cabinet Secretary responsible for planning, later this month.
“Clearly, this decision should have an influence on the current review of the national planning system, and this is one of the things we will be raising with the Cabinet Secretary.”
An SSE spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with the result of the judicial review of the consent decision for Stronelairg windfarm.
“We will now review the judgement in detail and consider our options accordingly.”
The full judgement can be read online.