THE spending of nearly £227,000 by Scottish Borders Council over the last five years on processing wind farm applications was this week described as “scandalous” by a leading local anti-turbine campaigner.
The comments came from Save Lauderdale campaign chairman, Professor Jack Ponton, who has backed local Conservative MSP John Lamont’s claims that the cash would have been better spent on improving council services.
It was Scottish Conservatives who recently obtained figures which revealed the local authority had spent £226,990 dealing with successful and unsuccessful wind farm bids since 2007.
Mr Lamont said Scottish Government ministers had ruthlessly pursued wind energy, encouraging firms to flood local authorities with applications for new wind farms, and this had taken up a huge amount of time and money.
“Instead of this money being spent on improving services and facilities in the Scottish Borders, it is going towards legal fees and processing countless planning applications,” he said.
“This is clearly a waste of money and I am sure that taxpayers in the Borders would much rather see their money spent elsewhere.”
Mr Lamont said it was also frustrating to see decisions made by SBC to reject certain applications then being overturned by the government.
Professor Ponton, an engineering expert, said he agreed with all of Mr Lamont’s comments: “It is quite scandalous how much of the council’s resources in these times of financial stringency are being wasted on both large and small applications.”
It was former SBC chair of planning, Carolyn Riddell-Carre, when giving evidence to a Holyrood committee on energy targets earlier this year, who had pointed out that while the planning fee paid by developers was a maximum of £15,000 in the Borders – in England it can be 10 times this – the cost of dealing with a typical application was actually £50,000.
Professor Ponton added: “And, if an applicant appeals against refusal and a public enquiry is held, the cost is not tens, but hundreds of thousands.”
He said it was also clear the soaring number of one and two-turbine applications was also putting the local authority’s small number of specialist staff able to deal with issues such as turbine noise, under unacceptable pressure.
“Out of a dozen such applications which I have examined in the last 18 months, five underestimated or failed to justify the noise impact on nearby properties,” said Professor Ponton.
And he added: “It is particularly offensive that Holyrood routinely overturns the decisions of councillors elected by local people in pursuit of the ambitions of SNP politicians, none of whom, as far as I have been able to ascertain, lives anywhere near a wind farm.”
But Councillor Stuart Bell (Tweeddale East, SNP), SBC executive member for economic development, was critical of Mr Lamont, saying the MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh & Berwickshire failed to acknowledge council arguments to the government that charges for large planning applications should be raised to reflect the full cost of processing them.
Mr Bell added: “Mr Lamont goes on to recycle the myth that planning appeals are considered by, and decided by, the Scottish Government, when in reality the overwhelming majority of appeals are decided by reporters who work for the independent directorate for environmental and planning appeals.”
And local SNP MSP Christine Grahame added: “What this is really about is the total opposition of the Tories to green energy and their declared preference for nuclear, with all the dangers and costs that entails, including decommissioning and disposal of waste.”
There are currently nine wind farm applications awaiting a decision by SBC planners, with several others at the scoping stage.
Councillor Nicholas Watson (Leaderdale & Melrose, BP), current vice-chair of the planning committee, says such applications are difficult and complicated to process.
“Besides assessing the huge volumes of ‘visual impact’ studies, checking to what extent several dozen individual houses would be affected by turbine noise or shadow flicker takes many hours,” Mr Watson explained.
“A scheme may then be adjusted and a new round of work has to be done.
“All this costs local councils far more than they charge in planning fees, but fee levels are set nationally.
“The Scottish Government is well aware of this burden on local councils and they should heed calls for reasonable fee levels.”