The Scottish Government today launched its vision for future planning. The documents, National Planning Framework 3 (NPF3) and Scottish Planning Policy (SPP), recognise wild land as a nationally important asset, strengthen its protection, incorporate SNH wild land mapping, and ban wind farm developments in National Parks and National Scenic Areas outright. Conservation groups have broadly welcomed the announcement, though they've highlighted some shortcomings and sounded one or two notes of caution.
The documents set out how the government intends to balance economic growth with environmental protection. Though they have chosen to stress the growth side of things in their official announcement, the environmental measures that go with it have met with a positive (albeit qualified) response from organisations such as the John Muir Trust, MCofS, and Ramblers Scotland.
Interestingly, among 14 large scale national developments explicitly supported by the government, most of them big infrastructure projects, mention is made of the national long distance cycling and walking network.
But it is the outright ban on windfarm development in the 19 per cent of Scotland identified as National Parks and National Scenic Areas that has drawn most attention.
'Significant' protection is provided to other sensitive areas too, those identified by a new Wild Land Areas Map 2014 published by Scottish Natural Heritage today. In total, approximately 30 per cent of Scotland’s landscape will be subject to at least some measure of protection from 'inappropriate development'.
Commenting on new measures to strengthen protection from onshore wind farms for scenic areas and wild land, Planning minister Derek Mackay said:
'The Scottish Government remains strongly committed to releasing Scotland’s onshore wind energy potential, however we have always made clear that we want the right developments in the right places.'
'We have taken steps to ensure that no wind farm developments can go ahead in our cherished National Parks and National Scenic Areas, and we have strengthened the protection of wild land, with new maps and inclusion directly in the SPP and NPF3.'
Cynics may point out that this comes from an administration that has, at least in conservationists' eyes, already approved many of the right developments in precisely the wrong places. One such is the Stronelairg wind farm in the Monadhliath, controversially passed by the Scottish Government on 6th June (see UKH news here) despite the fact that at the time the 67-turbine development was sited in an area that featured on the Scottish Natural Heritage Core Areas of Wild Land map.
On the latest version of the map however, the disputed area is no longer included.
MCofS Landscape and Access Director Dave Gordon said:
'We welcome this confirmation that wind farms are incompatible with National Parks and National Scenic Areas.'
'We also welcome the recognition of the importance of wild land, which includes most of Scotland’s mountain areas.'
'However, we do regret the lack of stronger protection for wild land, which will lead to continued speculative attempts at unsuitable development.'
'And it is unfortunate that there has been a reduction in the areas covered by the Wild Land Areas 2014 map, compared to Scottish Natural Heritage’s original 2013 map. The areas removed include a part of the Monadhliath where, just this month, the Scottish Government approved the massive Stronelairg wind farm.'
Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive of the John Muir Trust, has also sounded a note of qualified optimism:
'This recognition of Scotland’s wild land as a nationally important asset that needs to be safeguarded marks a historic breakthrough' he said.
'Scotland’s landscapes are spectacular, contributing to our quality of life, our national identity and the visitor economy. The John Muir Trust has fought long and hard over many years with the support of many thousands of people to achieve official recognition for wild land and we welcome this commitment.'
'Although this falls short of our request for the absolute protection of wild land from large scale developments, we applaud the Scottish Government for taking this bold step in the face of a sustained campaign to undermine wild land protection by powerful vested interests.’
The Trust hopes that adoption of this policy and the associated mapping should result in more consistent decision making by planners and government, and help discourage energy companies from targeting the 42 areas that make up the wild land map.
In common with the MCofS however, they note the net reduction in the area covered by the latest map as compared with the original draft, and the removal of several significant areas (with some others added).
Stuart Brooks said:
'Before commenting on the specific changes to the map, we will look more closely at the detailed explanations from SNH about the reasons for these removals. We will continue to defend those areas that we consider to be wild land from large scale development.'
Ramblers Scotland have echoed these sentiments. And sounding a note of caution of their own too, they point out that many upland areas do not feature on the wild land mapping. With much of the country deemed off limits, at least officially, will the remaining hills now face renewed development pressure?
'We are pleased to see the confirmation that no wind farms will be built within National Parks or National Scenic Areas' said Helen Todd, Campaigns & Policy Manager at Ramblers Scotland, 'and we hope that the adoption of Scottish Natural Heritage’s map of core areas of wild land within the Scottish Planning Policy will lead to a curtailment in the relentless march of giant onshore wind farms with the resulting attrition of our cherished wild areas.'
'However, there are still large tracts of land which are exposed to these massive developments, and this will only be corrected by changes in the financial support regimes for wind farms to encourage them to be built offshore, not in fragile upland areas where they are totally out of scale with the landscape.'
'Given the Scottish Government’s recent approval of [Stronelairg] right in the heart of one of these core areas of wild land, this doesn’t fill us with confidence that the new wild land policy will necessarily bring the proper protections we are looking for. We will be watching carefully to see whether the government is really serious about protecting wild land, or whether this policy can be ripped up whenever a big developer comes along with big promises and a massive new wind farm scheme.'