Planning – or the lack of it – for wind farms was a major theme at a Scottish conference held at the end of last month.

Are wind farms ruining the Scottish countryside?

Scotland’s Minister for Local Government and Planning Derek Mackay said that he was disappointed that local authorities in Scotland didn’t have consistently high-quality spatial planning frameworks.

But asked whether he thought the government should provide one, he replied: ‘It’s not for the Scottish government to determine local spatial frameworks. We set the policy – but the planning is best done locally.’

The Minister made his remarks during a keynote address at ‘Managing Change in Scotland’s Landscapes’, a two–day conference held in Perth last week, to commemorate 50 years since the first National Landscape Policy Conference was held in 1962.

While the Minister was clear that the proper siting of wind farm development is important to Scotland’s economic prospects, he said that the Scottish government’s commitment to transition to a low-carbon economy did not ‘necessarily’ mean development at any cost.

The relationship between Scotland’s landscape and the economy was a consistent theme throughout the conference.

During his speech on landscape heritage and its stewardship, Emeritus Professor at St Andrews University Christopher Smout CBE said: ‘We hear Scotland is open for business. But open for business where?’

He added: ‘There’s no national plan or principles for siting wind farms. The challenge of this conference is to decide how we can defeat the threats while maximising the benefits. If we destroy it [Scotland’s landscape] now – what will it profit us to have once been open for business?’

Stuart Brooks, CEO of the John Muir Trust, said he wanted better statutory protection for wild landscapes. A Trust survey found that 43 per cent of people would be less likely to visit a scenic area if it had wind farms. ‘This is a financial risk we’re taking this century,’ he said.

Ian Jardine, CEO of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), emphasised the importance of the beauty of the Scottish landscape when he said that an SNH survey revealed that 90 per cent of visitors chose the scenery as the most important factor in deciding to come to Scotland.

He said it was important to be clear about what benefis we want our landscapes to deliver. ‘How much do we want them to change and how much are we willing to forgo? I think we are at a tipping point.’

It was left to consultant economist and planner David Keddie to question how close to the tipping point Scotland’s landscapes really are. He suggested that visitor survey responses to date suggested that in fact only a minority of visitors to the Scottish landscape are against wind farms and that overseas vistitors tend to be more accepting of them.

Wind farms have even become attractive in their own right, Keddie said, suggesting that they can become part of the landscape. ‘Evidence indicates that so far, the perception of energy infrastructure in the landscape is not leading to significant decline in numbers,’ he explained.

Andrew Barbour from the Expansion Advisory Group highlighted another pressure facing the wooded landscapes of the uplands: tree diseases. While recent press has focused on ash dieback, ramorum disease is affecting larch trees and dothistroma, a fungus that is seriously affecting various species of pine on the eastern side of the UK, has now been recorded in native Scots pine woods. ‘The ecological and landscape implications are enormous for Scotland if this disease is not contained,’ Barbour said.

But it was Nick James, principal at LUC, who offered the most poignant of warnings when he made a call for an integrated approach to climate change planning. The most profound implications for the landscape may not come from climate change, but from the way we respond to it, he said – and this is something we have control over.

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