There was no great surprise this week that Highland Council decided it was not going to object to SSE’s £800m plan to build Scotland’s largest hydro scheme in the hills to the north west of Loch Lochy and the Great Glen.
The final decision has always been with ministers because of the size of the project. But it means they can now decide whether to approve the scheme without the need for a costly and time-consuming public inquiry.
What was striking in the debate was how councillor after councillor said that they couldn’t stop the development even if they wanted to; that it would inevitably be given the green light by a Scottish Government committed to ambitious renewable energy targets.
Many supported the plan anyway and would take into the account the 100% endorsement it was afforded locally by Invergarry Community Council, despite the prospect of a 73% increase in HGV traffic on the A82 trunk road.
Many also accept that to make a reality of its renewable energy revolution, it needs the “green battery” facility that SSE’s Coire Glas pump scheme will offer.
Schemes of this design use water descending from an upper reservoir to drive turbines during period of high demand. During periods of low demand, electricity is used to pump water from the lower loch back to the upper reservoir.
And with that all the extra power from wind, wave and tidal projects on the grid some of it can be used to pump water back up the hill, thereby making it ready to come down again, effectively storing energy - although one councillor observed that Coire Glas’s “dirty little secret” was that it might be nuclear energy that was being used some days, depending what was on the grid.
That notwithstanding, the committee accepted that there was an inevitability of Coire Glas being approved by ministers, albeit with a string of conditions.
Not least because while Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) believes the proposal will impact on a number of protected species and habitats, and considers that the upper reservoir and dam will have a major negative impact on the regional and local landscape character during both construction and operation, the agency did not object.
However, a public inquiry was never going to be an attractive prospect for Highland Council, although it would have answered many questions and subjected SSE’s plans to the sort of forensic examination the local authority isn’ t equipped to perform. But it would be costly at time when the council is looking to save millions.
In recent years, Highland has grossly overspent its public inquiries budget because "people power" protests had seemed to push councillors into voting against the advice of their own officials on controversial supermarket applications.
So while there will individual wind farm applications, for example, that councillors will happily oppose and take to inquiry, that was never going to happen with a project that was going to offer 150 jobs.
But they were deeply concerned about the impact of removing 400,000 cubic metres of rock from the tunnels being dug into the hillside. It will mean the equivalent of 12 HGVs leaving the site every working hour for three years, which is why there were attempts to tie SSE down to using the Caledonian Canal as much as possible, given that Loch Lochy is an integral part of the canal system. But planning officials advised that councillors couldn’t dictate to a developer in that way.
One way or another, though, the Scottish Government could put pressure on SSE to use the canal to remove the rock as much as possible.
It would be far more environmentally friendly and could herald a new working era for Thomas Telford’s canal, which is now dominated by the leisure industry.
Memories of Lingerbay
Talk of the massive hydro project, council votes and public inquiries brought back memories of the ill-fated plans to remove a mountain and establish Europe’s largest coastal superquarry at Lingerbay on the island of Harris, and its extraordinary journey through the planning process.
It still reads like a plot line for Yes Minister, or perhaps The Thick of It.
Some saw the £70m project to remove 600 million tonnes of anorthosite from the mountain, Roineabhal, as salvation for an island that had suffered eight decades of chronic depopulation. Others viewed it as a prescription for environmental disaster.
But it was established early on that the scale of the development would be of such a scale that it would be seen easily from space – that’s real visual impact for you.
Despite it being within the Martian panorama, this blogger was told by a senior source within the then Tory-run Scottish Office that the government’s initial thinking had been - better just to leave it up to Western Isles Council to decide.
Officials prevailed on the politicians and even before the council met in June 1993 to consider the planning application, Ian Lang, the Secretary of State, had officially informed the council that in the event of them supporting the project, he would examine the papers to see if a public inquiry was necessary.
The council duly supported the development and in October 1993 Mr Lang called in the planning application and in January 1994 a planning inquiry was announced.
It opened that October in Stornoway but, in June 1995, the night before the inquiry was due to close, the council reversed its position, voting by 21 votes to eight to oppose quarry. The council’s legal representation at the inquiry was not best pleased.
Inquiry reporter Miss Gillian Pain then took four years to complete her report and retired from her job, finishing it as a paid consultant of the Scottish Office.
In May 1999 the inquiry report was delivered to the then Scottish Executive but took till March 2000 before it finally arrived on the environment minister’s desk.
Fourt months later, the minister Sarah Boyack told the Scottish Parliament that before making a decision she had decided to refer to SNH the question of whether any part of the quarry site should be proposed as a candidate for a Special Area of Conservation.
Enough was enough and developers Redland Aggregates went to the Court of Session where Lord Hardie described the near 10-year delay in producing a decision on the superquarry planning application as a failure of "scandalous proportions".
He said that Ms Boyack had not only exceeded her powers but acted irrationally when she decided to ask Scottish Natural Heritage to get involved.
By November 2000 Sarah Boyack had been replaced by Sam Galbraith and one of his first actions was to reject the planning application.
It came nine-and-a-half years after the planning application was first lodged, seven-and-a-half years since permission was granted by the local authority, five-and-a-half years after the longest such inquiry in Scottish planning history closed, and a year-and-a-half since the inquiry reporter's conclusions were delivered.
Oh yes: it is worth mentioning that Gillian Pain had actually concluded that the 200 direct and indirect jobs the quarry would bring would have been worth the undoubted environmental damage it would cause to Harris.
All in all, a good decade’s work! Meanwhile, the population of Harris is still falling.
No problem bearing the Bears
Moray Council has been at pains to scotch rumours that pubs and clubs in Elgin would be forced to close during the visit by Rangers later this month for the important Third Division tie at Borough Briggs.
Some unscrupulous scaremongers had been circulating suggestions that Moray Council, as licensing authority, was ordering all licensed premises to remain closed during the November 24 game, which kicks off at midday, and until an hour after the final whistle.
This to minimise the risk of drunkenness and disorder, up with which Elgin allegedly will not put.
However, Councillor Ron Shepherd, who chairs the Moray Licensing Board, made clear the council had much more faith in local licensed premises and the footballing public.
He said: “We have every confidence in our local licensees and in the way they run their businesses and we have no intention of interfering with opening hours on that particular day. In fact, far from having their opening hours curtailed, a number of premises have applied to us for an occasional licence to allow them to open an hour earlier on November 24.”
Fair play to Fujitsu
Spare a thought for technology giant Fujitsu. It has not enjoyed the best of local press recently in the Highlands, because of its ups and downs with Highland Council over the £66m programme to replace and upgrade the council's office and schools IT systems to help cut energy costs and carbon emissions.
The company has not been guilty of everything it has been accused of, and now it has made a nice wee gesture to a Highland school’s ambitious plan to build a new hall for pupils in one of the world’s poorest countries.
A £900 donation from Fujitsu is the biggest received to date by Fortrose Academy on the Black Isle for its project to provide new facilities at the Mulanje Mission Community Day Secondary School in Malawi.
More than £21,000 has now been raised towards the £30,000 target and will allow Phase 1 of the project to be carried out by December.
Small beer perhaps from £66m, but they didn’t have to do it.
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