AN ALLIANCE of leading heritage and environmental bodies has called for a root and branch overhaul of the planning process following a series of controversial decisions.

The group, including the National Trust for Scotland, John Muir Trust and RSPB, says public confidence in the planning system is at an all time low.

Citing recent decisions to permit wind farms in environmentally sensitive areas, development on green belt land and a luxury housing scheme near the Culloden battlefield site, they say the planning system must be reformed to ensure transparency and the "objectivity of Scottish ministers".

Their comments are made in an open letter published in today's Herald.

Six of the nine bodies behind the call last month launched a public attack on the Scottish Government's windfarms policy.

Today they go further, arguing the entire planning process must be made "truly independent of government".

They complain the views of bodies set up to protect Scotland's environment and natural heritage are routinely ignored in the face of "powerful commercial interests".

They write: "This situation cannot continue and it is in everyone's interests to find a way forward.

"If we are to rebuild public confidence in the planning process and in the objectivity of Scottish Ministers responsible for making such decisions, then we must find a way to demonstrate absolute transparency, impartiality and fairness."

Urging ministers to consider the creation of a dedicated independent planning body, they add: "The goal would be to ensure clear, neutral adjudication over controversial planning applications where there could be significant impact on important landscapes, natural heritage interests or local communities."

The letter is signed on behalf of the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, the John Muir Trust, Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the Munro Society, the National Trust for Scotland, Ramblers Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society and the Scottish Wild Land Group.

Last month many of the same groups hit out at the decision to allow major windfarm developments at Stronelairg in the Monadhliath Mountains, and offshore, straddling the Firths of the Forth and Tay.

In both cases, permission was granted in the face of objections from Scottish Natural Heritage, the government's environment and wildlife agency.

A National Trust for Scotland spokesman said a recent decision to allow the building of 16 luxury homes near the Culloden site, after permission was initially refused by Highland Council, had raised fresh concerns about the integrity of the planning system.

He said: "So many people have doubts about the system now, we have to do something to counteract that.

"It would be helpful for the government as well."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "We are already taking steps to ensure planning authorities protect, conserve and where appropriate seek to enhance the key landscape characteristics.

"Our planning process is rigorous and aims to strike the right balance between Scotland's massive green potential and the need to protect the country's most scenic and wild areas.

"Scottish ministers very carefully considered all of the issues raised and all submissions made before coming to a decision on applications. There are numerous competing considerations to be taken into account in determining these important decisions, and ministers take these responsibilities very seriously."

She said windfarm development was banned in the 19 per cent of Scotland officially identified as National Parks and National Scenic Areas.