Do mountain-lovers in the rest of the UK realise how quickly Scotland's wild land is disappearing? With a windfarm the size of Perth possibly about to be built next to the Cairngorms, we spoke to David Gibson, head of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, about what his organisation is doing to stand up for the mountains.
In 2002, 41% of Scotland was free from all signs of built development. By 2013 the figure had shrunk dramatically to a mere 27%. That’s a mammoth change in eleven short years - so what’s the truth behind the shocking statistics? We asked David Gibson, the MCofS’s Chief Officer and author of a new 38 Degrees petition aimed at protecting wild land from development, for his insight.
How do you define ‘wild land’?
We use Scottish Natural Heritage’s Wild Land Map. There is a presumption that wild land would be given greater protection within planning policy, but unfortunately it isn’t a designation in the way that, for example, a national park is. We would like to see much stronger planning protection for wild land.
The proportion of Scotland from which built development can’t be seen has dropped two-fifths in eleven years. That's a scary statistic - what’s behind it?
The main influence on that figure is the development of on-shore wind farms. These industrial scale developments are visually intrusive in themselves, but there is also the infrastructure associated with their development and with energy generation.
Powerlines and the like?
Yes, such as the infamous Beauly-Denny powerline, which runs down the centre of Scotland and crosses some of our finest landscapes. We opposed this strongly because we felt that greater efforts should be made to underground the cables. Also, the powerline was approved on a national basis under the condition that all the roads that enabled the pylons to be built would be removed following their erection. What’s happened, though, is that many of the landowners have since applied for the access roads to be given planning permission retrospectively. That decision rests with local authorities, such as the Highland Council, and they’ve been granting those requests.
So there’s a problem with planning policy?
It’s certainly the case that some decisions are being overturned – sometimes with no regard to the prevailing policy and sometimes ignoring original assessments made by the Scottish Government’s own experts. We also feel that the way some wind farms have been approved is undemocratic. The Stronelairg wind farm near Fort Augustus is a classic example - the actual decision was made by Scottish Ministers, who we believe acted unlawfully or unreasonably by granting this consent in an area of wild land. The Scottish National Heritage Wild Land Map was also conveniently altered just before the wind farm was given consent, and SNH works for the minister…. We’re supporting the John Muir Trust which has taken this issue to a judicial review, so we’re now awaiting the outcome of that now.
Do you work closely with organisations like the John Muir Trust?
We collaborate with a number of organisations on planning issues such as hill tracks and public enquiries relating to wind farms, and as a part of a broader group of organisations we feel we are also more likely to influence policy. Ramblers Scotland, the John Muir Trust, the National Trust for Scotland, the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland and Scotways are all part of this collaboration. Combined we have a membership of around 400,000.
And what role does the BMC play?
The BMC helps fund our landscape and access work to the tune of almost £15,000 a year. We employ a part-time access officer, Andrea Partridge, so it helps to fund her role as well as supporting our work on landscape issues. Some of the costs involved are significant – contesting a single development at a public inquiry could cost well in excess of £5,000 for example. It’s also important that we’re able to say to local authorities and the Scottish government that the BMC has 75,000 members and they are supporting our work - so it’s great from a policy viewpoint as well.
BMC members tend to be more ambivalent about wind farm development than members of the MCofS - why do you think that north-south divide might exist?
This is just speculation of course, but perhaps it’s because there is less wild land in England and Wales and fewer wind farms - although the number is increasing gradually - and there’s a political regime that takes a much tougher stance than the Scottish government when taking planning decisions. The upshot of that is that there is less evidence of wind farms when you go out in the hills. There is much more concern north of the border, because people are aware of the rate and speed of development and how many wind farms there are in the pipeline.
What would you say to convince members of the BMC that they should support your stance on wind farms?
It’s worth stating to BMC members that the MCofS is not anti-wind but we are pro-mountains. Perhaps people don’t realise how dynamic and how urgent the situation is up here. For example, there’s a proposed development in the Monadhliath Mountains with a footprint the size of Perth that is awaiting a ministerial decision. That would be built adjacent to the Cairngorms National Park, so you’d be able to see it from Braeriach and even from the Ptarmigan Restaurant. One thing is for sure, there will be more wind farms built when you next come up to Scotland, so you really need to get behind us on this.
In a sense, hill walkers are most affected by this issue because the majority of wind farms are located up in the hills. How do you go about convincing other members of the public to rally against wind farms?
We want to demonstrate that wild landscapes are important for a number of reasons. Wild land is there as a fantastic resource that everybody can enjoy at no cost. Scotland is identified around the world with wonderful landscapes and Visit Scotland’s research shows that the majority of tourists come to Scotland to see that - not to buy tacky knickknacks on the Royal Mile. So it’s a cultural asset, a natural asset, and one that is economically important both in terms of tourism and in terms of health. People can benefit both physically and mentally from the landscape - people who would otherwise be a burden on the health service.
A petition you recently set up on 38 Degrees calling for Scotland’s wild land to be protected from development has attracted just over 7,000 signatures - not quite Jeremy Clarkson levels. Do you think that there simply isn’t enough awareness of this issue at the moment?
With a petition, it’s always difficult to know what good looks like. When I first set it up, I thought a reasonable target would be 2,500-3,000 signatures. The response was stronger than we expected, but we still need more signatures if politicians are to take notice. Okay, it’s not Jeremy Clarkson proportions, but he’s on TV constantly and somebody with that level of visibility will attract a lot of attention. We’re running the petition to June and we’ve set a target of 10,000. Every signature is really important if we are going to make a difference.
What else are you doing to fight the development of wind farms that are visible from wild land and National Scenic Areas?
We assess every wind farm application that’s submitted to decide whether we need to make a response. It takes maybe two man days to put an objection together and sometimes we have five or six of these arriving a month, so it puts a tremendous amount of strain on our resources. We are also trying to create a greater public understanding of the value of wild land, and for the first time we’ve come up with a vision statement - Respecting Scotland’s Mountains - which is about looking at the mountains in a more holistic way rather than as an asset to be exploited. We don’t have an advertising budget, so the only way we can really make a difference is by lobbying.
Is that lobbying mainly done in Scotland, or do you also lobby Westminster politicians?
Planning is devolved to Holyrood but the subsidy regime behind energy policy isn’t , so we do occasionally lobby Westminster politicians. We’ve recently targeted the leaders of the political parties in Westminster and also those in Holyrood, sending them copies of Respecting Scotland’s Mountains and asking them five questions about their party’s position on this. We intend to publicise their responses prior to the general election.
Could the BMC and the MCofS work together more effectively on this?
We should certainly continue to collaborate to influence policy in Westminster and also to generally create more recognition of the value of our mountains and of outdoor recreation in the mind of the general public and politicians. If BMC members could sign up to the petition that would be great. BMC members are important to Scotland as tourists. Make your feelings about the impact of wind farms on wild land to politicians at Holyrood. Our worst enemy is apathy; mountaineers need to act before it’s too late and make their feelings known.
As the climbing walls, crags and mountains start to open, we wanted to say thanks to every BMC member who supported us through the Coronavirus crisis.
From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t have made it without you.
If you liked what we did, then tell your friends about us: www.thebmc.co.uk/join