Ministers taken to court for rejecting Buccleuch wind farm

A company set up by the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate is taking Scottish ministers to court in a bid to overturn their rejection of a wind farm planned for south west Scotland.

The North Lowther Energy Initiative (NLEI) has petitioned the Court of Session arguing that the Scottish Government’s refusal to grant planning permission for 30 wind turbines on the Lowther Hills, between Sanquhar and Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway, was legally flawed.

Local community leaders have reacted angrily, as they believed they had succeeded in stopping the development after a public inquiry in 2019. They argued that the turbines would “decimate” the landscape and Buccleuch’s business would profit by many millions of pounds.

Buccleuch declined to confirm how much the estate would earn, but pointed out that local communities could be eligible for up to £735,000 a year. NLEI’s parent company said it had a “well-established right” to challenge planning decisions in court.

The 10th Duke of Buccleuch and 12th Duke of Queensberry is Richard Scott, who, along with his family, is Britain’s largest private landowner. One of his estates, Queensberry, includes the Lowther Hills and covers over 33,500 hectares.

The Ferret first reported Buccleuch’s plans for a large wind farm in the Lowther Hills in June 2015, including attempts to lobby the then energy minister, Fergus Ewing. In partnership with a renewable energy firm, Buccleuch established NLEI in July 2015.

In May 2019 Buccleuch sold its 50 per cent stake in NLEI, which is now controlled by a German renewable energy company called BayWa r.e. But the estate still maintains an interest as it would receive rental payments from the company for turbines erected on its land.

Buccleuch’s initial plan in 2015 was to build 140 wind turbines to produce 400 megawatts of electricity, which would have been one of Scotland’s biggest wind farms. That was cut back to a planning application from NLEI in June 2017 for 35 turbines up to 149 metres high, across 3,500 hectares of the Queensberry Estate.

But NLEI’s plans prompted widespread opposition, and ended up being considered at a public inquiry in October 2019. By then it had further reduced the number of proposed turbines to 30 to generate 147 megawatts of electricity.

On 8 January 2021 Scottish ministers refused planning permission for the development, following a recommendation from the inquiry reporter. The wind farm “would give rise to unacceptable significant adverse landscape and visual impacts as well as adversely impact on the historic setting of Wanlockhead,” they concluded. 

Now The Ferret has learnt that NLEI has lodged a petition at the Court of Session in Edinburgh requesting a judicial review of the government’s decision. In advance of any court hearing, both NLEI and the government declined to give any further details.

I’m sickened to think that a legal decision could be overturned and these monster turbines decimate the landscape

IsobEl Gibb, Wanlockhead villager

Local communities were “dismayed” by the move, according to Gerard Godfrey, former chair of Leadhills Community Council who led opposition to the wind farm. “We strongly support the recommendation of the reporter and the decision of the Scottish Government,” he said.

“We consider that the decision of NLEI to go to judicial review is driven by money. These industrial-scale wind farms generate handsome returns for both developers and landowners.”

Godfrey argued that Buccleuch, as owners of the North Lowther Hills, would benefit from “substantial levels of rental income over the lifetime of the development.” The level of payments has not been made public but anecdotal evidence suggests it could be over £1 million a year for 25 years.

Isobel Gibb, a retired local resident who represented Wanlockhead Village Council at the public inquiry, said: “The community were shocked to find out about the judicial review. We thought the issue had been decided when the ministers found in our favour.  

“I’m sickened to think that a legal decision could be overturned and these monster turbines decimate the landscape round Scotland’s highest village.”

The SNP MSP for South Scotland, Joan McAlpine, supported wind energy as a way of tackling the climate crisis, but argued it had to be in the right place and benefit those affected.

“The local community would have been significantly impacted by this development and I was delighted when the government rejected it,” she said.

Buccleuch confirmed it had been a partner in a joint venture to develop the North Lowther Energy Initiative until 2019. “The legal petition for judicial review is being made by BayWa r.e. UK Limited who are the developers and sole owners of the proposed scheme,” said Buccleuch’s executive chair, Benny Higgins.

“Should the scheme ultimately go ahead, the turbines would be situated on Buccleuch land for which our business would receive a ground rent.”

There is a well-established right for parties to seek a judicial review of decisions of this nature.

Gordon MacDougall, BayWa r.e. UK

Higgins, a former banker, is also special advisor to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on the Scottish National Investment Bank. In 2020 he led the Scottish Government’s advisory group on economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

He told The Ferret: “The scheme would make a significant contribution to Scottish Government renewable energy and climate change targets as well as providing jobs. Local communities could also be eligible for up to £735,000 per annum in community benefit as recommended in government guidance.”

NLEI’s parent company, BayWa r.e. UK, confirmed that it had begun legal action. “We have lodged a petition seeking a judicial review of the decision on the NLEI application,” said managing director, Gordon MacDougall.

“There is a well-established right for parties to seek a judicial review of decisions of this nature. As we are now in a legal process we do not wish to comment further on the details of the case.” 

The Scottish Government said it was “unable to comment on ongoing litigation”.

Cover image of the Lowther Hills thanks to iStock/Richard-P-Long.

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