A CONTROVERSIAL proposal to build a 22-turbine wind farm in the North Highlands has been given the go-ahead.

Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse yesterday gave consent for the Creag Riabhach wind farm on the Altnaharra Estate, near Lairg.

It will have a generating capacity of 72.6MW, enough to power 36,000 homes, with estimated savings of 66,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. The Scottish Government estimates that the proposed development will provide more than £9 million in community benefit.

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More than 200 objections were lodged against the Creag Riabhach development including from the Mountaineering Scotland and conservation charity, the John Muir Trust, raising concerns about its impact on wild land.

However, Highland Council did not object to the project and it also received backing from the local

Bettyhill, Strathnaver and Altnaharra community council.

“Renewable energy sources accounted for over 56.7 per cent of gross electricity consumption in Scotland in 2015, and onshore wind is a key driver for the growth in both our renewable electricity supply and wider renewable energy sector, and in the delivery of our vision for a greener Scotland and statutory climate change targets by enabling decarbonisation of electricity production,” said Wheelhouse.

“This proposal for Creag Riabhach received popular support from the local community council and public alike and, once operational, the wind farm will generate enough electricity to power 36,000 homes and generate more than £9m in benefits for the local community.”

However, Stuart Brooks, chief executive of the John Muir Trust, said they were disappointed and concerned.

“This is the first such development to be consented within the boundaries of the Wild Land Areas map since it was agreed in 2014. The decision flies in the face of a series of previous decisions by the Scottish Government, refusing consent to similar applications impacting on Wild Land Areas,” he said.

“This is not a few small community-owned turbines. It is a major industrial development, including giant turbines, access roads and transmission infrastructure which will almost certainly lead to the redrawing of the boundary of Wild Land Area 37 [a Scottish Natural Heritage map of wild land areas].

“We are also concerned that this project will become a Trojan Horse, attracting further development into the area in the future, leading to further diminishing of the qualities of this wild place which attract visitors from around the world.”

The Trust said that without any explanation, the decision contradicted previous Scottish Government rulings to reject applications on wild land grounds at Allt Duine, Glenmore, Carn Gorm, Sallachy and Glencassley. It also “flies in the face of opposition from its own advisers, Scottish Natural Heritage”.

Helen McDade, the trust’s head of policy added: “Given the inevitable controversy surrounding this application, it is surprising that the Scottish Government did not order a public local inquiry to ensure thorough scrutiny of all the implications of this development not just for Wild Land Area 37, but potentially for other Wild Land Areas in the future.”

Tim Philpot, director of Creag Riabhach Wind Farm, welcomed the decision to allow construction to proceed.

He said: “Over the last five years our dedicated team has been continually engaging with the local communities, the Highland Council and Scottish Ministers to deliver a project that we can all be proud of.

“Not only will Creag Riabhach generate up to 72.6MW of clean, renewable energy, but it will also give the communities of the North Highlands region a lasting legacy benefit of £700,000 through the Estate’s Altnaharra Foundation. This is aimed at providing employment and business opportunities in the area and includes a partnership with North Highland College UHI, to provide training and skills, employment opportunities, and apprenticeship funding for local employers.

“The voices of the local communities in Sutherland have been heard, and we can now take this opportunity to invest in our future."

Pieter Bakker, estate manager and tenant farmer at Altnaharra Estate, said: “The decision to consent Creag Riabhach Wind Farm is a significant boost to our estate and our community. Altnaharra Estate is the main source of employment in the area and this project will help secure additional jobs for local people.

“We have always had a policy of supporting local businesses and are in the final stages of completing a £1m plus forestry project, which has provided work for many local companies. Creag Riabhach Wind Farm will work to this procurement model, supplying important job opportunities for local contractors.

“My local community and the other communities surrounding the estate will significantly benefit from this project, which will provide up to £9 million in inward investment. This investment will be delivered as an annual contribution to a community benefit fund, and used to support important local projects.

“The economy in Sutherland is fragile and in desperate need of investment, in particular in Altnaharra. This is why we are all so delighted with this positive outcome. Projects like Creag Riabhach Wind Farm are vital to our communities, and are the only way in which we can create a sustainable legacy for future generations in the area.”