Yesterday I spoke in a debate in parliament on the national planning framework. The consultation on the framework revealed big tensions over energy priorities and the committee I sit on – Economy, Energy and Tourism – examined the framework with a particular focus on renewables, wild land and unconventional gas.
The full text of my speech is below.
Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): I welcome the ambition of NPF3. There is much that I can support. It is good to have a national spatial plan and I am pleased that there is a focus on low-carbon places, as heat networks, energy storage, low-carbon high-density housing and transforming the way we travel will be key to achieving low carbon ambitions. The NPF should help to deliver those things.
The consultation revealed big tensions over energy priorities and the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee focused on renewables, wild land and unconventional gas developments.
I am extremely concerned that we see unconventional gas as an opportunity without having due regard for the risk. It is clear that unconventional gas in the UK will not lower energy prices, as it has done in the US. There is less land here and ownership rights are different. Lord Stern, the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee in Westminster and even Lord Browne of Cuadrilla Resources came to the same conclusion: shale gas will not have a material impact on gas prices.
I am pleased that the minister understands that there are risks and confirmed to us in committee that there must be a buffer zone between developments and communities. I proposed a buffer of at least 2km, which gained MSP support and is in line with Friends of the Earth Scotland’s proposals. However, although a buffer zone can help to protect communities from the worst localised impacts, it will do nothing to militate against climate change impacts.
Today is the start of a public local inquiry on the UK’s most advanced unconventional gas project: the Dart Energy project in Airth. I will not say anything to prejudice the outcome of that, but I am concerned that we are considering consents before the Government’s independent expert panel has reported and before the Government has set the buffer zone. That is surely the wrong way round.
Derek Mackay: Without reference to any live planning application, as the member would expect, I comment on points made by Joan McAlpine and Alison Johnstone. Does the member agree that it is important that the Scottish Government is not pursuing the financial incentives that the UK Government is pursuing in relation to extraction of unconventional gas, in terms of planning protection and environmental mitigation? Taking the time to get the buffer zone right is the right thing to do. In any planning application, environmental mitigation must be assessed and carried out, no matter what.
Alison Johnstone: I appreciate the minister’s response, but it would have been more appropriate for an inquiry to have taken place once we had the information and a definitive position on a buffer zone had been confirmed.
The tension between renewables and wild land is difficult to resolve. I am not in favour of increasing the separation distance to a blanket 2.5km. It is important to consider proposals case by case. The right separation in one site will be different in another. The planning system is good at being flexible like that but it must get much better at listening and reacting to community concerns. The Planning Democracy briefing for today has some good suggestions that I strongly urge the minister to consider.
Energy companies made clear their concerns that use of the wild land map would constrain the development of onshore renewable energy. I believe that we need to protect our wildest landscapes from inappropriate development and I do not understand why hill tracks, for example, which can scar landscapes, do not require planning permission. It would be appropriate for the NPF to refer to protecting the wildest land to make it clear that those characteristics can be considered when big developments are being determined, but I do not support the SNH map creating a blanket assumption against turbine development. Wild land is not always biodiverse—a point that RSPB Scotland makes in its briefing. We know that mountain habitats are at dire risk from climate change. The best way to protect biodiverse habitats is to decarbonise.
As colleagues have mentioned, the most effective way to resolve tensions there is to maintain public support for renewables. There is good support at the moment, but if benefits from a “renewables revolution” are not shared equitably between communities and public and private interests, that good will will disappear. Community and public ownership is the best way to build and maintain public support. Energy companies and the Government should be looking to develop large-scale community and public ownership models to ensure that those benefits really are shared.
The RSPB highlights the importance of the NPF and the SPP when it comes to meeting our climate change targets and the fact that the NPF contains several proposals that would increase climate change emissions. I therefore endorse RSPB Scotland’s request that the Government clarifies how those will not result in increased emissions. I would be grateful if the minister would address that point later this afternoon. I acknowledge Sarah Boyack’s comments on bringing things together. Will the RPP have to address the increased emissions brought about by the NPF?
If we want to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, it is time to move to a truly low-carbon economy. We already have more than enough unburnable fossil fuels. I am surprised that a Government that introduced, rightly, such challenging climate change targets has not yet ruled out unconventional gas extraction. I urge it do so.
I concur with the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s recommendation that the period for parliamentary scrutiny be extended to 90 days and welcome its view that sustainable development should underpin NPF3.