SMALL Scottish Highland communities known for their scenic beauty and tourism are pushing back against plans to string large pylons across the landscape, claiming the project could be better implemented as new priorities appear, including a huge incoming workforce.

Dan Bailey, a resident of the Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer, says he and others early last year were quick to launch an activist group to counter what was seen as a move that will undermine the village’s attractions, nearby Contin and its surrounding countryside. 

He said: “I love the area and want my children to grow up in an environment of natural heritage and outdoor culture.”  This year and beyond will determine how that works out.

Bailey, a journalist and spokesperson for the Better Cable Route group is targeting a planned 400kV power line proposed by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks Transmission (SSEN) for a 100-mile set of seven-metre high pylons across the Highland area from Spittal via Loch Buidhe to Beauly, connecting many northern wind farms, supported by regulator Ofgem and the National Grid.

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An investment of more than  £10 billion also involves the UK and Scottish governments’ 2030 and 2050 carbon emissions and energy security commitments.

Bailey’s small group is launching a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO) to raise money, build a “war chest” for possible legal challenges and protect supporters against well-financed opposition.

“We plan to be as loud and as visible as we can until such time as we feel we are being listened to,” he said.

Strathpeffer’s Community Council is no less vocal. Chairman Ron McAulay, who helped organise a well-attended community meeting with SSEN in early 2023, said:  “It’s a David and Goliath situation. Where SSEN, Ofgem, the National Grid and the UK and Scottish governments should be truly listening to local communities  I don’t think they are.”

In December, SSEN Transmission announced an active “alignment” exercise to specify where electric steel lattice towers and substations will be located beyond the  earlier consultations. 

While most of the pylons will be along its original proposed route with substations, SSEN has offered its original as well as what’s termed “community alternative routes”, one apparently skirting proximity to Contin and Strathpeffer. 

But sources say a firm decision based on technical, geological, ecological surveys and many other criteria is not due until the summer, ahead of formal submission to the Scottish Government at the end of the year.

For McAulay, the “least awful outcome” on ultimate alignment would see communities basically forced to accept the end result.

He said: “The very strong impression is that the consultation has been more a ‘notification’ and the whole process has not really addressed community concerns. The level of scrutiny from the Government is not high so there’s an element of ‘let’s get it done’ with a deadline of 2030.”

FOR example, the SSEN alignment plan rejects any undersea cable alternative while any underground cabling could “maybe” be considered for short distances depending on geological conditions for taking 400kV lines. Other options regarding transmission variations are considered  lower priority.

Long-time Strathpeffer resident Shaun Ince said: “This is designated as a conservation area, supported by the Highland Council, with special scenic features and even prospects of enlargement. It’s not ‘nimbyism’ to believe that large pylons stretching over the Strathpeffer area are unacceptable, a view shared by all the people I know.” 

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He favours a full public inquiry across the project to ensure sufficient oversight and clarity.

Bailey says his activist group – drawing on technical, ecological, cultural and tourism expertise – identified its preferred cable  route, which has apparently now been endorsed by SSEN as its community option. 

But looking beyond to 2050, Bailey also expects to see what he describes as the whole picture. “We’re unhappy that we’ve been drip-fed partial information, given the minimum at each stage,” he said.

He claims the current SSEN project priorities fly in the face of Highland Council conservation and tourism initiatives, such as the latest Inner Moray Firth Local Development Plan, which aims to bolster the northern Scottish economy in difficult times.

The National: Jeremy Hunt

SSEN Transmission said it endorses  UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s (above) Autumn Statement giving  £100 million of community benefit funding and money off bills across the north of Scotland for those located closest to new infrastructure, with £32m of community benefit funding for the Spittal-Loch  Buidhe-Beauly project. 

In Strathpeffer, few are impressed. “Compensation? That bothers  me, it’s short-termism, something like bribery,” said Ince.

Indeed,  no details are available on  these benefits.  However, SSEN is progressing plans for 400 permanent jobs and development of 200 properties, many initially to house what it terms “thousands of workers” across the Highlands to build the system.