The final hurdle
According to local legend, the Asrai are a race of fairies living in the seas around Scotland. Rather like mermaids, they have a reputation for tempting unwary fisherfolk to a watery grave.
In early 2020, myth and magic collided with the mundane world of planning applications when a group calling itself the Friends of the Flodigarry Fairies lodged an objection to a proposed fish farm in the north of Skye.
The Friends claimed that the seagoing sprites were in fear for their lives should the Organic Sea Harvest farm site be placed too near their home.
The planning application was rejected by Highland Council, although the planning authority insisted that the interests of fairies were not the deciding factor.
Those opposing fish farming applications would argue that there are many more serious reasons to object to a new farm site. It is clear, however, that the local authority planning stage is the most difficult and least predictable stage of the consent process.
Proposals for a new or expanded marine fish farm in Scotland are required to satisfy four competent authorities: Crown Estate Scotland, which manages inshore waters; Marine Scotland; the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA); and the local planning authority.
Many other bodies – such as NatureScot and Historic Scotland, which look after the natural and built environment respectively – also get the chance to comment on the proposal.
In most cases, by the time an application reaches the planning authority, the other authorities will already have cleared it. That final hurdle, however, has been shown in the past few years to be the hardest.
Organic Sea Harvest was keen to add a third site to its existing two salmon farms off Skye to ensure that it could continue to produce while allowing fallow periods for its cages.
It was unsuccessful in its Flodigarry application, both at the local authority stage and in its appeal to the Scottish Government, and put forward an alternative application for a farm at Balmaqueen. This application, too, was knocked back by eight votes to six at Highland Council’s North Planning Application Committee in January 2021.
Organic Sea Harvest appealed again, but, once more the planning committee’s decision was upheld, despite support for the proposal from local MP Ian Blackford and the Staffin Community Trust.
Appeals Division Reporter Sue Bell explained that the proposed farm’s “proximity and hence prominence in the foreground, in a seascape that is otherwise free of permanent, man-made structures, would detract significantly from the feelings of wildness and tranquillity that can currently be experienced.”
Hourn of a dilemma
This year, Mowi’s application to expand its existing salmon farm at Loch Hourn, was also rejected, albeit for different reasons.
The salmon producer had applied to Highland Council for permission to add another cage and increase biomass at the site by 10% to 2,750 tonnes. This represented a scaling back of its original plans to increase production at the site, but even so it was met by fierce objections from a campaign group, the Friends of Loch Hourn.
Loch Hourn is a sea loch on the west coast of Scotland running between the peninsulas of Glenelg to the north and Knoydart to the south. The loch is 14 miles long and situated in one of the wildest, least-inhabited areas of mainland Scotland.
The Friends of Loch Hourn (FOLH) is described as “a not-for-profit organisation run by members of the local community”. Established in 2020, Friends of Loch Hourn has more than 100 members including, its website says, “residents, landowners, fishermen and others with a strong connection to the affairs affecting the marine ecology of Loch Hourn”.
The Loch Hourn protest campaign was, however, more professional than that description might suggest. For example, FOLH commissioned a consultancy, MTS-CFD Ltd, to produce a report to illustrate how expanding the existing Loch Hourn farm would affect the numbers of sea lice through which migrating smolts would have to pass.
The loch’s fjord-like geography means that it has a comparatively low flushing rate. According to the MTS-CFD report, if the farm was expanded, even assuming that sea lice numbers in the pens were restricted to the industry’s own acceptable threshold of an average of 0.5 female lice per farmed fish, densities at the mouth of the loch would exceed two lice per square metre. This, the authors say, would be enough to threaten the health of wild smolts and young sea trout.
FOLH said: “…if Mowi’s plans are approved, it would tip the distinct populations of Loch Hourn salmon and trout towards extinction.”
It should be noted that Dr Tom Scanlon, the report’s author, is an engineer and an expert on hydrodynamics, not a marine biologist or a sea lice expert. The assumptions about lice are based on previous research papers and did not involve any data gathering from Loch Hourn itself.
Mowi’s proposal was not opposed by the relevant government agencies. Marine Scotland confirmed that the stocking density was “acceptable”, NatureScot said that it would not have a significant impact on biodiversity, and the SEPA assessment of the risk to protected species and seabed habitats posed by the application concluded that it would not pose any significant risk.
Mowi argued that the farm had been at the site for many years and that swapping the existing facilities for fewer, larger pens would bring a number of benefits, including improved fish welfare.
Officers at Highland Council recommended that the members approve the application – but, instead, at the North Planning Applications Committee on 15 June, the members voted to block it.
FOLH was understandably delighted and presented the decision as a “David vs Goliath” victory – making use of an Edinburgh-based PR firm to spread the news of its win.
Since then, Mowi confirmed it would be appealing against the decision. Stephen MacIntyre, Head of Environment at Mowi Scotland, said: “We believe the decision to refuse planning permission was not consistent with development plan policy nor a proper assessment of the application and Environmental Impact Assessment Report.”
He added: “We acknowledge that the planning application resulted in a mix of positive and negative feedback from local residents about the farm that has been operating near the Arnisdale community for the past 30 years. Notwithstanding, we expect that development decisions that affect the livelihoods of many local families be evidence-based when considering social, economic and environmental sustainability.”
New tech? No thanks
More recently, the application by Loch Long Salmon for a new fish farm at the foot of Beinn Reithe, on Loch Long, was turned down by the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park Authority.
Again, the application had received no objections from statutory agencies, but failed at the planning stage. In this case, the National Park Authority’s Officers had recommended that the application be refused.
After the hearing the Authority’s Convenor, James Stuart, explained that the board had been concerned that a national park was not the right setting for an industrial development and also the technology proposed – a semi-closed containment system with an impermeable membrane separating the fish in the pens from the marine environment – was untried and too risky for a site of such sensitivity.
Stuart Hawthorn, Managing Director of the developer, Loch Long Salmon, described the decision as a “missed opportunity” to ensure Scotland benefited from new technology that could actually benefit the environment.
Not all decisions have gone the protestors’ way, however. In Orkney, an application by Cooke Aquaculture for a new salmon farm site at East Moclett, off the island of Papa Westray in the north of the islands, was approved in September this year.
The six-cage site will be based in Orkney’s North Sound, with permission for up to 3,850 tonnes of biomass. The council’s decision was despite a group of campaigners under the banner of the No East Moclett group. A report from an economics consultancy, published shortly before the hearing, had detailed the aquaculture sector’s positive impact on wages and economic growth on the islands, and this may have helped to seal the win.
Is reform possible?
The report prepared for committee members ahead of Highland Council’s hearing on Loch Hourn quotes Scotland’s national Planning Policy (2014) document: “…The planning system should not duplicate other control regimes such as controlled activities regulation licences from SEPA, or fish health, sea lice and containment regulation by Marine Scotland.”
Nonetheless, it is hard not to see duplication when it is so difficult to separate local factors – such as the impact on the immediate environment and visual amenity of the area – from the wider environmental issues overseen by agencies such as SEPA, NatureScot or Marine Scotland.
Clearly, local democracy matters, but it’s also valid to ask how local councillors and their officers can look at complex scientific and environmental issues that have already been addressed by specialist agencies, and come up with a different answer.
Neil Manchester, Managing Director of Kames Fish Farming, which farms steelhead trout on the west coast and Skye, says: “The planning consent system is a major issue for the industry. We’ve not been able to develop new sites.
“Any company looking to develop a new aquaculture site must apply to four competent authorities – Crown Estate Scotland, Marine Scotland, SEPA and the local authority. It also needs to consult with all other major stakeholders such as NatureScot and district salmon fishery boards [associations of fishery owners, including representatives of salmon anglers].
“That’s as well as the general public, who can pounce on any one of these four applications. So you have to fight on many fronts.”
Fish farming is not given any special status in Scotland. As Manchester puts it: “A planning application for a fish farm stands alongside an application for a garage extension or a greenhouse.
“In contrast, the Norwegian model is a one-stop shop, separating aquaculture applications from the normal planning process.”
The four-stage system in the UK means, that, effectively, one person can lodge four objections at no cost.
Manchester says: “We would not want to lose local democracy, but the proportion of failed applications shows that the system is weighted towards those who are averse to fish farming in any form.”
In his report for the Scottish Government on aquaculture regulation, published earlier this year, Professor Russel Griggs found the Norwegian system compared favourably to Scotland’s.
The report said: “The [Norwegian] location consent process incorporates a number of related components within a coordinated system… cooperation between industry, science input and the regulatory authorities is seen as essential.
“In simple terms, this means that when an applicant wants to start or enlarge a finfish farm, they apply though a single portal. Those in that portal then manage the process with other regulators and interested parties with the person in the portal acting as the project manager. The result is one single consented document covering all aspects and for a single length of time across all bodies involved.”
Griggs recommended the adoption of a single consenting document that would involve all the parties concerned – including the relevant planning authority.
The report goes on: “While I recognise the professionalism of the local authority planners, there is an option in the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, Section 63, that provides for fish farming not to be deemed a development under the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997. This Order can only be made with the consent of local authorities for their relevant waters. This essentially means that local authorities can give up their planning rights to the Scottish Government in respect of aquaculture, should they think that appropriate.”
Griggs stresses that even if a local authority chooses this option, it could still be designated a statutory consultee and would have an input into the consenting process.
Will Griggs’ proposals be adopted? The Scottish Government has committed to publishing its Vision for Aquaculture shortly. Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, warmly welcomed the Griggs Report when it was published, but she will also be aware of the need to placate the SNP-led Government’s Green coalition partners – who are no friends to marine fish farming – and also Scotland’s local authorities, who have already complained about centralising power in other policy areas.
Local democracy matters – but a Byzantine, expensive consenting system does nobody any favours. Perhaps worst of all, it makes it all but impossible for smaller, entrepreneurial businesses to grow, since only the largest operators have the resources to fund a planning application.
Also – as the Loch Long decision shows – it makes it harder to pioneer new technology in aquaculture. In the long run, that means Scotland will fall behind other producers unless the system can be reformed.