Nineteen Scottish councillors will travel to the tops of Britain's highest mountains today to see if the view from them will be blighted by a giant wind farm on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park.
The proposed Allt Duine development, by a subsidiary of the German electricity company RWE, would involve 31 wind turbines, each 410ft high – nearly two-and-a-half times the height of Nelson's Column in London – on a mountain site which is itself between 1,800ft and 2,300ft up, next to the national park boundary in the centre of the Scottish Highlands.
Conservation groups have vociferously objected to the proposal, claiming it would have a seriously detrimental impact on a landscape prized by many people as one of the wildest in Britain. But officers of the Highland Council have recommended that the scheme, which would generate about 90 megawatts of electricity – a tenth of the output of a large coal-fired power station – should go ahead.
The council deferred judgement on the scheme before Christmas so that councillors could see the potential effect for themselves. And so today, the 19 members of the council's South Planning Applications Committee will travel from their Inverness headquarters to the Cairngorm Mountain Railway, near Aviemore, and take the train to the top of the Cairngorm Plateau 3,600ft up – Britain's highest land area.
Their objective is to look westwards across the valley of the River Spey to the Monadliath Mountains, and the Allt Duine scheme on the park's edge – an inspiring view whose beauty will be destroyed, the objectors say, along with many other panoramas. Once they have come back down the mountain later today, they will vote on whether the wind farm should go ahead.
"We strongly object to this proposal," said Matthew Hawkins, the Cairngorms National Park's Senior Heritage Officer. "The boundary of the site is right up against the boundary of the park itself – they are contiguous – and the access track [to the wind farm] is actually in the park. The landscape impact is obvious. Being so elevated and so close to the park it has a direct effect on the views.
"One of the things people enjoy most about this area, and that makes it so wild, is that you can't see man-made artefacts, and the major concern is that the turbines will be very visible, in what for a lot of people is a wild and untamed place."
"I think it's outrageous just to propose this," said Chris Townsend of the Save The Monadliath Mountains campaign, which has been organised to object to Allt Duine. "It will have a profound effect on how wild the northern part of the Cairngorms feels, which defeats the object of having a national park."
The John Muir Trust, the Scottish charity which defends wild places, also objects to the scheme. "It is just completely inappropriate in an area with high wild land characteristics," said policy officer Steven Turnbull.
The firm behind the scheme, RWE npower renewables, is one of Britain's major wind energy developers. "The Allt Duine Wind Farm is located in the Highland Council's preferred area of search for wind farms," said Jenny Gascoigne, the company's development manger.
"Although close to the Cairngorms National Park, the turbines would be shielded from view by the ridgeline which forms the park boundary. The turbines would not be visible from 'near views' within the park nor from Kincraig, Kingussie or Aviemore or along the A9 corridor. We have worked hard to ensure effects on all aspects of the environment would be minimised."
Whichever way the Highland Council votes, the scale of the proposed project means the final decision will probably end up in the hands of Scottish Government ministers. The verdict of the councillors, however, will likely be the decisive factor in the fate of Allt Duine.