Islanders divided over plan to move mountain: Nicholas Schoon on a scheme that would provide jobs but scar a harshly beautiful landscape for up to a century

PLANS TO remove a quarter of a 1,600 ft mountain from one of the most remote and scenic parts of Scotland are expected to be approved tonight by the Western Isles council.

But while a firm majority of councillors are likely to favour a coastal 'superquarry' on the island of Harris there will be little goodwill for the developer, Redland Aggregates. It has upset the islanders by offering to pay what they say is a tiny annual sum into a proposed community trust fund.

Redland's chosen site is in an officially designated National Scenic Area - the Scottish equivalent of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It wants to excavate and crush 600 million tonnes of anorthosite over the next 60 to 100 years, hollowing out a vast bowl in Roineabhal mountain at Harris's southern tip.

Councillors know the development will scar the island's harsh beauty - the quarry will be visible from Skye, 15 miles away - and disrupt its communities. But Harris, with 17 per cent unemployment, is desperate for the 100 jobs the quarry will bring. Emigration has halved its population in the last 50 years.

When Redland applied for planning permission two years ago, representatives from the scattered settlements of South Harris formed a committee. Led by a Church of Scotland minister, the Rev Murdo Smith, its aim was to wrest the best deal for the community. The money would have been used for community facilities and to develop alternative industries. Redland was unenthusiastic but eventually agreed to pay pounds 5,000 a year, rising to a maximum of pounds 25,000.

'It's a pittance,' Mr Smith said. 'If Redland are going to ride roughshod over the hopes and aspirations of people it won't be a happy relationship.'

John MacAulay, a crofter and local historian, said: 'We feel very let down. This decision is going to fire off a series of superquarries along the West Coast. And what Redland can get away with here, other developers will get away with elsewhere.'

Redland says it has never paid into such a community fund before, and the development would boost the local economy through new jobs and pounds 500,000 a year business rates.

Just over 60 per cent of Harris's 1,800-strong electorate turned out to vote on the proposal this month; 62 per cent were in favour. In South Harris, near the quarry site, the vote split 50/50.

Redland's offer to the community amounts to about a halfpenny per tonne of rock extracted. The committee hopes that more may be forthcoming from the company's partners - Donnie MacDonald, landlord of the nearby Rodel Hotel and the owner of the quarry site, and Charles Wilson, a mainland prospector who owns the mineral rights. They are expected to receive royalties of about 5p per tonne, although a final figure has yet to be agreed. Yesterday, Mr MacDonald declined to comment until after the council's decision.

The rock will be removed to well below sea level. Then, some time in the next century, the sea-facing wall will be breached, creating an artificial sea loch.

Studies have suggested several other coastal superquarry sites in western Scotland. They are being touted as a way of meeting the construction industry's growing demand for aggregates without the need to expand extraction operations in the more densely populated areas and national parks of England and Wales. Environmentalists are fiercely opposed and Scottish Natural Heritage, the Government's landscape and wildlife conservation arm, has objected.

The outcome in Harris is likely to set a precedent. Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, is expected to take the final decision himself. But if the council votes in favour tonight, that approval becomes more likely.

Leading article, page 21

(Photograph omitted)

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