Leading Article: Caught between no jobs and a very big hole

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The Independent Online
THE SIGNS are that the Western Isles Council will tonight approve a planning application by Redland Aggregates to open a 'superquarry' in south Harris. The scheme would remove a quarter of a mountain in an area of outstanding beauty and create the largest man-made hole in Europe. If it goes ahead, there will be dismay among environmentalists and little rejoicing among the islanders.

Last week the people of Harris approved the quarry in a referendum. But their assent is less a sign of enthusiasm for the project than of despair at the lack of alternatives.

Some will benefit: the first phase will bring 28 jobs, 18 of which are promised to local people. Later on, there could be more than 80 jobs. The landowner, Donny MacDonald, will receive royalties of some 5p a tonne. So will Ian Wilson, owner of the mineral rights, who, as a former advisor to the Scottish Office, has long argued the case for superquarries. And the local community will receive a compensation payment from Redland of a derisory pounds 5,000 a year, rising later to pounds 25,000. Local indignation has failed to persuade the company to be more generous. It is not, as the people of Harris know, a very good deal.

The approval of the superquarry is, under Scottish law, a local planning decision. But the Secretary of State for Scotland can call the decision in for final approval. There are powerful reasons for him to do so: his official environmental adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage, objects to the plan. Its chairman, Magnus Magnusson has warned that, 'Scotland's outstanding coastline is one of its most important environmental assets. It must be the Secretary of State's responsibility to ensure that it is not put at risk for the sake of a comparatively small number of jobs, which might not even represent a net gain to the local community.'

The Harris decision could prove the green light for a chain of superquarries on the west coast of Scotland, a development that deserves a wider debate than that of a local planning committee. Calum Macdonald, MP for the Western Isles, has called on the Government to develop a national strategy for such developments to ensure both that the local community gets a fair deal and that environmental concerns are addressed.

The risk to an area of outstanding natural beauty is of concern not only to the inhabitants of Harris but to all who visit and enjoy the island. The Harris quarry will be visible as far away as the island of Skye and the pure waters off the coast of Harris will be polluted by silt and by the discharge of bilge water. The potential cost to tourism and fishing is not known.

The people of Harris have had to choose between the peace and beauty of their surroundings - or having no work at all. They deserve a better set of options and it is the obligation of those who object to the quarry to give their attention to the dismal reality of joblessness on the island. It is the obligation of the Secretary of State to ensure that necessity is not the only factor in their decision.