STRICTER rules will be introduced to counter the threat of "phantom" objections to new developments in the Highlands after fears about the legitimacy of opposition to a wind turbine near Prince Charles’ summer residency.
The region’s local authority – which receives thousands of planning objections every year to controversial projects like new wind farms, housing schemes and retail developments – will now demand everybody supplies their home addresses when submitting their views on applications.
It comes after alarmed councillors warned the system was vulnerable to abuse because some of the 50-plus objections to a farmer’s successful bid to build a turbine close to the Castle of Mey in Caithness last month did not include addresses.
One man’s complaints were recorded twice by Highland Council, despite no address being listed.
Councillor Alex MacLeod said the system of registering opposition or support was flawed and highlighted the risk of multiple objections being sent under false names.
Malcolm MacLeod, the authority’s head of planning, investigated the subsequent complaint from councillor Alex MacLeod and pledged stiffer rules would be introduced as "soon as possible".
A warning will be listed on the council website stating that all planning comments must be accompanied by a postal address.
Objections sent via e-mail with no addresses will be returned to the sender by staff and not included as an official objection.
Councillor MacLeod (Landward Caithness) welcomed the changes and said it would flesh out any suspect objectors.
"Members of the planning committee were very genuinely concerned about the possibility of phantom objectors with no postal address," he said.
"I am pleased to see that action has been taken to tighten up our system and bring it up to scratch. From now on, public contributions to planning applications must include a postal address. That is only fair.
"I want to make sure that the public feel they can contribute to our planning process – but I also want to make sure these contributions are genuine."
Highland anti-wind farm campaigner Pat Wells also backed the tighter rules but claimed it was difficult for council staff to verify objections because they were "swamped" by turbine applications.
"I do worry that not only could you get false objections but it could also work the other way in that you could get false expressions of support," said Mrs Wells, a founding member of the fledgling Alliance Party of Scotland, which is against wind farms.
"It is a double edged sword. It is open to abuse and it must be very difficult. One of the problems is that the planning department is swamped by applications for wind farms, both for small group of turbines and for large wind farms. Basically I don’t think they can cope."