Stretched council budgets means developers now dictate major planning decisions, councillors have claimed.
A number of Highland planning committee members have aired serious concerns that local democracy has been destroyed because of fear of reprisal from spurned developers who can afford an appeal.
City councillor Jim Crawford hit out yesterday following the council’s approval earlier this week of a controversial new substation at a Highland beauty spot.
SSE’s 40ft high facility at Garbole near Tomatin will require the felling of almost 20 acres of trees to make way for the building and access roads.
The facility is needed as part of a power grid upgrade to accommodate renewable energy projects.
Councillor Crawford lost a vote opposing the plan despite arguing that an alternative site nearby was less obtrusive. Objectors estimated that the alternative site would have saved electricity customers £1million.
Mr Crawford said the deforestation would breach Scottish Government and council policy on preserving woodland but lost a vote on the issue.
“Because of the reduction in government grant to the council we can no longer afford the legal cost of defending planning decisions that go against developers,” he said.
“It’s shocking. What’s the point of having councillors and planning meetings?”
Local objectors, who fought to preserve the tranquility of the Garbole location, do not have the money to challenge the committee’s approval of the project.
Speaking yesterday, Bill Lobban, a fellow committee member, said: “The democratic process has gone to Hell on a handcart.”
Planning chairwoman Audrey Sinclair, however, did not share her colleagues’ concerns.
She said: “We consider each application on its merits and there will always be a budget (to defend appeals).”
The argument coincides with the launch, this week, of a “Commission on Highland Democracy” inviting feedback from the public.
The aim of the exercise is to gauge how communities want to be involved in decisions and services that directly affect their lives.