Month: April 2016
In the Government Press release announcing the camping byelaws Dr McLeod made a powerful claim to justify her decision:
“The evidence that I have seen of damage caused, particularly in some of the most environmentally fragile spots in the National Park, tells a compelling tale of the need for action. Abandoned campsites, discarded litter, destruction of plants and trees and the cumulative environmental damage caused by irresponsible campfires is not something that we can allow to happen.”
As a result of this statement, I asked both the Scottish Government and LLTNPA about what visits Dr McLeod had made to the Park, whether the Park had submitted any other “evidence” to the Government apart from the papers which had been considered at the Board meeting which approved the byelaws and what other evidence had been obtained by the Government (e.g advice from Scottish Natural Heritage) . The Government’s response Scottish Government EIR Response 12 April 2016 (11 February 2016) is revealing:
- Annex A states the Dr McLeod made just one visit to the Park to look at the countryside, in July 2015, when she visited three places. The first, Loch Lubnaig North, where I know from personal observation that the local landowners who run the campsite and cafe do a fantastic job picking up litter dropped by day visitors and keep the place spotless, so no evidence there then of problems. The second, the Mhor 84 hotel in Balquidder, where she is extremely unlikely to have seen evidence of camping impacts. The third, the Loch Earn Horseshoe layby, where there had been a history of encampments, was the one place where she might have seen problems. If there were problems at the time of her visit I wonder if she was told how these could be dealt with under existing legislation and about the Park’s failure to work with others to enforce existing legislation? This official response from the Government however is contradicted by the Ministerial Letter to Linda McKay – Byelaw decision in which Dr McLeod claims to have “visited the Park on a number of occasions over the summer months to see for myself the range of issues being faced”. Both statements from Dr McLeod cannot be true, she can’t have visited the Park once and also on a “number of occasions” and I have written again to the Scottish Government asking them to clarify the information they have provided.
Annex B includes the following statement:“The Scottish Government does not have any further information that would count as evidence as damage provided by Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park to the Minister. Following submission of agreed and finalised proposals from the Park Authority, the Scottish Government did not request advice on the question of damage or impacts from other public authorities. Additionally, although individuals and organisations expressed a wide range of views and opinions on the Park’s proposals, we do not hold any further information that we consider would count as evidence of damage or impacts provided by people resident in the Park or by other individuals or organisations.”
So, what this means is that Dr McLeod decided that she could not, to use her word, “allow” camping and fires to continue under access rights because of the folder of photos and the papers sent to her by the LLTNPA Board. Among other things, the Minister never thought to check whether:
- the folder of photos was representative – it was in fact a completely dodgy dossier, as I pointed out to Dr McLeod in my Open letter to Minister – and how the locations where the photos were taken fitted with the proposed camping management zones
- the ranger patrol data held by the Park, but not submitted to Ministers, supported the claims that the sheer number of campers was an issue across the four management zones. It doesn’t, there are many places in the zones where camper numbers are never high, as for example demonstrated in my West Loch Lomond Ranger Data analysis. Where numbers can be high, this is almost without exception on just one or two weekends of the year
- Police Scotland could attribute crimes reported in Operation Ironworks to campers rather than locals or other visitors (the Park submitted to the Minister a long list of crimes most of which had no obvious link to camping at all)
- SNH, the Government’s statutory adviser on nature conservation, or SEPA, which has responsibility for water quality, agreed with her assessment that allowing camping to continue would “risk these special places being lost to future generations”
The Government’s EIR response provides further evidence that Aileen McLeod’s approval of the camping byelaws was not evidence based and confirms she did not make basic checks with other public authorities before making her decision. This is inexcusable: Aileen McLeod had received representations from both individuals and recreationaI organisations about aspects of the “evidence” assembled by the LLTNPA – for example the Mountaineering Council of Scotland had sent her a critique of the way the LLTNPA had misrepresented police statistics – and should have sought a second opinion. She had over six months to do so, after receiving the recommendations of the LLTNPA Board, but did nothing. At the end of the period she simply accepted the spin of the Park Authority.
I now believe the “evidence” referred to by Dr McLeod would never stand up in a court of law. This creates lots of opportunity for the bye-laws to be challenged but it also presents a great threat to our access rights. If Ministers can remove access rights in a National Park on the basis of claims unsupported by evidence, they could do so anywhere in Scotland. This is fundamentally wrong.
I am generally against introducing bureaucratic processes into access rights – the big mistake down in England – but if Ministers cannot be trusted not to remove access rights on a whim, they need to be forced to take decisions based on certain objective criteria (including what counts as evidence). Alternatively, such decisions should be subject to scrutiny and approval in the Scottish Parliament which would allow all the rational arguments against the byelaws to be given a public hearing.
Last week I received EIR 2016-003 Review Response from the LLTNPA which confirmed their decision not to release information about why they had decided to develop a campsite at Loch Chon http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/03/27/con-loch-chon-proposed-trossachs-west-camping-management-zone/. I will appeal to the FOI Commissioner (my fourth appeal, the first two of which have resulted in the Park releasing information and the third of which is in progress) but meantime its worth explaining how this fits into their failure over the last three years to deliver the campsites they have promised and failure to account for how decisions are made.
The basic issue here is the Park Board should be able to account publicly about why they have decided to develop a campsite at Loch Chon, which will require a large investment from them, in the proposed management zone which has the lowest demand of all for camping. What’s more the Park appears to be devoting its entire camping budget for the next year to this campsite.
The Park has tried to obscure this in their response claiming that because the full details of the campsite development have not been agreed (or is incomplete) they cannot release information about why they chose this piece of land for a campsite. They are also claiming there are elements of this decision which are “commercially confidential” when the owner of the land is another public authority, Forestry Commission Scotland. Both bodies could and should operate transparently.
So what is going on? One interpretation is that the Park wanted to be seen to have made progress when the Minister, Aileen McLeod, announced she had approved the camping bye-law proposal in January and, in the absence of anything else to report, decided to announce the campsite at Loch Chon in their own press release. Then, realising one small campsite might not look good, they announced it would be a big one, 30 places. Unfortunately, as the Park’s latest letter indicates, they had not done any proper financial planning and the consequence is that they are now backtracking on the 30 places. Truth or conjecture? If the Park released the information I had asked we would have a much better idea.
What we do know though is that the LLTNPA has a history of failing to deliver the campsites it has promised and changing its plans in secret. In 2012, as a result of efforts from Grant Moir, now Chief Executive at the Cairngorms Park, and Kevin Findlater, Chief Inspector of the Police (and the person who first drew attention to the civil liberty implications of the proposed camping bye-laws) the Park produced the excellent 5 Lochs Visitor Management Plan for the Trossachs area.
It included costed proposals along with detailed plans for four new campsites to be delivered at Loch Lubnaig (2012-13), Loch Venachar North (2013-14), Glen Oglehead (2014-15) and Loch Earn (no date given). Loch Chon was not thought important enough in 2012 to be included in the Five Lochs Plan – which is another reason why its in the public interest to know now why the Park has chosen this area for a campsite. Of the campsites in the 5 Lochs Plan, only Loch Lubnaig has been delivered, and that over a year late.
Its been very hard to establish what has actually been decided about the other campsite proposals and the basis for any decisions that have been made, just like Loch Chon. After some investigations, I did my best in a document I sent to the Minister, Aileen Mcleod, on 1st October 2015 Appendix 1 – LLTNP plans for camping development at Loch Venachar and Glen Oglehead . The story reads:
2012 Five Lochs Visitor Management Plan published
2013-14 New campsite north Loch Venachar due to be delivered; budget available but proposal delayed due to delays delivering Loch Lubnaig campsite
2014-15 Again budget said to be available north Loch Venachar (FOI 2015/026) but this is contradicted by minutes of Five Lochs Visitor Management Stakeholder Group of 1/4/15 right at the beginning of the financial year (provided as appendix C to FOI 2015/026) which indicates that the north Loch Venachar development is now likely to be in 2015-16.
October 2014 Launch of Your Park consultation on new camping bye laws and camping places. There is no no mention that LLTNPA owned land which had been identified for campsites in the Five Lochs Management Plan at both north Loch Venachar (within the proposed management zone and a priority area) and Glenoglehead (outwith the proposed zones)
3/12/14 At a poorly attended Visitor Management Stakeholder Meeting (Appendix D to FOI 2015/026) Bridget Jones, the member of staffing who was chairing meeting, said in response to a question that camping provision at north Loch Venachar was “no longer part of any plans”.
2/7/15 FOI Review 2015/026 Response LLTNP states that “the Park authority has not shelved any camping developments”; that Glenoglehead remains a potential development and “the Loch Venachar campsite has not been abandoned”. In explanation of this it stated the then Chief Executive, on the advice of her staff, had decided to look at alternative sites around Loch Venachar due to concerns about the suitability of the site: the one concern mentioned in the FOI was potential impact on ancient woodland. (This is another area where more damage to trees by the roads department than by campers) .The letter states a decision will be made once the Minister has made a decision on the bye laws.
The Environment Minister, Aileen McLeod, has never responded to the concerns I have set out in that letter.
There is an easy solution. It should not be difficult for the Park to produce a camping development plan which it then consulted on with relevant interests instead of taking decisions in secret. The Five Lochs Plan shows the way. First identify areas of highest demand for camping from the ranger patrol records (which the Park failed to use in the Your Park consultation). Second, outline a range of options for campsite facilities, taking account of the Loch Lubnaig experience but also of campsites outside the Park (there are wonderful campsites with simple composting toilets). Third, list the land owned by public bodies that might be suitable for campsites and private landowners who have indicated an interest. From this it should not be difficult to produce a prioritised list for campsite development on the Five Lochs model. Unfortunately, I suspect that until someone tells the Park that they need to act openly and transparently and stop responding to behind the scenes lobbying its going to be continued smoke and mirrors about every aspect of their camping proposals.
Time therefore to submit another FOI asking if the Park have now taken a decision, as they said they would in FOI 2015/026 response, about Glenoglehead and Loch Venachar North.
Judging by the election manifestos, our political parties do not see National Parks as a political issue issue or believe they are so far down the political agenda that there is no need to say anything meaningful about them. I think this is not just unfortunate, its a mistake politically. Part of any vision for Scotland should be about how we treat our finest landscapes and natural heritage.
Yes, I know “its the economy stupid” that decides elections and, in these times of neoliberal austerity, there many basic issues about how people live – jobs and income, housing, services – which could be seen as having greater priority for election manifestos. But, if we are not to destroy the world entirely, there have to be places where human economic systems come second and, as importantly, humans need to be able to articulate the importance of values that cannot be expressed in monetary terms. National Parks, and other areas of the countryside which are not subjected to intensive human use, play an important role in this and what the political parties say about them therefore matters.
Three of the political parties make commitments to new National Parks in their manifestos:
“Establish new national parks or landscape partnership areas, learning from the first two national parks in Scotland, bringing the benefits of improved management, conservation and tourism to other parts of the country;” (The Scottish Liberal Democrats)
“New national parks. Scotland has many areas of outstanding natural beauty that merit national park status, but currently recognises only two such areas. As a worldwide recognised designation for high quality environments, creating new national parks would bring a range of environmental, social and economic benefits to Scotland by increasing tourism in remote areas. The Scottish Campaign for National Parks has identified seven possible sites including the Isle of Harris, Galloway and the coastal areas of Mull, Coll and Tiree. Green MSPs will champion the creation of new national parks in these areas”.
“Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world and we are all rightly proud to call it home. We have hundreds of natural wonders sitting on our doorstep – no matter where in Scotland we live…………………….That’s precisely why the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party supports the creation of further national parks across Scotland. They would not only help protect some of our greatest landscapes, but would also help attract more tourists and support local businesses.”
Of the three parties that support new National Parks, only the Liberal Democrats indicates there might be lessons to be learned from the existing ones but unfortunately do not say what these might be. So, three commitments to new National Parks but not a single indication that all might not be well with our existing National Parks, whether inappropriate developments, restrictions on access rights or continued failures to conserve or enhance the natural environment.
National Parks of course while providing a means to present a vision for the natural environment, are not everything, and the political parties need to be judged on the what they say more widely about our relationship with the natural environment.
For me, there are some paradoxes in the manifesto. The SNP, whose growth originated mostly in the rural areas, while making a number of pledges in terms of rural subsidies, has little to say about the natural environment. What is included is mainly a rehash of current Scottish Government policies (including keeping windfarms out of National Parks). There is no attempt to articulate a vision for our natural environment in contrast to other parts of their manifesto which are quite visionary in tone. I find this gap strange and quite a contrast to the Scottish Tories whose view of the natural environment “Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world” is nationalistic in tone. Its almost as though the SNP is now acting as a predominantly urban political party, in the old labour mould, where people mattered but the natural environment was very much an afterthought (the Labour Party manifesto has not yet appeared). The other paradox is that RISE, who have very much presented themselves as representing the urban working class living on housing estates, have quite a radical vision for the countryside: “Hunting estates create conditions suited for blood-sports but not for biological diversity. We would curtail the size of these estates and begin a process of reforestation, re-wilding and re-introduction of native species. To assist in this, we call for newly re-introduced beavers to immediately be given protected status, in light of their crucial role in flood prevention.”
The Greens had the most articulated vision for the natural environment, as one might expect, and are the only party to commit to widespread natural habitat restoration projects – something I believe that National Parks should be leading on. At the other end of the spectrum UKIP predictably wishes to get rid of all EC rules and subsidies, which determine how much of the countryside is used and managed, and leave all decisions about land-use to landowners (which probably implies they see no role for National Parks at all).
In-between, I am not sure that anything the political parties have said in their manifestos, really progresses our thinking. While in many ways that is disappointing, it is also an opportunity – the SNP, who are likely to form the next Government, could be seen as blank slate. We therefore need to work on developing a vision for new National Parks – as the Scottish Campaign for National Parks is doing (I am on the Executive) but also for existing ones. The post that follows from Ron Greer which articulates a new vision for National Parks based on wildlife refugia, does both and incidentally challenges a couple of my most profoundly held beliefs. I hope it helps promote debate.
Our current ‘national’ parks in Scotland are little more than a fiasco. I detest even using that term to describe what the last Labour administration delivered and what the subsequent SNP administration still supports, as what they have given us are not real national parks, but a farrago masquerading as a façade that is parodying a mirage.
When I have discussed the status if our so-called national parks with professionals engaged in running real ones in Alaska, Oregon, Sweden, Canada, and Ireland they either feel very sorry for us or just burst out laughing. Not that they are uncritical of their own set ups, far from it, but not one of them would ever endorse the product of lazy and incomplete political thinking and indeed perverse political actions, that the then Scottish Executive had the brass neck to call a National Park and that the SNP has the gall and hypocrisy not to address.
It’s difficult to know where to start, such is the enormity of the failure to embrace the true potential and good will that once existed. As good a place as any, is the basic concept behind the very name. A National Park should actually be what it says ‘on the tin’; an area of the country owned by the nation as a whole and professionally administered by a State ministry or other department, directly responsible to elected officials. These officials would hopefully have expertise in the subject area and certainly be well on top of their portfolios. This is normality in most other countries and indeed is what the famous Monty Python would have called ‘the bleedin obvious’. Sadly, our current batch of politicians seem to be incapable or unwilling to embrace the bleedin obvious. What we actually have, is an area of land owned by a mixture of Quango’s, NGO’s and the usual quasi-feudal sectional private interests, into which mix has been thrown, not a professional National Parks Service, but a so-called ‘Authority’ of diverse, indeed prismatic provenance, ability and, no doubt, agenda. It is a volatile mix likely to implode in an underwhelming conflagration of prevaricating compromises and sheer mucus-secreting, bureaucratic incompetence. The resulting mess will of course have to be dealt with at the tax payer’s expense. This mess, metaphorically and literally, as exemplified by the current controversy over camping access and litter deposition in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, is spreading out in front of our eyes.
Not only does the current set up fail to meet the basic fundamental requirement, but then goes on to fall down in other primary areas, such as the point of singularity of the NP existence and its boundaries. Actually worrying about such examples as whether or not Blair Atholl should have been in the Cairngorm Park at its inception, is like worrying about having head lice while a grizzly bear is chewing your leg off, or like a passenger on the Titanic moaning about lumps of ice blocking the WC. The parks are supposed to balance the needs of economic and social development with conservation of natural resources, with any dubiety to be resolved in favour of the last. Financial support mechanisms specific to achieving this aim are in place. Does this then mean that, one millimetre outside of the park boundary, this will not or cannot happen? Indeed ‘compensatory’ fiscal mechanisms will be used to counterbalance or offset any disadvantages of not being in an NP, or being in a corridor- effect area. So if the same aims are to be funded from the same purse, both inside and outside the NP boundaries, what then is the point of having a NP in the first place!? Are we actually saying that true sustainability is only going to be attempted within the NP boundary and the rest of Scotland can continue to burn the ‘national furniture’ in order to boil the ‘national kettle’?
The core area of the Cairngorm Park is of course the mountains of the same name and why? Well, it’s because this is the largest area of boreo-Arctic montane zone outside of Fennoscandia and supposedly the last great wilderness in Europe (I can hear Laponia laughing as I write). The Cairngorm area is now also one of the largest (so-called) national parks in Europe. So we have then the ‘last great wilderness’ combined with one of the largest NPs in Europe. So what are we going to do about the lack of bears, wolves, beavers, elk, wild boar, wild cattle, the surplus of deer, non-native sheep, excessive muirburn and persecution of birds of prey? That’s just for starters of course, because we still have the ‘wasteland ripe for development’ attitude prevalent in the mind of local sectional interests and external commercial building interests. The recent plan for 1500 new houses will just be the tip of the iceberg. That character MacChuckemup in the 7:84 Company’s satire really does exist in spirit.
Then we have, in addition to this, the old chestnut of the landed estates with their quasi- feudal/Victorian/Edwardian agenda and of course, now, we also have the conservation Quango’s with their own corporate aims, backed up with direct ownership of land. A ‘nightmare’ is not sufficiently pejorative to cover the issues raised. In my personal experience of over 35 years of study trips in the Northern Hemisphere I do not know of any other country where the above mess would be tolerated and even the complicated matrix of relationships between the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and the various State and Federal wildlife and fisheries agencies in the USA, pales to insignificance by comparison.
It is also very easy to criticise, but much harder to offer a constructive way forward. The first step is to take the correct strategic political decisions that are based on the courage of the political convictions and, above all, upon the dedication to see them through. The WWF, the John Muir Trust, the RSPB, the SLE and other NGO’s are not political parties that will ever answer to an electorate. SNH, SEPA are not, per se, the Government. All of them need to realise that they are not the democratically elected Executive, but servants of it and assistants to it. This will put us in a much better position to deal with the institutional arrogance of the present colonial-style Civil Service, the Quangocrats and the oligarchs of the NGOs. At the same time, we have to come up with an alternative end point so that people can see where (and indeed why) we are heading and that we can then put to the electorate, for their permission to implement. Then, chastened or enheartened by the vox populi, we can progress to clearing up the present mire of confused priorities, agendas and protocols.
Much of the problem lies in defining physical and intellectual perimeters and parameters that can be secured for the chosen intrinsic aims of any designated areas of land. The very fact that we initially argued about the possible inclusion of Highland Perthshire in the Cairngorms NP and the kind of housing development mentioned above, is a clear indication that neither the perimeters, or the intrinsic aims, are secured, or in harmony. To get the ball rolling, I put forward the following points, below, for general discussion, on the issues above, that could then lead on to new policy definition.
We should designate Scotland into three main strategic zones which could subsume/rationalise existing land and urban designations.
a: Sustainable Rural Cultural Landscape (i.e. All non-urban & non-industrial land in Scotland) —- SRCL
b: Sustainable Urban/Industrial Cultural Landscape— SUICL
c: National Wildlife Refugia —-NWR
For the purposes of the present discussion on this forum the first two categories will not be discussed for the moment, though the first does not necessarily exclude elements of wildness
NWR get rid of many of the problems currently inherent in the present national park concept and structure. Here, there will be much less dubiety, because we can establish a perimeter within which there will be a totally different set of aims from all existing designations and even from what will be happening in the SRCL area. This will derive from these refugia being for wildlife only (from soil microbes right through to higher non –human animals): no new human settlements, no new adopted roads (and possibly de-adoption in some cases) or other site- specific infrastructure, no industrial development, no low flying, no sport hunting or fishing, no commercial forestry or agriculture, no use of exotic plants and animals (including sheep); no universal right to roam, no public vehicular access and indeed access to be by permit only. There will be no evictions of existing human residents, but there will be voluntary resettlement financial packages and compensatory measures will be available for those wishing to stay on, but where their ‘traditional, land use, outwith of the immediate curtilage of their homes, will be terminated. These NWR will be State-owned and managed (as per known international analogues) and in addition to being refugia for extant wildlife, they will also be possible sites of reintroduction of species made extinct by post-glacial human activity.
They will be areas where the ‘re-wilding’ so detested by sporting-estate apologists, will take place, where we can honour our legal obligations to the IUCN protocols and where we can make a huge national and even more importantly, an international statement about Scotland accepting its responsibilities to the biodiversity of our planet. A place where we can put our money where our mouths are and stop cajoling and castigating people in Africa and Asia about sacrificing potential farmland to preserve tigers, elephants and Mountain gorillas. Will it be controversial? Will it raise an almighty ‘stooshie’ as we say in the vernacular? Damned right it will! Do we have the guts for it and if not why not?
Two sites come to mind in respect of initial candidates for such a NWR, the greater Monadhliath and Glen Affric. The Monadhliath are especially attractive for a variety of reasons:
- They contain only four Munros attractive to hillwalkers, none especially spectacular in nature
- They do not have a large internal human settlement, or major industrial/tourist infrastructure.
- They have a wide range of topographic, bio-climatic and bio-geographical attributes highly desirable for a Wildlife Refugium.
- They have a large geographical extent (circa 700 square miles) offering an extensive potential range area for large mammalian herbivores and mammalian/avian carnivores, thus overcoming the limitations of scale inherent in otherwise highly laudable and admirable re-wilding projects in the UK.
- They have, via the pentangle of the A9, A82, A86, B851 and B862 roads, a clearly defined perimeter with established fence lines and traditional stone walls, behind which, a new major bespoke fence could be erected, without the intrusion causing so much antipathy as at Alladale.
- Symbolically they were according to tradition the place where the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743AD
To this we might add that they already include the Craig Meagaidh NNR with all the lessons gained ready to be applied at the larger landscape scale.
This will not be a commercial enterprise and there will be no specific ecotourism function major tourist visitor centre, standard commercial forestry, or any form of agrarian or pastoral agriculture. Its scale in the Scottish/UK sense will be integral to its nature and we should not underestimate the scale of the investment in cash, effort and commitment this will require, but such a project would be significant in an international context and could attract inward investment from global agencies. If fruition arrives, I would like to see it named in honour of Dick Balharry.
The LLTNPA used claims about damage to trees by rogue campers as part of their justification for the camping byelaws, their main evidence being a few photos. Previous posts on Parkswatch have criticised these claims, pointing out most of the woodland in the area owes its survival to coppicing and far more damage is done by operations such as clearing of roadside verges. I did not however have any photos to illustrate roadside tree clearance.
This afternoon I drove up the A82 to Inveruglas to go for a run over Ben Vorlich and Ben Vane. Shortly after the Arden roundabout it was evident that the Council had been clearing the roadside verges and had done so all the way to Inveruglas. I stopped in a couple of places and on one short stretch I counted at least ten fresh tree stumps. Along this stretch of road, 28km approximately, hundreds of trees have been chopped down – I suspect the Council or its contractors have destroyed more trees in a week or so than all the rogue campers in the Park have over a number of years
Most of the woodlands along this section of the A82 are included in the Ancient Woodland Inventory which the Park included in its map of Designated Nature Conservation Areas even though AWI are not protected areas as such. This gave the misleading impression that campers were damaging protected areas. In fact, as the photos illustrate, far more damage is done by Council. The problem basically is that the Park is so focussed on getting rid of campers it ceased a long time ago to try and put its evidence into perspective.
Its not necessary to oppose roadside verge management – although many people will wonder why the former tree in the last photo was felled – to see the total hyprocrisy of the LLTNPA. In fact, what is really sad is this an opportunity missed. The Council or its contractors has cleared most of the timber but left the litter. An imaginative Park would have got the Council or its contractors to clear the litter but leave the wood for campers to use – it might have even let a local person collect the wood and sell it to campers, thus creating a new local business (some landowners in the Trossachs have successfully done this). Unfortunately all the evidence suggests is the Park is not interested in finding alternative solutions to any of the problems it has associated with people camping.
The Park, also unfortunately, appears little interested in demonstrating best conservation practice. While the quality of the woodland felling along the A82 appears highly variable, I cannot understand why the grass verge all along this section of road has been mown. The Spring flowers are just coming out and in other places, Councils deliberately delay mowing of verges to help wildflowers. One would have hoped such sort of best practice would be standard in our National Park. This would save money that could then be used to pick up some of the litter.
Four months after Owen McKee’s resignation as Convener of the Planning Committee for failing to declare his trading in the Cononish goldmine shares, the LLTNPA Board appointed him to the Audit Committee – the committee whose function is to ensure the good governance of the Park! While it is possible to understand the reluctance of Board Members to shop a colleague – which is why we need a legal obligation in Scotland on Board Members to report breaches of the Code of Conduct – that members of the LLTNPA Board could then think it appropriate to give Owen McKee responsibilities for audit, is something most people will find staggering. He attended one meeting of the Audit Committee, on 23rd June 2015, before resigning from the Board because of the publicity in the Sunday Herald.
The remit of the Park’s Audit Committee includes a paragraph that states it will “oversee the Register of Members’ Interests including gifts an hospitality.” One might have expected therefore that the Audit Committee would have been asked to take a full and open look at why Owen McKee had failed to register his shareholding in the Cononish goldmine. Instead, its convener, Lindsay Morrison – at the request of the Convener of the Main Board, Linda McKay, produced a report on Owen McKee’s trading in shares Report into the Cononish Goldmine Shareholding (previously published on Parkswatchscotland) which was not even fully shared with Board Members. Instead a brief email was circulated 9 – Review asking Board Members to sign off the conclusions of the report. These were that the Park Authority had done no wrong and that Board Members should receive further training in declaration of interests. Reference was not even made to the fact that Owen McKee had attended 15 meetings where the Cononish goldmine had been referred to without ever declaring an interest. It appears not a single Board Member thought it their responsibility to check what was in the report and what we do know is the case was NEVER discussed by the Audit Committee despite the recommendations for further training which sat within the Audit Commttee’s remit.
Audit Scotland, the official external auditors of the Park, sit on the Audit Committee. I have obtained written confirmation from them that they knew nothing about the Owen McKee case until after the news became public and also that they would have expected to have been told about this:
“The local external audit team do expect to be timeously informed by the Authority of any governance issues. The local external audit team first became aware of the governance issue concerning Mr McKee in August 2015 through monitoring of media reports and the matter was also raised by Authority officers during the 2015/16 audit planning meeting.” (email 16th Feb)
If the Owen McKee case had been discussed at the Audit Committee, Audit Scotland would have found out about it. That it was not is more evidence that there was a deliberate cover-up. This was not just a failure on the part of Board Members, the Park’s Corporate Services Manager has formal responsibility for audit matters and according to the Audit Scotland email only raised this issue when discussing this year’s audit (which I assume took place in early 2016) i.e a year late.
The Standards Commission held its Hearing into Owen McKee, the former Convener of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s Planning Committee who had been trading in the shares of the Cononish goldmine, while I was away last week. They decided that, had he not resigned from the Park last August, they would have suspended him for a year (Standards Commission decision Owen McKee).
I welcome the decision and Kevin Dunion’s statement. What is wrong is that the LLTNP Board tried to cover up a matter that the Standards Commission believes is fundamental to sound decision-making and it only came to light as a result of Freedom of Information requests.
Unfortunately, while I reported the whole Board to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life for breaching the principles that underpin the Code of Conduct, because there is no clause in the current code that requires Board Members to report possible breaches by their colleagues, the Commissioner was unable to take any action:
The Executive Director of the Standards Commission, Lorna Johnston, has also confirmed this to me in writing: “You have indicated that you are concerned that there is no obligation on Board Members to report breaches of the Code of Conduct to the CESPL. I can confirm that, as you have noted, there is no obligation at present under the Code of Conduct for Board Members to do so”.
There are therefore serious limitations to the current Code of Conduct as, however serious the misconduct of a colleague, you are under no obligation to report this to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards. I believe this is a fundamental weakness in the Code because the people most likely to come across breaches of the Code are other Board Members, as was the case with Owen McKee. Indeed, many of the cases dealt with by the Commissioner are referred by other Board Members and Councillors, which is a further indication that the failure of any member of the LLTNP Board to do so was part of a deliberate cover-up.
The following extracts from the Commissioner’s Report illustrate some of the ethical issues at stake:
- On Linda McKay, the Park Convener and senior adviser to the Government “The advice she received confirmed that there was no obligation on the Board to make public any alleged breach of the Code” (para 4.23).
- “The third respondent (Lindsay Morrison) denied any breach of the key principles of the Code. He advised that his reason for asking the members not to raise or discuss the conclusions of the investigation was to ensure that, at the meeting of 26 January 2015, they focussed on the matter before them . He was of the view that other matters would not be competent business for that meeting or material to the planning decision. In regard to the allegation that he denied members access to the full report, he advised that the report was available to all members upon request. Finally, it was his view that as the outcome of the investigation required no action to be taken, it did not require to be put to a Board meeting for a decision” (para 4.24).
- The remaining respondents, with the exception Councillor James Robb, the thirteenth respondent, submitted a collective response in which they all refuted the allegation of breach of the key principles of the Code. They accepted that there is a personal obligation to comply with the Code, but argued that their obligation did not extend to reporting suspected breaches. They denied that some members of the Board encouraged the first respondent to sell his shares in Scotgold. It was accepted that there was some discussion on the matter at the business meeting held on the morning of 8 December 2014, but this did not extend to selling shares (para 4.25)
One might ask, how does any of these answers fit with the key principles of integrity, openness, honesty accountability and stewardship that underpin the Code or with the facts that I obtained through FOI and published two weeks ago http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/04/05/owen-mckee-hearing-standards-commission/ ? I don’t think they do but recognise that at present the Commissioner for Ethical Standards and Standards Commission are powerless to act in such circumstances. The new Scottish Government needs to change this by making it a legal duty on Board Members and Councillors to report breaches of the Code of Conduct by their colleagues.
I have been away for a week but last Sunday Rob Edwards reported on the purchase of part of the Rothiemurchus estate by the FCS in the Sunday Herald – the full story can be found at https://theferret.scot/1m-tax-sweetener-cairngorms-land-deal/ It raises some critical questions about the role of FCS in our National Parks.
How is it that FCS can “find” £7.2m to pay a landowner, Johnnie Grant, for purchase of part of Rothiemurchus which was fully protected and not under any threat (there is no indication that FCS had concerns about how the estate was being managed) but has no money to pay for campsites on its own extensive estate within Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park? FCS made it very clear in it response to the Your Park Consultation that while it fully supported camping byelaws it had NO resource to develop new campsites. Indeed, the LLTNPA is now having to pay £345k to develop a new campsite on FCS land at Loch Chon http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/03/27/con-loch-chon-proposed-trossachs-west-camping-management-zone For £7.2m FCS could have funded not just Loch Chon but another 20 or so campsites across its extensive landholdings around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. To put it another way, for this sum FCS could have single-handedly addressed almost all the issues about lack of camping facilities in the LLTNP. However, rather than fund facilities that would benefit the people of Scotland FCS decided to buy Rothiemurchus, at the request of the landowner, and Scottish Ministers approved. What does this say about FCS’ and Scottish Ministers priorities?
How is it that FCS and Scottish Ministers believe it is acceptable to take such decisions in our National Parks without consulting the National Parks or Local Authority? FCS’ failure to follow its own internal processes for purchasing land (e.g the valuation of the land at Rothiemurchus) is bad enough, but its failure to consult the CNPA shows a complete disregard for National Parks. I am very critical of our National Parks but CNPA should have been consulted. If nothing else, our National Park Authorities were supposed to enable other public agencies to work in a joined up manner – hence the National Park Partnership Plans. What message does it give that FCS can, when it suits and with Ministerial approval, ignore the Park Authorities, whether its purchasing land or failing to develop visitor infrastructure on its estate?
How does the FCS’ and Ministers agreement to give Johnnie Grant first right to re-purchase Rothiemurchus, should it ever be put up for sale, fit with their oft-stated commitment to promote community ownership? It appears that should the local community on Speyside ever express an interest in purchasing lower Rothiemurchus, their rights to do so could be negated by the sale which allow Johnnie Grant first option to re-purchase it at the market price (whatever that is). While this obviously could be subject to legal challenge, just what FCS and Ministers were thinking when they agreed a sale document that apparently gives the previous landowner greater rights than the local community, or anyone else for that matter, needs to be explained.
While its too late to change the purchase of Rothiemurchus, the implications of which will probably only become fully apparent over time, its not too late for the Scottish Government to learn from the experience. A starting point would be for the Scottish Government to make it clear that in future they wish the FCS:
- to stick to their procedures for the purchase of land, which are designed to show that such purchases are in the public interest, instead of abandoning all due diligence as they did at Rothiemurchus.
- to demonstrate that its resources are being used to benefit the people of Scotland rather than individual landowners
- to contribute the resources necessary to fund new campsites on its land in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, and
- to stop acting unilaterally in our National Parks and instead to start engaging and contributing as real partners (instead of demonstrating that the current National Park Partnership Plans are not worth the paper they are written on).
The new regulations prevent the killing of salmon in “The Endrick Water (being a tributary of the River Leven) and all inland waters which drain, or drain to some extent, to the outflow point (grid reference NS 4262 857) on the east shore of Loch Lomond.” The Loch Lomond Angling Improvement Association has set out its concerns on its blog http://lochlomondangling.com/WordPress/Comments/
This lovely positive film http://www.hakaimagazine.com/video/right-roam puts Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park to shame. People are filmed driving to beautiful places and camping by the roadside to paddle on lochs – just as they do in the National Park. A great counter argument to the LLTNPA and FCS who wish to remove roadside camping from access rights http://www.robedwards.com/2015/11/fury-over-proposal-to-ban-camping-by-roads.html and to all those negative images the Park produced as an excuse to ban camping by our loch shores. It explains the history too. One forgiveable mistake: they did not need to ask permission to camp. Talking to local people about where best to camp though was fine and a good thing to do if camping near a house. Its interesting what a positive response they received. There are a lot of local people in the National Park who would welcome campers too but their voice has been silenced.
The Standards Commission has arranged a hearing for Owen McKee, the former Board Member of Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s Authority who failed to declare he was trading in shares in the Cononish Goldmine, at 11.00 am on Tuesday 12th April at the the LLTNPA HQ, Carrochan, Balloch. I also understand that the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life will publish his findings into three other complaints I made on the same day. The Hearings are open to the public and I hope that anyone with the time and an interest in the standards of those who are appointed to our Public Authorities will consider attending.
The Owen McKee case became public as a result of an FOI request Letter Gordon Watson 150623 and was covered in the Sunday Herald by Rob Edwards in August 2015 http://www.robedwards.com/2015/08/national-park-under-fire-for-cover-up-of-shares-in-200m-gold-mine.html and led to Mr McKee’s resignation from the Board. Owen McKee was the former convener of planning on the LLTNPA Board who, after granting planning permission for the Cononish Goldmine started to buy shares in Scotland Ltd, the owners of the mine. He never declared this as an interest, as he should have done, but sometime in October 2014 Board staff became aware of his shareholding and he decided to register his interest. This was discussed at the (secret) Board Business Session on 8th December, as a result of which Owen McKee decided to sell his shares immediately so he did not have to declare them at that afternoon’s Board Meeting. He found out afterwards the sale had not gone through and resigned as convener of the Park Board because he had not declared his interest at the Board Meeting. Months later he resigned from the Park Board as a result of the media coverage.
While I am pleased the Commissioner for Ethical Standards and Standards Commission have decided there is a case to answer, in my view the far bigger concern than anything Owen McKee did, and a matter of great public interest, is how the LLTNPA Board responded to what happened. You can judge for yourself by reading the documents released by the Park under FOI which can be found at the end of this post. The key ones are marked with * and are also on the Rob Edwards link above. I was so concerned I submitted a complaint to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life not just about Owen McKee, which has resulted in the Hearing next week, but other members of the Board. The Commissioner for Ethical Standards’ report into those other complaints, which I have not seen, should be published on the day of the Hearing. I hope that that will show that the Commissioner was also concerned about these complaints but that he was limited as to what he could do under the Code of Conduct for Standards in Public Life. Whatever the case – and I will cover this further when the findings are published – I believe there needs to be a clear legal duty on Board Members to report breaches of the Code of Conduct by their colleagues. After all, if teachers and other professionals can be held to account for failing to report concerns or suspicions about children, surely those in power such as Board Members or Councillors, should be held to account for not reporting facts about their colleagues?
The last report due to be published next week is the findings of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life into the failure of three Board Members to declare that their properties were located in one of the proposed camping management zone which led to the subsequent fiddling of the Board Minutes. I gave some of the background in a recent post http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/03/23/misuse-legal-advice-lltnpa-reduce-openness/
I received a copy of this report almost six months ago and have respected the Commissioner’s request that it should be treated as confidential till published. I am not clear why the Commissioner decided to delay publication of the findings until the Owen McKee case was finished, but the extra time has allowed me to make a number of representations about the factual accuracy of the report, one of which has led to the report being amended, and to provide further evidence to the Commissioner about why in my view there was an interest that should have been declared. Once the Report is public I will publish that evidence on Parkswatch so people can judge for themselves and also be commenting on certain unanswered questions that are outside the scope of the Commissioner but which I believe the new Scottish Government will need to address.
I will not comment further on the morality or otherwise of this now because I do not want to prejudice the Hearing in any way.
There was more press coverage last week about the reduction in cycle storage capacity on the West Highland Line http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14388363.Campaigners_warn_that_train_refurbishments_will_slash_space_for_bikes/
On Friday I received a response to my letter to Gordon Watson about whether the Park had made any representations about the impact this would have on tourism in the Park. I covered the potential impact on the National Park in a previous post http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/03/18/public-transport-national-parks-1/ As is usual, the reply was in the form of an FOI response: the answer appears to be that the Park has made no attempt to influence Transport Scotland or the Government on this issue FOI 2016-011 Response
I hope that tourism and cycling interests will now put pressure on the Park to speak out. While there is an unspoken rule between public authorities that they do not criticise each other in public, Transport Scotland is listed as one the Park’s key partners in the LLTNP Partnership Plan 2012-17. You might have thought therefore that Transport Scotland would have consulted the Park about the reduction in cycling capacity on the West Highland Line and – assuming they failed to do this – the Park would have made representations when the news became public.
You might also have thought that Transport Scotland was signed up to the transport objectives set out in the Partnership Plan and the Park would be deeply concerned by the proposals to reduce cycling storage on trains which can only undermine that plan. Among the statements in the plan are the following:
- “There is great potential for improvements to scenic routes, viewpoints and public transport” – but not apparently if you want to put your bike on a train to Tarbert and take the cycle route back to Glasgow
- “There is a lack of value attached to maintaining existing infrastructure and assets to a high standard to support tourism” – as now is further evidenced by the proposal to reduce cycle storage capacity on trains
- “Creating, co-ordinating and promoting a wider range of well integrated transport options which will appeal to visitors…………….” but not apparently if this is about increasing opportunities to take your bike on the train
The statement that “linking public transport and recreation and tourism is crucial” is spot-on but if those words are to mean anything, the Park needs to speak out about changes to trains which will undermine this and make the links far worse for cyclists. Transport Scotland, meantime, need to start acting as a partner to the plan instead of unilaterally. Bizarrely, they are not listed as a relevant organisation in VE (Visitor Experience) 11 on sustainable transport. Perhaps the new Environment Minister, who chairs the annual reviews of the Park’s Parternship Plan, will knock some heads together but I suspect it will need more campaigning to achieve this.
There is an interesting thread on mountain hare persecution and National Parks on Raptor Persecution Scotland https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/sustainable-mountain-hare-culls-wheres-the-evidence/ Its very good that people are beginning to question not just why mountain hare persecution is happening but also why, of all places, its being allowed in our National Parks.
Mike, my climbing partner on Thursday, contributed this comment about why mountain hares are being massacred:
“Interesting to read that Invermark (which is in the CNPA at the head of Glen Esk) no longer culls hares – or does Adam Watson think it never did? I remember massive culls there during my time working as a ghillie in the mid 80’s. There would be a “keepers’ day” when men from local estates would arrive early in the morning, form a line across the hill (the beat to the south of Loch Lee was a favourite starting point) and the day would be spent walking in a line and shooting hundreds of hares. Done in spring, the still white hares stood out against the heather and had little chance. The reason given was that the hares eat the tender heather shoots that the grouse need. Contrast that memory with another of standing with the pony by the Unich burn and watching an eagle take a hare on the slopes east of Muckle Cairn – the eagle landing on the hare in a tumble to wings as it struggled to avoid rolling down the hill.”
Mike put me right on Thursday about my speculative questions about whether hunting culture had changed http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/03/27/landowners-defence-massacre-hares/ Mountain Hare massacres have been going on for a long time, even if this has now stopped at Invermark.
What the long history suggests is:
- the current claims by landowners that hare “culls” are needed to stop Louping Ill virus spreading from hares to grouse should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Its not so long ago that the culls used to be justified on the grounds that mountain hares deprived grouse of young heather shoots to eat.
- the massacres are mainly being conducted by estate staff, gamekeepers. Their job, particularly in the Cairngorms where grouse moors are the dominant land-use, is about and dependent on maximising grouse numbers for others to shoot. Hare shoots are a chance for keepers, who often work alone in tough conditions, to have a sociable day out with their peers from neighbouring estates. Whatever the overt justification, it could be seen in part as a reward for a job well done, the extermination of predators. Mike incidentally told me on Thursday about the numbers of foxes shot each year on the Dalhousie estates – 100s. All that has changed is that instead of shooting hares by walking across the moors – which gave the hares some the chance to get away – estates are are now using All Terrain Vehicles to round them up.
Driving up to the northern Cairngorms yesterday to climb, protests by people in Aviemore about the disgusting taste of their drinking water was headline news on Radio Scotland.
Scottish Water’s response was technocratic, that they would introduce a different process in 2017 which should make the water taste better http://www.scottishwater.co.uk/investment-and-communities/your-community/aviemore-2016
There was not a mention that Aviemore is in a National Park or discussion about the role of the Cairngorms National Park in delivering clean water, which is usually included as one of the key ecosytem services delivered by the natural environment. This got me thinking – if we cannot deliver water to local residents in our National Parks that tastes as good as the water on the open hill, what hope have we got? Is talk about ecoystem services simply another term that is banded around by politicians from time to time to make people think they care about the natural environment?
The situation is complicated of course. The old water supply was piped in from Loch Einich and was not sufficient to guarantee supplies to the ever expanding village of Aviemore so a new supply from a borehole south of Aviemore was created in 2012. Here’s what Scottish Water said at the time:
“It’s great to see the new works going into supply. It will benefit our customers in many ways. By using boreholes rather than a remote mountain loch as our source we can access and maintain the supply more easily, increase the capacity available to support economic growth and protect the sensitive Cairngorms environment.”
“Previously supplies received only basic treatment and no filtration. The old source was remote and was the environmentally sensitive Loch Einich in the Cairngorms connected via several miles of pipelines along the length of Glen Einich. The new borehole supply receives modern treatment using filters that remove impurities down to microscopic level”. http://www.scottishwater.co.uk/about-us/media-centre/news-archive/new-aviemore-wtw-goes-live .
What I find intriguing is that according to Scottish Water water from boreholes should require less treatment than that flowing off the hill http://www.scottishwater.co.uk/you-and-your-home/your-home/customer-factsheets/3-water-treatment
The obvious question is why has all this gone wrong at Aviemore? Why is water from a borehole, which according to Scottish Water should require less treatment, now being treated more than the water that used to come from the open hill? The broader question is whether bodies such at Scottish Water, when they operate in our National Parks, could be thinking of new ways to deliver what they do.