One of the priority actions under the last Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Partnership Plan was to develop long-term Land Management Plans across the National Park, an objective that everyone with an interest in land-use and landscape should support. Interested to understand what progress had been made, I asked the LLTNPA for copies of all plans that been agreed and in June the LLTNPA informed me (see here) that plans had been agreed with 18 private businesses “which equates to 29% of all privately owned land in the National Park” – exceeding their 25% target. However, they refused to release any of the Plans that had been agreed on the grounds they were commercially sensitive. To me, this seemed bizarre, surely how land is being managed in our National Parks is a matter of public interest and should be public?
I therefore asked for a review of this decision EIR 2017-043 Review request and this week received a response, EIR REVIEW 2017-043 Response estate plans. This claims that these land management are so full of commercially sensitive information – which can be exempt from publication under the Freedom of Information Act in certain circumstances – that they cannot be released. The implications of the Park’s claims for Land Reform and land-use management are profound. What the Park is in effect saying is that because the plans contain commercially sensitive information they will not release the information these plans contain relating to the Park’s statutory objectives to conserve the landscape and wildlife, promote public enjoyment of the countryside and sustainable use of resources. Among other things the following would now appear, according to the Park, to be state secrets:
- agreements made with landowners to manage deer numbers and reduce the impact of deer grazing on the environment
- agreements made with landowners to improve recreational infrastructure, such as car parks or campsites
- agreements made with landowners about how land could be managed to reduce the risk of flooding
- plans to protect vulnerable species or to control predator
- plans for future developments, such as hydro schemes
In effect the Park is claiming that agreements it makes with landowners on how land should be managed are secret and not a matter of public interest. This is totally wrong and contradicts National policy.
The Scottish policy position
Last year the Scottish Government issued a revised Land-use strategy for Scotland 2016-21 http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0050/00505253.pdf under the title “Getting the best from our land” – note the “our”. Here are some relevant extracts:
a) Under “Principles Land Use” “People should have opportunities to contribute to debates and decisions about land use and management decisions which affect their lives and their future.”
How can people, including local communities, contribute to land-use decisions in the National Park if information about land-use is secret?
b) Under “Our Vision” “A Scotland where we fully recognise, understand and value the importance of our land resources, and where our plans and decisions about land use will deliver improved and enduring benefits, enhancing the wellbeing of our nation.”
How can we know if decision the Park is making with landowners about land-use are delivering “improved and enduring benefits” if these decisions are secret?
c) The Land Use Strategy also supports the three underpinning principles in A Stronger Scotland, The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2015-16. The third of these is “making sure that we encourage and facilitate participation by everyone in the debates and decisions that matter to them most, regardless of their circumstances or backgrounds”
How does the LLTNPA’s secret agreement with landowners support this objective?
f) 2.5 Land Use and Communities “We are all part of a community. A community can be based on its location (for example,people who live, work or use an area) or common interest (for example, the business community, sports or heritage groups). Both need to be at the heart of decisions about land use because land is at the core of our communities. It provides places for us to live, work, and enjoy recreation………………When people can influence what happens in their community and contribute to delivering change, there can be many benefits. Pride in the local community can increase, people may be more inclined to go outdoors and be active, or have the opportunity to grow their own fruit and vegetables and eat more healthily. All of these things improve people’s physical health, mental wellbeing and overall quality of life. It has also been shown that most people feel that they should be involved in local land use decisions beyond the rights already provided by the statutory planning system; this is why we need to encourage better connections between communities and the land.”
Land management plans and freedom of information
The first is that “there is commercially sensitive information throughout the documents, such information is not discretely held within one part of the document. The plans also contain copies of reports provided by third party consultants on the viability of businesses and future plans.” Now, while I am sceptical about how far landowners have provided commercially sensitive information to the National Park, if there is indeed commercial information inserted throughout the plans, the obvious solution – apart from redacting the commercially sensitive information which would be a lot of work – is to redesign the plans so that business information is held in a separate document which would not need to be made public. This would make it easy to publish plans which set out the agreements made with landowners – e.g deer numbers, extent of woodland restoration, plans for new paths – without the financial information that underpins the delivery of this. Having said this, where work is to be financed through public funds, I see no reason why this information should not be public. Its should be in the public interest, for example, to know what Forestry Commission Scotland intends to grant aid.
What needs to happen
While I will appeal to the Information Commissioner – the National Park cannot be allowed to drive a cart and horses through our Freedom of Information legislation – this is a matter that the LLTNPA Board need to address. I believe they need to:
- Require staff to re-design estate management plans so that information that is legitimately confidential is separated out from decisions that are being made about land-use
- Consider how to consult and involve the public in the development of land management plans as per Scotland’s Land-use Strategy
- Commit to publishing all plans that have been agreed so far as soon as possible