The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board and camping

In the paper on the camping byelaws presented at the June LLTNPA Board Meeting, it was reported that:

“86% of people said that they would be quite likely or very likely to recommend staying over in a camping/motorhome permit area”

and

“82% of people found it easy or very easy to find their permit area”.  

 

Board Members treated this as a “killer fact” for, if such a high percentage of people filling in the permit feedback survey are so happy to recommend staying in a permit area, that suggests they have accepted the removal of access rights by the Park and think the permit zones a reasonable replacement.    Both these figures are repeated (its strange that the the percentage rate has not altered at all despite the number of returned surveys increasing from 431 to 1066) in the Your Park Update (see here)  to the September Board meeting tomorrow.  This post argues it is essential that the Board subject these figures to critical scrutiny rather than accept, as they did at the last meeting, that they prove all is well.

 

Having visited the majority of the camping permit areas (many of which have been featured on parkswatch) and to have found them underwater, overrun with brambles, without any flat areas for camping etc etc I found it quite frankly incredible that 86% of people returning survey forms had said they would recommend staying in a camping or campervan permit home area.   So, I asked for the data under Freedom of Information and received it in the form of two Pdf files, one giving the total bookings for each permit area EIR 2017-055 Appendix A Permit Area Bookings 1Mar17 to 26Jun17 and the other giving the breakdown of survey responses EIR 2017-055 Appendix B Permit Area Feedback 1Mar17 to 26Jun17.   By separating the data in this way, the Park has made it much harder for anyone to do an independent proper overall analysis of the data.   However, to demonstrate there is a serious issue with the data – which the Park Board needs to explain – I will compare feedback responses from what I regard as one of the worst permit areas, Coilessan Glen, with one of the best, Invertrossachs Rd on the south side of Loch Venachar.

 

Which is best – Coilessan or Invertrossachs Rd permit area?

 

My assumption, and I think it is reasonable because its how Trip Advisor and other accommodation websites work, is that you would expect a variation in how people rate different permit areas, with some scoring much more highly than others.    In camping terms you would expect people to rate this:

Most of the area on the west shore of the Loch Long south of Ardgarten which makes up the Coilessan permit area looks like this
There are two or three small open areas at Coilessan but they are all sloping, even more though than it appears in this photograph
The dryest and flattest area I could find at Coilessan appeared to have been used for camping – it would have been hard to pitch a tent in a way to avoid sleeping on tree roots

differently to this:

The largest flat grassy area at Invertrossachs Drive, which I visited on the day of the last Board Meeting in Callander, had been clearly used by campers
It also appeared some people had camped on the beach at Invertrossachs Drive. Unlike many of the permit zones there are places on the beach which are flat and sandy, ie suitable for pitching tents. Note another patch of grassy sward left side of photo.

Now Invertrossachs Rd permit area is far from perfect (there are places in the zone where it would be very hard to camp) but I hope I have shown enough to demonstrate why I think it is a much better place to camp than Coilessan Glen.    Encapsulated in words, rather than pictures, I would point to the outlook/scenery (its hard to see much from out of the conifer forest at Coilessan), the vegetation (open native woodland at Invertrossachs) and the availability of dry flat grassy places to pitch a tent.  And its not just me that thinks this: I spoke to someone doing maintenance work near the Coilessan site who told me he had heard there had been complaints about the site (and also about the history of anti-social behaviour there).

 

The message from the feedback data supplied by the LLTNPA however gives a very different message:

According to the LLTNPA people rated Coilessan (90% favourable) far more highly than Invertrossachs Drive (71% favourable). (NB By the June Board meeting 55 people had camped at Coilessan (Loch Long) with 10 submitting feedback forms while 66 had camped Invertrossachs Drive so the level of use appears broadly comparable).

 

What is the explanation for people rating Coilessan more highly than Invertrossachs Rd?

I have been able to come up with a number of explanations for this, including:

  • I am completely unrepresentative of campers and most campers really don’t care about the scenery or having a flat, grassy area to camp, all they are interested in is getting high on drugs and alcohol.    Now, I would have to say Coilessan scores well on that count.  Unlike most of the other permit areas its well away from the public road (so is difficult to police) and been the scene of difficulties in the past (which is why the camping management zone was extended south down Loch Long).  While the photo tells a tale, people who are too intoxicated to notice what they are camping on are, I suspect, highly unlikely to take the time to fill in a survey form:
    One part of the Coilessan camping permit zone is site to half a dozen half burned out tree stumps but had nowhere you could have pitched a tent. If people party here, its in the open, or rather under the trees and you don’t need a permit for that.

     

  • Some other site specific factor explains why people did not like Invertrossachs Rd so much (its one of most lowly rated of all permit areas).   One possible such explanation is the unlawful restriction of access rights on the south side of the road (photo below), which Park Rangers must see every day while conduct permit checking trips.  Its probably not the sign that bothers people but rather than the fence which makes it much harder to go into the woods to have a crap.  Perhaps campers are actually far more responsible than the LLTNPA has tried to suggest and rate camping areas by the availability of places to “go”?
These signs contravene our access rights and the sign about shooting being in progress is a lie for all but a few hours of the year.  Welcome to the brave new world of the countryside, where your every move is caught on camera.  LLTNPA Rangers must pass this sign every day as part of their policing of the camping management zones – its not unreasonable to ask what have they done about it?
  • Grassy camping areas have become irrelevant with airbeds.  Perhaps, but air beds slide on  sloping ground and not much use at Coilessan or on many of the sloping pebbly beaches, as at Firkin Point.
  • The data has somehow been corrupted:  for example, perhaps the system was initially tested by someone entering test data for each permit site and who ticked the box “very likely” to recommend the permit areas to others and then forgot to remove all this data.  That might help explain the generally high level of positive feedback to the survey but would not explain why a poor site rated more highly than a good one.
  • The Invertrossachs Rd feedback data is correct, its the Coilessan data which is wildly wrong – that I could believe!   Invertrossachs Rd is one of better places to camp (despite no access to toilets, no bins and limited parking) and 75% favourable is credible for this site.  Its the other ratings that are not.

    Litter which campers had collected – there was an airbed at top of bag – but was abandoned, presumably because there were no bins to put it in.
  • The data has somehow been influenced, for example, Rangers on their rounds when talking to people ask those who are positive about the zones to fill in the survey form.
  • And lastly, the figures have been made up (and by someone who knew so little about camping they did not think to consider people might rate different camping places differently)

I don’t think any of these explanations, apart from the last two, can account for the differences in feedback received for Coilessan and Invertrossachs although elements of each might play a role in understanding why people might rate camping zones as they do.

 

Its worth stressing here that the issue is NOT just about one camping permit area.  Firkin Point Zone D  (see here)  which other campers have told me they thought was terrible and where I challenged Board Members to come camping, received a 100% very likely to recommend rating (only two campers made the return).   Meanwhile, Inveruglas, which up until June was covered in brambles and has hardly anywhere flat to camp received a 90% “very likely to recommend” rating.   There are many other examples.

 

What needs to happen

 

The Board needs to ask staff to explain the statistics reported from the feedback survey forms and in particular why there appears to be no relationship between “positive” responses and what the permit zones are like to camp in.  If staff are unable to provide a satisfactory explanation, the Board should commission an independent investigation for why people are apparently rating terrible places to camp so highly and commit to finding a credible explanation for its statistics with a view to developing an independent and objective feedback mechanism.

 

The wider issue is the one I referred to last week, how does the LLTNPA rediscover its sense of purpose?   (see here)   To provide proper critical scrutiny, the LLTNPA Board needs get out more.  It would be interesting to know how many of the Park’s Board Members would, after camping in some of the permit zones featured on parkswatch, recommend the experience to the public.  If the Board got out more – preferably accompanied by people with varying points of view so they learned rather than seeing what they want to see – I think they might also question some other aspects not just of the Your Park update paper (which is basically an attempt to sell the camping byelaws as a success and which I will analyse further in another post), but other papers being presented to the meeting tomorrow (Monday).

2 Comments on “The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board and camping

  1. I generally like reading your blog – and most of the time your posts seem well argued. There are occasional exceptions where you make your prejudices a little obvious and have to make quite an effort to fit the content to them – they don’t come across as well argued as usual – this is one such post, unfortunately.
    The “serious issue” you claim seems to be based on “what I regard” as the worst and best permit areas, and how the surveys taken don’t support your personal assessment. The alternative possibility to there the “serious issue” you claim is that many of the people surveyed don’t support your view!
    Apparently you “found it quite frankly incredible that 86% of people returning survey forms had said they would recommend staying in a camping or campervan permit home area” and then spend the rest of the post arguing why camping at a couple of the sites surveyed “clearly” allowed you to argue that the findings couldn’t be correct. The two sites represented 24 of the 1,066 surveys returned (that’s about 2%) and yet you use this as the basis for criticising the overall findings. That’s just not logical.
    It becomes increasingly inaccurate to draw conclusions from the small data subsets you chose – so when you compare the feedback for, say Coilessan Glen, with your own opinion (as you do), it’s likely that the very small sample size you have available for just this location makes drawing ANY valid conclusion impossible – and not that “the data has been influenced” or “has been made up”. And then you make the assertion that only these two reasons can account for the survey results and how they fail to match your own opinion! It’s when you make subjective claims like these that you loose me.
    Your other error is in ignoring the different uses that the permit zones are put to. Trying to argue that part of a permit area is hard to erect a tent on is the only area relevant to assessing the survey results ignores, for example, the fact that someone with a motorhome might be happy to camp in that area. This is clearly just wrong. Feedback on both uses contribute to the survey results.
    “Firkin Point Zone D a 100% very likely to recommend rating… Inveruglas … received a 90% “very likely to recommend” rating. ” — as per my previous comment, you can’t draw ANY conclusion when you take a very small sub-set of data like this (2 data points for Firkin Point and 10 for Inveruglas). You might be right, or the survey might – you just can’t tell.
    Finally, in your attempt to shoe horn the survey results into an argument that fits your own opinions, you seem to focus only on one population of permit area users – viz those in tents. If you look at the motorhome feedback it is really very good, and the access and parking arrangements are generally considered fine.
    Now for some heresy… I actually like the permit system (even if it isn’t technically required by law). One of the reasons is that, if I travel in my motorhome for a few hours to the area, I know I have a good chance of being able to find somewhere to park. It mitigates quite a lot the risk that I won’t be able to park in the location where I’d like to stop – so the booking system has a lot of value. Of course it’s not perfect – you can book so far ahead, and the permits are so (relatively) inexpensive, that I suspect many book them up and don’t use them. There is no mechanism to cancel a booking. Certainly I often see motorhome spaces empty, but the web site reports them all booked. These issues could easily be addressed.
    So, I can see for myself that some permit areas clearly have some parts where erecting a tent would be a challenge (or would just be unpleasant) – but you can’t extrapolate from that into claiming that the survey has “serious issues” and has been “made up”. Sorry.

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for you considered comment.
      First a technical point, and sorry if I was not clear, but the returns I obtained under FOI were up till June and therefore covered 24 out of 431 permit granted up till then and not 24 out of 1066 and so represent 5% rather than 2% of the bookings. Still a small sample but I also tried to make it clear that I had deliberately selected two areas to highlight what I thought were serious data issues and that was that feedback did not match what I and my camping friends might expect based on what we think are good places to camp. I accept that if the majority of people believe that Coilessan offers better camping than Invertrossachs – either from the photos I have shown (and I have lots more photos and included in the post the places I thought it would be most possible for people to camp at Coilessan) or from personal experience – my argument falls. However, from your acknowledgement that there may be some permit zones where its very difficult to erect, it appears you accept some of what I was trying to say and if so I would suggest this is something the Park needs to explain – how could positive survey feedback returns been received for places where it is so difficult to camp?
      Yes, I have a strong point of view – some might call it a prejudice – and that is that the right to camp, which was included in access rights, was very important, that the LLTNPA has tried to remove that and is now trying to force people to camp in certain places, a few of which are good for camping and many of which are not. I think the people who camp, rather than bureaucrats, should be the people who decide where it is best to camp (respecting privacy etc). While vehicles are not included in access rights, the Park unlawfully tried to stop campervans from stopping on roads and laybys in the Park and after this was exposed on parkswatch they have dropped that – a few campervan permit places remain (the legality of trying to charge for those places is still questionable and depends on whether there is a right of passage in each of the places concerned). I did not deal with feedback from campervans in the post partly because – as the Board at their meeting today acknowledged – the byelaws are unenforceable against campervans and the park exceeded their powers in trying to include them. The feedback from campervans is therefore in my view not very relevant to continuation of the byelaws and what I was trying to get at was the data on campers satisfaction with permit areas is being used to claim the implementation of the byelaws has been a success and to justify their continuation.
      The feedback from campervans (up until June) is however very interesting. If you look at Inveruglas, for example, 78% of campervanners surveyed said they were likely or very likely to recommend the site. This compares to 90% of campers who said they would recommend the site. Now, the car park for campervans is discrete from the main car park, off the road, and though surrounded by trees appears to me – and I have spent just 1 week of my life in a campervan and that was not in Scotland so I make no claims to expertise on this – to be a relatively good place for campervans to stop. The camping area is on the hilly area adjacent to the campervan area, was for most of the survey period covered in brambles and only offered a flat place to camp once the brambles had been cleared following publicity on parkswatch – yet 90% of survey returns apparently said they would recommend this as a place to camp. To me, the difference is very hard to explain – as you say, campervanners and campers could well rate the same permit area differently but for Inveruglas I would have expected campers to have rated the area significantly less than campervanners. The Park’s data shows the opposite and to me while the campervan figure looks appears reasonable, the figure for campers is not. In fact in my view it defies belief and that is the reason why I was trying to argue that the data as a whole needs to be subject to scrutiny (and in the course of that it might be established that the data for campervans was in fact accurate – I am not surprised Firkin Point has been rated more highly than 3 Lochs Drive, that fits my expectations.

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