Month: October 2017

October 31, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Forest Drive is the grey road bottom right of map (its one way) while the Dukes Pass Rd lies a few hundred metres to the left of the map.   Map from LLTNPA planning portal.
Map showing location from planning portal

In September the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority submitted a planning application (see here) to itself as planning authority for a new campsite on the south shore of Loch Achray on Forest Drive in the Trossachs.    There is widespread agreement that new campsites with basic facilities are needed in the National Park.  So far the LLTNPA has been poor at delivering these.  It appears to have abandoned the excellent Five Lochs Plan (see here for example) which proposed a number of new campsites in the Trossachs and has also failed to deliver a new campsite this year on the south shore of Loch Earn.  This application therefore is welcome.   In this post I will look at what the LLTNPA has learned from its experience at Loch Chon and the camping byelaws to date.

The main camping area will provide for 9 out of the 17 proposed places

The area to the east of the burn is excellent for camping, being a well drained grassy sward.  It is owned by the Forestry Commission and has  previously been managed by Forest Enterprise as a Youth Campsite without facilities for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions and Scout groups.  Its far better for camping than most of the permit areas at Forest Drive (see here for example).  What is also good about the proposal is it allows people to camp by the Loch shore – a contrast to Loch Chon where the Park tried to force campers away from traditional camping places by the loch up onto the hillside.

Extract from plans

However, you can see from the campsite plan above that the LLTNPA is still wedded to the idea of fixed camping pitches and what is even worse they appear to wish to replace the grassy sward with bark.  That is not a traditional camping pitch, its suburbanisation.  The Park would be far better to abandon any idea of fixing camping pitches in this area and allowing people to camp where they choose.  This would also enable areas of bare ground to recover.  All the Park would need to do to manage this is to put up signs by worn areas asking people to choose a less worn area to pitch their tent (this is how it should be dealing with erosion throughout the Park – there is no need to ban people to protect vegetation).

Another positive is that this campsite is significantly smaller than Loch Chon.  At Loch Chon, Park Chief Executive Gordon Watson insisted (see here) that the minimum viable size for a campsite would be 26 – he reduced the numbers from 33 after pressure from the Local Community.  At the time Parkswatch said this was rubbish and Gordon Watson did not know what he was talking about.  That the Park is now proposing a 17 place campsite provides proof of this.  Its good someone has listened but don’t expect any apology to the Strathard Community.

Having visited the site, I do think the recreational community should have concerns about some of the areas where it is proposed to locate the other 8 pitches.

How many people would choose this as a place to camp?

Three of the places (far left of map above) are in woodland up on the hill well away from the loch.  To provide camping places here will require the creation of paths and pitches like at Loch Chon.  I suspect the main reason for these pitches is to enable the Park can claim to have provided a certain number of new camping places – its target, which it has failed to meet, was to provide 300 new camping places in the first year of the camping byelaws.

 

The LLTNPA appears to be repeating he mistakes it made at Loch Chon, which was its failure either to consult campers about where they are likely to camp or to check whether the pitches, as depicted on the map, were campable or not.   At Loch Chon many were too sloping or covered in tree roots to provide good camping places.  They also failed to provide sufficient space, with many only providing for a tent and no suitable space for sitting or cooking round about.   Unfortunately there is still no sign of the Park consulting campers about what type of camping places are needed but the LLTNPA at least needs to undertake thorough checks before agreeing to the three places here, including that there is sufficient space.  I would argue that its money would be better spent on creating camping pitches elsewhere, e.g. at Inveruglas, where the camping permit area is rough  and not good for camping at present, similar to these three places, but is much closer to the lochshore and the toilet (if it was opened).  If the LLTNPA  are going to engineer new camping places, they should consult campers about where best to do this.

Area on left (west) side of burn

On the low-lying area on the west side of the burn (upper centre part of site plan) the LLTNPA is proposing to provide a further 3 places.  This is much closer to the loch than the proposed pitches on the hillside but the edge of the lochshore here is boggy, the ground itself boggy in places and has become overgrown.  This perhaps explains why there is little sign of people camping here at present.  It could though potentially provide good camping places with some engineering.  While not designated as ancient woodland some of the fungi on the trees are fantastic.  I would like to see mimimal path creation,  with importing of hardstanding materials limited to the boggy areas., to keep it as natural as possible.

Looking up hill from camping area on east side of burn towards where disabled camping pitches will be located

The site includes proposals for two camping pitches suitable for people with wheelchairs (bottom of site plan).   Its very positive the Park is including facilities for people with disabilities, who are too often excluded from enjoying the countryside, but its unfortunate because of the very steep approach to the loch shore disabilities that people with disabilities will in effect be segregated from other campers (bottom two places in diagram).   I hope the places get used.  What the LLTNPA should be doing is consulting organisations representing people with disabilities to ensure it has got this right (there are no disability or recreational organisations on the list of those consulted).

 

The proposed facilities at the campsite

Evidence of site investigations at Loch Achray – September 2017

The LLTNPA appears to have learned from its Loch Chon experience and conducted more thorough site investigations for utilities prior to the planning application being submitted.   This is to be welcomed.  Six months after the LLTNPA had got a certificate signed at Loch Chon stating the work on the campsite was complete, there was still no water.  As a consequence bottled water had to be provided to campers for most of the year and the stench from the toilets was at times terrible – another own goal for Gordon Watson, the Park’s Chief Executive, who had claimed to Strathard Community Council that composting toilets don’t work properly.

 

However, having checked with the LLTNPA, I can confirm that at present there are NO plans for a chemical disposal point to be included with the toilet block.  This is despite the LLTNPA trying to encourage more campervans to Forest Drive.  The consequences are predictable.  At some stage someone in a campervan will empty the contents of their toilet out on Forest Drive (as has happened elsewhere in Scotland where there are no facilities).  If the Park and Forest Enterprise are going to promote Forest Drive as somewhere to stay, they have a responsibility to ensure the right infrastructure is in place and the Park Planning Committee should insist on a chemical disposal point here.

 

Another aspect of the application which needs to be changed is there is no provision for any campervans in the parking area.  While there are permit places for campervans on Forest Drive, none offer toilets and smaller campervans don’t have their own internal toilets – so why not allow them to stay here?  In addition, groups of people wanting to enjoy time away together often include both campervanners and campers.  The Park still appears to have an unwritten policy of trying to segregate the two – it was still impossible by the end of September to book to stay at Loch Chon if you were a campervanner despite there being lots of parking space there.   Its time the Park abandoned this approach which appears to have developed out of a desire to divide campers from campervanners in order to rule.

 

Finally, given all the publicity about the toxic effects of diesel, its very disappointing the National Park are proposing a diesel generator to pollute the atmosphere along with what may or may not be an aerobic digestion system.  If this behaves like the one at Loch Chon it will fill the surrounding air with a malevolent stench. There is no detail on the cycle time of the generator running times, fuel consumption or fuel storage and any bunded facility to prevent environmental pollution in the event of a spill incident. There is no detail on the effects of air pollution in the way of diesel fumes presents to the local environment the environment. The diesel generator is not eco friendly, and it is a missed opportunity for the National Park who claim to champion the environment to provide a solar/ wind powered combination. There was however a diesel generator at Loch Chon, even after the connection to the National Grid had been made and it appears that the LLTNPA may be trying to re-use equipment it has already bought.

Restrictions on vehicle access at Forest Drive

At present the gates to Forest Drive are locked at 4pm over the summer months which prevents people turning up on spec.  In addition Forest Drive is one way at present  and its about a 6k drive round Forest Drive to get to the site of the proposed Loch Achray campsite.   If the campsite is to be a success, both of these restrictions need to be changed.   I look forward to seeing proposals about two way access between the main road and the campsite – which would reduce carbon emissions and disturbance to other people staying along Forest Drive – and how current access restrictions could be lifted in the Planning Report when the application goes to Committee for decision.

 

Comments on the planning application

While welcoming the proposal for a campsite on Loch Achray, the planning application shows the Park has still not learned all the lessons it should have about campsite development and I have therefore objected to a number of aspects to the proposal.  This helps ensure these will be properly considered by the LLTNPA.  I would encourage others to do so.  You can make a comment online (here) – click on the comments tab.

October 30, 2017 Nick Kempe 19 comments
Latest version of Welcome to the Moor sign, North Drumochter Estate.   Among the organisations endorsing the sign is the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)

Increasing numbers of a new version of the “Welcome to the moor” sign are now being erected across Scotland, particularly in the Cairngorms National Park, but so far have received, as far as I am aware, little critical comment.

Earlier version of sign, Dinnet Estate

When is a welcome not a welcome?

I have no problem with people being welcomed to moorland, in fact the more the better, but included in both versions of the Welcome to the Moor sign under the section on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a rather significant qualification “It is recommended to keep to paths and tracks when possible”.  So, people are not really being welcomed to the moor, only to paths and tracks, a small percentage of total moorland.

Now I was involved in drawing up the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) and the only place it says that people should keep to paths and tracks is the section on privacy where it advises people to keep to a path or track –  if there is one – when passing people’s houses.   The whole point of the access legislation is it gives people a right to roam, whether on paths or off-paths.  While no detailed guidance for grouse moor has been developed under the SOAC, detailed guidance was produced for deer stalking – after endless discussion and debate between recreational organisations and landowners – and that is very clear:

“Any requests (to avoid certain areas) should relate to specific days and apply to the minimum necessary area – this is more likely to encourage a positive response than a longer-term and more general message”.

Extract from Stalking and Public Access: Guidance for Land Managers

The furthest official guidance goes on deer stalking is to say that when stalking is actually taking place, “you can help by using paths, following ridges and following the main watercourse if you have to go through a coire” (see left).  Contrast this with  the Welcome to the Moor signs.   They recommend people remain on paths and tracks at ALL times.  The implication is that if you ignore the recommendation, you are being irresponsible.  Even for  people who are fully aware of their  access rights, ignoring such signs creates a feeling on unease – will someone challenge you if you go off path?

 

There is no justification for the “recommendation” on the sign.  Driven grouse moor shooting takes place on only a few days of the year and model signage has been produced to inform walkers that shooting, like deer stalking is in progress.   The Welcome to the Moor sign makes no reference to the use of temporary signs to alert walkers when shooting is taking place because to do so would be to undermine the general message which is the public should stick to the path.   The hypocrisy is these same estates are allowing vehicles, which do far more damage, to be driven willy nilly across grouse moors.

 

It is significant that these signs have not been endorsed by the National Access Forum and the latest version does not include the SOAC logo.  So why is the Cairngorms National Park Authority, which is the statutory access authority and has a duty to protect access rights, lending its name to an initiative that is trying to undermine access rights?

 

The conservation benefits of grouse moors?

Its worse than that though.  The first heading “Moorlands are full of wildlife” is for much of the Cairngorms National Park – and particularly where these signs are being erected – a lie.  A few years ago  I started wondering if I was missing something about grouse moor managers claiming moorland is good for wildlife – I would describe myself as a bad bird watcher – and deliberately went for a number of walks over moorland wildlife watching rather than walking up hills.  Apart from red grouse and meadow pipit I have seen very little.

 

There is a reason for that and its got very little to do with my wildlife obervation skills. There is very little to see.   In the September edition of Scottish Birds, the journal of the Scottish Ornithologists Club,  there was an excellent article about the Lammermuirs which received  national publicity (see here).    Its not just about raptors, since the 1980s waders have declined as much as merlin, while grey partridge and short-eared owl had disappeared completely, the sound of the cuckoo was much rarer, while on the burns common sandpiper and dipper were hard to find.  In addition, the authors found young ring ouzel appeared to have a fatal attraction to traps.    I believe these findings are equally applicable to the Cairngorms.

 

As evidence for this (the exceptions prove the rule) you could do no better than read the Glen Tanar estate blog (see here) – and thanks to Raptor Persecution Scotland for the tip-off.   The descriptions of stoat hunting hare are fantastic.  What a brilliant estate!  Unfortunately your chance of seeing stoats or raptors in much of the National Park is minimal.

 

 

Trap on north Drumochter estate

The reasons for this are twofold.   The first is that any wildlife that is perceived as impacting on Red Grouse numbers is being systematically exterminated on most grouse moors in the National Park by a variety of means including trapping.    That trapping is becoming a very political issue is seen by the claims last week (see here) by the Scottish Gamekeeper Association that visitors have been tampering with traps.   The real question is not this – if its happening I can understand why people are angry enough to do so – but why our National Parks allow ANY trapping of wildlife?  And if you think that is radical, its worth reading this comment from the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (link above) that the UK is the ONLY country in the EU to still allow Fenn traps (the traps you find in the wire cages that are placed on logs across streams to catch stoat and weasel):

Fenn Trap Dinnet Estate
Lizzybusy

October 27, 2017 at 10:14 pm

Almost all shooting estates, and predominantly grouse shooting estates, use Fenn Traps. These diabolical traps should have been outlawed in the UK in July last year but the UK government was the only EU country to seek a derogation of implementing the ban for two years. These traps have been banned in the rest of the EU, Canada, the USA, and Russia and negotiations on the International TREATY have been taking place since the 1990s. The ban in the UK should have been enacted under the AIHTS (Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards) which outlaws traps which do not kill the ‘target’ animal within a certain time period (depending on the species) and by crushing the skull. Fenn Traps do not meet the criteria.  In October 2015 Defra commissioned animal research into possibly two traps to determine whether these traps met the criteria. The research finished in February 2016 and the report of the results was given to the government just before the ban deadline. Defra claim there are no traps which meet the criteria which have been drawn up before any new traps can be approved for use with stoats (the animals they are allegedly used to ‘control’ In the UK on grouse moors. I have been waiting and repeatedly waiting for a copy of the report since July 2016 which is supposed to be released ‘soon’ ‘shortly’. In the meantime Defra have held Ministerial meetings about this international agreement with all the usual brigade (GWCT, BASC, NFU, NGA, MA, CA etc) but no animal welfare groups (or rather Defra identifies the establishment that carried out the lethal animal research as the animal welfare representative group!). All these groups and MPs with pecuniary interests in the shooting industry have held meetings with Defra and Ministers about the AIHTS for years.  A key meeting with about 20 individuals and pro-shooting groups was held in January 2016 which was attended by Senior Defra officials. Following the meeting, Defra officials worked with some of the lobbyists to draw up an action plan for derogating the Agreement. Despite repeated FOI requests, Defra claims that no minutes of that meeting to discuss compliance or non compliance with an International Treaty were taken by Defra officials and none of them took notes!   The GWCT have confirmed to me that their representative chaired the meeting and one of their group took the minutes of the meeting. They are refusing to release them to me and Defra claims not to have received copies of the minutes of this important legally crucial meeting so they cannot release them!

 

There is a link between the signs telling people to keep to the path and the persecution of wildlife in our National Parks.  Most grouse moor managers just do not want the public to see what is going on.  It won’t be long until landed interests start calling for access bans from grouse moors to preserve the rural way of life.  The best thing anyone who cares about wildlife in our National Parks can do therefore is to leave the path, record the wildlife you see (for example on birdtrack) and record traps and other signs of wildlife persecution.

 

The second reason why you won’t see much wildlife in our National Parks is because of the way heather is promoted above all other plants, partly through moorland drainage but mainly through muirburn.

The destructive impact of muirburn, Glen Gairn

The only reason moorland is a rare habitat globally, as stated in the Welcome to the Moorland sign, is that no other country allows land to be managed in this way and yet we continue to do so, even in National Parks.   On the one hand the Welcome to the Moor sign claims moorland is an important carbon store, in the next its describing muirburn which releases carbon.   The sign claims muirburn is a carefully planned operation when in fact its highly disputed and contentious.  The evidence for this can be seen in the new Muirburn Code which was issued in September:

The boxes in orange indicate the issues which have not yet been agreed – almost all are about how muirburn should be carried out.

In relation to the Cairngorms National Park, one might ask how the CNPA’s endorsement of these signs compatible with what is has said about moorland management during the development of the National Park Partnership Plan:

  • Controlled muirburn reduces the fuel load and can reduce the likelihood of spread of wildfires. Poorly managed muirburn can lead to destruction of rare habitats, carbon emissions, impact on water quality and creation of wildfires. A more selective approach would provide increased habitat biodiversity by leaving areas of scrub around the moorland edge, rather than managing simply in terms of either forest or moorland.  (The Big 9 issues report).
  • In some places however, the intensity of management measures to maintain or increase grouse populations is out of balance with delivering wider public interest priorities
  • During the course of this Plan period we seek to establish, deliver and promote a shared
    understanding of what good moorland management looks like in the Cairngorms National
    Park. There is national guidance and current initiatives such as the revised muirburn code, and
    the Principles of Moorland Management. We will work with moorland managers and all relevant
    interests to agree what practical implementation of these means in a Cairngorms context and to
    deliver greater public benefits alongside other estate management objectives.

There was nothing in the Partnership Plan to say heather moorland was a globally threatened habitat yet the CNPA has endorsed a sign which says just that.  There is nothing in the signs which says the estates concerned have made any commitment to change the way they manage grouse moors so the implication is the CNPA is endorsing the way these estates are managed at present, which involves muirburn, bulldozing of tracks, persecution of wildlife.

 

What needs to happen?

The CNPA by endorsing these signs is in effect endorsing the intensive type of grouse moor management, which it says it wants to move away from, and undermining access rights.  The CNPA keeps trying to say its caught between landowners and conservation and recreation interests and needs to take a middle way.  However, when when push comes to shove it appears to end up supporting landowner interests rather than the rights of the public.

 

What is should do is tell the sponsors of this sign, Scottish Land and Estates, the Scottish Countryside Alliance Education Trust and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust that it will no longer support these signs and that the message about access needs to be changed to make it clear that people are welcome all over grouse moors.  If necessary, it could work with recreation interests and the National Access Forum to apply existing guidance under the SOAC to grouse moors so grouse moor managers are absolutely clear about what is acceptable.

 

Meantime I think the only signs the CNPA should be associated with are on estates like Glen Tanar which do respect the vast majority of wildlife and try to manage the land in the way the CNPA set out in their Partnership Plan.

October 27, 2017 Nick Kempe 5 comments

The funicular railway at Cairngorm has always been a white elephant, HIE’s white elephant, but at least it brought some benefit to the local community.   The latest accounts of the companies now involved in operating Cairngorm were published on the Companies House website at the beginning of October.  These shows that the amount of money Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, the company that operates the ski area under the Natural Retreats brand, is paying to Natural Retreats UK Ltd for services has increased significantly while investment in the mountain has not.

Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML) accounts

Its the first six lines of the accounts which are most important for understanding what is going on a Cairngorm.  In comparing what has happened in the latest year to December 2016, its important to appreciate the previous financial year, was only 9 months, from April – December 2015, as Natural Retreats brought the financial years of all the companies it operates into line.  For full accounts (see here)

 

The accounts show turnover was significantly up.  This was because 2016 was a good ski season:

Extract from Natural Assets Investment Ltd (the parent company) accounts 2016

Natural Retreats’ Directors do not provide a commentary in the CML accounts on what is really happening at Cairngorm (as used to happen in the past – see below) but it appears likely that increase in the Cost of Sales line, by well over £1m, reflects recruitment of temporary staff to operate the ski tows.  Nothing wrong with that – assuming they were properly paid.  It appear too that it was the good ski season which was also responsible for the turnaround in gross profit to £1,090,146.  Indeed because the previous financial year was only 9 months and excluded the ski season while making a loss of £308,607,  it appears reasonable to conclude summer operations at Cairngorm have not been turned around since Natural Retreats took over and its still skiing which determines whether or not CML makes a gross profit.   This is important for the debate on the future direction of Cairngorm.

 

Despite what appears a healthy operating profit, once you factor in administrative expenses, CML still  made an operating loss in 2016, albeit a much smaller one of £224,825 compared to £1,219,606 in 2015.  The question HIE needs to ask and answer publicly is why have administrative expenses risen so enormously at Cairngorm since Natural Retreats took over.  Taking account of 2015 being a 9 month year, and making adjustments for that, real administrative costs increased by £100k.  Perhaps that does not sound much until one considers where these administrative expenses go.

 

Under the Related Party transactions (Note 14) the CML accounts show that

So that is over £800k going to Natural Retreats UK.  Look at the NR UK accounts for 2016 and they state:

 

The accounts show that the cost of sales for Natural Retreats UK is just one third of the income generated which means that the gross profit on sales is c66%.  So, unless CML is being treated differently to other Natural Assets Investment Ltd  group of companies, it would appear that out of the £800k being paid for services, well over £500k of the administrative expenses charged at Cairngorm is contributing to the gross profit line of Natural Retreats UK.  This is money that could be invested in Cairngorm.

 

What the NR accounts then show is that administrative expenses are almost as much as turnoever and just like at Cairngorm Mountain large amounts are being sucked out of the company leaving a net loss.   Natural Retreats UK parent company is Natural Retreats LLC which is registered in Delaware in the USA.   This is the US state notorious for its lack of tax transparency.  The accounts do not indicate what transactions if any took place with the parent company or the reason for the administrative expenses.

 

Meantime the CML accounts show the Natural Retreats invested very little in Cairngorm in 2016, certainly nothing like what is needed:

The additions column to the Tangible Fixed Assets gives an indication of levels of investment.  It shows £360,882 was invested.   Note how little was invested in ski equipment despite this being an excellent year for skiing.  The important thing to remember though is NAIL purchased CML for £231,239 – far less than the assets are worth (see here) – and the only possible justification for this by HIE was that the cheap purchase price would enable NAIL to invest more in the mountain.  The accounts show that has clearly not happened and what investment there has been appears to be linked to minimal contractual requirements.  HIE’s line on this, according to the Susan Smith interview on Out of Doors (see here), is that it is still “early days”.

Not only that, despite the good ski season, average numbers of employees has gone down.  I suspect this reflects a transfer of some basic administrative functions out of CML and thus out of Speyside to Natural Retreats headquarters down in Cheshire.

 

The CML accounts say nothing about what the company’s management at Cairngorm or about the Natural Retreats’ Group future plans, for example in relation to investment.  This contrasts to the information which used to be provided in CML accounts which included transparent information about its relationship with HIE.  For example, according to the 2011 accounts, CML paid a turnover commission of £385k  (see below) to HIE. In the summer I asked HIE under FOI for information on all the payments HIE had received from CML for the lease of the Cairngorm but they refused:

 

It has been decided to withhold any details of the dates of all payments of turnover rent which have been made by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd to HIE since the date of entry in 2014 for the reasons set out below. Having also reflected on the public interest test, my decision is that the public interest does not favour the disclosure of this information.

 

HIE need to come clean about whether Natural Retreats have met the lease conditions or not.

 

CML, when publicly owned, also used to report on what was happening with staff, what they had invested, what they hoped to invest and what they had paid HIE.

What the CML accounts show is that Natural Retreats has ditched all of that soft information which is so important to help understand what is going on and now only reports the minimum it is is required to be law.  This is not in the public interest but HIE unfortunately has been only too happy to go along with this, developing its plans for Cairngorm in secrecy and only coming clean about what its having to spend on the mountain as a result of FOI enquiries.

 

All of this provides yet more evidence of what is going wrong at Cairngorm and why both HIE and Natural Retreats are unfit to manage it.  Cairngorm is now not just a white elephant but a milch cow – all courtesy of HIE.   The question is when is Fergus Ewing, as the Government Minister responsible, is going to act and stop this?   With the creation of a clear alternative, the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust, who are seeking that the management of Cairngorm be transferred to the local community, he has no excuse for not doing so.

 

In my next post on Cairngorm I will consider how the financial risks associated with Natural Retreats operation of the ski area are increasing day by day and why action is urgently needed.

October 26, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Looking southwest down Gleann Casaig. The track on the left preceded the hydro scheme, while that on the right marks the pipeline and, as part of the restoration work, was granted planning consent as a new footpath. Photo credit Jim Robertson (all other photos unless otherwise credited Jim Robertson).

Gleann Casaig runs from the east shore of the Glen Finglas Reservoir, north of Brig O’Turk, up to the ridge between Ben Ledi and Ben Vane in the Trossachs.  The glen forms part of the Woodland Trust’s Glen Finglas estate and part of the Great Trossachs Forest project which in 2015 was designated as Scotland’s newest and largest National Nature Reserve.  It lies wholly within the Ben More and Ben Ledi Wild Land Area, where national policy indicates there should be a presumption against development.   In December 2014,  a few months after National Policy on Wild Land Areas had been issued, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority issued consent for the Allt Gleann Casaig hydro scheme.

 

The development has been completed much quicker than most (November 2016) and in July 2017 Jim Robertson, from the Munro Society, went out to have a look.  Jim is helping co-ordinate the national survey of hydro schemes by Munro Society volunteers (see here – which explains the scheme and how you can get involved) and he used his visit to help trial the hydro scheme reporting form I helped the Munro Society develop.  I have been meaning to blog about what he found ever since but meantime Jim has made another visit to check a couple of things.  We have had a very good dialogue about this and while this post is based on what Jim has found, the opinions in it are solely my own.

 

Jim’s report (see here) – which is well worth reading – and photos show that most aspects of the design and restoration of this scheme have been done well.

The vegetation over the lower section of pipeline is recovering well and the line will soon only be detectable by the marker posts
The powerhouse has been clad in natural materials and the surrounds are less suburban than many schemes
The main intake is well hidden
as is largest of secondary intakes
although in my view the landscaping around the main intake is better

While some of the finishing of the development could be better (e.g the walls of the dam could have been disguised more and if you look carefully you will see yet another blue pipe, contrary to LLTNPA best practice design), I agree with Jim that generally the work on this scheme has been carried out to a high standard.   Indeed, Jim was unable to identify to spot the other intakes which were included on the approved plan.

 

Approved location plan – LLTNPA
Braemar community hydro – photo Nick Kempe

While it is possible the plan was amended post-consent – the LLTNPA is still refusing to publish documentation required by planning consents as a matter of course making it almost impossible for the public to understand what standards have been applied to each development and to report breaches of these – the plans showed intakes C-F were tiny (less than 1.5m broad) and therefore like the example left hard to see from any distance.  In landscape terms if a concerned hillwalker cannot see these micro intakes or the lines of the pipes, that is a job well done.

 

The main concern about this development, as with most of the hydro schemes in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is the track which, as the top photo shows has a significant landscape impact.

 

The track which is supposed to be a footpath

Unfinished culvert

In track construction terms, the new track up Gleann Casaig is in my better than most and Jim commented its one of the best he has seen.   The banks on the uphill side are not too steep and while sufficient vegetation was not retained to cover them, they should revegetate in time.  Jim identified some poor finishing but this should not be that difficult to address and could be done without large machinery (which has all been moved off-site).

The problem though is that in planning terms (see here for all papers) this track is supposed to be a footpath and that the LLTNPA gave consent for a new footpath into a wild land area without any proper consideration of the impact on landscape or wild land .  This “path” was not needed to provided access to the intakes because there was already a track up the Glen and the application included an extension of the existing track up to the main intake which was consented to by the LLTNPA:

 

Landscape and Visual Impact

A Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) was submitted in the ES.  The consultation response from NP Landscape Adviser notes that existing access tracks will be used and extended to reach the intakes and the penstock route will be fully reinstated leaving a 2m wide new footpath to provide a circular route for recreational users.  The Landscape Adviser agrees with the findings of the LVIA, that during construction there will be significant visual effect on Glen Casaig footpath and also during the operational period at The Mell near the powerhouse.  The proposed mitigation would however reduce this over time.  In terms of landscape effects the wooded upland glen is highly sensitive but no significant effects will result on this or the other LCT’s.  (Extract from Report which approved the application)

 

The LLTNPA not only decided there would be no impact on the landscape – the top photo shows that this is NOT true – it also decided there would be no impact on wild land:

 

Impact on Wildland

The proposed development is located within the SNH Ben More ‐ Ben Ledi (Area 7) area of wild land and within the LLTNPA wildness buffer area, adjacent to an area of core wildness.  An assessment in the ES states that the proposed development would not result in a reduction of the overall wild land quality.  The introduction of new infrastructure – specifically the new footpath alongside the pipeline route, the new access track spur to the main intake and the intake structures themselves – must be considered alongside the presence of the existing access track through the glen.  Appendix 5E of the ES sets out a number of mitigation measures during construction, as well as restoration and enhancement measures post construction.  Provided these are implemented the development should integrate with the landscape and not detract from the special qualities of the wild land character.

 

The logic here appears to be that because there is already one track into a wild land area, that means there is no problem adding a second track.  On this argument we would end up – and indeed are ending up – with tracks everywhere.   The LLTNPA appears to be completely unaware of the Unna Principles governing the land Percy Unna bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland which said there should be NO new footpaths into the hills and the subsequent heart searching which led to the current position where footpath work in hill areas on NTS is seen seen as being only justifiable in response to severe erosion.   One might have hoped that our National Parks would support that position – indeed that has generally been the position in the Cairngorms – but instead the LLTNPA is consenting to new paths and tracks into Wild Land areas without any proper consultation or debate.

 

This failure to protect Wild Land was not helped by SNH’s response to the consultation which failed to make any mention of the Wild Land Area (see here) but left it to the LLTNPA to consider all the issues (despite the fact that it was SNH which drew up the excellent reports describing the special qualities of the wild land area).

 

While the LLTNPA consults the RSPB as a matter of course – in this case the RSPB drew the Park’s attention to Black Grouse leks which could have been affected by the development – they do not consult recreational organisations. Unless recreational organisations are alerted about developments which impact on Wild Land its impossible for them to keep up with what is going on and there were NO objections to this development.  In my view our National Parks should consult all the main recreational and landscape interests about all developments affecting Wild Land (e.g Ramblers, Mountaineering Scotland, Scottish Campaign for National Parks – I am a member of all three) so they can comment on developments such as this.

 

The first thing the LLTNPA might have questioned was whether there was any demand for a circular route round the Glen.

The LLTNPA could also have asked how the new circular route would fit into the network of tracks promoted by the Woodland Trust at Glen Finglas.  The current leaflet on walks in Glen Finglas shows no routes round Glen Casaig (centre of map above).   One wonders if the Developer ever talked to the Woodland Trust about this?

 

The other thing the LLTNPA could have questioned is why a path 2 metres wide was needed.  Most paths into the hills, unless severely eroded, are far narrower than this so how does a 2m wide footpath fit with generally accepted standards for footpath construction?

Track October 2017 – is this really a path?

In the Report that approved the application the  National Park access adviser is quoted as saying this:

 

“The development will bring benefits to public access through a new loop option and hopefully improved path surfacing. Final specifications for this new path need to be agreed.”

 

Whatever vision National Park staff had, its not been realised.  The truth is this track was never intended as a footpath.  Being 2m wide – in fact Jim has confirmed with me that the track is more than 2m wide in many places so does not even conform to the planning consent – it can still be used by vehicles and is, making the track totally unsuitable in walking for places.

 

There appear to be several possible explanations for why  this “path” was proposed.  The first is because it allows more direct access to the intakes than the older track up the Glen, which winds round the hill, and therefore takes more time.  The second is that it could potentially assist with other aspects of estate management (e.g future tree planting planned as part of the Great Trossachs Forest) – if that is the case that should have been made clear.  The third was it enabled the developer to save on restoration costs:  so instead of fully restoring the ground above the pipeline, by including in the application a proposal for a 2m wide footpath the developer was able to reduce the amount of turf and soil it stored and reduced the amount of land it needed to restore.  It seems to me that none of these reasons justify the retention of this track.

 

What needs to happen

While legally  its too late now for the LLTNPA to require this track to be removed, it should take enforcement action to ensure that the restoration of the land around the track is the best possible standard and the track stops looking like a track and starts looking like a footpath.  That means banning vehicles from using it.  I am sure because the land is owned by the Woodland Trust, which should be more sensitive than most landowners to adverse publicity, that this should be possible (if any reader is a member of the WT please contact them and ask them to stop vehicle use of this track).

 

What Gleann Casaig and theGlen Feshie track prior notification covered in my last post show (see here) is that our National Parks are failing to consider properly developments which intrude into Wild Land areas.  Our National Parks should be at the forefront of protecting wild land and developing best practice into how developments which impact on wild land should be treated.   Instead, their actions are undermining the whole concept of Wild Land Areas.    I believe there is an urgent need for both our National Parks to develop explicit policies to inform how they respond to developments in Wild Land area and that a key part of this should include consultation with recreation and landscape interests.   The sad fact is that the LLTNPA in particular only stands up to developers if somebody objects to an application and therefore the best way to improve how they protect Wild Land is to ensure the public are aware of all such developments through recreation and landscape organisations.

 

I would also like to see that where our National Parks do consent to new paths or tracks, they include conditions about how they are used.  These should include presumptions against motorised vehicles using new paths and also conditions forbidding vehicles from going off track.  This would prevent the “track-creep” we see in both our National Parks where new tracks, instead of stopping vehicle erosion, simply open up new areas to vehicular use and all the damage that creates.

October 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

Just when it appeared that the Cairngorms National Park Authority was starting to get a grip on the proliferation of hill tracks which has blighted the Cairngorms landscape, they have blown it.  Faced with a proposal by WildLand Ltd, the company controlled by Anders Povlsen, the Danish billionaire to create almost 15 miles of new hill tracks between Glens Feshie and Tromie, they have decided these can go ahead without any planning approvals.   This is an astonishing decision which undermines the planning system as well and the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year.  (You can view all the documentation that has been made public on the Highland Council Planning portal here)

Photo/photomontage from the landscape assessment

The purpose of this post is not to consider the details of the proposed tracks, which form part of a wider plan to reforest a large area between the Feshie and Tromie with native woodland and which I will consider in a further post (there are I think many positive aspects to the proposals), but to look at this decision from a policy and planning perspective.   What is important here is not just the size of the proposed developments – 15 miles of track in a National Park – but that 7.3km of the track are within the Cairngorms National Scenic Area and 9 km in the Cairngorms Wild Land Area.

 

The policy position of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and this decision

Many conservation and recreation organisations welcomed the statement in the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year that there would be a presumption against new constructed tracks in open moorland areas.

 

This commitment was developed further in the Main Issues Report, which set out the main areas for public consultation in the forthcoming Local Development Plan, which was considered by the CNPA Board on 6th October:

 

Preferred Option

The existing Local Development Plan includes a specific policy on landscape. It outlines a presumption against any development that does not conserve the landscape character and special qualities of the National Park. This has been used effectively to control and mitigate the impacts of new hill tracks in cases where they require planning permission. We think the existing policy will continue to provide an appropriate means for controlling these forms of development in the future. However, we also think that we could give more clarity on the issue of hill tracks by amending the policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s specific presumption against new tracks in areas of open moorland.

 

“Do you agree that the new Local Development Plan should include an amended policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s presumption against new hill tracks in open moorland areas?”

 

It is somewhat ironic that just the day before (see here), on 5th October, CNPA staff had emailed Highland Council that despite the potentially significant landscape impact, they were content for the proposed tracks to be dealt with by Highland Council under the Prior Notification System.

The track proposals, the green area on the right marks the National Scenic Area while the tracks in the bottom half of the map are in the Cairngorms Wild Land area. Some of the proposed tracks including U-V, A-B and B to the green which marks the edge of the forestry plantation, run across open moorland. W-X is an upgraded ATV track which runs along the ridge of the Corbett Carn Dearg Mor.

What is even more extraordinary about the CNPA decision is that back in the Spring, in their response to the Government planning consultation on People, Places and Planning they had argued (rightly in my opinion) that the whole Prior Notification system for hill tracks was flawed and that tracks should require full planning permission:

 

We also consider that the review should consider whether some development that can
be undertaken through prior notification or approval as agricultural and private roads
and ways should simply require planning permission. Many tracks on open moorland
and hills have some link to an agricultural purpose, even where the primary use is for
sporting activities. These tracks can be contentious, but the public may never know of
their approval nor have an opportunity to make representation on them. We suggest
that new tracks on open ground that are not in enclosed farmland should simply require
planning permission, irrespective of the purpose of the track.

 

The Feshie track proposal was, one might have thought, an ideal opportunity for the CNPA to consider properly the implications of a large development of hill tracks under the planning system and allow the public to comment.  Instead, the CNPA have totally contravened their own policy position.

The brown shading marks the Cairngorms Wild Land areas where there is supposed to be a presumption against new developments. Most of the proposed tracks in the application which fall into this area are in what is currently open moorland.

The situation is much worse than that however.   By allowing the proposal to be decided under the Prior Notification system – which was introduced for agricultural and forestry tracks which are treated as permitted developments under our planning system – even if significant parts of the development were justifiable, the CNPA has lost any ability to control what happens under what the planning development and left the entire development to trust.

 

Where a track is agreed through the planning system, a planning authority will always attach conditions, for example about how it should be constructed.   Wildland Ltd has produced far more documentation than would normally be submitted for Prior Notifications, for which it is to be commended, and many of these look good.  However, not only is the public being given no chance to comment – representations from the North East Mountain Trust who were consulted privately that the visual impact of the tracks would be reduced by a vegetated central strip have been ignored –  the CNPA and Highland Council now have no means of ensuring what has been proposed happens in practice.  Without planning conditions, there can be no enforcement.  This development is being left to trust.

 

What is going on?

I do not think responsibility for this mess lies with the Feshie Estate/WildLand Ltd but with our public authorities.  These include Forestry Commission Scotland, SNH, Highland Council as well as the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  Its clear from references in the planning documentation that Wildland Ltd consulted with our public authorities as early as last December.  Its also appears that initially the CNPA did the right thing and asked for a full landscape assessment, as is evidenced by his extract from a communication quoted in the landscape assessment produced by Wildland Ltd:

What then happened is also revealed by the WildLand Ltd documentation:

So, just as the CNPA were telling the Scottish Government that the Prior Notification system was not fit for the purpose and before they had received any detailed information about whether the tracks could be said to be forestry or not, they had agreed that the proposals should be dealt with under the Prior Notification system.    This effectively pre-judged the decision and ruled out any public engagement and consultation.  I had been feeling a bit guilty that it has taken me three weeks, since I first heard about the proposals, to consider them on parkswatch but its clear the decision was effectively made well before then.

 

There is nothing to indicate that WildLand Ltd would have objected if they had been asked to submit a full planning application which could have been considered by the public.  While there are legal complexities about when a forestry track is a forestry track, the Wildland Ltd documentation makes it clear that these tracks are also to assist with deer management and have been designed to improve recreational access by walkers and cyclists.   In other words they are not pretending, as many estates do, that these tracks are solely for forestry purposes and therefore don’t require planning permission.   And while there might have been complexities in considering in one application tracks that did not require planning permission with those that should have required it, it is clear from the fact that WildLand Ltd submitted this as one proposal – rather than the normal track creep which is so evident in places like Drumochter – that they are trying to be open and transparent.  Its our public authorities which are the issue.

 

I can think of several possible explanations for the CNPA’s stance, none of which in my view are appropriate for a National Park:

  • A full planning application – which would have required Board visits etc – was too much work.
  • The CNPA trust WildLand Ltd, in a way that they don’t trust other estates – hence they don’t see the need for planning conditions.
  • That because Glen Feshie has been successfully reducing deer numbers and enabling native woodland to regenerate, its crucial to the National Park achieving its landscape scale restoration targets, and the CNPA therefore did not want to risk this being disrupted in any way through a planning application.

To me though none of these quite ring true.   I had started out by thinking perhaps the CNPA was under huge pressure from Glen Feshie estate but looking at the planning I don’t think that is the case.  Feshie appear to have been co-operative.  I am left with the suspicion that there is some hidden factor behind this terrible decision.   Perhaps the CNPA will disprove this and publicly explain their position and why they appear to have ignored their own and national policy?

 

Its time the CNPA started to put its money where its mouth is, trust public consultation processes and use them properly.   Had they done so, I am sure the end result could have been a new track network which achieved conservation purposes but with less impact on the landscape and wild land then the current proposals.  Examples of this will be considered in a future post.

October 22, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Photo of volunteers working by the A82 on west Loch Lomond – Photo Credit Friends of Loch Lomond and Trossachs

I spent Saturday evening, along with a few hundred others at a sold out event in the Glasgow Concert Hall, listening to George Monbiot talk about his new book “Out of the Wreckage”.   George’s message was that contrary to neo-liberal ideology, the vast majority of people are altruistic and will contribute to the wider good expecting nothing in return.   Volunteering epitomises that.  Its a great thing.

 

Why therefore did the photo above and accompanying news release from Friends of Loch Lomond and Trossachs (see below), of volunteers who are obviously enjoying themselves, make me feel uneasy?  The answer, in a nutshell, is that the volunteers are compensating for failures in basic service provision by our public authorities, in this case Transport Scotland and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.

 

The voluntary work included “dozens of bags of rubbish being collected from litter strewn laybys and neighbouring areas beside the A82”.  Transport Scotland, who are supposed to maintain our trunk roads, should be ensuring this work is done.   Instead, neither they nor the LLTNPA nor Argyll and Bute Council can even agree who should provide litter bins in the A82 laybys – with the consequence that there are none – let alone who should empty them.  This makes what is a national litter problem even worse.  And then volunteers are left to clear up.

 

The other work volunteers were involved in in this case was clearing the cycle path and removing scrub to enable people to enjoy views of Loch Lomond.

Photo Credit Friends of Loch Lomond and Trossachs

Its a shocking indictment of both the National Park and Transport Scotland – both of which claim to promote cycling – that basic maintenance of the path network is being left to volunteers.   In the Spring the verges of the A82 along Loch Lomond were all cleared of scrub by professional contractors, so why not the cycle path?     While I am sure the volunteers did as good if not better job than professional contractors, had the work been done by people equipped with electric rather than hand tools, it could have been done by just one or two people.  Was this really the best use of volunteer time?   If there are not enough resources to keep cycle paths clear, Transport Scotland and the LLTNPA need to call upon the Scottish Government to provide these and challenge the neo-liberal narrative that the state can do ever more  less and that voluntary effort can be used to substitute for paid jobs.

 

The other point here is parkswatch has been reliably informed that when the A82 was re-aligned, a landscape plan was produced.  This preceded the creation of the National Park but the Loch Lomond Joint Committee which preceded it, visited Lochlomondside with the then Scottish Office Roads Chiefs and commitments were given that the landscape along the road would be maintained.  All this has  conveniently been forgotten as austerity has sunk its ugly tentacles ever deeper into public life.

 

In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Friends of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.  They have long understood that the landscape of the National Park should underpin everything the LLTNPA does and a fundamental aspect of this is that all people should be able to enjoy the landscape.   Hence the initiative a few years ago to clear the scrub from pulpit rock – Transport Scotland missed another trick in failing to provide decent parking there when it widened the A82 by the former traffic lights.   FOLLAT have effectively had to step into the breach left by our Public Authorities.    It has been using that experience to show up the failures of our public authorities, inform its advocacy for what should be happening in the National Park and its call for the National Park to get back to basics.

Letter to Herald last week following release of Keep Scotland Beautiful Report on litter levels in Scotland

Which bring me back to Monbiot and the people who volunteer.   While volunteering is a demonstration of altruism and generally good for the mental and physical health of those involved,  and volunteering outdoors doubly so as it helps connect people to nature and involves physical activity,  the experience of volunteers is sidelined by those in power.   The clearest current example I can think of this is Food Banks, which could not operate without thousands of voluntary contributors all of whom do so because they care.  And yet these people are fundamentally disempowered when it comes to debate about how our social security system is falling apart as the rich  become ever richer.   If the volunteers had power, I doubt we would have any food banks and the volunteers could go and do something else.

 

Its the same in our National Parks.   The draft LLTNPA National Park Partnership Plan makes noises about the importance and success of volunteering in the National Park, but nothing about how volunteers are being used to compensate for cuts:

 

“The number of people volunteering in the National Park has grown significantly and in our annual
volunteer survey 80% of volunteers indicated that volunteering benefited their health and wellbeing.”

 

More importantly, there is no acknowledgement that volunteers in the National Park might have something important to say about how the LLTNPA and other public authorities operate at present.  These are after all people who do not just enjoy being out in the National Park, they contribute their own labour on  a voluntary basis to protecting or improving the landscape.  In short, they care and should be key stakeholders of the National Park.

 

I would like to see the LLTNPA explicitly acknowledge that they should not be using volunteers to compensate for or hide failures in service provision.  Instead, I would like to see them engage with volunteers about how they could be empowered, not just through representative organisations but directly.  Part of this would involve engaging volunteers about their existing experience of  how basic issues, such as litter, could be addressed and using this to inform the “back to basic agenda” for service provision.  It should also though involve engagement about where voluntary work is best directed in future.   There are lots of great things for volunteers to do but compensation for cuts should not be one of them.

 

For anyone interested in the current role of volunteering in our National Parks and its future potential, the Scottish Campaign for National Parks (I am a member of its Committee) produced a report on volunteering and National Parks in 2015 (see here).   In the Report it was estimated that the potential value of volunteering if new National Parks were created was £500k a year.   While National Parks offer great opportunities for volunteering, I think the figure demonstrates that volunteering will never compensate for the cuts in basic services that have been taking place ever since the crash in 2008.

The Friends of Loch Lomond and Trossachs New Release from the beginning of October

Volunteers help to open up views of Loch Lomond as part of special Make a Difference Day event

 

Volunteers taking part in the latest ‘Make a Difference Day’, organised by Friends of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs, the independent and conservation and heritage charity for the National Park, helped to remove trees and shrubs to open up scenic views of Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond along a stretch of the busy A82 tourist route.

 

A group of 30 volunteers travelled to Inverbeg, just north of Luss, to remove several hundred metres of overgrown plants and shrubs from the side of the road, giving motorists, cyclists and walkers clear views of Loch Lomond. Also, part of the day was a litter clearance exercise, which resulted in dozens of bags of rubbish being collected from litter strewn laybys and neighbouring areas beside the A82. This was part of the Friends’ ‘Windows on the Loch’ project, which aims to improve views of Loch Lomond along the busy A82 tourist route.

 

The volunteers came from a variety of walks of life including Luss Estates, the Department for International Development and Scottish Water as well as motivated individuals who volunteer regularly with the Friends and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority. The nearby Inn on Loch Lomond Hotel also provided shelter and complimentary lunch for the volunteers.

 

The event was the latest Make a Difference Day to be led by the Friends, and builds on the efforts made by the conservation and heritage charity in recent years with funding support from the National Park Authority to remove stretches of the Loch Lomond ‘tree tunnel’ which for years effectively meant there were no views of Loch Lomond along the entire twenty mile stretch of the A82 between Duck Bay, near Balloch and Tarbet.

 

In recent years other Make a Difference Days have involved litter and rhododendron clearance and path improvements works at different locations around the National Park with volunteers and corporate bodies helping to protect the special landscapes of the National Park.

 

Friends Vice-Chairman John Urquhart, who was among the volunteers who took part on the day, said: “Anybody passing this area of Loch Lomond now has a much better view of its natural beauty, and it is all down to the efforts of the volunteers, who turned out in force to ensure that this event was a great success. We even noticed passing motorists stopping in laybys to have pictures taken against the new backdrop!

 

“We were delighted with the response we had to Make a Difference Day, especially at a time of year when the weather can be so unpredictable. Fortunately, we had the elements on our side this time around, and with the hard work of so many people to open up views of the loch and Ben Lomond has made a real difference.”

 

Niall Colquhoun, owner of the Inn on Loch Lomond, added: “We were very pleased to support the Friends and the volunteers on the day, helping the hard workers to enjoy a relaxed lunch in between their spells of unstinting efforts. The improved views of Loch Lomond from the A82 has already been positively commented on by some of our visitors and I am delighted with what has been achieved by the volunteers.”

October 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
The Allt a’Chuillinn hydro track from slopes of Beinn Chabhair, Eas Eonan hydro track right background – photo credit Tom Prentice Autumn 2017

Last Saturday, sitting in a hut in the Snowdonia National Park, I came across a Guardian travel supplement “Adventures in Wild Britain” which featured ten places to experience Britain’s most stunning wildlife.  One of the places was Glen Falloch at the head of Loch Lomond (see here).

 

Regular readers and anyone who hillwalks there, will know that the landscape in Glen Falloch has been trashed by what were supposed to be temporary hydro construction tracks being granted consent by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority to remain on a permanent basis.     Of all the new Glen Falloch hydro tracks, the one up the Allt a’ Chuillinn is the least obtrusive in landscape terms from the bottom of the Glen and has been used by the National Park to demonstrate what a good job they are doing.

Track up to Allt a Chuillinn intakes June 2016

The quality of the restoration work on the Allt a’ Chuillinn track is indeed better than most of the other Glen Falloch tracks to date but the top photo shows the landscape impact.  A harsh artificial line, which is far more prominent than the Allt a Chuillinn itself, which penetrates up into the hills right to the edge of a core wild land area.  The LLTNPA officers failed to take this into account when they gave consent under delegated powers to the Glen Falloch Estate to retain this and other tracks.

 

Glen Falloch runs between the two Wild Land Areas that have been agreed for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.   Any development in Glen Falloch has obvious implications for wild land areas 6 and 7 but instead of thinking about how these wild land areas might be enhanced,  the LLTNPA has allowed tentacles of development to penetrate up all the side glens.  Wild Land areas 6 and 7 feel considerably less wild now than they did when they were created three years ago.

 

You would not know any of this from reading the Guardian article.  There is not a mention of the new hydro tracks although it would have been almost impossible for the journalist and photographer to go where they did without seeing some of these tracks.  Anyone looking at the photos in the article or reading the purple prose – “We walk for hours and miles for glimpses of deer, but what glimpses” – who didn’t know the area would be left with the impression that Glen Falloch estate is pristine.

 

The Guardian makes no mention either of the impact of the 700 deer on the estate, whether on the areas of ancient woodland at the bottom of the glen or on the mountain sites of special scientific interest or whether the estate is managing this effectively.  The article refers to “the stalker” – I have met him, a nice guy who is very relaxed about access – but it appears nothing has changed since 2013 when in their submission to the Land Reform Review Group (see here) the estate reported it employed one full-time member of staff.   Even with occasional part-time assistance one stalker could not possibly “manage” 700 deer effectively.  The Landowners however use their staff – who undoubtably work in tough conditions – to sell a message which journalists and politicians find very hard to question.

 

The promulgation of landowning ideology has always swithered between claiming how many jobs are sustained through their goodwill and current management practices and describing these jobs as precarious (with the implication that any land reform would lead to a total collapse in rural employment).  Glen Falloch however now has lots of money because its hydro schemes are operational and generating significant profits.  It will be interesting to see if any of this money is used to promote management of the estate in accordance with National Park objectives or even, dare I say it, to promote rewilding in the two wild land areas.  One suspects, however, that just like on the grouse moors very little of the money earned by the estate will be re-invested and the tracks, by making it quicker for the stalkers (or gamekeeper) to travel round the estate,  will simply enable the estate to keep the number of people they employ to a minimum.

 

The Guardian article illustrates the extent of the challenge facing proponents of conservation and land reform.   Landowning interests are extremely good at manufacturing portrayals of Highlands life for public consumption which are based on images of unspoilt landscape and wildness.  These, as in Glen Falloch, conceal the truth as to how the land is actually being managed.  Our National Parks should be challenging all of this.   My suspicion however is that in this case the LLTNPA’s large marketing team, which is mentioned in the second sentence, set the whole thing up.   Unfortunately, the LLTNPA in Glen Falloch is part of the problem, they have been failing to protect the landscape and wild land while doing nothing to promote local employment or to use the hydro schemes as an opportunity to invest in more sustainable forms of land-use.  They need to be pressurised to take a different approach in their next 5 year National Park Partnership Plan.

October 20, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The upper part of track in the photo appears (from the site plans) to be new, the lower part of the track to have been widened

Following my post about how the planning documentation for the Ledard farm campsite has been altered  (see here), I have been trying to obtain final confirmation from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority of the status of the new track being used to construct the Hydro Scheme (see here).  On 28th September a member of staff  told me:

 

“I can confirm that the temporary track which has been constructed does not have planning permission.  The route of the track follows the route of the approved penstock and has been subject to monitoring as part of the approved hydro scheme ref 2013/0267/DET.  The agent was advised that planning permission was required for the track and this has led to the submission of the planning application which is currently being considered.”

 

However the day before, when I visited the site with a friend, it was claimed (see below) that planning permission for a temporary track had been consented by means of a Non-Material Variation to the original application.  I therefore asked the LLTNPA three weeks ago for a final clarification but have not had a response.   I therefore need to qualify what I say here but it appears that Fergus Wood, who until every recently was an LLTNPA Board Member and Member of the Planning Committee, has allowed a track to be constructed without planning permission on his land.    This post will develop the argument that unless the LLTNPA refuses the retrospective planning application that has been submitted for this track (see here), the credibility of the entire planning system in the National Park will be in shreds, and that to enforce the planning conditions will benefit the local economy.

Powerhouse is wooden building right of centre

The first section of track above Ledard Farm was already in existence but has been broadened and the creation of a pipeline through the trees has made the section of new track above more visible (see top photo).

The existing track appears to have ended just above the trees and section in the bottom 2/3 of the photo is new.  The buried pipeline is to the right (the pipeline is not the issue).
The track without planning permission is marked in red as a “working corridor”.

A document uploaded to the planning portal in October after our visit described this as a “working corridor” (see left).   The photo above shows that this is not true.  A track has been constructed.  At the time of our visit there had been recent work both to landscape it (the mound of earth on the left) and to created a drainage ditch.

This section of track is not only highly visible it is also quite steep and appears to exceed the maximum angle recommended by SNH in the Good Practice Guidance on Hill Tracks – 14 degrees.   Another reason, no doubt, why staff would have originally advised that there should be no access track constructed on the east side of the Ledard burn.

 

 

Above the steep section the track turns west and takes a more or less horizontal line across the open hillside.  It was the visibility of this section of track from afar which informed the advice staff gave to Fergus Wood, prior to the original application, that the access track should be on the far side of the Ledard burn (through the trees beyond the digger).  The reasoning behind this advice was repeated in the report to the LLTNPA Planning Committee which approved the original application.  Fergus Wood, who is still the landowner,  has nevertheless allowed the developers to construct a new access track on this section of ground.   If Board Members can ignore planning conditions and requirements, I am afraid the message is so can everyone else.  This is why the LLTNPA should have taken enforcement action as soon as they heard about this and should now refuse the new planning application.

Its not just that a track has been created, a large section of hillside above has been altered – another concern in the original committee report – and various soil types mixed.  The LLTNPA had agreed to some work here – necessary to construct the pipeline – but a much wider section of land than that set out in the original working corridor appears to have been affected.    The LLTNPA should be requiring a full report on the works that have been carried out, including their ecological impact.   The planning application to retain the track says this section of hillside will be planted with trees.

Another photo showing works appear to have been carried out outwith the working corridor approved by the National Park Authority.   We wondered if turf had been “robbed” from here in order to restore the land above the pipeline?  (The work on the ground in this photo is unlikely to have any significant landscape or ecological impact but the point is its being carried out on a Board Member’s land apparently outwith planning consents).

The intake to the hydro scheme is well hidden and will have almost no impact in landscape terms – the creation of a hydro scheme on Ledard Farm is not the issue.  The question for the LLTNPA though is how much of the excavation of the hillside on the right was agreed as part of the pipeline work and how much due to the creation of the construction track (e.g as a “borrow pit” from which to obtain materials to created the track)?

Incidentally, its worth noting how the muddy water in the burn below the intake, a contrast to the water above (see left) which was totally clear.   This is why detailed plans about how sediment will be prevented from entering river systems are required as part of planning consents.  I don’t have the expertise to know whether the amount of sediment entering the river in this case is within agreed limits or not but SEPA have been notified.

 

Could the track have been granted planning permission?

On returning down the Ben Venue track we were met by Fergus Wood and a group of people working on the site (who appear to included staff from Vento Ludens, Baby Hydro and the contractors MAM).  It quickly became apparent that most of the workforce, who were friendly, did not really know what was going on and the main discussion was between my friend, myself, Fergus Wood and another person who did not introduce himself but appeared to represent Vento Ludens. He confirmed that Vento Ludens had bought the scheme from Fergus Wood, something I had not been certain of up till then and had obviously read the articles on parkswatch because he claimed a permanent access track was needed to allow future maintenance to the site.

 

The only reason I can repeat what was said next is that I had taken the precaution of switching my voice recorder on before starting our walk round the site and can produce this in Court if the man who appeared to speak for Vento Ludens wanted to challenge the veracity of what I have to say next (we were potentially two witnesses against six).   This person claimed to me that a temporary construction track (as in the photos above) had been agreed by the LLTNPA by means of a Non-Material Variation (NMV) to the original planning application.  I replied that I had looked carefully at the planning portal and as far as I could recall the NMVs that appeared there did not include a temporary construction track.  However, accepting I could have missed something or the Park might have failed to publish the consent, I requested that he could send me the NMV consent and I would be happy to publish with a correction on parkswatch.  When he repeated the claim, another guy, who wanted to be helpful, asked for my email – I said it was on parkswatch – so he could send the NMV to me.  He obviously believed an NMV had been submitted and granted consent.    I have never received it and, having checked the planning portal again there is no such consent there.  This is why I have also asked the LLTNPA to confirm that when they say the access track never had planning permission, that includes any temporary construction track agreed by means of a NMV.

 

Once I have final confirmation of the planning position, I will comment further about the implications of this case for the Board Members Code of Conduct.  Meantime, I think there are some lessons here for the planning system.

Implications for the planning system

What struck me from the discussion on Ledard Farm is the workforce appear to have very little awareness of what has and what has not been agreed through the planning system.  The guy who said he would send me the NMV obviously believed such a variation had been agreed but it appears he had never seen the document.  It appears he trusted that someone had made the application.  This made me realise that people working for contractors on the ground on this or other hydro schemes often may have little idea about whether the necessary planning consents are in place, let alone what they require.   This is not their fault, they just do as they are told but this may help to explain why planning conditions are often not met, whether at Ledard, other hydro schemes, the Beauly Denny restoration etc.

 

What then happens is driven by money.  If developers and owners of hydro schemes also know the National Park is reluctant to take enforcement action, the temptation to take shortcuts to increase profit levels increases.        The man who claimed an NMV had been obtained for a temporary construction track at Ledard, also claimed that that “due diligence” had been carried out before the purchase of the hydro scheme.   Now, one might have thought, if an access track is essential for maintenance purposes as he claimed, due diligence would have included checks on whether consents were in place for access to the site both for construction and maintainance purposes.  Perhaps checks were undertaken, but if so someone appears to have concluded that the absence of consents for an access track would not impact on the value of the hydro scheme.  What does this tell you about the respect given to the planning system in the National Park?

 

The basic problem is that while many of the conditions the LLTNPA has applied to planning consents for hydro schemes are excellent, they are not enforced.  As a consequence they become meaningless as soon as a developer puts money before the natural environment or their own interests before the planning system.  While part of the solution to this is enforcement – which is why it is so essential the LLTNPA is seen to act robustly in this case involving (now former) Board Member Fergus Wood – the other part of the solution is to have an informed workforce.   Where developments are carried out according to planning requirements and shortcuts are not taken, that should create MORE work.  More work would give more pay to the people working on these schemes and put more money back into the local economy.   Its in the interests of the workforce therefore to understand exactly what planning conditions are in place and to empower them to speak out when these are broken.   The LLTNPA could be encouraging this.  It could ask all developers to confirm that every member of the workforce has seen the relevant plans that have been approved and could set up a confidential reporting line for use where they have been broken.   That would also help other people report potential breaches of planning permission (its hard to clype on your neighbours).

 

What’s good for the environment is good for local jobs

Vento Ludens (“Playing with the Wind”) – the company appear to have started out in windfarms before branching out into hydro – is a Company with their address registered in Scotland at South Charlotte St in Edinburgh.  It is ultimately owned by a company registered in Germany which is controlled by H.Walz (who is also Director of Vento Ludens).  Its latest accounts vento ludens accounts, for the year ending December 2016, show shareholders funds of £3,938,194.

 

This is important because developers in general are always complaining about the unnecessary costs imposed by the planning system.  Renewable energy developments, however, are are highly profitable, hence the investment from Germany in this case but also why many of our hydro schemes are now ultimately owned by the City of London or other tax havens.   Vento Ludens’ accounts show they have plenty of money that could be used to pay now for the re-instatement of the access track, which would provide more employment to the people working on the scheme.  They are also likely, once the scheme becomes operational, to make enough money to pay for the Ledard hydro intake to be maintained without an access track.  That would also help local employment (the time taken to walk up to the hydro instead of driving there to clear the screens of debris).  If  larger scale replacements – once every ten years? – could not be brought in by vehicle off-road, helicopters could be sued.   The LLTNPA therefore have no reason to fear that by enforcing planning conditions that would somehow harm the local economy.

 

The lesson from this I would suggest is that the best way the Park could help the local economy, is by ensuring the highest standards possible are applied to hydro schemes.  This would help reduce the amount of money taken out of the local area, Scotland and indeed the UK.

 

Even better would be if it could promote more community owned Hydro Schemes.  One wonders if Fergus Wood ever thought about trying to sell the Ledard hydro scheme to the local community in Strathard rather than to a company controlled from abroad and what sort of system might have helped him do this.

 

The Ledard Hydro track planning application is still open for comment and you can do so here

Addendum

At 13.20 today, 3 hours after this post appeared, I received an email from the LLTNPA which stated “that the change to a new track has not been considered as a Non-Material Variation”.  In other words a track that has been constructed on land owned by Fergus Wood when he was a Board Member and a member of the Park Planning Committee is unlawful.  This is a scandal which needs full public investigation.    I have removed the ? after “unlawful” in the original title of this piece and many of the other qualifications to what I wrote no longer apply.

October 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

Highlands and Islands Enterprise are currently in serious trouble at Cairngorm.  Their Chief Executive may have ignored my email Charlotte Wright 170825  and other such representations from the public, but their actions and failures are now being given far more extensive coverage in the traditional media.  This is forcing them to respond and reveals that they are rather like a headless chicken.

 

Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Minister behind much of the disastrous management of Cairngorm, appears to have recognised the crisis and at the end of September convened a “closed” stakeholder meeting at Aviemore which HIE said was “to maximise the benefits of snowsports on Cairngorm Mountain, a shared aim of everyone present”.  While Mr Ewing claimed the meeting was with “HIE, Highland Council, snowsports community representatives and Natural Retreats” the community representation had been fixed.   There was no invitation to Save the Ciste or members of the Aviemore Business Association who have been behind the creation of the Cairngorm and Glenmore Trust which would like to takeover Cairngorm and have been advocating for snowsports there.

 

Instead, the Cairngorm Mountain Trust, which sold Cairngorm Mountain Ltd to HIE back in 2008, was asked to represent the community.  As an organisation its been fairly moribund since then but on  27th August 2017, according to information filed in companies house, two new Directors were appointed, Lesley McKenna (Manager Pipe and Park Team, British Ski and Board) and James Patrick Grant of Rothiemurchus (Financier).  This has clearly been deliberately engineered – the Cairngorm Mountain Trust is a self-appointing group of people with no democratic links to the community – and explains how HIE and the Scottish Government were able to invite Lesley McKenna to the meeting.  How Euan Baxter, who the Strathy said was present, got invited, I am not sure, but HIE has clearly included both in a desperate attempt to maintain some credibility with skiers.

 

HIE’s destruction of the ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

While Parkswatch has given some coverage to the Cairngorm “Cleanup” which has resulted in the removal of ski lifts from Coire na Ciste (see here), a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes by Save the Ciste activitists to reveal what has been going on.  This has been given excellent coverage in a series of articles by Roger Cox in the Scotsman, a fantastic example of investigative journalism.  The basis story is that  HIE has spent £267,000 of public money on the chairlift demolition with no option appraisal, and without looking at the alternatives.  This quote from the fifth article by  Roger Cox is, I believe, essential reading for anyone who skis or who is concerned about HIE’s mismanagement of Cairngorm:

 

“Thanks to an FOI request by the Save the Ciste group, I have a copy of the report prepared by ADAC Structures, dated October 2016. It concerns the state of the concrete bases to which the chairlift towers were secured, not the towers themselves, and it notes that 20 per cent of the bases were in a stable condition, a further 16 per cent were buried, so could not be assessed, and the remaining 64 per cent were in need of repair or replacement. I ask if HIE got an estimate for the cost of replacing the damaged bases.

“No,” says Bryers.

And did HIE get an estimate for the cost of repairing the lift towers?

“No, we didn’t, no,” says Bryers.”

Wright then brings up a piece of EU legislation called the Cableways Directive, which she says “increased the standards required” of chairlifts like the ones in the Ciste. Bryers says he thinks this directive made it “impossible for [those chairlifts] ever to run again.” But, I suggest, as we’ve already established there were no attempts made to find out how much it would have cost to restore the bases and towers to working order, we’re really only guessing here – aren’t we? “Yes,” says Bryers, “to some degree we’re guessing, but some of the [staff at CairnGorm Mountain] are very experienced at dealing with these sorts of things so they have a good idea of what things are likely to cost and how practical they are.”

During my conversation with Adam Gough, it transpired that there is soon to be a review of uplift across the ski area. Given the safety concerns about the lift towers in the Ciste, I ask, would it not have been possible to simply un-bolt the towers and store them somewhere temporarily rather than chopping them down and scrapping them? That way, if it was found during the course of the review that there was a case for putting lifts back in the Ciste, it might have proved cheaper to renovate the bases that needed fixing and bolt the towers back on than to construct new lifts from scratch. Was that ever considered as an option? “I can see why somebody might put that together as a realistic option,” says Wright, “but I think our experience would say that it was absolutely unlikely that that would give us a safe, modern system.”

Shortly after my conversation with Wright and Bryers, I receive an email from Calum Macfarlane, media relations manager at HIE. “On reflection,” he writes, “I felt there was a lack of explanation on why HIE did not explore the cost of renovation/redevelopment/replacement of the chairlifts on Coire na Ciste. I asked my colleagues about this after the call and they explained that any redeveloped facility would have needed a commercial operator and there was no interest from the current or previous operator in restoring and running the facilities [in] Coire na Ciste.”

 

You can read the report on the state of the ski lift structures here and the full set of articles via the following links:

Introduction

The Community Bid

Natural Retreats view

Disputed account of what is going on

HIE’s defence (which includes the quote above)

 

The local community versus HIE

Another piece of great coverage of Cairngorm was on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors the last two Saturdays. If you have not listened to the interviews on I would recommend you do so while they are still on iplayer.

 

The first programme (see here 35 – 45mins into programme)  features Mike Gale and Mike Dearman, two Directors of the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust (see here), about the community bid to take-over Cairngorm.  I found both pretty impressive but you can judge for yourselves.

 

The second programme (see here) features two interviews with HIE staff as well as an interview with Ray Sefton about the closed funicular system.

 

The first part of programme (from 45 secs to 6 mins) was an interview with Sandra Holmes, Head of Community Assets at HIE whose job is to help community buyouts.  She did not allow HIE’s ownership of Cairngorm get in the way with explaining how community asset transfers work and explained there are four requirements for this to happen, which are worth quoting:

  • First is support from the local community
  • Second is that the transfer can demonstrate community benefit and public interest
  • Third is that the community has the capacity to manage the asset
  • Fourth is that the community can raise the purchase trust.

Its worth turning these questions around.  How much support does HIE have from the local community?  With all the money at Cairngorm going to a company ultimately owned by a hedge fund manager, how much community benefit has Natural Retreats brought to Cairngorm and how is this arrangement in the public interest?  And as for capacity to manage Cairngorm, what do Charlotte Wright and Keith Bryer’s response to Roger Cox’ question say about HIE’s capacity to manage Cairngorm?

 

Later in the programme (from 22 mins 30 secs to 29 mins 30 secs) Susan Smith, Head of Business Development at HIE was interviewed.  This was full of excuses such as “natural retreats quite rightly had to take time”  and Natural Retreats are only 3 years into a 25 year lease. This gave the impression that Natural Retreats are about to invest something in the mountain but despite references to a defined business plan and investment plan for the next three years, Susan Smith did not actually say whether any of the investment would come from Natural Retreats (we know HIE has committed £4m).

 

Information from the latest accounts of Cairngorm Mountain’s parent company Natural Assets Investment Ltd (which I will come back to in a future post) shows net liabilities have increased from £22,831,678 to £29,380, 827, yes, they were a further £6.5m in the red by the end of December 2016.    As HIE has been waiting for Natural Retreats to invest, their parent company has been getting more and more into debt and only continues to operate because of assurances from its main shareholder and creditor, David Michael Gorton.  Its hard to see Natural Retreats investing any money at Cairngorm anytime soon.

 

The interview was full of further misleading responses:

  • Talk about stewardship of the mountain and ensuring it is managed properly but no mention of: the work that took place last year at the Shieling outwith planning permission; HIE’s abandonment of previous standards for managing Cairngorm; or Natural Retreats failure to produce a comprehensive plan for Cairngorm as agreed in the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy.
  • A repetition of the claim that the Ciste towers had to be demolished for Health and Safety reasons (disproved by Roger Cox above) when the Ciste building, which is far more dangerous, has still not to my knowledge been demolished.  Moreover, there was no mention of the state of the concrete lift bases in Coire Cas (some of which are little better than those in Coire na Ciste)
  • Reference to HIE agreeing Service Levels with Natural Retreats, as if everything is ok then,  but no explanation of whether these have been met.  Information on Natural Retreats performance need to be made public.
  • Claims that HIE is committed to work in partnership when they won’t even co-operate with the Cairngorms National Park Authority on the production of a plan and standards for Cairngorm (as the CNPA has requested).   The history of HIE’s failure to engage with community, recreational or conservation interests is now a long one and their latest stance, which is that they will engage with skiers once the snow making trial planned for this winter is complete, says it all.   They are only trialling the new snow making machines because of pressure from groups like Save the Ciste but won’t even discuss how this might best be done.
  • The claim that HIE is totally committed to winter sports.   This is simply not true.  HIE’s whole strategy since the funicular was constructed has been to try and increase summer use and it has lamentably failed.   It appointment of Natural Retreats, an operator which had no experience of snow sports, fitted with this strategy.  What has become clear though is that the only time Cairngorm Mountain makes money is when there is lots of snow.   There is clear evidence for this in a place you might not expect, the accounts of Natural Assets Investment Ltd (the company which owns Caingorm Mountain):
  • So, NAIL is acknowledging winter revenue is crucial and also that all the planned investment at Cairngorm is to reduce reliance on winter season revenues.

What the recent public interviews show is that HIE cannot be trusted to manage Cairngorm.  The Community Asset transfer request needs to be evaluated against that record.

 

It would not be difficult to manage Cairngorm better than HIE but it looks like the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust is assembling a very strong team.   The public can go and judge for themselves at an open day the Trust is holding on Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore, on Tuesday 7th November between 2-8pm. “Everyone is invited to drop in and see the Trust’s outline plans for the future and to give us your ideas and feedback”.

October 18, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Overused camping area by Loch Achray. The National Park claimed the camping byelaws would reduce damage to vegetation by enabling camping to be controlled. The opposite has happened – by concentrating campers into a few permit areas this type of (minor) damage has almost certainly increased.

Following my post (see here) on why people should be sceptical about the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board paper which claimed the camping permit system had been successful, I have been passed information from two readers about complaints submitted to the LLTNPA.  Both concern Forest Drive and accord with what I saw when I visited there with Ross MacBeath at the end of September.  This is that the camping byelaws have made things worse, not better, for the great majority of responsible campers.

Complaint 1

The complainant has agreed I can publish the information on parkswatch but has asked I summarise rather than quote from their complaint.

While the person did not tell me what area they had booked, the description fits with what we saw in Zone I.

The person had booked to stay in a specific permit area by Loch Drunkie because they knew the area well, having used it in the past to launch their canoe and a canoed and had mountain biked around Forest Drive.  While on previous visits they had come across campers, they had never noticed any significant camping related problems. However, on their stay they found the area was covered by fire scars, litter, human waste and toilet paper, far worse than they had previously experienced and reported this to the Park.  They made a point of saying they would no longer choose to launch their canoe from the area because of the high risk of stepping in excrement and also that while they appreciated that people when they book are being advised about good practice (as set out in the permit terms and conditions) this is clearly not working.  They feared for what the sites will look like in future.

 

The Park used the existence of fire scars to justify introducing camping byelaws.  They clearly haven’t worked.  The metal barbecue (right photo) is good idea – perhaps it was brought in after the tree in the centre was burned?  Fundamentally though, forcing people who want to be able to enjoy a fire to camp under trees is asking for trouble.  People used to be able to camp on loch shores away from trees and the majority did so.  The byelaws are creating, not solving, problems.

All around the areas of strimmed and flattened vegetation in Zone I there were little paths into the bracken.  These invariably ended at heaps of crap and toilet paper.    This is not all campers fault.  The ground under the trees is covered with lots of roots and digging a hole deep enough to bury crap properly would not be that easy.  It should have been quite predictable that if you provide very few areas which are suitable for camping – and the vast majority of ground in each permit area at Forest Drive is totally unfit for camping ((see here for example) – that impacts would be concentrated.  Add to that a failure to provide toilet facilities and the LLTNPA have created a major problem.  Simon Jones, the Park’s Director of Conservation, acknowledged the problem at the last Board Meeting when he said that human waste was a major problem in certain places.  What he didn’t explain was the role the byelaws and the LLTNPA’s failure to provide facilities in creating this.

The irony is there is an FCS toilet block on Forest Drive.  The problem is its not in or near any camping permit area.  Despite there being flat areas in the trees near the toilet block which would be good for tents, camping is banned here – you would be committing a criminal offence to put a tent up within reasonable walking distance of the toilets!     The reason, it appears, is that neither FCS nor the LLTNPA want campers and day visitors to mix – talk about social apartheid – although recently a single campervan permit place was added to the carpark.  Lucky campervanner!   Just one hitch, if they have their own toilet,  there is no chemical disposal point.

 

If the LLTNPA and FCS want to concentrate people in certain places, as is happening at present, they should have a duty to provide facilities such as toilets.   Facilities should come first.  Towards the end of the summer the LLTNPA and FCS deliberately started to increase the number of campervan “permit places” on Forest Drive  and encouraging visits from campervanners but without any plans to  to provide chemical disposal points.   The LLTNPA has submitted a planning application  for a new campsite at Loch Achray and the toilets there will help but I can see nothing in the toilet block plans to indicate a chemical disposal point is included  (see here).

 

Complaint 2

 

I received this from someone involved in outdoor education and it concerned a DofE group.  The Leaders had apparently obtained permits for the group to camp at Loch Drunkie, with staff accessing the site by vehicle.    On arriving at the Forest Drive gate (which is locked after 4pm) one leader was trying to find the code for the gate on his phone when van full of people appeared wanting to get through as well.  They shouted out the code – “Park have never changed it, so we came once officially, then been coming whenever there’s good weather for a party.  Our friends are on their way”.

 

My informant went on:  “Needless to say the party went on into the early hours, despite repeated requests to consider the youngsters.  Tents & people all over the place.  The youngsters were moved on at first light to get them away.  Throughout the night, leaders phoned Park staff on the contact forms – ansaphone saying office closed till next day; police – no response, etc.  Leaders have sent in “feedback” to Park including videos and photos but heard nothing back.  The feedback system says: thanks for your feedback and Park will review things at end of the season.”

 

“This was the first time the leader used this particular site and never again…  He also said that at other private campsites there are stories of people, especially families arriving very late asking for a plot as they had abandoned their “official Park site plot” due to similar activities…

 

So a system designed to improve access to the “park” has instead succeeded in enabling free use for party / rave sites to the detriment of people’s peaceful enjoyment.”

 

I could not have put it better.  The problem always was and still is policing.  The byelaws have solved nothing.  What the LLTNPA need to do is ditch the whole permit system (except for where facilities are provided where it could be used as a campsite booking system) and concentrate on working with the police to develop a rapid response where problems occur.  This would benefit both local people – rural policing has been slashed – and responsible campers.

 

The future of Forest Drive as a camping destination

An attempt to create a camping place in the heather in Zone C

After promising Scottish Ministers 300 new camping places in the camping management zones and because they wanted to stop all camping along many loch shores, the LLTNPA persuaded FCS to provide a large number of camping places at Forest Drive.  This was to meet targets.   Most were totally unsuitable – as Ross MacBeath has described on several occasions – and a number of these zones have been removed from the Park booking system.  Other unsuitable areas remain.

Marker post for Zone M, on the edge of Forest Drive.

The Rangers to their credit, just like at Loch Chon, have been doing a good job helping people move to more suitable areas of which there are about half a dozen on Forest Drive.   Unfortunately, due to the ban on camping elsewhere in the National Park this is concentrating use.

Some basic management measures like blocking off vehicle access to good camping areas and provision of adjacent parking would really help reduce impacts

The lack of basic infrastructure has then made the impact of this increase in use far worse than it need have been.

 

The fundamental problem at Forest Drive is that the LLTNPA has wanted it to provide over 60 camping places when in reality it can probably support half that number on a regular basis (excluding the new proposed campsite at Loch Achray).  Managers have forced staff to “create” camping places in wooded and boggy zones where no-one in their right mind would want to camp.   The sensible course of action now would be to abandon promoting  the rest of these unsuitable places and allow the few people who might want to go there to do so under access rights.

The only suitable place for camping in Zone C is very boggy and only likely ever to be used by people fishing

The LLTNPA  should then focus on creating facilities to support camping at the places which are good for pitching tents which are almost all down on the lochshores on flat turfy areas.   There are only half a dozen such places and it would be easy, for example, for the LLTNPA to install portaloos (as they do in English National Parks) in all these areas for next year.   That and a few rubbish disposal points would justify the Park collecting a small charge from people camping here.

New campervan places on Forest Drive
Who would want to stay here overnight?

The LLTNPA is now promoting Forest Drive as a destination for campervans.  I think this results from criticisms of the failure of the LLTNPA to provide for campervans and the impossibility of enforcing the byelaws against campervanners because of people’s right to sleep overnight in vehicles on roads.   What’s happening at Forest Drive – a large increase in the number of campervan places – can be seen as a desperate attempt to provide evidence to the Government that byelaws are still needed in relation to campervans.  Byelaws aren’t needed and the attempt to create new campervan permit places without any consideration of whether they might be good places to stay is just repeating past mistakes.

Zone E – its far better for campervans than for tents

 

However, the nature of Forest Drive, means that in some places it provides a very good campervan experience as shown by the photo above.  Hard flat ground which is poor for tents is just what campervans need.  Add in the view and  Zone E, and a few other places on Forest Drive, are potentially great places to stop off ovenight.

 

What the LLTNPA and FCS need to do is engage with campervan interests and work out what are the good places to stay at Forest Drive.  I believe they should then only sell permits for these good areas and if campervanners want to stop off in other grotty forest laybys for free they should just be allowed to do so.   If the LLTNPA/FCS added a chemical disposal point and drinking water provision at the existing toilet block or at the new campsite on the way out of Forest Drive small charges for staying in the campervan permit areas would be justified

 

The way forward at Forest Drive

While what has been happening at Forest Drive epitomises what is wrong with the camping byelaws and the Park’s failure to provide proper infrastructure, it does also suggest alternative solutions which would help people to enjoy staying out overnight in the countryside, whether in a tent or campervan.  Its about time the LLTNPA and FCS engaged properly with recreational interests to develop an alternative plan for Forest Drive instead of their managers trying to drive through top down solutions which don’t work in pursuit of meaningless targets.

October 17, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The “restored” construction track just south of Balsporran Cottage forms a gash across the hillside which will remain highly visible even if the vegetation does recover because the “bench” which was created across the hillside by cut and fill construction to provide a flat track has not been re-landscaped.

This post will consider the failure of Scottish and Southern Electric to date to restore the landscape caused by the Beauly Denny construction works in the northern section of the Drumochter.

 

A central planning assumption behind the Beauly Denny was that once the construction phase was complete the land would be restored to it original condition.   Initially the main exception to this was  the agreement by the Scottish Government that some existing tracks which were “upgraded” for construction purposes would be allowed to remain, including approx 7km in the Cairngorms National Park.  Such tracks were described as “permanent” access tracks. (This, I have learned from helpful communications with SSE, includes the section of track on the Dalnacardoch Estate between Dalnaspidal and Drumochter (see here)).  Subsequently, the Scottish Government decided that landowners could also apply to local planning authorities to retain “temporary” construction access tracks but these would require full planning permission. All other tracks, compounds and construction areas around the transmission towers were supposed to be restored to their original condition.

View of north Drumochter Lodge and Beauly Denny from Geal Charn.

The Cairngorms National Park Authority has granted planning permission to the North Drumochter Estate to retain the section of track from North Drumochter Lodge to near Dalwhinnie (section of track to left of lodge behind shelter belt) on condition it is narrowed and the landscape impact reduced  (see here).  The northern part of this track (outside frame of photo) was restored in the summer but the North Drumochter Estate has subsequently applied to remove the requirement for native woodland planting around it – this will be considered in future post.  The section considered in this post, where full restoration is required, lies between the south (right) of the north Drumochter Lodge policy woodlands to Drumochter summit. The line of the former construction track is still clearly visible in the photo above from a distance.

In my view the main reason for this is that the attempt to restore the former access track along this section has been risible.   The photo above shows the bench that was cut across the hillside through cut and fill (the upper slope was cut and the lower filled in with the material excavated) remains.  In effect the only restoration that has been carried out has been to break up the former track surface.   The material which forms the line of the track should have been moulded back to match the contours of the hillside, with the “fill” material shifted uphill to cover the “cut” ground and banks on the upside of the track.

The consequence of leaving the track foundations in place is not only that a permanent line has been left across the hillside but as should have been quite predictable, the North Drumochter Estate has continued to use the line as a track.  This will prevent full vegetation recovery even if the current plan, which is to leave restoration up to natural regeneration works.

The boundary between the unrestored section of track just south of North Drumochter Lodge policy woodlands and the restored section.

The photos shows vehicles are still being driven from the section of track granted planning permission by the CNPA (which still requires to be narrowed) onto the section “restored” by SSE’s contractors creating a churned up motorway.  This “restored” section is in the Drumochter Hills Site of Special Scientific Interest and off-track use of vehicles here needs consent by SNH.  (I will ask if it has been granted).  Unless the CNPA, SNH and SSE work together to stop vehicles being driven here the vegetation will never recover.

The first section of the restored track opposite Balsporran Cottages is a quagmire due to inappropriate vehicle use

 

For almost 2.5km there has been no attempt to landscape the ground of the former track into the contours of the hillside with the result that it will form a permanent landscape scar even if vehicle use was stopped

 

 

Access point opposite Balsporran Cottages has been used to create a shortcut to North Drumochter Lodge

The use of vehicles has been facilitated by the creation of access gates from the A9 enabling vehicles to be driven up onto the line of the Beauly Denny construction track, creating more erosion and preventing vegetation recovery.

 

The former track as it approaches the Boar of Badenoch from the north – in what sense is this a “temporary” track?

While the CNPA, to its credit has been very concerned about the poor restoration of this section of the Beauly Denny and the landscape scar which can be seen from the A9,  so far its focus has been on the quality of the vegetation reinstatement.

Some peat has been restored around the tower base but a far wider area has been left to “natural regeneration”.

Some of the poor restoration around the tower bases has been explained by CNPA staff as being a consequence of a failure to store vegetation properly during the construction phase leaving insufficient peat and vegetation to re-cover the area and of inadequate construction method statements 250615trackrestorationSSE (obtained through FOI).  This appears correct and the result is that more mineral soils are exposed and this will promote natural regeneration by different plant communities.  CNPA staff have suggested alternative solutions (see peatland restoration advice in link above) which so far appear to have been resisted by SSE.  One suspects the underlying reason for this is SSE does not want to incur more costs.

Section south of previous photo looking north

Its only as the former construction track approaches the Drumochter pass that the restoration work has attempted to remove the line of the cut and fill and mould the former track materials into the contours of the hillside.   While a short section of bank (on right) has been left exposed, other restoration on this short stretch has been more successful with the horizontal bench across the hillside effectively removed, making it much harder for vehicles to drive here.  Unfortunately the failure to store and replace vegetation means it will still form a very visible scar for some time.  Vegetation reinstatement, rather than landscaping, is the main issue on this short section of the former construction track.

There is one section between pylons near the Boar of Badenoch where no access track was constructed.

This photo shows what the hillside would look like if restored properly and provides a benchmark to judge the restoration.

The responsibility for restoring the damage to the landscape and what needs to happen

When planning consent was granted to the Beauly Denny the condition was that the section of ground covered in this post should be fully restored.   The CNPA to its credit has been very concerned about the standard of restoration and I have been able to tell from correspondence obtained through FOI (eg Mr D Bryden CNPA Response 26 August 2015) that the CNPA were not properly consulted about the original mitigation measures and that after a Board Visit they raised issues at a senior level in SSE.  This has had some effect and the CNPA is now involved in annual monitoring of the restoration.    Unfortunately however the 2016 restoration monitoring report, which I obtained through FOI (see here), seems to show that Scottish and Southern Electric had managed to confine discussion of the issues to vegetation recovery and not wider landscape issues:

 

2 RESTORATION
2.1 THE DEFINITION OF FULL RESTORATION
The definition of “full restoration” is not necessarily straightforward, particularly for complex vegetation communities. Totally subjective or objective approaches are likely to be problematic and it is likely that it will be necessary to utilise a combination of both subjective and objective techniques for monitoring affected locations.
The broad definition of full restoration is more straightforward than the specific detailed approach to establishing that it has been achieved. In simple terms, following construction of the overhead line, it would be reasonable to expect that the habitat should be restored to one that is of similar type, structure, species composition and of at least equivalent quality/value to that which was present prior to construction. In achieving this, certain changes to the vegetation, that may occur as a result of the construction, restoration procedures, or through natural change (or anthropogenic change) and which may be either beneficial or adverse; need to be fully taken into account.

 

Now vegetation is important, and I don’t want to minimise in any way the importance of the inputs from CNPA staff on this or the SSE classification of vegetation recovery to date as adequate when it is clearly not.  However, what appears to have been missing so far is full consideration of the landscape issues.

 

In my view both CNPA and SNH should now be calling on SSE to produce a proper landscape plan to restore the scar across the hillside caused by the failure to re-landscape the cut and fill track.  Such restoration should make off road use of vehicles along the line of the former construction track very difficult, while specific action should be taken to prevent the estate from driving vehicles onto the flatter area of moorland between north Drumochter Lodge and Balsporran Cottages.

 

SSE have the money to pay for this.  Moreover, where estates have gained permission for tracks to be retained, as north of Drumochter Lodge, this has saved SSE large sums which they would have had to spend on removing the tracks  At the very least they should be using these savings to re-invest and ensure proper reinstatement of other sections of track.  The landscape of the National Park deserves no less.

October 11, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Extract from Glasgow Airport magazine, High Flyer, September 2017. Often the LLTNPA appears to be more a tourist agency – we have Visit Scotland to do that – than National Park, with a marketing team to match. Yes, Loch Lomond is very close to Glasgow airport , but can you get there easily by public transport? Yes, the National Park is great for camping – but why not mention the camping ban then?

Looking at the papers for the Cairngorms National Park Board meeting which took place last Friday (see here), I was struck by the significant differences between the way it and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority operate.

 

While many (mostly retiring?) members of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority have lost sight of what they might contribute to the National Park (see here),  Cairngorms National Park Authority Board Members are involved in a large number of initiatives.  Here is an extract on current CNPA involvement in Groups (27 in all):

 

While attending meetings and events of course does not necessarily make Board Members effective – and the CNPA has in my view always struggled to engage with recreational interests – this wide network of groups does influence how the Cairngorms National Park operates.  The CNPA has a raft of strategies and plans compared to the the LLTNPA and there are direct links between these groups, the existence of strategies and the National Park Partnership Plan.

 

For example,  the Cairngorms Economic Forum (one of the Group above) links to the Cairngorms Economic Strategy 2015-18 and the fact that the Cairngorms National Park Partnership Plan considers economic issues, include low pay in the National Park.  While they are far from developing an alternative economic strategy, based on sustainable development and use (should that be re-use?) of natural resources, they do have a framework for considering the issues.    There is no equivalent in the LLTNPA.  As a consequence their draft National Park Partnership plan is much weaker on these issues and is little more than a set of aspirations (which its very hard for anyone to disagree with) without content.

 

While some networking does go on on the LLTNPA – you can see that locally elected members and councillors do attend community council meetings from the minutes of those meetings – what their Board Members are involved in is very difficult to ascertain as there is no public network of groups as with the CNPA.   Indeed groups which used to exist, like the east Loch Lomond and 5 Lochs Visitor Management Groups appear effectively to have been shut down.  Moreover, the public have no easy way to contact LLTNPA members, whereas go to the section of the CNPA website on Board Members, click on their name and there is an email.  So, if you are interested in social inclusion or Broadband in the Cairngorms National Park, you can work out who best to speak to and contact them.  I would suggest that is worth a lot.

 

The differences go further.  The CNPA has a Planning Committee, on which all Board Members sit, and an Audit and Risk Committee but it also has a Finance and Delivery and Staffing and Delivery Committees.  ALL meet in public.  Contrast this with what the LLTNPA say on their website:

 

“By law, we have two committees that are required to meet:

  • Our Planning & Access Committee meets monthly to consider certain planning applications, enforcement actions, policy papers, legal agreements and access matters.
  • And our Audit Committee meets up to four times a year to support the Accountable Officer (our CEO) in their responsibilities for issues of risk, control and governance and associated assurance through a process of constructive challenge.”

 

The LLTNPA operate with the minimum number of Committees possible,  just as they publish the minimum amount of information they are legally obliged to (two years).

 

The LLTNPA model has, I believe, been based on neo-liberal corporate ideology that the best way to run organisations is by slimline management, which in effect means small groups of people endorsing decisions taken by the leader.  The few know best and Park structures have been designed to prevent anything getting in the way of centralised decision-making.   No wonder their Board Members no longer saw a role for themselves and proposed their own abolition.

 

Thankfully there are signs of change at the LLTNPA.  Their new convener appears to be a genuine team player, more like the captain than the manager, and the Chair of the Park’s Delivery Group, Colin Bayes, has been trying to make more public what that group does.   The logical next step is to create a finance and delivery committee which, like the CNPA, meets in public.  Having a staffing committee also says something about the preparedness of an organisation to be open – for staff should be the most important resource our National Parks have.

 

The two National Park Boards have arranged to meet in November – its been an action point for the LLTNPA for over two years – and I think that provides an ideal opportunity for LLTNPA members to rediscover a role for themselves.

 

Structures are only the start

Extract from report on last CNPA National Park Partnership Plan progress

Networking, listening, being more open is however only a start. Having discovered a role for themselves, Board Members need to help ensure our National Parks deliver far more than they do at present and where things are not working to help change direction and come up with new solutions.  The above extract illustrates the challenges facing the CNPA.  The Wildlife Estates Initiative was dominated by landowners and hunting interests and was supposed to show how the National Park would work in partnership with estates to promote wildlife in the National Park (and reduce wildlife persecution).  What the extract above shows is that even this weak initiative has failed and it provides strong evidence that the voluntary measures to promote wildlife in the new National Park Partnership Plan won’t work either.    The landed estates basically don’t care how they appear to the public.   The challenge for CNPA Board Members is to start to assert the right of the National Park to take action on these issues where voluntary measures have failed.

 

Ironically, the LLTNPA did take firm action in one area – the camping byelaws –  though I think it is significant that this is the ONLY area of work where it has been prepared to stick its neck out.  The problem has been that the LLTNPA focussed on the wrong issue – camping management rather than visitor management – and has bulldozed through the wrong solution with disastrous consequences.   I am in favour of our National Park Boards taking a stronger line but, just like when landowners fail to co-operate, they also need to recognise when they have got it wrong.  Its these type of issues where public debate should be promoted by our National Park Boards,  rather than the manipulated Your Park consultation on the byelaws or the relative silence of the CNPA on fundamental issues of land-use such as whether grouse moor management is compatible with the aims of the National Park.   Neither of our National Parks have been very good at leading such debates to date.

October 9, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
Digger 6th October 2017 just southwest of col between Geal Charn and A’Mharconaich, West Drumochter Hills. Note the hillwalkers in the foreground.  GR 592766 approx.  The track curls round into Fraoch Choire north east of Beinn Udlamain.

If you see a digger in the hills……………report it!

On Friday, I went for a run up Geal Charn and went just beyond the summit because the views then open up down Loch Ericht.  There was a digger a little way to the south on what used to be a stalkers path into the Fraoch Choire.  Over the last ten years or so new bulldozed tracks have proliferated on both sides of the Drumochter pass and had a massive impact on the scenery.

Track behind north Drumochter Lodge
Tracks leading into west Drumochter hills from Balsporran cottages. The track on the left, up the Allt Choire Fhar leads onto the col in the top photo with the digger.
Screenshot from the very helpful Cairngorms National Park estate boundaries map

Most of land on the north side of the Drumochter pass is part of the North Drumochter or Ralia Estate as it is sometimes known.   As far as I can see from the National Park and Highland Council planning portals only two of the North Drumochter tracks has had planning permission, a  short section south of the telephone mast in the Glen back in 2012 and a section of the Beauly Denny construction track running north from Drumochter Lodge.  The tracks on the open hillside appear not to have been subject to planning at all.

 

The problem has been that under the old planning rules agricultural and forestry tracks did not need planning permission except in National Scenic Areas.  Estates used the presence of a few sheep, as in the first photo above, to claim these were agricultural tracks when they have been primarily used for grouse moor management.       However, after coming under considerable pressure from environmental and recreational NGOs, in December 2014 the Scottish Government introduced the Prior Notification system where landowners are supposed to notify planning authorities of the creation of any new track and any works to existing tracks which effectively extend them (e.g broadening the width of the track).

 

Many estates, however, are not observing the new rules and its a considerable challenge for Planning Authorities to monitor what is going on on the ground.  (Its not possible for planning authorities to take enforcement action against works that are more than three years old).   The LINK hilltrack campaign has had considerable success encouraging hillwalkers to report new tracks but one of the challenges for both LINK and planning authorities is to determine when the track work was done .   The presence of diggers however provide evidence that work is being done.

 

What struck me on Geal Charn, a popular Munro, is just how many hillwalkers must pass track construction works on the hill  and assume that all is legitimate.    If you care about the landscape, report it!.  A good place to start is the Link Hill tracks group (see here).

 

Has the work on this track been granted planning permission or been properly notified?

You can also report direct to the Planning Authority.   Several planning authorities, including the Cairngorms National Park, are now placing all Prior Notifications on their planning portals and its quite easy to check if work has had planning permission if you know the council or National Park boundary.  In this case I went to Cairngorms National Park Authority planning applications and did a map search:

The OS Map is out of date and does not show recent tracks but the track in the top photo follows the line of an old stalkers path into the Fraoch Choire.

When you zoom in one level more than this you get to maps which depict all planning applications in red.   The situation in this case is a bit complicated since the yellow marks line marks the Cairngorms National Park boundary and the digger in the photo may have just been outwith the CNPA boundary (although of course it could have done works on either side of the boundary).  I therefore also checked the HIghland Council planning portal but as far as I can see no full planning application or Prior Notification has been submitted to either Planning Authority:

HIghland Council planning portal snapshot showing line of old footpath into Fraoch Choire. If the track had planning permission or been notified to the Planning Portal there should have been a red line by the line of the footpath.

Now of course its possible that North Drumochter Estate has notified Highland Council of the work and it has not appeared on the their planning portal or that works are of a very minor nature (routine maintenance of existing tracks) and therefore don’t need to be notified.   However, what the planning portals shows is that there is NO obvious explanation for the presence of the digger or that works have been agreed here.   I believe therefore there is every reason to report it.  So, I will!

 

If you find it difficult to access or the Planning Authorities on-line portals don’t let that put you off.  (The IDOX planning portal still does not allow you to see planning applications on maps if you use firefox as your web browser although I reported this glitch to the Scottish Government early this year)    You can email photos to the planning authority and ask if they know about this work (CNPA planning 01479 873535or planning@cairngorms.co.uk) and the LINK Hill tracks campaign (see here again) will always welcome information.

 

Hill tracks and protected areas

Where it can be hard for the planning authority to take enforcement action under planning law is if works are of a minor nature.   This however contributes to a new problem, track creep.   Tracks are gradually widened or extended or ATV tracks receive some maintenance work which over time then add up to a new track.    The photos I have – and unfortunately I did not have time to take a close look which would have been better – suggest this may be happening in this case.

 

There are other mechanisms however by which we could prevent this happening.   In protected nature sites many operations require consent from SNH and much of our National Parks are supposed to be protected in this way.  SNH has a very useful website, called sitelink which enables you to do map based searches of whether a site is protected (and it works with firefox!):

The big hatched block shows the boundary of the Drumochter Hills SSSI, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area (birds).

It appear that the digger, while it might have been just outwith the CNPA boundary was within the Drumochter Hills SSSI, SAC and SPA boundary.   Within that SSSI all work on vegetation, ditches, tracks and off road use of vehicles requires permission from SNH.   So, I will report the digger to  SNH too, although in an ideal world one would hope that our National Parks at least would automatically pass on this type of information to SNH!  Indeed, I believe one of the primary ways that the CNPA could prevent the further extension of hills tracks – a policy commitment set out in its new National Park Parternship Plan – would be to encourage and work with SNH to make the system of Operations Requiring Consent far more robust than it is at present.

What needs to be done

Besides using its planning powers and working more closely with SNH, it seems to me its time the CNPA (and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority) considered using the other powers it has to bring hill tracks and hill track work under control and protect the landscape.  I have previously advocated use of byelaws, which the National Park can create in order to protected nature conservation interests, to control grouse moor management.  Part of that should include extension of tracks and use of diggers on the hill.

 

It will help build the case for that if people out on the hill report what they see and, ideally, complain.

October 7, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
The current debate on An Camas Mor is likely to carry into the consultation on the  new Local Development Plan. (Letter 5th October – Dave Morris is fellow campaigner and friend of mine).

Arguably the most important item on the agenda of the Cairngorms National Park Authority Board Meeting on Friday (link to papers) was the Local Development Plan.  The current five year plan was approved two and a half years ago but the consultation for the next one is due to start at the end of the year.  The  Board was being asked to consider the draft “Main Issues Report” for consultation.  It contains many important issues (which I will come back to) and a significant discussion about An Camas Mor.

 

When the CNPA Board renewed the planning permission for An Camas Mor for a paltry £203 under Section 42 of the Planning Act in the summer, part of their argument was they had no choice but to do so.  This was because the land at An Camas Mor was set aside for housing in the existing Local Development Plan.   There is a danger here of a circular argument, planning permission is granted because a new town at ACM is in the Local Development Plan and then the Local Development Plan allocates the site for a new town because……its been granted planning permission.  This could go on for years!

 

In what I see as a significant development the Main Issues report  identifies a way out of this circular argument based on the Scottish Government’s targets for new build housing in the National Park:

 

We will continue to work with the site owners and their design team to deliver An Camas Mòr. However, it is also possible that An Camas Mòr will not be delivered. The next Local Development Plan needs to be able to adapt to those circumstances if they happen and have alternative ways of meeting the National Park’s housing land requirements in the event that the site is unable to be developed.

 

The argument is that if ACM is not built, the CNPA’s proposed housing targest would  be missed so the CNPA is suggesting setting aside alternative land for housing.  Its suggestion is land at the northern edge of Aviemore  which, it says:

 

“is close to the existing road network, mains water supplies, sewage infrastructure and electricity supplies and would link to existing services and facilities in Aviemore.”

 

In other words, the infrastructure costs associated with development would be signficantly less and so make the development more likely to go ahead.   If that is the case, however, why not just choose the site now and ditch ACM?

Extract from Main Issues report

There is lots of other interesting information in the report (the CNPA is in a different league to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority when it comes to providing evidence about its plans – the draft LLTNPA National Partnership contains no proper evidence).   This evidence I believe will further assist with opening up a debate about whether ACM is a sensible solution to the Park’s housing problems.  Take the chart above (which excludes ACM  which is projected to provide 50 accommodation units a year till it reaches 1500).   This shows that in 2020 and 2021 new housing completions will exceed the Park’s target and by my reckoning this surplus offsets the shortfall between 2023 and 2026.  From then on the projected shortfall is only 20 houses a year, far less than the 50 a year ACM claims it will provide.   So, why is ACM needed on the Park’s projected “Annual Housing Land Requirement”?

 

If the Park’s projections of either demand or supply are wrong and fewer new houses are needed – for example if the number of vacant houses in the National Park could be reduced – there would be no justification for ACM at all.

 

The Local Development Plan is also  proposing to increase the proportion of affordable housing in new housing developments from the Scottish benchmark of 25% to 45% in Aviemore and Blair Atholl because of the shocking levels of low pay in the National Park (average pay is well below the Scottish average).  Now, I think this is a commendable move in the right direction, even if its not clear if this applies to ACM as well as Aviemore.   It should do though and, if it did, it would be very interesting to know if ACM would still go ahead (because of the high cost of new infrastructure).

 

Although the CNPA is saying in the Main Issues Report that it will do all it can to facilitate ACM, the logic of the Plan and the evidence seems to me to point to a different conclusion: that is it would be much better use of public money to plan for social housing elsewhere NOW and not wait for ACM to fail.  This would also avoid an access stushi and, most important of all, the destruction of one of the finest areas of regenerating native woodland (see here) in the National Park.  The consultation on the Local Development Plan offers an opportunity to stop the new town madness that is An Camas Mor and for the CNPA to meet its objectives both for conservation and sustainable development.

October 5, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

The carpark for Ben Venue, which was featured in the Stirling Observer (see here), had been cleared up by the time I visited it 8 days ago.  I had a discussion with Fergus Wood, the Board Member who own Ledard Farm afterwards and he said the layby had never been blocked to hillwalkers.  While that had been suggested in the Stirling Observer article, that was not the point I had made on parkswatch which was that a condition of the planning permission for the Ledard hydro scheme (as far as I could ascertain) was that the layby was NOT to be used to store materials.   The concern was that a development involving a Board Member had breached planning conditions, which in my opinion, sets a very poor example.  That the layby has been cleared up suggests there was a breach of planning conditions and much of the credit for redressing this lies with the local publicity given to the issue by the Stirling Observer.

 

For the last couple of weeks I have been having a dialogue with the National Park Authority about their refusal to release information about pre-application discussions which took place with Fergus Wood about the proposed campsite at Ledard Farm (which was to be located just through the gate in the photo).  Fergus Wood withdrew that planning application in May.  Unfortunately, we have been unable to reach agreement and I have now submitted an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner.   In gathering the paperwork for that appeal I found that the planning documentation on the Park’s Planning portal (see here for current information) had been changed since my post of 11th April which drew attention to potential conflicts of interest between Mr Wood’s involvement in the development of the camping byelaws and his application for a campsite (see here).  In my view this change has been done in a way that is misleading, covers up for the failure of the original application to state that Mr Wood, the applicant, was a Board Member and appears to involve falsification of documents.  The rest of this post considers the evidence for this and the implications.

 

In my post of 11th April, I included an extract from the Planning Application form which I downloaded from the LLTNPA planning portal on 10th April.   This showed that under the Member Interests section of the application form the “No” box had been ticked.  The form was was dated 3rd March 2017. You can see the full form I downloaded here 2017_0097_DET-Application_Form-100279676.  I was surprised to discover therefore, when checking my appeal to the Information Commissioner, that there was a new Application form on the planning portal in which the “Yes” box under Member Interests had been ticked and which included text which said Fergus Wood was on the Board.  You can compare the two versions of the form below:

Extract from form downloaded 10th April
Extract from Application Form as it currently appears on Park portal

 

I was even more surprised to see both forms were dated 3rd March 2017.

 

I then checked further and saw there were two versions of the application form on the portal, the second headed “superseded” was easy to miss.

Screenshot from planning portal

Now I was pretty certain that when I downloaded the form on 10th April there was only one version of the application form on the portal.   While I did not take a screenshot at the time, its seems hardly credible that the agents for Mr Wood would have submitted two application forms on the same day, the first say Mr Wood had no interest, the second saying that he had an interest, that both were then date stamped 13th March but one went on portal first and was later marked “superseded”.

 

I then realised that the version of the application I had downloaded on 10th April had NO “superseded” in the title (and there should be proof of this in my computer’s download history – I am away from home – which I would be very happy to make available to investigators).   What therefore appears to have happened is that sometime after my post and before the application was withdrawn, a member or members of National Park staff renamed the original application form by inserting the word “superseded” in the file name and then created or processed a new version of the application form where the Members Interest boxes were both ticked yes.

 

I don’t know whose idea this was or who authorised the changes but they appear to me to be  fraudulent and intended to give the impression Fergus Wood had declared his interests at the time the planning application was made.   I would stress here that I have no evidence that Fergus Wood was involved in this at all, although what should have happened is when he realised he had failed to declare interests properly,  he should then have written to the Park, apologised and any amended paperwork should have then shown the correct date.   That would have removed any cause for complaint.   However, certain LLTNPA staff and Board members don’t think like that.  Instead they try to cover things up which makes matters a lot worse if they get found out.

 

The significance of this cover-up is that its the third that I am aware of involving a Board Member.  First there was Owen McKee, the chair of the planning committee who traded in Cononish goldmine shares (see here).   Second, was the falsification of the minute of the Board meeting which decided the byelaws to say that Board Members with property in the proposed camping management zones had declared an interest when they had not (see here).   And now there is Fergus Wood’s campsite planning application.

 

These attempts to cover up for Board Members are part of a much wider malaise, where information and records are changed or misrepresented to ensure the Park gets its own way.    This has been evident through the whole camping byelaw saga, for example in the way the results of the Your Park consultation were falsified,  but also seems common practice in the planning system where myself and a couple of co-contributors have noted documents have a strange habit of disappearing.  I would recommend anyone interested in a planning application to always take screenshots of the planning portal and download all relevant documents.   Its a pain in the neck, shouldn’t be needed but if you don’t do it, you have no redress.   Unless I had downloaded the Ledard Farm planning application I would have no proof any changes had been made.

 

What needs to happen

First, the LLTNPA needs to conduct a full investigation into the Ledard Farm campsite planning application, how and when this was changed and who was involved/responsible.

Second, the new Board needs to make it very clear to the senior staff team that any falsification of records will be treated as gross misconduct.

Third, It could then, try and re-establish a reputation for probity.  A review of the way complaints have been addressed might be a good place to start.  For example it could carry out the long outstanding  investigation which is needed into who was responsible for falsely recording that Board Members had declared an interest at the meeting which approved the camping byelaws.   (When I wrote to Linda McKay, after the Commissioner for Ethical Standards found she had no knowledge the minute had been changed, asking that she conduct an investigation into who was responsible she passed the letter on to Gordon Watson to respond.  He declared the matter closed, which suggested to me he was fully aware of who had changed the minute but it was not in his or the Park’s interests to address this).  I suspect there are many other examples.

Fourth, it should make a commitment to operate far more openly, publish more information and stop abusing Freedom of Information law to withhold information from the public (every appeal I have made so far to the Information Commissioner has resulted in information being released but its a long a thankless process).   This would help provide public audit trails which would help staff and Board Members who are honest and want to do the right thing.

Fifth, the Board could ask the new Governance Manager – the post has recently been advertised – to put ethics, including truth, at the heart of the governance of the National Park Authority.

October 4, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
At a landscape scale, the impact of the work that was done to replace the shieling t-bar with a rope tow does not look too bad, with the most obvious change being the colour of the slope, which has changed from brown to green due to the replacement of heather by grasses. In the foreground you can see ragwort which has colonised disturbed ground.

After the extensive coverage parkswatch gave to the destruction caused by engineering works in Coire Cas last year (see here for example), at the end of August a small group of us went to have a look at how the restoration work was going.   In my view while there have been some improvements, there is a long way to go.   The purpose of this post is to illustrate some of the issues.

That there had been some improvements did not surprise us as Highlands and Islands Enterprise have been paying for a clear-up  at Cairngorm in preparation for a planning application to install a dry ski slope above the Coire Cas Car Park (see here) and redevelop the Ptarmigan restaurant.  Neither application would look good if Cairngorm was still a tip.    A few weeks ago Natural Retreats submitted a planning application for the Dry Ski Slope but this was then, mysteriously, withdrawn.

While a fair bit of rubbish has been removed from Coire Cas, including bits of pipe that must have been there 30 years, we did not have to look far to find more.  The cynic in me wondered if it had been placed on this side of the fence so it could not be seen by passengers travelling in the funicular!

 

The restoration of the shieling track

The shieling track, which had been created unlawfully and then granted retrospective planning permission by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (see here) looked far better then we had expected.  The whole track surface, including wheel lanes, had been re-seeded which has helped to stabilise the ground and cross drains installed, as required by the CNPA.  So, were conservationists wrong to oppose it?  I don’t think so.  The reason why it looks this good is that it has not been used..  The question is what will happen if and when it does?

Poor track design. The cross drain empties onto the track beyond and while protecting the top of the new shieling track (right) will increase the erosion on the track  to the former Fiacaill T-bar (left – and which incidentally has never been granted planning permission). Note the rut developing at the end of the cross drain.

There is evidence for what will happen this from the top of the shieling track (the start of the track is to the right of the cross drain in the photo).  As soon as vehicles use this ground the re-seeded grass is likely to wear away and the surface of the track erode,  as on the left side of photo.  Since the shieling track is significantly steeper, exceeding at the top SNH’s maximum recommended inclination for hill tracks, the erosion is likely to be worse.

The parodox here is the only way the Shieling track will look acceptable is if its not used.  Perhaps the CNPA should have followed the advice of the North East Mountain Trust who suggested heather should have been re-established across the entire shieling slope and that the uptrack under the rope tow could have been used for occasional vehicle use?

Cross drains  have been installed along the Shieling track (left – a recycled Council road barrier is far cheaper than using natural materials) but the re-seeding has not stopped some sediment and stones being washed into them, a sign of continuing erosion.

 

Who paid for the pump house?

We did see one example of a cross drain where a significant amount of care had been taken (left).  The turfs should help hold back and filter sediments.  By contrast, above, was an example of Natural Retreats’ incompetence (right).   Water channelled against the wooden sides of the pump house building!   Rotten to the core!

The landscaping of the area around the Shieling track

The area below the shieling rope tow outwith the area granted planning permission by the CNPA. The bank on the right was unlawfully “reprofiled”.

The photo demonstrates the large area affected by the shieling works and  where vegetation and turves were not retained prior to re-instatement, hence all the re-seeding (the green in the photo).  While heather should re-colonise this area in time we will need to wait to see other longer term impacts, such as whether invasive species colonise some of the ground.  The picture will be complicated because the CNPA required compensatory tree planting as a condition of the retrospective planning permission, although this had not started at the time of our visit and there is no mention of this on Cairngorm Mountain’s “Behind the Scenes” blog (Autumn is a good time for planting).

What was pleasing to see was the interpretation boards, which had fallen into utter disrepair, had been replaced.   I suspect this was organised by the Ranger Service and perhaps by Nic Bullivant before he departed as head ranger.   It appears this was funded by the lottery not Natural Retreats who appear to have no interest in this visualisation of the future.   I believe this vision should be at the centre of an alternative plan for Cairngorm (with trees rather than snow fences collecting the snow).  Unfortunately a number of trees were killed in the unlawful works that took place in Coire Cas and one reason there are not more trees here, in contrast to the path round to Coire an-t-Sneachda – is that vehicles are allowed to drive willy nilly over the vegetation.

My biggest concern on the day was landscaping.  The area with boulders is outwith that granted planning permission but has been subject to extensive engineering works and new drainage.  It looks totally out of place and there has been no attempt to restore the slope to how it previously looked.

While culverts along the burn at the bottom of the shieling slope  – which required permission from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency – have been finished well, other culverts which did have permission from SEPA, are right eyesores.

Natural Retreats did not retain enough soil/peat to replace vegetation on top of culvert, required to enable skies to cross over to the bottom of the new rope tow.
Natural Retreats has made half an attempt to conceal these boulders by the Shieling track
Above the shieling rope tow the boulder dumps are more visible from a distance

The shieling rope tow and surrounds was subject to planning permission from the Cairngorms National Park Authority and they therefore continue to have some influence (legally) on the restoration of this area.  The three things I think they need to focus on are: restoration of vegetation, landscaping and the ecological impact of the changed drainage in the area.

 

The area above the Shieling rope tow

Highland Council agreed to works to prevent the collapse of the Cas Gantry on a de minimis basis without planning permission.  On balance I believe the lack of any planning controls has contributed to the landscape restoration around the Cas Gantry being worse than than below.

Some, but not all the boulders which were shoved under the gantry as a result of piste widening works (no planning permission) have been restored.

Turf has been placed along top of the slope which Natural Retreats excavated in order to try and prevent water flooding down it. The basic issue is the slope is too steep and no vegetation/turf was retained for restoration purposes. The bluish re-seeding pellets (left foreground) continue to get washed out and the risk is this slope will again be subject to severe erosion this winter.

Culvert pipe chopped? to create pool to provide water for snow making machines. I understand the wooden box on the right helps sediment in the water to settle out and prevents the snow making machines becoming blocked with silt.

The finishing of the culverts is very poor.

View down “track” from former shieling restaurant to recently renewed former Lifties hut.

Worst of all though is the uncontrolled use of vehicles.  The track above never used to be there, has been created through vehicle use, is far too steep and is eroding badly.  It has never been granted Planning Permission.  Forest Enterprise Scotland provides Prior Notification for new tracks as short as 40m to Planning Authorities so HIE has no excuse for this.

ATV tracks by the former shieling restaurant – there is a second track on the right running parallel to the one in the centre.

Off track use of vehicles at Cairngorm used to be strictly controlled but is now seen as unnecessary bureaucracy.

 

What needs to happen in Coire Cas?

The evidence shows that the clear-up and restoration of Coire Cas has a long way to go.  I cannot see this happening as long as Natural Retreats continue to manage it (they are both incompetent and only interested in what money they can extract from Cairngorm) and HIE owns it.   If Coire Cas is to protected and cared for a change in ownership and management is essential and the best chance of this happening is the proposed local community buy-out.

We also, however, need the CNPA to get involved,  in what in tourist terms is the heart of the National Park.   While this post has identified some areas around the Shieling rope tow where they could use their planning powers to drive further restoration, the involvement of the National Park should be much wider than that.  Unfortunately at present they are no match for HIE which receives high levels of political support despite its mismanagement at Cairngorm.

It is now one year since the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, which was supposed to deliver a comprehensive plan for Cairngorm, was agreed by the CNPA Board.   In the papers for the Board Meeting this Friday the only reference to what is going on at Cairngorm is in the Chief Executive’s report:

 

Cairngorm and Glenmore – a visitor experience partner meeting is scheduled for mid-September to agree how to take forward the programme agreed in autumn 2016 and this will be linked to work with Active Aviemore. An application is being developed to submit to Leader for funding to study how visitors to Cairngorm and Glenmore use public transport and how this might be improved.

 

While its great work is going to be undertaken to see how public transport can be improved, is this really the only progress a year later?  Unfortunately the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy has had a cart and horses driven through it with An Camas Mor at one end of the glen and Natural Retreats at the other.

What we need above all is for the CNPA to assert its moral authority to be the lead agency in the National Park and to start taking a lead at Cairngorm.    A good statement of intent, which should be supported by the Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham who is in favour of community control, would be if the CNPA was to offer its resources (as per its commitment to support local communities) to assist the proposed community buy out.

October 2, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Photo credit – Scotland’s Nature

I was reminded a couple of weeks ago, in SNH’s regular e-newsletter “Scotland’s Nature”(see here), that there are some great people working for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Ranger service . What better for a group of refugees without money and after all they have been through to get out and experience the Scottish landscape?

 

This seems to me to be what the National Park Ranger Service should be all about, helping people who might not otherwise do so to enjoy and connect with the countryside.    To do this type of work well you need to combine the knowledge of a natural scientist with the people skills and values of a social worker.

 

The tragedy of the Ranger Service in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is that for most of this summer it has been diverted from encouraging people to get out and enjoy the countryside to policing campers.  With the end of the byelaw season, the staff’s permanent rangers can back to what I see as their rightful jobs.

 

Thankfully there have been many signs that many of the Rangers involved in Your Park have not lost their skills or values.   The main reason why the Loch Chon campsite has received positive feedback is because of the two Rangers who were stationed there when the Park’s plans to get a private operator to run the site collapsed.  “Booked a pitch which is underwater or sloping, no problem, you can find a better place here”.   They have not just ensured bottled water was available due to the failure of the public water supply, they have strimmed a number of areas to create better places to camp and been available to sort out a myriad of problems caused by the incompetent planning of the site.   I suspect none of this was in their job description but they deserve medals.  They have rescued the LLTNPA.

 

There is evidence too that Rangers know that checking permits is a  waste of their time and have stopped doing so (which incidentally is another reason why the Park’s data on permits is worthless).  Last week I was out at Forest Drive with Ross MacBeath and we got talking to an angler with a campervan who had bought a fishing permit  but had not been told about the camping permit system.    On site, he had spoken with a Ranger who had come round in the afternoon to give him the number to undo the Forest Drive gates which are locked at 4pm (another waste of Rangers time, why on earth is FCS locking people out of camping permit areas?) but not been asked for a permit.

 

While the LLTNPA has been trying, more or less unsuccessfully, to turn its Rangers into a private police force, austerity continues to bite.  Many many people, not just refugees but a sizeable proportion of the population of the west of Scotland, never get an opportunity to enjoy the countryside.  I remember talking at a seminar before the LLTNPA  was created that an indicator of its success would be when every school child in the Clyde conurbation was able to spend a week in both primary and secondary education enjoying the National Park.  Outdoor education for the many has since collapsed, despite the valiant efforts of people working in the field.

 

The LLTNPA could and should however be helping to change this.  Indeed I think this should form a key plank of its new Partnership Plan.    If its Ranger resource was freed up from patrolling and instead was given the mission to work with local authorities, instead of visits from primary schools etc being the exception, they could become the norm: the things that Rangers did every day.  Given continued local authority cuts, this would be quite a challenge but the LLTNPA has, I believe, in its workforce, people with the necessary skills and commitment. The LLTNPA could make this happen if it empowered its Rangers to make full use of their skills and determine how best they spend their time, rather than forcing them to drive around in vans all day patrolling.

 

The LLTNPA could also make the case for abandoned resources in the National Park, like the Ardlui Outdoor Centre, to be renovated (brought into public ownership) and used once more in conjunction with its Ranger Service.  That would help the Ranger Service meet its potential.

The former Outdoor Education Centre at Ardlui – the buildings were leased by West Dunbartonshire Council.

 

October 1, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The facilities at Loch Chon campsite are now closed – photo credit Ross MacBeath

On Friday to mark the end of the camping byelaws – you were a criminal if you pitched your tent without a permit on Saturday but from past midnight could camp in the same place scot free – Phoebe Smith has a piece on Radio 4’s “You and Yours”   http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b095ptx2.  (It runs from 28 mins 10 secs to 35 mins).   Don’t be put off by the howlers, “lakes” for “lochs” and Balmaha described as a town, the rest of the content is quite good – Phoebe Smith loves camping and says so.

 

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority took Phoebe Smith out to Balmaha.   After repeating the claim that there were far too many campers,  the Park’s Director of Conservation Simon Jones  went on to say large numbers of campers created certain problems such as litter and human waste and that the byelaws were addressing these, before correcting himself mid-speech and admitted human waste is still a problem.   This was a public admission that the byelaws have NOT addressed the problems the Park claimed they would solve.   This should not be a surprise. The problem has never been numbers, which have been concentrated on a few weekends a year,  it has been the lack of facilities for campers and other visitors.  By trying to concentrate campers in a few places through the permit system without any new facilities, all the National Park has done is concentrate impacts, the opposite of what it claimed it was wanting to achieve.

 

The LLTNPA then wheeled out Sandy Fraser, owner of the Oak Tree Inn (they use him most time they want someone to speak out in favour of the byelaws to the media), to talk to Phoebe Smith.   Powerful stuff to anyone who did not know better: people “really didn’t want to live here any longer”, “it was a no go area” and the introduction of the east Loch Lomond byelaws was “like a light switch, night and day”.  Now, I always believe money speaks louder than words, so I took a look at the accounts of the Oak Tree Loch Lomond Ltd, which was formed in 2009 and is described as a restaurant business:

 

Year till 31st Oct 09/10   10/11     11/12 12/13
Net current assets £86,785 £169,623 £265,883 £363,898

 

The accounts are abbreviated, so don’t show what contributed to profit and loss for the year, but the total profit and loss feed into the “net current assets” line at year end.    If people had stopped coming to Balmaha, prior to the east Loch Lomond byelaws being introduced in June 2011,  one might have expected the first year of the new company to have been disastrous financially.  Instead, the accounts show assets increased to £86,785 of which £76,785 came from profit.  Hardly a sign that people were no longer coming to Balmaha.  Moreover, the introduction of the byelaws in June 2011 did not mark a massive jump in profits.  I think we can take Sandy Fraser’s claims with a very large pinch of salt.

 

While there were undoubtably some problems associated with camping and drinking at Balmaha prior to the byelaws coming into effect, I think these need to be seen in perspective.  The main problem Sandy Fraser cited in the interview was that about once every three weeks people took the Oak Tree Inn benches and umbrellas down to the beach beyond Balmaha pier.  Extremely irritating I am sure, but did this justify the removal of access rights?   And what role does Sandy Fraser think the introduction of alcohol byelaws on east Loch Lomond by Stirling Council also in 2011 have in stopping this happening?

 

In terms of objective evidence about what changes had happened, the Park commissioned some research from Keep Scotland Beautiful which it eventually provided  under Freedom of Information.  It has never published this research or considered it at a Board Meeting, presumably because it makes uncomfortable reading:

The research does show the condition of sites on east Loch Lomond in 2015 (which was when the survey was undertaken) was better than in the other management zones but not that much better.  Not the miraculous improvement claimed by Sandy Fraser.   And this despite the camping ban, the alcohol ban and the clearway which prevents people visiting many of the places they used to go to.

 

Looking at the Keep Scotland Beautiful data in more detail,  one site on east Loch Lomond that has really improved is the beach north of the pier at Balmaha which sits under the metal bridge and which used to be use for partying (hence why it was selected for the survey).

Note, no alcohol related rubbish was found but this could as well been the result of the alcohol byelaws as the camping byelaws

So, maybe Sandy Fraser has a point, the environs of Balmaha have improved a bit – something everyone should welcome.  The question though remains, why were byelaws ever needed to do this?  The site under the metal bridge is small and very visible, hence easy to police by rangers but if easy to police by rangers, why not the police?   What should have happened is each time his benches went, Sandy Fraser should have phoned the police.   Its the adequacy of policing in rural areas which is the real issue, not camping.

Wayne Gardner’s new development of Luxury Lodges at Balmaha (Sandy Fraser is in partnership Wayne Gardner and will be developing another part of the site).

There are however, I believe, other agendas at play.  The evidence shows that Balmaha is being turned to a luxury tourist destination with prices to match.   My impression is campers don’t fit that image.   Hence why, despite the considerable area of flat land to the south of the village, there is no campsite.  Hence why the camping byelaws were extended down to the mouth of the Endrick, again without any evidence of problems.  Camping is just not part of the agenda of the new lairds of Balmaha.   If they understood the access legislation however they would know land can be exempted from access rights (under Section 11 of the Land Reform Act) without any need for byelaws and this could have been used to stop people camping within villages in the National Park.

 

The lack of publicity for the end of the byelaw season and the Park’s closure of facilities

 

In contrast to the launch of the byelaws in the Spring, there is NO publicity on the Park’s website and no news release to say people announcing they are now over and people can now camp freely again under access rights.  This probably explains the lack of media coverage in Scotland (please contact parkswatch if you have come across anything).  The explanation, I believe, is that if the LLTNPA had reminded the media the byelaws were over for the year, they might just have been asked some awkward questions, including what the byelaws had achieved.  Better then not to mark the occasion and hope no-one noticed.

 

While some people may have realised that the byelaws ended on 30th September, I am sure most  will not have realised that Loch Chon campsite is also now closed.    This is incomprehensible.  Here is what staff told the Board just a few weeks ago:

 

Loch Chon campsite has now been operating for six months and continues to be popular with visitors, with some weekends coming close to operating at full capacity. The total nights booked up until the end of August was 1160 with an average stay of 1.5 days. These bookings were representative of 1843 people; 1362 adults and 481 children

 

Now, leave aside everything which was wrong about this campsite (too many places, fixed pitches in the wrong places, no water supply and a toilet block which stank as a consequence) people visited because at least there were some facilities and, its one of the few lovely places where you are still allowed to camp.   Why then, having paid well over £345k for this campsite, close it just because the byelaw season  is over?   If there was such demand, surely it would be worth keeping the campsite open for at least another month and leaving the toilets open after that?

 

How too does the decision to close Loch Chon fit with the fact that the other two campsites the Park is involved in, at Sallochy and Loch Lubnaig, are both open till the end of October?  The answer is that other people operate those campsites, with no cost to the Park, but the Park has had to deploy two (excellent) rangers at Loch Chon to keep it going.

 

It makes me suspect the Park will now have also reverted to its previous practice of closing the toilets and carpark at Firkin Point.  If so, the public should treat all claims by the LLTNPA that it wishes to improve infrastructure, with scepticism.     The Park should know that human waste, about which it claims to be so concerned,  biodegrades more slowly in winter than summer and is a strong reason why all toilets operated by the National Park should be open year round.    Infrastructure is needed 365 days, not just over the summer and not just so the Park can claim to Scottish Ministers it has done something to provide for campers.