Month: November 2017

November 23, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Upper section of tracks in Coilessan Glen. Neither FES nor LLTNPA appear concerned about the landscape impact of the track works here. If these were not deemed forestry tracks, I believe the LLTNPA would have required a full landscape impact assessment.

Since my post in June (see here) on Forest Enterprise’s  “upgrade” of the Coilessan Glen forest track, I have been trying to get to the root of what has gone wrong.  First I established that no planning application or prior notification had been received by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, then I took the matter up with  Simon Hodge, Chief Executive of Forest Enterprise Scotland.  I believe my correspondence with him shows there are serious issues about how the Forest Estate is being managed in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and will highlight evidence for this in this post (you can view the full correspondence below).

The Prior Notification System and the track upgrade

Forestry Tracks are, under planning legislation, classed as permitted developments but under the Prior Notification System all new or alterations to existing forest tracks are supposed to be notified to the Planning Authority.    FES is usually good at doing this, and indeed has now done so for two small changes to the track in Coilessan Glen.  However, they disputed my claim that all the track upgrade and other works needed prior notification, claiming these were “maintenance” rather than alterations.

In response I sent them some photos:

View of track extension from below

FES response to photo:

In plain language this is an acknowledgement from FES that the works included a new section of track which they should have notified to the LLTNPA under the Prior Notification System.  However, they try and excuse this failure by saying they had told the LLTNPA about a new section of track in Coilessan Glen but in a different place, 250m away!  Imagine someone trying to justify building a house in one place on the grounds that the planning authority had accepted this in a different location!

The LLTNPA’s response to that Prior Notification (link to full letter below under correspondence) is telling:

 

Another view of the track extension

This extension is according to standard FES designs and therefore its reasonable to say that the original 250m away would have had a similar landscape impact.  Yet the LLTNPA was quite happy to state in response to the Notification that such extensions do not raise “any significant landscape” concerns.   I don’t think any recreational walker would agree.  The works have had a serious adverse impact on the Cowal Way.  The LLTNPA needs to ensure its staff and Board Members get out more and review their policy in this area.  I know the LLTNPA and other public authorities are strapped for resources but this is simply not good enough for a National Park.  At least according to the correspondence FES and LLTNPA have now met to discuss what to do about this section of track.  Now both need to explain publicly what they will do to restore the damage to the National Park landscape.

FES response to photo:

By saying this, FES seem to be trying to imply that this work to reinforce the side of the track is not an alteration but maintenance.  They have however accepted, by calling in the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, that the works could have  serious ecological implications (with silt eroding into the river).  Reason enough one might have thought to notify the LLTNPA.

Apart from the technicalities of the failing Prior Notification system, the substantive issue is that FES has trashed what would otherwise be an attractive section of river.  In the current Ardgarten Forest Design Plan (which is not publicly available although FES are now publishng new forest plans as they are agreed) all the main riparian edges in Coilessan Glen were designated for native woodland.  Good plan, shame its being ignored.

Evidence that FES had altered the track and extended it beyond its existing footprint

FES response to photo:

The evidence shows that what has been done is more then vegetation removal.  Scottish Government Guidance on tracks and the Prior Notification system SG FinalGuidance june 15 Smith et al 2014 states:

 

“The distinction between”alteration” and “maintenance” may sometimes be difficult to determine. Maintenance‟ work could include routine repairs to private ways such as filling potholes or clearing drainage channels or replacing culverts in line with recommendations and guidance by SEPA to comply with good practice.

Work such as resurfacing to provide a materially different road surface (for example replacing loose gravel with tarmacadam), or to widen or extend a track, would generally be considered an “alteration‟.

 

While I believe the Coilessan tracks have been altered, whatever the Prior Notification technicalities the substantive issue is why FES is allowed to do work like this in the National Park?  The slope is too steep, will erode rather than re-vegetate and contrary to good practice (such as contained within the LLTNPA Guidance on Renewables).   The LLTNPA should be demanding that Forestry Commission Scotland, which agrees the standard specifications for forest tracks, to review them to ensure they are fit for National Parks (and other areas of landscape importance in Scotland).

FES response to photo:

Accepting FES assurances that the work is not complete, it is  disturbing that National Park Officers apparently have deemed the work at Coilessan acceptable.  Do they not even think further monitoring is required to see that any restoration work by FES is acceptable?    I would like LLTNPA Board Members to go out – preferably in the company of people who have an interest in our landscape and nature conservation in our National Parks –  take a look and re-think.

FES response to photo:

So, quarries can be built and extended in National Parks outwith the planning system.  I am grateful that FES sent me the letter from FCS EIA101 Ardgartan Quarry – even if it basically attributes responsibility for this to them –  although they have made no mention of the mitigation measures which FCS said needed to be agreed with the LLTNPA and are not anywhere public on the Park’s planning portal.   While I will pursue this, the substantive issues is that  quarrying does not have to look like this.  Here is an alternative example from the Cairngorms National Park I came across last weekend:

Borrow pit in Glen Tromie on the Glen Feshie Estate. The photo accentuates the track up the slope, which is hardly visible from other angles.  Ignore too the heap of aggregate and foreground and note how vegetation has been replaced on the quarried slope even though, just to the left, the borrow pit is being worked.

In Glen Tromie (which I will blog about in due course because of the positive lessons there for the rest of Scotland) the estate are restoring the quarry as they go, a complete contrast to FES.  The contrast in how the land is being treated and landscape respect is in my view stark.

 

The new Prior Notification for a 70m section of track in Coilessan Glen

 

At the beginning of October, FES submitted a Prior Notification to the LLTNPA for further work in Coilessan Glen – to “straighten” the section of track beyond the bridge in the photo above.  The response of the LLTNPA was that this did not need Prior Approval (see here) because:

Leaving aside the implication that any forestry road deemed commercial can go ahead in the National Park without any consideration of landscape or conservation issues, the LLTNPA has failed to properly consider the issues as this extract from the second FES letter shows:

First, FES are now claiming the track is needed in case there is a need to fell larch trees in an attempt to prevent the spread of Phytopthera Ramorum, a disease that is decimating larch plantations across the UK and not for normal commercial forestry purposes.   Second, FES are not proposing to remove the old track but to leave it in place, so there will be two tracks at this point in the glen for what appear to be spurious reasons.  (I had been rather hoping they might use the opportunity to reduce the old track to footpath width so improving the walking experience on the Cowal Way).   So why did the LLTNPA not ask what was happening to the 70m section of old track before simply approving the new one?   If this is anything to go by it appears the LLTNPA are simply rubber stamping FES Prior Notifications without any consideration of the landscape or conservation implications.

 

What needs to happen

The issues raised here are much broader than the track in Coilessan Glen and have implications for the whole of the Argyll Forest Park.   When the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park was originally proposed, Cowal was not included, but this changed as a result of local pressure.  Part of this was because local people thought a National Park might be a way of changing how forestry was managed in the Argyll Forest Park.

Initially the LLTNPA did take an interest in Argyll and a new forest framework was produced lltnpa woodland framework action area 3. (This is not publicly available – the FES appears to have just one copy – but I am very grateful for the FES planning section for copying the relevant part of this and sending it to me by return without an FOI request).  While this did not propose a radical change of direction – it clearly states that commercial forestry would predominate – it did set out some aspirations and suggested areas for change (on some of which there has since been progress).  The problem is that the thinking behind the framework has never been reviewed or developed despite opportunities to do this, mostly recently in the draft National Park Partnership Plan consulted on earlier this year.

The most important thing that I believe needs to happen therefore is that the new National Park Partnership Plan should commit both the LLTNPA and FCS/FES to a public a review of Forest Management  in the Argyll Forest Park and how this meets the National Park’s statutory objectives.  While the spread of Phytopthera Ramorum – a conservation disaster which I will come back to – is another reason to do this, the failed operation of the Prior Notification system in Coilessan Glen and the landscape and conservation impact of track works there should in themselves be sufficient.  It will be interesting to see if the final National Park Partnership Plan due to be presented to the LLTNPA Board in December says anything meaningful about changing forestry practice in the Argyll Forest Park.

Addendum – correspondence with FES

  • 30/08/17 Email (see here) and link to my June post sent to Simon Hodge asking if agreed the Coilessan track works should have been notified to the LLTNPA
  • No acknowledgement
  • 19/09/17 Polite reminder sent (see here) with my MSP, who everyone knows as Nicola, copied in.  Hey pronto, immediate (same day) acknowledgement
  • 22/09/17 Response claiming Prior Notification not required as work within “footprint” existing tracks, that the final “running track” would be narrower and that the tracks were needed to control Phytopthera Ramorum  Final response to Mr Knowles
  • 02/10/17 Follow up letter sent with photographic evidence disputing FES claim that works within existing footprint Letter to Simon Hodge, Coilessan 171002
  • No acknowledgement
  • 17/10/17 Polite reminder sent (see here), noting further issues raised by recent notification to LLTNPA of work to straighten a section of track in Coilessan Glen, with my MSP once again copied in.   Hey pronto, acknowledgement!
  • 25/10/17  Response (see here), treated as Information Request, with two attachments: the first the LLTNPA response to a prior notification in 2016 for a new 50m section of track at Coilessan (on planning portal) (see here); the second, the response from Forestry Commission Scotland EIA101 Ardgartan Quarry saying an Environmental Impact Assessment was not needed for the quarry which has been used to source material for the tracks
  • 10/11/17 provision of Ardgarten Forest Plan (document too large to provide on website) and lltnpa woodland framework action area 3 by FES planning department.

 

The timing of the responses from FES is a neat illustration that when it comes to senior personnel in public authorities its not what you say that matters but who you know.

 

November 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
New track, slopes Creag an Loin, Glen Banchor looking towards Creag Dubh on the Pitmain Estate, behind Kingussie. You can tell this is intended as a track, rather than just caused by ATV use, by the bouldes lining the right hand side

Earlier this year, the owner of the Pitmain estate,  who appears to be Abdul Majid Jafar, bought the Glen Banchor and Strone Estate behind Newtonmore.   I say “appears” because the information on Pitmain Estate Ltd at Companies House fails to declare who has significant control over the company.

While  Abdul Majid Jafar resigned as a Director in June 2015, to be replaced by an Indian Accountant also based in the United Arab Emirates, it appears he is still the owner.   Its not only our landownership system which is opaque, our company system is too and there is abundant evidence for this in our National Parks.  Abdul Majid Jafar’s family run Crescent Petroleum, the Middle East’s oldest private oil and gas company, so not short of a bob or too and well able to afford to do things properly if he so wished.

Map credit Cairngorms National Park Authority estate maps

The previous owners of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate were the Lindt Family, of chocolate fame.  They appear to have managed the estate for purely private pleasure (for example the internet has stories about how you could not pay to stalk there).   This had its disadvantages, in that deer numbers were very high, but otherwise estate management appears to have been low key and unintensive.   That appears to have changed since Pitmain took over, with significant consequences for land-management.   This post will consider the new track works in Glen Banchor.

The section of newly engineered track above the esker – you can see one of the sheep dog trial gates on the left. The track bends left after about 700m to a sheep pen.

The boggy moorland where the road bends west into Glen Banchor (GR 702998) and lower slopes of Creag an Loin have long been used for sheep dog trials and there was a rough track along the fabulous esker – a deposit laid down by the glacier –  that snakes across the moor.  This then led up the slopes to a sheep holding pen.   Unfortunately I don’t have photos of the old track (photos gratefully received!), so you can compare then and now, but it was little more than two wheel ruts and much used by walkers.

The esker provides a dry passage across the moor but its character has been totally changed.  The top has been lopped off to create a track with no consideration given to the landscape impact.

Under the Prior Notification system, any changes to existing agricultural or forestry tracks which increase their footprint or new ones should be notified to the planning authority (see Scottish Govt statutory guidance Page 11 onwards).  There is no sign on either the Highland Council or Cairngorms National Park Authority planning portals that this has been done at Glen Banchor (I have written to the CNPA to double check and report the track works).

There is evidence all along the former landrover track that major upgrading works have taken place. Note the large lumps of turf in the foreground which could have been replaced down the centre of the track reducing erosion and the landscape impact.

While full planning permission is not needed for agricultural tracks, the point of the Prior Notification system is it is “an important tool in preventing inappropriate construction of private ways” (Government Guidance).   In this case there are plenty of signs of inappropriate construction (including above) which are not fitting for a National Park and do not meet SNH’s Best Practice Guidance on hill track construction.

The upper section of the track is too steep and already eroding away, not helped by the lack of vegetation down the middle and an absence of drainage bars which means water runs straight down the line of the track.

Start of track 7th November
Start of track 18th November

Since I learned about the track I have been twice, first time to have a quick look and then last Saturday when I walked along the track and beyond.  While it has been very wet, the two photos show there has been a considerable deterioration in the track over the intervening 10 days and much of it has been churned into a quagmire.

The turning circle at the top of the old section of track, sheep holding pen for the sheep dog trials in the background

The problem is even worse at the top of the old section of track.  I don’t think this mess has been created by sheep dog trials, the problem is the old land rover track is now being used for other estate management purposes and far more intensively than previously.  It links to a new estate management track (see top photo) which has been created without any planning permission.

The new track contours round and down the hillside from just below the sheep holding area. You can see the excavated boulders and vegetation dumped on the right of the track.

The new track leads to another turning circle and borrow pit:

The turning circle with hummocky moraine and Creag Dubh behind
The borrow pit below the turning circle

While the newly constructed track, which comes under planning law, ends at the turning circle beyond is an ATV track, if the quagmire created can be described as a track:

Behind the moraine on the right, the ATV track forks, one part linking to constructed tracks on the Strone part of the estate, the other heading up the hillside to a feeding station:

 

Red legged partridge in cage at feeding station

In terms of planning law, all this is important.  The new section of track is clearly for game management purposes and therefore does not come under the Prior Notification System.  Full planning permission was required, it has not been applied for and therefore this is yet another case of disregard of the planning system within our National Parks by landowners.  The ATV eroded track beyond, however, because it has not been constructed falls totally outwith the planning system.

 

What needs to happen

While I understand (from an update they provided) that the CNPA are still working on the enforcement action they have agreed against  the Cluny Estate for unlawful track on Creag an Leth Choin (see here), the basic problem the CNPA faces is that until they have taken effective enforcement action, landowners won’t see planning law as being important.  Generally landowners see themselves as having the right to manage land as they wish and not as custodians for it, even in the National Park.    The result has been that unlawful tracks continue to proliferate across the National Park.  The CNPA needs to be seen to take action (just as East Ayrshire has recently done for breach of planning conditions at a windfarm).

 

Determined and rapid enforcement action would I believe, make a great difference.  This track, being so recent, would be a good place to start.  In addition, while I appreciate the Prior Notification system is very weak and not fit for purpose, the creation of an unlawful track linked to an “upgrade” of an existing track, should make it easier for the CNPA  to argue that the “upgrade” of the existing track is more than that and not fit for purpose.

 

However, at present the CNPA has NO powers to address ATV created tracks, such as the featured here leading from the second turning circle to the feeding station.  While SNH has powers to control ATV use on protected sites, only the western half of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so there are at present no controls in this part of the National Park.  In my view this has to change.  I would like to see all ATV use on the open hill in National Parks being subject to consent through farm/estate management plans.  The CNPA could do this through the creation of byelaws for conservation purposes.

 

This leads to the wider issue of estate management and landownership.  On the landownership side, no additional checks are required before someone buys a large area of land in a National Park, either to establish whether they are fit to manage the land or what their intentions might be.    While the Gynack hydro schemes on the Pitmain Estate are in many ways exemplary (see here) , step beyond them and the tracks further up the hill are a disgrace to the National Park:

Massive turning circle on Meall Unaig, south of Carn an Fhreiceadain. This is visible from Glen Feshie.

I have always wondered why an estate can do one thing well and another so badly.  However, it appears from other new track works above Strone (which I will cover in a further post) that the estate is importing and applying its poor practice standards to Glen Banchor.   While the CNPA has tried to encourage estates to produce management statements for their land, neither Pitmain or Glen Banchor have done so.   The CNPA is therefore left in a position that when a new landowner takes over an estate, it has no idea what that landowner is planning to do in terms of estate management.  That cannot be right in a National Park.

 

What is clear from the new Glen Banchor track is that the new owners are wanting to produce more game for shooting on the estate – hence the feeding station for Red Legged Partridge.   This has implications beyond hill tracks and how they are designed.  The Red Legged Partridge, which is of Mediterranean origin, does best in the wild on dry sandy soils and so, in the wild, is normally found on agricultural land.  Increasingly though it appears to be being bred on moorland within the National Park.  This requires intensive game managements methods akin to farming.  On moorland, however, it is very exposed to predators, especially at feeding stations such as that featured here, and would provide the perfect food for hen harriers if they had not been persecuted close to extinction.  With feeding stations like this, we should expect the number of hen harriers to increase significantly.   Will that happen?

 

Leaving aside wider ecological consideration, feeding stations in our National Parks should only be allowed if estates can prove they are committed to protecting raptors.  In this case,  it would be in the public interest if that the Pitmain/Glen Banchor Estate were to clarify whether they are committed to this and whether clear instructions have been issued to staff telling them that if most of the Red Legged Partridge at the feeding station get predated by raptors that that is fine by the owners.  It would be good if the CNPA, which states it is committed to improving grouse moor management, started to ask the estate these questions and to make the responses public.

November 20, 2017 Nick Kempe 7 comments
Extract from Flamingo Land/Iconic Developments consultation display

On Friday I went to the first of the Flamingo Land consultation events at Lomond Shores in Balloch.  I was not sure what to expect partly because the proposals have been developed in secret (see here) but also because – like many people I suspect – I don’t think like a developer.   The display of the proposals – they are now all online (see here) – made it clear Flamingo Land want to develop ALL the land they and we/Scottish Enterprise own to create a holiday resort.  This is encapsulated in their portrayal of the “site wide experience” (see above) but there was already a big clue in the name of their development vehicle, “Iconic Leisure Developments”.

 

I left Lomond Shores thinking that the only way the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority can only approve the development of this holiday resort if they ignore all four of their statutory objectives, conservation, public enjoyment of the countryside, sustainable economic development and wise use of resources.

 

The “consultation”

Extract from Flamingo Land/Iconic Developments consultation display

While the detailed design plans for each component of the development may well be at an early stage,  Flamingo Land’s statement that it will submit an application for Planning Permission in Principle (see here) early in 2018 means the main elements of the proposal have already been decided.  If an overwhelming majority of consultees object to one or more elements of the proposal, there is no time to develop alternatives.  In addition, most parts of the Environmental Impact Assessment must either be well developed or complete by now but all of these have been withheld until the planning application is submitted.   So much for the Scottish Government’s commitment to “co-production”.  On the one hand they support community planning events, which included the Balloch charrette (see here) earlier on this year,  but at the same time they allow developers and “the market” to carry on as they always have.

 

Something is very wrong when consultation and involvement for what is an extremely large development in a National Park – and remember the emphasis now is on consultation prior to any planning application being submitted – is limited to a handful of days when the public can view an exhibition and are given the opportunity to comment on this.    Those attending were hit with a chocolate box of  new proposals from a mono-rail and aerial walkways to outdoor swimming pools and, while given the opportunity to ask questions of the team of consultants present, after this tasting were asked to give an immediate response.  While I overheard and took part in a number of very interesting discussions, there was no real opportunity to think or talk through the implications let alone offer alternatives.

 

There is another, and final, consultation event Monday 4th  December but at least the consultation questionaire is now online which gives people a little longer to consider how to respond.

 

The main elements to the proposals

Extract from map showing proposals for Riverside site

The two key big ideas developed in the Balloch Charrette, for a walkway along the River Leven connecting the town to Lomond Shores (about which I was sceptical) and a bridge across the mouth of the River Leven to connect Lomond Shores with Balloch Country Park (and therefore the countryside) have both been dropped.   Both proposals were about improving the public realm but neither would have brought financial benefit to the developer and its almost certain money is behind this raising the legitimate question as to what appointing a private developer will bring to Balloch.

 

Instead, the proposals appear to about using every available inch of space on the site to make money for Flamingo Land.

Greenspace 

While Flamingo Land are claiming to be preserving this, every element is to be intensively used, as you can see by the number of lodges in the proposals map above.   Just why this number of holiday lodges are needed at Balloch is not explained.

Drumkinnon Wood

This is very well used by the local community, but the proposal is for it to become one of the gateways to the development via an aerial walkway (4) which conveniently by-passes Loch Lomond Shores, as well as providing (from a count) 31 holiday lodges, some of which apparently may be up in the trees.  Along with this is a Forest Adventure Area” (3) and Children Area’s (5).   How this will leave any room for nature in what is an Ancient Woodland Site is not explained.

The parkland along the River Leven

This is to be filled with another 39 (again my count) Holiday Lodges (that makes 70 Lodges in all) but is also site for a new monorail linking the station to the Flamingo Land visitor hub.  This is private transport to take people to a private development,  quite a contrast to when the public railway took people to the edge of the loch in Balloch’s heyday.  While Flamingo Land are saying that none of the lodges will be fenced off, I think people will be left feeling intensively uncomfortable about intruding on private space if they step off the path which forms part of the John Muir Way.  The proposal changes what was a path through parkland into a path through a glamping site giving people every incentive to take the monorail.

The pierhead

The land at what is described as the pierhead (7 in diagram above), which currently offers the best views over Loch Lomond, is being proposed for intensive development which may be as high as the Drumkinnon Tower.  This includes a 60 place luxury hotel and an indoor water sports development.

Viewing Tower

For those who who not want to pay for the resort facilities to enjoy the views, the proposal is for a viewing tower behind the development so people can pay to look out over the hotel and watersports facility to see Loch Lomond.   This is I believe privatisation of a public good, made even worse because the design of the resort is such that there is nowhere else people can go to enjoy the views and nature.  This might have still been possible if a bridge was constructed over the River Leven into Balloch Country Park and if Drumkinnon Woods had been left as a space for informal recreation.

Transport

While the proposal claims to put walking and cycling at the heart of the development,  current roads and parking are basically to remain as they are, except for the Lomond Shores overflow carpark which is to be taken over for people staying in Flamingo Land accommodation despite current shortages.  Locals and visitors can therefore expect parking to get worse at peak periods.

The Ben Lomond Way behind the Drumkinnon Tower separating Lomond Shores from Drumkinnon Wood (photo from day of consultation event).  The lack of people tells you everything.

There are currently two roads to the the Pierhead area, Ben Lomond Way and Pier Rd. These see little traffic except when people are trying to access the Park operated public boat launching slipway, the only one left on the loch, and a parking area which is distinctively suburban.   The roads and carpark segment the site with the result that walking from Lomond Shores to the River Leven is not a good experience.   With a bit of radical thinking, consultation with boat users on their needs and alternatives and some expert input there must be opportunities to remove one of the roads  and the parking area improved.  Instead, the suburban blight is left at the heart of what is supposed to be an iconic development.  Another opportunity missed.

 

Are there any good elements to the proposals?

I thought there were two elements to the proposals that might enhance the National Park, rather than undermine its core purpose, and both were well away from the loch shores.

Extract from Flamingo Land/Iconic Developments consultation display – Station Square

 

The charrette identified the space by the bridge over the River Leven as needing improvement and the ideas Flamingo Land has produced appear informed by this (helped I think because there has been some involvement in other stakeholders such as Sustrans in how this part of the site might be developed).   Is a big developer needed to do this?  It seems to me the sort of proposals being made for this space could, with a little vision from our public authorities, be implemented by a Community Development Trust.   This could, for example, provide a bridge between people in the local community and effective use of the proposed outdoor performance space.

The other part of the proposal I liked was for the land in front of Woodbank House, basically a public space for people to enjoy themselves without having to spend money.   Not a natural landscape but not incompatible with the objectives of the National Park.

 

How do Flamingo Land’s proposals fit with the statutory objections of the National Park?

Conservation

The proposals are to jam pack the areas of ancient woodland on the Riverside part of the site with developments so they became a version of Go Ape.   That was not appropriate for Pollok Park in Glasgow and is not appropriate for a National Park.

In landscape shores, what can be seen from a sixth storey hotel bedroom, will equally be seen in the opposite direction.  Since the 1980s the woodland setting on the west side of the mouth of the River Leven has been progressively destroyed, first with Lomond Shores and now by the Pierhead Proposals.   The most intensive part of the development is in the wrong place.

 

Public Enjoyment

While the shoreline between Lomond Shores and the Maid of the Loch does not offer a quality experience in terms of the immediate environs, the public have a right to walk along most of shore and enjoy the views.  This space, if the proposals go ahead, will effectively be privatised while the ability of local people to enjoy Drumkinnon Woods will be severely compromised.

This is part of a wider process about control of space:  the camping byelaws for example, which prevent people from camping where they always have done in direct contact with nature, have been used to channel people to commercial campsites.  The commercial success of the proposed camping pods at Flamingo Land will depend on the continued ability and commitment of the LLTNPA to the camping ban.

Moreover, the Park’s statutory duty is to promote enjoyment of the special qualities of the Park, not to promote indoor leisure developments or intensively used tree top walkways.   I have been to Landmark in Carrbridge a couple of times, and while I have never much wildlife there,  at least you get the feeling that you could step outside the centre, away from the crowds and aerial walkways, and see something in the neighbouring woods.  At Flamingo Land there is no space left for nature or for people to enjoy it.

 

 

Sustainable Economic Development

Without detailed design plans, its not possible to tell yet whether the development will be sustainable in terms of issues such as use of materials and energy or how many and what type of permanent jobs it will create.     One can at this stage question other elements of sustainability.    Apart from the claim that Abellio is interested in improving the train service, all the indications are that the development will increase traffic to an area which already groans under the number of cars. The bigger issue though is about sustainable tourism and why people would wish to stay in a Flamingo Holiday Lodge or hotel at Balloch for a week?

The idea of promoting Balloch as a gateway to the National Park makes sense but people tend not  to linger in gateways for long (unless forced to do so, for example by the camping ban) and the  pattern of tourism to the countryside is changing to short stays.   There is not one element of the proposal that I can see that is about enabling people who book accommodation to travel out to experience and enjoy the National Park.  Instead, its about keeping people in the resort and getting them to spend money, not on enjoyment of the natural qualities of the National Park but on amusements.   How it contributes to the development of sustainable tourism in the National Park is something therefore the LLTNPA needs to answer.

 

Sustainable use of resources

Again, its too early to tell but to me the outdoor swimming pool area, no doubt heated, tells a tale.

 

What needs to happen

We need to remember that the Riverside element of the proposed development is publicly owned.   Our Public Authorities however are so wedded to the tenets of neo-liberalism – that only the private market can and should deliver developments – that they are happy to promote a development which is, judging by how it matches the National Park’s statutory objectives, to be in the private not the public interest.

A different approach is possible starting from the idea that publicly owned land should be used to deliver public goods in partnership with local people and other stakeholders to meet the statutory objectives of the National Park.   There are two ways this could happen.  The first is if the LLTNPA were to start upholding its statutory objectives rather than promoting/acting as a facilitator for inappropriate development.  The second would be if the local community were to launch a bid to takeover some or all of the site (just like the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust intend to do at Cairngorm).  Combine the two and you could develop a much better alternative to Flamingo Land’s offering.

November 17, 2017 Nick Kempe 14 comments
The Cononish gold mine as it looked on a dreich day in May – the same day as the pre-consultation event in the Tyndrum Village Hall

The failures in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s consultation system

A couple of weeks ago, at the Scottish Wild Group AGM, I was told that a planning application  had been submitted back in August for the new proposal for waste storage waste from the Cononish Gold Mine (see here).   The formal consultation period lasted 28 days and, while I have spent a few days feeling bad that I had missed this and failed to advertise what is being proposed, what I have realised is very few other people knew about the application either.  That is until Scotgold placed a story in the press earlier this week presenting the application as a done deal (see here for example).

 

This demonstrates a fundamental flaw in our planning system.  There was no a single objection on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority planning portal (see here) until I lodged one on Wednesday.  Although this was outwith the formal consultation period, because the application has not yet been determined, you can still lodge comments and I would urge anyone with an interest to do so.

 

The lack of public comment until this week – there are three letters of support which all appeared on the same day – is not I believe because people don’t care about what is being proposed.   There there were significant number of objections to earlier applications.  The reason is that either people don’t know what is being proposed or don’t understand.  I have checked and it appears that neither the Ramblers nor Mountaineering Scotland were informed about the application even though the Ramblers Scotland tweeted a photo of an unlawful Scotgold anti-access sign at the weekend (see here).  (The sign is unlawful because its placed far beyond the current working site boundary).   It should be the business of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority as Planning Authority to make sure that recreational organisations are informed.  When the LLTNPA consults RSPB as a matter of course (they did in this case and every hydro application I can recall) – a good thing – why cannot they also consult the Mountaineering Council about similar developments in the hills?

 

It took me a couple of hours to understand how the 147 documents then on the Park planning portal relate to each other.  There is the main Environmental Statement  then a jumble of appendices and supporting documents which unfortunately don’t appear in the right order.  After scrutinising this I realised the first two appendices to the Environmental Statement, the Pre-application Consultation summary and Consultees responses, appear to be missing from documentation:

 

I have asked the LLTNPA to make these missing appendices public.  There seems little point to the current emphasis the Scottish Government puts on open and transparent pre-consultation if that is not reported.  I look forward to seeing the responses scotgold has made to the questions I and a friend made when we visited the consultation event at the village hall, which were all about how much more mine waste was going to be dumped on the hillside and the reasons for this.

 

What’s going on at Cononish shows is that there are major democratic deficits in our planning system.  This suits Developers and, it appears, the LLTNPA, because it avoids planning proposals from being subject to external scrutiny.   Its really important that  the public demand that the Scottish Government address these failures in the forthcoming planning bill.

 

The main reasons why the new planning application must be refused by the LLTNPA

Its not clear how much of the 8000 tonnes of waste was stored in these bags when this photo was taken in May – but in visualising the impact of the waste of the new planning proposal assume there is 7000 tonnnes in the bags and consider what 100 times this amount of waste would look like.  That gives an idea of how much waste is to be dumped – sorry sculpted – onto the slopes below the mine.

Scotgold already has planning permission for the gold mine, subject to certain conditions, and earlier this year Scotgold they were given an additional permission to start work on processing 8000 tonnes of former mine waste to extract gold. For the waste pictured above thas produced ten one ounce rounds which the press reported this week were auctioned for £46k, a mark up on nearly 400% over current market price.  I will come back to how any of this can be considered sustainable economic development or sustainable use of resources in a future post.

 

Here I will focus on the two key differences from the earlier planning application.  The first is that far more waste will be dumped outside of the mine.  The original approval included the following conditions::

REASON: To minimise the adverse landscape and visual impact and ensure that the site is restored to a satisfactory standard in this sensitive area of the National Park.”

 

The key bit is under point 5, the  amount of waste to be stored outside the mine was limited to 400,000 tonnes because of the sensitivity of the National Park.  Since the original application, the areas of the gold mine has been included in the Ben Lui Wild Land area so any protection of that sensitivity should be even stronger than before.

 

In my posts earlier this year, I drew attention to the fact that that amount of waste Scotgold wanted to dump outside the mine had increased to 530,000 tonnes of tailings.  It now that this was a vast undersestimate and that in addition to this scotgold wants to dump another 170,000 tonnes of unprocessed rock waste outside the mine.  That makes 700,000 tonnes of waste in all, a 75% increase in the amount of waste that is to dumped on the hillside outside the mine.   Nowhere in the application is this enormous increase clearly stated.  It appears no-one wants the public to know.  One consequence, if this is approved, is that the waste is now going to be disposed over a far wider area than would be needed if it was limited to 400,000 tonnes as previously.

 

It appears money has driven this change.  It would cost far more to replace waste back in the mine because the construction of tailings dams requires large up front capital investment.  So the new plan is not only to avoid replacing waste back into the mountain, its to create 10 tailings stacks of approximately 72,0000 tonnes each.  The second main difference to the earlier proposal.   This represents one full year’s worth of waste if new mining machinery is installed, 6 months if its not.  The stacks will be up to 10m high and moulded into shapes Scotgold claim will resemble moraine.

Extract planning application

One of the interesting things about this is the current proposal is claimed to be much better in landscape terms than the last one – an admission that the tailings dam as approved would in fact have had an adverse impact on the landscape in a sensitive area  (and therefore should have been refused by the LLTNPA!).  This time though we are told there will be no adverse impact, even though almost twice the amount of mine waste is to be spread over the hillside.  I am sceptical and so should the LLTNPA.

The reason for this is that in order to extract the gold, the quartz ore need to be crushed until it becomes sand and it is this sand which will make up the bulk of the stacks.  Now while you find sand in glacial moraine there is also lots of rock and finer particles – silt which goes to make clay – which helps bind the whole lot together.    However, if you place sand onto what is a pretty wet hillside – it was sopping when I visited in May – it would all wash away which is no doubt why originally a tailings dam was proposed.   Scotgold’s proposed solution to this – although storing sand is never acknoweldged as far as I can see to be a problem –  is to use the rock waste which was to be left in the mine to line the ground, put a geo-textile on top of this and then mould the sand on top of that.    Here are the design criteria:

Now it doesn’t take an expert to see that there are potentially two major problems with this.  The first is there is nowhere I can see that any consideration is given either to the life span of the membrane or what happens when it breaks down as it eventually must.  A reasonable assumption is that when this happens the stacks of compressed sand will start to be eroded away from beneath.   I suspect by then scotgold will have long gone leaving the public to pick up the tabs for preventing an environmental disaster.

 

The second is there is no proper consideration that I can see of whether it is possible to revegetate heaps of sand in the Scottish Hills in such a way that they will be able to withstand the erosive force of water from above or from the sides.  The re-vegetation plan is to store turfs, up to 30 cm thick and then use them to cover the stacks.  How well these will take on dried sand, which should drain quickly and is different in composition to current soils/peat is unclear.   Cononish, as the chart helpfully shows, has over three metres of rain a year.  Some of that may run off the top of vegetation but some of it will seep into the dried out sand heaps.   What will that do?   And even if the vegetation does take and provides a waterproof seal, what happens if deer get into the enclosure and start to erode tracks over the mounds?    It seems to me there is a high and predictable risk of wash outs of the tailing stacks. And that’s without considering the risks of the Alt Anie changing course by more than the 30m safety zone or of other burns running between the stacks which could be subject to flash floods.  That sort of scenario lead to catastrophic wash-outs.

 

I find it strange that neither SEPA nor SNH in their responses – and they have a duty to protect the River Tay Special Area of Conservation  have asked critical questions about the risks associated with the current proposals or for evidence that the proposed techniques work in very wet climates such as Tyndrum.   Perhaps they think its ok for 530,000 tonnes of sand potentially to wash into the river system over say the next 200 years?   Smaller heaps, with less material as originally agreed, would of course reduce the size of this risk.

Hummocky moraine in Strathfillan below the gold mine. The slopes of many of these moraines considerably exceeds 30% but they have held together for thousands of years because of the mix of materials within them, blocky till set within a matrix and sand and silt which often sets like concrete.

I am no expert on erosion risks and there is some technical documentation in the application which relates to this which needs to be explained in lay terms as well as properly scrutinised.  However, from a scan of the documents – there are 100s of pages of engineering documentation – there is some information in the application which suggests storage of sand is problematic.  This indicates there are high risks of sand sheering on slopes of more than 30 degrees.  This is why the proposed stack heaps do not  resemble natural moraine (for an example see above) but are to be moulded across the hillside.

 

 The Landscape impact of the tailings stacks

One of the landscape visualisations. You can hardly see the enormous green shed below the mine or the tailings. The white/grey patch below and right of the mine represents an unrestored tailings stack.

The Environmental Statement contains a number of visualisations of the landscape impact from different angles (see above).  These without exception make the tailings stacks disappear into the hillside.  Maybe they will, but there are reasons to be sceptical:

 

  • All the visualisations are from a distance and none show what a 10m high stack will look like from close up either before or after restoration.
  • The photos are all browns, a depiction of the area in winter.  However, because the stacks will be well drained their vegetation is likely to be very different to the surrounding peaty slopes and therefore stand out from it.   How this might look is unclear.

 

There are no depictions of how the sand heaps will look when they start to erode away as eventually they must.

 

The landscape impact of the buildings and spoil around the mine is not really covered but is already having a significant landscape impact.  The assumption seems to be blots on the landscape, as long as developers can claim they are temporary (in this case it will be for over 20 years not for all time, are perfectly acceptable in our National Parks.

 

The wider implications of this application

Cononish is not the only potential goldmine in the area and scotgold, when trying to talk up its prospects to attract investors, claims there is potential for several other mines in the area.  So what will the cumulative impact be of potentially millions of tonnes of mine waste sculpted onto hillsides around the Tyndrum and Glen Orchy hills?

 

What needs to happen

The LLTNPA needs to subject the new planning application to  critical scrutiny and in particular make a clear statement about the sustainability or not of the tailings stacks.

 

If the erosion risks can be addressed, in terms of the existing planning permission, it might be better for 400,000 tonnes of waste to be stored in a stacks rather than in a tailings dam.  However, the LLTNPA needs to draw a line under the amount of waste it will allow to be stored on the hillside and this should not exceed the existing limit.

 

November 14, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

A few weeks ago I learned that someone had nominated me for the TGO Readers’ Award under the category Campaign or Campaigner of the year.    I am really grateful that someone appreciated parkswatchscotland sufficiently to nominate me for this.   I also think its great that TGO values campaigning and through the awards and its coverage makes more walkers aware that the outdoors is not just somewhere to enjoy but also a politically contested space.  For campaigning is politics with a small “p”.

 

I am not, however, canvassing for votes and am not interested in competing against other campaigns or campaigners.  The truth is parkswatch – and the whole outdoor movement if it can be described as such – supports most of the aims of those nominated for the TGO awards.   We need to work together.

 

And that is fundamental part of what parkswatch is about, working with other people.   While presently I write many of the posts, I have always hoped more people would do so and am particularly grateful to other contributors.   Behind the scenes however there is now a large number of people and organisations keen to promote critical debate about our National Parks in Scotland who support parkswatch in all sorts of ways:  providing information, making information requests, tipoffs about what is going on and what needs investigation, suggestions for critical analysis, drafting argument/pieces for potential use, sharing posts on social media etc.   Not only this, but people are taking action, everything from submitting complaints and contacting politicians at the individual level to working through organisations.   My thanks to each and every one of you.   I suspect similar stories could be told for the other campaign/ers nominated for the TGO awards.

 

While this gives reason to be optimistic about the future,  it is worth considering how successful all these campaigns – and the many others not nominated for the awards – have been to date.    The truth is there is a long way to go.  Yes, all the campaigns listed have had their successes but none has achieved the type of fundamental change that is needed.  So, Mend our Mountains and Fix the Fells have addressed some footpath erosion but the issue of how we get sufficient funding for path maintenance work across the British Isles remains.  Mark Avery, backed by wonderful organisations like Raptor Persecution UK and a whole network of bird recorders etc, has done a huge amount to raise awareness of raptor persecution but meantime raptors continue to be killed and disappear on grouse moors, particularly in our National Parks, with depressing regularity.  Lots of people, like Get Outside, are doing great work to try and re-connect people with nature, but poverty and the slashing of outdoor education provision as part of austerity, not to mention the camping ban in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, offsets all of this work.   JMT has done fantastic work on raising awareness of the importance of wild land, but this hasn’t prevented the Scottish Government giving the go-ahead to the Creag Riabhach windfarm in a Wild Land Area in Sutherland.

 

And parkswatch is no different.  Certain changes in our National Parks over the last 18 months – from alterations to camping permit areas to restoration of hill tracks –  may be partially attributed to critical coverage on the blog.  But on the really big issues, such as land-use, whether intensive grouse moor or forest management, or major developments, such as An Camus Mor, Flamingo Land or the Cononish goldmine expansion, there is everything still to go for.

 

It would be great if next year there was a standout campaign which had achieved fundamental change, whether in Scotland or anywhere else in the British Isles.  For any such change to happen however will require change at the political level and in Scotland at present there is very little sign of this happening.

 

There is a significant contrast between the radicalism of the early days of the Scottish Parliament (the first Land Reform Act, the creation of National Parks, the Nature Conservation Act) and how it and the Scottish Government now operate (with some significant exceptions of course).  Resources that might have assisted the  implementation of that early legislation and promoted progressive change in the countryside – whether access officers, countryside rangers or staff monitoring biodiversity – have been slashed. There is very little challenge to the way the Scottish Government is micro-managing and centralising public authorities with organisations such as our National Parks and SNH  told what they can and cannot do by civil servants – with loss of even more funding the consequence of non-co-operation.   Even the simplest of decisions, such as the re-introduction of beavers, can only be taken after years of bureaucratic obfuscation.  The Scottish Government’s response to public pressure to change – such as over raptor persecution – is yet more bureaucracy, with handpicked working groups which deliberate for years and achieve nothing.  That it has taken over six months for the Scottish Government to announce the membership of the grouse moor review group tells you everything about the current failures of government.

 

I am optimistic though that this can change.  The ideological consensus behind how Scotland and the countryside, including our National Parks, should be managed is breaking down and that provides a great opportunity.    To exploit that opportunity campaigners will need to work together and see everything is connected.  So, on grouse moors for example, the way they are being managed affects not just wildlife but the landscape.  Behind this its the power of landowners which is the fundamental determinant of how land is used, whether for pylons, windfarms or intensive rearing of grouse and its only when campaigns get together and start to address these fundamental issues that we will get real change.

 

Within this context our National Parks should be demonstration sites for how things could be done differently and a measure of success for parkswatch will be when they start fulfilling that role.

November 13, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

A strange thing happened on the 1st November, Natural Retreats UK changed its name to the UK Great Travel Company Ltd.  This took place in the middle of a massive row which has erupted over a “Natural Retreats” planning application in the Yorkshire Dales.   This post looks at the potential implications of both for Cairngorm.

 

What could be the implications of Natural Retreats UK changing its name?

 

Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, which is the company Highlands and Islands Enterprise sold to Natural Assets Investment Ltd and has a 25 year lease for the Cairngorm ski area, operates under the brand name Natural Retreats (see above).   Natural Retreats UK was the company which provided services to the companies owned by Natural Assets Investment Ltd, including Cairngorm Mountain.  In 2016 Cairngorm Mountain Ltd paid Natural Retreats UK £640,414 in management services and £175,220 for purchase of fixed assets and other services (see here).   Natural Retreats UK also provided part of  a joint USA/UK holiday bookings business called Xplore https://www.naturalretreats.com/about.   This appears to have been facilitated by Natural Retreats UK being owned by Natural Retreats Management LLC, which is registered in Delaware, in the USA.

 

The relevance of this background information is that I have been informed by someone who contacted the Natural Retreats Head Office that there has been a split between the American and British parts of the Natural Retreats operation.  If this is the case (and there is nothing on the Natural Retreats website about this), that would suggest that Natural Retreats UK is no longer owned by Natural Retreats Management LLC.  If so, that might explain the name change, particularly if the US based part of the operation had legal rights over the term or brand name “Natural Retreats”..

 

To date no  information about changes in ownership has been registered at Companies House. Instead, under Persons with Significant control is the following:

Screenshot 13th November

Now it stretches credulity to breaking point that the Directors of Natural Retreats UK Ltd, as it then was, did not know if there were persons who had significant control of the parent company, Natural Retreats Management LLC.  However,  if there has been a change in ownership they should now be able to answer the question of whether anyone has significant control.

 

This failure to provide information is illustrative of a wider problem.  Companies House employs just 4 people to check 4 million entries onto its data base each year (see here), so there is little incentive for companies to provide information in a timely manner.  This system facilitates lack of transparency and consequently makes it hard to ascertain what is going on in companies, just as its very hard to ascertain who owns land.    Indeed on the Companies House website there is a similar entry for both Cairngorm Mountain Ltd and Natural Assets Investment Ltd:

 

Screenshot 13th November

This appears completely wrong, unless there have been changes since Dec 2016, as the accounts of NAIL clearly stating that the ultimate controlling party is one David Michael Gorton whose occupation is given as Fund Manager.  At the same time Delaware is a US state notorious for its lack of transparency (you can purchase for $20 a list of documents a company has filed but not actual copies of those documents), so its impossible to find out what’s happening from that end either, ie whether Natural Retreats Management LLC has sold or transferred ownership of the company.  Highlands and Islands Enterprise should be insisting that “Natural Retreats” makes this information public and lodges the proper records at Companies House.

 

Who owns the UK Great Travel Company Ltd could have implications both for how much CML pays in administrative charges each year but also for the Natural Retreats brand – both good reasons for HIE to take an interest in this (rather than leaving it “to the market”).  One suspects that whatever the explanation for what it going on it won’t be in the interests of Cairngorm and instead of these company shennanigans we would be a lot better off if Cairngorm Mountain was owned by the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust.

 

Developments in Yorkshire

Meantime, the name Natural Retreats has been used to promote a planning application by Yorkshire Dales Ltd, another subsidiary of NAIL, in Richmond, Yorkshire for holiday lettings and houses to sell.    HIE should take note of the large number of local criticisms of how Natural Retreats have used the planning process and what is being proposed (see here) (I have commented on application, drawing Richmond Council’s attention to the financial position of NAIL and how these might impact on the proposed development).   The failures to engage and work effectively with local communities appear to be not just limited to Cairngorm.

 

The NAIL accounts to Dec 2016 tell us that the Yorkshire development if it was approved is not to be funded by the David Michael Gorton but by the banks (HSBC already have a standing security lodged over the assets of Yorkshire Dales Ltd for a previous loan).

After the experience of Bank of Scotland (it had to write off large amounts of money it had lent to develop the funicular), it appears unlikely that any bank would risk such investment at Cairngorm which probably explains why HIE is having to pay for all investment there.

 

While the Yorkshire development may appear safer from a bank lending perspective, the NAIL accounts indicate that the Natural Retreats holiday letting business (including Scottish operations) is not exactly doing well:

While occupancy levels vary considerably across the sector, top performing areas would expect around 70% for self-catering accommodation and higher levels than that for serviced accommodation.

 

HIE justified its appointment of “Natural Retreats” to run Cairngorm on the basis it had both international expertise – which may have just changed – and as an experienced holiday operator.  Actually, it was a new company with relatively little experience and what is happening elsewhere in the NAIL group of companies does not inspire confidence in their ability to turn Cairngorm around.

 

As further confirmation of this, compare how this statement from the NAIL accounts fits with Fergus Ewing’s claims (see here) that HIE are absolutely committed to winter operations at Cairngorm:

So, there we have it, HIE committed apparently to winter operations at Cairngorm while its tenant is trying to do the opposite.    Why then would HIE be funding these developments at Cairngorm if they will not help the winter experience?

November 10, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

In order to ban camping and get the camping byelaws approved, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority misrepresented and grossly exaggerated the impacts campers were having on the loch shores.  They did this by promulgating multiple images of irresponsible campers while ignoring their own data and misusing police data which put the problems in perspective.  Among the things the data showed was was that littering was was a far more widespread problem than the LLTNPA suggested, i.e campers were far from the only cause of litter,  and that the proportion of irresponsible campers and campervanners to the total was very low.   What was needed to address problems associated with a few campers was a targetted response, not a blanket ban.

 

What the camping byelaws attempted to do, however,  was is to remove the rights of the many because of the actions of the few.  If we took the Park’s approach to people’s rights – that its ok to remove a public right if anyone abuses it – we would end up with no rights at all.   If you applied the Park’s approach to campers to littering along the A82, all drivers (most of the litter is chucked out of car windows) would be banned with permits then being issued to people who signed up to the Park’s terms and conditions for using the A82.  Totally absurd but that is what the Park has done to campers.  The LLTNPA has an opportunity to address that absurdity when it considers a report to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham at the next Board Meeting on 11th December.

 

Regular readers will know that Parkswatch has been trying to expose how the byelaws are really working ever since they came into operation in March.   In order to try and prevent the manipulation of data which took place in the Your Park consultation, after the camping “season” – as the Park now describes it – ended on 30th September, I therefore asked for data about the operation of the camping byelaws and ranger patrols to be made public before the Board meeting.   What I wanted to do was to try and inform the official review of the first year of the camping byelaws.

 

This week, after various correspondence, the LLTNPA EIR 2017-070 Update declined to provide the data they hold, claiming they needed more time to assemble it and that they would give this to me by 7th December.  This is just four days before the Board Meeting, or the day when under Standing Orders the Park need to make all Board Papers public anyway.   This stinks.

 

Earlier this year, I made a similar request for data up until the end of June.  The data request was submitted on 3rd July, a clarification made on 11th July and the Park provided me the information on 2nd August (albeit in a pretty unusable format).   In other words they were able to process the data in 4 weeks.  They are now claiming they need over 8 weeks to process the same data.    Its actually more than that because  my original data request was not on 11th October, as stated in their letter, but on 2nd October EIR 2017-055.  

 

All that is required to make the data public is for the LLTNPA to remove the columns with personal data (people’s names and contact details) from the spreadsheets they hold on the booking system.  Indeed they need to do this in order to provide the Board with any sort of proper analysis but are now saying this won’t be ready until after that Board Paper is published.  This is complete tosh and a fundamental failure in terms of being accountable to the public.  Clearly what senior staff are wanting to do is once again con Board Members into approving a report on how well the byelaws are going without providing them with the full picture.

 

Also this week, after a reminder, I did get a partial response to the last two questions in my information request (above):

 

“I refer to your email of 11th October 2017, in which you asked why the Loch Chon campsite was currently closed. The first season of the new camping management zones and byelaws is over, so the campsite has been closed to allow for any required maintenance to be undertaken over the winter season. The camp site will re-open next March.

 

Comment: I had asked for all information about the closure of the Loch Chon campsite but instead have been told the campsite is closed because the camping byelaw season is over.  I don’t recall any public decision that LLTNPA  campsites should only be open to the end of the byelaw season.  Moreover, both Sallochy and Loch Lubnaig campsites are open until the end of October.  All this says is its closed because its closed.   Whatever happened to the idea that what is important is the LLTNPA puts infrastructure in place to support people enjoying the countryside?  It appears that senior staff have no real interest in improving facilities for campers in the National Park.

 

You had also enquired about when the Police Scotland Operation Ironworks report is due.  We anticipate that we should receive this report from Police Scotland by the New Year.”

 

Comment: so the information that was seen as crucial to the justification of the camping byelaws, Police statistics on Anti-social behaviour – the Park wrongly claimed the camping byelaws were responsible for an 81% drop on anti-social behaviour on east Loch Lomond – is not even going to be available to the Board before its takes a decision on its review report to Ministers.  What that says is that senior staff are just not interested in data or any information which could potentially contradict and disprove that their propoganda that the byelaws have worked well – even they no longer claim the byelaws are an outstanding success.

 

What needs to happen

The Board’s review of the first year of the camping byelaws will be a farce unless this includes a proper consideration of all the relevant data.  By proper consideration I mean it should have been subject to public scrutiny  and engagement with stakeholders before any decision.  A fair and balanced report would include among other things the following:

 

  • A public explanation for the collapse of the byelaws in respect to campervans and the reasons for this (see here)
  • An analysis of the total number of people reported camping in 2017 compared to previous years and implications of this (eg ability to enjoy outdoors, displacement elsewhere)
  • Adherence to the byelaws, including the numbers of campervans ignoring the ban before it officially collapsed, the numbers of tents found outwith permit areas (and whether they were doing anything wrong), numbers camping or campervanning in permit areas without a permit and the extent to which landowners are breaching the byelaws (see here)
  • The resources the Park has devoted to trying to get the byelaws work, particularly numbers of Ranger patrols, how rangers were used to enforce the byelaws and how this changed during the year as well and the impact this has had on other areas of work and the workforce.
  • As part of this, the expenditure on signage and analysis of how effective this has been
  • Analysis of the number of exemptions applied for under the camping byelaws (very few) and the impact that the byelaws have had on DofE, Scout Groups etc which have now basically decided to avoid using the National Park.
  • A summary and analysis of all complaints received into the operation of the camping byelaws and how this relates to the alleged positive feedback on the permit system (see here) (senior staff failed to refer to the existence of such complaints in the report presented to the Board in September).
  • A comparison of the number of abandoned campsites compared to previously (the LLTNPA while presenting lots of photos to illustrate abandoned sites did not say how many campsites had been abandoned or what resources were needed to clear these up).
  • The number of permit places actually available day to day during the byelaws compared to the 300 places promised to the Scottish Government taking account of the overall fitness of each permit area for camping (many are unusable and some have now been abandoned) and factors such as flooding.
  • The work the LLTNPA has undertaken to make it possible to camp in certain permit areas and the extent to which this has been successful
  • The reason why certain permit areas have now been abandoned
  • The consequences of trying to force campers into a few places (see here)
  • The impact of campers within wider context (litter etc).
  • Total expenditure to date on the Loch Chon campsite compared to original budgets, evaluation of the problems caused by poor planning (stench from toilets due to inadequate water supply, unuseable pitches etc) and .
  • Progress – or rather lack of it – on infrastructure which would help reduce impact of campervans and campers (waste disposal points etc) as well as the Park’s commitment to create new campsites

 

I do not believe such a report can be produced without engagement and consultation.  The LLTNPA at its next Board Meeting therefore needs to agree to delay the submission of its report to Ministers on the operation on the byelaws until it has made public all the information it holds and allowed this to be subject to public scrutiny.

 

I will now submit a formal review of the LLTNPA’s decision not to make crucial information for the evaluation of the camping byelaws public at the present time.  There is a formal stakeholders meeting next week and I hope the stakeholders there will join the call for all this information to be made public so they also can analyse it and provide proper feedback to the LLTNPA.

November 6, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
An unexceptional scene? Not when you compare it to how it looked this time last year (see below). Turves and vegetation have been taken from the lower (right) side of track and used to restore the scar on the upper (left) side of the track.

Following my two posts last December about the destruction caused by the hydro scheme in Glen Bruar (see here) and (here), I took a jog up the glen on Saturday.  I was prompted to do so after planning staff at the Cairngorms National Park Authority were kind enough to inform me – unprompted – that significant restoration work had been undertaken over the summer.

The view in August 2016
Looking south at the worst section of pipeline scar 2016

Photo showing how turves and other vegetation has been “robbed” from below the track to cover up the scar above. Note the digger scoop mark centre.[/caption]

Its hard to tell how many boulders have been removed but given the failure to store and re-use vegetation, the only way the scar could be covered up was by robbing vegetation from elsewhere.   In Glen Bruar this has been taken from the areas either side of the pipeline.  While I am not an ecologist, it appears to have been done very well.   There is more bare ground evident in the photo above, which I have used as it shows the work was all done by digger, than is evident along most of the track.   Evidence of good practice is that the contractor has managed to remove vegetation without creating deep buckets  holes and left sufficient vegetation to prevent soil erosion.

A more typical view of how the ground below the track and pipeline which has been robbed for turves now appears

As a consequence the ground which has been “robbed” should recover quite quickly.

Restored boulder band scar showing how “robbed” turves and soil have been used.

The work on the restored area is also in my view of high quality, with the restored surface being similar to the land on either side (rather than being pockmarked with ankle busting holes) while the transplanted vegetation appears to have taken.  The result is that the ground is already blending with that to land around,  a complete contrast to a year ago.  In landscape terms this looks like an excellent example of disaster recovery.  Its interesting that the Reinstatement Note provided by the CNPA suggests that the contractor who did the restoration was different to that who constructed the pipeline.   I am tempted to suggest they deserve an award.

Evidence of plants colonising bare ground. This will help stabilise the soils but which plants will establish themselves in the medium term is uncertain

Its too early to say if the original poor restoration of the pipeline will have a permanent impact on the vegetation in the glen and, for example, allow new invasive species to move in.  Once the soils and vegetation had not been stored properly, areas of bare ground were inevitable.

 

There is also still one area where the landscape scar is prominent, where the pipeline cuts across a slope above an area of deep peat:

At present it looks like very little attempt has been made to restore this.

New drainage ditch showing depth of peat. The excavated material has been dumped on left.

There are however some obvious opportunities to do so.  The vegetation that has recently been removed to create this ditch could have been used to reinstate part of the boulder band.

The start of the section of unrestored pipeline marked by the boulder field. Note the large peat turves foreground far right which appear to date from original excavation and have never been used for restoration purposes.

My conclusion is the restoration of the pipeline still has a bit further to go but its an incredible improvement on how the glen appeared this time last year.  CNPA staff and the contractors deserve to be congratulated for what they have managed to do so far to mitigate what was a landscape disaster.   I will cover other aspects of the restoration work and impact of the hydro schemes in Glen Bruar in a further post.

 

Lessons from the Glen Bruar restoration

Here are a few lessons which I think should be learned from what happened in Glen Bruar:

  1. The Glen Bruar pipeline shows that contractors can cause incredible destruction to the landscape if not supervised properly.   Developers appointing their own Ecological Clerks of Works to ensure high standards clearly did not work in this case.  This creates a strong argument – which is relevant to the forthcoming planning bill – that instead of appointing their own Ecological Clerks of Works (who are dependent on them for their wages) Developers should pay higher planning fees.  This would enable planning authorities either to supervise work directly or employ truly independent people to do so.   Our National Parks need better means available to them to prevent disasters from happening in the first place.
  2. What Glen Bruar also shows that if restoration is non-existent or not to the required standard, its quite possible to rectify adverse landscape impacts if there is the will and a skilled contractor.   If this can be done in Glen Bruar, then there is absolutely no excuse for Scottish Southern Electric and the Scottish Government to sit on their hands at Drumochter (see here).

    If Glen Bruar can be restored so can Drumochter
  3. I hope the CNPA will now use what they have achieved in Glen Bruar to make the case for active landscape restoration in Drumochter.
  4. While the CNPA provided me with the re-instatement note, this was not published on the Park’s planning portal and there is no detailed documentation there (see here) about how the restoration works were to be undertaken.  Other aspects of the restoration, which I will cover in my next post, were dealt with as Non-Material Variations to the existing consent and were published on the planning portal this year.  This is extremely helpful to enable the public to understand what the CNPA has been doing.   On the biggest issue however nothing has been published.  I think it should,  both for transparency but also to enable others to learn.
November 5, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Extract from Scottish Wildlife Trust magazine which dropped through my letterbox this week

While I would love our National Parks to be litter free, when litter is getting worse everywhere in Scotland (see here), any attempt to reduce litter which does not take account of the wider context is almost certainly doomed to failure.

 

Yet that is what the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority did when it tried to blame littering in the National Park on campers and campervanners and came up with the counter-productive idea that the way to address the litter problem was to ban and control these activities through the camping byelaws.   I say counter-productive because the LLTNPA has been attacking the very people who should have been its strongest allies in tackling the litter scourge.  For its the people who enjoy being out in the countryside – who camp and fish among other activities – who probably have the most developed anti-litter ethic in Scotland.  Think of “leave only your footprints, take only the air”. Hillwalkers, wild campers and other such recreational visitors are not perfect, of course, but most are a great deal more litter aware than the rest of the population.

 

What’s more a small but significant proportion of outdoor recreationists pick litter up.   I bumped into two fell runners on Ben Lomond a couple of months ago and jogged down with them.  Normally I don’t pick up litter when running – it interrupts the flow – but these two stopped to pick up every piece of litter they saw on the way down.  So, so did I.  The Scottish Wildlife Trust initiative near Ullapool (see above) is a wonderful example about how our public authorities could harness this goodwill from people who enjoy the countryside and use it to make our countryside litter free.

 

Imagine what might have happened if instead of trying to ban campers, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority had provided litter pickers and made it easy for responsible campers to pick up litter left by others?   Litter pickers remove much of the unpleasantness and health risks associated with picking up litter and would therefore encourage more people to clean up.   That might have truly helped to “transform our lochshores” as the LLTNPA claimed it wished to do.  Before however the LLTNPA could copy the Highland/SWT initiative,  it needs to ensure all its member local authorities follow the example of Perth and Kinross Council and not just provide adequate numbers of litter bins but ensure these are emptied regularly.

 

While our National Parks could probably do more to prevent the main source of litter, which is packaging, by themselves they can never change the social attitudes which makes littering acceptable to a large proportion of the population.  What they could do though is set an example and harness the support of the people who do care and who are most likely to influence others.  If you are an unaware member of the public walking along that beach near Ullapool and see someone using the litter picker, I suspect that might make you think twice before dropping litter.  Clean places help but so does the example of your peers.  Its the same in our National Parks.  The LLTNPA could be leading on this but to do so credibly it will need to re-think its whole attitude to camping and other recreational visitors, start treating them as partners rather than problems and seeking their ideas.  The litter picker initiative is just one example how the National Park could make a difference.

November 3, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Extract from this week’s Strathy (in which I am quoted)

The financial position of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd

Following my post on the finances at Cairngorm (see here), a Natural Retreats spokeswoman claimed to the Strathy this week that “Overall despite an operating loss the company was cash flow positive requiring no group support or bank intervention”.  This is completely misleading, as the Cairngorm Mountain Ltd accounts show:

Extract from Note 1 to the CML Accounts to December 2016

So, both current and net liabilities increased significantly – by c30% –  in 2016 and while the spokesperson claimed no “group support” was required the accounts say the opposite!

Given that the 2017 ski season was terrible, it should be safe to conclude that CML is now, almost a year later, in an even worse financial position with all the consequences that could have to local businesses, including suppliers.  I say “should” because the loss in 2016 was  created by the large increase in administrative charges paid to Natural Retreats UK – which HIE needs to explain – and could, and should, be reduced.  I doubt that any bank would intervene to support this business, so why is HIE still supporting it?

CML and Natural Assets Investment Ltd

In this post however I wish to focus on CML’s relationship with its parent company Natural Assets Investment Ltd which published  consolidated accounts for the group, which includes CML, in October (see here).  Start with the bottom line:

 

NAIL’s loss increased by almost £1.5m compared to 2015 to £6,549,149.  This is reflected further down in the accounts in an increase in its net liabilities from £22,831,678 to £29,380,827.  Yes, NAIL is almost £30m in the red!

The key point however is that total turnover, i.e income, for the group was £6,536,413 which is less than the loss that was made.   The group is in an extremely parlous financial position and can only continue because of guarantees from its owner David Michael Gorton.  No bank would lend to a company in this position.

The reason for this deficit is not because the company is investing huge sums:

 

This table shows the group invested just £915,917 (second line) in the year across all their businesses of which we know £360,882 was at Cairngorm (from the CML accounts) .  Moreover, NAIL was apparently not planning to invest anything either:

This account fits with the evidence of lack of significant investment since Natural Retreats took over at Cairngorm, with almost any work that has been done funded by HIE.

The main reason for the losses has nothing to do with trading (the Group made an  operating profit of £1,800,619)  or investment, its down to other expenses.  Most notable among these is the amount of debt owed (£46,468,212) and interest paid (£3,633,498) to its owner, David Michael Gorton, who used anyway to be described as a hedge fund manager:

What this shows is that despite paying Mr Gorton more than in the previous financial year, the total amount owed to him has also gone up!   We can therefore expect that in 2017 payments to Mr Gorton will be even higher.  £3,633,498 is a pretty good return on fixed assets which are now valued at £3,596,789 and investment properties which have a net book value of £20,340,101 especially when some of the purchase price of the assets was paid for by a bank loan (c£4m) from HSBC.

The other important thing to note about NAIL’s consolidated accounts is that out of the total turnover of £6,536,413, £4,749,982  comes from Cairngorm (figure from CML accounts).  What this means is that the NAIL group is almost entirely dependent on operations at Cairngorm for income.  Its the only cash cow in the group.

While Natural Retreats UK and Natural Assets Investment Ltd are separate companies, they share many of the same Directors and what’s more NAIL has NO employees.  Its dependent on Natural Retreats UK to do work and this is reflected in the notes to the accounts:

Extract group accounts

 

It appears therefore that Cairngorm is being used to keep the whole NAIL group going and that most likely explains the huge increase in administrative costs charged by Natural Retreats UK to Cairngorm Mountain Ltd in 2016.

What needs to happen

Its a public scandal that HIE sold Cairngorm Mountain Ltd for a knockdown price to a company which had no track record and whose net liabilities have increased by about £5m each year since it was incorporated in 2011 and now total a staggering £29,380,827.     The risk now is that when Natural Assets Investment Ltd,  whose main income comes from Cairngorm, goes into administration – as it surely must do at some point – that will put both jobs and assets at Cairngorm at risk (at present, through a charging order the bank HSBC appears to have first call on all assets in the group).

HIE and the Cabinet Secretary responsible, Fergus Ewing, now needs to explain publicly what action it will take to protect the public interest at Cairngorm, including how it will safeguard assets purchased with the public purse and how it intends to prevent monies continuing to drain out of the local area.

Unfortunately, as Minister responsible, Fergus Ewing, appears to have his head in the sand:

Article from Strathy this week
  • No mention of the money being extracted from Cairngorm or the risks posed by Natural Retreats
  • No appreciation that Natural Retreats will invest nothing at Cairngorm – its HIE staff who have had to go and check out the snow making machines
  • Re-writing of history.  Since the installation of the funicular HIE has been obsessed with increasing numbers of summer visitor and has just paid for removal of the Coire na ciste infrastructure
  • No mention of the Save the Ciste Group or role it has played in making people understanding the importance of winter activities at Cairngorm
  • The failure to mention the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust and his preference for listening to selected people who he implies represent local opinion.

 

November 2, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
The area of the proposed application (from LLTNPA planning portal). There is nothing in the document about WHAT Flamingo Land are actually proposing

On 27th October, after six months of silence, agents for Flamingo Land lodged a pre-planning application consultation strategy with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.  Anyone who follows Scottish Government planning policy knows that one of the big ideas and big pushes is towards “front loading” the planning system, with a shift to consultation and engagement taking place prior to planning applications being submitted.  The idea is this should improve proposals and help create consensus around developments.   What front-loading fails to acknowledge is that current planning system is unbalanced, with local communities having little power, and is driven by the self-interest of developers.  This, and the pathetic inadequacy of current pre-application consultations are clearly evidenced by the Flamingo Land proposals.

Its still them and us

The “They” is the public, you and me – the heading illustrates typical attitudes of developers towards the public, a hurdle to be got past, not a partner in developments.

The Pre-application consultation is supposed to include the following:

The only description you will find in the planning documentation about Flamingo Land’s proposals is this:

 

 

 

The LLTNPA will no doubt be patting itself on the back that Flamingo Land is holding three consultation events, rather than the minimum recommended, which is one!   How the public are expected to meaningfully inform the proposals by turning up to an event on the day, with little idea of what to expect, and then respond with no time for reflection, I don’t know.  Any meaningful consultation has to take place over time, to allow exchange and development of views, but instead of using the last six months to do this, the LLTNPA is allowing Flamingo Land to run three tokenistic events.   This is apparently what good consultation looks like – the document states “Best Practice for Consultation is also outlined”  – in the planning world.  This is a major development proposal in a National Park which has enormous implications both for the local community and the National Park and is quite frankly not good enough.

Its also a recipe for conflict:

Extract from Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places. One of the three authors was Petra Biberbach from the Planning Advisory Service who is also on the LLTNPA Board and chairs the Planning Committee

So, why is Petra Biberbach not using her position as Chair of the LLTNPA Planning Committee to empower the local community to get actively involved in planning the Riverside and Woodside sites as she recommended two years ago?

Community Empowerment and planning

While Scottish Government pronouncements and the discourse of our public authorities is full of buzz words about “community engagement”, “community empowerment” and “co-production”, the actions of our Public Authorities continually contradict what is being said.  The Park of Weir planning decision, where Planning Minister, Kevin Stewart, overruled the views of the local community at Dunblane in favour of the developers is just one example of this.

Its worth reading what the organisation Planning Democracy had to say about the Scottish Government’s planning white paper (which was developed in response to the review of Planning Petra Biberach was involved in):

The lack of meaningful involvement however fundamentally comes down to power.   What the map above illustrates is that Flamingo Land could be granted a stranglehold over the land to the West of the River Leven and therefore over the local economy.   Scottish Enterprise has agreed in principle to sell the Riverside Site, which is currently in public ownership, to Flamingo Land while their purchase of Woodbank House and also the boathouse on the point to the north west of Lomond shores means they surround that development.  There are serious issues to be addessed about whether this is in the public or local community interest.

 

There is, however, now that the Community Empowerment Act is law, an opportunity to challenge this.  One way for the local community to prevent Flamingo Land from acquiring too much power would be to request the Riverside site from Scottish Enterprise as an asset transfer.  This would not be with a view to stopping all development from going ahead but rather to ensure the community is able to influence the development, retain control in the long-term and ensure some community development.   For example, if the local community owned the land they could refuse development in certain places, such as Drumkinnon Wood, prevent inappropriate applications being made in future (e.g viewing towers which I suspect will be the sacrificial lamb Flamingo Land offers up to get their development proposals through) and ensure community benefit through rent payments.

 

Against what criteria should Flamingo Land’s development proposals be judged?

While the planning application still describes the development as Flamingo Land, the developers have set up a website in the name of Iconic Leisure Developments. This is more informative than the planning application and makes clear that fundamental to the application will be an attempt to “drive the number of visitors”:

This is worrying.   It is  exactly the same type of wording which HIE uses at Cairngorm – we all know what happened there – and is, in my view, inappropriate for a National Park.

 

There is nothing wrong with development at Balloch as long as it is sustainable and benefits both local people and the wider public.  While its a gateway to the National Park, gateways are not normally places people choose to linger.  People want to get inside and in the case of National Parks to experience nature.  It appears the only way Flamingo Land believe they will be able to attract visitors to remain longer term is if they offer a theme park type development.  They may be right about this but it  would be totally inappropriate for a National Park.   The fundamental problem is that this site is being viewed from a commercial, rather than a National Park, perspective and that is likely to drive a certain type of development.  Most of it is still public land and other solutions are possible.

 

Whatever is proposed should, I believe, be evaluated against the National Park’s four statutory objectives.   Here are a few pointers of how I think the proposals should be judged:

  • Sustainable economic development
    • will the long-term jobs on the site be reasonably paid (talk in Scotland is now of £10 an hour minimum wage) and provide good terms and conditions or will the development provide yet more precarious jobs on the minimum wage with precarious hours?
    • will local community businesses and other organisations be able to operate within the development area on fair terms and conditions?
  • Conservation
    •  how much of green parts of the Riverside and Woodbank House sites will be retained, will aerial shots of the site look as green in five years time and will Mackinnon Woods be kept free of development?
    • what will the landscape impact of the development be and will there be a viewing tower which could be seen from the summit of Loch Lomond
  • Sustainable use of resources
    • Will any polluted land on the site be cleared up?
    • Will the development when operational be powered entirely by renewable energy?
    • Will the development result in more traffic and does it incorporate improved public transport links?
  • Public enjoyment
    • Will traditional informal recreational uses of the site be able to continue (boating and angling on river leaving, walking in Mackinnon Woods)
    • Will people visiting site be able to access nature easily, e.g, through a new bridge over the River Leven?
    • Will the amount of good quality public space increase or decrease?

This is far from an exhaustive list and other people will have different ideas.  The LLTNPA and Flamingo Land should have been engaging with the local community and nationally about such objectives but they haven’t done so so far although they have been clearly having secret talks since January:

The way its going Flamingo Land should provide an ideal opportunity for both local community and national lobbying organisations to demonstrate to the Scottish Parliament the inadequacies of our current planning system within the forthcoming Planning Bill which is intended to create a different approach.