Board Member interests and National Park decision-making

November 28, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
Arrow shows location of Woodbank Inn relative to the proposed Flamingo Land development

Yesterday the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority planning committee considered a planning application from David McCowan, an elected Board Member and member of the Planning Committee (see here).  David McCowan represents the people of Balloch and West Loch Lomond and the planning application was to build a three storey extension onto the Woodbank Inn, on Balloch Rd, at the back of the Riverside/Flamingo Land site in the area he represents.


In contrast to the planning applications involving former Board Member Fergus Wood (see here) and (here) everything has been done by the book.   David McCowan declared his interest fully on the application form from the start, whereas in Fergus Wood’s case the original application form dated 3rd March was changed by LLTNPA at a later date as a result of a request from his agent (see here for full letter):


Instead of revising the date on the application form to reflect the change, the LLTNPA inserted the declaration they received on the 10th April into a superseded application form dated 3rd March which was given the date 13th March on the Planning Portal.  So, the good thing about the David McCowan application is it helps show up the failures in governance around Fergus Wood’s campsite application (which I have asked the LLTNPA to address).


While there were a number of objections to the application by residents who will also be impacted on by the Flamingo Land proposals – they must feel hemmed in from all sides – I will not consider the merits of the application here, only its implications in terms of Board Member interests and accountability.


Now I should say here David McCowan is one of few members of the old Board I have time for.  He is one of two locally elected LLTNPA members who makes any contribution at meetings, has consistently spoken out about litter problems in the Park and argued for a much broader approach than the one that has treated campers as the cause of every problem.   He has also been good enough, since James Stuart became convener, to come over and speak to members of the public after Board Meetings.


David McCowan’s application to extend the Woodbank Inn, however, raises issues about his ability to represent his constituents in future.   This is not about the Woodbank Inn application in itself, but rather about the relationship between his business, this application and the proposed development of the Riverside Site by Flamingo Land.  For in making the application, David McCowan must have made some judgement about the potential impact of Flamingo Land on his business which in turn must affect his ability to participate in any discussions about the merits of the proposed development of the Riverside Site.   On the one hand, if he supports the Riverside development, the suspicion must be that he is doing so because he thinks Flamingo Land will attract more people to Balloch and that will benefit his business.  On the other hand, if he opposes the development, that will be interpreted as him not wanting a competitor to his business.  In other words, by making this application – even though its to his credit that this has come before rather than after the Flamingo Land application – I don’t see how David McCowan can objectively participate in the Flamingo Land deliberations.  Whatever his motivation, there is scope for complaints to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards from all sides while the Board Members Code of Conduct makes it clear that Board Member interests must not affect the planning process.


If you accept this logic, this means David McCowan cannot take further part of the decision-making process in what is likely to be the biggest single development proposal which will ever effect his constituents.   Its arguable too that making a planning application is not the crucial factor and just through owning this business on the very edge of Flamingo Land he has an interest such that he should not participate in discussions.   David McCowan’s interests therefore raise fundamental issues  about democracy and accountability.   A key question is whether residents of Balloch have a right to expect their locally elected member should  listen to and then represent their views on the Riverside Site (accepting that local opinion may be divided) without being affected by his own interests?   If you think they should have that right, the logic seems to me that if David McCowan can no longer represent his constituents.    This is not just about the Flamingo Land Planning Application, its about the National Park Partnership Plan which is due to be discussed at the December Board Meeting:  one of the key targets in that is the development of the Riverside Site.


The simple solution would be for David McCowan to resign.  Even though it may now be too late for an election to be organised before Flamingo Land submit their planning application, it should be possible to hold an election before the application goes to Committee.  Alternatively he could decide to stay in post till July, when local members are up for election, and either stand down then or let the electorate decide.   The problem with this option is that its hard to see how he can effectively represent his consituents between now and then.   This then raises the question of what rights local constituents have if they are not happy with David McCowan’s ability to represent them and in particular whether they should have a right to recall him as their representative.  This is not a legal option at present but I think it should be,  not just for National Parks but for all elected representatives.  At present a very limited power to remove elected representatives exists where they have been convicted of certain criminal offences but I think it should also cover situations where a members interests prevent them from serving their electorate (Kezia Dugdale heading off into gameshow land is another possible example).


While I do not know David McCowan on a personal basis, I have now talked to him briefly on a couple of occasions and as well as finding him likeable have had respect for him up till now.  While I suspect he may have thought about some of the issues raised here, unfortunately I don’t he think he sits on a Board which has as yet developed a strong ethical sense.  The old Board tried to cover up the Owen McKee case (see here) and the new Board at present appears to be sitting on the fence as regards whether any action should be taken against Fergus Wood.  I am not sure therefore there is anyone on the Board with whom David McCowan could talk through the issues described here.  I hope this post will prompt him to think further about his position,  prompt the Board to openly discuss the issues raised and prompt the local community to consider and express what they want from their local representatives.


One question I believe local electorates need to consider more are the implications of people with significant business interests within the National Parks serving on their Boards.   While I am not equating David McCowan in any way with either Owen McKee or Fergus Wood, all three were democratically elected to the Board (while Fergus Wood of course was also removed from the Board when his local electorate chose to vote for other candidates in the Council elections earlier this year).    Business people may or may not make good local leaders but the challenge is how can their personal interests be kept separate from the interests of the National Park and the people they represent?

6 Comments on “Board Member interests and National Park decision-making

  1. I am not sure that it is as problematic as you make out. I am sure that Mr McCowan will take advice from one or both of the Convenor and the Park Authority’s internal legal team. I agree that there is probably a declarable interest here, but I do not think that this necessarily prevents Mr McCowan from representing his constituents by putting forward representations on the Flamingo Land planning application in accordance with the Park Authority’s procedures. Having done that, I agree that he should not be participating in the actual decision on that application because (in the circumstances of this application) I do not think that his interest can be categorised as remote or insignificant.

    Of course, another solution could be for Mr McCowan to sell his property before the decision on the Flamingo Land application has to be made.

    On the wider point about business interests being represented on the Board, I would consider it a good thing that there are a wide range of skills available to the Board. Given the Park Authority’s statutory duties the mix of skills on the Board should be reflective of those duties. That would therefore mean one or more business people being represented. As I do not know the individuals I cannot say whether or not that is currently the case for this Board. I do not think that having business people on the Board is an issue that cannot be managed.

    Whatever their skills, whether Board members are effective in going about their responsibilities is, of course, a different matter.

    1. Thanks James, this is interesting – I had not thought about David McCowan selling his property – and I think there needs to be debate about this. The problem is that where someone has a declarable interest which could affect the decision-making process, the normal practice is they absent themselves from the decision making process (so Fergus Wood, once he had decided to apply to build a campsite on his land took no part in the public debates on the camping development plan). If he were not part of the decision-making process around Flamingo I cannot see how David McCone could represent his constituents views in that debate. Now, you could argue that as long as he does not vote or express a view he could attend the debate and simply report back what his constituents had said to him but the problem with this is how does anyone know this is objective and whatever feedback he gives are not affected by his own interests? Indeed the current application is likely to affect who would be prepared to express their views to him.
      Now, none of this would matter if the application was minor and did not affect most of his constituents (there are situations where it is perfectly acceptable for Board Members to absent themselves from the discussion). Nor would it matter if the declarable interest related one of the other two types of Board Members, Government nominees and Local Councillors. While Councillors are elected they are on the Board to represent their councils not their wards and indeed some of the councillors on the Park Boards have represented areas outwith the National parks. The problem only arises because David McCowan was elected to represent an area where there is a major development AND because he has business interests which will be affected by that development. Now, I don’t think the Park can sort this out. Its first a matter for David McCowan’s conscience: the Code of Conduct for Ethical Standards in public life states if you are constantly having to declare interests you should consider whether you can still serve on the Board. Secondly though, its a matter for the local electorate, even if at present they have no power over this.
      On the wider point, the problem is not about people with business interests being represented on the Board – indeed I personnaly think the Board could do with someone who had green/outdoor recreation business tourism expertise. Nor is it about Councillors on the Board having business interests, as they can absent themselves from discussions without this affecting how local constituents are represented. The issue arises when locally elected members to the Park Board have significant business interests in the area they serve and these could then be affected by major developments in that area.

      1. My comment about the possibility of selling the property was really by way of an aside to demonstrate that there could be other ways of dealing with the issue. I am certainly not advocating that he should sell.

        I largely agree with Dave Morris’ comments. Where I diverge slightly is that I think that he can represent constituent interests and, whilst I agree that he should not vote on the Flamingo Land application, he should also not participate in the member discussion leading to that vote. He can make the representations and should then withdraw.

        At to how anyone would know whether the representations are properly reflective of his constituents’ views or are unduly influenced by his own interests, this can be managed via his declaration of interest and a suitable audit trail. If constituent representations are made at meetings, he can have someone minute the meetings. If they are received in letter form, then you have them in writing. He can, if necessary, ask one of the planning officers to write up a summary of them for him to read out.

        I do not think that on what you have reported to date that he will constantly have to recuse himself from decision making. Clearly he will have to do so in relation to his own application and for the Flamingo Land one. But I guess I am unaware of his wider business activities and the extent to which there may be more major developments in the area.

        1. James, thankyou, this is really interesting. It seems to me that how you see this depends on your perspective. If you see this from the perspective of the normal type of member who sits on Boards (nominated by Government, whether national or local), everything you and Dave say is absolutely pertinent. Normally conflicts of interest can be managed in the way you suggest.
          However, if you look at this from a democratic perspective, I believe a different set of issues arise. While from a Board perspective a Board Member might be able to represent the views on the constituents in the way you suggest, does not the local electorate have a right to expect their elected representative to be able to vote on key decisions that affect them? What is the point of electing a representative who cannot, because of their interests, vote on the single most important decision that will affect your local community? A local example of the importance of being able to vote to represent local interests is shown by the actions of the local MSP, Jackie Baillie, many of whose constituents work in the Clyde nuclear bases. She has consistently spoken out and voted against the Scottish Labour Party line on nuclear bases (now I personally totally disagree with her but I do recognise in terms of democracy she is doing what local reps should do – and interestingly she was one of the few Labour Candidates to win individual seats earlier this year). From a democratic rather than Board viewpoint therefore I think the conflict of interest in David McCowan’s case raises certain fundamental issues (which is nothing about him personally). This is why I suggested the question of a right of recall was relevant. Now, it might be the case that the community in Balloch turns ends up being so divided on this issue that a directly elected member without business interests would decide they should abstain – a practice which is fairly common in councils – but the point is here David McCowan cannot even do that because of his business interests. Take the other scenarios though, that the community is either overwhelming for or against the development and whatever position they come to is contrary to that of the majority of Board Members (eg the Board backs the development but local people don’t): in that scenario do they not have a right to expect their local directly elected representative can speak and vote for them? David McCowan can’t. Its not his fault but it does raise fundamental issues about the nature of democratic representation (which as you can tell, I believe need to be strengthened – I don’t belong to the school that thinks we elect someone for five years and during that time they should be totally free to get on with the job as they think fit).

  2. I think David McCowan should reconsider his position on the Board of the LLTNPA seeing that he has ciose affiliation to the planning commitee members, seeing that he has an interest on which way the planning commitee makes a decision and which could affect his business.

  3. I have been present at LLTNP Board meetings and heard David McCowan’s contributions. He has appeared to be one of the most effective of the Board members, notably when pursuing litter issues with resilience and robustness. His complaints about the lack of progress by LLTNP staff over many years struck a chord with me. I have no difficulty with his continuing presence on the Board, providing he continues to be transparent in his business interests and the proximity of those interests to the land targeted for the Flamingo Land proposals. Although he is one of the locally elected members his role on the Board, as with all Board members, is not to represent a particular sectorial interest but to take decisions and give advise, using his experience as a whole, in relation to the overall activities of the Board. As regards the planning application for Flamingo Land I see no problem in his contributions to that issue within the planning committee, providing his own personal interests, if relevant, are explicit and transparent, and he does not participate in any voting.

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