Author: Nick Kempe

September 25, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

Highlands and Islands Enterprise appointed McGowan, an Aviemore contractor, to undertake the  “clear-up” that is currently being undertaken at Cairngorm.  This has involved removal of potentially re-usable lift infrastructure from Coire na Ciste and has ignored environmental standards (see here).   HIE have now provided, as a result of FOI requests, information ITT Report – Redacted about HOW McGowan was appointed.  However, as yet they have provided no further information about the specification of the works, which would have shown what standards should have been applied.   What the latest information shows is the McGowan were appointed purely on price, with no regard for quality.

 

This contravenes the Scottish Government’s statutory guidance and procurement reform programme which has, over the last few years, introduced numerous measures to ensure all tenders for works or services funded by the public purse take wider enviromental, social and economic factors into account.   HIE appears however is a law unto itself and the consequences have been quite predictable:

The concrete remains of tower bases and plinth lifts removed from Coire na Ciste.

HIE’s consultant, an ex-Natural Retreats employer, told the Cairngorms National Park Authority that the lift infrastructure in Coire na Ciste would be removed by helicopter.  Instead, McGowan has removed them by truck (see here).    The result is:

Damage to ground vegetation in Coire na Ciste caused by trucks used to remove lift infrastructure

Our public authorities need to explain how this is acceptable when, during the construction of the funicular just round the hill, they required contracts to restore every stone the right way up and practically protect every blade of grass?   All the historical standards that have ever been agreed for Cairngorm are now just being ignored and the way contracts are being tendered and awarded at Cairngorm is one of the main mechanisms behind this race to the bottom.   The mountain, and the people who visit it, deserve far far more.

 The tender process and award

Rather than taking direct responsibility for the tender process, HIE appointed Torrance Limited Liability Partnership to carry out the process for them by means of the quick quote system:

The Quick Quote system is supposed to be used only for “low risk” procurement exercises.  Given all the things that had gone wrong with the works in Coire Cas last year, with needless destruction of soils and vegetation (see here for example) and the wilful disregard of planning requirements (see here), its pretty clear that the risks associated with works at Cairngorm are not low and that this process was not appropriate.  The explanation for its use may be that  HIE was very aware of the Save the Ciste Group’s proposals to re-instate skiing in Coire na Ciste and the Quick Quote process allowed it to get rid of the re-usable elements of the lift infrastructure as quickly as possibly.

Many of the former lift towers were in acceptable condition, it was their concrete bases which had eroded, but are being sent for scrap without any apparent consideration about whether they could be re-used

The report on the tender shows that HIE did not ask Torrance LLP to consider the quality of the bids received:

While the 0% for quality speaks for itself, contractors were “encouraged” to provide information about their relevant experience.  However, they were NOT “required” to do so.   The obvious question is whether McGowan, in their bid, explained that they were the contractor who had ignored the planning conditions set by the Cairngorms National Park Authority for the new Shieling rope tow?   If they hadn’t, HIE knew all about the record of McGowan at Cairngorm and the report makes clear they were asked for comment.   HIE found the information “to be in order and compliant” which indicates they have manipulated the process to prevent consideration of past quality issues.

Note how the price compared favourably with works undertaken by McGowan at Coire Cas that had helped destroy the reputation of Natural Retreats and brought the National Park into disrepute.  Despite this HIE decided it was acceptable to agree to more of the same.

 

The ostensible explanation for this is the bids from other contractors (their names and the amounts of their bids were redacted by HIE) were apparently considerably higher:

I suspect that if the other contractors bids had built in quality and they knew about this they would have had every justification to appeal the decision under procurement law.

 

The statement that McGowan has a good working relationship with Natural Retreats and Cairngorm tells you is all three organisations are in this together when it comes to undermining the Cairngorms National Park and standards at Cairngorm.   HIE has every chance to learn from what has gone wrong in the past and its clear that it does not want to do so.  This is post-truth procurement and part of a post-truth approach to the management of Cairngorm which, like the neo-liberals, claims all is going well and there is no alternative when the evidence tells you the opposite.

 

Fortunatately, an alternative is now getting off the ground:I believe anyone who cares about Cairngorm needs to get behind and help the Aviemore and Glenmore Community trust to take over ownership of Cairngorm and develop an alternative plan.

 

No-one is denying that a clean-up at Cairngorm was well due.  There are things that Natural Retreats could have cleared up if it had cared about anything than extracting from the place:

Some of the infrastructure in Coire na Ciste was a complete mess

Its the failure of HIE to consult on what infrastructure could potentially have been renovated or re-used, their wilful abandonment of standards and the questions of how the damage that has been done will be restored that are the issues.

How is HIE planning to restore this? .
Or this?

Since HIE has not released any information on the specification of the works, it appears they want to keep secret how the land affected by the removal of the lift infrastructure will be restored.   One of the things that the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust should be able to bring to Cairngorm is management based on transparency and informed by those who care about the place.

September 24, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Herald Thursday. There was a further article and leader comment on Saturday.

The debate about visitor numbers, which started this summer with reports of visitors “swamping” Skye and the North West Coast, has moved to the Outer Hebrides and the current focus is on “motorhomes”.  However, unlike in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park where the numbers of visitors are treated as a problem,  in the West the increase in visitors is generally seen as a good thing.  The challenge, as Alasdair Allan the local MSP said, is that infrastructure has been unable to keep up with demand.   In suggesting that a levy be imposed on campervans to fund the infrastructure, he has opened up the debate.  The Herald, at the end of their leader on Saturday, reflecting on that debate concluded, rightly I believe:  “Getting the infrastructure right is the solution: who pays for it is the problem”.

 

What the Herald failed to say was that if our National Parks had been working and being doing the job they were set up to do, they would now be providing a model of how to do this.  Moreover, the case for further National Parks, including that mooted for Harris, would be unanswerable.

 

Unfortunately, there is almost nothing that people on Skye and in the Outer Hebrides can learn at present from our existing National Parks.  Both seem keener to ban visitors than welcome them.  The Cairngorms National Park Authority has suggested byelaws to restrict access could be used to allow the An Camas Mor development to go ahead (see here), while the constant refrain of LLTNPA  Chief Executive Gordon Watson over the last year when asked to justify the camping byelaws has been  that the numbers stopping off in campervans and tents are too great.  The LLTNPA’s original provision for campervans under their camping permit system was a measly 30 places, with not a single campervan allowed at their new Loch Chon campsite despite all the parking space there.   The LLTNPA’s attempt to limit the number of campervans has now fallen apart because of the legal right people have to sleep in vehicles by the road but this has left a policy vacuum.

 

The policy vacuum  provides an opportunity for the LLTNPA to change direction.  Instead of trying to stop and control visitors,  they should be focussing on what infrastructure is needed to support them.   There was no open discussion of this at the Board Meeting earlier this month, although a reference in the Your Park update report that staff were looking to upgrade facilities at Firkin Point and Inveruglas suggests they may now be moving in the right direction.

 

The basic elements of the infrastructure the LLTNPA needs to provide for campervans should be quite obvious – chemical disposal points, places to leave rubbish and drinking water.  When asked for a list of chemical disposal points in the National Park earlier this year, the LLTNPA knew of none outside formal campsites (see here) and could not even say which campsites had chemical disposal points.  The LLTNPA needs to start acknowledging that the lack of facilities for campervans and the lack of public information about this as a problem and also that it has the primary responsibility to sort this out.

 

The contrast in levels of understanding and understanding between the LLTNPA and  the west is striking.   Alasdair Allan MSP was able, without apparent difficultly, to identify the lack of facilities, chemical disposal points and capacity on ferries as a challenge.    Imagine what the Western Isles could have learned if the National Park had installed chemical and waste disposal points for campervans at the toilet facilities along the A82,  (Luss, Firkin, Inveruglas, Crianlarich, Tyndrum) and made these available 24 hours a day.  Imagine too what the Western Isles could have learned if the LLTNPA had used its large communications and marketing team (there are at least 8 staff) to engage with campervanners about the infrastructure they would like to see in place and then disseminated the results across Scotland?  That could have informed provision of infrastructure everywhere but instead the LLTNPA uses that team to produce glossy materials telling people what they are not allowed to do and where they cannot go.

 

To take the contrast further, tourism chiefs on the Western Isles have criticised Mr Allan’s proposals for a ferry tax on motorhomes because it might put people off visiting.  In the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park tourism businesses piled in to support the byelaws banning visitors in the mistaken belief that you could force people to use commercial sites.   Funny how all those free marketeers want to constrain choice.    A study by Outer Hebrides Tourism has found that people in motorhomes, who are not forced to go anywhere in the Western Isles, on average spend £500 per visit.  Both the tourism chiefs and Mr Allan know that the increased number of visitors in motorhomes is good, the debate is just about how to fund the infrastructure and whether tourism taxes would put off tourists.   The contrast with the LLTNPA  is that in all the papers that were developed to try and justify banning campers and campervanners, there was no tourism impact development and never once did the LLTNPA consider the impact on the local economy.  The LLTNPA should acknowledge in their report to Ministers on the byelaws in December that this was a mistake as has been their attempt to limit the numbers of tents and caravans to 300 (which was an arbitrary figure which has never been justified).

 

The final contrast between the west and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park about the infrastructure debate is the level of political involvement.   Its not just Alasdair Allan that is involved, Kate Forbes the Highland MSP has facilitated meetings on Skye with local councillors and the tourism minister to discuss what needs to be done to support visitors (see here).  In the Saturday Herald Leader of the Western Isles Council, Roddie Mackay, was quoted as saying “The council is exploring all options that could increase investment in infrastructure required as a result of the undoubted success of RET (the Road Equivalent Tariff which has reduced ferry charges) and tourism”.  Contrast this with the LLTNPA where local MSPs and councillors, including those on the LLTNPA Board, have been notable for their silence on the need for improved infrastructure and investment.

 

A recent example of this political silence came at the LLTNPA Board Meeting last week when a Board Member referred to visits from large cruise liners which come to the Clyde and then send busloads of passengers to Luss.  This was interesting – same issue as in the Hebrides – and helps to explain why visitor infrastructure at Luss is creaking.  Not one idea was proposed however on how to rise to this challenge and opportunity.  Instead, there was a bizarre discussion about how difficult it was to get agreement from Luss Estates, the Park and the local Council about who should pick up litter where around the Luss carpark.   

 

What needs to happen

Our National Parks should be aspiring to provide models of excellence for how to support visitors, not ban them, and focus the resources which they have, which are far greater than are available on the west coast, on getting infrastructure right.

 

As part of this the LLTNPA should be committing to develop a proper plan for the infrastructure needed to support campervans in the first year of the forthcoming National Park Partnership Plan 2018-23.  This should include a commitment to engage openly  people using campervans and local communities  to the right type of infrastructure and in what places.  Some of this should be easy, for example adapting existing facilities, some more challenging, for example installing new public toilets and disposal points (eg at the carpark at the foot of the Cobbler).  I will consider how this could be funded in a future post.

September 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

Trees for Life announced this week a new project to use old isolated Scots Pine to restore areas which were formerly covered in Caledonian Pine Forest.

It brought to mind An Camas Mor……………

………..where the isolated old pines now sit among regenerating forest.

A great example of rewilding (see here) and of what Trees for Life want to achieve.

 

Instead of using public money to build town here,  the Cairngorms National Park Authority should be using An Camas Mor as the perfect example of what National Parks could achieve if they had more power over land-use and if they were left alone by the Scottish Government to do the job they were set up to do.

 

The designs for the new town, which appear excellent, could get used for somewhere outside the National Park  – how about Cambuslang rather than An Camas Mor? – and small elements could be used to meet the need for more social housing in Badenoch and Strathspey.

September 22, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist

Retiring Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board Member and former SNP councillor Fergus Wood was featured in the Stirling Observer last week due to his  alleged failure to abide by planning conditions set by the National Park Authority for the hydro scheme at Ledard Farm which he is reported as describing in the article as “my project”.   Fergus Wood is a paid Director and part owner of Ledard Farm Ltd which appears to own Ledard Farm.    Fergus Wood has been a member of the Park’s planning committee since at least 2013 and possibly since c2007 when he joined the Board.  (Councillors have traditionally sat on the Park planning committee but the LLTNPA’s removal of all Board records pre-2014 from its website has made it very difficult for the public to ascertain basic information like who was on what committee when).

 

The LLTNPA, as planning authority,  required Fergus Wood as applicant at the time,  to submit a Traffic Management Plan for approval as a condition of the planning permission .  This unfortunately has not been published on the Park’s planning portal, which makes it difficult for the public to submit specific complaints about breaches of planning permission, but will almost certainly have included requirements that the public layby should be kept clear.   Fergus Wood was also required to submit details of:

 

Its almost inconceivable that the Park would have allowed this on a public road.

 

Its also almost inconceivable that Fergus Wood, as a former councillor and member of the planning committee, would not understand the reasons for these conditions and as a local resident (the layby is opposite where the side road leaves the B829 for Ledard Farm) did not observe what was happening.   The first scandal therefore is that a member of the Park’s Planning Committee apparently knew the contractors/developers of the hydro scheme on his land were in breach of planning conditions and yet did nothing to stop this.

 

A second scandal is that Fergus Wood still hasn’t stopped the breach of planning conditions  despite the publicity and despite the claim (article above) by his former colleague  on Stirling Council, SNP councillor Jim Thomson, that the problem had been sorted (see the letter below, which appeared in the Stirling Observer today).

While Fergus Wood is about to retire from the Park Board, having lost his Council seat after ignoring the views of the local community over his proposed campsite (see here)and (here)  (the planning application was subsequently withdrawn), the LLTNPA cannot ignore this blatant breach of its own rules involving a Board Member.  To do so will bring them into further disrepute.   Board Members should be setting an example for any planning application which involves them because otherwise they undermine the very system of which they are supposed to be custodians.

 

An even bigger scandal however appears to be brewing at Ledard Farm.

 

The new planning application to “retain” a track used to construct the Ledard hydro scheme

 

In  August, Baby Hydro Ltd, acting as agents for Vento Ludens Ltd submitted what appears to be a retrospective planning application (see here) to retain a construction track along the line of the approved pipeline to the hydro intake (see here for all papers 2017/0270/DET).  None of the earlier planning applications related to the hydro scheme published on the Park’s planning portal appear to have included authorisation for a temporary construction track here.   While I have asked the LLTNPA to clarify this, a note of a telephone conversation by the applicant on the application form states “It was agreed therefore that a retrospective planning application was required”.  If  a retrospective planning application on a Board Member’s land is not bad enough, what’s worse is the LLTNPA Planning Committee had explicitly rejected an earlier proposal for a permanent track along this very route because of the visual impact it would have had.   The full story is quite complicated but is important to understand what is going on.

 

The original proposal for the hydro scheme was for an access track to approach the intake from the east along the line of the pipeline.  This was rejected by Park officers – and all credit to the landscape adviser for their strong recommendations on this – because of the visual impact:

Extract from committee report December 2014

As a consequence of these pre-application discussions, the revised scheme included proposals for access to the intake from the west side of the burn (on land not owned by Fergus Wood).  This was was approved by the LLTNPA planning committee in December 2014. (Because the applicant was a Board Member the decision was made by the full planning committee and not delegated to staff as now happens with most hydro schemes in the Park).

The is the best illustration I have found in the planning documents to explain the history. The original proposal for a track followed the pipeline marked in red and went through open fields above the wood – which were very visible, hence why this option was rejected. The proposal that was approved utilised the existing forestry track marked in blue and then added a short section of new track along a ride (the L-shaped bit of red line on the left).   The new track which has been constructed approximately follows the two red lines.

After receiving planning approval,  a significant number of alterations were submitted in the name of Fergus Wood to the original plans.  These were treated as Non-material Variations and dealt with by officers (you can see all the published planning documents relating to the original application at 2013/0267/DET).  Most of the NMVs approved were insignificant but then in 2016 an application was made to remove the  access track which had been approved on the west side of the burn completely.

Staff approved this  and in doing so were fully in accordance with the Park’s Supplementary Guidance on Renewables which states:

 

“It is expected that any new access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored unless there is overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development.”

 

The fact that no alternative proposals for an access track were submitted at the time would have led staff to believe that Fergus Wood had decided there was no “overhwelming reason” for permanent vehicular access to the intake.  Its not far from the farm and it could be maintained by occasional visits on foot.  I suspect if staff had known that  a further application might be submitted a year later along the line of the route that had already been rejected they would have been very alarmed.

 

Within the original planning application for the hydro scheme there were no proposals that I can find for temporary construction tracks.  The Construction Method Statement, which was approved by officers after the planning committee, also made no reference to temporary tracks being needed to construct the pipeline.  From what I have been able to ascertain from the published documents – and its not good that the position is not 100% clear – the pipeline was to be created by “tracked excavator”:

Being a small hydro scheme with a small diameter pipe it should have been possible to dig the ditch and bury the pipe without a track – a good thing.  However, because the position is not 100% clear I have asked the LLTNPA to clarify if any approval was given to Fergus Wood or his agents at the time for temporary construction tracks and if so where this is recorded.

 

The new planning application is for a track along the line of the pipeline – ie the very line that the LLTNPA rejected three years ago because of the visual impact!   However, formally Fergus Wood appears not to be involved.  Not only is the application in the name of Vento Ludens Ltd, the form includes this declaration:

So, Fergus Wood, as a Board Member has no formal interest in this development – which incidentally would allow staff rather than the full planning committee to decide this application -and yet another part of the form shows he is still the landowner!

Now, Fergus and Francesca Wood used to be directors of a company called Hydrocrofters Ltd whose address was Ledard Farm.  I suspect this was the company that was originally intended to deliver the hydro scheme but the two Woods resigned from the Company in May and Companies House records it as being dissolved on 26th September 2017 (bizarre, I know,  that is in the future!  – but in the unregulated world of capitalism at Companies House lots worse is allowed to happen!).  It appears possible therefore that Fergus Wood has sold or leased the hydro scheme to Vento Ludens but kept the land.   As landowner, however, he is responsible for what is going on on his land, and he appears to have admitted this when referring to the scheme as “my project”.  I think it inconceivable that the developer would construct a track on his land without his permission..

 

Its worth noting this is not the first time Fergus Wood has failed to declare an interest as a Board Member on a planning application form.   He also failed to declare an interest when he applied to build a campsite on his land last year (see links above).

 

The planning application form records there was a telephone call, office meeting and site meeting with park officers and, if the reference to agreeing the need for a retrospective planning application is correct, what the LLTNPA has once again failed to do it enforce its own planning conditions.   Sometimes retrospective applications can be justified instead of taking enforcement action but in this case officers should have known that the Board Planning Committee had previously rejected a track here, so why ask for a new application to be submitted?   I think we should told not just how this decision was made but by whom?  I somehow doubt it was the staff involved who had done a fantastic job first time round stopping a track from being created here.

Photo from current planning application of the new track which Fergus Wood wishes to retain.  It appears the pipeline has been buried on the left side of the track.

 

 

In view of all of this disregard of the planning system, its not a surprise that the photo above shows is that in constructing the “temporary” construction track and pipeline normal good practice has been ignored.   LLTNPA staff are normally very good at specifying both soils and turves should be stored properly to enable effective restoration. Spot any turves here?  Moreover the track has been cut through a bank on the right, leaving oversteep sides, which are very difficult to restore and will leave an even greater landscape scar unless the slope profiles are fully restored.  Again, what sort of example is this from a Board Member?

 

The reasons given by the applicants for keeping the track they have unlawfully created  are not credible:

The hydro is close enough to walk to for occasional cleaning.  If an ATV can carry in a large sluice gate at some indeterminate time in future, it can do so off road.  Occasional use of ATVs has far less impact on both vegetation and the landscape than this track will.  If Fergus Wood ostensibly accepted  for a whole year he could manage the hydro without a track, so can the new applicants.

 

What needs to happen

If you are concerned about what is happening at Ledard Farm, please submit an objection to the current planning application.  This will help put pressure on the LLTNPA to take what has happened seriously.   Just click on the comments box on the  planning portal for application 2017/0270/DET.  In my view the most important point to get across is nothing has changed since the Board originally decided a track was inappropriate.

 

Following on from the Owen McKee case, where the former Planning Convener was found to have been trading in Scotgold shares without declaring this (see here for example), it is absolutely crucial that the LLTNPA is seen to undertake an open investigation into Fergus Wood’s involvement of breaches of planning permission arising from works at Ledard Farm.   This must not be covered up, as the Park tried to do with Owen McKee, and my view is Fergus Wood should be suspended from the Board until this has been fully investigated.

 

The LLTNPA also needs to be taking effective enforcement action to redress current breaches in planning conditions at Ledard Farm.   This should start Monday.  While having accepted the retrospective application for a track, the Park will need to go through due process but because of Mr Wood’s landownership any decision needs to be taken in public by the full planning committee and not officers (and we should not accept the excuse that because Fergus Wood’s term on the Board is about to terminate this is no longer necessary).

 

I would also like to see an investigation cover Mr Wood’s involvement, since the day he joined the planning committee, about enforcement policy and enforcement decisions (or rather lack of them) made by the LLTNPA.  In my view, the LLTNPA uses its enforcement powers far too rarely.  When there are Board Members sitting on the planning committee who apparently don’t want planning requirements to apply to their own land, its quite reasonable to ask whether their own self-interests have not corrupted the entire system.

 

After Owen McKee and with Fergus Wood, its time there was a full review of the Park’s Planning Authority functions.  With new Board Members about to be appointed, it provides an ideal opportunity for change.

September 20, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Just what we want to see in the National Park, hill tracks so broad that people can walk five abreast! One reason why the Loch Lomond National Park Authority is dysfunctional at present is its marketing department appears unaware of the Park’s own policies – hill tracks where they exist should be quadbike width – and produces glossy brochures without reference to its own staff.

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Board Meeting on Monday (see here for papers) was far more open than meetings in the past but showed the Board still has a considerable way to go.   The fundamental issue is that most Board Members appear to have little idea of why they are there.  It was telling that under Matters Arising, there was not a single question about where the Board goes now the Scottish Government has rejected its suggestion the Board be reduced in size (see here).  This was an ideal opportunity to continue the discussion from the last Board meeting about the function of Board Members but ostensibly the matter is now being treated as closed.

 

Among the welcome signs of change at Monday’s meeting were:

  • The meeting time was changed to the morning which meant there was no time for the secret pre-meetings which used to take place under previous convener Linda McKay.
  • As a consequence there was more public debate, including on issues where Board Members previously appear to have been gagged.  For example, questions were asked about why plans for the National Park’s properties at Balloch, the Gateway Centre, and Luss Visitor Centre were so far behind schedule.  Even the financial consequences were touched on, both losses and costs, and while Chief Executive Gordon Watson was very reticient in his response, the good thing is more Board Members seem prepared to discuss these issues in the open.  I hope this creates an opportunity for the Board Members representing those local communities to engage with them on what is going on.
  • James Stuart, the new convener, reported to the Board he had spent a lot of time meeting stakeholders, including people who disagreed with what the National Park had been doing, and made it very clear he thought such engagement essential.  He even pointed to Ross MacBeath and myself in the audience and said he had had a constructive meeting with the two of us and Dave Morris on camping!  He reported on a meeting with SNH who were keen to develop far closer working – there has been a stand-off over the last few years where the Park has tried to do things itself without using expertise of SNH, for example on how to engage with recreational users, which contributed to the camping byelaw disaster – and the long delayed meeting with the Cairngorms National Park Authority is now going ahead.   The message was that James Stuart really does want the LLTNPA to work in partnership not isolation.   There was no rush from Board Members volunteering to get involved in this although my view is if the National Park is to change course, other Board Members need to start engaging too and means different people need to take on different roles.

 

While the meeting was conducted in a far more open manner than in the past two local people,  commented on the lack of meaningful discussion.   (Its well worth reading Trevor Scott’s account of the meeting (see here) on the Balloch Responds Facebook Page).  They were amazed when we told them the meeting was a considerable improvement to what used to happen!.    I think though they identified the main problem with the meeting:  the Board was not being asked to take any meaningful decisions and as result the meeting was over in under two hours.

 

This was despite  two very important matters being on the table, the “Your Park” progress report and the National Park Partnership Plan.   The way the reports on these subjects were drafted though suggests that it staff, not the Board, who are at present taking the decisions.

 

The camping plan and camping byelaws

Board Members were not invited to take any decisions about the Your Park plan, instead an update report (see here) was presented:   a  report for Ministers on the first year operation of the byelaws will be brought to the December meeting for approval.    I will analyse in further posts (see here for issues with the data presented in the report) the content of the paper including the Park’s failure to deliver additional campsites and the serious problems with the permit areas (all of which were glossed over)  and here focus on the Board reaction to the paper.

 

The first good news was that Colin Bayes, who chairs the LLTNPA delivery group (of Board Members and senior staff), announced that after meeting Ross MacBeath, Dave Morris and myself he had been out to see most of the permit zones with staff and Board vice-convener Willie Nisbet.  He acknowledged that there were some serious issues and that these are now being addressed. A positive development although it would have been good if staff could have been as open about this in their paper. Its possible that its as a consequence of Colin’s visit that some camping permit areas have now been removed from the booking system.

 

Also positive was Billy Ronald’s question – first time I have heard him speak – asking why anglers cannot buy a camping permit in local shops along with their fishing permit?  The answer from staff was that if the Park allowed paper permits to be issued by local shops, they could not control numbers and as a consequence more people might end up camping in a specific permit area  than Park staff have deemed sustainable.   No Board Member thought to follow this up by questioning the justification for stopping anglers from camping in the places traditionally used for fishing but which are outside the new permit zones or by asking staff how they decide what numbers are sustainable.

 

Most significant though was the statement from former Councillor James Robb,  that the clarification that the Park had “overreached its powers” – his phrase, not mine –   in trying to ban campervans from laybys was useful.   Now the Park has never publicly admitted this although it appears from Cllr Robb’s comment that it has briefed Board Members.   There was no single reference to campervans or the LLTNPA overreaching its powers in the update paper.  Indeed the LLTNPA has refused to clarify with parkswatch whether campervans are still included in the byelaws outside of laybys and if so where (see here).    It appears that the LLTNPA is still trying to cover up the extent of the campervan fiasco, including how they and Scottish Ministers approved camping byelaws which were legally unenforceable.  More importantly, they have not started to grapple with the question of fairness: if there are now no or limited controls on campervans and caravans, what is the justification for continuing with the byelaws?  I would suggest that this is the fundamental question that needs to addressed in the report to Scottish Ministers.

 

Councillor Robb also asked staff members to take him through the process of referrals to the Procurator Fiscal (7 people have now been referred for prosecution).   This was a very good question – one which the Park have refused to answer under Freedom of Information claiming it would interfere with law enforcement – and I was not surprised when staff failed to respond.   Cllr Robb then tried to talk through the process himself and asked whether when a person refuses to apply for a permit when camping in a permit area, they are then issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice?   This was a clanger of immense proportions.   Gordon Watson  had to explain to him there are NO Fixed Penalty Notices (which can only be used for civil offences) under the camping byelaws.   Here was one Board Member who had approved the camping byelaws without apparently appreciating that they would criminalise people (fines of £500 and a criminal record).    After 13 secret meetings to develop the byelaws, I find it staggering that staff had not properly briefed Board Members on this.  This points to the fundamental issue, there has been no-one on the Board with sufficient knowledge and understanding to ask basic questions like “is it really right we criminalise people simply for not being in possession of a camping permit?”.

 

There was evidence that other Board Members still have their heads in the sand.   Petra Biberbach, the convener of the planning and access committee, commented that she thought the data in the update paper was excellent.     Neither she or any other  Board Members thought to ask about what negative feedback there had been to the camping byelaws and what data existed on this?   This is despite it being clear that changes to the permit zones for example have resulted from complaints and public criticism.    Former Councillor and retiring Board Member Bob Ellis went further and said he was very heartened by the report, had only had positive feedback from campers (its good he is speaking to campers but those he has engaged appear to be a completely different subset of campers than those I have talked to), thought the report showed the camping byelaws were a great success and was proud to have been part of it.

 

To be fair to other Board Members, they did not follow this valedictory speech.  I think some of them are beginning to realise that the camping byelaws have been far from a success (no-one dared ask about the numbers of people who ignore the permit system) and that the delivery of proper new camping places is far harder than they ever envisaged.  This was reflected in several comments to the effect that “we are learning all the time”.   The prevailing assumption on the Board though still seems to be that as long as they keep throwing resources into various management measures, eventually they will be able to control all campers and make the byelaws work.  Maybe the new members coming onto the Board will be able to take a more critical look at what has actually been happening.

 

The draft National Park Partnership Plan

The development of the NPPP is well behind schedule, a reflection of the resources which have been devoted to Your Park and the significant number of staff who have left the National Park Authority.  The NPPP paper  presented the responses to the flawed consultation on the plan (see here) without saying how the Park would respond to these but that a revised plan would be presented at the December meeting for approval.

 

Colin Bayes, who is open and on the ball, pointed his finger at the issue when he asked staff what process would be used to decide how all the comments received would be fed into the final plan?  Gordon Watson’s response that the National Park Authority needed to be realistic about what it can achieve avoided the question but to his credit, David McCowan, another Board Member who is willing to be critical (he has consistently raised the Park’s failure to deal with litter) then asked that staff should record a response to every single comment received, including that resources weren’t available to deliver it.  Brilliant!   I think staff had assumed they could decide how to respond to comments without telling anyone.   A little bit of accountability at last.

 

In the main though this was an opportunity missed.  What staff should have done is brought to Board Members key issues for discussion based on the responses that had been received.  The Board could then have given a steer about how the Park should respond.   However, unlike in the Cairngorms National Park Authority, which based the whole of its consultation on its Partnership Plan on big issues it wanted to address, LLTNPA have avoided any mention of issues like the plague.  Instead, the LLTNPA consultation was based on visions and outcomes that were so broad as to be meaningless and which contained almost nothing about what partners would contribute.

 

Extract from consultation responses paper

This extract shows that a significantly higher proportion of organisations supported the draft NPPP than individuals.  In fact most of the critical comments come from individuals.   The reason for this is that the LLTNPA, through the NPPP, is not asking its public sector partners to do anything further than what is already planned.  What a relief given austerity induced budget cuts!   It suits their narrow self-interests to sign up quick and not think about really needs to be done to make this a National Park worthy of the name.   Fundamental challenges, such as how to change the industrial forestry that has wrecked Cowal, are simply avoided.

 

Even so, its noticeable how certain key public sector partners have failed to respond.   Cllr George Freeman lamented the failure of his own Council, many of the community councils and of the community trusts (which are supposed to be a key means of attracting investment to the National Park) to respond.   He was right to do so.  The LLTNPA are supposed to be working with Argyll and Bute Council to tackle litter but there is obviously no strategic liaison about this.    Later on in the meeting we heard that at Luss part of the litter problem is that Argyll and Bute are responsible for the car park, the LLTNPA for the grassy areas around it and Luss Estates for the shop and no-one can agree who is responsible for what.   My jaw dropped, but the reason for this is now fairly clear, Argyll and Bute are simply not engaging:  their new Councillors on the Board should just get stuck in and bang some heads together.

 

Hazel Sorrell, former councillor for West Dunbartonshire whom I have never heard speak at a Board Meeting (in two years), did not take the opportunity to mention the failure of her own Council to respond.  Perhaps she and they preferred not to draw attention to Flamingo Land? (the delivery of the Riverside site development being one of the few concrete actions named in the plan).

 

What these examples illustrate is not just the complete ineffectiveness of councillors on the LLTNPA at present but also that these councillors council potentially have a crucial role in enabling effective joint work between the LLTNPA and Councils.   With five new council members, the Board has a great opportunity to look at how they could improve partnership working with local authorities.

 

The most positive aspect of the NPPP paper was the Appendix with all the consultation responses (453 pages worth).  In the Your Park consultation  the responses were only made public through Freedom of Information and, as far as I am aware, Board Members were never allowed to see what people had actually said.  While at the meeting not a single Board Member referred to these responses – the sheer number are daunting – many of them have some very interesting things to say about where the National Park is going wrong and suggestions for how it could improve which I will cover in future posts.  Board members should be advised to read them and use the feedback to make a NPPP worthy of the name.

September 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 8 comments

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Sunday Herald 17/09/17 – inset to piece on Greenbelt poll

Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group recently had the bright idea of playing the political parties at their own game and commissioning Survation, who conduct weekly national polls, to ask what people in Scotland thought of the proposed development at An Camus Mor.   For those who care about the future of our National Parks it is very re-assuring to find that significantly more people are opposed to a new town in the Cairngorms National Park than support it.   And this despite all the effort that has gone into promoting development.   I suspect if those polled had been shown photos of what would be destroyed if the development ever goes ahead (see here), the level of opposition would have been far higher.

 

While the poll does not necessarily reflect local opinion, there is a message here I believe for our National Park Authorities.   The “many” really do care about what happens in our National Parks and, if our National Park Authorities were to show more leadership,  advocate for the principles which led to the creation and use these to take decisions, whether on new towns, gold mines or raptor persecution, I suspect they would be widely supported and popular.

 

Instead, the evidence shows that our National Park Authorities are constantly being forced to compromise in the interests of the few, even when this means ignoring their own (fairly weak) policies.   The  recent An Camas Mor Section 42 planning application made under the Town and Country (Scotland) Planning Act 1997 provides a good illustration of this.

 

Section 42 applications, which allows developers to ask for planning conditions attached to consented developments to be changed, involve fixed fees (currently £202) and the applicant is NOT required to conduct a pre-application consultation with the public.  This explains why the public, the “many”, were kept in the dark about the potential implications of the Section 42 application for An Camas Mor (see here) until a few days before the planning committee.

 

In the period between receiving the application in March and taking the decision to approve it in August, the Cairngorms National Park Authority incurred considerable costs.   They produced a Habitats Regulations Assessment, all 240 pages of it, which involved research, liaison with landowners as well as writing it up and, as far as we know, free help from another public authority, SNH.   They almost certainly will have had to obtain legal advice as a result of the questions asked by the Cairngorms Campaign and the potential for legal challenge:

Extract from the excellent Cairngorms Campaign newsletter raising legal questions about the S42 application. On the timing of the application, the CNPA in their Committee report stated that because it had been received by Highland Council before the deadline it was valid.

Board Members took another visit to the site, along with senior staff (£200 a day fee each, plus salary costs of staff accompanying them) and then there was the Committee meeting itself.    Someone could ask the CNPA to cost all the work it had conducted on behalf of the developer.  I would be very surprised if it came to less than £20k and is probably worth more than twice that.  The S42 application though cost An Camus Mor LLP, the development vehicle of the landowner Johnnie Grant, just £202.   When do ordinary people get subsidised by public authorities like this?   The truth is ordinary people pay money to the state in the form of taxes which is then redistributed to promote the interests of the rich and powerful.   The S42 costs the same whether you are a home owner, who wants to vary a condition attached to the development of your property, or a large property developer.  Our National Parks could be using these resources on much better things.

 

To give the CNPA credit, they do appear to appreciate this.  The Scottish Government’s consultation on the planning system earlier this year called Places, People and Planning asked about S42 applications.  Here is the question and the CNPA response:

 

“33(b) Currently developers can apply for a new planning permission with different conditions to those attached to an existing permission for the same development. Can these procedures be improved?


The current Section 42 application process is complicated and misunderstood by many stakeholders. The procedure is misused as a cheaper way of renewing planning permission with minor changes, or of turning an existing consent into a materially different permission. The rules about when S42 applications are legitimate, and a more appropriate fee structure should be considered to reflect the complexity of applications and work involved in processing them.”

https://consult.scotland.gov.uk/planning-architecture/a-consultation-on-the-future-of-planning/consultation/download_public_attachment?sqId=pasted-question-1467894590.05-55511-1467894590.71-30316&uuId=159369924

 

I think we can take it that the CNPA response was informed by An Camas Mor because at the time they were completing the response (April 2017) they were processing Johnnie Grant’s application.    The report to the Planning Committee, however, made no mention of the concerns of the CNPA  – it couldn’t without being seen to prejudice the process.  What’s happened at An Camus Mor, though, should give the Scottish Government all the evidence they need to end the current S42 system which enables developers to pass on costs to public authorities.

 

What the CNPA failed to mention in their response to the Government’s planning consultation the were the serious implications which can arise from the lack of any public consultation prior to S42 applications being determined.  Perhaps back in April, they didn’t appreciate this because at Camus Mor those serious implications arise from the mitigation measures  identified in the Habitats Regulation Assessment as necessary to protect capercaillie.  These clearly state that byelaws to restrict access could be used as a last resort to prevent visitors numbers increasing or people leaving designated paths.   It seems to me that Section 42 applications which have such implications should require public consultation.

 

The Developer has subsequently denied this on their Facebook page (see here) in a post dated 6th September:

 

An Camas Mòr will improve outdoor access for people living in Aviemore and Strathspey with new paths and beautiful riverside walks. In response to misreporting, we would like to re-state that no-one is going to remove your rights under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Some are opposed to the development of the area – they are trying to recruit people to their cause by suggesting that Rothiemurchus is going to remove people’s access rights.

 

These claims are just false.  Rothiemurchus Estate doesn’t have the power to remove access rights but the CNPA does, through its byelaw making powers, and explicitly mentioned this as a measure of last resort in its Habitats Regulations Assessment.  In fact, having stated that an increase in numbers of people visiting the pine woods from An Camas Mor could be mitigated if there was NO overall increase in visitor numbers, the only way the CNPA could guarantee this – and therefore approve the An Camas Mor development – was by stating that compulsory powers, ie byelaws, could be used to manage access.    If removal of access rights is not on the table as a consequence of the proposed An Camas Mor development, why is it in the Habitats Regulations Assessment?   If Rothiemurchus Estate disagrees with this, as it claims to do, why then  didn’t it object to the proposed mitigation measures at the planning committee meeting?  Why indeed don’t they appeal now to demonstrate their good faith to the public?

THE ORIGINAL PARAGRAPH WHICH FOLLOWED HAS BEEN CORRECTED FOLLOWING CLARIFICATION

The CNPA has confirmed with me, in response to a question (which I put as a potential FOI enquiry), that the applicants and other landowners whose land was covered by the Habitats Regulations Assessment saw the OBJECTIVEES of the Habitats Regulations Assessment. The developer has since clarified on Facebook that “An Camas Mor was not consulted on the inclusion of byelaws in the ‘The Habitat Regulations Assessment’.

 

All of this could have been flushed out into the open if the S42 application had required Rothiemurchus and An Camas Mor LLP to conduct a pre-application public consultation.  Instead, we are left in a ludicrous position where the CNPA has proposed byelaws as a measure of last resort to allow the development to go ahead but statutorily is bound to conduct a public consultation before it can approve any byelaws.   The CNPA has put itself into the invidious position where either it will be accused of having made up its mind in advance to allow An Camas Mor to go ahead or at risk of being sued by the developer if, at a late stage, it decides those measures of last resort are not publicly acceptable.   This situation could have been avoided if Rothiemurchus estate had been required to consult on the access implications of its proposals in advance (and note once again the costs of consulting on byelaws will fall to the CNPA, not the developer).

September 17, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

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

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

and

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

 

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

 

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

 

Which is best – Coilessan or Invertrossachs Rd permit area?

 

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

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

differently to this:

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

 

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

 

What needs to happen

 

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

 

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

September 14, 2017 Nick Kempe 11 comments
Old pine tree surrounded by regeneration at An Camus Mor, isn’t this what our National Parks are for?

Large developments are, I believe, fundamentally incompatible with the whole concept of National Parks, wherever they are located across the world.   National Parks are places where the natural environment should come first, not second.  That’s why I, like many people, object to the An Camas Mor development in principle.  We should not be building new towns in the Cairngorms, whether or not these impact on protected European sites or have implications for access by visitors (see here).

That does not mean I am against new housing in our National Parks, indeed there is a crying need for social housing in the Cairngorms, but this must be of an appropriate scale and appropriately situated.   Anyone who cares about the natural environment should visit An Camas Mor and see for themselves.  In my view its a totally inappropriate location for housing, whatever the size of the development.
Earlier this week a reader expressed scepticism that the pole (left hand photo) could mark the centre of the proposed development.  I can well understand why, the location is beautiful and unspoilt, just the sort of place our National Parks were set up to protect.   I was shocked too when I visited two weeks ago and very quickly started asking myself how could the Cairngorms National Park Authority ever have consented to a development here?
Looking north towards the pole which marks the centre of the development. The Caledonian forest here is regenerating over heathland and rough pasture.

The most intensive building is proposed for the centre of the development  in the areas marked red on the map below (the pole in the photos marks as I understand it the centre of the green circle on the map).  The approved development  proposals include buildings 3.5 storeys high.   If you can see the Lairig Ghru from ground level at the centre of An Camus Mor, its quite obvious it will have a major impact on the landscape of Glenmore.  Indeed, the impact of the development on the landscape was one of the reasons why the CNPA imposed the condition that the development could be halted after 630 houses had been built.  The removal of that condition was the key change approved  by the CNPA when it agreed to vary the original planning application this August.

Extract from CNPA committee report August 2017

After my visit to the site, I believe the map in the Committee report showing the boundary of the site and dating from 2009 is totally misleading.

Much of the the east side of the site (left of the red line along the road, the B970, is depicted as rough grassland.  Its not, its regenerating  Caledonian pine forest. This is partially acknowledged by the Developer who describes the part of the site where houses will be built as “elevated woodland” – while carefully avoiding the term “Caledonian pine forest”!
This photo, from the planning papers, clearly shows that An Camas Mor is mainly woodland. You need to get up close to appreciate that a large proportion of it is regenerating Caledonian pine forest.

Unsurprisingly, in order to sell the development, those acting on behalf of Johnnie Grant, the landowner, included plenty of illustrations from Gehl, world renowned architects, of what the built environment might look like (and numerous sustainability features) rather than showing what the new town would replace.   Unfortunately very few people apart from quad bikers visit the site and experience for themselves what the developers are wanting to destroy.  I think if they did, there would be an uproar.  Yes, Gehl’s designs may be world-leading but these should be used for a new town somewhere else where they could be a credit to Scotland, not in a National Park.   While the CNPA Board did visit the site before taking their decision, they were transported along a  track by minibus – not the best way to see what it is really like.

One of the kettle holes on site, formed by the melting of the Glenmore glacier and home to rich wildlife, including the Northern Damselfly. The developers have now apparently agreed not to destroy these kettle holes, although we saw signs of recent works on the far bank.

An Camas Mor has had a variety of uses.  Parts have been and still are used for grazing cattle (which probably explains open nature of woodland in photo above) and parts have been planted (with grant aid).    In ecological terms however, much of the soil structure appears to be intact, which helps explain why, with trees regenerating, so much wildlife has now been recorded on the site.

Regenerating birch in Scots pine plantation
Granny pine in Scots pine plantation

Even where trees have been planted and the land ploughed, there has been regeneration, while old pines have been preserved. On my visit I saw Osprey, Red Squirrel, signs of badger and otter as well as rare funghi and various creepy crawlies (you can see excellent photos on the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group flickr album (see here)).

Regenerating woodland on the southern edge of the proposed development looking west to Aviemore

An Camas Mor, rewilding and the Cairngorms National Park

An Camas Mor is not pristine, one reason why its not so far been designated as a protected nature site, and there are plenty of signs of poor management.
Drain creation, Rothiemurchus style
This “forest” track was widened to provide access just prior to a pop concert a few years ago.
Eyesores from previous land-use remain

However, it is re-wilding.   Paradoxically one of the reasons for this is the proposed new town.  An Camas Mor has been left alone, allowing natural processes to take hold, while the land round about is intensively used.

Looking south from An Camas Mor across intensively farmed fields
From what I have learned though, An Camas Mor always had this re-wilding potential, because although partly abandoned now, much of it was never intensively used.   It is therefore just the sort of area that the National Park should have earmarked for regeneration and extension of the Caledonian pine forest.
The CNPA however appears to have turned a blind eye to the re-wilding potential and to have reached the wrong conclusion about the validity of the Environmental Statements accompanying the planning application:
Extract from Committee Report

The reason that the records of species found at An Camas Mor has increased is not just because there has been more recording – and part of the credit for that goes to the Badenoch and Strathspey conservation group rather than the developer – its because as a result of rewilding the wildlife on the site is improving the whole time.  The longer its left, the more will be found.  If the CNPA had insisted on proper surveys for the most recent application and compared these to all the species it has prioritised for protection in the National Park, it would have had lots of reasons not to agree to this development going ahead.

Unfortunately, the CNPA at present appears to give little priority to rewilding. Our National Parks, which could have offered a means to re-wild  parts of Scotland, have not had the drive or will to promote the potential of nature against the interests and wishes of landowners.  Meantime, apart from national nature reserves none of our other nature conservation designations – a major flaw – can be used to restore nature to places.   Our designation system is focussed on protecting what is there, not what could be.       We sorely need a means to promote re-wilding which is not entirely dependent on the goodwill of the landowner.
If Anders Povlsen, who is doing so much to re-wild Glen Feshie, or the RSPB rather than Johnnie Grant had owned this land,  I think it would be being quietly promoted as one of the jewels in the Cairngorms.   From a conservation perspective, the Scottish Government would have been far better giving Johnnie Grant £7.2m to buy up An Camas Mor than buying part of the Rothiemurchus Estate (see here), which was already fully protected.
While both the Scottish Government and the CNPA know that An Camas Mor sits at the centre of the main areas of woodland where Capercaillie now survive, they have seen the challenge as being to find ways to let the development go ahead without impacting too much on capercaillie.  Hence the detailed Habitats Regulations Assessment and mitigation proposals for An Camas Mor which, if enforced, will inevitably restrict access.   They could and should have looked at this from a completely different viewpoint.  What is the rewilding potential of An Camas Mor and what role could it play in saving the capercaillie (once again) from extinction in Scotland?
I have asked Gus Jones, convener of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group why there are not capercaillie in the woods?    The first reason he gave is recreational use, and by that he did not mean walkers (I did not see another walker in two hours on what was an English bank holiday)   but the use of the forest for quad biking.
The people quad biking were very nice, obviously enjoying themselves and I even heard the tour leader, who had stopped everyone at a particular point, explain the orange marks on some trees marked those to be felled and this was being done to improve ground flora in the woods. How this fitted with the proposed development I am not sure!
The second is that part of An Camas Mor is used for pheasant breeding.
While specific, let alone conclusive research, is lacking,  even the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here) admits that pheasant rearing can lead to competition for food and drive other game birds (in which they include capercaillie) from the most intensively used areas while also attracting predators.
Now I am not against either quad biking or pheasant rearing, in the right place.   However, given the current parlous state of capercaillie, surely what the CNPA should be doing is engaging with relevant interests to help capercaillie re-colonise this site (and other such woods)?   This should include, if necessary, helping the current businesses relocate (if An Camas Mor goes ahead they will be finished in any case).
In a previous post  (see here)  I argued  we need an alternative plan for An Camas Mor and this  could be funded by the money which the Scottish Government apparently intends to invest in the development.   Having had a good look at the site, I believe the core of an alternative plan for An Camas Mor should be about how we can allow it to continue to rewild.  That would not cost much in itself:  narrow a few tracks to footpaths, restore other damage, remove human artefacts and rubbish and then leave nature take over..    It would then leave plenty of money to develop social housing elsewhere.
The only problem?  Landownership and how to change who controls the land.
September 12, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Extract from paper on “Matters Arising” for Board Meeting 18th September, the decision as recorded in the minutes on the left

An extraordinary discussion took place at the end of the June Board meeting of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority in which Councillor James Robb, one of several councillors who will be leaving the Board this Autumn (see here),  proposed that the number of Board Members should be cut.  The reason for the proposal basically was that he felt there was very little for Board members to do, consequently the Board could operate with far fewer members  and cutting numbers would save money.

 

There followed a very open discussion – which would never have taken place in public under the aegis of the previous convener Linda McKay (all credit to new convener James Stuart) – in which basically Board numbers agreed with the proposal (it was clear during the discussion that Cllr Robb had discussed the proposal with some of the other councillors on the Board).   Hence the decision of the meeting, recorded in the minute, to approach the Minister and ask for a suspension of new appointments until numbers on the Board could be reviewed.

 

Unsurprisingly the proposal has been rejected by the Scottish Government. Our National Park legislation requires the Board to be composed of three types of members, those appointed by Ministers, those nominated by local authorities and directly elected members and the numbers of the three categories of Board Member to balance.   While reducing numbers of councillors and Ministerial nominees on the Board would be relatively simple, reducing the number of directly elected members would require electoral boundaries to be completely withdrawn, a complex business.  Also, I suspect the Scottish Government wants to avoid opening up the possibility of any debate in the Scottish Parliament about new or existing National Parks which would be created if the existing legislation was to be amended.

 

While I welcomed the open discussion and the honesty of Board Members – its not many people who voluntarily vote to make the posts they are leaving redundant – what was depressing was that not a single Board Member made a case for keeping Board Members, based not just on what they do at present but on what they could and should be doing.    It appeared from the discussion that Board Members feel they serve no useful purpose.

 

Now I can understand why that might have happened.  First, when Mike Cantlay was chair and Fiona Logan was Chief Executive, Board Members were  firmly told they were not to get involved in operational matters.   So Board Members who knew about footpaths, were told not to support staff on this and those that knew about conservation were told to keep clear of that while those simply with an interest in their area were also told to keep at arms length.    The reason for having Board Members with expertise or democratically elected and nominated Board Members disappeared.

 

Second, to keep Board Members occupied, Mike Cantlay and Fiona Logan then introduced the practice of monthly briefing sessions and seminars as a  way for Board Members to earn their £200 a day.  These meetings, rather than helping Board Members to speak freely, actually became a way of controlling them and under the next convener Linda McKay were turned into secret decision making forums which among other things developed the camping byelaws.   The National Park Board became increasingly autocratic and the result has been Board Members have been left unable to see a role for themselves.

 

What is very sad though is that Board Members have become so neutered that even under the new more open regime of James Stuart they cannot see a useful role for themselves.    I believe there are plenty of opportunities for the Board both to start showing leadership and also to start putting proper governance arrangements in place.  I think this should be based around a number of  areas of activity:

  1. Board Members should know what is happening on the ground and being done in their name.    This means them getting out to see everything from the hydro tracks that are destroying the National Park landscape to the inappropriate areas designated as “camping permit zones”.  This would enable them to make informed inputs into policy development and to scrutinise papers properly.   The current Board is totally failing to do this,  is  disconnected from what is happening on the ground and as a result cannot do its job properly.
  2. Elected Board Members, both councillors and those directly elected,  should be engaging with the local communities they serve and helping to articulate community concerns and aspirations.  That they are failing to do so I think was epitomised by the case of former Councillor Fergus Wood, who was resoundly defeated in the last election, in no small part because he had pressed ahead with a proposal for a campsite without consulting local people.  The same elected representatives for Strathard totally failed to listen to the concerns of the local community about the size of the Loch Chon campsite.  When push comes to shove, the democratically elected representatives have always listened to their Chief Executive before the communities they serve.   The large democratic deficit in the National Park needs to be closed and that will take time and effort.
  3. Board Members should be engaging with national recreational and conservation interests – the people with expertise in the Park’s statutory objectives to promote public enjoyment and conservation.  Had they been doing so I don’t think we would have ended up with  the camping byelaws or the land management practices which still dominate much of the National Park and are destroying its conservation value (whether intensive forestry with clearfell or overgrazing by sheep and deer).  Again, this will take time and effort.
  4. Board Members should be taking a leadership role to ensure effective partnership working with other public sector organisations.  I find it amazing that Councillor Members, having called a year ago for more effective working with local authorities to address litter (noted again in the minutes as an issue) do not appear to have done anything to assist with this process.   They appear to have no idea of how to do this and to have lost sight of the reason they form a third of the membership is to ensure effective joint work with their councils.  If the structures aren’t there, its their job to create them and they need to start doing so.   However, the issue of effective co-ordination goes far beyond local authorities.  The Board needs to have members meeting and networked with other public authorities such as the Forestry Commission, SNH  and SEPA and to have links with delivery organisations like Sustrans and Transport Scotland .   If they started doing so, the National Park might have a chance of delivering a partnership plan which made a real difference, instead of each sector just carrying on as it is managing what is left of ever decreasing public sector budgets.

 

It will be interesting to see if the Board Meeting next week has any discussion in public about creating a meaningful role for Board Members.  It appear from the fact that senior staff have marked this matter arising as “Closed” that they don’t want this to happen.

 

 

September 11, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Looking from the pole which marks the centre of the proposed new town at an An Camas Mor towards the Lairig Ghru

Anyone who tries to understand human affairs from a global perspective will have probably greeted  last week’s announcement that a poll of readers of the Rough Guides had found Scotland to be the most beautiful country in the world with a deep shrug.

 

It is of course just a piece of marketing based on a very selective sample of people who are able to travel and choose to visit certain countries.   That Scotland came out top beating Canada, New Zealand and South Africa says a lot.  This was a poll of people from the English speaking world with what appear to be anglo-saxon perspectives.   A month ago I was in the Dolomites, where its not hard to find marketing blurb claiming that the Dolomites are indeed the most beautiful place in the world.  I wonder how many Italians were included in this poll?       And what about he mass of humanity who live in the third world, often much closer to the natural environment than we do, but whose experience of beauty is being destroyed by logging companies, mines and agricultural plantations which also displace them from the land.

 

Polls like this are not just an indulgence which should be accepted with a shrug.  They feed a racist view of the world, where we rarely stop long enough to consider what people from elsewhere and who are not like us may think, and which is blind to what capitalism is doing in our name to other parts of the world.  They also feed a privileged view of Scotland, which treats a few unspoiled land and city scapes (from Skye to Edinburgh) as epitomising the country and is blind to the many far from beautiful places where people actually live, with all the impact that has for health and human happiness.   Social injustice, which is everywhere and growing, is never beautiful.

 

Even if we ignore, like the tourists, the ugly bits of Scotland, objectively, how can you compare the best bits, the beauty that lies in our hills, lochs and western seaboard with the high mountains of the Himalaya or the deserts of Australia or the savannah in Africa?   People can only answer questions about what they know about.   I love Scotland but then its the landscape of home.   If you polled everyone in the world about what was the most beautiful country I am pretty certain China, having the most people, would come out top and Scotland, being small, would come out way down the list.  That’s not much use to Visit Scotland though, in their mission to promote Scotland, so the hype and privileged world view that goes with it will continue.

 

Polls like this also ignore the reality that across the world humans are destroying the natural environment and natural beauty at ever increasing rates and although “peak” destruction in Scotland took place something like 200 years ago, it is continuing with the say-so, nay encouragement, of those in power.    The Herald in its coverage of the story  (see here) gave a wonderful illustration of the complacency of the current Scottish Government:

 

“A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its policies ensure developments are sited at appropriate locations”.  

 

Really?  It seems to me that only someone who had never visited An Camas Mor (photo above) or was blinded by business, greed and profit could ever say that.

 

And that is my greatest concerns about this poll, it lets those in power off the hook and will undermine our National Parks, which were set up to protect the landscape and find more sustainable ways for humans to relate to nature.  The thinking goes like this……..

 

….if Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world, then:

  • people cannot be really concerned about the proliferation of hydro tracks which has destroyed the landscape of Glen Falloch and Glen Dochart for example with the blessing of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority
  • surely, with so much beauty, we can easily afford to lose a few areas in our National Parks to development, whether to the An Camas Mor new town, Flamingo Land at Balloch or Natural Retreats at Cairngorm
  • people cannot be really concerned about how our landscapes are treated on a day to day basis, whether by Highlands and Islands Entrerprise at Cairngorm or grouse moor owners……….in fact, perhaps our landowners are right, its these land management practices which make the country beautiful
  • why on earth did parkswatch make a fuss about the beech trees on Inchtavannach being felled in the name of science?   This poll came after that felling and all the other destruction covered in the last 18 months and that doesn’t seem to have altered people’s perceptions of Scotland.
  • this just shows that people aren’t very concerned about the visual impact of blanket conifer afforestation and subsequent clearfelling by the Forestry Commission so we can just let these practices continue in the National Park

 

The point that our politicians and powers that be must not be allowed to forget is that, whatever Scotland’s position in the world, our National Parks have, since their creation, presided over a further degradation of the landscapes they were set up to protect.  What we need is not international opinion polls, which simply provide an excuse for our National Parks to continue as they are present, but a real change in direction which puts landscape and social justice first.

September 8, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The concrete foundations of ski tows removed by truck from Coire na Ciste

The work funded by HIE to remove the ski infrastructure from Coire na Ciste, using trucks, has progressed apace in the last week.  The sheer amount of rubble pictured above provides evidence of the number of truck journeys that have been made up and down the mountain to the West Wall area without protective measures being taken (see here).  The Cairngorms National Park Authority were told hand tools would be used to undertake this work (judging by the amount of concrete this was never a remote possibility) and that the material would be removed by helicopter.

 

Further evidence has now become available to show the removal of the ski infrastructure has nothing to do with the need to clear up Cairngorm.  In their response to a Freedom of Information request on what they planned to spend at Cairngorm (which has been forwarded to Parkswatchscotland)  HIE included this:

 

Demolition of the Coire na Ciste café subject to funding; no price or programme yet.

 

In other words the £267k which HIE appears to have secretly awarded to McGowan to remove former ski lifts and snow fencing does NOT include the demolition of the Ciste Cafe, the biggest eyesore on the whole of Cairngorm.

On Tuesday HIE, which had up till now remained silent about the destruction going on at Cairngorm (I have still not even had an acknowledgement from their new Chief Executive, Charlotte Wright, asking for the “work” to be halted) put out a news release headed “CairnGorm Mountain clear up works” (see here).    This claimed that  “The removal of disused and decaying installations will enhance the appearance of the Mountain during the majority of the year when there is no snow.  In turn this will improve the experience of non-skiing visitors, an important market in making CairnGorm a year-round visitor attraction.”       So why then, if the experience of non-skiing visitors is so important, has HIE prioritised the removal of former ski infrastructure from Coire na Ciste?   This is hidden from the mass of visitors who go to Coire Cas  whereas the former Coire na Ciste Cafe blights the Ciste car park and is the one bit of Ciste infrastructure visitors are likely to see.

 

HIE has tried to defend the indefensible by saying they are leaving the lift wiring in Coire na Ciste in place.  This is undermined by their statement that  “The potential reinstatement of mechanised ski uplift in Coire na Ciste is to be one of the options examined in the review of the infrastructure at CairnGorm due to be commissioned by HIE once the tender process has been completed.”   So, why would HIE want to remove ALL the ski infrastructure (except the wiring and some of the fences in better condition) from Coire na Ciste BEFORE it completed a full review of infrastructure at Cairngorm?

 

What’s more the news release states:   “Other remnants including concrete bases at the former White Lady T-Bar, Aonach Poma and Fiacaill T-Bar lift lines are also being removed with the project set to be completed in Summer 2018.”   This strongly suggests that the old infrastructure in Coire Cas, which really does blight the visitor experience and can be seen by anyone on HIE’s white elephant funicular, is not going to be removed until next year.

The former White Lady t-bar base and associated mess as it appeared in August 2017 can clearly be seen from the funicular (top right).

 

 

In response to public criticism of the removal of snow fencing in the Ciste – which makes off-piste skiing there possible for much longer periods – HIE claims that “The stretches of snow fencing that are still in good condition will continue to serve skiers and the programme of fencing renewal will continue”.   They make no mention of the fact that the one thing Natural Retreats is supposed to be responsible for funding at Cairngorm is the replacement of the old chestnut ski fencing (this was confirmed in an FOI response to George Paton last year  “o/ All Fencing Timber.  Tenant’s responsibility”).    So, why then would HIE be paying McGowan to remove snow fencing from Coire na Ciste when it appears that Natural Retreats could have been replacing this?

 

All of this provides yet more evidence that the most likely explanation for the destruction of the skiing infrastructure at Cairngorm is that HIE and Natural Retreats wish to try and undermine the alternative proposals that have been developed by the Coire na Ciste group STC Statement 25 Aug 2017.docx.     In other words,  the alleged “clear-up” at Cairngorm is purely about the self-interest of HIE and Natural Retreats and has little to do with the interests of the local community or recreational visitors, let alone the landscape.

 

The evidence shows HIE cannot be trusted to undertake a proper review of the uplift infrastructure at Cairngorm.  Its unclear at present how much money they intended to spend on this but luckily there is now an option to spend it differently.

 

Yesterday, members of the local community in Aviemore and Glenmore launched an ambitious bid to buy the Cairngorm Estate from HIE under the Community Empowerment legislation  (see left).  The Scottish Government says it supports Community Empowerment – well, here is a test for them then.  Why not instruct HIE:

a) to give the money they would have spent reviewing lift infrastructure to the local community to undertake an independent review in conjunction with downhill and off-piste skiers

b) halt the proposals to develop a dry ski slope at Cairngorm (the proposed development would in any case pre-empt the review of ski infrastructure)?

 

The launch of a local community buy-out at Cairngorm will also be a test of the mettle of the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  In the new National Park Partnership Plan agreed by Ministers earlier this year, were some fine words about empowering local communities which however contained no concrete commitment to assist local communities to take over land.   The launch of the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust provides them with an opportunity not only to show they are prepared to put words into action, it would also allow them to address the ongoing destruction at Cairngorm.

 

The problem the CNPA faces at present is not just that the convention is that public authorities should not criticise each other in public, whatever the behaviour of the other agency (which might explain some of their silence about what is going on at Cairngorm) its one of Ministerial power.  Fergus Ewing, the Minister responsible for HIE and Rural Affairs, has until now appeared all powerful and has been a strong supporter of both the funicular and the An Camas Mor Development.    By comparison, his ministerial counterpart, Roseanna Cunningham, who is responsible for the environment and National Parks has appeared weak.  However she has in the past made strong noises about supporting community buyouts and this might just provide her, the CNPA and everyone who cares about the future of Cairngorm the means to put an end to HIE’s mismanagement.

September 7, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
BEFORE photo credit Stephen Pimley
AFTER   photo credit Duncan MacLachlan Arrochar & Tarbet Community Development Trust
Following my post on lessons for path investment from the Dolomites I am pleased to report that the short link path to the Three Lochs Way at Arrochar has been cleared of vegetation by the West Dunbartonshire Community Payback Team.    Well done to them and to the volunteers who asked them to help!
Photo credits Duncan MacLachlan
That the Loch Lomond and National Park Authority needs to work with all interests to develop a proper strategy for footpath maintenance in the National Park is illustrated by these photos which were sent to me by Duncan Maclachan of the Arrochar and Tarbet Community Development Trust.   While the path by the church has been cleared, the surface of the Three Lochs Way above it has been eroded away by the recent rain and now needs urgent maintenance and possibly an alternative design to prevent small stones and gravel being flushed off into the water course in future.
The Three Lochs Way is an important recreational resource which runs from Balloch to Inveruglas and is “managed and maintained by the voluntary efforts of members of Helensburgh & District Access Trust” http://threelochsway.co.uk/.  It was their Secretary who contacted the Community Payback Team to clear the path by Arrochar church. While they have been very good at raising money – a credit to all those involved –  this requires constant effort and those volunteers will now have to try and find a way to repair the latest damage to the link path.
It may be a surprise to readers to learn that although much of the Three Lochs Way passes through the National Park, it gets no funding currently from the  LLTNPA for maintenance purposes (although the upper section of the link path was originally completely funded by the National Park):

Our Funding Partners

Love Loch LomondFriends of Loch Lomond & The TrossachsRound TableLEADERScottish GovernmentLuss Estates Logo

Moreover, nor is the Three Lochs Way or the local Community at Arrochar able to call on anyone from the LLTNPA to assess and advise what work needs to be done on path maintenance either in this case or more generally.   Local councils employ road specialists, but our National Park Authorities don’t employ path specialists despite the critical role that paths play in public enjoyment of the countryside.   Instead, the NPAs  rely on the Outdoor Access Trust (formerly the Cairngorms Outdoor Access Trust) which provides professional consultancy services which local communities and volunteers would need to pay for.
This is not just a problem for Arrochar, its a problem faced by local communities across out National Park.   The Wildcat Trail at Newtonmore, for example, faces similar challenges.  What is happening that due to a lack of resources our National Park Authorities, while saying all the right words about local community initiatives, are not providing the infrastructure necessary to support these properly.
Local communities have responded by trying to find their own solutions.  At Arrochar and a number of other places in our National Parks this is through the development of local community hydro schemes http://arrocharhydro.coop/.     While this could offer a potential source of funds for pathwork in future, it seems to me wrong that the LLTNPA appears to be leaving this all to local communities (at least the Chief Executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority has flagged up the need for proper resources).  The LLTNPA has a statutory responsibility to promote public enjoyment of the countryside and this means that it has overall responsibility for ensuring the path network is fit for purpose and properly maintained.   Addressing these issues should be one of the key priorities of the next National Park Partnership Plan.
There are various models for doing this.   I am not against either volunteers having key roles – we need stronger local democracy and people who serve on community councils all do so in a voluntary capacity and should be able to take more decisions – and there is also a place for Community Payback Schemes, training schemes for unemployed people etc.   However, this needs to be underpinned by a professional resource, with the expertise both to design and construct paths according to the highest standards and through funding being available.  Its the responsibility of our National Park Authorities to ensure these resources are in place.
September 4, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

Like many people, I suspect, I have been waiting for  months for another case of raptor persecution to occur in the Cairngorms National Park.  For under the current grouse moor management regimes that dominate much of the National Park, its not a case of “if” but “when” another raptor will disappear.   While its taken longer than I expected, last week the RSPB announced  a young hen harrier, which had been satellite tagged on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, had disappeared just north of Ballater.  As Raptor Persecution Scotland reported (see here) its almost certain this was on either the Invercauld estate, held by a Trust on behalf of the Farquharson family or Dinnet estate, owned by former Cairngorms National Park Authority Board Member Marcus Humphrey.   Their article documents known cases of raptor persecution in the area.

 

The Cairngorms National Park Authority issued this news release in response to the incident:

Statement: Hen harrier disappearance

1st September 2017

From Grant Moir CEO, Cairngorms National Park Authority

“A hen harrier has once again disappeared in the Cairngorms National Park, with a satellite tracker ceasing to transmit. The Park Authority is determined to stop these recurring disappearances.

“Earlier this week the CNPA met with Police Scotland to discuss how increased use of special constables can help to tackle wildlife crime in the Cairngorms National Park. We also continue to work on other solutions to these issues.

“The CNPA look forward to the establishment by Scottish Government of the independently-led group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management and will feed in to that review.”

(see here for link)

However, while such a solution might work in a National Park where the Board was determined to tackle landowners, unfortunately the reality at present from the destruction at Cairngorm to the profileration of hill tracks is that the CNPA does not appear to have the will or resources to use its regulatory powers.   So, even if the CNPA introduced a licensing regime – and was allowed to act independently of its minders at the Scottish Government – this might not change anything.
Another solution is to nationalise the land.  In many National Parks across the world land is in public ownership.  National Parks were set up in Scotland on the assumption that it would be possible to persuade landowners to cooperate.   They have now had 15 years to do so and some still blatantly ignore all the conservation objectives of the National Park.  I think its time therefore for people to start demanding that where there is evidence of repeated raptor persecution (or a repeated failure to meet other conservation objectives) on particular estates in our National Parks the Scottish Government should compulsorily purchase the estate concerned.  Tney could then transfer the land to a new National Parks land-management service, as exists in other countries, to manage.
September 3, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Letter Badenoch and Strathspey Advertiser 31st August

This letter in response to the current destruction of ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste provides an excellent summary of how downhill skiing has been managed by HIE at Cairngorm.  It raises much wider issues of what are National Parks are for.

 

Also this week on BBC Highland there was a feature on HIE and Natural Retreats proposed dry ski slope above the Coire Cas carpark.  HIE’s vision for Cairngorm appears to have nothing to do with outdoor recreation.  At its centre is a dry ski slope and an expanded restaurant at the top of the mountain where people are isolated from the natural environment by built structures.

 

By contrast the Coire na Ciste group’s vision appears founded on the understanding that what is important to skiers at Cairngorm is the quality of the skiing and enjoyment of the natural environment.   Their proposals – which HIE appears hell bent on thwarting – are in essence an attempt to develop a vision which fits the National Park’s objectives:  conservation, enjoyment of the outdoors and sustainable economic development.

 

Now there are questions about whether downhill skiing at Cairngorm is sustainable in the face of global warming, questions that the Save the Ciste group has been trying to address.   However, I think they should be the starting point of public discussion about the future of Cairngorm.  If they turned out not to be sustainable, we should then move on to a debate about alternative uses which met the National Park’s objectives and are based on the natural environment.

 

The CNPA should be leading this debate and helping facilitate the development of a vision for Cairngorm.   Instead, it appears completely subservient to HIE.    The only way this is going to change is if the recreational and conservation organisations get together with the local community and develop an alternative plan for Cairngorm.

September 1, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
Hydro construction track in Glen Affric, a National Scenic Area and Special Area of Conservation because of the Caledonian pine forest. No designation at present can stop a hydro scheme and in the Lomond and Trossachs National Park not a single area has been designated as important enough for there to be a presumption against hydro developments.

While the impact of windfarms on landscape make front page news – the latest being the predictable decision by the Courts to uphold the Scottish Government’s decision to give the go-ahead to the Creag Riabhach scheme in Sutherland  (see here) – hydro schemes rarely receive any coverage at all.   For a long time, most people who care about the landscape, appear to have been blinded to their impacts.  Hydro sounds such a good thing it must be.   More and more people I meet and talk to however are now beginning to believe the evidence of their eyes, particularly the blighting of the landscape with new tracks.

Looking south from Aonach Shasuinn, May 2017

Parkswatch has been highlighting the destructive impact that hydro schemes have been having in our National Parks and, after my post on Ledcharrie http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2017/08/31/whats-gone-wrong-ledcharrie-hydro-scheme/ its seems an appropriate time to inform readers how they can help monitor and document what is going on.  This is important because our politicians and decision makers will I am afraid put the wishes of landowners and developers first unless they are confronted with evidence they cannot ignore (and remember most decision makers hardly visit the hills and have probably never walked round a hydro scheme).

 

Following my walk with Members of the Munro Society to look at the Ledcharrie scheme (see here) I have been working with them to develop a hydro scheme reporting form. The idea is to assemble information about hydro schemes, the good, the poor and the unacceptable, which can then be analysed and used by the Mountaineering Council and others.   Munro Society Members have now visited three hydro schemes in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which I had not seen and sent me their report forms.

 

The Inverlochlarig hydro scheme

To give an example of how the form can help, here is an example for Inverlochlarig, in the heart of Rob Roy country.  Its well worth reading and I found it incredibly informative.   When working on the form we had not thought of inserting photos into it – reporters don’t need to do this – but Derek Sime had the good idea and in my view they  illustrate his  report brilliantly.

 

While no two people are likely to have the same response to a hydro scheme, whether they see it on the ground or recorded in a form, its good to be able to give publicity to what I think is a good hydro scheme in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (there are others).  The intake is discrete, the pipeline hard to detect and because an existing track was used for most of the construction, without any widening, there has been little further landscape impact, even from the tops of the hills.  The hydro scheme is not perfect though and the report form records some oversteep banks which are not revegetating, a short section of new track which is too broad and some abandoned pipes, still there three years after the scheme was completed.   I hope the LLTNPA will address these outstanding issues and have agreed with the Munro Society to send the form to the them but overall I agree with Derek, this appears an exemplary scheme.

I will cover other reports of hydro schemes from the Munro Society in due course.  Meantime…………

If you want to get involved…………….

The Munro Society is looking for more volunteers to report on hydro schemes across Scotland.  They have a list of schemes they have prioritised for reports and if you would like to help with these, you can contact them through their website – just put in the subject line Hydro Scheme survey.   There is nothing though to stop people reporting on schemes they come across in the hills and if want to do so there is a blank report form Hydro scheme survey v3.  You can return this to the Munro Society or if the scheme is in a National Park you can send it to nickkempe@parkswatchscotland.co.uk  (we have agreed to share information about schemes in our National Parks).      Don’t worry if you cannot fill in all the form, or only fill in part of it – even partial information will help the Munro Society prioritise sites for full surveys.  And photographs are as important, if not more important than words………….

 

The form that we have created came about because of the walk I did with members of the Munro Society to look at the Ledcharrie scheme.  We realised we needed to do something to capture information on the impact of hydro scheme and I am sure this will evolve over time.  Learning what to look out for though is greatly helped by walking round schemes with other people.  I am hoping to arrange another such walk, probably in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park in the next month or two.  If you would be interested in this, please contact me at the parkswatch email with your contact details and indicating which day/s of the week are most suitable for you.

August 31, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
A example of the destruction created by the Ledcharrie track. The slope above the track is too steep and the spoil has been dumped below it without any sign of re-landscaping. The contractor had removed all equipment from the site indicating the Developer, Glen Hydro Development Ltd,  saw this as the “finished product”.

Following my visit to the Ledcharrie Hydro Scheme in Glen Dochart with members of the Munro Society (see here),  I made an information request to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority to find out what they were doing to address deficiencies in the development, particularly the  damage to the landscape that has been created by the new hill track.    The LLTNPA’s initial response to my request was to refuse to give me ANY information apart from the dates of monitoring visits,  claiming that they had not signed off all the works and provision of information could prejudice future enforcement action  EIR 2017- 050 Response Ledcharrie.   I treated this, as with so many responses from the LLTNPA, with a degree of scepticism, because I am unaware that they have ever taken enforcement action against hydro tracks, despite the large number of inappropriate and poorly restored tracks which now blight the National Park.

 

Leaving that aside, refusing to make public information that the developer was legally obliged to provide as a condition of the planning consent was in my view completely unjustifiable and I asked for a Review.  The LLTNPA has now backtracked  EIR REVIEW 2017-050 Response Ledcharrie hydro scheme and at the beginning of August sent me no less than 45 documents on a CD.  This post considers what the information tells us about how the LLTNPA  is “managing” the impact of hydro developments on the landscape of the National Park.

 

The information required as a condition of the planning consent

 

The Planning Consent which the Park’s officers agreed in December 2013 included 18 conditions, each of which required the Developer, Glen Hydro Ltd acting on behalf of Auchclyne Estates, to submit further information for approval before the development could go ahead.   This information includes assessments required (eg wildlife surveys), more detailed plans (eg for the powerhouse and track construction), standards governing the work and reporting arrangements.  Similar information and conditions are required for most planning consents for hydro developments.    In my view all such information should be public – people should have a right to know what has been agreed between planning authorities and developers – and it appears that the LLTNPA now agrees.  Over half the documents on the CD relate to the plans, reports and proposals the Developer had made to fulfil these conditions.

 

Unfortunately the information is not properly indexed by the LLTNPA and they have not told me whether they are still withholding information about the fulfilment of some of the conditions.  But, as far as I can tell from what has been supplied, Glen Hydro Developments did supply information on each of the 18 planning conditions.  The file sizes are large but the content is summarised in the chart on pages 6-12  here.

 

What is far less easy to see is what documentation was agreed by the LLTNPA.   Some conditions, including the first, to produce a  Construction Method Statement, were clearly approved Condition 1, 3, 6, 7, 8 and 9_20150827_Discharge of conditions. For others its very hard to tell.  For example, in relation to condition 12 on the design of the powerhouse, the Developer appears to have done everything the Park had asked Condition 12_20160314_Agent to NPA but there is no final sign off the from the LLTNPA.   Another example is that the Developer clearly stated that they would include information on several of the conditions (2,4,14) in the all important Construction Method Statement, but in approving this document (see above) the LLTNPA did not clearly say whether those other conditions contained in it were also discharged.

 

In my view our National Parks, which are meant to be beacons of good practice, should  be publishing information about the discharge of planning conditions on their planning portals so its readily available.   This should include both the information supplied by the Developer and the documents from our National Parks signing it off, the two clearly referenced.   This would empower the public and avoid the need for need for endless information requests.  The LLTNPA’s current stance however is it doesn’t make this information public because it doesn’t have to legally – so much for being a beacon of good practice!    In fact if the LLTNPA made these documents public, I think it would improve their practice because where approvals are unclear, as at Ledcharrie, they would be challenged.   This would also help Developers who are left in a difficult position when they are not clear about what has been approved either.   Its worth noting that Glen Hydro developments appears to have taken a far more systematic approach to the provision of information needed to disharge planning conditions – judging by their chart – than the LLTNPA.

 

What the information tells us about planning standards and protection of our landscape

Much of the documentation supplied by Glen Hydro and approved by the LLTNPA is excellent, for example it shows that lots of care is taken to ensure that walkers are informed of alternative routes and is a credit both to National Park staff and to developers.  However, what the EIR response also shows is that standards and documentation are much better developed in some areas than others.  So, the planners, whose stock in trade is new buildings, took huge amounts of care about the design of the powerhouse (see link to condition 12 above).  They also, because of environmental regulations, require very detailed information about the potential impacts on protected nature sites (informed by advice from SNH and their own ecological staff which is included in committee reports) and how these will be mitigated.  They also took great care with any aspect of the environment regulated by SEPA (hence all the plans to prevent stop silt filtering into watercourses).  All this shows that regulation and rules do work.

 

Ironically, because this is what the National Park was set up to protect, what the planners are not so good at is protecting the landscape, and more specifically the impact of new hill tracks.  Ledcharrie shows the problems were created even before planning consent was granted.  Here is what the Committee Report said:

 

  • “Effects on Landscape Character: There would be no significant adverse effects on the site landscape, published landscape character types and the designated National Park are predicted after construction is complete.”

and

  • the topography will screen the intakes, the pipe route will be restored, the track returned to its original state and the tailrace and powerhouse be assimilated in the landscape.
A section of the old track, it had almost disappeared into the landscape – the new track is on far right
And here’s how it looked when I visited with members of the Munro Society

Wishful thinking does not make things happen.  This weakness is carried through into the Construction Method Statement approved by the LLTNPA (see here).  The section headed Access Track is brief to the extreme, in contrast to other sections, and mainly about silt:

What the EIR Response shows is that in discharging this condition the LLTNPA agreed a far broader track than was reported in the the Planning Report and mentioned in my original post:

 

“A permanent track from the powerhouse to the primary intake (surfaced with local crushed stone and about 2 metres in width).”

 

In agreeing to a 3m broad track the LLTNPA also ignored its own good practice guidance which Gordon Watson, the Park’s Chief Executive stated should mean tracks are 2m broad except on bends where they may be 2.5m broad.   No wonder the Park did not want this information to be made public!

 

The Construction Method Statement did contain some further information on track construction and restoration under a section on Landscape Mitigation measures:

The second track, like the ground over the pipe, has been completely restored and generally well done

The problem is this is not a proper Construction Method Statement.  It says nothing about the angle of the track – key to future erosion (SNH tracks recommends a maximum angle of 14 degrees), the design of culverts or the angle of verges all of which have contributed to the adverse impact this track is having on the landscape:

While this section of track has been narrowed the section of bank on the left is too steep, the edge of the ditch crudely done and its too steep – you can see how it was already washing out before it bends left

Where the Construction Method Statement is stronger is the restoration of soil and ground vegetation:

I believe this helps confirm my analysis.   The LLTNPA has been good at ensuring that ground above pipelines has been restored well.  In this case the techniques for ensuring such restoration have also been applied to tracks.  The problem however is that if you get the track construction wrong (angle of slope, cutting through banks etc) that is much much harder to restore than land above a pipeline.

 

The lesson I think that the FOI material tells us is that the LLTNPA (and indeed other planning authorities) need to pay far more attention to the specification of tracks and use this to inform whether tracks should become permanent or not.

 

 

Following on from that, if its not possible to create a track which does not meet all the requirements of SNH’s excellent guidance on hill track construction, that should be an indication to our planning authorities, that these construction tracks should only be temporary and be fully restored, just like the pipelines.

The monitoring of the construction of the Ledcharrie hydro and enforcement of planning conditions

The LLTNPA has not given me a single document about enforcement of the planning conditions, claiming this might prejudice future enforcement action.  While this might be the case in some circumstances – for example legal advice – one would hope that the Developer would have been told by the LLTNPA which conditions it has so far failed to meet.  If so, its hard to see how provision such information could prejudice enforcement action.  If the Developer knows the concerns of the LLTNPA, why shouldn’t the public?    I suspect the reason for refusing this information is that if it became public more evidence would become available about the LLTNPA’s failure to enforce planning conditions.   This is far too systematic to be the fault of staff who I believe have neither the time or the expertise necessary to monitor these schemes properly.

 

Instead, staff depend on is Monitoring Reports and work from the “independent” Ecological Clerk of Works (who is contracted by the Developer and who is therefore dependent on the Developer to get paid).   The other suite of documents in the EIR response are 19 Monitoring Reports from the Ecological Clerk of Works (some of which cover several visits).

 

While these monitoring reports contain good things  – the reports show for example that the Ecological Clerk of Works  consistently identified issues with silt traps and actioned these – and many interesting photos,  I believe they also help explain why the hydro track at Ledcharrie is the mess it is.  The problems are illustrated early on:

Photo from report of site visits in August  2015 at initial stage of construction

This photo shows that turves were not being stored as had been specified in the Construction Method Statement – one layer deep and the right way up – but instead have been dumped in a heap.  The Ecological Clerk of Works makes no comment on this by the picture and no mention in the body of their report.

 

To their credit, the LLTNPA planning officer identified this as an issue.  We only know this not from information recorded by the LLTNPA but because its mentioned in the next suite of monitoring reports from the Ecological Clerk of works (ECOW)  which includes this:

Having asked why the turf had not been stored correctly, the member of the planning team  apparently then accepted the claim by the ECOW that the turf could not be stored successfully for long periods.  This is garbage.  Why did the Construction Method Statement say that turf would be stored in this way if it couldn’t?   Actually, I have just seen an example on the Ralia estate (which I will cover in due course) where turf was stored successfully for over three years.   Unfortunately, the LLTNPA appear to have accepted this claim, instead of challenging the ECOW and the Developer, and this helps explain much of the more restoration work alongside the track.

Bare ground all along the track results from the failure of the LLTNPA to enforce the planning condition that all turf be retained and stored properly.

Its worth having a look at the report  (20151007_Condition 18_Monitoring Report_Sep 2015. which has nteresting photos but bear in mind its right from the start of the works and only covers certain issues.  A couple of the photos show oversteep banksides, the ones that are now have such an adverse impact on the landscape as they are too steep to be restored.   Again there is no comment from the ECOW.  That’s maybe not their fault – their primary remit after all was for ecology, not landscape – but its a serious problem the LLTNPA needs to address.

 

The lessons that need to be learned from the information released by the LLTNPA on Ledcharrie hydro and what needs to change

The documents released by the LLTNPA tell us nothing about what the Park is doing to redress the damage caused by the construction of the Ledcharrie hydro, but they do tell us a lot about what is going wrong and I strongly suspect a similar tale could be told for many other hydro schemes in the National Park.

  • Far too little attention is given to the way track to hydro schemes are constructed in the planning process prior to work starting.  I think at the very least all proposal for tracks should have a specification which covers every aspect of SNH Guidance on the Design of Hill tracks (see here) and our National Parks and other planning authorities should evaluate proposals against that guidance
  • It appears that at present planning staff do not have the expertise necessary to ensure high standards of track construction nor are they able to call on this expertise from elsewhere (as they can with other specialist areas).  Our National Parks need to address this skills gap.
  • Unfortunately, it also appears that the Ecological Clerks of Works  lack expertise in this area too and its imperative that if our National Parks continue to get Developers their own practice that they engage people with the right skills.  That might mean a specialist track consultant.
  • The problem for both our National Parks and developers is that there is little evidence that there are currently people involved in hill track construction with the expertise to ensure tracks are designed to high standards and also to advertise where permanent tracks would have a deleterious impact on the landscape.  One solution would be for our National Parks and developers to engage people involved in footpath design to carry out this work.  In general the standards that are applied to footpath design are far far higher than those applied to hill tracks.  This might help provide permanent jobs to the people currently being trained as footpath workers in our National Park.
  • The biggest failure of all though is a lack of will.  There appears to be no ethos in the LLTNPA which encourages staff to take action when they identify things that are going wrong, secure in the knowledge that they will be backed to the hilt by their Managers and the Board.  Instead there is a development free for all which is undermining the entire credibility of the National Park Authority and will in the long-term destroy tourism, as its the landscape which is the reason why people visit our National Parks in the first place.    Then, when the results of this free for all are made public, suddenly the LLTNPA says it is considering enforcement action.    If action had been taken at the beginning of the construction at Ledcharrie, most of the issues could have been prevented.
  • As a start to rectifying these planning deficiencies, the LLTNPA should now commission an independent audit of a selection of hydro developments in the National Park causing public concerns.  This should analyse in how many cases the LLTNPA has approved tracks which breach its own best practice guidance and ask for recommendations about how this could be prevented in future.
  • In order to show a collective determination to tackle these issues, I think that the LLTNPA should no longer delegate decisions about hydro schemes to staff.  Like in the Cairngorms National Park Authority, all decisions about hydro schemes should be taken in public at the Planning Committee.
August 30, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Dumper truck on hill track down from Ptarmigan  carrying remains of concrete plinths from West Wall chairlift                                                                                                                               Photo Monday 28th August

On Monday I was up at Cairngorm on a pre-arranged visit to look at the Shieling Hill Track (about which more in due course) and did not go to the top of the hill.  It was not difficult though to get photos illustrating the lies and hyprocrisy about what is going on at Cairngorm (see here) and (here).  Highlands and Islands Enterprise is making a mockery of past agreements to protect Cairngorm and  future planning applications.

 

Contrast the reality (above) with how the Cairngorms National Park Authority were told the work on the West Wall chairlift removal would be carried out:

 

Extract from email from Colin Matthew, project consultant and ex- Natural Retreats employee, to Gavin Miles, Head of Planning CNPA 2nd May

So much for helicoptering out the concrete plinths.  And so much for the use of hand tools……while I did not get to the top of the West Wall, Heavy Whalley (whom I don’t know) did and took more photos (see here).  

 

The hill track to the Ptarmigan

McGowan’s vehicles are using the hill track up to the Ptarmigan and then driving down the hillside, creating new tracks and destroying vegetation, in order to remove the West Wall lift infrastructure.

 

At the time the funicular was constructed – and remember this was done so carefully that each stone removed had to returned to the same place the right way up – the initial planning permission included a condition that the hill track at Cairngorm be removed.  The idea was that with a train up the mountain there would be no need for vehicles to drive up in future and this would repair some of the past damage done at Cairngorm.   That condition was later dropped, no doubt partly because it  became clear that the capacity of the funicular to transport materials was limited and snow machines still needed to get up and down the mountain.

 

Still, the principle that all vehicle use should be controlled was widely recognised and in the Cairngorm Estate Management Plan 2005-09, which was clearly linked to the Section 50 legal agreement on the development of the funicular, there were strict rules for vehicle use.    The gate to the hill track was kept locked and permission had to be obtained to take any vehicle up the mountain.  This was because people knew vehicles caused damage.

Extract from Wm Gray proposed method statement for development at Ptarmigan

So why does this not apply to McGowan staff now? The answer appears to be because HIE and Natural Retreats don’t require planning permission, they believe  they can get away with using a contractor whom all the evidence shows simply ignores planning requirements and standards of good practice.  Meantime, HIE shamelessly uses reports from a more reputable contractor, Wm Gray, to promote its Ptarmigan proposals:

The hyprocrisy of HIE and Natural Retreats is staggering.   If the contractor for the Ptarmigan is proposing to consult the CNPA before any works commence and says they will comply with Park standards, so could McGowan.

 

Standards for work at Cairngorm

A major difficulty – which is undermining the reputation of the National Park – is the CNPA has no standards for operations at Cairngorm and its request to Natural Retreats to develop them has been ignored.    There is an easy solution:  CNPA could adopt the strict standards that have been agreed for Cairngorm n the past as a starting point and call on HIE to adopt these with immediate effect.

The demolition work is clearly taking place without any care or attention – the lift structure at the bottom of the Ciste chairlift. The scrub wood around the lower lift station is very interesting: some of it was part of the first experiment by the old Nature Conservancy to plant trees at Cairngorm. There were arguments then about whether trees would grow at Cairngorm!

 

I returned home on Tuesday night to find there had been no response to my email to Charlotte Wright on 25th August  email Charlotte Wright 170825 to stop the works at Cairngorm immediately.   I am not surprised.

 

Charlotte Wright was, however, for a short time a Director of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.  While she only became a Director in order for HIE to sell Cairngorm Mountain to Natural Retreats, all Directors of companies have legal duties and she should therefore be well aware of the Section 50 legal agreement at Cairngorm which was designed to protect the mountain.  She should therefore be aware that in that Section 50 agreement specific measures were agreed about the removal of ski infrastructure in Coire Cas:

 

 

While it appears now that that agreement may be full of holes – it should have included mandatory standards for any work on the Cairngorm estate, not just the funicular and Coire Cas – the intention of that agreement was in my view clear.  It aimed not just to prevent impacts from visitors at Cairngorm spreading onto neighbouring European protected sites, but to protect and enhance Cairngorm itself.   HIE are, and have for sometime, been breaching the spirit of the S50 agreement if not the word.   Its time HIE declared whether they are still prepared to observe that agreement or not and for SNH, Highland Council and the Cairngorms National Park Authority to publicly challenge them to do so.

 

Meantime, while the current works may not require planning permission, the works in Coire Cas which involve removal of chairlift infrastructure at the Fiacaill and White Lady, appear to fall under clause 7 of the Section 50 agreement.   That means that Highland Council and SNH, as parties to that agreement, can legally take action against any works which are not conducted to the highest standards and they should now be working with CNPA to ensure no works start at Coire Cas until full plans have been provided and approved.

August 28, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
The first tower above the Ciste carpark appears to have been in good condition and perfectly usable but McGowan’s have chopped through the legs making unusable.

Following my post on the destruction going on at Cairngorm (see here) parkswatch has been sent more photos which show that HIE and Natural Retreats appear to have deliberately destroying infrastructure at Cairngorm that could have been re-used.

Its worth repeating that there has been no consultation on this from either HIE or Natural Retreats and neither organisation has made public, let alone consulted on, a plan for how Cairngorm should be managed. Instead, in full knowledge that local and skiing interests had been looking at an alternative plan for Coire na Ciste which involved restoring the Coire na Ciste chairlift, HIE and Natural Retreats are destroying infrastructure that could have been re-used.   A community buyout  of Cairngorm would have fundamentally challenged the position of HIE, as landowners and Natural Retreats, who lease the land.  Its hard to avoid the conclusion that both HIE and Natural Retreats are trying to make a community operated alternative as difficult as possible.

 

HIE then has a reserve line of defence to protect its empire as it holds the purse strings and would be key to funding a community effort.  A conflict of interest, if anything was.

 

Natural Retreats has received a lot of criticism about what is going on at Cairngorm on social media and as a result their Facebook Page (see here) issued a post on Saturday directing people to an HIE news release issued early August (see here).  It looks like an attempt to shift the blame to HIE.   While the News Release does say:   “Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has awarded a contract to Aviemore based civil and environmental engineering firm, McGowan Limited”  the signs on site tell a different story:

Since Natural Retreats are named as the client they must have some responsibility for the work being undertaken by McGowan.    It therefore looks as if both HIE and Natural Retreats are in this together, jointly responsible for the destruction.

 

In the FOI material published in my last post, there is a statement from HIE that once a tender was conducted the costs would be known and funding then sought.  That was in May.  I have searched the Scotland Contracts portal, where all public contracts are supposed to be advertised, and cannot find any tender from HIE for the works at Cairngorm.   HIE therefore need to explain who actually appointed McGowan to do this work, how this was done and why they decided to do so.

 

Meantime, Natural Retreats appears to have provided the public with no information about the removal of lift infrastructure or the clearup – for example there is nothing on the Behind the Scenes section of the Cairngorm Mountain website which is supposed to provide an insight into what is going on at Cairngorm.  They have however held a drop-in consultation and provided some information on the proposed dry ski slope at Coire Cas.

Its worth comparing the colour of the slope with that which was contained in the plans obtained under Freedom of Information (see here).  Its has been toned down considerably, in an attempt to magic away its impact on the landscape.

What the dry ski slope consultation shows is that Natural Retreats only consult the public or inform people what is going on when they  have to – in this case the consultation will have been driven by the planning system which requires developers to engage the public before submitting any application.   Its to tick a box and it is likely the intention of Natural Retreats was to submit a planning application for the dry ski slope, funded by HIE, fairly soon.

 

That I think may now be derailed by what is going on at Cairngorm.   If you want to understand just how far HIE and Natural Retreats have alienated skiers its worth reading the comments on the Cairngorm Mountain Facebook Post (see here).  Skiers don’t see a dry ski slope as being any compensation for the continued removal of much of the lift and other skiing infrastructure and are increasingly angry.  I hope they tell our politicians that Cairngorm needs both an alternative plan and  a change of ownership and management.

August 26, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
My thanks to Alan Mackay for sending me photos of the current works to remove the West Wall chairlift at Cairngorm after some had been published on the Winter Highland and Save the Ciste Facebook pages. The photos were taken on Wednesday.   The concrete behind the digger is the former plinth of a lift tower.                                                                                                                                     Photo Credit Alan Mackay

On Monday works started to remove the West Wall chairlift.  These demonstrate yet again that both Natural Retreats and HIE are totally unfit to manage Cairngorm.  This is not just because of the environmental damage they are causing, its because the works appear deliberately designed to frustrate any chance of alternative development in Coire Cas or takeover by the local community.   Since my post in May All quiet at Cairngorm? it turns out that HIE has been hatching a plan not just to clear up the mess and redundant infrastructure at Cairngorm – which has been sorely needed – but also to remove other infrastructure that could have been salvaged and used to develop an alternative plan for the mountain.  There has been no consultation.

Damage to vegetation caused by removal of former chairlift tower. The Consultant’s email to the National Park (see FOI below points 6 and 7 below) had said that all the work to remove the West Wall chairlift would be done by hand tools and removed by helicopter. The photos show that that is not true.

We only know of what is going on because of an FOI request made at the end of June by George Paton asking for all correspondence between the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Natural Retreats and HIE about redundant infrastructure at Cairngorm.   At the end of July the CNPA sent him two small files with extracts from emails (see here) and (here) which contained proposals for what was called the Cairngorm Mountain Clear Up project:

This set the alarm bells ringing because the proposals were far more than a clear-up,  they are about removing all the infrastructure not currently in use.  As a result George, who formerly worked in civil engineering and knows how these things work, asked HIE for a copy of the engineering report into the Coire na Ciste infrastructure.  He received this report Ciste chair bases report (2) on 15th August (about which more anon).

 

Besides the works listed in the email, the evidence on the ground suggests the clear-up also appears to cover the removal of accumulated debris at Cairngorm, which Parkswatch has been calling for for over 18 months – a good thing.

Fiacaill dump December 2016  Photo Credit Alan Brattey
and two weeks ago…………

After all the criticism over the last 18 months about the mess and delapidation at Cairngorm,  HIE have at last taken action.  Its worth noting from the FOI response that HIE appears to be paying for ALL the clear-up, i.e  this is being paid for out of public funds, while Natural Retreats appears to be contributing nothing.

 

The environmental damage being created by the clear-up

It worth repeating, the email from the Consultant to the CNPA said that only hand tools would be used to remove the West Wall Chairlift                                                                                       Photo Credit Alan Mackay

Unfortunately, but predictably, the clear-up is causing as much new damage as it removes.  The public purse is in effect paying for yet more damage at Cairngorm.   This is wrong.

 

It also makes a complete mockery of the planning system.   Regular readers will recall that when Highland Council granted planning permission to Natural Retreats to move the West Wall poma return wheel that a condition of the planning permission was that specific measures should be taken to protect the environment (see here).   While these were never properly observed and while Highland Council, who had granted the planning permission failed to take any enforcement action, in order to get Planning Permission all the public authorities involved had at least to nod their heads towards the need to protect the fragile mountain environment.

No protective measures and use of diggers rather than hand tools – Photo credit Alan Mackay

However, removal of redundant infrastructure did not require planning permission and therefore there was no legal requirement on HIE or Natural Retreats to produce a document setting out the standards they would use to carry out the works.   We know from the FOI response that Gavin Miles the Head of Planning had suggested to the planning consultant (who was working on behalf of Natural Retreats/Cairngorm Mountain Ltd) that: “it would be sensible good practice to consult CNPA on the components that don’t require planning consent” .  This doesn’t appear to have happened.

 

This has created the anomalous and scandalous situation that new developments at Cairngorm (in theory) have to abide by the highest standards (in order to win planning consent) with reams of associated paperwork but removal of old developments can be done any old how.

Damage to edges of existing track by vehicles which appear to be driving out the demolition materials – it looks like some have fallen off the back of the track.  The consultant’s report (point 8) stated the materials would be airlifted out.

Indeed, Natural Retreats included in their brief for the proposed extension of the Ptarmigan Restaurant that all works would be carried out with minimum impact to the environment.   Meantime, just a few hundred metres away they have allowed works to be carried out with absolutely NO measures being taken to protect soil and vegetation and contrary to how their consultant said they would be done.

 

This is what I mean by the planning system being brought into utter disrepute.   It should be obvious now to CNPA that Natural Retreats cannot be trusted to do anything the way they say they will and  it is essential therefore that they reject any new proposals for the Ptarmigan or anywhere else on the mountain which comes from Natural Retreats.  If they had the courage, the CNPA would also call on the Scottish Government to bring removal of infrastructure in fragile mountain areas within the scope of the planning system.

 

Why the new environmental damage at Cairngorm should not be a surprise

The consultant whom Natural Retreats engaged to work on the clear-up and wrote to CNPA was a certain Colin Matthew.  He had previously been employed by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd but was made redundant by Natural Retreats.   Last year, while still in employment, he was one of the operational managers at Cairngorm.  This was at the time all the damage was being caused at the Shieling and West Wall.  Perhaps he didn’t have any responsibility for managing that or for all the mess that had been left on the mountain, but I think HIE needs to answer a whole lot of questions about why they allowed Natural Retreats to engage him to develop the clear-up proposals.

 

Even more surprising is the contractor which appears to have appointed to carry out the works at West Wall (I have asked for all the procurement information in an FOI).

McGowan was the contractor who conducted all the unlawful work which took place during the construction of the Shieling Rope Tow (see below).  How HIE could agree to their ever being appointed again to work at Cairngorm, I don’t know..

The destruction of ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

I will not here go into detail about the removal of ski infrastructure from Coire na Ciste.  The Save the Ciste Group has issued an excellent statement which should be read by everyone who cares about skiing and outdoor recreation at Cairngorm STC Statement 25 Aug 2017.docx.

 

No-one would dispute that some of the old infrastructure at Cairngorm, such as the buildings at the bottom of Coire na Ciste which are beyond repair, needs to be removed.  However, both HIE and Natural Retreats are fully aware of Save the Ciste Group’s alternative plan for Coire na Ciste.   This could potentially have used some of the redundant infrastructure, including the concrete plinths identified as still being in a safe condition (see FOI above).    However, instead of consulting Save the Ciste and other ski interests about this HIE has provided what appears to be large amounts of public money (according to STC its £267,000) to smash everything up and therefore make any re-use of equipment possible.    It would have cost nothing to consult but that is not how HIE works.

 

Getting planning permission to put in new infrastructure is far more complex and costly than applying to upgrade existing infrastructure as both HIE and Natural Retreats know from the recabling work they did last year at Cairngorm  One is left with the nasty feeling that the whole clear-up scheme has been designed to make a community take-over as difficult as possible.  If so, it appears the current clear-up at Cairngorm is not inspired by the need to protect the mountain environment at Cairngorm, its all about HIE and Natural Retreats using public money to protect their own interests.

What needs to happen

On Friday I wrote to Charlotte Wright, Chief Executive of HIE asking her to intervene and stop all work at Cairngorm and to account for what has gone wrong email Charlotte Wright 170825.  I copied the email to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham, and Cabinet Secretary responsible for HIE, and thus for the mismanagement of Cairngorm, Fergus Ewing.  I think they need to intervene and develop a plan in consultation with the local community, recreation and conservation interests and other public authorities to remove the Cairngorm Estate from HIE as soon as possible.

 

The other thing we need is an overall plan for Cairngorm.  There is none.  The so called Masterplan is simply a proposal for two developments.  HIE have not explained at all how the current operations fit into a longer term plan.   Scottish Ministers should require them to consult on development of a long-term plan for the whole area before anything else happens.

 

 

August 23, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The start of the cycle lanes on the west side of Milton Buchanan – there is a similar layout on the east of the village.

Most visitors to Balmaha and beyond this summer will have probably been struck by the new cycle lanes through Milton of Buchanan.     I use a bike to get around Glasgow, campaign in the area I live for more cycle lanes and when driving try to be as “cycle friendly” as possible.     Coming into Milton of Buchanan therefore I tried to avoid the cycle lane but the space left between the lane and the central line is far too narrow for a car.

Photo showing how the space left for cars is too narrow to allow them to pass with the inevitable consequence they swerve into the cycle lanes.

Then, just a little further on, the centre road marking disappears completely and the road narrows to one lane,  far too narrow to allow two cars to pass.  Any car determined to respect the cycle lanes risks would run into cars coming from the other direction head on.   The consequence is every car I saw had either to swerve in and out of the cycle lanes or simply ignored the cycle lane completely.   This is not the drivers’ fault, its the consequence of extremely poor design and provides ammunition to the petrol heads who believe all cycling provision is a denial of their right to drive their car wherever they want.

 

The local community and the local police force appear to share this view:

Extract from the draft minute of the June meeting of Buchanan Community Council

 

Now I have been aware from the organisational updates given to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Board meetings that there were plans to create a cycle path between Drymen and Balmaha.  I have been unable to find any information about these plans on either the LLTNPA, the Stirling Council or Sustrans websites, but that may because I have searched in the wrong places.  Its not clear what consultation has taken place but I suspect that if any meaningful consultation had taken place about Milton of Buchanan, the poor design would have been avoided.    Consultation however tends to go by the wayside when people have limited budgets and performance targets to meet.

 

I happen to have walked along the entire B837 between Balmaha and Drymen – which is marked as a core path on the LLTNPA’s core path plan.   While there is a pavement along most of the road, its very narrow in some places and in others disappears completely, sometimes on bends where this a verge less than a foot wide and where its hard for cars to see you.  Not a good walking experience, even on the section between Milton and Buchanan and Balmaha which is marked on OS Maps as an official alternative to the main West Highland Way.  So much for “destination Scotland”.

One of the better sections of pavement which forms part of the West Highland Way snapped from the car – its not wide enough for cyclists and pedestrians to pass

The plan for Sustrans to install a cycle path therefore appeared to me a good one in principle which  could benefit both cyclists and walkers, both visitors and local residents, and improve current provision.

 

The challenge however is that the B837 is narrow and bordered by (attractive) hedges, not atypical for a country road.   To accommodate cars, cyclists and walkers you either need to widen it, which would require significant investment including the costs of purchasing land bordering the road, or restrict cars.    In effect, an attempt to restrict cars has been made at Milton of Buchanan but in a way that is extremely poorly designed and so both ineffective and dangerous.  If there were far fewer cars, the road markings at Milton of Buchanan might just about be made to work (if priority was given to cars coming from one way).  The only way to make this happen though would be to restrict traffic to Balmaha to local residents and commercial vehicles, introduce a frequent year round bus service for visitors along with new car parking capacity at Drymen.  While this could fit with the proposal to close the road to Rowardennan (see here) I cannot see this happening in the near future.  The proposed cycle path along the B837 and the section created at Milton of Buchanan therefore needs a re-think.

 

An alternative to the current road markings at Milton of Buchanan would be to create a segregated path shared by cyclists and pedestrians along one side of the road.  In my view that would be better than the current set up.  Its easier and safer for cyclists to share a lane with pedestrians than with cars and indeed the first photo in this post shows the assumption is that cyclists should use the pavement outside the village.

Main street in Predazzo, Val de Fiemme. A temporary dedicated segregated cycle route has been created by placing large flower boxes down the middle of the road. (A permanent segregated cycle route runs round the village and connects it to neighbouring villages).

In the Dolomites I saw lots of evidence of how to do things differently, ideas we could apply to Scotland.    In the Dolomites there appeared to be far more emphasis on segregated cycle routes, ranging from temporary arrangements to dedicated paths.

The cycle route which runs along the Val di Fassa and Val de Fiemme. It was well-used by both cyclists and pedestrians – I reckoned at least one cyclist every minute. Note how there is room for cyclists and pedestrians to pass.

Great work of course has been done in Scotland on developing dedicated cycle routes through the National Cycle Route network but we appear to be well behind Italy.

 

It seems to me that if there is not space to create segregated cycle lanes and a decent path along the B837 consideration should be given to following the Italians and developing an alternative route.  There is already an extensive and under-promoted path network between the B837 and the River Endrick, some of which have been designated as core paths  (see here).    The problem is it does not join up to create alternative through routes.    It could do.

This extract from the LLTNPA core path map shows there is a track from High Mains Farm (south of Milton of Buchanan) which joins the B837 just west of Milton of Buchanan. At present it crosses two burns by ford, which have stopped me on the one occasion I have tried to walk it. Add a couple of bridges though and upgrade the path and you could create a segregated cycle route.

 

 

 

 

I am not here trying to provide a definitive answer to how we improve cycle path/lane provision in the National Park or even at Milton of Buchanan, only to illustrate that we need to think more creatively and thoroughly about how existing provision should be improved.  In my view that process should be led by the National Park Authority.   Unfortunately it appears that rather than co-ordinating new provision and ensuring there is consultation with appropriate bodies, from the local community to the Ramblers Associations and organisations like Go Bike, the LLTNPA are leaving this to others.   That partly accounts I think for the daft road markings at Milton of Buchanan.

 

One of the priorities in the draft National Park Partnership plan, “Visitor Experience 1”  is “Ensuring that the National Park Core Paths are reviewed and fit for purpose” while another, Visitor Experience 2 commits the LLTNPA to “Promoting the use and improvement of the National Walking and Cycling Network including new active travel linkages between communities as well as routes facilitating active travel into the Park and better linkages with existing transport hubs and routes.”     The cycle lanes at Milton of Buchanan provide a graphic illustration of why this is needed.    However, if the LLTNPA is to become an effective public authority which leads on developing good practice for outdoor recreation and active travel it will need to allocate resources to do this.    In my view it could do so easily if its Board decided that instead of fruitlessly devoting most of its resources to chasing away campers it re-focussed on how it could provide the infrastructure necessary to support visitors.

August 22, 2017 Nick Kempe 11 comments
Some of the protesters who attended the CNPA planning meeting on Friday.  Protests by local people, while already significant, are likely to increase greatly in future due to the implications of the proposed Recreation Management Plan.   Photo Credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

On Friday, to no-one’s surprise, the Cairngorms National Park Authority unanimously approved the revised planning application for An Camas Mor and in effect gave Johnnie Grant a further three years to meet planning requirements.   Paradoxically,  this new decision, I believe makes An Camas Mor  less likely than ever to go ahead.  This is mainly because of the measures proposed in the Habitats Regulations Assessment regarding access and the requirement for a Recreation Management Plan.

 

Its worth recalling here that the development of land for housing on the east side of the Spey in the area of ACM was first proposed by Aviemore Community Council  in 1987 and that every Scottish Government since the Scottish Parliament was created  have supported the development.  The original proposal from the old Highland Council development plan was transferred into the first Cairngorms National Park Authority Development plan and has been there ever since.   Despite this – and despite strong ongoing support from elements of the current Scottish Government,  support which the CNPA is not strong enough to challenge – so far the development lobby have achieved nothing. Not a single house built.    On balance, I don’t think that is going to change.  What follows explains why.

 

The flawed decision-making process

Despite the extensive implications of An Camas Mor for access, for both local residents and visitors, (see here) and (here) there was not a single objection to the application on the grounds that it would have an adverse impact on access and recreation.  The reason for this is no-one knew there would be implications until the CNPA published its secret Habitats Regulations Assessment last week, four days before the planning committee.   The Ramblers Association then issued a press release (see here) the day before the Committee Meeting raising serious issues about the proposals and Dave Morris, their former Director, wrote to every single Board Member on the day of the meeting (see here), but this was all too late. The CNPA denied the recreational community the opportunity to have any formal say in the planning decision.    This is fundamentally wrong and will, I believe, come back to haunt both the CNPA and the Scottish Government.

 

To make matters worse, it is clear the CNPA were aware of the recreational implications of ACM over a year ago.   Appendix 5 to Habitats Regulations Assessment is dated August 2016 and titled “Identification of woodlands with potential for significant recreational disturbance to capercaillie arising from An Camas Mor, and specification of the mitigation required to avoid such disturbance.  This document therefore had been finalised a month BEFORE the CNPA Board approved the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, yet the CNPA were quite happy for that strategy – which had been subject to consultation with recreational interests – to be approved without any indication that it was already out of day because of what they were planning to mitigate the impacts of An Camas Mor.   That should hardly inspire trust in the CNPA from outdoor recreation interests.

 

The implications of the proposed An Camas Mor Recreation Management Plan

While the Habitats Regulations Assessment was produced without consultation,  the new planning condition which sets out the requirement for a Recreation Management Plan is very strong in terms of what it requires the developer to do to ensure the protection of Natura sites, particularly in respect of capercaillie.  Condition 11 reads:

 

“No development shall commence on site (other than site investigation works) until a Recreational Management Plan (RMP) that delivers the outcomes within the Habitat Regulations Appraisal that accompanies this decision and demonstrates that there will be no adverse effect on site integrity of any Natura sites, has been submitted to and approved in writing by the CNPA acting as planning authority.”

 

This was is re-inforced by the CNPA Press Release announcing the decision which states the applicant will have “to prove there will be no significant adverse effects to capercaillie in Badenoch and Strathspey as a result of the proposals before any development can start.”  

 

Prove is a very strong word and proving that the creation of a further 1500 households, most of whom will have an interest in outdoor recreation, right in the heart of capercaillie country, will have no adverse impact on capercaillie will in my view provide an enormous challenge to the developer.   Moreover proving that the soft mitigation measures outlined in the Habitats Regulation Appraisal (such as revegetation of certain paths) will be sufficient to keep visitor numbers at current levels will be  impossible to demonstrate.  As a result, I believe the applicant will only be able to prove they can mitigate the impacts of the development for capercaillie, if they can show they have plans to put in place powers of last resort to limit visitor numbers.   And that requires byelaws.

 

Besides the political stushie that any proposal for byelaws will create, they also have serious resource implications.   The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Rangers Service is huge compared to that in the Cairngorms (over 50 staff who consume a large huge proportion of the National Park’s resources) and have responsibility for enforcing the camping management byelaws.  Yet visit any of the camping management zones where camping is banned and I can guarantee that on each occasion you will find people in breach of the byelaws.   At Rowardennan on Sunday there was a tent on the beach – people weren’t actually camping, they were using it to change in to go for a swim – but were nevertheless committing the criminal offence of pitching a tent in a management zone.  The CNPA, in order to protect Natura Sites, could not allow such breaches to take place.  It will therefore need a huge police/ranger force – unless of course people are banned from Glenmore completely, which would destroy Aviemore as a tourist destination – to ensure people to keep to the paths, the outcome it says the Recreation Management Plan must deliver.

 

How will this be paid for?   The developer is now proposing that the future residents of An Camus Mor will pay for visitor management measures through ground rent or as the CNPA puts it “long-term funding for recreation management through the annual household service charge”..    The financial implications for future residents are significant, could well make the 25% of ACM that the CNPA says will be reserved for social housing completely unaffordable and is likely to act as a deterrent to potential purchasers.  The proposed Recreation Management Plan therefore significantly increases the financial risks associated with the development.

 

Implementing the Recreation Management Plan

The proposed Recreation Management Plan will have to cover not just An Camus Mor itself and Johnnie Grant’s remaining land at Rothiemurchus, it will have to cover much of Badenoch and Strathspey from Creag Dubh to Boat of Garten. This includes land owned by other landowners, namely Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB and Seafield Estates.   The Habitats Regulations Assessment does not indicate what involvement those landowners had in drawing up the proposed mitigation measures or whether they have agreed to implement them – this information needs to be made public – but it would only take one landowner to refuse to implement the measures and the whole Recreation Management Plan,  and therefore the development, would fall apart.

 

What’s more, those landowners are entitled to ask for re-imbursement for all the costs of implementing the Recreation Management Plan.   RSPB have already indicated that they think the costs of this are considerable:

 

Based on their own assessment of mitigation needed in the Abernethy SPA to reduce
risks of disturbance to an acceptable level, they have estimated the capital costs of
mitigation across the network SPA and supporting woodland in Badenoch and
Strathspey to be in the region of £650k to £900k. They also estimate that a five to six
person ranger service would be required in perpetuity to support recreation
management.

 

I think that these projected costs are likely to go up significantly once all the landowners start thinking through the implications and costing what they need to do.

 

Moreover, while I am sceptical enough to believe that the landowners involved might only be too happy to limit access – there are those in Forestry Commission Scotland who have always resented the removal of their ability to make byelaws controlling access since the Land Reform Act – whether they would be prepared to sign up to permanent recreation management measures on their land in perpetuity which limit their right to take their own decisions is questionable.   This would mean landowners signing away some of their rights to manage land – it would almost certainly need expensive legal agreements –  which in planning terms normally requires compensation.   The other landowners are thus in financial terms now in a position to hold the developer to ransom and name their price.   This adds further significant risks to the financing of An Camas Mor.

 

It is also another reason why the only way that Johnnie Grant, as Developer, will be able to  guarantee delivery of the Recreation Management Plan on other landowners’ property is if he can show the CNPA has agreed to use its byelaw making powers, under either the Land Reform Act or the National Parks Act, to deliver the mitigation measures.  This is because even if Johnnie Grant agrees a suite of measures and a price with other landowners, he also needs to show what will happen if these don’t work.   Will he, for example, be able to increase management charges for ACM residents to pay for whatever measures are needed?       If there are any doubts about Johnnie Grant’s ability to pay for delivery of the mitigation measures, then the only way he can guarantee they are delivered is if the CNPA agrees to use its byelaw making powers.

 

Legally, this creates lots of issues.  It is highly questionable whether any public authority has the right to use its powers both to control how other land owners manage their land and to limit public rights of access when the only reason for this is to deliver a private development.  While I believe the CNPA will eventually have to consult on the proposed Recreation Management Plan and when it does I predict a huge public outcry which will shake the politicians, in terms of the current planning decision it appears that the CNPA have acted ultra vires.   As a result, there is a strong case that it could be legally challenged and called in by the Scottish Government.

The involvement of the Scottish Government and the financial risks associated with the development

I have had it reported on good authority that at the Planning Committee on Friday Johnnie Grant’s planning consultant  said words to the effect that  the Scottish Government has agreed to help fund the development if planning consent is given.   While this helps explain the CNPA decision it also opens the door to questions now being lodged under the Freedom of Information Act asking about the Scottish Government’s involvement in promoting and financing an inappropriate development in one of our National Parks.

 

In a post last week I drew attention to the high financial risks to the developer and in particular the need to meet costs up front.   While the revised planning conditions no longer require the developer to pay for health infrastructure (the CNPA now say sufficient facilities are in place to cope with the new demand) in other areas the development costs have increased, for example, “members agreed that a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists must be delivered before 200 homes are occupied.”   That means more money the banks will have lend up front without any guarantee they will get it back.

 

Meantime, due to the current crisis in our wider capitalist economy and the relentless downward pressure on wages, the number of people able to afford first or second homes at An Camas Mor are becoming thinner on the ground.   This I believe helps explains why the Developer has been having discussions with the Scottish Government about helping to finance the development (the latest information I have had is that the £7.2m Johnnie Grant received from the Scottish Government to buy part of Rothiemurchus has already been spent and is not available to contribute to the development).

 

The need to develop an alternative plan

The question then arises that if if the Scottish Government is prepared to finance Johnnie Grant, why not use Scottish Government finance- rumours suggest this could be £9m –  to fund an alternative plan?

This letter from 2014, tweeted by the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group summarises the reasons why people should be sceptical about whether An Camas Mor will deliver social housing

£9m could pump prime a significant development of social housing, which is what the National Park needs to meet the needs of the local workforce, who are according to National Park Plan paid significantly less than the national average.   If our Public Authorities had spent the last 30 years bringing empty houses into use and promoting new affordable housing, instead of endless luxury housing for use as second homes and waiting for An Camas Mor to go ahead, the housing problems in the National Park would have been solved by now.  The dualling of the A9 makes it is far less important that such housing be located in Aviemore as it opens the option of improved bus connections between settlements.

 

£9 could alternatively pay for the pedestrian/cycling bridge over the Spey and other recreational infrastructure, greatly extending opportunities for informal outdoor recreation for those living in Aviemore while reducing current impacts of residents on natura sites,  without any need for the new development to go ahead.  In other words the Scottish Government could pay to implement for the good ideas in the Habitats Regulations Assessment – and there are some – without any need for the development going ahead.

 

What needs to happen

The recreational implications of An Camas Mor going ahead are enormous and very complicated and legally provide extremely strong grounds  for the Scottish Government to call in the application, both because it appears that the CNPA has acted ultra vires and also because the proposed Recreation Management Plan is incapable of implementation.    I hope conservation and recreational organisations now join together and call on Ministers to do this.

 

Its time too I believe for local residents and the conservation and recreational NGOs to get together and develop an alternative plan.  Unfortunately I don’t think the CNPA would be allowed to do this even though its exactly the sort of initiative it should be leading.   An alternative plan should aim to deliver the housing that is needed by the local workforce, protect nature and promote outdoor recreation where this is appropriate.    People should be demanding that the Scottish Government agree in principle to finance the implementation of such a plan, which would deliver considerable public benefits, instead of financing private developers to the overall detriment of the National Park.

August 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
The road from Balmaha to Rowardennan was like this much of the way, stop/start as cars squeezed past each other.

On Sunday afternoon, taking advantage of a break in the tropical storms which have been battering  Scotland, we went for a walk up Ben Lomond, a hill that everyone from the west of Scotland who is able to do so should walk up at least once in their lifetimes.   I walk, run or ski it most years.   The drive from Balmaha to Rowardennan required patience because of the volume of traffic.   It probably took us twice the time to drive it as it does in winter.

The Forestry Commission carpark at Rowardennan was full to overflowing. With all the official places full people were parking on the verges

We met all sorts: small groups of middle aged men with strong Glaswegian accents, a couple of Asian families, backpackers taking a diversion from the West Highland Way, students, a person with a learning disability, Dutch tourists, some younger teenagers who must have been still at school, a Sikh……….we heard probably a dozen different languages.   The number and diversity of people visiting Rowardennan and walking up Ben Lomond is a great thing.  It should be the people’s hill.

 

The infrastructure though is creaking under the numbers and needs a re-think…………………in fact its needed a re-think ever since the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park was created.

 

In the Dolomites and indeed in many other valleys in the Alps where small roads finish in a dead-end without much space for parking – as at Rowardennan – they do things differently.

Track between Gardeccia and Vajolet Huts

The main access to the Catinaccio group, off the Val di Fassa, is via this valley.   The road up to the Gardeccia is closed to private cars.    The valley is extremely popular – it leads up the famous Vajolet towers (where we climbed), offers great walking and a number of via ferrata – but people either walk up (rare), get a ski lift and then contour round into the valley or use the shuttle bus service from Pera.

Shuttle buses with Catinaccio group behind

The shuttle bus service operates from 7am to 6pm from the end of May until mid-October.   It took about 20 minutes and cost 10 Euros return, including the cost of leaving our car for three days.   It was extremely well used – we were concerned when we turned up at 7am whether we would get on the two buses waiting at the bottom – but coming back saw over half a dozen buses taking people up and down the route and waited just five minutes for our bus to fill and set off.

The parking provided for those using the Gardeccia shuttle bus

The road closure and shuttle bus service solves the problem of where people would park up the valley, takes the stress out of driving along the narrow road up to Gardeccia, provides jobs and is more environmentally friendly than people taking cars.   This is not the only side valley off the Val di Fassa where such services exist (see here for list).   So why don’t we do this in Scotland?   We could start  places like Rowardennan.

 

In fact, one of the action points of the east Loch Lomond Visitor Management Plan 2014-19 was:

“Consideration to be given to shuttle bus service provision from Drymen to Rowardennan.”

The new signs that have been put up on almost every free post along the Rowardennan Rd since Stirling Council assumed responsibility for parking enforcement in May.

This has not been progressed.  Instead, the focus has been on the expensive water bus service and  there has been an obsession with trying to control car parking:  in particular how to enforce the clearway between Balmaha and Rowardennan.

 

This has had the unfortunate effect of making much of east Loch Lomond inaccessible for people wanting to do short walks along the West Highland Way.  Apart from the public carparks at Milarrochy, Sallochy and Rowardennan, there is nowhere to stop.   Fine for fitter walkers, but for lots of people it means many of the joys of east Loch Lomond are now beyond reach.

 

A shuttle bus service would enable far more people to do shorter walks along east Loch Lomond, letting people walk between points of their choice.  It would also make Ben Lomond far more accessible – something like 50% of the adult population of Glasgow do not have access to a car and effectively have no way of reaching, Ben Lomond, what should be the people’s hill.

 

The Buchanan Community Partnership and recreation management on east Loch Lomond

 

Unfortunately, not only does the LLTNPA appear to be doing nothing to address this situation, it and Stirling Council appears to be about to make this worse.   The issue at stake is the management of the carpark at Balmaha.

 

There have been calls from people in Balmaha that the community  should be able to benefit from the car park there for some time.    There is a very interesting record of how the proposal has developed – given by Kevin Lilburn recorded in the minute of the May meeting of the Buchanan Community Council (see here).   Basically the proposal had been that money raised from the car park should be split between Stirling Council, the LLTNPA and an organisation called the Buchanan Community Partnership.  The plan which was eventually agreed was that Stirling Council would lease the car park which they still own for 3 years to the LLTNPA who would introduce parking charges through their  newly procured Automatic Number Plate Recognition charging system.     The LLTNPA would take on the burdens of running the carpark and after costs would share income with the community.  The vehicle proposed to do this was the Buchanan Community Partnership

 

The BCP had been set up in 2003 to enable the local community to access and manage funds.  It appears responsible for initiating the negotiations that car parking charges should be introduced at Balmaha and part of the money from this used to benefit the local community.  The BCP has, according to Kevin Lilburn’s report to the Community Council  – information reinforced by its accounts – been in “suspended animation” for a number of years.    This is interesting as Kevin Lilburn is a Director of the Buchanan Community Partnership and information obtained under FOI FOI 2015 002 Response – Copy show that he represented that body on the east Loch Lomond Visitor Management stakeholder group, the body which is supposed to co-ordinate the implementation of the east Loch Lomond Visitor Management Plan (which now appears defunct) and indeed that he appears to have chaired meetings.     Although in theory open to anyone from the local community to join, there is other information to indicate the BCP was hardly a democratic organisation.   Information from companies house  (see here) states it is controlled by one person, Joseph Twaddle its Secretary, who had been secretary of the Community Council before he resigned.   The May minutes of the Buchanan Community Council record that “The view was expressed that the current BCC membership knew nothing about BCP meetings from the former Secretary”.  

 

All this though now appears about to become history.   According to the draft minutes of the Buchanan Community Council meeting in June  the Buchanan Community Partnership is about to be wound up and instead there are plans that a new organisation, the East Loch Lomond Community Trust, will receive the funds.

 

14) AOCB
KL advised that the Buchanan Community Partnership (BCP) board had decided to start a process that aimed to wind up the BCP. This had implications for the “community” share of the revenue that might result from the proposed introduction of parking charges at the Balmaha car park. He understood that the recently formed East Loch Lomond Community Trust might now have an involvement.

It was proposed & agreed that the Chair should write to the NP expressing our deep concern at the situation.

 

Reading between the lines of the minutes, it looks as though one shadowy organisation, the BCP, has been replaced by one that is even more shadowy.  Moreover,  there has been no communication from the ELLCT and the Community Council, the organisation which represents people locally.   Information on the Office of Scottish Charity Regulator’s website shows that the ELLCT was incorporated in October 2016 and sets out it general objectives but does not provide the names of the trustees or say what area it covers.  The only other public information that is available about the ELLCT is it appears to have registered for Just Giving.      You cannot therefore see who is controlling the organisation let alone what it intends to do.  Perhaps the National Park knows?

 

What needs to happen

  • The LLTNPA  should make all information it holds on the east Loch Lomond Community Trust public and explain why it appears happy to divert funds to an organisation which appears accountable to no-one
  • The LLTNPA needs to create an integrated vehicle management plan for the area.   Charging for carparks has all sorts of implications for recreation management, including the viability of a shuttle bus service to Rowardennan.   We bought our 10 euro return ticket in Italy and it covered carparking for three days.  The car park at Balmaha is not big enough to cope with the extra car parking capacity that would be needed to support a shuttle bus service but income from it could be used to kick start such a service.   The LLTNPA in giving away funds to an unaccountable group is reducing the likelihood of transport systems, which exist everywhere on the continent, being developed in the National Park.
  • At the National level, it appears that the law regarding community councils needs to change (the minutes show the reason these trusts and companies are being set up are because of legal limitations as to what community councils can do).   Now community councils are not perfect, they can easily be taken over, but as the saga on east Loch Lomond shows, the alternatives, companies or trusts accountable to no-one can be even worse.

 

And for any reader, who thinks I am being too radical, in Italy they are prepared to close to private vehicles not only dead-end roads, but major through routes.

Looking down onto a section of the road over the Sella Pass on a Wednesday. Note the cyclists.

The road over the Sella Pass, between the Val di Fassa and Val Gardena is closed between 9am and 4pm every Wednesday, except to buses and cyclists.    Imagine us doing  something as radical in Scotland?   What the closure does is enable hundred of cyclists to enjoy the challenge without having to think about traffic, which includes not just car but lots of motorbikes.   The Rowardennan Rd is a nightmare to cycle at present.   A shuttle bus service might make it a pleasure to cycle again with additional recreational benefits – and help promote a circular route on car free routes from Balloch to Rowardennan, across to Tarbert on a ferry and then back down to Balloch along the west Loch Lomond cycle path.    That would be a National Park which, like Italy, put outdoor recreation at the centre of how it manages the countryside.

August 18, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Photo from Luss Gathering Facebook page 2017 (it took place Saturday1st July) – count the tents and shelters!

The Luss Gathering takes place each year on Luss playing fields which now form part of the west Loch Lomond camping management zone.   Since last year the camping management byelaws have made it a criminal offence to erect a tent in a camping management zone without explicit authorisation from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.   Mostly such authorisation is granted through the camping permit system the Park has created but this only allows tents to be put up in specified permit areas.   Luss is not one of them, no doubt because some local residents had blamed camping for all the problems of anti-social behaviour the village was experiencing and so no camping under permit is allowed close by.

 

The other way permission to put up a tent can be obtained is to apply for an one-off exemption to put up a tent or tents.   Decisions about such exemptions are, under the Park’s procedures supposed to be advertised on the Park’s weekly planning list which I have been monitoring for some time now.    Most of the applications are from Duke of Edinburgh and Scout Groups, with hard-pressed voluntary Scout Leaders and teachers,  no longer able to organise expeditions which stay overnight in the camping management zones without the Park’s permission.   The bureaucracy and additional workload is signficant and I feel for the (mainly youth) groups involved.  They were, just like other responsible campers, never part of any problem – indeed being supervised, the chances of such expeditions causing any damage were minimal – but nevertheless the Park has required them to apply for permission to camp.

 

I tend to recall applications from other bodies for exemption from the camping byelaws – that from the Loch Ard Sailing club comes to mind – but don’t remember seeing one for the Luss Highland Games.    I have double-checked all planning applications decided for the Luss and Arden Community Council since April on the Park’s planning portal and cannot find any appllcation to exempt the Luss Gathering either.  I am thus reasonably certain that the Luss Gathering did not apply for and were not granted permission to pitch the tents that feature on the photo above.   If I am correct,  all those responsible in putting up these tents have committed a criminal offence.   Ridiculous I know, as common sense tells us that these people have done no wrong.

 

But neither has Mr Trout, the angler who is being prosecuted simply because he broke the byelaws for doing what he has done for years (see here), just like the people who organise the Luss Gathering.  Neither has done any wrong.  Mr Trout told me that the police officer employed by the National Park, PC Barr, when cautioning him, had told him the law is the law and has to be enforced.  It would be interesting to know how many events PC Barr or other police officers have attended over the summer – I cannot believe that there was no police presence at the Luss Gathering – and what action they have taken.  My guess is none but I would be more than happy to publish information from the police or the LLTNPA if I have got this wrong..

 

The camping byelaws are daft but since during the Your Park consultation both Luss Estates and  members of the local community in Luss strongly supported them, there is an argument they should be made to live by the rules they have created for everyone else.   I would prefer it if they now joined those of us who believe the camping byelaws were never justified, are completely unfair and a complete waste of resources and call publicly for them to be dropped at the earliest opportunity.

 

Meantime, there was a helpful reminder of the real problems which the National Park Authority should have been addressing at Luss in this letter which appeared in the Herald on Monday.   It is significant that it is from someone who is in the tourism industry.   The new National Park Partnership Plan needs to completely change the focus of what the Park is doing, from wasting money and resources on trying to chase off responsible campers to the provision of the basic infrastructure the Park needs.

 

 

 

August 17, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The blue blob near the centre of this map is not a new loch, its the proposed An Camas Mor development! The map shows how ACM is being proposed right at the heart of woodland most important for capercaillie, a protected species facing extinction, and explains why the CNPA has had to conduct a Habitat Regulations Appraisal.

Following my post yesterday (see here), I thought it worth considering further the measures the Cairngorms National Park Authority claims will “mitigate” the impacts of the proposed An Camas Mor development and the implications for access on Speyside for both residents and visitors.  It is now obvious from discussion with outdoor recreation interests, that any decision by the Park Authority to approve the amended planning application for the new town (An Camas Mor) on Rothiemurchus Estate will be open to legal challenge. The Park Authority have carried out no consultation with outdoor interests, or the public as a whole, on the draconian access restrictions which they announced this week for large tracts of the Cairngorms National Park. These so called mitigation measures are unworkable – leaving the Park open to legal challenge on conservation grounds – and unacceptable and need to be abandoned.

 

As a result I believe the CNPA Planning Committee on Friday either needs to reject the current planning application (which is to remove the Planning Condition which allows the CNPA to limit the development to 630 houses if it proves to have adverse impacts) or else conduct a full public consultation on the proposed “mitigation” measures before it takes a decision.   Whatever the immediate decision, a full public consultation and inquiry is now needed into all the implications for this proposed huge housing and commercial development on Rothiemurchus in the heart of the Cairngorms.

 

The impact of the proposed An Camus Mor development on capercaillie

 

The central legal issues at stake at ACM concern the impact of the proposed development on capercaillie and the consequences for outdoor recreation.   Capercaillie is not just a protected species once again facing extinction in Scotland, its also under both the previous and the recently approved new National Park Partnership Plan, the species which the CNPA has prioritised before all others.  While other protected habitats and species are considered in the 240 page Habitats Regulations Assessment, the conclusion is that almost all “likely significant effects” of An Camus Mor will be on the capercaillie.

 

The reasoning behind this this, which I do not dispute, is that because there is evidence that capercaillie can be disturbed by outdoor recreation, if you plonk a new development with 1500 households at the heart of the woodlands most important for them, you will not just increase recreational use of those woodlands, you will increase recreational impacts on Capercaillie.

 

The first thing that is important here is what the increased levels of recreational use are likely to be.  In its Habitats Regulations Appraisal the CNPA has stated that it is likely to be somewhere between 292,000 and 778,00 additional visits a year.  The numbers are based on research on visits to the countryside from people living or visiting rural areas, the lower figure being the Scottish average and the higher one reflecting use by people most active in the outdoors.

 

The second and crucial point though is that the Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) says that for the mitigation measures to be effective the outcome required is that there will be NO overall increase in recreational visits to these woodlands.    The implication, which is not spelled out in the HRA,  is that even if there are even only 292,000 additional recreational visits to the countryside from people living or stay at ACM and even if only say half of these say are to woodlands important to capercaillie, is that other visitors would need to be reduced by 146,000 a year in order for the CNPA to achieve this outcome.    That’s not far short of 500 fewer other visitors a day, whether existing residents of Aviemore or tourists.

 

It worth here dealing with the claim, that has been inserted at one point into the HRA, that “It is important to note that references in the required outcomes to no increase in recreational activity are specific to the residents of An Camas Mor alone”.  This claim, that mitigation measures only apply to residents of ACM is conceptually incoherent, its belied by the contents of the rest of the HRA and is completely unenforceable.  Here’s why:

  • Increase the local population and there will be increased visits to the countryside which need to be offset elsewhere if the CNPA’s desired outcome is to be achieved.   If the measures only apply to people staying at ACM, the only way that the required outcome – of not increasing overall visitor numbers could be achieved – would if the development was refused.
  • Its clear from the wording of most of the outcomes which have been specified in the HRA, that they apply to everyone, not just people staying at ACM

    Extract from the outcomes proposed for Glenmore

 

 

  • Lastly, its clearly impossible for the CNPA or anyone else for that matter to identify which of the people walking, cycling, skiing or wildlife watching in the woods are from ACM and which are not.   In other words almost all of the measures – apart from those being applied to the ACM site and the proposed reduction in car parking charges to try and encourage ACM residents to go to Loch an Eileen, where there are no capercaillie, rather than say Loch Morlich – will apply to everyone, whether resident of ACM, Aviemore or a day visitor.  Hence, the implications for outdoor recreation and access rights.

Will the measures being proposed achieve the outcomes set out by the CNPA?

 

The HRA proposes a number of different types of measure to prevent an overall increase in visitor numbers, including reducing the size of car parks and diverting people elsewhere.  Some of these are welcome and should be applied whether or not ACM goes ahead, for example the creation of new paths at Pityoulish and alternative places for dogwalking, because they improve current access provision and have no negative implications for access rights.   In fact, they could usefully be added to the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy approved last year.

 

Nowhere in the HRA, however, does the CNPA analyse the individual impact of the measures it is proposing, either on access rights or on visitor numbers. So, for example, while the HRA states that the following car parks in Glenmore and the surrounding area will be closed or reduced, it does not say how many visitors use them:

  • Prevention of informal parking at track and access entrances to Drumintoul lodge and
    Atnahatnich farm
  • Restrict parking at Sled-dog centre, Badaguish road end and Milton end of Sluggan pass
  • Complete blocking of old layby and timber loading area and other informal parking areas on Ski road
  • Management of car parking along the B970 to ensure no increase in level of use especially at sensitive times of year and day. for example Dalnavert , Feshiebruach car park and Inshriach House informal car parking areas redesigned to limit capacity

 

Without knowing the predicted reduction in  visits to woodland that will result from each of these measures, its impossible to tell if the measures as a whole will achieve CNPA’s desired outcome of successfully offsetting the predicted increase in visits arising from the ACM development.     The claims in the Committee Report, therefore, that the mitigation measures outlined are sufficient to offset the impact of ACM and remove current constraints on its development are not based on any sound evidence.

 

The question then arises that, if the proposed measures are not sufficient to prevent any overall increase in visitor numbers (and one needs to remember here that the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy is based on predictions of significant growth in visitor numbers over the next few years) what  work, what next?  The HRA is quite clear:

 

 

 

 

The claims that byelaws are a last resort are worthless.  The camping byelaws on east Loch Lomond were claimed, by that Park’s then chief executive Fiona Logan, as a last resort measure, which would not be used elsewhere and would only be needed temporary.   Now the Park’s Director of Conservation, Simon Jones, openly states – although formally its not his decision to make – that the camping byelaws are here to stay.

 

Now, consider the legal implications.  By law, before the CNPA could introduce byelaws to prevent an overall increase in visitor numbers it would have to, as the HRA says, conduct a public consultation.   However, if the CNPA were to consult objectively, it would risk having any proposals to restrict access through byelaws being rejected by the public at large and would then find it  impossible to mitigate the impacts of ACM.  The only way it can claim that the current package of proposals to mitigate the impacts  of ACM will work is if it has already in effect decided that it will bring in byelaws if necessary and then subverts the public consultation process, as did the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority on their consultation on the the camping byelaws.    This is why I think that in proposing these mitigation measures the CNPA is wide open to legal challenge.

 

The need for public consultation on the mitigation measures proposed to manage and limit access

Front page of Strathy today. Its strange how, when the CNPA is consulting the public about the development of the centre of Aviemore, it is not consulting the public about the implications of the measures it is proposing for the countryside round about.

The Habitat Regulations Assessment which proposes all these measures was produced under section 48 of the Habitats Regulations 1994.  This requires the CNPA as Planning Authority, to consult with SNH.  Sub-clause 3 reads:

(3) The competent authority shall for the purposes of the assessment consult the appropriate nature conservation body and have regard to any representations made by that body within such reasonable time as the authority may specify.

Strangely, however, the CNPA has made no reference in its report to the next sub-clause, 4:

(4) They shall also, if they consider it appropriate, take the opinion of the general public; and if they do so, they shall take such steps for that purpose as they consider appropriate.

 

So, under the Habitats Regulations, the CNPA could have decided to consult the public about their assessment and proposals to control and reduce access but have so far chosen not to do so.  I think the CNPA need to explain why and on Friday, their Board, have the opportunity to put that right.   The nub of that consultation should be whether the ACM development should be fully approved in principle (and the current planning condition which potentially restricts its size to 630 houses be removed) if this means that access rights might be restricted in future.

 

I think the answer to that question is clear, that if the implications of the revised planning application for ACM means increased restrictions on access on Speyside, then the revised planning application should be refused and the current planning condition, which allows the development to be restricted to 630 houses if it is having adverse impacts, should be retained.  This is not just about the capercaillie, its about the rights of people in Scotland and whether these too are more important than those of developers.

 

An alternative explanation for what is going on is that the CNPA has no intention of removing access rights and while it knows that the proposed mitigation measures are both undesirable and unworkable, the HRA has been produced simply to meet its legal obligations and that – as with many other planning conditions attached to developments in the National Park – these simply won’t be enforced when the time comes.     If this is the case, that too leaves the CNPA wide open to legal challenge.

 

The decision that the CNPA Planning Committee is being asked to make on Friday has far more potential consequences than those outlined in the Committee Report.  The risk of legal challenge, whether on conservation or recreation grounds, will start next week but is likely to hang over the CNPA and the financiers behind the development for years.     As stated in yesterday’s post, I believe the reason for this planning application to vary Planning Condition 1 was for the developers to guarantee their investment and future profits.    Ironically the HRA, because so open to legal challenge, makes that investment look more, not less risky.   The developers have opened the can of worms and put the desirability of ACM right back under the public spotlight.  That can only be a good thing.

August 16, 2017 Nick Kempe 15 comments
An Camas Mor visualisation from 2008 re-submitted February 2017.  ACM is in the Cairngorm National Scenic Area.

On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee will consider a revised planning application for An Camus Mor (see here), the proposed new town across the Spey from Aviemore. (Click here for link to the Park’s planning portal and all 236 documents associated with the application). The main change proposed by the the application is to vary planning condition 1, which restricted the development to 630 houses (out of a potential 1500)  until the impact of this initial phase of the development on landscape and ecology had been completed.   Instead the applicants, An Camas Mor Limited Liability Partnership, the development vehicle of the landowner, Johnnie Grant of Rothiemurchus, are proposing a phased approach.

 

The abandonment of the precautionary approach

 

There is no explanation, from either the applicant or the Park about why the planning application needs to be varied.   The applicant’s letter 2017_0086_DET-SECTION_42_COVER_LETTER-100124269 claims that “The proposed change to condition 1 is essential to facilitate appropriate phasing of the development as the Design Team moves towards implementation of the development” without explaining why.  The Park’s Committee Report repeats this claim without explaining what it means.

 

The Committee report then fails to consider the proposed changes in relation to the precautionary principle or the National Park’s statutory objectives, which state that when their is a conflict between any of the Park’s statutory objectives, in this case sustainable economic development and conservation, conservation should come first.    That there is a conflict is clear from para 24 of the Committee Report:

 

SNH advise that the proposal is likely to have a significant effect on:
a) The Capercaillie qualifying interest of Cairngorms SPA (Special Protection Area for birds), Abernethy Forest SPA, Kinveachy Forest SPA, Anagach Woods SPA and Craigmore Wood SPA;
b) The acidic scree, alpine and subalpine heath, blanket bog, dry heath, wet heath, plants in crevices on acid rocks, and otter qualifying interests of Cairngorms SAC; and
c) The otter, Atlantic salmon, fresh water pearl mussel, and sea lamprey qualifying
interests of River Spey SAC.

 

Under the original condition,  if the development of this site had a larger impact than was being predicted or could be mitigated – and the whole site is basically surrounded by protected sites, including those important to the Capercaillie which once again is close to extinction in Scotland – it could be halted.   Johnnie Grant is now effectively asking for this limit on the development to be waived and the Park’s officers, in recommending the application is approved, are agreeing with him.  Its difficult to see any justification for this in conservation terms.

 

So why is this happening?  The most likely explanation is that the proposed change is being driven by financiers who will want guaranteed returns.  As a result of the infrastructure costs associated with developing the site (building new roads, relocating wildlife etc), it is likely that it will only be when house numbers reach a certain figure – probably over 630 – that the profit will really start rolling in.   Hence the reason for this application.    The financiers want to remove the risk that the development will not be highly profitable and the main risk of this happening in Planning Condition 1.   Money, it appears,  is more important than conservation in our National Parks.

 

Had the National Park officers been recommending that the development be reviewed and potentially halted at each phase of the development, that would have strengthened the precautionary approach, but unfortunately that is not what is being proposed.  Once the go-ahead is given for the whole development, and the block plan for the proposed housing has already been approved, it will become impossible to stop, whatever the evidence of impacts on the natural heritage.  In effect under a phased plan all the CNPA will be able to do is comment on matters of detail, not the wider impacts of the development.

The environmental impact of the proposed development and the implications for access rights

The main new document associated with the proposal is a 240 page Habitat Regulations Appraisal (HRA) dated 20th June, but which was only made public on Monday when it was uploaded to the CNPA planning portal, and which was drafted by CNPA staff with support from SNH (Appendix 4 of the Committee Report).

 

The HRA starts out by stating that the An Camus Mor Development will have a “likely significant effect” on no less than seven protected European sites:  Abernethy Forest Special Protection Area (SPAs protect  birds); Anagach Woods SPA; Cairngorms SPA; Craigmore Wood SPA; Kinveachy Forest SPA; Cairngorms SAC (Special Area of Conservation – protects things other than birds); River Spey SAC.       Basically the reason for this is 1500 new households at An Camus Mor will go out into the neighbouring countryside, which happens to be these protected areas, to do everything from walking dogs to mountain biking (and the people likely to be attracted to live at An Camas Mor, like Aviemore, are likely to be more active than most of the population).

 

The Habitats Regulations Appraisal however says that these impacts can be mitigated.  While there is a huge amount of detail (much of which is highly debateable in the report) In a nutshell what it is saying is that the CNPA and developer can compensate for additional recreational impacts from a larger resident population around Aviemore by reducing existing recreational impacts.  The outcomes required to mitigate for An Camus Mor and the measures that will be needed to make this happen are set out for each part of each protected area (hence the length of the document).   While the Habitat Regulations Appraisal at one place suggest these outcomes only apply to An Camus Mor residents there is no way of course of differentiating between local residents and visitors and, as phrased, most of the outcomes will affect everyone.  Here is the example for Inshriach, which is not exactly next door to An Camas Mor:

What this is saying is that in order to compensate for An Camas Mor, access rights will be restricted, so off path recreational facilties will stop and both residents and visitors will have to keep to “promoted existing routes”.   This is far more draconian than the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park byelaws and if implemented would in effect end access rights in large parts of the Cairngorms National Park.  Worryingly, the document even states that byelaws are a measure of last resort.   So, the CNPA is in effect proposing to sacrifice access rights to enable An Camas Mor to go ahead.   This is a national scandal and should not be being decided by the Planning Committee of the National Park.

 

There are all sorts of other implications for access to, as is clear from the measures proposed for Glenmore:

 

 

What this in effect says is that in order to enable the An Camas Mor development to go ahead existing car parks will be reduced in size or blocked off completely, certain access routes will be blocked off, particularly for mountain bikers etc etc.   Just how this fits with the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, which was agreed less than a year ago, in unclear.    And similar measures are proposed for much of the rest of Speyside.   The implications for recreation and tourism are huge and yet there has been no public consultation.   There needs to be and the Planning Committee should refuse to take a decision until there has been full public consultation on the CNPA’s Habitats Regulations Appraisal otherwise it will be digging a very very deep hole for itself.    I am confident that if consultation did take place on the proposed mitigation measures, the proposals will collapse.

 

So, what is the explanation for  what is going on?

 

In 2014 the Scottish Government paid Johnnie Grant £7.2m for part of the Rothiemurchus estate in a secret deal (see here).    The question as to why Johnnie Grant needed to sell this land, or why the Government needed to purchase it when it was not at any risk, has never been answered.  One possible explanation is that Johnnie Grant needed to raise funds to help finance the An Camas Mor development.  If even an element of this £7.2 has been or is going to be spent on An Camas Mor, the Scottish Government has already been effectively helping to finance the development.

 

Whatever the case, there is a statement in the applicant’s letter that since the original planning application it has had:

 

Discussions with the Scottish Government and its advisors around advancing the design
and planning process in order to get to a point where Infrastructure Loan Funding for exceptional external infrastructure can be released for this project.

 

This appears to indicate that the Scottish Government is fully behind this application.    It would take a very strong National Park Board to reject the Scottish Government’s wishes and the suspicion has to be that both senior staff and Board have not approached this according to matters of principle, but rather are doing what they have been told to do.  To repeat, because of the implications for access of their proposed mitigation measures, they are digging a very deep hole for themselves.

Osprey on post at centre ACM, June 2016 which it was still using in August 2016. Photo credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

The suspicion of a stitch-up is re-inforced by the failure of the Committee Report to consider more up to date information on the wildlife to be found on the An Camas Mor site.  The Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, who have been looking at the wildlife on the site for some time and discovered a number of species not reported in the original planning application (see here for brilliant photos of the wildlife), have been asking the Park for updated environmental surveys for some time.   Earlier this week, the CNPA at last added a survey on badgers to the planning portal but at the same time redacted most of the content.  Presumably someone doesn’t want the public to know how many badgers may be affected by the development because badgers are likely to arouse more public support than bugs.

 

More importantly, the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group had been asking for a copy of the Habitats Regulations Assessment for weeks.  The CNPA refused to provide this, on the grounds they planned to publish this,  which they eventually did this Monday – despite the massive implications for access rights.   The CNPA apparently expects the BSCG and Cairngorms Campaign, both of  have both asked to address the Committee on Friday, to be able to assimilate and respond to this 240 page document in four days.  That’s not right, although this situation has been partly mitigated – excuse me using that term – because SNH, to their credit, did agree to release the information.

 

Why the secrecy? I had expected better of the CNPA.  And what is the CNPA scared about?     I hope I have provided enough information here for some Board Members to start asking some searching questions.

 

The level of support for the proposals

 

Despite a sustained local campaign to raise support for the proposal – see the ACM leaflet May 2017  which was delivered to every house in the Aviemore area – there were only 12 general expressions of support for the revised An Camas Mor planning application. “Of those supporting, nine were from individuals (eight from Aviemore and one from Pitlochry) and the remainder werefrom Visit Scotland, Scottish Tourism Alliance and Aviemore Sports Centre”    This compares to 23 general objections of which “16 were from individuals (from Aviemore, Kingussie, Nethy Bridge, Aboyne, Bettyhill, Broughty Ferry, Comrie, Ellon, Dunblane, Glasgow, Inverness, Limekilns in Fife, East Molesey in Surrey, Kendal and Wirral in Merseyside). The remainder were from the North East Mountain Trust, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Campaign for National Parks, The Cairngorms Campaign, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group.”

 

This is hardly an indication of high levels of support for the proposals, a factor which usually influences the politicians.   Part of the reason why may be because people working in Aviemore who currently don’t have suitable housing are not convinced that An Camas Mor will meet their housing needs.  When they learn it may affect their access rights too – and there is a much higher proportion of people who mountain bike in Aviemore than the rest of the country – they might actually start to oppose the whole development.   I hate to say this, but it looks like someone in the CNPA has reached the same conclusion, which is why the Habitats Regulation Appraisal has only been published at the last minute (I am happy to give the Park a right of reply on parkswatch to explain their position).

 

The wider picture

 

The big question is why, having created National Parks to protect parts of Scotland which are particularly important for conservation and recreation, are they in a position where much of their time and resources is devoted to developing new towns, leisure developments like Flamingo Land and inappropriate developments up mountains?.  Surely our National Parks were created to do things differently?

 

I can understand our politicians wanting to create jobs and build better places for people to live – I think this is necessary too – but to do this in the same old ways, basically giving land over developers to produce yet more inappropriate developments, shows a complete lack of imaginative thinking or ideas of how to promote sustainable economic development.      Both our National Parks need an alternative economic strategy, and to pioneer new paths to sustainable economic development.

 

Added to the inappropriateness of developments such as An Camas Mor, is the fact that its located adjacent to Glenmore, the place most under pressure in the whole of the Cairngorms National Park.  Why then is the CNPA directing development to the very area that can least support it?   There are plenty of other places, such as Dalwhinnie and Laggan, which could sustain further development and if developed would help spread visitor load.    Instead, the implications for all those who currently enjoy visiting Glenmore is that in order to offset the impact of more people living locally (and cycling or walking their dog in Glenmore) new visitor management measures will be introduced which will have a drastic impact on access rights.   This means this development has implications for the whole recreation community, including people who go to Glenmore to enjoy wildlife.

 

The big test for the CNPA on Friday is whether it will put the needs of the developer and the wishes of politicians before  its duty to promote conservation and public enjoyment of the countryside.