December 15, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Game bird rearing by General Wade’s military road north east of Luibleathan which appears to be on the Ralia Estate (its hard to tell exact boundaries from map) Photo July 2016

The £500 fine for a man who mistakenly shot a buzzard on a pheasant shoot raises some interesting questions about shooting in our National Parks.

The incident took place on the Ralia/North Drumochter estate – an estate in two parts – although its not clear which from the newspaper report.   While I have seen evidence of intensive pheasant rearing on the Ralia part of the estate (above) I have also seen buzzards on several occasions in and around the policy woodlands by North Drumochter Lodge (photo below), most recently in November.

Looking north west along the North Drumochter Lodge policy woodlands and A9 shelter belt towards Dalwhinnie

Aside from red grouse, I have seen very little bird or other wildlife on the North Drumochter Estate apart the Lodge buzzards and red deer (although I did see a Greater Spotted Woodpecker last time I was there).  What I have seen (see here) are lots of corvid and other traps.

Trap by Allt Beul an Sporain west of Balsporran Cottages

Such traps can catch buzzards.  That one can see buzzards quite easily on North Drumochter suggests that the Ralia/North Drumochter Estate tolerates or perhaps even likes them (releasing them from traps?) and it was quite possibly the estate that reported the man who shot the buzzard to the police.   Imagine a responsible keeper before a pheasant shoot briefing the shooting party and telling them to watch out for other birds who then realises one of their clients has ignored their instructions.    They would not just be very annoyed, they would also want to protect their reputation. Hence perhaps the report to the police.

Whether or not this is what actually happened, it should have.  It seems wrong that not even in our National Parks is there a requirement for shooters to be able to correctly identify what they are shooting, have the self-control not to shoot unless they are 100% certain their target is legitimate and have the skill to do so.    This is relevant to the long awaited review of grouse moor management:  any shooting license  should be dependant on shooters being properly briefed and trained and, where they are not and incidents such as this happen, the shooting license should be lost.  The Cairngorms National Park Authority could take a clear lead here by developing a code of good practice for shooting in the National Park.

While there is still some deliberate persecution of buzzards, the persecution that once confined them to the North West corner of Scotland has ended and allowed them to re-colonise the rest of the British Isles.   (I regularly see and hear buzzards in Pollok Park in Glasgow).   What this illustrates is that is that while in general shooting interests perceive some raptors, notably hen harrier and golden eagle, as threats others are tolerated and what is tolerated has changed over time.

Pheasants v grouse

In 2014 the Cairngorms National Park Authority with Scottish Land and Estates commissioned a report on the Social, Economic and Environmental Contribution of Landowners to the National Park (available here).   The research was in the form of a survey and there were 52 responses in all.  The the returns on shooting make interesting reading.

Extract from research commissioned by CNPA and Scottish Land and Estates in 2014

Now, not every landowner returned the survey and there may be problems with accuracy of the return (estates might not want to reveal their true income) but I was struck that pheasant shooting appears to bring in more income than driven and walked up grouse shooting combined.   If income was what mattered estates would be focussing on pheasant/partridge shooting – and one might have thought the animals that predate on pheasants –  rather than grouse.

 

What’s more, pheasant/partridge shooting not only provides more days shooting than driven grouse shooting, in terms of land-use it takes place over a much smaller area than grouse shooting.  As a consequence it produces far more income per hectare and – I would hazard – the costs per hectare are also a lot less.  No need to install lots of tracks and grouse butts.   Rearing pheasants, from an income perspective, appears far more rational than rearing grouse.

This, however, ignores the value of land which at present is driven by exclusivity rather than say ecological worth.  Landed estates are  valued by the number of deer or brace of grouse to be found on them because shooting red deer and red grouse has more social cachet than shooting, say, pheasants.  You can see some of this in the estate returns above:  the number of days pheasant shooting retained for family/personal use is 32 out of 396, less than 10%.    The number of driven days grouse shooting reserved for family/own use is 65 out of 230 or over 25%.  It appears that one is valued far more highly by owners than the other.

The converse to this is that any threat to what gives an estate its social cachet is a risk not just to the owner’s ability to enjoy what is so exclusive, it also threatens to undermine the price of the land and therefore their wealth.  The consequence is that hen harriers, which are perceived as a fundamental threat to red grouse, are being persecuted to extinction, whereas buzzards – which occasionally will take red grouse (they are generalist predators who prey on what they can catch) – are tolerated.

What pheasant shooting shows is that even from a fields sports perspective there are more productive forms of land-use than intensive grouse moor management:  planting or enable regeneration of woodland would enable more pheasants to be reared, which in return would allow greater revenue returns from the land.   The problem is land values and land-use are not decided rationally but by the tastes and culture of an elite and at present their focus is on grouse.  Until this is tackled raptors which commonly prey on grouse will be persecuted and others, which do not or do so only occasionally will be tolerated.

I don’t think the Cairngorms National Park Authority will be tackle the culture of the landed elite by persuasion.  As a consequence, whenever a raptor crime takes places in the National Park, they need not just to discuss this with the landowners concerned – and I hope they meet North Drumochter to establish exactly what happened – they should be considering what changes they could introduce to regulate shooting.

December 14, 2017 Nick Kempe 5 comments
Extract from Review of National Park Partnership Plan 2013-14

I have been trying since the summer to obtain copies of the “Land Management Plans” which the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park claim to have agreed with certain landowners (my appeal is with the Scottish Information Commissioner).  The content of these plans seems to me important for understanding how far the LLTNPA are getting landowners to manage their land according to the National Park’s statutory objectives.    A couple of months ago however I realised that the Review of the National Park Partnership Plan for 2013-14 (extract above) claimed the pilot phase of these plans had been evaluated.   I assumed from this statement that there would be some sort of evaluation report of these management plans, which might even say what progress had been made in achieving National Park objectives, and so submitted another information request.  I received this response a month ago:

This  appears to confirm that the pilot was evaluated BUT the information provided  EIR 2017-071 evaluation land management plans Appendix A  consists of extracts of reports given to the National Park’s Delivery Group (which oversees progress against plans) and reference to Board updates.  There is nothing that remotely resembles an evaluation.  The nearest any extract gets to this is one which says “lessons have been learned” but without saying what!

I wrote to the Park’s Director of Conservation last week and asked if an evaluation report existed, yes or no, and so far have not had an answer.  LLTNPA senior staff appear to find such questions, which are about truth, not spin and marketing, difficult to answer.  Meantime, staff appear to have mislead both the Board – not the fault of the current Conservation Director, it was before his time – and the Minister.

Our Public Authorities talk a lot about values but when listing these, I cannot recall “truth” ever being mentioned.  Yet a commitment to truth should arguably underpin everything else our National Parks do.  Unfortunately, as with other Public Authorities, our National Parks have been under pressure to reduce spending while telling the world everything is going wonderfully and they can keep doing better on less.  Its been very hard in these circumstances for Boards to retain a clear eye on the truth.  What starts as spin and omissions, eventually becomes totally detached from reality and ends up a lie – little different to Donald Trump but said more nicely. The claim in the Review of the National Park Partnership Plan to have evaluated the land management plans pilots – exactly what the LLTNPA should have been doing by the way – is just one example.

While I can understand how things might have gone wrong in this way – I have been there myself – this is no longer about isolated instances (the Review Report for Ministers on the Camping Byelaws (see here) is a case in point).    I am not sure how far Board Members appreciate this – there is far too little questioning of senior staff – or how the LLTNPA is losing its reputation for probity, but they need to start putting truth and facts back at the centre of everything the LLTNPA does.

Meantime, the Information Response does reveal the names of the handful of landholdings with whom  Land Management Plans were agreed, Portnellan, Benmore Farm, Loch Dochart and Inverlochlarig (which form a geographical block) bloand that a contractor was appointed to provide them with advice on renewables.  That raises some interesting questions about what advice the LLTNPA was giving on the landscape impact of hydro tracks – which it acknowledged at the last Board Meeting was an issue – and is even more reason the information in the land management plans should be made public.

December 12, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
This photo has been used to illustrate what the Park thinks protecting landscape, wildness and tranquillity is all about. What a disaster!  And more of the same is promised!    In my view any National Park worth its salt would have insisted this section of A82 upgrade, replacing the old single road at the traffic traffic lights, should have been tunnelled through the hillside to come out behind pulpit rock. To add human  insult to the injury inflicted on the natural environment, there is no path alongside the road and no safe place for cars of people who want to visit pulpit rock. to pull off and park.

The National Park Partnership Plan is supposed to be the most important document governing what happens in our National Park, setting out not just what our National Park Authorities do but also the commitments made by their partners, from public authorities to private landowners.  It was considered at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board Meeting today, a meeting I missed.  Its one of the democratic deficits in our National Park that if you cannot attend in person, its very hard to find out if there was any debate worth of the name – though the Park, under its new convenor James Stuart, is trying to get minutes and papers for meetings out earlier.

As austerity has bitten further, its become harder and harder however for public authorities to plan for the future and instead the main function of management now appears to be to ensure the books balance whenever the next round of cuts is announced.    Its not particularly surprising, therefore, to find the following judgement in the Strategic Environmental Assessment which accompanied the NPPP being considered by the LLTNPA Board today (see here for all papers):

“a key weakness of the new plan over the old plan is its lack of specific implementation detail”.

The LLTNPA and their Public Authority partners appear reluctant to commit to doing anything in the future.  Five years plans have as a consequence become something of a farce.  Large amounts of consultation and effort – for what?.

While since my posts  on the DRAFT NPPP (see here for example), the LLTNPA has made some improvementsto the plan (e.g there is a commitment to develop a woodland strategy and a target to increase the proportion of people getting to the National Park by other means than cars) if you look past the pretty photos and graphics, there is still no ambition.  The proposed outcomes remain more or less unchanged and are mostly difficult to disagree with, even if the purple prose occasionally overreaches itself and  becomes ridiculous (e.g the Park statement from the cutting above that says it will support projects that enhance opportunities to enjoy landscapes and then cites the works on the Rest and Be Thankful and proposed A82 upgrade as examples of this).  Most of the outcomes however contain no clear commitments to action and are as a consequence vague aspirations rather than outcomes.   It is almost impossible to work out from the Plan what the LLTNPA and their partners actually propose to do.

 

The LLTNPA’s indicators of success

A good sense of this is  given by the LLTNPA’s choice of key performance indicators:

Commentary

  • 2000 hectares of woodland expansion sounds good until you look at the area of the National Park, 1,865 square kilometres or 186,500 hectares.   That’s an increase of just of 1%,  almost all of it already accounted for by work already planned in the Great Trossachs Forest National Nature Reserve.
  • The target to increase the percent of protected nature sites in favourable condition from 76% to 80% is woeful  – here we have a National Park that appears to think its acceptable for protected natura sites to remain in unfavourable condition indefinitely.   This is simply not good enough but tackling this would mean tackling landowners and that is something this National Park won’t do.
  • The commitment to 25% of all new Homes being affordable,  means the LLTNPA wants 95 new affordable homes over the next five years.   Affordable is not the same as social housing.  This target will do almost nothing to help younger people move back into the Park – the LLTNPA is concerned about the ageing population – or enable people working in the tourist industry to obtain somewhere secure to live.
  • The target to increase the proportion of the public reporting a good quality experience is vague and meaningless.  Elsewhere the Park talks about the importance of SMART targets and then doesn’t include them in its plan.
  • The number of young people the LLTNPA wish to have an outdoor learning experience in the National Park, 2500, is truly pathetic (think 1.5m people  living Clyde Conurbation, that’s about 1% of school age children.  When I was on the Board of SNH in the discussions leading up to the creation of the National Park the aspiration was for EVERY school age child in the Glasgow conurbation to have an outdoor learning experience in the National Park.

And so on…………………………..

 

An alternative vision

I believe its time to call for end to this type of meaningless plan and to start developing alternatives.   Below are some ideas which could  be the starting point for an alternative vision to inspire people and give hope for the future:

  • Wildlife.  Re-introduce beavers (if they don’t make their own way from Tayside as appears increasingly likely) and develop ways to enable the public enjoy their presence (video links etc). When Michael Gove, no less, this week announced the re-introduction of beavers into the Forest of Dean, why cannot Scotland’s National Parks’ do the same?  After this, look at Lynx.
  • Wildlife. End persecution of native species, such as foxes and crows, so the National Park starts to live up to its name and the wildlife that exists is not limited to what landowners tolerate.  Enforce cross compliance between provision of public subsidies for land use and species protection.
  • Conservation.   Shift forest practice in the Argyll Forest Park from being primarily industrial, with the disastrous consequences that has – e.g all the larch are dying from pythopthera ramorum –  to being conservation based.  Get rid of the monolithic sitka plantations and replace with maixed woodland which would enhance the landscape, help wildlife and provide more local jobs.
  • Landscape enhancement.  Develop a plan to address existing blots on the landscape, including burial of existing powerlines and removing  tracks to hydro schemes.  New roads and road improvements should be tunnelled (as happens commonly in Europe).
  • Wild Land and re-wilding.   Stop developments in Wild Land Areas (Cononish gold mine) and   re-wild the area south of Ben Lui and Ben Oss, the largest area of core wild land in the National Park, by burial and removal of hydro electric infrastructure.
  • Land Ownership.  Identify all landowners in the National Park and analyse where the benefits of landownership are currently going (eg imuch ncome from many hydro schemes which the public pays for ends up in the city) and from this develop plans how land-based income streams could be re-invested in the land.
  • Land-ownership and community right to buy.  Where benefits of landownership are not being reinvested in the National Park and local communities, encourage local community buy outs/assets transfers.
  • Sustainable economic development.   Develop proposals for alternative forms of land-use which are compatible with the statutory objectives of the National Park (e.g the type of Forest initiatives promoted by Reforesting Scotland and which are conspicuously absent from the National Park.)    Stop developments, like Flamingo Land, which are not.
  • Outdoor recreation. Support/facilitate the creation of permanent jobs which support the right of people to enjoy the National Park (e.g in path construction and maintenance, pier maintenance etc).
  • Outdoor recreation and visitor management.  Focus on provision of facilities and services (including far better public transport) rather than on behaviour management.  Allow the camping byelaws to lapse at the end of the three years with the focus of camping management zones becoming the provision of infrastructure rather than trying to control people
  • Culture and history.  Promote the history and culture of the area as well as viewpoints.  For example, new cultural and history centres could be created at places like Balloch and Tyndrum, while far more attention could be given to raising awareness of the many historic sites in the National Park.
  • Re-open outdoor centres to enable the children and young people of the west of Scotland to experience something of the National Park while still at school.

Lot’s more is possible!

And in response to the argument that there is no money to do this, create it!   When Edinburgh is now seriously trying to promote a tourism tax to fund infrastructure there, why are our National Parks so far behind?   According to the National Park Plan Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is now a world class tourism destination……………so get those tourists to contribute something!  The Park has in effect taxed campers – most of whom are from the the poorest sections of society – £3 for the right to put up a tent in a grotty area, so why not  those staying in other accommodation?  The National Park should also be supporting the creation of a rural investment bank that could provide money for community buyouts and help finance new forms of economic development.

The LLTNPA’s Boards approval of a 5 Year Partnership Plan should not prevent ideas such as these from happening.  The Plan is so vague that most of the suggestions here could go ahead, if there was the will.   With our current governmental structures  imploding under neo-liberal ideology and austerity there is an opportunity for change and people need to start developing alternatives.

December 9, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Map of Flamingo Land proposal showing Drumkinnon Woods

This post takes a look at the current Flamingo Land proposal for the riverside site (reddish area above) against the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority’s policy for the area, as set out in various plans.   This reveals several shifts in policy in the last year.

The National Park Development Plan, approved by the Scottish Government earlier this year, included this map for Balloch.  NO development was envisaged for Drumkinnon Woods.  The Flamingo Land proposal for woodland walkways and holiday lodges in those woods is therefore contrary to the Development Plan.

Why are Flamingo Land therefore proposing to develop Drumkinnon Woods?   Well, they know the Loch Lomond and National Park Authority is under significant pressure from the Scottish Government to ensure development of the Riverside Site and certain other sites in the National Park to promote economic development.  That pressure was reflected in the DRAFT National Park Partnership Plan which contained this commitment:

The word “Delivery” is very strong and meant the LLTNPA was committing itself to complete developments in Balloch within the next five years.  It put Flamingo Land in a very strong position because, if they threatened to walk away, the LLTNPA would miss its target with all the repercussions that would have for its relationship with the Scottish Government.  It was an invitation to Flamingo Land to ignore the Development Plan.

It was a pleasant surprise therefore to see this in te revised National Park Partnership Plan to be considered by Board Members on Monday:

 

Instead of delivering key sites, the Plan now says the LLTNPA  will “support” developments.  What’s more the extract for Balloch (left) places the focus on the vision developed in the charrette (a community developed plan) and that again only proposed development for part of the Riverside site (see below).

Now the change of wording may only be because, having sat on the interview panel which selected Flamingo Land as the preferred developer, the LLTNPA might be open to legal challenge if it explicitly committed to delivering a development on the Riverside Site. It does however create the possibility for alternative plans to be developed.   A small positive step in the right direction.

The Charrette vision looks very different to Flamingo Land’s current proposal

Critics of the Flamingo Land proposals however need to appreciate that the LLTNPA has a history of fitting policy to developments (ignoring policy on wild land, landscape, nature designations to allow developments to go ahead) rather than ensuring developments fit with policy and planning objectives.   The challenge at Riverside is to ensure the LLTNPA sticks to its policy and statutory objectives.

December 7, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority will, at its Board Meeting on Monday, consider an “Update Report” for Scottish Ministers on the operation of the camping byelaws in their first year.  There is a cover paper (see here), the Report for Ministers (see here) and appendices (see here).  The basic line the Park has taken is they are only providing an “operational update” and its too early to evaluate the byelaws:

I disagree.  It is not too early to clearly state what has been really happening and the Board has a duty to ensure that Scottish Minister are properly informed and are fully aware of the major flaws in the camping byelaws.    This post considers the facts and issues which have been omitted from the report but starts with a critical look at some of the content, particularly that which casts new light on the people who have been affected.

The camping byelaws,  east Loch Lomond and the West Highland Way

The report to Board Members starts with a lie and an attempt to re-write history:

The lie is that the East Loch Lomond byelaws were introduced to tackle “over-use”:  there is not a single mention of overuse in the Review of the east Loch Lomond byelaws submitted to Ministers in 2014 Review ELL byelaws.   The reason is the ELL byelaws were introduced as part of a package of measures to tackle anti-social behaviour.  These included the creation of a clearway between Balmaha and Rowardennan, byelaws banning alcohol and targetted policing and the byelaws were intended to be temporary.  The LLTNPA has never produced any  evidence to prove that it was the camping byelaws, rather than the other measures, which stopped people going for drinking parties on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond but, as soon as the clearway between Balmaha and Rowardennan made parking impossible, the parties became a thing of the past.  The camping byelaws could have been safely revoked but instead the LLTNPA has redefined their purpose as being about controlling numbers who camp.

90% average occupancy for camping places, given wind, rain and midges is extraordinarily high and indicates that at many times demand exceeds capacity and there is nowhere lawful for people to camp

The Update Report shows that “occupancy” rates of the permit areas on east Loch Lomond are far far higher than elsewhere in the National Park.  This is due of course to the West Highland Way, which attracts many backpackers each year, who, when they get past Drymen suddenly find their legal options for camping are severely restricted.  WHW walkers never did any harm but, like other responsible campers, have been victimised by the byelaws and now have insufficient places to camp.  The Board report brushes all this under the carpet and contains no plans to address the deficit in camping capacity or to ask WHW walkers what they think.

 

The camping byelaws and tourism

Fuller analysis of the permit data would, I suspect, show that many WHW walkers come from abroad.  16% or c1000 of the 6,129 permit booking were made by visitors from abroad and 24% by visitors from the rest of the UK.

 

What the camping permit data provides evidence of for the first time is that a high proportion of people who want to camp on the loch shores are tourists.  This has wide implications both about the message from the Park – “there are far too many campers” – which is disastrous for tourism, and for the provision of facilities.   Instead of committing to Ministers to take a proper look at this, the Update Report does a body swerve and avoids the issues.

The camping byelaws and social exclusion

The most interesting data about permits, however, is about where people had come from in Scotland.  Unsurprisingly, it shows most people come from the Glasgow conurbation, but also that:

This provides evidence, in the form of data, of what everyone with an interest in camping in the National Park has long known, that the majority of people who camp by the loch shores have lower than average incomes or, to put it another way, are working class folk from the West of Scotland.  The implication is that when the LLTNPA claims the byelaws are needed to reduce the number of campers, it is in effect saying that too many working class people from the Clyde Conurbation have been coming out to the National Park to enjoy a night out under the stars.  The LLTNPA has never looked at alternative provision for poorer people and as a result the byelaws are deeply discriminatory and socially exclusive.  We should now be able to work out the extent of that adverse impact.

The inclusion of this data was at the suggestion of the stakeholder forum and while I am delighted the Park has done the analysis in this case, it should have been far more such work and reporting to the Scottish Government on the implications.  In my view, there is now sufficient evidence for Ministers to  consider an independent Equality Impact Assessment into the effect and operation of the camping byelaws.

 

Omissions from the Update Report to Ministers

The report contains the usual parkspin and speak (one of the co-authors is head of marketing) and glosses over all the difficulties of the first season of the camping byelaws.  This is best illustrated by what has been omitted from the Report.

1). Number of campers affected

There is no data provided or comparison made between numbers camping in the areas covered by the camping management zones before the byelaws came into effect and subsequently.  The LLTNPA has lots of data on this but has failed to provide it or to undertake any analysis despite its senior staff now consistently claiming that the purpose of the byelaws is to reduce the number of campers.   What is it that the LLTNPA senior staff do not want the Minister or the public to know about something it claims is so fundamental?

My suspicion is that in part this is because this data would show that the byelaws have impacted most on poorer people and their ability to enjoy the outdoors, with all the benefits that has for physical health and mental well-being, but I suspect it would open other cans of worms.

2) Numbers camping or campervanning with a permit

There has been no attempt to compare the number of people who have applied for permits, and thus are camping lawfully, with those who have not.  Anyone who has visited the management zones will know that considerable numbers of people have continued to camp outwith permit area and the enforcement statistics give some indication of the scale: The 828 people given warnings are likely to be mostly campers because the byelaws were never enforced against caravans and were found to be unenforceable against campervans.   This number excludes campers whose names were not taken by Rangers – one can assume the more sensible Rangers just asked people to move on without taking personal details – and those who were never caught.   We also know that despite the intensive Ranger Patrols less than half of people who camped with permits saw a Ranger:

 

 

Applying these considerations to the data, suggests that a reasonable estimate of the minimum number of  tents pitched without a permit would be over 2000 (compared to 4914 that had permits) and the total may have been very much more.   A clear estimate of the people unaware or ignoring the byelaws is fundamental to any evaluation of their effectiveness and a clear methodology for doing this should have been presented to the Board now: it cannot wait till three years time.

3) Cost Benefit Analysis

The Report fails to say anything about the costs of implementing and enforcing the byelaws despite some of this information being available in the financial reports which will also be presented to the Board on Monday.  The LLTNPA has never done a cost benefit analysis and more specifically whether instead of devoting resources to policing campers it might not be more effective to provide basic infrastructure and facilities.

4) The implications of holding personal data

The LLTNPA now holds personal data on the 828 people it warned for breaching the byelaws but has said nothing about what they are doing with this data (e.g are they sharing it with the police for enforcement processes) or the civil liberty implications (how long are personal details kept on the list and for what purposes).  The Board should have considered this – and I have previously criticised them for their failure to do so – when they were considering enforcement procedures for the camping bye-laws.

5) Enforcement and campervans

The only mention the Report makes of the effective collapse of the byelaws in respect of campervans is this:

Part of the justification for the camping byelaws was to control the numbers of campervans which the LLTNPA claimed were swamping the National Park and encampments of caravans which blocked laybys for months and were a major concern to local communities.  However, all this unravelled in part because Park staff, without approval from either Board or Minister, changed the wording of the byelaws so private roads were included in the exemption which allowed motor vehicles to stop off overnight.   This in effect allowed caravans and campervans to stop off overnight anywhere on the roadsides in camping management zones and totally undermined the byelaws.    The Update Report is silent on this fiasco and fails to discuss the implications which includes the fact it cannot legally charge campervans to stop on roads.  That is why its only commitment in respect of motorhomes is worded as follows:

6) Outcome of Enforcement

The report is silent about what has happened in the 10 cases referred to the Procurator Fiscal.  The outcome of those cases is likely to say something about the fairness and enforceability of the byelaws, which is again something which should be reported to Ministers.

7) Permit feedback and Complaints

Following my post (see here) questioning the positive feedback the LLTNPA had claimed to receive about the permit system, I requested the data behind that and also on complaints made about the byelaws.   Neither are included in the Update Report – I am due to receive that information this week, under FOI, too late to analyse before the Board Meeting.  Since my original post though two complaints, which the Park had failed to answer, have been featured on parkswatch (see here) and there is a question about how many more complaints have been made received but not recorded.

There is a wider issue about how the LLTNPA records other criticisms.  The feedback I have had is the November stakeholder meeting on the camping byelaws was poorly attended.  The reason I believe is that attending such events i pointless as long as staff continue to cover-up anything that contradicts their narrative that the byelaws have been well received.

8) Impact on organised groups

The Update Report says 12 exceptions were granted to groups to camp outwith permits areas (for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions etc) but no comparison is made with the numbers of organised groups previously camping in these areas.   If the LLTNPA asked the Scouts, DofE etc,I believe they would find that their bureaucracy has driven people away and hard-pressed teachers etc simply don’t have time to go through the process, which incidentally destroys any flexibility to change plans according to weather conditions etc.  These groups have been driven out of the National Park.

9) Camping provision

In order to allow the byelaws to go ahead, the LLTNPA committed to Ministers to provide 300 new camping places (although the 300 included the existing campsites at Sallochy and Loch Lubnaig).  The Update Report is written in a way to suggest that that commitment was met:

While I am still awaiting the data behind this claim, having 300 places available online is not the same as 300 places being available on the ground.  Regular readers will know that some of the camping permit areas are uncampable (and some since abandoned) and others have been unusable at times (for example when under water).   There are strong reasons to doubt therefore that the Park’s commitment has been met in practice.  There is evidence for this in the Report:

That additional places are being recommended because at times existing places have been unusable confirms there has been a shortfall, while:

confirms that some of the permit areas on Forest Drive were unusable.  The Update Paper avoids an open discussion of the implications of this and whether the LLTNPA really did meet its commitment.  I am pretty certain the answer is “no”.  More importantly, however, looking forward the LLTNPA promised to Ministers to increase the number of places it provided after the first year.  The Report contains NO evaluation of how many such places might be required or sustainable and the only commitment the LLTNPA has made to improved camping provision is the 15 place new campsite at Loch Achray.

There is no update on plans for other which might help reduce the impact of not just campers but all visitors whether this is provision of litter bins, toilets or chemical disposal points.   In effect the Update Report suggests the LLTNPA’s Camping Development Strategy has collapsed.

 

What needs to happen

Leading on from the first two bullets in para 7.3 quoted above, the Update Report lists the following further areas for “improvement”:

These areas clearly link to some of the issues raised in this post but which are not being properly reported to Ministers.    The lack of any firm commitments is not in my view accidental.

I would love to think the LLTNPA Board on Monday would send the Senior Management Team back to work on the issues raised here and come up with a concrete set of proposals for Ministers, but I suspect that won’t happen.  To do so would require the Board to admit to Ministers the flaws in the byelaws and that the previous Board might have got it badly wrong.

Part of what might be needed therefore is an alternative report to Ministers about the efficacy and implications of the byelaws.  This would be based on data and other evidence missing from the LLTNPA report and should  make recommendations as to what should happen.

More important than this however is that politicians, particularly in the west of Scotland, need to start speaking out for their constituents and to criticise the failure of the National Park to fulfil its statutory objective to promote public enjoyment of the outdoors.  The discriminatory impact of the camping byelaws on poorer people, with all the consequences that has for their physical health and mental well-being, should be a political issue.  Whlle the Scottish Government claims it is trying to reduce health and educational inequalities, it has allowed to LLTNPA to devote considerable resources to achieving the opposite.    That needs to stop and the National Park needs to change course and do what it was set up to do, which was to enable people to enjoy the great outdoors on their doorstep.

December 6, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Ref: NOV302727
Notice Type: 02 Contract Notice
Title: Review of Cairngorm Ski Area Uplift Infrastructure
Published: 30/11/2017
Published by: Highlands and Islands Enterprise
Deadline: 10/01/2018
Full Text: http://www.publiccontractsscotland.gov.uk/search/show/Search_View.aspx?id=NOV302727

(Notice issued by Scotland Contracts Portal)

On Friday 30th November, following the public row about their removal of old ski infrastructure from Coire na Ciste which forced the Government Minister Fergus Ewing to get involved (see here),  Highlands and Islands Enterprise issued a tender on the Scotland Contracts Portal for a “Review of Cairngorm Ski Area Uplift Infrastructure” with an allocated budget of £75-80k.

In one sense this is welcome and not before time, the obvious question being why did HIE not commission this review BEFORE removing any of the lift towers in Coire na Ciste?  The Coire na Ciste group has long argued that winter activities are crucial to Cairngorm while concerns about the neglect of winter sports by Natural Retreats has helped prompt the creation of the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust.  This post considers how the commissioning of this study relates to Natural Retreats’ disastrous management of Cairngorm and the proposed bid by the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust to takeover the Cairngorm Estate from HIE.

 

The implications of Natural Retreats change of ownership

First though a crucial piece of information about the reason for Natural Retreats UK’s change of name (see here) to the UK Great Travel Company Ltd which comes from the tender documents:

In June 2014, following a public tender process to find a new operator for Cairngorm Mountain, HIE sold its shares in the operating company, CML, to Natural Assets Investments Ltd. CML is now operated by a Natural Assets subsidiary, UK Great Travel Company Ltd. CML was granted a 25-year lease (running to 2039) and entered into an operating agreement with HIE. The assets leased from HIE comprise the funicular railway and other ski-tow infrastructure, all buildings, car parks and service infrastructure. CML, as Tenant, is responsible for maintenance of all the facilities.

Natural Retreats UK had been owned by Natural Retreats LLC, based in the notoriously lax tax jurisdiction of Delaware, in the USA.  What appears to have happened is that Natural Retreats UK has now been bought by Natural Assets Investment Ltd (NAIL), the same company that owns Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, and its name changed as a consequence.  There is still nothing about this on the Companies House website which claims that the controlling interest in the UK Great Travel Company Ltd is unknown.  This is despite the fact that according to HIE that controlling interest is NAIL and its ultimate owner therefore is almost certainly David Michael Gorton, the hedge fund manager:

Companies House extract as it appeared 5th December

So now the company that provides services to CML, as well as CML itself, is owned by NAIL.  In December 2016 NAIL had net liabilities of £29,380,827.  Those liabilities are likely to have increased further through the purchase of Natural Retreats.   That has implications for both HIE and Cairngorm – the risk of the whole financial pack of cards collapsing would appear to have increased further.

 

The Review of Ski Infrastructure and Natural Retreats’ plans for Cairngorm

Its worth recalling a few claims from HIE’s news release (see here) on the sale of Cairngorm Mountain to Natural Retreats in 2014:

  • “Natural Retreats are renowned for offering customers and guests high quality tourism based experiences in some of the most dramatic natural locations around the world.”  Comment. Most if not all of those international connections have now gone.  Its now just the UK Great Travel Company.
  • “Natural Retreats are revealing a £6.2m five-year investment plan which will secure the future of the Resort for the next 25 years.”  Comment. And how much of this has been invested to date?
  • “Alex Paterson, Chief Executive at HIE commented: “Natural Retreats has the vision, ambition and experience to enable the resort to fulfil its potential as a world-class visitor destination.Their plans include the further development of snowsports and diversification of the business into a high quality, year-round attraction.”   Comment:  if Natural Retreats had so much expertise and such great plans, just why is HIE needing to spend £80k on a new study of what to do at Cairngorm?

Seen in this context, the commissioning of this Review is in effect an admission from HIE that Natural Retreats have failed to deliver at Cairngorm.    Instead, however, of terminating their lease, HIE is paying for work that Natural Retreats should have done and indeed be doing.   To add insult to injury, the tender documents require the contractor to work closely with Natural Retreats.  So, how independent will this study be?

 

The proposed study will be neither neutral nor “independent”

The tender documentation states the study will be overseen by a steering group comprising HIE, CML/Natural Retreats and the Cairngorm Mountain Trust.   The Cairngorm Mountain Trust was almost defunct until earlier this summer when it was resuscitated, almost certainly at the prompting of HIE, as a tame vehicle to represent the local community and enable “consultation” boxes to be ticked.  Unless things have changed, the CMT have fewer than 40 members, whereas the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust now has almost 400 members all within the PH22 postcode (and that despite staff working at Cairngorm being too scared to sign up in case they lose their jobs).

The Cairngorm Mountain Trust though is not just on the steering group overseeing the work, it has been given the key role among all the stakeholders whom the contractor is required to consult:

“C, In addition to the inception meeting by the end of February, not less than 2 meetings ……………..before submission of the first draft, will be required with The Cairngorm Mountain Trust, a charitable company, who have a historic interest in the Cairngorms and can bring to bear a range of experience and who are going to be on the steering group too.”

By contrast just one meeting is required with the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust who are listed along with various skiing stakeholders both local and national,  Mountaineering Scotland and the North East Mountain Trust.   Other conservation organisations which have taken a keen interest in Cairngorm, such as the Cairngorm Campaign and Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group are omitted.  A truly independent study would be allowed to identify stakeholders and engage with them to the degree of what they have to contribute.  It appears HIE is not going to allow that to happen at Cairngorm.

An alternative approach, which might have supported local people rather than city financiers, would have been for HIE to have commissioned an independent report to explore further (much work has already been done) the viability of the options being proposed by the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust for Cairngorm.  Its significant, I believe, that HIE has chosen NOT to spend its £80k on that.

The scope of the Review and its place in wider plans for Cairngorm

One good thing is the tender shows that HIE at long last acknowledges that the funicular has been a disaster for skiing at Cairngorm:

When there is insufficient snow cover at Coire Cas car park level to allow operation of the lower Coire Cas ski- tows (Fiacaill Ridge, Car Park and Day Lodge ski-tows) the funicular is the only access to the upper mountain. This results in significant operational inefficiencies in running the funicular, notably a reduction in the hourly capacity, due to the need to make mid-station stops, queuing and customer frustration and dis-satisfaction.

Nothing is said in the tender documentation about the current status of HIE and Natural Retreats “agreed masterplan” for Cairngorm which was intended in part to retrieve the disaster created by the funicular.  That “plan”, announced earlier this year (see here), consisted of a proposed dry ski slope and upgrading the Ptarmigan Restaurant (both to be funded by HIE).   Now, you might argue that none of those “masterplan” proposals count as proper ski infrastructure, but the scope of the “Review of Ski Infrastructure” is much broader than its title suggests:

Suggest options for product diversification to enable the resort to become a more attractive year round destination. Information will be provided to the supplier on schemes which have been previously evaluated including an alpine slide, zip wire, “reduced risk” facility and mountain biking trails.

Moreover, the following clause suggests that HIE is at long last considering the development of an overall plan for Cairngorm, as required by the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy agreed with the Cairngorms National Park Authority last year:

It is anticipated that this review will make a very significant contribution towards a 5-10 year long-term strategy for Cairngorm ski area, which will be a separate document produced by CML and HIE and which falls outwith the scope of this review.

Unfortunately, the scope of the clause on the environment in the tender is very weak and makes no mention of evaluating environmental impacts of the options for developing or extending ski infrastructure that might be identified in the Review:

19. Environment – Consider opportunities to actively improve the natural heritage, particularly to improve regrowth of native trees to encourage additional natural retention of snow for winter sports (’natural snow barriers’).

And the tender shows that HIE remains wedded to neo-liberal ideology which holds that the only option to enable development to take place is outsourcing:

36. Comment on the business model that would be required for any proposed changes, outlining the impact on P&L, cash flow and operational requirements; outline the potential return on investment required to support commercial borrowing for redevelopment of Coire na Ciste and the period over which this may be achieved; and the practicality of securing commercial funding for a capital investment of this nature.

Just why HIE is requiring the consultants to look at “commercial” funding when it has been prepared to commit £4 million of non-commercial loans to Natural Retreats is unclear.  Alternative methods of financing are possible but to allow for that would be to allow for a community take-over.

What needs to happen

The first thing HIE needs to do is to correct some of the biases in this supposedly independent Review.   Under the procurement rules public authorities can during the tender process clarify contract requirements and HIE could use this facility to correct some of the biases created by the wording of the tender documents.   For example, the tender is open about whether further interest groups should be consulted and HIE could therefore, if they wish, add the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, Cairngorm Campaign and RSPB Abernethy to the list (as each consultation has a cost) and that could strengthen the role of conservation organisations in the process.  Similarly,  HIE could indicate that because of the size of the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust more meetings with them might be required.

The second thing HIE need to do is clarify publicly how this Review of Ski Infrastructure fits with the other plans floating around Cairngorm.   While the tender says the Review will inform a longer term strategy, it fails completely to say anything about the plans for a dry ski slope where the planning application was withdrawn.  I believe HIE should confirm that these proposals have been shelved until the Review Report has been produced.  If they did that this Review could help pave the way for a proper plan for Cairngorm, as was intended by the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, particularly if HIE was also prepared openly to review the way the environment has been managed at Cairngorm.

December 5, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist

Yesterday’s post on signage in our National Parks that contravenes access rights was published before I had read the Loch Lomond and Trossachs’s National Park’s response to an information request I had made for papers presented to the Local Access Forum this year (I received the response at the end of last week).   The photos above were in the report to the May Local Access Forum (see here) and show there are National Park staff who are keen to do the right thing. Well done them and I don’t want them to think that I was criticising them personally for all the anti-access signs you can find in the Lomond and Trossachs National Park..

 

The shame is that the LLTNPA does not get its large marketing team to publicise such good work – it might discourage other landowners from putting up signs saying “KEEP OUT HIGH VELOCITY RIFLES IN USE” –  while it has sidelined its Local Access Forum.  This post considers the issues which arise from this in a bit more detail.

Addressing access issues

One thing that struck me from the access cases covered in the LAF papers, including the Drumlean Case which went to court (and the paper on this May 17 Appeal Court ruling is excellent), is that all the actions by LLTNPA staff appear to be linked to complaints.  The implication is that unless the public complain, access and other problems are just tolerated.  This is not just an issue for National Parks, as David Lintern’s recent excellent post on Walk Highland points out (see here).  This attitude of “no complaint, no action” may explain, however, why no action has been taken against all the camping signs which have been up for years and are still unlawful under the camping byelaws.

You have a right to camp at Loch Lubnaig outwith the camping byelaw season

Either Park staff, including Rangers, don’t see these and others signs and blockages as access issues or, perhaps more likely, they are not allowed to address them without a complaint being received.  And the explanation for that is likely to be that if staff addressed issues without complaints, the National Park could be seen as being anti-landowner, whereas common sense says that this should be just about access staff doing their job.   Whatever the case, there needs to be a complete change in culture in the National Park so staff are able to proactively take up and address access issues.

When they are allowed to do so the first major problem staff face, as illustrated by the report in the LAF papers about the Auchroach case, is finding out who is responsible:

Extract report January meeting

This is not an isolated example.  In the case of the bright blue car abandoned south of Inverarnan for months(see here),  the LLTNPA claimed they could not take action because they did not know the landowner).  The camping byelaw papers also make it clear the Park sometimes does not even know who owns what bit of loch shore.    The LLTNPA,  after almost 15 years of existence, still does not know who owns significant chunks of land within the National Park.   A matter of public interest and a fundamental issue for land reform as well as one that wastes huge amounts of staff time.   One might have thought their Board would have made representations about this but instead silence or worse (the LLTNPA mad a submission to the Land Reform Review Group, which reviewed the Land Reform Act 2003,  but instead of raising such issues they made a submission  about banning roadside camping across Scotland).

Resolving access issues at present can take years.  I would like to have seen the LLTNPA in its new National Park Partnership Plan set out properly what resources (and changes to the law) are needed to secure and promote access rights in the National Park.   The draft plan going to the Board next Monday does not even mention access problems.   Instead, its contains pious statements saying how the National Park wish to encourage people (excluded groups to to visit) with absolutely awareness that everywhere you go now there are “No” signs.

Secrecy, the Local Access Forum (LAF) and the camping byelaws

The LLTNPA as an access authority has a duty to support the operation of a Local Access Forum and a statutory duty to consult it on access matters.  The LLTNPA closed down its LAF during the time when its Board was meeting in secret to develop camping byelaws (there was one meeting of the LAF a week before the formal consultation was issued by which time all had been decided).  Since the byelaws were agreed by Ministers the LAF has been resuscitated.

The LAF is now listed under the Board Committee section of the LLTNPA website (see here) and was scheduled to meet four times this year (although the website says it usually meets just twice).  Unlike other Board Committees, however, papers for meetings are not published as a matter of course.  By early Autumn this year no minutes for the 3 meetings that had taken place had appeared either, making it impossible to see what the LAF had been doing.  This was not the LAF members responsibility or fault, but the Park’s.

After I raised the matter with Park Senior Management I got this response:

We can confirm that the Local Access Forum met in January, May and August. With regards to the papers being on the website, all minutes are normally published once approved by the Forum. Unfortunately, due to an oversight, this did not happen earlier in the year, this has now been rectified and you will note that links to all minutes from previous years are available. The minutes for August will be published after they have been approved at the December meeting. Your query regarding papers has been passed to the Access team for consideration.

Now I don’t believe it either is, or should be, up to the Access Team to decide if papers to the LAF are published or not (although I suspect if the decision was up to them they would publish as it would help advertise the work they are doing).  The LLTNPA in its Publication Scheme, which was agreed with the Information Commissioner, said it would publish information on how it makes decisions: since the LAF meetings inform what decisions are taken on access, in my view papers to those meetings should be published.  The only way to get them though at present is by making an Information request, which I did.

Unfortunately, while I have obtained the papers, they are still not available on the LAF section of the website.  Nor is there any link under under the Freedom of Information section of the Park website where the LLTNPA publish some responses it has made to information requests:

Screenshot 5th December

The LLTNPA has not published A SINGLE RESPONSE TO AN INFORMATION REQUEST  since March.  By contrast, the Scottish Government has now committed to publishing ALL responses to information requests made to it as a result of cross-party political pressure.  There is NO reason why all our Public Authorities should not be doing the same.  For the record  EIR 2017-075 Response LAF shows there have been at least 75 information requests under the Environmental Information Regulations alone this year, while the screenshot above shows the Park has just published two of these.    The question is why?

My suspicion, based on the content of my information requests, is this is because  a large proportion are about access, including the operation of the camping byelaws.  If the Park published the information, it would undermine its own case that the byelaws have been going well.

The LAF minutes (now on website) and papers Jan 17 Access team update Jan 17 Generic LLTAF YP update May 17 Appeal Court ruling May 17 Access Team Update May 17 Core Paths Plan Review Aug 17 Core Paths Plan ReviewAug 17 CPP Review PaperAug 17 LLTAF CPP slides show that LAF members are trying to raise and address access issues, from car parking charges to access obstructions, even if the operation of the camping byelaws has hardly been covered.

As evidence of the ability of current LAF members to think critically this raised a smile:

Extract from minute (I don’t know PP who is a person called Paul Prescott).   Linda McKay is the previous Board Convener who erected a double height barbed wire fence round her house which has prevented people walking along the lochshore to the dam at Loch Venachar and appears to have been the force behind the byelaws.

 

The challenge LAF members face though is that if little of what they contribute is made public  they are hamstrung, and its very easy for the LLTNPA to sideline them.  A recent example comes from the Information Response I received from the LLTNPA which indicated the December meeting of the LAF has been postponed (which in turn means the minutes of the August meeting are not yet public).   As a consequence the LAF have been given no opportunity to contribute to the review of the first year of the camping byelaws or to offer comments on the implications for access rights of the report to Ministers which is to be discussed by the Board next week.

That Board paper also fails to refer to the LAF:

The review of the operation of the byelaws is being presented as a purely operational matter with no wider implications

It appears that once again the LLTNPA has excluded the LAF, a statutory consultee on access rights, from all consideration of the camping byelaws.  I believe that says it all (though I will post on the Report for Ministers later this week).   Until the LLTNPA connects with its own LAF, every recommendation or action it takes on the camping byelaws is worthless.   Meanwhile, the fact that it is the only Access Authority to have a place on the National Access Forum appears to me to be a national disgrace. (It hasn’t consulted the NAF properly about the implications of the byelaws either)

What needs to happen

Access rights need to be put at the centre of what both our National Parks do.

The LLTNPA appears to have some good staff who can take on and resolve access issues, as demonstrated by the Auchreoch case, but they need to be empowered to do so far more widely.  This will require both resources and a change in culture so that Park staff are able to start acting pro-actively.

The LAF needs to be put at the centre of what the LLTNPA does and should be doing to uphold access rights, instead of being sidelined as appears to be the case at present.  For that to work, the LAF has to be allowed to operate openly, be given resources to publicise what it does and be supported to ensure independent effective links are in place with partner organisations, particularly recreational bodies.

 

Postscript on resources and neoliberalism

I suspect the LLTNPA’s response to my concerns about secrecy covered in this post would be to say my suggestions are all very well but it has not had the resources to make information public.  As evidence for this it might cite its current advert for a one year Information Intern.

Information Intern

The advert shows that person will require a degree and be paid £16320 for a 37 hour week or £9.28 an hour.

Instead of making a coherent case to the Scottish Government about the resources it needs, the main function of the LLTNPA appears to be to manage austerity and join with other organisations in driving wages as low as possible with the excuse that nothing else can be afforded.  If the LLTNPA knew who the landowners in the National Park were and had analysed their wealth they would know this is not true.

December 4, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Welcome to the Moor sign at Strone – when is a welcome not a welcome? When you are asked to keep to the path. CNPA logo bottom right.

In the month or so since my post on grouse moor propaganda and our National Parks (see here), on two further outings I have come across further signs which undermine access rights and are contrary to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  What this illustrates is that such signage is a far from isolated problem and one that should be of public concern given one of the four statutory duties of our two National Parks is to promote public enjoyment of the countryside and that as Access Authorities both have a statutory duty to uphold access rights.   This post considers the issues further and makes some suggestions as to what our National Parks should be doing about this.

Another sign on the gates at Strone – apparently endorsed by the CNPA (logo top right).

 

The walker intending to walk up the Strone track by Newtonmore is faced with no less than four different signs, all saying different things!   The Welcome to the Moor signs recommends people keep to paths and tracks when possible, the large stalking sign recommends say that people can help by keeping to paths between 1st August and 20th October, while another sign (left) asks people to “stick to paths and ridgelines as much as possible”.

So, three contradictory messages – not a good start – but NONE of them reflect what was agreed in the Guidance for Land Managers on signage under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (see here).

 

The SOAC Guidance for Land Managers starts with the statement “Simple, positive signs play an important role in responsible and effective access management”.  Its neither simple nor effective to plaster a gate with lots of conflicting messages but the Cairngorms National Park Authority through endorsing two signs with different access advice has effectively endorsed this complex confusing approach.

None of the messages however are compatible with the SOAC which NOWHERE tells people to keep to the path (see letter to Strathy right).    Rather, its Guidance to Land Managers asks them to focus on informing walkers and other visitors about where estate management/shooting is taking place:

“Requests to avoid particular areas should
relate to specific days as indicated in the
Access Code. “

Requests and recommendations to people to keep to paths or tracks effectively undermine this as they are suggesting that it is better for people to keep out of vast areas of the countryside at ALL times.

In relation to stalking (there is no specific guidance for grouse moor management) the Code goes on to say:

 

“Requests should apply to the minimum necessary area. This will normally be the corrie or corries in which stalking is taking place, with the presumption that access can continue along adjacent ridges. If at all possible, the specified area should not include popular paths through glens or to major summits, such as the routes identified in the SMC guides to the Munros and Corbetts…………Conversely, signs which effectively prevent access to major summits (ie. Munros or Corbetts), or make general requests to avoid high ground, are not appropriate”.

 

The logic also applies to moorland.  Signs which tell people to avoid stepping onto moorland by keeping to paths or tracks are appropriate.

What the SOAC Guidance goes on to say is that where an estate is unable to provide specific information on where stalking is taking place, signs need to offer a number of option not all of which are about keeping to paths:

“Signs of this type could, for example, indicate to hillwalkers that “when stalking is taking place, you can help by:

  • using paths;
  • following ridges, and;
  • following the main watercourse if you have to go through a corrie.”

One of the Strone signs half uses this guidance by referring to paths and ridgelines (not corries) but goes beyond it by asking people to “stick” to these routes.

So what happens when the path and ridge ends?   Access rights do not terminate at the end or even the side of the path or track.   The CNPA really needs to step in, sort this muddle out and ensure access signage in the National Park reflects what SOAC says..

Sign just beyond one of the railway underpasses south of Ardlui featured in walking guides to Ben Vorlich

The signs in the Cairngorms National Park however are nothing as compared to those in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, a number of which have been featured on parkswatch (see here for example) and most of which have to the best of my knowledge not been removed despite being reported.    I came across another such sign yesterday.  The first underpass south of the Ardlui station says the next underpass should be used to access Ben Vorlich (sorry no photo of that sign) but when you get through that underpass you are greeted by the photo above.   This type of signage was supposed to be abolished by the Land Reform Act (and I am only surprised that no-one has ripped it down – I would have done if I had not wanted to feature it here!).

The sign is not an isolated mistake, above is the sign a friend and I came across on our return having walked down the fine bumpy ridge north east of Little Hills.   I wonder if the National Park paid for the wooden access pointer sign and what they think about walkers now being told to keep out?   The landowner has completely ignored access rights and the worrying thing is they appear to believe they can get away with it.  (I will report these signs to the LLTNPA and ask them to ensure they are removed).

 

What needs to happen

Initially, the Land Reform Legislation had a very positive impact and a number of long-standing access issues (e.g. the barbed wire covered locked gate at the bridge over the River Etive and many anti-access signs were removed).  However, what has since happened is that many access officer posts have been cut under austerity – so fewer and fewer people are being paid to uphold access rights – while landowners and our public agencies have started to ignore the legislation.  There is a real risk now that access rights are undermined which is why I believe its particularly important our National Parks get it right.

I don’t believe that people visiting the countryside should tolerate signage that abuses rights and believe that,  in the absence of effective action from our access authorities, people should consider taking direct action.   Markers pens and tippex would be a start!

Our two National Park Authorities, however,  need to make an explicit commitment to address these issues.  I would like to see the LLTNPA in their new National Park Partnership Plan due to be discussed by their Board next Monday setting a target that NO signs contrary to the Land Reform Act should be evident in the National Park in two years time.  That would focus staff on getting these signs removed instead of the current dithering.

Both our National Park also claim to be trying to agree estate management plans with landowners.  An explicit part of every such plan should be access signage.  Far better than an estate puts up no signs at all – as appears to be the case at Glen Feshie – than they are allowed to put up signage that undermines access rights.

There is no mention of access at all in this sign the only one I saw in a 20 mile round of Glen Tromie looking at tracks

I have in the last month visited Glen Feshie estate twice and so far not seen a single access sign.  People might ask how do you know you are welcome there?  Having talked to Thomas McDonnell, the Conservation Manager there, I know people are welcomed by the estate and he wants to promote access.  The attitudes of the estate are, however, as I think Thomas would acknowledge, irrelevant.  You, I or anyone else has a statutory right of access to land in Scotland and I think most hillwalkers know this.  They simply ignore unlawful signs.  The problem is for the uninformed visitor who does not know their rights who comes across a sign which may start by saying “welcome” but whose content is then all about “NO” or which explicitly tries to tell people to keep out.   Better there are no signs than signs like that.

December 3, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Flamingo Land is proposing more buildings the height of the Drumkinnon Tower along the shoreline at Balloch and to develop Drumkinnon Woods behind

There has been a lot of community activity in Balloch since Scottish Enterprise announced Flamingo Land had been appointed developer for the Riverside Site.  You can follow this activity and thinking through a number of Facebook Groups including “Balloch Responds”, “Friends of Drumkinnon Woods” and “Alternative Balloch – A Productive United Village”.

Recently people have been using these pages to articulate alternative visions for the future, complex arguments rather than social media soundbites.  To me, this is incredibly exciting.    While much of the thinking is not explicitly about National Parks as such and its focus more about an alternative vision for the area, the relationship between people and the natural environment is central to it.  As such it is helping to develop an alternative vision for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which should be of interest to anyone who is interested in the future of our National Parks. .

Bruce Biddulph on Balloch and Tourism

Below is what Bruce Biddulph, who contributed a post on Drumkinnon Woods in the summer (see here), wrote on the “Alternative Balloch FB page” on 22nd November.  It is published with his permission.

“Here is, I believe, a fair summary of what is missing in Balloch, certainly from a visitor point of view:

History: Visitor’s receive practically no idea of Balloch’s history. In fact, none. Even although Balloch sits at the centre of Scotland’s entire history, and has a wealth of historic world class interests in this regard, little is evident to them, and it is not capitalised on. This is an area that is ripe for exploitation – and there is nothing wrong with exploiting that resource for a market value – tourists expect it.

Local Produce and Provision: Sadly Balloch’s stock has gone down over the past few decades.  More and more provision is ‘standard’. Its two hotels and the new inn are now part of groups. there is only one boatyard in the village and no sense of Balloch as an open harbour, which is perplexing to the visitor who sees the river filled with boats but no engagement for them. The supermarket dominates to the extent it has now taken in footfall and has not spread the benefits, worsened by its taking of the post office into its back wall.

Tourist mementos: Lacking. One high end gift shop. Lack of truly Balloch branded stock elsewhere. No “Scottishness” as expected by the visitor. Little in the way for the day tripper to take away or find curiousity about. Linked to lack of historical interest in village’s wider realm.

Accommodation: There may be issues with accommodation but from what I have heard it is that it is a struggle for B&B owners most the of the year Easily addressed if Balloch is made more attractive and has seasonal events created by its community of residents and businesses in co-operation with each other.

All of the above is easily achieved with no great masterplan required. Scotland has many government agencies tasked with assisting communities to grow organically and to be more sustainably productive. The missing ingredient in this is people coming forward as a community to demand their rights as a community to being enabled.

Balloch’s prime disadvantage is Lomond Shores itself. It brings people into Balloch by car, but not to Balloch village itself. Therefore people going to Lomond Shores tend largely not to go any further than the retail area and leave via their cars by the same route. There is no meaningful through route or encouragement to do so. This is why Riverside and Pier Road could have been used as extensions of Balloch village.

There is so much that is positive about Balloch it makes it the envy of all other places in the Loch Lomond area. The lack in Balloch is the community of residents and businesses working together for the common good and for the fostering of other businesses Balloch requires. The above does not even bring into the equation the sheer numbers of related business scattered in its environs and the Vale of Leven that could be accommodated in a linked up and sensitively created expansion of Balloch’s thoroughfares that enhance the village and riverside and protect its beauty and its open access to all. Alongside public realm that has at its heart the spirit of honest  provision for local and tourist alike. Balloch’s success lies in its fusion of free space, its location, and its history of largely providing what visitors want and expect. That provision is going down, its diversity is becoming threatened by homogenisation and the proposal from Flamingoland does nothing to address the main opportunities nor does it do anything whatsoever to grow a future in the hands of Balloch and Balloch-born businesses.

Friends of Drumkinnon Woods

I have not asked to republish this so have just included the link:

The Economics of Free Wild SpacesIt's a sad reflection of our times that to make a case for almost anything now,…

Posted by Friends of Drumkinnon Woods on Tuesday, November 28, 2017

 

Imagine the potential if our Public Agencies, instead of supporting large businesses, started to support local people and local businesses to develop proposals for the Riverside site based on the Park’s statutory objectives of conservation, public enjoyment, sustainable economic development and sustainable use of resources.

December 2, 2017 Nick Kempe 7 comments
The most obvious changes to the application is that the proposed sites for three pitches have been moved

Following my post on the proposed loch achray campsite, which received some well-informed comments from readers, further documents relating to the application have been uploaded to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Planning portal (see here).  The papers for the December LLTNPA Board Meeting confirm that Loch Achray is the ONLY “new” campsite development being worked on for next year.  This post considers what all this tells us about the coherence of the Park’s camping strategy which was supposed to be delivered in tandem with the camping byelaws.

The main flaws in the proposed Loch Achray campsite

My main criticism of the original application was that it included no chemical waste disposal facility – a no-brainer one might have thought when the LLTNPA and Forest Enterprise and trying to promote Forest Drive as a paying campervan destination.  Unfortunately, this has not changed and is, in my view, a fundamental omission.

Chemical disposal points do not cost much (see above) where other sewerage provision is being planned as at Loch Achray but this appears off the Park’s radar.  Its well past time that the Park started putting in place proper facilities for campervanners who do not want to stay in registered caravan sites.

The more recent planning documents for Loch Achray raise a further concern, that the LLTNPA is proposing to create ARTIFICIAL camping pitches.   In one place the papers refer to:

Camping on bark is horrible and describing it as traditional is simply “parkspeak”.  However, it appears that the current proposal is for rubber pitches on raised sand beds:

Diagram showing rubber mats held down by pins over 150mm of compacted free draining sand with a vegetated embankment round the edge to hold the sand in place

No-one from the Park appears to have asked any campers whether they like camping on artificial mats – although I guess if people were asked they might suggest their use on some of the sloping pebble beaches which the Park has designated as camping permit areas!

The grassy area east of the burn

Just why the National Park is wanting to create 9 artificial places on this beautiful grassy area where people have been camping for over 30 years is not explained.

The creation of fixed pitches here is control freakery. It appears the Park  cannot bear the thought of people being able to choose where they camp, picking a suitable spot according to the conditions.  This is contrary to the spirit of freedom to roam.   While the Park has said it wishes to develop basic campsites that promote the wild camping experience, paradoxically it appears it cannot abide anything basic and feels compelled to adopt suburban solutions for a National Park whose fundamental purpose is to enable people to enjoy nature.

While some work might be required to create the 3 camping pitches on the west side of the burn, where the land is boggy and overgrown, this could be done without rubber matting.  NO artificial pitches are needed in the largest camping area on the east side of burn.

The Park is once again, just as at Loch Chon, destroying  vegetation through the creation of formal camping pitches.  At the same time in their report to the December Board staff claim they are trying to measure vegetation recovery in places where people used to camp in order to evaluate the success of the camping byelaws.  The Park appear blind to their own hypocrisy.

The Park’s concession to wildness is that instead of creating artificial paths over the grassy area, they are prepared to let this happen naturally (see left).   There has been camping at Loch Achray for 30 years without paths developing here so why they should do so now is unclear.

Other concerns about the Loch Achray campsite

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency have objected to the planning application because of the risk of flooding.    I did wonder briefly if theartificial pitches were a response to SEPA’s objection   but there is no mention of this in the lengthy justification the Park has commissioned (two large to upload here).   I do feel sympathy for the Park about this.   Readers had pointed out the Loch Achray site was under water at the beginning of October but the report confirms this was caused by the opening of the Loch Katrine sluice gates, a rare event and manageable.  While Scottish Planning policy is to avoid placing any developments on flood plains, this campsite is supposed to provide a wild camping experience.  What’s more none of the infrastructure, apart from the artificial pitches, is located on the area that floods.  Still the Park is now having to install a paraphernalia of flood guages and warning signs to get this through the planning system.  It could have avoided many of these difficulties if the Guidance on Visitor Experience which its Planning Committee approved earlier in the week had addressed these issues (I will come back to this but it failed to do so).

The Park also now appears to be proposing the campsite is staffed 10 hours a day:

 

 

This is madness which appears driven by the need to get SEPA to withdraw their objection.  The Loch Achray site is actually much better and safer for camping than some of the camping permit areas created by the Park which are regularly underwater and unusable (e.g the beaches at Firkin Point).  The difference though is the permit areas never required planning permission.  More hyprocrisy from the LlTNPA and other agencies.  Should SEPA not have been objecting to many of the permit areas because of their flood risk?

The cost implications of this staffing are signficant.   10 hours at even £10 per hour (minimum wage plus on costs) is £100 a day.   17 places are planning and lets  the campsite does twice as well as Loch Chon, which was always too big and is more remote and whose occupancy is as follows:

Extract from report to December Board Meeting

So, 44% occupancy – call it 8 places at £7 a night.  That is £56 income.  So, if staff are here 10 hours a day that is going to leave a minimum net cost to the Park of £44 each day (setting aside all the other running costs, from power supply to vehicles for the staff concerned).  In reality it will probably be far far more than this and for what?   What the Park have not yet appreciated, because they have never done a proper cost benefit analysis of any of the Your Park proposals,  is that it would be far better use of resources to let campers supervise themselves and just service facilities (whether toilets or bins) than it is to try and police campers (which should be a matter for the police).

The response to SEPA also raises questions about when this campsite will be open:

This makes it sound as though, just like Firkin Point, the Park  toilets won’t be available for use at the start of the camping byelaw season on 1st March.  Its also unclear whether the statement that the tourist season runs till October means the campsite will close on 30th September, as Loch Chon did this year, or at the end of October.  In my view ALL the Park’s facilities such as toilets should be open year round.

To end this consideration of the Loch Achray campsite planning application on a positive note, one excellent document has been added to the Park’s planning portal: a “soft landscape” specification (see here) for revegetating and planting trees in the area around the carpark.  This was from a Sarah Barron, whom I assume is the Park’s ecologist.  Its very detailed, leaves nothing to chance and sets the sort of standard the Park should be applying to this sort of work everywhere – hydro schemes come to mind.    The Park has some excellent knowledgeable staff, the problem is that best use is not being made of their expertise.

 

What needs to happen

The concerns described here  about the design and opening times of the Loch Achray campsite could easily be sorted out if the LLTNPA had the will and consulted properly with recreational interests instead of thinking it knows best.   Given their general reluctance to do this I hope people will object to the application, the main things to object to being the lack of a chemical disposal point and the proposal to create artificial camping places.

My greatest concern however is that this is the only concrete proposal for a new camping facility in the National Park in the next year.  Now, I know that austerity is really biting but if its budget custs which are preventing the Park from doing more they should be saying this loud and clear.  They promised delivery of new camping infrastructure as part of the Your Park plan and so far have delivered very little.   There are lots of small things the Park could do, for a lot less cost than the Loch Achray Campsite, which would make a real difference.

December 1, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Its now two years since the Bruar hydro scheme opened and yet these broken sections of pipe and wrecked container have still not been removed from the glen

After my visit a few weeks ago to Glen Bruar and my post on the restoration work on the pipeline (see here), the Cairngorms National Park Authority indicated they had some further documentation about the restoration works and would place these on the planning portal.  They did so a couple of weeks ago (see here).   I found the documentation generally helpful and informative and welcome  the CNPA’s willingness to be transparent about the actions it has taken to ensure developers adhere to planning conditions.  The documentation also shows that the CNPA has been concerned about what went wrong and been taking appropriate action to remedy this.   This post will illustrate that, but also – as promised in my previous post –  provide evidence that there is still some way to go before the Bruar Hydro reaches the standard we should expect in a National Park.

 

Information on how the pipeline was restored

A section of the boulder scar which ran between the powerhouse and the intake which has not been restored.Somewhat paradoxically, what I regard as the most impressive aspect of the restoration work – the initial boulder scar was a landscape disaster (see here) – the “repair” of the land above the pipeline is least documented.  While detailed plans were improved in July to the minor intake, the two pipe bridges and the power house embankment, there is no proper specification for the restoration of the pipeline.  The documentation that has recently been added (see here), says little more than the reinstatement note from February 2016 which acknowledged the pipeline scar was an issue which would be fixed by removing some of the boulders and robbing turves from neighbouring areas.

Photo showing robbed area to right of track and restored area to left

The point here is that such work can be done well or badly and there appears to be no specification for the work.   I was interested to find out that the restoration work in this case had been done by McGowan, the same contractor who worked for Natural Retreats on the Shieling Rope tow at Cairngorm about which I had major concerns (see here). In this case they have done an excellent job – well done them!  I believe the explanation for this is that the excavations of the robbed turves are shallow and well spaced, allowing vegetation from the robbed areas to recover quickly.   The CNPA has told me long armed diggers were used by McGowan to avoid further damage to vegetation.  Great!   The work though appears to have been all done on trust and the question is what further recourse would the CNPA have if this work had not been done to such a high standard?  Indeed what recourse do they have to the developer for the further areas which still need attention?

While the primary focus of the CNPA should be on preventing the need for such restoration work to take place (and that means monitoring how developers remove turves when they dig pipelines or create new tracks so there is sufficient vegetation to re-cover the affected areas), there will be cases where this goes wrong.  Setting clear standards for how restoration work should be undertaken in such circumstances, based on what McGowan has done in Glen Bruar, would I  think be in the public interest.  All contractors would then know what was expected of them in such circumstances.

 

The quality of the hill track restoration

Apart from the final short section to the intake dam, there was already a track all the way up Glen Bruar but this was “upgraded” for construction vehicles.  This work included widening, adding further material to the surface of the track and creation of turning/laydown areas.  The intention had been that the track should be restored to how it appeared previously and this had now been done.   Its clear from the documentation that the CNPA has devoted considerable attention to the worst sections of track and this has had a positive impact.

The words in italics set out the CNPA’s concerns, the words below the photo the proposed response from the developer.

This is how the restored area looks now:

A significant improvement (although the right edge of the road has not been revegetated and is at high risk of erosion).  Other parts of the road along the glen appear to have also been narrowed with the result it is no longer a race track.

The finishing of the track however still in places leaves much to be desired:

The worst of the protruding culverts

There are a significant number of what appear to be new protruding plastic culverts along the track and there appears to rhyme or reason to what has been fully finished, partially finished and what just left:

Finished culvert with turf placed above stone
Same culvert, other side of road, protruding – why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One culvert is mentioned in the CNPA REINSTATEMENT_UPDATE_NOTE (the easiest document to read on the restoration works):

Why not any of the others?,

 

In several places the edge of the road is eroding.  It is hard to tell if the stone has been placed there for work yet unfinished or to mark the holes.

In other places dumped aggregate has not been removed and is spilling down the slopes beside the track.

The CNPA rightly asked for the pipe and storage areas to be restored:

The end result for the largest area (featured above) leaves a lot to be desired, with no evidence so far of the robbing turves technique to restore bare ground as used so successfully on the pipeline:

Same laydown area as in top photo, different angle – the pile of aggregate for filling potholes makes it look worse.

Perhaps this work has still to be done?

Poor finishing with material from the edge of the track spilling down towards the culverted burn below

In my view, there is still a significant amount of finishing work still required on the road.

External sections of pipeline

The restoration of these areas have been dealt with as Non Material Variations to the original planning application – an indication that the original plan were not perhaps as comprehensive as they should have been.

The first pipe bridge close to the power house had last year looked a total mess with the river threatening to wash the plinth away.  It is now much better:

Before
After

 

The restoration of the second exposed section of pipe plinth where it crosses a burn has been less successful.

The banks of burn below the concrete plinth which are bare and will erode contast with how the banks looked previously – heather covered. There is a very large patch of bare ground to the right.

The rip rap bouldering to protect the banks around the plinth looks a mess, there is a large patch of bare ground and the banks of the burn have not been restored with vegetation and one would have thought at risk of rapid erosion.

 

Other restoration work

The intake overflow pipes  – which were bright blue – have been painted and to my mind are far less prominent.

The CNPA has required a lot of further restoration around the top intake which you can read about in the restoration note update (see here).

A pool was created at the secondary intake to make it appear more natural.

While there has been significant improvements in revegetating ground around the top intakes, I am not sure that the work to improve the secondary intake has been successfully.  The river bed here was bouldery but the piles of boulders created to make the dam and cover up the concrete still look as though they have been bulldozed into place rather than deposited naturally.

There are also other major (first photo) and minor bits (photo above)  of clear up required.

What can be learned from this?

I suspect that CNPA staff have learned a great deal from what went wrong at Glen Bruar and all credit to them for the work they have done to try and reduce the impacts since the Hydro Scheme started to operate.   Almost all the issues they have had to tackle – and still need to tackle – stem from the work not being properly specified and supervised in the first place. Its much harder to address problems after the event rather than preventing them from arising in the first place.

The lessons from Glen Bruar therefore seem to be to be about the importance of getting high quality specifications agreed for works before they start and then monitoring these sufficiently to ensure they are adhered to.  Its almost certain our National Parks need more resources to do this.  The forthcoming planning bill should in my view include provisions for developers to pay for the costs of ensuring this happens.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

November 27, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking back along the Allt na Beinne track to the central Cairngorms. The movement of heavy vehicles along the track in wet conditions has caused significant damage and helped destroy its quality as a recreational route

Following my post on the new and “upgraded” hill track in Glen Banchor  (see here), the Cairngorms National Park Authority has informed Dave Morris and myself that they will fully investigate what has happened and feed back to us what action they can take. This is most welcome.  I also reported to them that works had taken place on the Strone/Allt na Beinne hill track on the same estate.  This post considers the issues this raises for the planning system and then makes some proposals for how the planning system could be reformed. (There is an ideal opportunity to change the current failed system in the forthcoming Scottish Planning Bill)

 

The Strone hill track

There has been a hill track by the Allt na Beinne, which is directly north of Newtonmore, for many years.  Its marked on my OS Map which dates from 1980.   Existing tracks, just like footpaths, need to maintained and therefore when a landowner decides to undertake maintenance work that should be welcomed.  However, two issues arise from this.  The first is the quality of the maintenance, with poor work having the potential to increase environmental damage and landscape impacts as well as negatively impacting on the recreational experience (see top photo).   The second is when does maintenance turn into an alteration, now that all alterations to hill tracks fall under the planning system?

Although there is Scottish Government Guidance on the distinction between maintenance and alteration under the Prior Notification System  (see here), when Forest Enterprise Scotland tries to pass off major alterations to tracks as maintenance (see here), you can see there are major challenges to the system.  What has happened to the Strone track provides a further illustration of the issues but also got me thinking about potential solutions within the National Park.

Looking across the moor from near Strone towards the Allt na Beinne.

The track starts at Strone and is clearly partly agricultural in purpose, therefore falling into the category of a permitted development right which did not require any form of planning approval before the creation of the Prior Notification System.   The first section is of good quality,  has blended into the surrounding ground and being on  flattish ground has very little landscape impact.  Its good for walking and well used.  It shows its possible to create good quality tracks outwith the planning system.

The creation of the drainage ditch has not solved the problem of water accumulating on the lowest section of track while there has been no attempt to landscape the excavated materials.

There was, however, evidence of some recent work on this first section of track.  The estate appears to have taken the opportunity of having diggers available for work higher up the track to try and improve the drainage on dips in the track.  There are several of these at present which either are filled with water (above) or are crossed by burns (below).  I think most people would class work such as this as maintenance rather than an alteration to a track and therefore not requiring any form of planning consent or prior approval (which Planning Authorities give under the Prior Notification system).   The problem is the work is of poor quality and not in my view fitting for a National Park.  Its storing up problems, not solving them.

Burn flowing across road with excavated material dumped in foreground

Its quite predictable that the burn flowing across the road will erode it in due course.  A solution to this was pioneered in Scotland almost three hundred years ago with the Wade and Caulfield Military Roads.  Where culverts would not work – as here because the road is too low relative to the surrounding land – they used paved cross drains.  There are plenty of stones here which have recently been unearthed and dumped by the side of the track that the estate could have used to line the cross drain but they have not done so.  What this shows is we need to find a way to ensure that maintenance work, whether of paths or tracks, is to an appropriate standard.

Once a track starts getting churned up, vehicles start creating alternative routes, spreading the damage.  Caterpillar track visible bottom right of photo.

Undertaking maintenance work in wet conditions – much of the initial damage in the photo above appears to have been done by heavy caterpillar tracked vehicles – also causes damage.  High quality maintenance is not just about appropriate design or the skill of the contractor, its about the timing of the work.

Towards the far end of the moor, before the track begins to rise, a borrow pit has been created (or extended).   While borrow pits for forestry tracks are classed as permitted development rights – so if the road is created lawfully, so is the track – for agricultural roads they are not.  Because of the size of the borrow pit my understanding is the estate should have applied for planning permission.

 

Further up the track there is evidence of other small borrow pits, with material dug out from the side of the track, without any attempt to restore the ground.  I suspect Planning Authorities would see small borrow pits as part of maintenance work rather than an alteration to the track and therefore not requiring planning permission under the current system.  Even if right, however, this leaves the question of whether poor quality work such as this should be allowed, particularly in a National Park.

Unfinished culvert and new drainage ditch

The extent of the track work increases as it enters the lovely small glen taken by the Allt na Beinne.   When does maintenance, which does not require any type of planning consent, become alteration which does?

The edge of the existing track appears to have been excavated to facilitate ATV access to land on the left creating a new track

The work in the photo above may not be finished but to my mind the excavations here are far more than maintenance, they are alterations.  Whether an alteration comes under the Prior Notification System or needs full planning permission depends on whether or not the track is for agricultural or forestry purposes.  The moorland above the steep section of track is covered with signs of intensive grouse moor management so I believe these tracks are clearly non-agricultural in purpose and therefore the alterations should have been subject to full planning permission from the start.

The track above the steepest section, showing a broad strip of disturbed ground on the right

We did not have time to get to the end of the track  but noted in many sections the total width of track plus disturbed ground appeared to be up to 20 metres and included piles of rocks and boulders.  Again the scale of this is such that it should be treated as an alteration to the track rather than maintenance and there are issues both about the longer term landscape impact but also the quality of the track (which is currently a peaty morass in places – as you can see in left of photo).

Its also clear the work is not finished though the end product is not relevant to the question of whether planning permission should have been applied for, only about whether the CNPA needs to take enforcement action.

ATV track heading round to the newly upgraded Glen Banchor hill track, which is visible just below the left horizon

The final issue was that lower down you could see how ATVs or tracked vehicles are being driven from the Strone track, apparently around to meet the new Glen Banchor track.   Where tracks are created by such use the question of maintenance and alteration is complicated by the fact that such tracks are not subject to any planning approval.  In this case they represent a major extension of the track network in the Glenbanchor/Strone area.

 

So what are the lessons for our National Parks and the planning system?

I believe the photos illustrate there is a fine line between track maintenance, which does not need any approval from the Planning Authority, and alterations to tracks which do.   The quality of both, however, matter, especially in our National Parks.  The situation is then further complicated because alterations to Forestry and Agricultural tracks – such as the lower section of the Allt na Beinne track – come under the Prior Notification system while those for other purposes such as deer and grouse moor management – upper section of the Allt na Beinne track – come under the full planning system.

While I believe the failure of the new owners of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate, who have owned the adjacent Pitmain Estate for several years, to consult with the Cairngorms National Park Authority before starting any work on the Allt na Beinne track (or Glen Banchor track covered in my previous post) is inexcusable – and they need to be held account – I think we need to recognise the current rules creates  a nightmarish situation for both land managers and planning authorities.

On one track the work being proposed could. for different sections, be classed as:

  • maintenance not requiring any approval;
  • alteration to a forestry or agricultural track requiring prior notification and possibly approval;
  • alteration for other estate management purposes requiring planning permission;
  • an extension for agricultural or forestry purposes needing prior notification;
  • an extension for other purposes needing planning permission.

I started thinking about this after my post on the Glen Feshie tracks, questioning why the CNPA had allowed them to go ahead under the Prior Notification system without approval  (see here).    Dave Morris and I went to see Thomas MacDonnell, the Conservation Manager for Wild Land Ltd who manages Glen Feshie, a couple of weeks ago.   He was extremely open about what the estate was trying to do and the fifteen or so miles of new tracks that had been given the go-ahead under the Prior Notification system.  He was clear – and the planning documents reflect this – that the track were not just about forestry (which comes under the Prior Notification System) but also deer management and recreation (which don’t) and that it was not the estate’s decision to deal with this as a Prior Notification.   What came out of this for me though is that dealing with some parts of the proposed tracks under the Prior Notification system and some under the full planning system would have been a nightmare for both the estate and the planning authorities.  It made me understand therefore why staff in public authorities might have wanted to deal with this as one single type of application.  The trouble – which I will come back to – is it did not fit into any single classification.

 

The work though that Thomas MacDonnell has been leading at Glen Feshie, points I believe, to some of the answers.  Thomas took us out to look at some of the work the estate is doing to upgrade and repair existing tracks as well as the locations for the proposed new tracks.

The work to upgrade existing tracks is generally of very high quality and its very hard to tell that extensive work has been done to improve this track

The work to existing tracks has been treated as maintenance, and not gone through the planning system., although in may cases badly eroded existing tracks have been transformed in appearance.   How the work has been done though has been governed by a standard specification for tracks (on dry ground) which has been developed by Wild Land Ltd.  It has used the same specification as part of the Prior Notification for the new tracks.

Extract from Prior Notification – note how Wild Land Ltd is able to extract timber using narrower tracks than those specified by the Forestry Commission.In other words, Wild Land Ltd is applying the same set of standards to all the work they do, whether track maintenance, track alterations or the creation of new tracks.  Now while its possible to question some of the details of that specification – the North East Mountain Trust for example would like to see a vegetated strip being included down the centre of all tracks (which are in place on some but not all Feshie Tracks) – the existence of a specification that delivers high standards seems to me to point to a way forward for hill tracks.

If all estates undertook track work according to agreed standards, the current distinctions between maintenance and alteration, and forestry/agricultural versus other tracks would become far less important.

The way forward

Working from the basis that all work on hill tracks should meet certain standards (and these could be higher in National Parks), the Prior Notification system could be adapted to be used where a landowner had agreed a set of standards with the Planning Authority.  Whenever the landowner was planning maintenance or track upgrade works it would notify the Planning Authority of the location of such works (so they could monitor that the adhered standards were being adhered to) but no planning consent would be required.  Alterations to the line of an existing tracks could also be dealt with under this system if the agreed standards included how unused/redundant sections of track would be restored.   This would simplify the system for responsible landowners.

If the agreed set of standards/specification also included provisions about off-track use of ATVs, whose purpose was to prevent tracks being created by default, that would help address the impacts such tracks have on the landscape and to bring them under control.

A full planning application, which gave the public and other stakeholders the opportunity to comment on (and object to) proposals, would still be required for new tracks (including those for agricultural and forestry purposes) and for any works on tracks which were not covered by the set of standards which had been agreed between the Planning Authority and landowner.  This would incentivise landowners to adopt and work to certain standards.

Planning Authorities would then be able to endorse certain existing model standards for hill tracks in their planning policies which could be adopted by landowners where they so wished.  For example while Wild Land Ltd has developed its own set of standards for most of the tracks on the estate – which are in my view much better than those of the Forestry Commission which were designed for industrial forestry and not for National Parks or other protected areas – for areas of deep peat it has chosen to adopt the SNH/Forestry Commission Standards for “Floating Roads on Peat 2010.

While changing the system in the way I have proposed here would require changes to hill track regulation nationally – hence the need for discussion in the forthcoming planning bill – the CNPA could also set and promote the adoption of approved standards for hill track work in its new development plan.  The Main Issues Report for this has just been issued for public consultation and provides an ideal opportunity for the CNPA to strengthen its policy in this area.

November 26, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

On Friday staff from Cairngorm Mountain entered the Scottish Ski Club Hut on Cairngorm and removed the Winter Highland Webcam.   I have checked and there is proof of this from several sources including a telephone message that Janet Janssen, Manager of Cairngorm Mountain, left on the Winter Highland answerphone.    Staff from Natural Retreats had not been given permission to enter the building and have no rights to do so.  It therefore appears that the removal of the webcam may be a criminal act.

 

Why would Natural Retreats want to do this?  Well, while they have their own webcams, these have been turned off at certain times and………….

The winter highland webcam provided evidence lat year of the unlawful works at the Shieling Rope tow

…………they have had reason not to want any independent evidence of what they are doing on the mountain.   One wonders what it is now they are so keen to hide?

The Cairngorms National Park Authority is committed to working in partnership and bringing various interests together.  It delegated responsibility, under the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategic Plan it approved last year, for the production of a management plan for Cairngorm to Natural Retreats.  Fifteen month later there is still no sign of this, despite reminders.   Meanwhile Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Natural Retreats have carried on doing their own thing at Cairngorm without any proper involvement of other interests.  The removal of the webcam is yet another example of how Natural Retreats are incapable of working with other stakeholders at Cairngorm.

 

HIE now need to be seen to take immediate action against Natural Retreats if they are not to be seen as complicit in commissioning what appears to be a criminal offence.

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

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

The Prior Notification System and the track upgrade

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

In response I sent them some photos:

View of track extension from below

FES response to photo:

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

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

 

Another view of the track extension

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

FES response to photo:

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

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

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

FES response to photo:

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

 

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

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

 

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

FES response to photo:

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

FES response to photo:

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen

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

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

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

Addendum – correspondence with FES

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Map credit Cairngorms National Park Authority estate maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Red legged partridge in cage at feeding station

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

 

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

The “consultation”

Extract from Flamingo Land/Iconic Developments consultation display

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

 

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

 

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

 

The main elements to the proposals

Extract from map showing proposals for Riverside site

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

 

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

Greenspace 

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

Drumkinnon Wood

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

The parkland along the River Leven

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

The pierhead

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

Viewing Tower

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

Transport

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

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

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

 

Are there any good elements to the proposals?

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Conservation

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

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

 

Public Enjoyment

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

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

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

 

 

Sustainable Economic Development

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

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

 

Sustainable use of resources

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

 

What needs to happen

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

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

November 17, 2017 Nick Kempe 23 comments
The Cononish gold mine as it looked on a dreich day in May – the same day as the pre-consultation event in the Tyndrum Village Hall

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Extract planning application

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 The Landscape impact of the tailings stacks

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The wider implications of this application

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

 

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

November 14, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

November 13, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Screenshot 13th November

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

 

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

 

Screenshot 13th November

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

 

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

 

Developments in Yorkshire

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

November 10, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lessons from the Glen Bruar restoration

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

The financial position of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd

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

Extract from Note 1 to the CML Accounts to December 2016

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

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

CML and Natural Assets Investment Ltd

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extract group accounts

 

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

What needs to happen

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Its still them and us

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Its also a recipe for conflict:

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

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

Community Empowerment and planning

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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