Category: Cairngorms

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Section south of previous photo looking north

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Structures are only the start

Extract from report on last CNPA National Park Partnership Plan progress

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

 

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

October 9, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Digger 6th October 2017 just southwest of col between Geal Charn and A’Mharconaich, West Drumochter Hills. Note the hillwalkers in the foreground.  GR 592766 approx.  The track curls round into Fraoch Choire north east of Beinn Udlamain.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Hill tracks and protected areas

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

 

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

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

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

What needs to be done

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Extract from Main Issues report

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The restoration of the shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who paid for the pump house?

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

The landscaping of the area around the Shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The area above the Shieling rope tow

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

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

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

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

The finishing of the culverts is very poor.

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

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen in Coire Cas?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

September 29, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking south along the first part of the unrestored Beauly Denny access track.  Its 4-5 metres wide, twice as wide as necessary even if it could be justified.  The Beauly Denny was bad enough but why this too?

At the end of August, after a stravaig over the east Drumochter hills, I looped back to Dalwhinnie through the Drumochter pass, the idea being to combine enjoyment with a look at the effectiveness of the restoration of the land along the Beauly Denny.   Just beyond Dalnaspidal and hidden behind the A9 shelterbelt,  I came across what can only be described as a track motorway on the Dalnacardoch Estate, an unrestored section of the  Beauly Denny construction track which appears to have been retained to facilitate intensive grouse moor management.

The track starts by the second pylon in the photo and is more or less hidden to people walking up A Bhuidheanach Bheag from opposite Dalnaspidal, although linked to the A9 there by an older and much narrower landrover track.  It extends about 3km north past the Sow of Atholl (left of A9) to the summit of the pass and boundary of the Dalnacardoch and North Drumochter Estates.

The start of the unrestored section of Beauly Denny access track heading north.  The first pylon is photo in numbered GMI 157.

Originally, the intention was almost all the Beauly Denny construction tracks were to be removed entirely once the power line had been erected and the land restored to its original condition.  The Scottish Government than agreed for several sections of track to remain permanently.

The pylons are numbered north to south

From the pylon numbers,  it appears that the section of track is 26b. If so, according to the “Monitoring Report for 2016” supplied to me by the Cairngorms National Park Authority under Freedom of Information, this is NOT one of the “temporary tracks to be retained”.

Moreover, unlike the tracks on the North Drumochter estate (see here), no application has been made to the Cairngorms National Park Authority to retain the track and they have confirmed they never approved it.     The first question that needs to be answered is whether the Scottish Government has approved the track  in secret and contrary to the policy position of the Cairngorms National Park Authority which has made its position very clear:

 

“I think we should make it very clear that the retention of sections of track associated with Beauly-Denny line will only happen in exceptional circumstances.”  (Eleanor Mackintosh, CNPA Convenor of Planning, statement to press after approval of retention of short section of construction track in forest at Kinlochlaggan).

 

If the Scottish Government has not approved it, the question is why have Scottish and Southern Energy failed to fully restore the land?

 

The failure of the track to meet approved standards

If the track has been approved, there are further questions as to whether the Scottish Government agreed to the retention of a motorway – a track which is twice as wide as necessary and which fails to meet other basic standards for good track construction as these photos illustrate.

Former laydown areas at the side of the track have not been restored
Track spoil dumped on moorland
Unused construction materials have been left on moorland – the moorland here is part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest
The temporary construction bridge illustrates there has been no attempt to narrow the track on either side
There are relatively few protruding culverts but more would appear if the track had been narrowed
The unrestored ground here is  over 10m wide

For a track like this to be approved in a National Park would be a national disgrace but if not, the question is how and why is it being allowed to slip through the net?

 

The purpose of the track

It was quite obvious, jogging along the track, why the estate wished to retain it – and, at the very least they must requested SSE not to restore it.

Crow trap

 

Upturned peat turves serving as dispensers for medicated grit could be seen on both sides of the track
Similarly stoat traps
Two more traps

Unfortunately my camera battery packed up just before the end of the track but this was marked by a line of grouse butts up the hillside.

 

Intensive grouse moor management is now under scrutiny as never before.   How has this track, which impacts both on the landscape (while hidden from the A9 it would be clearly visible from the west Drumochter Hills) and on wildlife been allowed to remain in the National Park?

September 25, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 The tender process and award

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

September 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

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

It brought to mind An Camas Mor……………

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

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

 

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

 

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

September 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 8 comments

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

THE ORIGINAL PARAGRAPH WHICH FOLLOWED HAS BEEN CORRECTED FOLLOWING CLARIFICATION

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Extract from CNPA committee report August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Camas Mor, rewilding and the Cairngorms National Park

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, the CNPA at present appears to give little priority to rewilding. Our National Parks, which could have offered a means to re-wild  parts of Scotland, have not had the drive or will to promote the potential of nature against the interests and wishes of landowners.  Meantime, apart from national nature reserves none of our other nature conservation designations – a major flaw – can be used to restore nature to places.   Our designation system is focussed on protecting what is there, not what could be.       We sorely need a means to promote re-wilding which is not entirely dependent on the goodwill of the landowner.
If Anders Povlsen, who is doing so much to re-wild Glen Feshie, or the RSPB rather than Johnnie Grant had owned this land,  I think it would be being quietly promoted as one of the jewels in the Cairngorms.   From a conservation perspective, the Scottish Government would have been far better giving Johnnie Grant £7.2m to buy up An Camas Mor than buying part of the Rothiemurchus Estate (see here), which was already fully protected.
While both the Scottish Government and the CNPA know that An Camas Mor sits at the centre of the main areas of woodland where Capercaillie now survive, they have seen the challenge as being to find ways to let the development go ahead without impacting too much on capercaillie.  Hence the detailed Habitats Regulations Assessment and mitigation proposals for An Camas Mor which, if enforced, will inevitably restrict access.   They could and should have looked at this from a completely different viewpoint.  What is the rewilding potential of An Camas Mor and what role could it play in saving the capercaillie (once again) from extinction in Scotland?
I have asked Gus Jones, convener of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group why there are not capercaillie in the woods?    The first reason he gave is recreational use, and by that he did not mean walkers (I did not see another walker in two hours on what was an English bank holiday)   but the use of the forest for quad biking.
The people quad biking were very nice, obviously enjoying themselves and I even heard the tour leader, who had stopped everyone at a particular point, explain the orange marks on some trees marked those to be felled and this was being done to improve ground flora in the woods. How this fitted with the proposed development I am not sure!
The second is that part of An Camas Mor is used for pheasant breeding.
While specific, let alone conclusive research, is lacking,  even the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here) admits that pheasant rearing can lead to competition for food and drive other game birds (in which they include capercaillie) from the most intensively used areas while also attracting predators.
Now I am not against either quad biking or pheasant rearing, in the right place.   However, given the current parlous state of capercaillie, surely what the CNPA should be doing is engaging with relevant interests to help capercaillie re-colonise this site (and other such woods)?   This should include, if necessary, helping the current businesses relocate (if An Camas Mor goes ahead they will be finished in any case).
In a previous post  (see here)  I argued  we need an alternative plan for An Camas Mor and this  could be funded by the money which the Scottish Government apparently intends to invest in the development.   Having had a good look at the site, I believe the core of an alternative plan for An Camas Mor should be about how we can allow it to continue to rewild.  That would not cost much in itself:  narrow a few tracks to footpaths, restore other damage, remove human artefacts and rubbish and then leave nature take over..    It would then leave plenty of money to develop social housing elsewhere.
The only problem?  Landownership and how to change who controls the land.
September 11, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Looking from the pole which marks the centre of the proposed new town at an An Camas Mor towards the Lairig Ghru

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

September 3, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Letter Badenoch and Strathspey Advertiser 31st August

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Looking south from Aonach Shasuinn, May 2017

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

 

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

 

The Inverlochlarig hydro scheme

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

 

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

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

If you want to get involved…………….

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

 

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

August 30, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Dumper truck on hill track down from Ptarmigan  carrying remains of concrete plinths from West Wall chairlift                                                                                                                               Photo Monday 28th August

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The hill track to the Ptarmigan

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

 

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

 

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

Extract from Wm Gray proposed method statement for development at Ptarmigan

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

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

 

Standards for work at Cairngorm

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The environmental damage being created by the clear-up

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The destruction of ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

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

 

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

 

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

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

The flawed decision-making process

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

 

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

 

The implications of the proposed An Camas Mor Recreation Management Plan

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Implementing the Recreation Management Plan

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The need to develop an alternative plan

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

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

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

 

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

 

What needs to happen

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

The impact of the proposed An Camus Mor development on capercaillie

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

    Extract from the outcomes proposed for Glenmore

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

The abandonment of the precautionary approach

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The level of support for the proposals

 

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

 

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

 

The wider picture

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

August 14, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
On Day 2 on the Alta Via 2, one of the great walking trails of the world, we met three path workers, one with a pick axe and the other two with shovels, employed by the Puez Odle Nature Park, conducting routine path maintenance. In three weeks in the Dolomites I came across two other teams of pathworkers doing path maintenance, something which is unimagineable in Scotland. Local jobs for local people.

I have just returned from the Dolomites to find extensive media coverage on how Scotland is failing to provide the infrastructure necessary to support visitors.  On Skye, there are claims that the island has reached the limit in terms of the number of visitors it can sustain (see here), while in Orkney suggestions of a tourist tax (see here) on luxury cruise liners to fund infrastructure have been predictably dismissed under the neo-liberal mantra that all tax is bad.    I suspect most Italians would be astonished by the way these debates are framed in Scotland.   The evidence on the ground from the Dolomites is that far more money is being invested in tourism infrastructure than in Scotland and there are far more visitors, with consequent benefits both to people and to the economy.   We saw signs saying tourism in the Dolomites is worth £50bn a year and, while this is considerably boosted by downhill skiing, it dwarfs the latest figure for tourism spend in Scotland of £8.9bn.   In this post I will consider how investment in footpaths in Scotland compares to the Dolomites.

 

Back in July, in a very welcome article in the Scotsman (see here) Grant Moir, Chief Executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, raised the need to think about how we pay for paths in our National Parks.   This in my view is exactly what our National parks should be doing – instead of pretending all is rosy and that they are managing on ever decreasing budgets – they should be articulating a new vision for the future and how this could be funded, which could then incidentally be adopted by other places like Skye and Orkney.

 

Unfortunately the heading of the article (which was no doubt inserted by a sub-editor)  – “freedom to roam is a costly business” – reflects the prevailing negative stance towards access in Scotland by the establishment, which sees everything in terms of cost not opportunity.    In fact, the amounts Grant Moir referred to are tiny.  So, the CNPA has spent £10m on paths in 15 years – that’s just £666k a year – and requires at least £500k a year to maintain paths.   Compare that to the £3bn that the Scottish Government has committed to pay for the dualling of 80 miles of the A9.   If just 1% of that – £30m – were spent on paths along the A9 corridor over the next ten years the CNPA and neighbouring local authorities would be awash with money to spend on paths.  Instead, the CNPA at present has to rely on Heritage Lottery funding, the £3.2m awarded in 2015 over 5 years for the Mountains and People project which covers both our National Parks.

 

Paths in the Dolomites

 

The path network in the Dolomites is far more extensive than what we have in Scotland and this is partly for historical reasons.

Military path in the Belluna National Park

 

Most people are probably aware that the Dolomites was the setting for major battles in the first world war in which 750,000 Italians died and which saw an extensive network of paths/tracks and via ferrata constructed high up in the mountains.    These now form the base for the mountain path network.   By contrast our own military roads, with a few notable exceptions such as along the West Highland Way, tend, because of their location along the floors of straths, to have become part of the trunk road network.

Path in woods above Predazzo – still used to extract timber.

The Dolomites also, however, have far more paths lower down.   I was based for a time in a lovely small town called Predazzo which is surrounded by forest.   I had no map to the area but no need of one.  Whatever way I left the town – and I did four runs in four different directions – I came across a multitude of path options.   The paths in the woods appear to exist because local people have worked the forests for centuries – the commune that runs Predazzo is 800 years old – a contrast to Scotland where people were cleared from the land and few paths were needed for work purposes, the main exception to this being our fine stalking paths.  These are thin on the ground however in comparison to the historic path legacy in the Dolomites.

Mule track onto Pale San Martino, reputedly constructed by a Count so his disabled daughter could experience the amazing scenery

The Dolomites, and indeed many other places in Europe including England, have had a head start over Scotland in terms of path infrastructure.   This was recognised in the discussions which led to our access legislation which identified a need for a more extensive path network: hence the provisions of the Land Reform Act about the creation of core path networks.   Unfortunately due to neo-liberal thinking, in which it is held a self-evident truth that nothing should be provided for free, and austerity the aspirations for a comprehensive path network have never been delivered (despite the efforts of many good people).     Instead our National Parks and other access authorities are left scrabbling for money.   This is quite a contrast to what I saw in the Dolomites.

Path, held together by logs, up scree slope south of Mulaz Hut – the nature of the ground in the Dolomites means that many paths would not exist without human ingenuity and engineering
An additional expense in Italy is the protection of paths with cabling – we have no equivalent in Scotland – but the creation and maintenance of such paths requires investment
A constructed log path from Rifugio Firenze/Regensburger Hut leads up this gully onto the Stevia plateau

While in the Dolomites I stayed in the Firenze Hut twice, the first as part of the Alta Via 2 when I walked up this path.   On my second visit to climb we found it closed, part of the path had been swept away in a great storm.    However, unlike the Cairngorms where – as Grant Moir states – people are still trying to find money to repair the damage from the great floods on Deeside, signs had gone up immediately saying what had happened and there was evidence the path was being repaired.   What I think this demonstrates is that path maintenance is a priority in Italy in a way that is unthinkable in Scotland.

Evidence of recent maintenance work could be seen along many paths: here a drainage hole has been created in order to create a sump for water running off a path

So why is this?  Part of the explanation I think lies in the power to make decisions and budgets to implement them being far more devolved than in Scotland.  In most of the huts we stayed in we paid a small tourism tax which is used to fund infrastructure locally.   Behind this though is a general appreciation that people want to experience the fantastic landscape of the Dolomites and what this requires is for people to be able to get out into those landscapes in the way they want.

Walkers coming off the lift from the summit of the Sas de Pordoi to walk over the Sella Plateau.  Many walk from here over to the summit of Piz Boe one of the 3000m peaks in the Dolomites and a superb viewpoint. The photo  illustrates the sheer numbers of people walking in the Dolomites and while the rocky terrain here can support these numbers, it also provides an illustration of the potential impact on the Cairngorm environment were the funicular ever to cease to be a closed system.

One of the best ways to do this is by providing paths.     This is backed by some interesting research (see here) which shows that satisfaction with the landscape is the biggest single factor influencing tourism spend:

 

 

 

 

A warning to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority who are allowing much of the landscape of the National Park to be trashed through the creation of unnecessary new and poorly constructed forestry and hydro tracks.  What they should be focussing on is the creation of a quality path network.

An example of our failure to invest from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park

The contrast between Scotland and the Dolomites is illustrated by these photos from Arrochar, which I received from reader Stephen Pimley, on arriving back in Glasgow.   Its only a tiny section of path, funded by multiple agencies, but I believe it tells an important tale.

 

Photo credit Stephen Pimley

 

Here is the problem in Stephen’s own words:  “I see tourists standing in a state of puzzlement in front of the overgrown brambles and conifer hedge.  They stand at the side of the road and move on………………I have raised a work request on the Argyll and Bute council but previous requests have been ignored.   Hopefully the fact that there are multiple ‘partners’ involved won’t lead to one of those desperate “its not my job!” situations”.

Photo Credit Stephen Pimley

The basic problem is that there is almost no money available for basic path maintenance.   Most of the paths through dense vegetation like this in the Dolomites are strimmed to keep them clear for walkers.   By contrast our public authorities seem to expect that volunteers should do this and, while there is a very active and committed group of volunteers in Arrochar – where the Community Council has been long trying to improve the local amenity of the area and without whom its doubtful whether any of the attempts to clear up the beach at the head of Loch Long would have happened – I have been informed most of these volunteers are now in their seventies.     They should not be having to do this.

 

Is it really too much to aspire for that there should be one part-time footpath maintenance worker available to every community in the National Park?    This would help keep young people in the villages, as happens in Italy.  It could even provide all the pathwork trainees on the Mountains and People project jobs in the longer term.   Instead, what is happening in our National Parks, is that pathwork is funded by one source of temporary funding after another rather than being treated as a core function of National Parks.

What needs to happen

  • I would like to see our National Parks learn and compare themselves to places in other countries, whether National Parks or not (only a small proportion of the Dolomites are designated as National Parks).
  • Grant Moir was right, a permanent solution to how we invest in paths in National Parks – and elsewhere in Scotland – needs to be found.   Both our National Parks should be taking a lead on this and this should include consideration of what investment needs to take place to enable Scotland to catch up in terms of path provision as well as how paths can be maintained.    Both our National Parks have made tentative steps in this direction but they should be using the evidence from places like the Dolomites to articulate a far more comprehensive vision.
July 24, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

Dear Cairngorms National Park Authority,

I had come over Carn na Drochaide and Carn Liath – crossing the track which runs up the fairy glen it is true – to be faced with the track which runs up to and across the Bealach Dearg, high under the western face of Culardoch.  Besides the grouse, it services a scientific research station on the bealach (visible where the track bends left).   The National Park has stated it wishes to stop track development in our hills, a welcome step, but I think it needs to go one step beyond, follow the example of the National Trust for Scotland on Beinn a Bhuird and start to identify tracks that should be removed to re-wild our landscape.   The Culardoch track would be high on my list but why not ask other people what they think?

July 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Ladder trap for crows 7th July north west of Loch Builg, Meall Gaineaimh, outlier of Ben Avon behind

Dear Cairngorms National Park Authority,

Loch Builg and the eastern flanks of Ben Avon are remote country for those arriving on foot, three hours or so from a public road.  Despite the network of estate tracks I was surprised to see this trap, at the end of the track above Loch Builg ,and on the hillside above upturned turves sprinkled with medicated grit.   Please read Susan Matthew’s fine piece in the recent issue of the Cairngorms Campaigner, the newsletter of the Cairngorms Campaign,  about a walk through a wildlife desert on the flanks of Ben Avon.  The explanation is in the photo.  Every animal that might prey on or affect grouse is destroyed, while heather is the only plant that counts. If the core of the Cairngorms cannot be wild, a sanctuary for wildlife and devoid of human artefacts, where else could be?

July 13, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Destruction around the Corrimulzie intake. On first viewing this, I had assumed all the destruction had been caused by the construction of the hydro intake but the rocks in foreground, which partly envelope the bases of the two birch trees, were deposited by flood water during Storm Frank which devastated Deeside.

The Corriemulzie community hydro scheme  http://braemarhydro.org.uk/scheme/, just west of Braemar on the road to Linn of Dee, provides an interesting case of how developments can go badly wrong despite the best intentions of the main players.  I first visited this scheme, which became operational last summer, in September 2016 and was horrified by what I saw.   Subsequent research and correspondence with the Cairngorms National Park Authority established the situation was a little more complex than it appeared and both the CNPA and Braemar Community Hydro were taking action to rectify the damage that had been caused by the contractors and design failings.  I have therefore delayed blogging about it but a check up visit last weekend (its a ten minute walk from the road and well worth a visit if in the area), on the way to a stravaig through the eastern Cairngorms, showed that remedial measures have only had a limited impact.  I think its time therefore to publicise what appears to have gone wrong and what lessons could be learned for the future.

The old intake dam has been infilled with flood debris. You can just see old intake pipe centre left.

Historically there was a hydro scheme on the Corriemulzie burn which supplied power to Mar Lodge.

View of powerhouse from Linn of Quoich July 2017

The new powerhouse sits by site of former powerhouse although the track to it, down from the Braemar to Linn of Dee Road, is new.   In my view – and I realise this is just a matter of opinion – the wider landscape impact of the track is not a major issue.  I did not revisit the track though last September there were both good things and bad about how the land around it had been restored.

In design terms the power house is well located, close to bank and trees, and the turning area for vehicles is small.  All positives.  The ground above the pipeline had recovered quickly, with evidence of turfs having been stored and replaced.   Incredible care needs to be taken with removal of turf and topsoil if all the surface area is to be re-covered in restoration and in this area there was not enough to use on the banks (bare patch left) though I suspect this has recovered by now.

The track has been less well done, with large boulders left on the surface of what had previously been a grassy field.  The bank on the right though is at a sufficiently low angle to recover quickly and a good example of track design.

The Corriemulzie hydro intake area

The main problem with the Corriemulzie scheme is around the main intake.  It was not pristine prior to the hydro and the hill track and vehicle use had caused some needless damage.

The hydro scheme and burn is just to the left. Note the steep bank down to the track.

 

The planning however was a chance to restore past damage and the intake was intended to look like this:

 

Photomontage from CNPA Planning Committee report which approved the scheme in December 2013

If this had been delivered, I would be congratulating Braemar Community Hydro and the Cairngorms National Park Authority whose landscape adviser had said “the location of intake is a small but very scenic a ‘gem’ of a location” and recommended the utmost care.

 

Unfortunately, what has happened is completely different to what was intended.

In order to build the dam the burn needed to be diverted through a channel created through the (true right) bank above the intake.  The intake as it appeared in September 2016.

 

The bank as it appeared in September 2016

And this is an overview of how the area looks now:

The fundamental issues here are:

  • there has been no effective restoration of the bank along the burn;
  • the bank on the hill was excavated and is far too steep to be restored;
  • the track and turning area are far too wide.

While  there had been obvious attempts at amelioration since September 2016 these have not in my view addressed the fundamental issues.

Four strips of fabric had been applied to the oversteep bank to reduce erosion but this has had no impact.   There is no sign of vegetation re-establishing itself and the problems have been increased by deer (you can see hoof marks between 2nd and 3rd strips) walking down the slope.

 

View across burn above intake

There has been “compensatory” tree planting but no attempt to restore vegetation to the bank of the burn.   This should have been done months ago at the beginning of the growing season.

A new signboard has been erected by the intake.   The line of pylons is rather ironic given CNPA’s opposition to the Beauly Denny and I wonder what Prince Charles, who opened the scheme, and talks so much about architectural standards and traditional landscapes thought about the destruction.  Its as if, though, everyone at the official opening had their eyes shut.

 

Despite the atrocious finishing along the bank and track, this photos shows some good things about the scheme.  You can just see the pipe from the second hydro running below the bridge – you won’t see it unless you look out for it – and the CNPA told the developer there was no need to erect fencing around the intake.  I agree.     All that good design though counts for little if the destruction round about is not addressed.

 

So what has gone wrong?

 

I have tried since the weekend to look through planning documents.  There are pages of them, one document submitted by Braemar Community Hydro is over 200 pages long, and seems to cover everything except a description of the detailed work that was planned to construct the main intake.    The CNPA landscape adviser drew attention to this in an appendix to the Committee Report and recommended further detailed plans were required before planning consent was given.   The Committee however gave approval on condition these documents were produced but unfortunately these documents, if they were produced, are not on the CNPA website.    It is possible therefore that the CNPA allowed this development to go ahead without a proper landscape plan for the intake area.    If so, that in effect allowed the contractor to do what they wanted in the intake area and undermined all the other efforts staff had made to ensure this scheme was of the highest standard possible.  One small mistake can have huge consequences.

 

However, I don’t think all the emphasis should be on paperwork, which is beyond the capacity of any  community organisation to deliver and which means they have to put themselves in the hands of consultants.   I suspect if there was a hole in the paperwork, Braemar Community Hydro did not appreciate this either.

 

A fundamental problem with the proliferation of hydro schemes is that monitoring their construction is not being properly resourced.  I think if there had been someone properly qualified on site, the bank on the hillside would never have been excavated because it would have been only too obvious it could not be restored properly.   The problem is our National Parks rely on developers appointing an Ecological Clerk of Works to do the supervision and these people are beholden to the developer/contractor who pay their wages – they are therefore not independent.   It may also be the case – given the many failures to restore construction tracks – that they don’t have the right skills.

The ground above the pipeline to the second intake has not bee restored well and will, as a result, take a much longer time to recover than it should have with increased erosion.

A related  issue is that both our National Parks only appear to start proper monitoring once construction is almost complete.  Here is what CNPA Chief Executive Grant Moir told me in January:

 

“CNPA staff noted various breaches at the site in April 2016 during a routine monitoring visit.  The agent was immediately contacted by phone to express concern and also contacted in writing.  CNPA staff and the agent for the development met on site in May 2016 to discuss how to reinstate or mitigate the unauthorised or unsatisfactory works.  The agent provided an initial written programme of reinstatement works in June 2016 which the CNPA did not consider satisfactory”

 

What a commendable response and the contrast with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority who treat everything as a Freedom of Information Request is striking.   The problem though is once the construction has gone wrong, and created unnecessary damage, this becomes very difficult and very expensive to put right.  Our National Parks need to try and find a way of preventing problems rather than detecting them after the event.

The small second intake, the pipe runs to the right of the blocks of trees which have been planted.

Lots of tree planting should not be seen as compensation for poor ground restoration work.

What needs to happen

 

I hope this post has demonstrated that the way the planning system operates at present, even when our National Parks’ have taken considerable and commendable efforts with hydro developments, they can go badly wrong.

 

The focus of the CNPA and Braemar Community Hydro needs to be around addressing the landscape damage around the first intake.   I think that to remedy the damage will require considerable expertise and require money.  If the contractor cannot be made liable, it means the shareholders for the hydro, who were expecting a 5-8% return (there is interesting information on the finances on the community hydro website), Mar Estate which is charging rent (and was responsible for previous damage in the area) and the community may have to wait for their return.  It seems to people that all the people who were going to gain from this development have a collective responsibility to ensure that this is not at the expense of the landscape.   Success would then be being able to promote this as being a nice place to go for a walk again – a “small gem” in the National Park – as it was in the past.

 

In terms of planning system failures, it seems to me these are twofold.  First, not nearly enough emphasis is put on the landscape impact of construction prior to planning approval.   Planning applications consider the wider impact on the landscape but not the more localised impact.  Its hard to see the Corriemulzie intake from any distance but the local impact is huge.   Our National Parks should be exemplars of good practice in this respect but they generally approve hydro schemes in principle without detailed Construction Method Statements.  Then, once a scheme is approved in principle, its much harder for staff to influence and its probably less of a priority, because they are judged on the time it takes from planning application to approval.    None of this is the fault of planning staff, its the system and that needs to change.

 

Second, the focus of monitoring needs to shift from the end stage of the construction to the beginning and be independent of both developer and contractor.    This would prevent problems arising.  For example, if our National Parks were ensuring all vegetation was properly removed and stored before pipelines were dug or tracks created or broadened, restoration would then be far more effective.

 

For this to happen though, our National Parks, like all our public authorities, need to be properly resourced.

 

Lastly,  it would be good, given what I see as their good intentions, if the CNPA, Braemar Community Hydro and the other main players had a proper discussion, a post mortem if you like, about what lessons might be learned and then publicised this so they could be used to inform the development of hydro schemes, both community and commercial, in future.

July 10, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist

Following my posts on the Ledcharrie (see here), Coilessan  (see here) Glen Clova and Glen Prosen (see here) and (see here) hill tracks I contacted the heads of planning in both National Park Authorities to find out what they were doing about this.  The responses could not have been more different.   The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority treating my request under Freedom of Information, delaying their response and then refusing to divulge information.  The Cairngorms National Park Authority answering my questions and promising to make information on their planning portal.

 

The LLTNPA response to Ledcharrie

On 11th June (see here) I asked Stuart Mearns, Head of Planning (and copied in the Park’s Convener of Planning Petra Biberbach) for all the information required by the Park’s Decision Notice approving the Ledcharrie scheme in principle , the dates of monitoring visits and any correspondence/information about enforcement.  On Friday, I received  this unsigned refusal EIR 2017- 050 Response Ledcharrie from someone, they have not put their name to the letter, claiming to be a Governance Manager.

 

The  LLTNPA’s reason for refusing the information, would if accepted, represent a massive step back for the planning system:

 

The documentation submitted by the developer to comply with conditions set out in the planning decision has been withheld from release under R10(5)(b) of the EIR’s as the information relates to live operational activities which are currently being monitored by the Park Authority. Not all conditions have been discharged.

 

Section R10 (5) b of the Environmental Information Regulations reads:

 

(5) A Scottish public authority may refuse to make environmental information available to the extent that its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially–

(b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of any public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature;

 

The Park is in effect is claiming that to make public any information required by a Decision Notice could interfere with the course of justice – presumably a reference to potential enforcement action.   Leave aside the fact that the LLTNPA has almost never taken enforcement action, this is complete and utter rubbish.  The Decision Notice of 2015 required the Developer to provide lots of further information including construction methods for all aspects of the scheme, detailed landscape mitigation and restoration techniques, a turve protection plan, a peat protection plan, a raptor survey, etc before any work started.  A commendable list.   If these had all been supplied as required and approved by the Park Authority there is no reason at all why they should not be made public, as they form part of the approval, nothing to do with enforcement.  That is a separate matter which comes afterwards as is about whether the Developer kept to the conditions that had been agreed.   Indeed making such documents public would have enabled interested parties to judge for themselves whether the conditions had been adhered to and report potential breaches to the Park.

 

If the Developer had not provided all the information required – and the Park has refused even to say whether the Developer has or hasn’t done this –  the Park should not have allowed construction to go ahead.   What the Park appears to be saying is that none of the detailed specifications for developments should be made public until the file is closed (once monitoring is complete).   This makes the Park as Planning Authority almost totally unaccountable and would be a retrograde step for the planning system.

 

The Coilessan track

 

In response to my questions on the Coilessan track on 28th June (see here), and in particular whether Forestry Commission Scotland had told the Park about this under the Prior Notification System, I have had an email from Stuart Mearns saying I should get a response by 26th July.   That’s almost a month but at least Mr Mearns responded himself rather than passing straight on to the Park’s Secrecy Department.

 

The CNPA’s response to information requests on enforcement and hill tracks

 

The contrast to the CNPA’s response to my emails on the Glen Prosen and Glen Clova tracks could not be greater.  Here are some extracts from Gavin Miles, Head of Planning’s emails:

 

We are looking at the Glen Prosen Hydro tracks. The CMS [construction method statement] etc should be uploaded to our public access planning pages this week or next. If there’s anything that doesn’t get uploaded we’ll let you know and will send it to you in the formal FOI/Environmental Information Request response format.

 

If the CNPA can add Construction Method Statements to their planning portal so the public can see what has been agreed in cases where enforcement action is possible, so can the LLTNPA.  Well done the CNPA for being transparent!

 

Just to make things slightly easier for us to identify on the maps and aerial photography, it would be helpful if you could send an image of the map that shows the bits you walked or are concerned about if they don’t appear to you to be part of a consent or application.

 

It gives you confidence when the Planning Authority asks for further information about exact locations (I had sent them photos and a general description of where I had walked).   My mate who I was running with told me afterwards that if you use Strava, it not only plots your entire course, it can give the exact location for photos – a useful tip for anyone wanting to report on hill tracks.

 

The CMS we have for the Clova Hydro scheme will be uploaded to the public access planning pages. Just to be clear, we haven’t taken any enforcement action against the Clova track at this point. The Planning Contravention Notice (PCN) is a fact-finding notice.

 

Honesty about what the CNPA is doing.  Quite a contrast to the LLTNPA who want to keep everything secret.

 

A comparision between the two National Parks

 

The CNPA  is far from perfect and I have criticised its planning department in a number of posts, particularly the way they handled the Shieling Hill Track at Cairngorm and also their decision to stop recording planning meetings, which in my view was a retrograde step.   I believe that as a National Park Authority they could do better but at present they are a country mile ahead of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.    Their Partnership Plan includes a presumption against new hill tracks, the LLTNPA draft plan says nothing.  They are prepared to be open about what they are doing (at least some of the time), the LLTNPA reveals nothing unless its forced to.   They are trying to put more information on the planning portal, the LLTNPA has been removing information post-decision saying the law does not require such information to be published.

 

One might not always agree with the CNPA but it is possible to have a dialogue.  The LLTNPA does not do dialogue:  if you don’t agree with them, you get shut out of processes.

 

The explanation for this difference is not just about differences in staff (and who knows what pressure Stuart Mearns is under from his Chief Executive Gordon Watson), it is I believe about Board Members.   Petra Biberbach was on the Scottish Government’s independent review of the planning system which included these statements:

 

“Consistency and transparency of information are central to the reputation and smooth running of the development management system.”   

 

“The increasing use of social media and online portals is in our view a more resource efficient and effective way of communicating casework with the wider public.”

 

So, why has she apparently done nothing to make the LLTNPA as planning authority more transparent?

 

Contrast this with Cllr Bill Lobban who is on the CNPA Board and was Highland Council Convener of Planning;  he criticised the CNPA for not recording planning meetings as webcasts and argued that Councils were better placed to fulfil the planning function.  In other words there are people on the CNPA Board who keep staff on their toes.

 

What needs to happen

 

I hope the refusal of LLTNPA staff to provide information about the Ledcharrie Scheme does not have to go to the Information Commissioner for Decision and that Petra Biberbach as convener of the Planning Committee, insists the Park’s Chief Executive Gordon Watson instructs staff to make the information public as recommended in the independent review of planning report which she co-authored “Empowering planning to deliver great places”.