Category: Cairngorms

While working on Tuesday’s post, I was delighted to get a letter (see here) from the acting Chief Executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Charlotte Wright, who has confirmed my claims (see here) that there is NO masterplan at Cairngorm:

So, the acting Chief Executive of HIE now considers the word masterplan inaccurate when it was the  hie news release of 12th April, in which she was quoted, which introduced the term masterplan through its headline “Masterplan Agreed for CairnGorm Mountain”!   While I do appreciate Charlotte Wright might not have seen the HIE News Release which quoted, either it was a deliberate attempt to mislead the public, a lie in normal parlance, or HIE staff would appear to have no understanding of the difference between a “Business Plan” and a “Master Plan”.    Neither explanation inspires much confidence.

 

While the letter is in response to my FOI request, it contains another extraordinary claim:

The statement “we understand that CML have conducted a consultation with………….Scottish Natural Heritage”,  which to most people would imply that these meetings took place without HIE being involved, is totally disingenuous.    HIE staff appear to have been fully involved.   How do we know?  Through SNH’s FOI response to George Paton and myself which provided emails about the “consultation” meetings which included HIE staff members Keith Bryers and Susan Smith.   Here is an example:

Its worth reading the second main paragraph of the email to note the response to the criticism of the mess at Cairngorm last summer which was extensively covered on parkswatch – it may have been discussed but every little was then done about it!

The problems with lack of transparency and misrepresentation at HIE go very deep.   I had also asked HIE for the minute of the April HIE Board Meeting which approved the £4million loan to Natural Retreats but this is still not on their website.  How the £4m (see here) could be agreed by the Board when Charlotte Craig, the Acting Chief Executive, claims in her letter above that “the outcomes postulated in the Business Plan are not finalised or certain of certain”  is difficult to understand and I believe should be a matter of great public concern.   The failure of governance is even worse because the Board know Cairngorm Mountain must be trading at a large loss (see quote below) and should also be aware that Natural Assets Investment Ltd which owns them are effectively bankrupt, so then to approve a loan without an agreed business plan seems quite extraordinary.

 

The minutes of the February HIE meeting have now been published (unlike other public authorities there appear to be no Board Papers in the public realm)  and contain this reference to Cairngorm:

 

At Cairngorm, HIE staff were continuing to work very closely with operating company Natural Retreats, which was suffering from a complete lack of any significant snowfall to date during the 2016/17 winter season. Building local engagement through stakeholder relations remained a key area of focus. A revised masterplan for Cairngorm Mountain Ltd was expected to be presented to the HIE Board in June.

 

Ignore the misrepresentations to the Board – what local engagement to build stakeholder relations has taken place?  – companies don’t have masterplans, only business plans.  A masterplan would be for Cairngorm, not Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.  Perhaps this is an error in the minute but unless there is after all a masterplan, it looks like the business plan was due to be completed in June but for some reason was approved by HIE, incomplete, in April.   If this is the case HIE need to explain why.

 

Keen readers, who read all of Charlotte Craig’s letter, will have noted that HIE are, in response to my FOI,  refusing to divulge the business plan for Cairngorm on the basis that it contains “commercial information that is not publicly available and the disclosure of which would harm the legitimate economic interests of Natural Retreats” and that there is “no public interest in Natural Retreats’ competitors being given access to confidential business information” .     I think this is totally wrong and will appeal.  The public interest is surely in knowing why the business plan is so good that  HIE are prepared to commit a further £4m of public money to Natural Retreats when Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, in the 9 months till December 2015 (see here for full analysis), made an operating loss of £1,219,606 and ended up with net liabilities of £1,316,645.  To make matters even more risky at the end of the same period its parent company, Natural Assets Investment Ltd, had net liabilities of £22,831,678.    Just what is the public justification for lending public money to a company that  only continues to function due to guarantees from its ultimate owner, the hedge fund manager, David Michael Gorton?

 

What needs to happen

 

  • The HIE Board need to get a handle on what staff are presenting to them about Natural Retreats and the plans at Cairngorm
  • Charlotte Craig, the Acting Chief Executive, needs to get a handle on what staff are doing and writing in her name.
  • HIE needs to explain why its lending £4m to a company that appears effectively bankrupt and whose business plan has not been finalised.
  • Audit Scotland should start asking some of these questions
Photomontage of Option 1 for proposed redevelopment of Ptarmigan.  As well as the raised viewing tower, note the glass viewing area added to  design

I understand that Natural Retreats were not happy last week that their proposals for Cairngorm were obtained through Freedom of Information (see here).   As John Hutchison pointed out on twitter in response to my post, the secrecy at Cairngorm rather undermines – or perhaps reinforces the need for! –  the current Scottish Government consultation onengaging with local communities on decisions about land (see here).     While the draft guidance states there is no need for additional consultation where statutory consultation is required, it appears Natural Retreats and HIE are planning to submit a bog standard planning application without any specific consultation with the local community, let alone with the recreational community or conservation organisations, as would be required if a proper masterplan was developed.    No change then to the way HIE has always operated at Cairngorm, plans are developed in secret and then presented as agreed.

 

More development, high up on Cairngorm, is totally inappropriate

 

Design Option 2 for the Ptarmigan

 

Before considering why HIE are pushing the development of the Ptarmigan, its worth stating clearly why the proposal is fundamentally flawed:

 

  • Its near the summit of Cairngorm, one of our finest and best known hills.  Its not the sort of place where a National Park, whose mission is to protect our finest landscapes, should be allowing further development.
  • HIE and Natural Retreats will doubtlessly argue that the increased visual impact created by their proposals will not be that significant, but the job of the National Park should be to see that existing impacts are reduced, not increased.
  • In tourist terms, Cairngorm is covered in cloud for much of the time so why would anyone take a train up to near the summit to see…………….. nothing?   The concept is all wrong.  If you want to get people to take trains or gondolas up mountains, they need to finish somewhere with a view.  In Scotland, this means taking people half way up the hill where they might get a view most days of the year, like the Aonach Mor gondola, not onto the Cairngorm plateau.
  • Most tourists, however,  want more than a view, which after all you can see easily enough on film.  They want to experience the outdoors in some way, which means a walk.  Leaving aside the legal agreement, which prevents non-skiers from leaving the stop station, Cairngorm is not a good place for a walk most of the time – the weather is just too wild, though maybe Natural Retreats think will buy a ticket up the funicular so they can be blown about on a viewing platform.  Of course, Cairngorm in fine weather is wonderful, which is why so many people care about the place, but those days are far to few to support mass tourism developments high on the mountain

 

For these reasons further developments high on Cairngorm are objectionable in principle, something which conservation and recreational organisations have been trying to tell HIE for over twenty years.

 

Why do HIE and Natural Retreats want to develop the Ptarmigan?

 

While its not clear at present why the earlier plans to develop the Day Lodge were dropped, the current proposals suggest this is all about the funicular.   The risk of developing the Day Lodge into a visitor and conference centre is that on those wet and cloudy days, people would not have bothered to buy a ticket up the funicular.

 

The funicular was supposed to increase the number of summer visitors to Cairngorm but Natural Retreats figures (from last year) say it all:  “210,000 annual visitors (120,000 in winter and 90,000 in summer) with vast potential to increase”.    The aim of the new Ptarmigan development appears to be to try and attract more summer visitors to Cairngorm.:

Extract from slide obtained through FOI “Cairngorm Mountain Resort Development Plans”

 

The initial plan was to increase visitor numbers through the creation of three mountain bike trails down from the funicular top station, as mooted in press.   However, it appears the other public agencies made it clear they would not relax the legal agreement preventing people from leaving the top station.  This is not surprising. One could hardly justify mountain bikers  leaving the stop station while pedestrians were stuck inside.

Advice from SNH obtained through FOI

Once the mountain biking proposal was dropped, the only option was to try and think of ways of turning the Ptarmigan into a tourist attraction which visitors would want to visit even though they were unlikely to see anything and would not be allowed out for a walk.   Hence the proposals for viewing towers in the top two photomontages and for a wrap around viewing platform added on to the existing building (purple area below):

This and following slides all from documents entitled “Cairngorms Mountain Resort Development Plans” obtained through FOI

And, in order to give people an “authentic” taste of the outdoors, a board walk out over the top of the funicular tunnel was proposed:

 

Inside, the idea is first to provide a visitor attraction:

 

 

Then, a much larger cafe so people have somewhere to go and spend money after viewing the exhibitions.

 

And finally, to encourage people arriving at Cairngorm to buy the ticket up the funicular, a partial facelift for the funicular entrance and funicular itself are proposed:

 

Why the proposals are misguided and what needs to happen

Whatever you think of the designs – and the firms that have developed them, 365 and 442, have some very skilled people – the problem is they are for a development in the wrong place:

 

  • Adding glass covered walkways and viewing towers to a visitor facility is a good idea but not appropriate for Cairngorm
  • The proposals for the exhibition may be interesting, but the place for a visitor centre is lower down the mountain, where people can go out afterwards and experience some of what has been shown as in Coire cas.
  • The blingy funicular upgrade might be a great idea for Blackpool but not Cairngorm

 

The basic problem is that HIE are still hooked on trying to increase funicular numbers in summer, still trying to make their asset pay.  They don’t appear to understand most people who visit the National Park in summer want to be outside.  Why would such people ever want to take the funicular when they have the whole of Glenmore to experience?   A visitor centre might be a good option for a wet day but a visitor centre up the top of a mountain on a wet day will be a disappointing experience.

 

Maybe HIE has conducted proper visitor surveys providing evidence that lots of people visiting Glenmore would pay to visit such a facility and this has informed their decision to lend £4 to Natural Retreats – but somehow I doubt it (I will ask).   Consultation is not HIE’s forte.

 

A little early engagement with all interests (and not just public authorities) – as recommended by the Scottish Government – would prevent HIE adding to the financial disaster of the funicular, for which it of course was responsible.

 

Meantime, there is no sign of any proper plan being developed for Cairngorm.  HIE was tasked under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy with producing a Cairngorm Estate Management Plan – there is still no sign of this or the proposed Montane Woodland Project on Cairngorm and in my view both should have been agreed BEFORE any development proposals.    The Cairngorms National Park Authority also asked Natural Retreats to produce a set of standards to guide their operations on the mountain and there has been no sign of this either.

 

Its time for the Cairngorms National Park Authority to start speaking up for Cairngorm and a first step would be to ask Natural Retreats and HIE to start consulting on all the other proposed plans before any development proposals are considered.  If they are also feeling brave, they could  point out to HIE and Natural Retreats that the priority for sustaining the local economy is maintaining winter visitor numbers, not summer visitors.

Photomontage of option 1 for Ptarmigan contained in undated Cairngorm Mountain; Pre-planning feasibility document

After Highlands and Enterprise announced a masterplan had been agreed for Cairngorm, without actually releasing any details of its proposals (see here), I asked for these under Freedom of Information.  I was refused (see here) and on 24th April I submitted a formal review request as required under Freedom of Information procedures.  Meantime, a number of other FOI requests were submitted to other Public Authorities about what information they held about the proposals for Cairngorm and the first response was from Scottish Natural Heritage (well done SNH!).  Along with the response letter  were  over 20 MB of documents.

 

The information SNH has provided shows that HIE’s claim that “the CML Master Plan is commercially sensitive and cannot be published at this time” is complete rubbish.  There is NO commercially sensitive information in the document but HIE’s usual modus operandi is secrecy.  It appears HIE’s  main concern is to keep consultation about the proposals it has developed with Natural Retreats as limited as possible and to try and stitch up a deal with other public agencies before any consultation takes place.     This is wrong.

 

Its still not possible from the FOI material to tell exactly what is being proposed at Cairngorm and, I am pretty certain, SNH and the other public authorities don’t know either.  This is evidenced by an extract from a letter from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to Highland Council dated 17th March 2017:

 

The revised masterplan mentioned in the SEPA letter appears to refer to a brochure produced by Natural Retreats (one of several)  which contains this photomontage, again undated:

Spot the difference with the earlier version below:

Yes, the label to the green line has been removed but not the line itself!

 

HIE in their press release on 12th April announcing the “agreed masterplan” for Cairngorm, focused entirely on the Ptarmigan and Dry ski slope and made no mention of a funicular tunnel boardwalk, the shieling garage extension or changes to the car park contained in the “revised masterplan”. Its not clear therefore whether these are now being proposed or not.

Location of mountain boardwalk as contained within earlier version of the “masterplan”

What does appear to have happened though is that proposals to develop mountain bike trails across Cairngorm have been dropped, for the time-being at least:

 

Having debriefed after the meetings we have decided to drop any plans for Mountain Biking
from this masterplan which leaves our current plans focussing on the artificial ski slope and
improvements to the Ptarmigan (email from Natural Retreats 26th October 2016)

 

Diagrams of what was being considered did appear in earlier versions of the “Masterplan brochures” produced by Natural Retreats:

 

The pre-planning feasibility document is focussed on the two new developments announced by HIE, an extension to the Ptarmigan and a dry ski slope, which suggests it is the most up to date document about what is being proposed.  It also contains a statement which suggests that HIE and Natural Retreats are no longer proposing any proper masterplan as such:

 

Now normally a masterplan would require an Environment Impact Assessment – Flamingo Land is producing one for Balloch (see here)  – so no EIA, no masterplan.    HOWEVER, the screening response referred to is NOT on the Highland Council Planning portal although there is a decision letter dated 24th February 2016 screening opinion coire cas,  which contains this statement (the capitals are as per the letter) which is very clear:

 

Screening Opinion

It is considered that Environmental Impact Assessment IS required for the development described in the letter and information accompanying your screening request.

 

I hope that the Cairngorms National Park Authority will support this and insist a proper Environmental Impact Assessment is submitted before any planning applications are considered but also that a plan is produced for the whole mountain.  What needs to be avoided is a situation where Natural Retreats and HIE come back with additional proposals, such as mountain bike trails, at a later date.  There needs to be a comprehensive plan for Cairngorm.

 

One thing the material does show is that whatever is actually being proposed,  the “project” its well behind schedule:

 

 

I will cover the proposed new developments – which are to be financed through a £4m loan from HIE in detail in a future post.  Meantime here is a photomontage of the design and location of the proposed dry ski slopes (there is also a green option).   Comments welcome!

Cairngorm Mountain: pre-planning feasibility document
The unauthorised tip/storage area at the former Fiacaill T-bar loading area in Coire Cas has grown in  size

Publicly, all has gone quiet at Cairngorm, though these photos taken last week during the dry weather tell a tale.

 

Coire Cas

Unauthorised tip at White Lady loading area
Yet more dumping and evidence of a lack of care

The promised clean up of Cairngorm does not appear to have lasted long.

Evidence of the basic lack of care by Natural Retreats, even of what is new, is not hard to find:

Buttons from new shieling rope tow, paid for by Highlands and Islands Enterprise for a cost of £82,243 left lying on the ground.

Judging by this work, the new Sunkid tow may not have been properly installed in the first place – who is paying for this, HIE or Natural Retreats who supervised the works?

About 1/3 way up the Shieling track, there is evidence of water seepage  despite the long dry spell.  In my critique of the Cairngorms National Park Committee Report which approved the retrospective planning application (see here) I raised concerns about the impact of the track on the drainage:

  • There is no attempt to describe the extent of the area where works took place in breach of the planning permission (the application was for a strip of ground 30m broad).   This is important because without a description of what has been done, the CNPA is not in a position to stipulate what remedial measures are required.
  • Related to this, there is NO description of the impacts of the works on the hydrology of the area.

It doesn’t take any expertise in hydrology to appreciate that the track has not been properly constructed – patches are soft and spongy – and will not be able to bear regular vehicle use.  Indeed the photo below shows how its continuing to erode even in a dry spell.

 

Meanwhile the CNPA’s agreement to grant planning permission to this track retrospectively has done nothing to stop Natural Retreats’ staff from driving vehicles all over the hillside causing yet more damage.

Still, on the plus side, Natural Retreats do appear to have started to repair the monoblock outside the Shieling:

You can judge the quality of the repair for yourself.

Treatment of staff

 

Meantime, this advert  appeared recently http://www.environmentjob.co.uk/adverts/64102-senior-ranger.   The Rangers were the people who have tried to repair all the damage caused by Natural Retreats at Cairngorm – I met one last year re-seeding a bulldozed area, trying his best to restore the damage caused around the Cas Gantry by the “de minimis” emergency works there. The advert describes the Senior Ranger “as an important cog in the operation of Cairngorm Mountain”.   “Cog” tells you something.

 

Natural Retreats are proposing to pay the lead person with the expertise to care for the environment at Cairngorm all of £22-24k………and its worth reading the job description for what they are expected to do, including working bank holidays and weekends for no extra pay apparently……….tells you something more about how little Natural Retreats value their staff and the environment.   While the average UK salary is now apparently £27k, wages in Scotland are lower and wages in the Cairngorms National Park lower still.

 

The contrast between what Natural Retreats pay their staff – and they have taken over the Ranger Service from HIE – and the wealth of David Michael Gorton, the man who basically owns and controls the Natural Retreats suite of companies (see here) is striking.   According to efinancial careers (see here):

 

In 2002, London Diversified [the Hedge Fund he set up] spun out on its own. Initially, it did well. In 2004, Gorton and two others are said to have shared a 55m payout and the business expanded to around 70 people.

 

Yes, you have read that right, and this was just 14 months after David Gorton and two others had setup the fund.  London Diversified was subsequently hit by the financial crisis – caused of course by the casino capitalism of the city of which it was part – and the assets it managed collapsed from $5 billion to $300m.   David Michael Gorton though would appear to remain a very rich man  being party in 2015 to a £12.5m divorce settlement (see here).

 

The disparity – gulf would be a more accurate term –  between Mr Gorton’s wealth and the low pay at Cairngorm is not accidental, its connected and a reflection of our neo-liberal capitalist times.   The rich have got richer at the expense of others.    In my view the primary purpose of the Natural Retreats suite of businesses  has nothing to do with caring for the environment or the people working at Cairngorm, its a vehicle for making money for its ultimate owner and one way that is done is by paying staff as little possible.

 

The other way is to invest as little money as possible in the environment and that is reflected in what you can still see on the ground at Cairngorm.

 

Coire na Ciste

 

The area by the former Coire na Ciste chair lift, where planning consent has now been granted to remove the abandoned buildings (and rightly so), is still a dump.

The Aonach Poma loading gantry – its been in this state for almost 7 years now

The historic neglect at Cairngorm of course is not Natural Retreats’ responsibility – its the responsibility of HIE.   There have been no planning applications to demolish or remove the other abandoned infrastructure in Coire na Ciste and, because the masterplan for Cairngorm is still secret (see here), its not clear whether there are any such plans.

Natural Retreats’ lease however covers the whole ski area, including Coire na Ciste, and while the delapidated buildings and infrastructure may be HIE’ responsibility, Natural Retreats does have responsibility for the general amenity of the area.

Collapsed snow fencing,  approaching West Wall poma upload area

Natural Retreats also has a specific responsibility for maintenance of snow fencing, though its not clear if anything has been agreed with HIE about removal and replacement of old snow fencing in Coire na Ciste.

Abandoned chairlift sheaves which have been on the ground since 2012

Again, while this has not been caused by Natural Retreats, their purchase of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd has not resulted in any improvements to the historic delapidation and rubbish in Coire na Ciste.

Windblown? pipe January 2017 Photo Credit Louis Mullen

 

 

 

However, judging by the age of this pipe, Natural Retreats appears to have added to it.   The Allt na Ciste, within the ski area, has collected all sorts of rubbish and needs a clean-up.

 

What needs to happen?

 

The secret masterplan at Cairngorm needs to be made public and there needs to be a full consultation by HIE and Natural Retreats about how to address the historic neglect at Cairngorm as a precondition to any plans for new developments.

Beauly Denny restoration across A9 from A889 just north of Dalwhinnie. Meall Chuaich left background.  Photo 1/5/17.

 

In my last post on the Beauly Denny restoration (see here), I referred to the apparent contradictory views on who is responsible for ensuring the land is properly restored to its original condition, a requirement of the planning consent for the powerline granted by the Scottish Government.   The  restoration of much of the ground in the Cairngorms National Park falls well short of what we should expect in a National Park (see photos).

 

A Scottish Government official had told me the Cairngorms National Park Authority is responsible for enforcing the planning condition while an officer of the CNPA had told the North East Trust that they thought the Scottish Government is responsible.     I am grateful to the reader who draw my attention to the Guidance from the Scottish Government Energy Consents and Deployment Unit (ECDU) on this topic (see here).

 

Ostensibly the Scottish Government official was right.  The Guidance states:

 

ECDU, in consultation with the relevant Planning Authority, SEPA and SNH, who will all be asked to provide regular reports to ECDU, will monitor the performance of applicants in complying with the above conditions. The discharge, compliance and enforcement of deemed planning conditions is overseen by the relevant planning authority.

 

While there are complexities to the legal position of which is the planning authority in this case, the CNPA not having full planning powers, in practice the CNPA rather than Highland Council has taken the lead on the Beauly Denny (to its credit) so I think it is clear it is responsible for enforcing the planning conditions.

 

The problem however is the Guidance makes it clear that the Scottish Government is responsible for monitoring compliance with the planning conditions.  Its difficult to see how legally CNPA could start taking enforcement action unless the Scottish Government accepted this was needed:  Scottish and Southern Electric as developer could probably block any enforcement action in court on the basis that there was no evidence that the Scottish Government as the  official monitoring body was concerned about the quality of the “restoration”.

 

So what is the position of the Scottish Government on the quality of the restoration?

 

Next pylon south from that in top photo showing poor “restoration” around the tower and along the track. From a distance some of the landscape impact is reduced because of the large areas of muirburn but is likely to become more prominent as summer progresses.

 

From what I have been able to ascertain from a Freedom of Information request to the CNPA, the Scottish Government is doing very little to monitor critically the performance of SSE.   While I might be wrong about this – I have not for example asked the SG yet for the information they hold on this – what appears to be happening is the SG are  meeting SSE without SNH and CNPA present.   Indeed CNPA were kept so far out the loop that in July 2015 the liaison process had to be explained to them by SSE 150729BDUpdateMeetingNote.

 

This is important because  the CNPA has been raising serious concerns about the standard of the restoration.   First, the then convener of the CNPA Duncan Bryden wrote to SSE outlining their serious concerns after a Board visit to the site 250615trackrestorationSSE:

 

Despite a long period of period of pre planning and preparation it does not appear to the CNPA that the methods used are commensurate with National Park sensitivities (including Natura 2000 designations), nor the high- profile nature of the works, immediately adjacent to and often highly visible from the A9, Highland main line, National Cycle Route 7  and surrounding Munros.  For example, the original vegetation and turfs have not been removed and stored in such a way as to facilitate regeneration and there has been significant soil compaction and mixing of soil horizons.

 

These concerns were reinforced by CNPA officers at the meeting in July when the asked some SSE some crucial questions:

 

Why, given that certain activities had been planned, had they not then been implemented? Why, given that this was always known to be a challenging and high profile site, and that work was going on at present were the plans for re-vegetation/restoration not at more advanced stage?

 

The response from SSE, which claims to a company with aspirations to being green and socially responsible, avoids the issues 250615trackrestorationSSE Mr D Bryden CNPA Response 26 August 2015:

The photographic evidence in my view contradicts the claim by SSE that “there have been isolated issues surrounding the separation and storage of soils” and that the whole project has been very successful.    The Scottish Government needs to test the corporate governance speak against what can be seen on the ground.

Travelling down the A9 on 1st May I took photos of almost every tower you can see from the road. The impact on soils and vegetation is not hard to see as with this pylon south of North Drumochter Lodge

 

While I have not yet been able to work out the numbers of all the pylons, in the monitoring produced in October 2016 SSE states that for almost all pylons on this section of line “Re-instatement of the soils is to an acceptable standard”.  The photos I believe show otherwise and that the CNPA was completely right to raise concerns.

 

What needs to happen

 

What’s not in the public realm at present (as far as I have been able to ascertain) is whether the  CNPA’s concerns have been submitted to the Scottish Government, and if so what the Scottish Government’s response has been.   What is needed is join up between the Scottish Government’s ECDU and the CNPA and SNH.  While a first step would be joint monitoring meetings, I think there also needs to be a joint approach to remedying what has gone wrong.

 

Meantime, at the end of April there was some good news about the impact of the Beauly Denny on the landscape in the National Park (see here).   The pylons between Aviemore and Kingussie, including those that blight the extension to the Speyside Way (see here), are being removed.  Although the CNPA did not manage to block the Beauly Denny they did achieve removal of these powerlines as a compensatory measure.   The challenge now for the CNPA (and for landscape campaigners)  is not to allow the Scottish Government to treat that welcome “compensatory improvement” as sufficient and the Beauly Denny as job done while burying their heads in the new soils that have been created at Drumochter.

The results of the Local Government elections last Thursday are likely to lead to a significant change in the composition of both National Park Boards over the next few months which provides an opportunity for all who care about how our National Parks operate at present.    The headline is that eight of the thirteen current nominees from Councils appointed by the Scottish Government to sit on the National Park Boards either lost their seats or failed to be re-elected last week and their term of office on the National Park Board is due to finish soon.

 

Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park

  • Hazell Wood (Lab) West Dunbartonshire Council – lost seat
  • James Robb (SLD) Argyll and Bute – lost seat
  • Fergus Wood (SNP) Stirling – lost seat to Tory
  • Bob Ellis (SNP) Perth and Kinross – did not stand
  • Martin Earl (Con) Stirling – re-elected
  • George Freeman (Ind) Argyll and Bute – re-elected

Cairngorms National Park

  • Jeanette Gaul (SNP) Angus – lost seat to Tory
  • Fiona Murdoch  Moray – did not stand
  • Kate Howie (SNP) Perth and Kinross – did not stand
  • Gregor Rimmell (SLD) Highland – lost seat
  • Bill Lobban (Ind) Highland – re-elected
  • Peter Argyle (SLD) Aberdeenshire – re-elected
  • John Latham (SLD) Aberdeenshire – re-elected

 

Two individual results will stand out to regular readers of Parkswatch.

 

Re-election of Bill Lobban

Bill Lobban was re-elected to the Speyside Ward of Highland Council at the first count (along with a Tory) with 1,189 votes.   It appears that local electors have not agreed with the Cairngorms National Park Authority that local councillors allegiance should be to the National Park Board rather than their local electors or their own Council (see here).   I hope that strengthens the ability of more Board Members to speak out like Bill on important matters and forces the CNPA to re-think their current doctrine of corporate responsibility which means they require Councillors to agree with decisions even when their own Council has adopted a diametrically opposed viewpoint.

 

Whether they will do so is less certain.  On 18th May the CNPA is running corporate social  media training which “includes ‘rules’ for how to use your personal social media accounts as a CNPA employee / Board Member”.    The trend in our National Parks, as with other public bodies, is that it is being made ever harder for Board Members to speak out or disagree.   The Board needs members like Bill Lobban who are prepared to speak out and I hope Highland Council will nominate him again and the Minister will appoint him.

 

Fergus Wood

 

Fergus Wood, the former SNP Councillor for Strathard, received, 776 votes, significantly less than his colleague Evelyn Tweed who received 1090 votes and far less than the Tory Martin Earl on 2027 votes.  Earl’s fellow Tory, who gained 662 first round votes, benefitted from the STV system and replaced Fergus Wood.

 

While there has been a general swing to the Tories,  I believe much of the explanation for Cllr Wood’s defeat appears to lie in his proposals for a new campsite at Strathard (see here).  There have been a large number of local objections to the proposal (see here) which basically argue that this is not the right location for a campsite.  Many are not against camping, and indeed a number of objections suggest the campsite would be better located closer to Mr Wood’s own house to preserve the open fields by the lochshore.

However, I believe the perception locally is that Strathard, which was formerly very quiet, is being made to pay for the camping byelaws and the shortfall in the places where people can now legally camp in the National Park through the creation of an excessive number of campsite places: both the Park’s Loch Chon campsite and now the Fergus Wood campsite.  Added to that there appear to be concerns Fergus Wood may be putting his private interests before those of the community.  He appears to have paid the price for those perceptions.   It will be interesting to see whether Martin Earl, the Tory Councillor who is not on the planning committee, now speaks out against the National Park consensus if officers fail to listen to what the local community are saying – as they did over Loch Chon.

 

The overall picture

 

While legally Councils are not bound to nominate elected members to the Minister to sit on the National Park Boards (they can nominate members of Community Councils or local residents), it appears unlikely they would nominate someone is not a Councillor (sitting on the Board provides a significant income to councillors who are generally underpaid for the work they do).    Hence, there is likely to be a clearout in the next few months.

 

While the Tories generally gained in all the Councils concerned – mainly at the expense of the SNP -and within the Council Wards that cover the National Park, whether the political make-up of the National Park Boards change will depend both on power deals in local councils and on whether the Minister, Roseanna Cunningham then accepts their nominations.    This could involve some interesting political twists.  Generally the Tories have been far strong advocates of National Parks than the SNP (see here) but they are much closer to landed interests which wield so much power within our National Parks.

 

The  clearout of existing Board Members provides an opportunity to reform the way our National Parks currently operate such as:

 

  • putting an end to secret Board meetings in the LLTNPA
  • recording all Board Meetings as webcasts to enable more members of the public to find out what is going on in our National Parks and in the case of the LLTNPA returning all past minutes of meetings to the National Park website
  • refocusing the work of the Board Audit Committees so that these tackle fundamental issues of governance (such as failures in planning enforcement and failures to declare interests)
  • holding chief executives to account e.g ending the practice of complaints against the Chief Executive being investigated by staff managed by them
  • ensuring that there is proper consultation and engagement with recreational interests and visitors to the National Park, instead current practices which favour landowners and business interests

 

Local Councils, before nominating anyone to serve on our National Park Boards, should first ensure that those people publicly commit to improving the way our National Parks operate.  It would be a bonus if they also nominated people who were prepared to speak out on matters such as raptor persecution, the recreational importance of our National Park and sustainable economic development (instead of the current large scale developments driven by business interests).

Letter to Strathy 15th March 2001 courtesy of Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

My apologies to readers that in my post on Curr Wood (see here) which highlighted the importance of the wood to the pine hoverfly, I had missed an article from the Strathy the previous week making this very point and providing some of the history to the site  Strathy 17.4.20 Curr Wood felling concern.   Taken together the articles  raise some serious questions about how species which have been agreed by government as priorities for conservation are being protected in the Cairngorms National Park.

 

Controversy about the management of Curr Wood, which is situated just south of Dulnain Bridge on Speyside, dates back at least 15 years (see letter from Adam Watson above), i.e before the CNPA was created in 2003.   The importance of Curr Wood to wildlife appears linked historically to a sparse  felling regime which has allowed Scots pines to grow older and larger than elsewhere and left much of the ground undisturbed.  Curr Wood hosts the largest population of the twinflower in the UK and is the last remaining refuge of pine hoverfly.  Both are priority species under the UK and Scotland’s Biodiversity Action Plan, although strangely the site itself has not been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).   The site therefore, although of obvious importance to conservation, is not protected as such.

 

Pine hoverfly larvae have very specific habitat requirements.  They develop in rotten pine stumps, usually in association with the pine butt-rot fungus, which are 40 cm in diameter – this is thought because smaller stumps do not provide a sufficient area for the larvae to develop.  After about 8 years, rotten stumps dry out and the hoverfly needs to move on. http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/A1849928.pdf    What this means is if smaller trees are chopped down too early , the stumps are no use for the pine hoverfly, while if too many are chopped at the same time, there is nowhere for them to move on to.   Pine hoverfly are still l found in Curr Wood precisely because the felling has been so selective.   Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) in their statement to the Strathy last week, claiming to have protected pine hoverfly by putting machine exclusion zones in place, appear to have missed the point – for the pine hoverfly its the felling regime that matters.  What FCS has not explained is the likely longer term impact of the felling license on the remaining population of pine hoverfly, and in particular, the likelihood that the pine hoverfly will colonise the areas being felled in future.    If we want to save the pine hoverfly, restricting it to one area of one wood looks a high risk strategy.

 

Both the pine hoverfly and twinflower are  also listed in the Cairngorms Nature Action Plan as being priority species for the National Park.  This was confirmed in the new draft Cairngorms National Park Partnership Plan, to which FCS is a party.   One of the priorities of that plan is “Safeguarding species for which the Cairngorms National Park is particularly important” – which includes the pine hoverfly.    It is legitimate therefore to ask how FCS thought it good enough, after sending a formal consultation to CNPA and RSPB about Curr Wood, to proceed with the felling license when they received no reply.    Did no-one in FCS think of picking up the phone to ask the views of others on the “mitigation measures” it had decided?   This is a failure in Partnership working by public agencies – just what the Partnership Plan is supposed to prevent.

 

Ten years ago (see SNH document above) there was a serious attempt to conserve the pine hoverfly and indeed to re-introduce it to areas such as Rothiemurch, which included the appointment of a dedicated member of staff.   These re-introduction attempts appear to have failed and the pine hoverfly appears to have disappeared from its other refuge, Anagach Wood, so is now confined to Curr Wood.  Even more reason one might have thought for FCS to have worked in partnership with all the parties, including the pine hoverfly Biodiversity Action Plan Steering group, to work out a joint approach for Curr Wood.   That doesn’t seem to have happened so far.  Its time therefore for the CNPA to take a lead here, in terms of partnership working, and to call on FCS to work with other parties, including local people.   One might have hoped that, 14 years after the National Park was created, agencies would be working together more effectively.

 

The unstated issue and challenge behind all of this is land-ownership.   There is something wrong when private landowners can still more or less do what they want on sites vital for conservation in our National Park without considering the wider good.   While the failure to designate the site as a SSSI has no doubt contributed to this, there have been at least four different owners since 2001:   Seafield Estate sold the wood to BSW timber 2001 who sold to Henry Becker in  2002 who then sold on to Billy Martin.   That is not a good way to manage a prime wildlife site which needs a consistent approach.  Instead, Curr Wood has been subject to different owners with different objectives.   More evidence of the need for a new approach to landownership in our National Parks.

 

One option would be for FCS to buy Curr Wood – after all it did stump up £7.4m to buy up part of Rothiemurchus, so why not other woodland of conservation importance in the National Park?

 

The strongest advocates for this site though, as with other areas of woodland on Speyside, appear to be the  people who live near it.    The CNPA in its Partnership Plan included some positive commitments to empowering local communities without saying how it might do this.  So why not engage with the local community about the future of Curr Wood?     While resources to buy the wood might be an issue, why not think ahead?   How about the CNPA  sponsoring a common good fund for the Cairngorms which could assist communities to buy up land in the National Park?    As with the Victorian common good funds, people might even bequeath money for the benefit of the National Park and the people who live in it and enjoy it.

 

A wider perspective on why the CNPA needs to intervene in Curr Wood is given today in an excellent piece by their Chief Executive, Grant Moir, in the Scotsman (see here).   Nature is good for people, so why are we destroying it?    And, Curr Wood even includes a core path!

On 27th April, the same day the above article appeared in the Strathie about felling at Curr Wood, on Speyside, SNH’s latest post on Scotland’s Nature popped into my inbox https://scotlandsnature.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/time-to-celebrate-bugs-in-the-cairngorms-national-park/.   And guess what bug featured?     One so rare that …………….it only occurs at a single location in the National Park, Curr Wood………….shome mistake surely!

 

Cairngorms Nature

One example is the pine hoverfly. Due to intensification of forest management over the decades this is now an endangered species, so rare in fact that it is restricted to a single location in the Cairngorms National Park. It depends on the deadwood cycle – the process of trees (in this case big old granny pines) falling over or succumbing to fungal disease and decaying. The pine hoverfly’s larvae live in wet role holes created by this process – a very specific niche. Natural occurrences of these “rot holes” are nowadays few and far between because most pines in forestry are felled before they get to be old, knarled granny pines. To help save the pine hoverfly from extinction, a range of organisations in the park have been making artificial holes in tree stumps to give the pine hoverfly a home. It is hoped that in the future numbers of the hoverfly will increase to levels that allow it can survive on its own, and with more pine forest in the park being managed less intensively, natural rot holes should become common again.

Thank goodness our public authorities don’t always co-ordinate what they put out to the media.   The cracks between them are most revealing.  And for a broader view of what is going wrong with the approach to tree “management” in the National Park, the same issue of the Strathie contained this very interesting letter from Basil Dunlop which appears to re-inforces previous points made on parkswatch about Loch an Eileen (see here).

Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend 12th – 14th May

The place of nature in the Cairngorms National Park is highly contested and full of contradictions and this is evident in the events being organised for the Big Nature Weekend (see here).   There are some great events on and, due to the current attempts to criminalise people who enjoy the countryside in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, I particularly liked this one at Invercauld:

Description

Camp fire capers – explore around the wonderful Invercauld Estate, collect sticks and other things from nature and learn how to light a small fire without matches. It’s not the easiest thing to do but a great skill to learn and a fab party piece. There will also be marshmallows for everyone to toast! Suitable for kids 3 years + (with a well behaved adult!)

 

Collecting wood for lighting fires is now of course a criminal offence in the LLNPA camping management zones, incurring a fine of £500 and a criminal record.    So what’s being promoted in the Cairngorms National Park Authority is a criminal offence in the LLTNPA!     This just shows how completely out of touch the LLTNPA are.

On May 1st though the CNPA put out a Cairngorms Nature email which highlighted events that were taking place on five estates under the heading  “Behind the Scenes” which just so happens to be the same heading used Natural Retreats on their blog to explain what they are doing at Cairngorm!

Behind the Scenes

Part of the Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend is about offering opportunities that are not normally available to the public.

Landscape management is vital to the long term future of the Cairngorms National Park, it is a challenging task which is all about balance.  The weekend will offer a number of opportunities to join the people who look after our landscapes on a day to day basis and get an exclusive ‘behind the scenes’ tour of a working estate.

There are events happening in Strathspey, Phoines Estate, Corgarff, Glenmuick and Balmoral.  Please click on the relevant area above to find out more and book a place.

The claim that landscape management is vital to the long term future of the Cairngorms National Park is highly ideological.  What about the wild land/rewilding view?   This explains that the reason why so much of the National Park is degraded in conservation terms is precisely because there is too much management: muirburn, proliferation of bulldozed tracks.  Indeed one could cite the felling and replanting at Curr Wood.

 

The CNPA would, I guess, respond by saying “its all about balance” – to which the question needs to be asked, balance between what?    Unfortunately while promoting these events at the Big Nature Weekend there appear to be no events being promoted by RSPB, SNH or NTS which might demonstrate some alternative ways of managing the land.

 

Click on Corgarff and you will find the event is on the Allargue Estate, which is described as conservation-minded – this is the estate where all the vehicles were parked that took place in aninfamous mountain hare massacre featured on Raptor Persecution Scotland (see here).    The event is called “A Question of Balance – Wildlife and Land Management”.   It makes you want to cry.

 

What needs to happen

 

The CNPA needs to stop promoting estates which do not adhere to the standards for conservation we should expect in National Parks.  Now maybe the Allargue Estate has made a commitment to stop culling mountain hares.  If so, I would applaud that but if not, the CNPA should not be promoting it.

 

The new Cairngorms Partnership Plan provides an opportunity for the CNPA to  ask all estates within the CNPA that have not already done so to submit an estate management plan and for those who have them, to revise their current  plans.   Such plans should contain transparent statements on what wildlife is killed by estates, either for “sport” or “protection of wildlife”, on practices such as muirburn and how the estate is going to play its part in meeting  the conservation objectives set out in the Partnership Plan.

Most people want to conserve the countryside but is what Ralia Estate means by “conserving the countryside” compatible with a National Park? (see below)

 

On Wednesday evening I went to have another look at the northern section of the access track which had been created for the construction of the Beauly Denny powerline and which was due to be restored last year (see here).  Its situated on the east side of the A9 behind the tree shelter belt and opposite the southern turn off to Dalwhinnie.

The north end of the track, which is blighted by a so-far unrestored large turning area

That post resulted in the North East Mountain Trust, who had been concerned about the original planning application, taking the matter up with the Cairngorms National Park Authority.   It transpires that the Estate had been involved in lengthy discussions with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency about the details of how they were going to restore the track, missed the deadline and the CNPA has now extended it until the end of 2017.    There was provision for this under the conditions attached to the planning consent which lasts until February 2018.    Unfortunately there are still no details of this on the CNPA planning portal (see here) where the last available document is dated July 2015.  If you are a member of the public, therefore,  not only does it appear that the estate has failed to restore the track within the deadline but also that the National Park has done nothing about this.   The CNPA is letting itself down and, I believe, making planning enforcement much harder for itself because of this lack of transparency.

 

 

The CNPA did though state to NEMT  that, should the Estate fail to restore the track as per the planning permission it granted by the Park Authority, once the CNPA planning permission lapses the ground would  need to be completely restored, as per the Section 37 Electricity Act consent for the Beauly-Denny.  They said the Scottish Government would be responsible for enforcing this. (I am unclear how this can be reconciled with earlier advice I received from the Scottish Government that  “In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place”).   If it comes to that, four years will have been lost in which this land could have been restored properly to the benefit of both landscape and wildlife.     Funny how delays in our planning system are always portrayed as being the fault of planning authorities when in fact by far the biggest delays and created by developers/landowners.

Tower 125 just beyond the end of the track. There is a patch, just behind the tower, where vegetation is recovering, unlike the scar in the middle distance

Meantime, the Scottish Government is even less transparent – one rule for local government, another for national government – and removes planning applications it approves from the public realm.  There is therefore no convenient means for the public to find out how the restoration of the Beauly Denny is going.  I resorted to a FOI request to the CNPA about what information they held and was – again very helpfully – provided with information about the restoration of land under the 76 towers and approx 28km of track that are within the National Park boundary.

Extract from SSE monitoring report October 2016. The Drumochter track is 25a and the FT reference is short for the Fort Augustus to Tummel section and followed by the number on the tower.

According to SSE most of the restoration for which it is still responsible is going well – or rather is “of an acceptable standard”.  I think the photos show otherwise, as does a report the CNPA’s peatland officer in 2015  (see here) – well done him and the CNPA.     What the papers, which I will come back to in further posts, show is that SSE is just hoping all the destruction which it caused will regenerate naturally, whereas the CNPA and SNH are concerned whether this is going to happen.    The problem is the CNPA appears to have very little power to make SSE do anything – although if it went public with its concerns that I think would make a significant difference.

Photo of ground north of tower 125. Stones have been mixed with soil and insufficient turf retained to resurface the whole. To make matters worse clumps of turf have simply been dumped on along with stones on the surface.

So why has Ralia estate taken over the burden of restoring the land from SSE?

 

 

The amount of work – and therefore cost – in meeting the approved design plans for the track are considerable.   The 4.7 km of track needs to be reduced from its current width of 5-7m to 3m.

So much aggregate has been imported to construct the track that even where turves have been properly stored, re-landscaping will be a real challenge.   The planning permission granted by the CNPA specifies that excess materials will be removed, which would make landscaping considerably easier – a great requirement but will the estate do it?

 

The job will not be made any easier because so much of the temporary construction work was so poor.   If this track is to be halved in width, so will the drainage pipes.

Bizarrely, among all the protuding pipes, there was one example of a culvert which had been properly finished – at both ends too!   Unfortunately, the track here was even wider than normal, 7m rather than 5m, and at least one of the finished culverts will need be ripped out if the track is to be reduced in width to 3m.    If this work was done by SSE, one wonders why?  If by the Estate, that would suggest they are intending to keep the track at its current width, contrary to planning requirements.

The reason why the estate wanted to retain the track though quickly became apparent.  It makes it much easier for the gamekeepers to manage animal traps or, from their viewpoint, “to conserve the countryside”.   This was the first time I had seen a live bird in a Larsen trap in 100s of visits to the hills (not a coincidence, they are usually tucked away like this) and I found it quite distressing but then I see crows as beautiful creatures, one of the most intelligent of all birds, and not pests.   The crow was hopping up and down and beating its wings against the side of the trap – that’s what’s meant to happen, it attracts other crows wishing to defend their territory.    All my instincts were to free it but that, I recalled somewhere, is a criminal offence.

The ostensible purpose of Larsen traps is that the flapping crow (or other corvid) attracts others which are then lured into one of the two traps.    In Scotland only hens’ eggs or bread are allowed as  bait (as here).  The theory and use of these traps from the landowner viewpoint is set out in guidance from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here).     The trap in the photos appeared to meet all animal welfare requirements about provision of water, food and a perch for roosting at night.   While Scotland has stricter requirements than England on the use of these traps, under General License under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it seems to me there is question about whether this General License should extend to National Parks.

 

While the GWCT claim there is little evidence of raptors being caught in such traps and that live traps such as this allow protected birds to be released,  that claim needs to be taken with a pinch of salt given the level of persecution of raptors on grouse moors.  Why would estates ever report if hen harriers, say, were found in such traps?  Maybe I am unobservant, or always unfortunate in my timing, but while there were large numbers of grouse about (and some song thrush, pied wagtail and wheatear) there was not a sign of a hen harrier.

 

What was clear was that the estate was trapping anything else that might prey on grouse.   The tracks make maintenance of such traps easier for estate staff.

 

A  multi-catch cage trap was located slightly further away from the track – as recommended by GWCT – part of the reason being to avoid the public coming into them while in use and becoming distressed.  What is clear to me is the CNPA, by granting planning permission, for the retention of this track has made it much easier for estate staff to trap and kill anything that is perceived as a threat to red grouse.  The CNPA talks about the need for balance between competing interests, but in terms of species there is no balance.  Everything is about increasing numbers of red grouse.

Ralia estate: Grouse shooting in Inverness-shire

While as the link shows, the numbers of grouse at Ralia have increased dramatically, what is not reported is the numbers of other species that predate on them.

 

The CNPA’s consent to Ralia Estate retaining this section of track appears to have had little impact on their off-road use of vehicles.     Indeed, Ralia estate appears to be creating further tracks without any planning permission.

The track that has been developed along the line of grouse butts on the north side of the Allt Coire nan Cisteachan.    The installation of a water bar means, I believe, that this counts as a constructed track and should have had full planning permission – its purpose, along the line of grouse butts is only too clear and has nothing to do with agriculture (where developments only require “prior notification”).

The track, as you can see far right, runs up in front of the grouse butts

 

New track, running up south side of Allt Coire na Cisteachan and branching off track used by many walkers to access A Bhuidheanach

The constructed nature of the track on the south side of the burn is even more obvious and to an appalling standard (I will report it to the National Park).  Although the newly “constructed” section is short,  its intention is clearly to enable vehicle access up the hillside easier and yet more scars on the Drumochter.

End of the 20m section of track showing erosion created beyond

The issue at Drumochter therefore is not just about restoration of the Beauly Denny or planning permission for hill tracks and what they are then used for – although both have had major and unnecessary impacts on the landscape – its about what off-road use estates should be allowed to make of vehicles in the National Park.   In my  the National Park could contain and control all these issues through the use of byelaws which introduce licenses for hunting.   Such hunting licenses could require estates not to use vehicles off-track or trap any animal without explicit permission.

Photo taken Sunday 19th March and posted by Donald Morris on the Save Cairngorm Mountain facebook page – great source of information for what is going on at Cairngorm. Natural Retreats were burning off the old snow fencing which they had previously committed to remove from the mountain.

After Highland and Island’s Enterprise announcement that they had agreed a new masterplan for Cairngorm, along with a £4m loan to Natural Retreats (see here),  I asked HIE for a copy of the masterplan and any associated plans for the proposal- such as a business plan providing evidence for the proposals:

HIE Response

“At the HIE Board meeting on 11 April 2017, the Board approved CML’s [Cairngorm Mountain Ltd’s] new Master Plan.  However, the CML Master Plan is commercially sensitive and cannot be published at this time.”

Comment

The business plan – although HIE has avoided answering whether such a plan exists – could be commercially sensitive and thus exempt from FOI law,  but a masterplan is a planning document and should be available to the public.

I also asked for a list of all organisations HIE has consulted on this proposed and any information relating to that consultation:

 

HIE Response

“CML will be the applicant in terms of any forthcoming planning application. Both HIE and CML have been involved in prior consultation with CNPA, THC [Highland Council] and SNH.”

Comment

HIE have failed to answer whether they hold any information relating to this “consultation”  with other public bodies.

My final request was asking HIE to clarify whether whether Schedule 4 to the current lease, which was about the requirement to deliver a new day lodge as part of the lease, has been revoked:

 

HIE Response

At the HIE Board meeting on 11 April 2017, the Board agreed that the legal documents will be amended to accommodate the new projects.

Comment

This is the only informative part of HIE’s response.  What it means is that the HIE Board have agreed to drop the legally binding requirement in the original lease with Natural Retreats to develop a new Day Lodge.  Its significance is that this was an opportunity for HIE to terminate their lease with Natural Retreats.  They have chosen not to do so.

The failures and lack of accountability of HIE

 

It is not unreasonable to ask how a public authority, funded by public monies, believes it is acceptable to put out a press release stating a masterplan has been agreed at Cairngorm but then keep that masterplan secret?

 

The proposal for a masterplan at Cairngorm formed part of the Glenmore Strategy agreed by the Cairngorms National Park Authority last year.

While I cannot find any reference to a masterplan in the CNPA Local Development Plan agreed in 2015, the footnote to the table above indicates that the masterplan is a spatial plan and therefore, its fair to assume, a masterplan in the formal planning sense.  Even if not, in terms of good practice, one might have hoped HIE would have taken some heed on the Scottish Government Planning Advice Note on developing masterplans (see here).

That guidance I believe is very relevant for Cairngorm.   It requires site appraisal – for Cairngorm that would mean a look at the ski area as a whole – and consultation with local communities:
“When creating successful places, people must be at the heart of the process. The local community’s understanding of the needs of an area are invaluable in establishing priorities and arriving at a vision for a place. Once the local community and key stakeholders (the community in its widest sense) have been identified, early discussions can provide a wealth of information about the area’s history and how it functions. An engagement plan could be devised to identify mechanisms for involving the community. These will establish opinions and confirm local people’s aspirations for the place. Various types of interests may have to be engaged in different ways.”
 
While because of the special nature of Cairngorm, I would argue that consultation should be far wider, and involve for example recreational (e.g skiers and mountaineers) and conservation interests, the important point is there has NO consultation at all.   HIE has apparently agreed what it wants to happen at Cairngorm with Natural Retreats and how to fund this through public money without any consideration of other views.    A top down solution that again is likely to end in tears.

Natural Retreats is not fit to manage any development at Cairngorm

While HIE and Natural Retreats have kept all information about the proposed dry ski slope secret at present (e.g its location) one detail emerged on the Cairngorm Mountain facebook page on 13th April where they said it would be constructed out of snowflex .  This raises some intriguing questions because the nature of the product http://www.snowflex.com/ which is “solid” rather than other types of artificial slope:
  • with no spaces for vegetation to grow through, it is likely to have a greater impact than other potential products on the vegetation and soils at Cairngorm;
  • without holes in the matting, there is higher friction and this means snowflex requires a water misting system which cannot operate in low temperatures because it freezes up;
  • because of the high friction, snow flex also needs to be installed on steeper slopes (unlikely to be of use at the Shieling rope tow which was installed for beginners).   While the manufacturer states it can be used when frosted, in such condition it can only be used by better skiers and boarders.  Not much use then for beginners in winter then;
  • if my understanding is correct and you cannot use piste bashers on snow flex, then if partly snow covered, snow flex could not be used at all (it would be like skiing over grass patches but worse).

 

There is nothing wrong with snowflex as a product, the trouble is its not designed for use in a mountain environment year round.  Its advantage over other products comes in artificial snowparks (artificial half pipes etc).  One wonders therefore if a summer snowpark is the secret plan for Cairngorm?.

 

If there is any case for an artificial ski slope at Cairngorm, it would be to provide a beginners area when there is insufficient snow and to link to the piste system.   This has been done in other parts of the world using different materials.

 

The revelation about the proposed use of snowflex just provides further evidence of Natural Retreats’ lack of competence to manage the Cairngorm ski area.

 

Cairngorm Estate Management Plan

 

Meantime, there is no sign of HIE’s  proposed estate management plan which might one have hoped excluded practices such as taking skips up the mountain to burn off fencing (first photo) and which needs to be considered along with any masterplan.

On Wednesday, James Stuart, new convener of the National Park had an agenda piece in the Herald to promote the consultation on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park draft plan (see here).  It included a commitment to engage properly recreational organisations – a implicit indictment of the way the LLTNPA bludgeoned through its camping byelaws – but a welcome step in the right direction.    The response from Dave Morris (above) shows the disastrous consequences.

 

The wider point though is the LLTNPA did not just fail to consult with representative organisations, they failed to consult any of the people who actually camp and stop in campervans along the loch shores.  I saw a good illustration of this yesterday morning driving up the A82 to climb on the Ben.  There were campervans everywhere, in the Transport Scotland laybys which are exempt from the byelaws, on road verges (which are also exempt although the LLTNPA has not recognised this), in car parking areas where they are not (unless covered by the permit system as at Inveruglas and off-road.

 

campervans at Tarbert

 

 

 

 

 

Anyone who actually slept the night in the campervans in the above photo were committing criminal offences although I doubt any of the owners knew it.   What the photo illustrates is the byelaws are completely unenforceable – for campervans anyway.  If challenged by a Ranger all the campervan has to do is move onto a road verge or into a layby.    Complete nonsense.  The LLTNPA would have never got itself into this mess if it had actually talked to the people who use campervans.    So, how about some proper visitor surveys – instead of the latest dumbed down ones that say nothing – asking people what they need?  I suspect the answers will include “be left alone to make our own decisions” and Chemical disposal points.   Where are the chemical disposal points in the National Park (I have asked) and what are the plans to increase them?   Err……………..

 

And over to the Cairngorms National Park Authority

 

Following its lengthy coverage of National Parks in January, Scotland Out of Doors on Saturday included an interview Hamish Trench from the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  Its right at the start BBC out of doors.    Mark Stephen asked some searching questions about what partnership actually means and whether some partners have more power than others – highly recommended.    While Hamish Trench’s answers were carefully worded, the really important thing is that CNPA staff appear prepared now to articulate a vision for the National Park integral to which is large scale conservation.   While I don’t believe this can be achieved through the current ways of partnership working, which favour landed interests over everyone else, the fact that the CNPA is promoting this vision in public is in a sense a challenge to those interests.  Intelligent questions from the media, such as those put by Mark Stephen, can only help  change the parameters of the debate.

Plans to rebuild the Day Lodge and turn it into an international conference centre have been dropped

Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s news release on 12th April (see here) on its latest plans for Cairn Gorm – or “CairnGorm Mountain” in marketing speak – was widely taken up by the press.    HIE must be delighted there was so little critical coverage but their announcement raises a number of serious questions.

 

The truth is that the long promised masterplan, if it exists, is not yet public and the only agreement there has been is between HIE and Natural Retreats, the organisation that now run Cairngorm.   Nothing resembling a plan has been issued or is available on either the Cairngorm Mountain or HIE website.    So, for example, no indication has been given about where the proposed dry ski slope will be located nor how that proposal will meet environmental requirements.   The design and location of the dry ski slope and proposals for environmental mitigation are absolutely crucial for determining whether the Cairngorms National Park Authority should give ANY consideration to the new “plan” – yet HIE claims the masterplan has been agreed.  Either there has been yet more shady behind the scenes negotiations or this is pure spin!   I suspect the latter.

 

However, there is a reason I believe for the spin and that is if HIE can get a head of steam up behind the proposal and convince people that in this lies the economic salvation of Speyside, it will make it much harder for the Cairngorms National Park Authority to reject the proposal, however awful it might be.     Hence the emphasis in the News Release about the new jobs that HIE claims will be created – 35-45, but nothing of course about pay or working terms and conditions – and this just a few weeks after Natural Retreats had been threatening to make a large proportion of the workforce at Cairngorm redundant.

 

Rather than a masterplan, what has been made public is that HIE has agreed to re-direct the loan of £4 million its Board had previously agreed with Natural Retreats to construct a new Day Lodge (see here for legal agreement obtained under FOI).  It is now being proposed that the loan should be used for the construction of a dry ski slope and to make changes to the Ptarmigan Restaurant at the top of the funicular, doubling the size of the restaurant and creating a viewing platform.

 

The rationale behind the Ptarmigan part of the proposal is obvious, to increase numbers of people using the funicular, but whether it is sensible is another matter.  The funicular has been a disaster from start to finish, both for skiers and day visitors, but HIE management and funding of the Cairn Gorm estate has been driven by the need to justify it and  keep it afloat financially:  HIE’s one and only idea about how to do this up till now has been to increase the numbers of paying visitors in summer.  Why take the funicular in summer though when all you can do is walk around inside the Ptarmigan restaurant,  because the soils and vegetation on Cairn Gorm are just too fragile to sustain thousands of visitors, or be escorted to the top of Cairn Gorm and back by Rangers for a price.   The wrap around viewing platform proposal would appear to be an attempt to enable more visitors to experience fresh air – or should that be the more usual howling gale at the top of Cairn Gorm? – and expansion of the restaurant designed to allow people to sit around for longer periods at the Ptarmigan spending money.

Back of the Ptarmigan January 2016 – why anyone would want to walk around a viewing platform to look onto this is unclear.

The key problem for though for HIE is when Cairn Gorm is shrouded in cloud, as it is for much of the year, why would anyone visit?  Not many people want to pay a £12 entry fee (the cost of the funicular) to a restaurant.  On clear days, given the legal agreement in place preventing funicular users leaving the stop station, for those fit enough to do so, its much better to walk up Cairn Gorm and, for those who are not, to walk elsewhere. The whole concept of attracting people to the top of the mountain to sit inside is fundamentally flawed  yet HIE persist with it.   The wider flaw in their thinking though is the belief that people visit National Parks primarily for a manufactured tourist experience rather than for the great outdoors.   A strategy built on trying to extract large amounts of money from people for poor experiences is just not going to work.

 

What you can charge money for at Cairn Gorm is for skiing and there is a hint in the news release that at long last HIE realise that if they want to make the Cairn Gorm ski facilities financially viable, they need to make it a better place for skiing.  One part of that is to try and compensate for poor snow cover as this year- hence the dry ski slope proposal in an attempt to guarantee beginners a ski experience.   That however will not bring in enough people to make the ski area financially viable.   What’s needed is a complete re-think of skiing at Cairngorm within the context of the challenges posed by global warming.  There is no sign of HIE doing this, instead they are “lending” money to Natural Retreats.

 

Financial questions that need to be asked

 

The first  question HIE needs to answer is what, if anything, are Natural Retreats going to invest in the Cairn Gorm ski area?  While the HIE News Release referred to HIE’s  £4m loan to CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, it said not a thing about any financial contribution from Natural Retreats.  I suspect that this is because Natural Retreats are contributing nothing.   CML  at the end of December 2015 had net liabilities of £776,328 and while 2016 was a good ski season, 2017 has been awful and its safe to conclude CML has no money to invest – that is why is was threatening to lay off staff just a few weeks ago.  Its owner, Natural Assets Investment Ltd is ostensibly in a far worse financial position, with net liabilities at 31st December 2015 of £38,083,245  (see here for consideration of both sets of accounts).

 

The second question HIE needs to ask is on what basis do they believe CML will ever pay the loan back given the losses currently being made by the company?   CML had a £1,219,606 operating loss in the nine months to December 2015.  I assume HIE has already produced a set of visitor projections to the new Ptarmigan and the dry ski slope that shows projected income exceeding projected expenditure and how the loan will be repaid.   While any such projections should be treated with healthy scepticism – remember how the funicular would have paid for itself by now – HIE needs to explain how any projected extra income will also offset the current massive operating loss.

 

The third question HIE needs to answer therefore is why is it lending money to a company that is basically insolvent and dependent on the goodwill of hedge fund manager, David Michael Gorton, the ultimate owner?   When selling CML HIE retained most of the assets at Cairngorm, including the land and lift infrastructure.   Why not then simply pay for the new assets itself and retain them in public ownership rather than lend money so they end up in the hands of a hedge fund manager whose companies appear to be going bust?   The safe way to get the money back would be to keep the asset and then to charge extra rent to CML for the use of those assets?

 

I suspect the reason this option is not being taken is because of neoliberal dogma, that public assets and public investment are bad and everything is best done through the private sector.    The financial evidence in this case (as in many others) suggests otherwise and that HIE is creating a disaster at Cairn Gorm.  HIE will no doubt claim that it will secure its loan as it it did in its agreement with CML over the day lodge (see link in paragraph 4 above).   That agreement states CML cannot sell the new assets financed by the HIE loan without permission.   That sounds fine until a company goes into liquidation – and CML appears heading that way – when its assets are distributed among all creditors which would inevitably result in HIE getting back less than what it put in.  I am not an expert in these things but  its looks to me as though its almost impossible for HIE to secure its loan properly.

 

The wider questions about Cairn Gorm

 

Part of the justification for selling Cairngorm Mountain to Natural Retreats was to enable much needed investment in facilities to be financed by the private sector – the latest investment announcement suggests that is no nearer to happening.  If investment depends on the public sector, the obvious question is why have the private sector involved at all?

 

The answer is that sometime the private sector has expertise that the public sector lacks.  However, Natural Retreats was a new company with little experience and no expertise in skiing – so why then did HIE choose them?   There were – and are now – local people and businesses who are prepared to work together and manage Cairn Gorm for the benefit of everyone and keep money invested in the local area.    The biggest question therefore which HIE needs to answer is why its still pressing ahead with financing Natural Retreats instead of putting its efforts into supporting a community enterprise to takeover and run Cairn Gorm?

 

It would appear from the HIE News Release is that the proposal to redevelop the Day Lodge has now been abandoned.   The delivery of a new Day Lodge was a condition of HIE’s lease with Cairngorm Mountain and set out in Schedule 4.  That schedule now needs to change and it appears therefore that HIE would, if it gave notice to Natural Retreats to terminate the lease now, be secure from any legal challenge.   It has no excuse for not doing so.

 

The public investment at Cairn Gorm is a good thing – its just being given to the wrong people for the wrong purpose.  Its time our politicians appreciated this and started arguing for alternatives.

The Cairngorms National Park Authority Board is meeting on Friday to discuss and approve its new Partnership Plan, the overarching Plan which guides what it will do over the next five years (see here for the 60 page plan and supporting documents).    The LLTNPA’s announcement about this can be read (here).   Its positive the Board is devoting a whole meeting to consider the plan – it deserves this.  What follows is not a comprehensive evaluation of the Plan  but rather an attempt to highlight some key issues for those who aspire to create  National Parks in Scotland which are worthy of the name.

 

Positive changes in the revised plan

 

It is clear that the CNPA has listened to criticisms of the draft plan and has made far stronger statements/commitments in certain areas.   Among the specific changes which should be welcomed are:

 

  • to eliminate raptor persecution in the National Park (an ongoing issue as recent disappearance of a golden eagle on the North Glenbuchat estate shows (see here)
  • the recognition of the role of moorland management in creating flooding downstream
  • the statement that the Park will  “plan proactively” for beavers
  • the presumption against new bulldozed tracks in the uplands
  • the commitment to join up the path network in the eastern Cairngorms  and to create a new long distance walking route, the Deeside Way

 

There has also been some strengthening of the general statements that underpin what the Partnership Plan should be about, particularly the creation of a section on public interest priorities for landuse in the National Park  This includes the role that National Parks can play in combating climate change, reversing loss of biodiversity and landscape scale conservation as well as how the National Park can promote best practice in terms of recreational visitors and empowering local communities.

 

All this is positive and suggests there are people within the CNPA who have clear aspirations for what the National Park could deliver.

 

Weaknesses in the revised plan

 

While the revised plan is more aspirational than the draft, it still seems to me to fall short of what we should expect from a National Park.   Here are some examples:

 

  • In announcing the Partnership Plan the CNPA cited the inclusion of a target of 5000 hectares of woodland restoration in the next five years as showing its conservation intent.   5000 hectares sound a lot until you consider that the total area of the Cairngorms National Park is 4528 square kilometres or 452,800 hectares – so the target is to increase the amount of land with woodland cover in the National Park by about 1.1% in the next five years.  Nothing in that target that remotely threatens to change the way that “sporting” estates are managed.  Indeed its unclear if grouse moors or stalking estates are going to contribute anything to this target or whether it will be delivered by the NGOs and Forest Enterprise.
  • Connected to this, the Plan states that public interest land-use objectives, such as increasing woodland cover, should be delivered “in conjunction with private objectives”.  In effect this means the objectives of sporting estates.   If these remain untouched, will anything change as a result of the plan?  My reservations are re-inforced by the section on deer management which contains actions like the further development of methodologies for establishing the “right level” deer grazing.   This type of approach that has been taken for years without any meaningful results.   There are no commitments from sporting estates to change what they do.
  • These weaknesses derive from an ongoing commitment by the CNPA to using the voluntary approach, and that alone, to achieve its statutory objectives:   “All sectors must work together to deliver for the Cairngorms”.   There is not, as far as I can see, any fallback position in the Partnersip Plan which sets out what the CNPA will do if this voluntary approach, once again, fails to work.  What is the CNPA going to do if golden eagles are still disappearing in the Cairngorms this time next year?    There is no plan B.  Worse, in my view, if there is no stick there is absolutely no incentive or reason for private sporting estates to change how they manage the land on a voluntary basis.
  • The basic omission in the plan is about how the CNPA will tackle powerful interests in the National Park if they fail to act in the public interest.   Land Reform is one way that the power of landed interests could be tackled but, while there are welcome statements in the Plan about  empowering local communities, there is nothing to say how land reform might help the CNPA meets its statutory objectives.   This is not just about land though – the CNPA rightly recognises low pay is a serious issue for the majority of those working in the National Park, but makes no proposals for how this might be tackled.   Instead it wants to see the contribution tourism makes to the economy in the eastern Cairngorms increase – more low paid jobs?   When one of the statutory objectives of the National Park is sustainable economic development, its a major omission when the Park Plan has nothing to say about whether changing the way land is managed could create more and better jobs.
  • At least though the CNPA is clear – unlike the LLTNPA whose thinking is far more overtly neo-liberal (they even have a commercialisation strategy) – that public investment is key to the future of both conservation and the people living in the National Park.

The Plan reads as if the CNPA has identified most of the key issues, its just not worked out yet how to deliver its aspirations.

 

Omissions from the Partnership Plan

In my view, in addition to any plan to tackle vested interests,  there are two further major omissions from the plan

  1. A lack of a vision for wild land and rewilding.   While near the start of the Plan there is a map showing wild land in the Cairngorms, the Plan says nothing about how this will be protected or enhanced apart from there being a presumption against new tracks.   There is no commitment to restore land that has been trashed by past developments – surely the National Park should be identifying tracks and other developments that impact adversely on wild land landscapes and which we should aspire to have removed?   Nor does the Plan explain  how the Park’s commitment to new hydro schemes fits with wild land.  While re-iterating its opposition to windfarms, on landscape grounds, the CNPA seems to see hydro as unproblematic – there is plenty of evidence that this is just wrong (see here for example).   The lack of vision however goes further than this:  is there nowhere in the National Park where the CNPA would like to see natural processes predominate and where nature should be allowed to take its course; what about the re-introduction of species?   The beaver is mentioned, but there are no firms plans, while of lynx, which would help reduce numbers of roe deer, there is not a mention.   This is an opportunity missed, an opportunity for the National Park to take a lead that would inspire people.
  2. What resources are needed.   While there is much talk of partnership (and indeed even a statement that partnerships are a way of bringing resources together), there is no systematic attempt to describe what resources the various partners can definitely contribute to make the Plan happen (an exception is a list of major capital investment projects both private and public).  Nor is there any attempt to describe the resource gap, things that the Partners would like to do if they had the resources.    What most striking about this is its completely unclear how the Park’s conservation objectives in the Plan will be financed (apart from the Peatland Action project).

 

What next?

 

The Parternship Plan, once amended/approved by the Board needs to be approved by the Minister for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham.    While there is a lot of good things in the Plan, much of this, particularly the conservation objectives, are likely to unravel because they are totally dependent on the voluntary principle.   If the Minister really wants objectives such as the elimination of raptor persecution to be achieved, she would be wise to ask the CNPA to develop alternative mechanisms to ensure the Partnership Plan is delivered.

By Ross MacBeath

 

On the 13th March at the Board Meeting at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park HQ in Balloch, the Your Park update report (see here) stated the “Loch Chon campsite is on course for completion and handover………….for 1st March” .   At the end of the meeting, in what appeared to be an orchestrated statement, it was reported  that the Board had made a site visit and all was found to be in order.    It will be interesting to see if this is recorded in the minutes when they eventually appear.
Having visited the campsite on the 12th March ’17, the day before the board meeting, I knew the statement to be untrue and have published  over a hundred photographs which are proof of this fact.  Its very worrying that Board Members who visited appear to have so little knowledge of camping that they were oblivious to the multitude of obvious problems and then that senior staff and the  entire board have colluded to hide the fact that all was not in order with the completion and handover of the development at Loch Chon.

 

Now, over a full month after Scottish Ministers were promised 300 new pitches were to be provided, allowing the Byelaws to be brought into force, the Loch Chon site has still not been delivered and many of permit zones are unsuitable for camping (see here) and  (here) for examples.  The majority of pitches at Loch Chon remain both unusable or undesirable as camping pitches – as of 2nd April 2017

 

General Conditions of site

The area remains a building site with tracked vehicles, tippers and aggregates at one end of the toilet block and an unwelcoming mess at the entrance container known as the site office and bin store. We are into April and the only pitch that’s truly serviceable is pitch 21 which is coincidentally the only pitch on the entire campsite the LLTNPA did not create.

 

The Park Authority’s hypocrisy knows no bounds

After chastising Campers and Visitors for leaving black bags of rubbish by overflowing bins and  handing out penalties, here we have the Park Authority leaving their own bags of rubbish by the bin store, the entrance to which is strewn with various building materials creating a great first impression for visitors.


This is typical of what we now see in the undesirable culture created by the National Park Byelaws,  where the law makers and their landowner or business partners don’t have to comply with any laws they have created for park users.

 

Drinking water issues continue to plague Loch Chon campsite

 

No Drinking water or dish washing facilities available at site.

Although the site is claimed to be fully operational, there is no treated drinking water to the external taps, preventing container filling and dish washing. 3 of the 4 toilets remained locked.  The 4th is open with flushing cistern and working wash hand basins. I suspect a re-plumbing exercise has diverted the drinking water to the toilet block, though the  LLTNPA still insist the issues only lasted a few days despite the almost weekly video reports to the contrary.


The promised sympathetic integration of containers into the site has been greatly exaggerated, this solution for buildings in a National Park is just tacky, it’s not appropriate for a National Park and ruins the aesthetic of the entire development.

 

Cross contamination of materials used on site.

 

The uncontrolled spread of construction materials beyond the confines of paths and roads is a major concern at this development and this will be the subject of an environmental post shortly.  What’s going on now is the cross contamination of finished works with a new quartz aggregate material introduced to the site.  The use of quartz aggregate in an ancient forest needs to be avoided. It’s an alien material and grates at every view but when it’s spread through the environment in this manner it should be a crime.

 

How is this possible when there is an appointed clerk of works with responsibly for overseeing all variations to the original planning application and agreeing and documenting all construction work meets environmental standards? The need for a remedy is clear and mixing of this aggregate with vegetation can only be restored by picking it up stone by stone rather than the heavy handed machine operation that has damaged the site unnecessarily in other locations.

Environmental Damage created through attempting to clear contamination by alien materials

 

These images show an attempt to clean up hardcore.deposited on a slope.

Cross contamination with hardcore, perhaps the original rout of the path? Attempt to clean off hard core contamination by scraping with excavator.

The original contamination on the left and the disastrous attempt to remove it effectively  has caused destruction to the hillside in the process. It remains unclear why  the hardcore was deposited on vegetation in the first place, given the area, probably a path placement error.

 

Pitch problems and solutions

 

The LLTNPA has introduced grit to camping pitch surfaces: grit is a disaster for camping as it’s carried into the tent sleeping area and sticks to everything – what are they thinking?!

 

Many of the proposed pitches were covered in rough grasses, mosses and rushes:  successive cutting of the coarse grasses have removed the rough edges but the reality is they are still not suitable as a surface for pitching a tent and will deteriorate rapidly through the growing season.

 

Uneven surfaces and slopes: inappropriate aggregates and graded building materials have been spread over peat and moss to even out the ground but fail to to make it level.

 

Wet areas: with the exception of Pitch 8 and 10, wet areas remain untouched, I guess it’s a wait and see and hope summer weather will dry them out.   It probably won’t,  they’re built on natural water courses, as was pitch 10.

 

Brambles: still pose a great threat to the pitches it looks like they are just being covered over rather than removed.  It won’t work, brambles need intensive management.

 

Access to popular camping spots denied by the National Park Authority

 

The image below shows a typical and popular loch side camping spot now banned by the bylaws. It’s high amenity, provides a level, short grass surface over firm ground, the surface is even with sufficient depth to take tent pegs. it also covers a large area and so provides for cooking  and sitting around the tent to eat.  The proximity of the loch shore and open areas allow for play and other activities making for a good visitor experience.

This is a former Forestry Commission camping pitch where camping is now banned. It is sited within view of the useless ‘Three Lochs Forest Drive Zone L’ by Loch Achray

 

Pitch 1 just not up to scratch

 

12th March Sowing the nature of the surface that is pitch 1 Superficial cutting does not change anything it will grow back in a few weeks when the growing season starts.

In stark contrast the National Park’s  paid for replacement is just not suitable.  These low lying areas are sited well back from the shore on wild tussock grass which, by it’s very nature, is unsuitable for camping.  It is uncomfortable if not impossible to sleep on.  There is no firm ground to light a stove, place a seat or even sit or lie down on a beach towel.  Then consider these photographs were taken in the dormant season (March 12th/April 2nd) after winter die back, when new growth takes hold matters will rapidly worsen.   The old adage, good campsites are found not made holds true and if you insist in making them them they take years to create and require much more work than than a brush over with a strimmer.

 

Pitch 4

 

Pitch 4 has been trimmed leaving the solid core of tussocks with depressions of 8 to 10 inches the pitch remains unsuitable.

Pitch 5 fares only slightly better over a confined area.

The crux of the problem is the Park Board and senior staff clearly know nothing about camping and  the vision the Park Authority has for its camping provision is far from the expectation and previous experiences of visitors who have enjoyed camping at popular loch side spots for decades.  The most used camping places were popular for a reason, they were good for camping.

 

Pitch 6 – improvements or just hiding the problem?

12th March 2017 - before improvements 2nd April - after improvements            Pitch 6 -19th March compared to modified pitch 2nd April

Pitch 6 has been covered with grit. It’s not a material you want inside the tent and yet that’s exactly what’s going to happen here.

 

A bright quartz aggregate overlaid with a graded building material, it is not constrained at the edges and so is likely to spread out over the adjacent areas.  It is also likely that the finer materials will be washed into the aggregate with rain leaving an inappropriate bright quartz aggregate finish to the area.  This pitch surface requires to be a natural material in an ancient wood and where works have been carried out that should be grass  This grit is going to cause no end of aggravation to campers as it’s carried in to the tent and deposited in the sleeping area, wholly inappropriate.

 

The evidence of bramble stalks showing through the surface indicates the underlying ground cover of brambles will remain an issue as the removal of a bramble infestation can take up to 2 years of concerted effort of cutting back and digging out roots. Simply burying the problem out of sight will get you through the site handover but they will grow through in a matter of weeks.

 

Pitch 7

Pitch 7 19th March

Pitch 7 has been reworked

 

Disabled sites 8 and 9 have had a makeover

 

The two disabled pitches were an embarrassment see video of pitch 8 here.

 

The NP have attempted to constrain and divert the water course around pitch 8 while raising the finished surface of the pitch and that should solve the water problem. It is unclear whether the hardcore layer extends below the entire pitch.  If it does we can only hope the soil depth remains around six inches otherwise pegging out the tent base will be an issue. As to the brambles, these will almost certainly grow through the hardcore layer to the surface once more unless the entire subsoil was removed.

Park Authority re-sites pitch 10 and Pitch 12

Pitch 10

This is typical of the area of the former pitch 10, obviously not a good choice for camping. The former Pitch 10 a site of environmental destruction which was totaly avoidable if anyone at the NP Authority gave a shit.

Unbelievable but true, the site of the former pitch 10 was a peat bog.   Unfortunately when the Park Authority designates a pitch a mechanical digger drives across it for good measure.  The whole area should never have been selected in the first place, it’s just incompetence and results in a large area of unnecessary environmental damage.

Pitch 10  re-work

 

The new pitch is undoubtedly drier but unfortunately in the middle of a bramble patch with the trees to one side and the bog to the other.

 

New Pitch 10 Created on Bramble Patch Close up of Pitch 10 showing brambles and bracken

 

Brambles, an invasive species.BBC Life of Plants - Brambles

While it should be obvious with ground sheet piercing thorns, brambles and tents don’t mix and are to be avoided. It is unacceptable to construct a pitch containing or even adjacent to brambles as they will cause both financial loss to the camper and possible injury.

Pitch 11

 

Pitch 11 remains an uneven wet mess.

 

Pitch 12

 

The old Pitch 12 leaves a scar on the environment

 

Pitch 12 is re-sited from a slope to a more suitable area near by.  All that is now required is to reinstate the environmental damage to the old site (see LH image) and trim up the new site removing moss and grass clumps.

Pitch 13

Pitch 13 remains unusable even after trimming

N.B. Pitch 14 and 15 are reversed on site

Pitch 14 re-work includes surfacing with quartz aggregate infilled with fines

 

Having decided to do something about the problems at some of the pitches the National Park Authority has still failed to take on board the issues with their camping provision.  It’s simple.  Pitches require to be level, even, dry and able to take tent pegs with area of about 5 m X 5 m as a minimum to allow for cooking and other activities by the tent.

 

Pitch 14 showing slope to side of slope and down towards path.

 

The problem with Pitch 14, as with so many at Loch Chon, is size and the slope.  It’s just too steep to be a viable camping pitch.  In an attempt to make the pitch surface even, the Park Authority have covered the area with their inappropriate quartz aggregate / gravel mix and while it is now even they have completely failed to correct the slope which is far too steep to be used as a camping pitch.This is a double slope, across the hill and down the hill, and will cause campers to role into each other and  push the tent sides into the fly, letting water penetrate.

 

The second problem is that the topping used to provide an even surface is not constrained and will inevitably spread out over the surrounding area, reducing effectiveness and contaminating a far greater area.

 

Pitch 15

Marked 14 on post in error!

 

Similar solution to pitch 14 with grit.  Recent works have made the pitch level but the surface is not constrained so very quickly the whole of the aggregate will spread down the slope leaving the pitch back where it started.   The size of this pitch has been confined to around 5 square metres from the 25 or more square metres available.   A tent pitch requires to be at least twice the size of a tent footprint giving a desirable minimum of around 12 square metres  and an optimum minimum of 25 square metres for a two/three man tent.

 

The site selection is again poor with the lower point of the first image in a water course.

This project was doomed to failure but no one expected it to be quite so dramatic

 

The sad fact of the matter is that the Loch chon site was selected not on its merits as a camping site, nor due to demand for camping in the area.

 

It has been created for one reason, and one reason alone, to enable the LLTNPA to be able to say to the Minister that it had created a new campsite  by the 1st of March.and in doing so the environment of the ancient woodland at Loch Chon was no more than collateral damage.

 

How has this happened?

 

To create the Loch Chon campsite it is my opinion that the National Park Authority have engaged in a willful deception of the public and other stakeholders at every stage of this unwarranted development.

 

The LLTNPA have exaggerated the numbers using the area and any environmental concerns arising from that use.

 

They have deceived local communities and interested parties as to the care and attention they would exercise on the site to protect the greater environment while providing a sympathetic development.

 

They have intentionally misconstrued their own ranger figures making claims of equivalence of this site to the Forestry Commissions site at Sallochy.

 

The balance of the pitches and financial aspects of the project will be covereD in part two of this post…

The sale of the Tulchan Estate, which straddles the northern boundary of the Cairngorms National Park, was announced last week  (see here).  The estate, or rather Tulchan Sporting Estates Ltd which Leon Litchfield, the previous owner, set up as the vehicle to own it soon after he purchased the estate in 1993,  was bought by the Yuri Schefler, a Russian billionaire.   He owns the SPI Group which is registered in Luxemburg (notorious for its loose tax regime).   Companies House still records – from a statement made in 2016 – that no single person or legal entity has “significant control” of the company.   Its therefore unclear if Mr Schefler has bought the shares in Tulchan Sporting Estates Ltd personally or through another legal vehicle.   It appears though he has appointed a new director, to replace the Directors who resigned in March, one Natalia Sidorenco (a UK citizen).

 

Ms Sidorenco is also a Director of Tulchan Estate Services Ltd, a new company set up in February 2017, and which appears to have nothing to do with the Litchfield family.   It has nominal capital but  its owners’,  sf Scottish Properties Ltd, correspondence address is Lefebvre Court, Lefebvre Street, St Peter Port, Guernsey, GY1 6EJ.   Another tax haven.   The Herald quoted claims that Yuri Schefler is aiming to invest in the estate, and that might be so, but why set up a service company which is owned by another company which appears based in a tax haven if your long-term intentions are to invest in the area?   It looks like any returns on Mr Schefler’s investments may go elsewhere rather than benefitting local people.  This is yet another sale which raises issues about the need for land reform.

 

Indeed, the creation of companies and trusts to own estates is now being used to circumvent the right to buy provisions in our Land Reform legislation.  This was well put in the Herald article:

 

“But the sale had been hit by a row over the rights of the estate’s tenant farmers, which campaigners had asked to be put on hold.

Legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2003 is meant to ensure tenants are granted the right to buy when farms are put up for sale.

Because the new owners of Tulchan will buy the shares of a company, rather than a property, the farms will not technically have been sold and the tenants will not be able to trigger a right to buy.

But a spokeswoman for Savills said the issue over the tenant farms had been resolved with the sale.”

 

While Tulchan Estate had been put on the market for offers over £25 million the most recent company accounts for January 2016 show Tulchan Sporting Estates Ltd had been valued at nothing like this amount.

Part of the reason for this was that a number of loans had been secured on property owned by the Company,  including as recently as last year,  and Companies House records all these were paid off earlier this year.   Then on 10th March 2017 the Directors issued a statement reducing share capital in the company to £14,355,802 shortly  before resigning and being replaced by Ms Siderenco.  Now, I am not an accountant but I am not sure why they would do this unless the offer for the estate was less than the previous share capital of £15,653,208.  Its also possible of course that it was Mr Schefler who paid off the various creditors of the company.

 

Natalia Siderenco has also become a Director of Tulchan Springwater Ltd but that company is dormant and is worth nothing   Her fourth Directorship is I think relevant.  She is a Director of SPI Spirits (UK) Ltd which after paying interest lost £165k in financial year to December 2015 and  whose liabilities exceeded its assets at that time by c£1.85m. Those accounts use Company Act exemptions and don’t report on internal transactions with the wider SPI group owned by Mr Schefler but its another company that appears insolvent.

 

So why is all this relevant to our National Parks?

 

The predominant model of National Parks across the world is that land is state owned.  Indeed in Chile, the state added 11 million acres of land to National Parks in March (see here), albeit spurred to do so in part by a legacy from the campaigner Doug Tompkins.  In Scotland we allow all land to be traded, even that in National Parks, without controls.   Tulchan is just the latest example of this.

 

Proponents of private ownership would argue so what?  Well the reason this matters if we have no idea whether Mr Schefler respects the four statutory objectives of the National Park.   We allow landowners to buy land in our National Parks without even having to make a declaration about their intentions – Mr Schefler says he is going to invest in the estate but, for all the Cairngorms National Park Authority knows, this might bulldozing more tracks onto grouse moors or cutting off access to the river Spey for outdoor recreation apart from fishing which is happening downstream, just outside the National Park.

 

While the CNPA to their credit have tried to get every estate in the National Park to develop estate plans many did not do so: Tulchan was one of those.  So will Mr Schefler, or rather his apparent nominee, Natalia Siderenco, now ensure one is produced and consult with the National Park on this?  The problem is its their choice.    The CNPA has no powers to force the company to produce a plan yet alone to determine whether they are fit people to own land in a National Park.    Owners of Care Homes have to show they are fit to do so, so why not owners of land in our National Parks?  Someone who has abused people or allowed people to be abused would not be allowed to own a care home, and we should apply the same principle to land ownership, so people who allow protected species to be killed should not be allowed to own land in our National Parks.

 

If you want a compelling reason for this, the day after the sale of Tulchan was announced, the RSPB reported the disappearance of  yet another golden eagle on the Glenbuchat estate (two estates on from Tulchan going east).  Its worth reading the history from Raptor Persecution Scotland:

 

Satellite-tagged golden eagle ‘disappears’ on North Glenbuchat Estate in Cairngorms National Park

 

Nothing to do with Mr Schefler of course but the point is we have no idea what he is going to do, whether he might be like the managers of north Glenbuchat or at the other end of the spectrum, like Anders Povslen, the owner of Glen Feshie.   We need to create ways to assess suitability of people to own or lease large areas of land in our National Parks and this should include a financial fitness test to ensure companies such as Natural Retreats don’t siphon money out of the National Park.   Mr Schefler’s companies that relate to Tulcha haven’t done anything yet of course but will need watching.

Looking from An Camas Mor to Lairig Ghru – photo credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

By Save the Cairngorms Campaign

In 2014, the CNPA gave planning approval for what is, in effect, a new town of 1500 houses in the National Park. The site on the east side of the River Spey opposite Aviemore, is owned by John Grant of Rothiemurchus and is land of high conservation and landscape value.  This development would double the population of Aviemore which is currently around 2800.

An Camas Mor from Craigellachie National Nature Reserve. Photo montage Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group
Outline of site from the Cairngorms National Park Authority Committee Report which led to the approval of the original planning application

The An Camas Mor proposal is nothing if not controversial. All the more reason you would think for the developers (An Camas Mor Limited Liability Partnership) behind the project to ensure that the planning conditions attached to the permission in principle (PIP) granted in March 2014 are complied with.

 

The very nature of the PIP is that it was subject to conditions requiring the applicant to submit various details for approval by the CNPA within three years of the permission. As only the principle of development is established by a PIP, the details requiring further approval are comprehensive and fundamental, dealing with issues such as phasing, layout, design, access, landscape and ecology.

 

Yet, three years after the PIP was granted, none of the details subject to the conditions have been approved. Only one such application was made to the CNPA but had to be withdrawn because it was so inadequate. As a result the PIP has now lapsed and can no longer be implemented because the further applications required by the conditions have not been made within the statutory time period.

 

The spokesperson for the An Camas Mor LLP claimed to have been working hard on the proposal yet the developer had submitted none of the detailed plans required until the very last moment before planning permission lapsed.

Time limits on planning permissions are imposed for good reason; to ensure that development is progressed promptly whilst the planning policies under which it was granted are still relevant. Permissions not implemented in good time lapse and are then incapable of being implemented. This is to prevent development from being started some years later when planning policy may have changed.

 

This is the case with An Camas Mor. The current Cairngorms National Park Local Development Plan was adopted in March 2015. The PIP was granted by reference to planning policies in the previous local plan that is now out of date and superseded.

 

Therefore, if the An Camas Mor development is to be pursued a new planning application for permission in principle will need to be made, and determined by CNPA in accordance with the up to date planning policies of the current local plan. At least that is what planning law, policy and common sense would suggest.

 

Instead, the developers are trying a more expedient route, known as a Section 42 Application, to vary one of the conditions of the PIP in an attempt to gain a new permission with new time limits. Even though this type of application should not be used to vary a permission that can no longer be implemented, and has a dubious legal basis in these circumstances, the CNPA has registered it as a valid application under reference 2017/0086/DET (see here).

 

What an impartial observer might find even more surprising is that this back door route to getting the developer out of a hole of its own making seems to be based on the advice of CNPA officers. Yet the condition of the PIP that the developer now seeks to remove via its Section 42 Application is perhaps the most fundamental of all; the condition that requires a full review of the impact of the first 630 dwellings before further development can commence.

 

This full review was deemed essential by CNPA officers and its planning committee at every stage of the lengthy consideration of the proposal, but the CNPA may now be about to abandon this critical check on a development that remains highly controversial and for which the developers have been unable to provide any details worthy of approval.

An Camus Mor is home to many interesting species including the Northern February Red Stonefly (Brachyptera putata) – UK Priority species, Nationally Notable species, Scottish Biodiversity List species (endemic UK species, i.e. not found elsewhere in the world so British populations are of international importance, with its stronghold in the Scottish Highlands)  Photo Credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group.

Due to its particularly sensitive location and likely impacts, the An Camas Mor new town was only granted planning permission in principle subject not only to the full review at an early stage but also regular monitoring and appropriate phasing thereafter. Perhaps even more fundamentally, such an apparently incongruous development only gained planning permission at all because it promised to be an exemplar of a new, sustainable and self-contained community that would provide appropriate housing, employment, services and amenity for local people. How else could a new town in Scotland’s flagship National Park possibly be considered, let alone justified?

 

If the developers cannot even ensure that timeous applications are made for detailed approval in accordance with conditions, what chance is there of any development ever taking shape as promised with the necessary environmental protection and enhancement?

 

The CNPA has a statutory duty to act as a planning authority in the public interest and to ensure that the An Camas Mor development either fulfils its promised objectives entirely or does not happen at all. That is why the CNPA imposed the conditions it did on the PIP and why it should stand by those conditions and reject any attempt to weaken them.

 

The Section 42 Application should be refused. The only option now for the developers, if they intend to proceed at all, is to submit a new application for permission in principle to be considered on its merits.

 

Representations on the Section 42 Application ( 2017/0086/DET), which can be viewed on the CNPA’s website, must be made by 13 April 2017. The PIP is also on the CNPA website under reference 09/0155/CP.

Pinewood Mason Bee (Osmia uncinata) – UK Priority species, UK Red List Vulnerable species, Scottish Biodiversity List species (a pinewood specialist which is restricted to northern Scotland within Britain) photo credit Tim Ransom, Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/bscg/albums/72157625013635352

Addendum

The Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group has produced a photo album of the An Camas Mor site with over 4500 photos, mostly of stunning insect species.  It illustrates the fantastic animal life that is out there for people to enjoy and implicitly raises the question, should our National Parks really be developing new towns?   Highly recommended  (see here). 

View over An Camus Mor, the site that Rothiemurchus estate wishes to develop into a 1500 place new town opposite Aviemore Photo Credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

Chris Townsend’s post on Friday  on the destruction of trees at Loch an Eilein is well worth a read  (see here).    Chris highlights  the hyprocrisy of some of the people responsible for managing our natural environments, who on  the one hand lecture visitors about the damage they do  (which is  tiny in the scheme of things),  but then blithely ignore the extensive damage caused by land owners and managers.  The Rothiemurchus estate sign featured in his post is a classic:   after the swathe of destruction created by “foresters” chopping down trees, and destroying the ground cove,r the visitor is asked to stay on maintained paths to care for the area (contrary to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code) while the sign also claims, “If this area is not disturbed or trampled, heather and blaeberry will grow back and wildlife will move into this area”.   The clear message is visitors are a problem for wildlife but forest operations aren’t.

 

Rothiemurchus Estate, whose staff tried to stir up hatred against campers because of a fire which burned one granny pine (see here),  is now lopping down pine trees that have regenerated naturally.   One could also add that its the same Rothiemurchus Estate which is behind the An Camus Mor development (photo above) and is trying to circumvent the planning permission which recently lapsed (post coming soon).    The same double-think of course pervades the approach of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which judges any impact associated with camping as unacceptable (and the reason why it needs to be banned) but ignores the far greater problems that pervade the National Park.   The Cairngorms National Park Authority by contrast appears to have had no say in what is happening at Loch an Eilein and indeed the estate refused to participate in the Glenmore Plan, leaving a gaping hole in that strategy.

 

So, why is the tree felling being allowed to happen at Loch an Eileen?

 

In April 2014 the Forestry Commission bought a great swathe of the Rothiemurchus Estate from John Grant joining up the publically owned land at Invereshie and Inshriach with the Glenmore Forest Park.

Map from FCS Rothiemurchus sale papers obtained by Rob Edwards by FOI

This was done without consultation and cost £7.4m, the largest single investment that Government has ever been made in our National Parks, although the main benefit appears to have been to the private landowner rather than to conservation or public enjoyment of the Park.  The shores around Loch an Eileen and where the tree felling has been taking place were however excluded from the sale.

 

Rothiemurchus receives ongoing public subsidy for managing the Rothiemurchus Estate so, after the sale of upper Rothiemurchus to FCS, a new Forest Plan was required to cover the remaining parts of the estate.  It was produced in 2016 (see here) and provides the framework under which woodland is managed on the estate.   It is this plan which has been used as the justification for the tree felling around Loch an Eilein    

 

This work will remove areas of trees to enable the forest to regenerate naturally, thin out the remainder to give them room to grow as well as removing some of the non-native species.  (https://rothiemurchus.net/wp-content/uploads/Tree-cutting-at-Loch-an-Eilein.pdf)
Comment  The trees here, as Chris pointed out in his post, had regenerated naturally – in fact the Forest Plan states that this natural regeneration took place after a large fire in the 1920s.   After the ground was burned, pine trees reseeded but then shaded out further new saplings – that has resulted in the even age of the pine trees, which result in pole forests of tall straight stemmed trees.  So, the foresters want to remove trees that have regenerated naturally to allow trees to……… regenerate naturally and give the remaining Scots Pine “room to grow” – or in other words to assume the look we would like them to have.
What this highlights is just how reluctant our public authorities are to allow natural processes to determine what happens in an area – natural processes might result in something that doesn’t fit with our ideas of what is natural.
Extract from Rothiemurchus Forest Plan – note the commitment to structural diversity and a “more even spread of age classes”.
In the case of the Caledonian Forest, the latest orthodoxy appears to be that naturally the Caledonian pine forest would have had diverse age structures – beautiful granny pines (and they are beautiful) surrounded by trees of varying ages.   The evidence at Rothiemurchus suggests otherwise but lets not allow that stop the “managers of the natural”, who intervene in order to create something which appears more natural.  In doing so they are blind to the destruction described by Chris Townsend.
Now I am not against woodland management in general – and indeed believe our National Parks should be demonstrating how to manage woodlands more sustainably.  Nor am I totally against the idea that because of its limited extent the Caledonian Forest, and species within it, are potentially vulnerable.   However, all but a small part of the Loch an Eileen forest felling is taking place within the Cairngorms Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation (the other side of the Loch, on the north west shore is not so protected).  The SAC is supposed to be the designation offering greatest protection to the Caledonian Forest.  The public interest question is whether our most protected areas should be managed areas, where humans intervene and cut short natural processes in order to secure certain defined objectives, or whether we should allow nature to take its own course – what I would regard as re-wilding?
An alternative means to ensure we have trees of varying ages is NOT to chop down existing ones but to expand the extent of the forest at its fringes through natural regeneration – but that would mean tackling intensive moorland management by private landowners, including Rothiemurchus, which elsewhere on the estate undertakes muirburn which of course prevents the Caledonian Forest expanding through natural regeneration.

The recreational perspective

 

Its time that the people responsible for managing “conservation” in our National Parks started to take far more account of the recreational perspective.   I believe Chris Townsend’s gut reaction, informed by knowledge of what is natural, was right – the destruction of natural woodland at Loch an Eilein within a protected area should not be allowed.  Instead of trying to improve what is there, why not celebrate it as an area where natural processes have predominated for almost a 100 years even if this has resulted in the “wrong-shaped” trees?

By Phil Swainson

General view of Badaguish (taken 17/3/17). You can see mounds of material, left background, sitting on the new, additional car park given retrospective planning permission. The still unplanted area in the foreground was meant to have been planted with trees a year ago.

As stated at the end of my last post on Badaguish in Glenmore (see here), Speyside Trust has made yet another planning application, this time to convert a toilet block into a site base for staff.  Like many previous applications, it is full of false or misleading statements, and as pointed out in my previous post, a very basic mistake.

 

 

But first we must ask why the Cairngorms National Park Planning Authority has not called this application in.  In their response to Highland Council they state:

 

“The decision of the Cairngorms National Park Authority is that the above planning application does not raise any planning issues of general significance to the park aims and as such No Call-in is necessary in this case.”

At the same time the CNPA has called in the planning application to extend the temporary planning permission for ten wigwams for another three years and this is being considered by the Planning Committee on Friday  (see here).

 

The proposed toilet conversion is in fact part of a major development of a six hectare site which goes against all previous local plans.

Because Badaguish  is close to the Special Protection Area for birds, one of the concerns about increasing numbers of people is potential disturbance to capercaillie and Badaguish has been required to put in arrangements to manage access as a condition of previous planning consents. This sign went up long after required by planning conditions and is not helpfully situated – few people are likely to walk through the clear fell.

If agreed the toilet conversion would become a permanent residence in an area with a presumption against such a building. I feel we can see the decision not to call in this application as an abdication of responsibility on the part of the CNPA.  So nothing new then.

The press cutting says it all.  In their supporting statement Badaguish says that the Care Inspectorate:

 

“have advised that an additional resident on-site Warden is now an essential requirement to ensure 24 hour cover to support visitors to the centre.”

I  e-mailed the Care Inspectorate asking if they had, and the response was:

 

“Thank you for your email. I have queried this with relevant colleagues who have advised that no such recommendation was made to the service from the Care Inspectorate.”

 

One has to ask if the Care Inspectorate or any of our public authorities will take this up with the Speyside Trust?

 

In the past when commenting on the Speyside Trust and its planning and funding applications I have used phrases such as “misleading”, “untruthful” or “inaccurate” as descriptors of claims made by the Speyside Trust.    On this occasion, it goes further than that.  Highland Council, as planning authority should take note and reject the proposal.  What a precedent it would set if Highland Council agreed a planning application which is based on what appears to be a lie?

 

The basic problem at Badaguish is that the planning authorities and the public cannot rely on any of  the information provided by Speyside Trust without external verification and the development of the site has been  based on fundamentally unsound foundations.

 

Under access rights, Badaguish has no more right to tell people to keep off mountain bike courses than they would a golf course.   The land though is still to the best of my knowledge owned by the Forestry Commission and therefore not private.
How could this standard of construction and restoration be allowed in a National Park? Aggregate and tarmac dumped in foreground and there has been no attempt to restore vegetation to slopes in background (see Beauly Denny below)

Planning powers are the most important tool our National Park Authorities have to achieve their four statutory aims, conservation and enjoyment of the countryside and sustainable use of resources and development.   How they are used is crucial to the success of our National Parks and parkswatch has covered a number of planning failures and areas of concern.

 

While both our National Parks are required to have planning committees,  how they operate is very different.   The Cairngorms National Park planning committee comprises all Board Members but that in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park comprises a sub-group of Board Members (now increased to eleven).    Its in the agendas and papers for planning meetings that you see major differences:  the CNPA meetings tend to have quite lengthy agendas and papers, the LLTNPA much shorter ones.  It appears that in the LLTNPA far more decision making is delegated to staff and therefore takes place behind closed doors.  In the CNPA Board Members are far more involved – a good thing in terms of democracy – and how decisions are made is far more transparent (which is not to say it could not be improved e.g through following the Highland Council example of broadcasting all Planning Committee Meetings).

 

The CNPA’s more open approach is reflected in the papers for its planning meeting on Friday.

 

Response to People, Places and Planning

 

An illustration of the  difference in approach can be seen in the two National Park’s responses to the current Scottish Government consultation on “People, Places and Planning” which will be considered by their Committees in the next week.     The CNPA has presented a full response to Board Members to consider , the LLTNPA has reserved the response to what it describes as the “technical questions” to staff.

 

More significantly there are some welcome signs that staff in the CNPA have taken on board some of the criticisms levelled at them in terms of how the planning system operates.   So, they have raised the question of hill tracks:

 

“We also consider that the review should consider whether some development that can
be undertaken through prior notification or approval as agricultural and private roads
and ways should simply require planning permission. Many tracks on open moorland
and hills have some link to an agricultural purpose, even where the primary use is for
sporting activities. These tracks can be contentious, but the public may never know of
their approval nor have an opportunity to make representation on them. We suggest
that new tracks on open ground that are not in enclosed farmland should simply require
planning permission, irrespective of the purpose of the track.”

 

The response may be a bit wishy washy – there is plenty of evidence about the proliferation of hill tracks in the National Park – but here at last is a National Park giving a bit of a lead, saying that hill tracks should be removed from permitted development rights.  Absolutely!     What a difference to the LLTNPA who delegated powers to take decisions on hill tracks in Glen Falloch to staff (see here) with the consequent wrecking of the landscape in that glen.

 

The CNPA has also strongly supported increased enforcement and given examples – most welcome:

 

14. Should enforcement powers be strengthened by increasing penalties for noncompliance
with enforcement action?

Yes.
We also support an increase in planning fees for retrospective planning applications.
The CNPA has considered a number of retrospective planning applications as a result of
planning enforcement at relatively high profile locations including Cairngorm Mountain
and Badaguish. For some operators, a financial disincentive would help focus their
actions. It would also help resource the work that a planning authority does in
enforcement time and advice that leads to the retrospective application.

 

The LLTNPA response by contrast is typically disingenuous:
Enforcement is also flagged as an area where public confidence is low. An independent study commissioned by the Scottish Government in this area (Planning Enforcement in Scotland: research into the use of existing powers, barriers and scope for improvement, Dec 16) concluded that mistrust of the system is a problem. The study acknowledges that so much of the work currently undertaken to resolve breaches of planning control is undertaken through flexible, informal means – by co-operation and agreement – rather than punitive action and, as a consequence, the influence of the system can be challenging to record and report upon. These conclusions are consistent with the National Park experience. We are confident that our approach to enforcement is effective in the vast majority of cases but, by virtue of seeking to resolve informally (with formal action or prosecution always as a last resort), there are challenges in capturing the effectiveness of the system. This experience will be shared in the National Park response to the consultation and a review of the options to strengthen the tools at our disposal is supported.
It will be very interesting to see if the full LLTNPA response to the review (which will be obtained through FOI if necessary) comments on:
  • the near universal failure of hydro schemes in the National Park to abide by the LLTNPA’s best practice guidance (just look out for those Lomond blue pipes)
The LLTNPA’s guidance on renewables states that all pipes, where exposed, should match the natural colours of the landscape – this has clearly not been applied in Glen Falloch
  • the LLTNPA’s decision in response to my FOI on the Ardchullarie hydro scheme (see here)to remove all information on this scheme post-decision from the planning website – making it impossible for the public to know what the National Park is doing to enforce planning conditions

 

The Beauly Denny scheme

One of few examples at Drumochter where there is evidence of soils (in this case, peat, right foreground) being restored although the restoration is only partial

It was also welcome to see among the CNPA papers an update on the restoration of the ground affected by the construction of the Beauly Denny powerline and a commitment to report on this annually for the next four years Item10AABeaulyDennyupdate.     While its very positive that the CNPA are monitoring the vegetation regrowth, the fundamental issue is that if the work had been done properly, there would be no need to do this.  The problem is that the peat and surface vegetation was never removed and stored properly, the contractors have then mixed glacial materials with soils and changed the nature of the ground with the consequence that natural regeneration is likely to result different plant species suited to the new soils.

 

It was interesting to read that:

 

“One of the conditions of the consent provided a specific role for the CNPA as a member of an environmental liaison group. The group’s purpose was to provide advice on appropriate mitigation and construction procedures and associated restoration and habitat management measures. The other members of the group were the planning authorities, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Historic Scotland and Forestry Commission.”

 

The basic problem for the CNPA (which has also been a problem for the LLTNPA in many of its hydro developments)  is that the appropriate construction procedures were not followed.   The lesson surely is that monitoring of construction conditions should not be left to an Ecological Clerk of Works employed by the contractor – who because their job depends on the contractor cannot speak out – but by someone who is engaged directly by the National Park.

 

Planning Service Improvements

 

The CNPA also includes a paper on planning service improvements over the next year Item9AAPlanningServicePriorities2017-18 which is fairly open about human resource issues which have impacted on the service and also that there are improvements they need to make (a contrast to the LLTNPA which can never admit to any mistake)

 

The last point about this is about enforcement:

 

Review the way we report monitoring and enforcement activity in public (to improve public understanding of the system, awareness of consented developments and of the prioritisation of cases.)

 

In my view, this misses the most important point.  The core problem is NOT members of the public failing to understand the system (something which is also promulgated by the LLTNPA – see above) –  its that the CNPA has not been taking enforcement action where its needed.    I know there are resource issues for all public authoriies but the point surely is that once landowners appreciate that our National Parks are no longer prepared to accept “crap” and are willing to take enforcement action, whatever the cost to the developer, the problems will stop and that will actually save CNPA staff lots of time spent uselessly try to persuade people to co-operate voluntarily.   The biggest improvement the CNPA planning service needs to make in the next year is to establish its own moral authority.

 

Anything though the CNPA can do to make their actions more transparent would be welcome (a basic step would be to include all minutes of meetings and correspondence with developers on the planning portal) and might help make landowners and developers realise the CNPA is serious and committed to ensure the Park’s statutory objectives are met.

The lower part of the track on Carn Leth Choin (foreground and upper right)  which Highland Council treated as a permitted development not requiring planning permission

Following my post questioning what the Cairngorms National Park Authority was doing about the unlawful hill track leading onto Carn Leth Choin in upper Glen Banchor, west of Newtonmore (see here), I wrote to the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  On 8th March (I have been in Norway in-between) I received this response from Murray Ferguson:

 

“Concerns about the track at Carn Leth Choin, Cluny Estate were brought to CNPA’s attention in 2014 and the CNPA raised the issue with Highland Council and Scottish Natural Heritage who had both been involved at earlier stages. Highland Council had previously determined that a lower section of the track was permitted development for agricultural purposes and so no further action could be taken.  It appears that there was some confusion between SNH and the CNPA/Highland Council at the time over further part of the track and what had been authorised and only in 2015 did all the bodies come to understand the issues properly.  A site visit was undertaken with SNH and Highland Council in October 2015.

Following the site visit, SNH undertook to pursue the previous owner of the estate on the grounds that the track was a breach of The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. The case was subsequently investigated by Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime team and CNPA were advised to hold off our own investigations while the criminal investigations were undertaken. Police Scotland concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.

This was reported to the CNPA in June 2016 and we re-opened our investigation in July 2016.The CNPA are currently in dialogue with the estate’s representatives and Scottish Natural Heritage about restoration of ground and mitigation of impacts and a meeting is taking place soon that our Head of Planning will attend. If action is not taken voluntarily by the estate in the next few months then the CNPA will move to take formal action.”

 

I believe this response is extremely welcome.  It helps explain the background and makes it very clear that the CNPA is taking this issue seriously (and I would have to say is quite a contrast to the way in which the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park responds to concerns which I have raised with them about hill tracks).  I believe though its worth considering some of the detail and the implications.

 

Commentary

 

One of the problem with the preventing unlawful hill tracks, such as the one onto Carn Leth Choin, is that existing tracks have not been clearly mapped by planning authorities, including our National Parks.  This makes it very difficult for Planning Authorities to establish when extensions have taken place and whether they should have come under the Prior Notification rules which came into force in December 2014 (this has been a problem for the CNPA on Deeside where the Dinnet Estate claimed its track extensions were completed prior to the new rules).    In this case it has led to delays because its not been absolutely clear which section of track was agreed to by Highland Council as a permitted development.    The solution to this problem was demonstrated by Kincardine and Deeside Council over 20 years ago when they marked the end points of all hill tracks on their Local Plan maps – a precedent that our National Parks should now follow.

This section of track of the Carn Leth Choin track was treated by Highland Council as a permitted development but it sits within the Monadliath SSSI and was an “Operation Requiring Consent”.

 

 

Only the lowest section of the hill track is outwith the Monadliath SSSI

While it can be difficult for Planning Authorities to prove that a track is NOT for agricultural purposes and therefore not a permitted development, in this case I believe Highland Council Planning Department made a serious mistake.  Soon after crossing the Allt Madagain (top photo) the track enters the Monadliath Site of Special Scientific Interest and any track construction with this protected area was an “Operation Requiring Consent” from SNH:

 

The Operations Requiring Consent for the Monadliath SSSI that relate to tracks and vehicle use

Its not clear from the CNPA response if Highland Council planning department checked with SNH before agreeing to the lower part of the track as a permitted development as they are supposed to do for all developments within protected areas.    If they did do so, there are some obvious questions that need to be asked about why SNH agreed to this.  If Highland Council failed to do so that would have made it very difficult for SNH to take action subsequently.

The section of track which was allowed as a permitted development appears to terminate at this large borrow pit at over 650m up the hill. The construction has been undertaken with no regard for this being a SSSI

In my view this was a serious planning failure.  The lower section of track is too steep and is already eroding away.   The landscape scar can only get worse.  In this case this is not the fault of the CNPA as they can only “call-in” development that their constituent Councils and Planning Authorities have identified as requiring planning permission.

 

The fact that SNH referred the construction of the new section of track that leads to the summit of Carn Leth Choin to Police Scotland is significant.   Breach of the Operations Requiring Consent is a criminal offence and the evidence shows that this clearly happened in this case: the photos below show extraction of materials, road construction and use of vehicles all of which needed permission.    It would be in the public interest to know why Police Scotland decided not to prosecute in this case – it would have sent a clear signal to landowners all over Scotland of the consequences of ignoring the law governing protected areas.  Its difficult to avoid the suspicion that as with raptor persecution Police Scotland treat landowners differently to the rest of the population – as being above the law.

 

 

Taking what the CNPA has said at face value, there are serious challenges with restoring this track.   The material that forms the track needs to be returned to the “borrow pits” from which it was sourced.

I would suggest this material, which appears to have been simply dumped on existing vegetation (which was protected – its montane heath) cannot simply be removed by heavy machinery because that will simply further damage the ground underneath.  The final removal of aggregate and restoration of the ground surface both beneath the track and over the borrow pits once the material has been replaced there will need to be by hand.  That will require a skilled workforce which at present does not really exist because there has been no attempt to restore any hill tracks since NTS acquired Mar Lodge Estate and restored the Beinn a Bhuird track.
Any restoration will be very expensive but luckily the new owners, who were not responsible for constructing the track, do not lack a bob or two.  They can either afford to pay for the restoration themselves or pay whatever it needs to recover money from the previous owner – who made £3.7m on the Cluny Estate in the fourteen years he owned it.   For excellent background on the estate sale  see Andy Wightman’s blog

 

Qatar royal family buy Cluny Estate

Its time for the CNPA to be resolute and there are welcome signs that in this case they might be so.  They only need to tackle successfully one unlawful hill track in the National Park and all landowners will start to take note of the risks of failing to comply with the law.

Use of vehicles, which is an Operation Requiring Consent, extends beyond the end of the unlawful hill track
The Strathy puts Natural Retreats under the spotlight again – and rightly so

 

. If you want to understand what is going wrong at Cairngorm (or indeed in National Parks or the wider economy), I believe you need some understanding of what is going on financially.   If there is going to be any recovery of democratic control in Scotland, whether in our National Parks or outside, we need to start taking an interest in how money is created and used.  I won’t apologise therefore for devoting this post to Natural Retreats’ accounts  (as someone who is not an accountant) but if you can’t bear the thought, the headlines are that in the 9 months to 31st December 2015  Cairngorm Mountain made a significant operating loss, its liabilities are greater than its assets and its only kept afloat by guarantee from the owner of its parent company which is itself over  £22,831,678 in the red.    The implications of this for snowsports and the Speyside economy are briefly considered at the end of this post.

 

The accounts for Cairngorm Mountain Ltd CML Accounts to Dec 2015 application-pdf (1) and its parent company, Natural Assets Investment Ltd NAIL accounts to 31 December 2015AA-1487635200-1 (1)– which market themselves under the name Natural Retreats – were both due in January and both were published late,  long after red warning signs had appeared on the Companies House website.     HIE appointed Natural Retreats promising they were going to invest at Cairngorm – nirvana from the city – but what the accounts show is that there has been very little investment since Natural Retreats took over.  Indeed, the accounts show appears no chance of this happening unless David Michael Gorton, the city financier who owns Natural Retreats, suddenly decides to splash out at Cairngorm.  I personally don’t believe the future of an area should depend on the decisions of one person – its not a good way to do things, even if its the way our economy is run at the moment – the 1% have enormous power and people need to appreciate this extends to our National Parks.

 

Extract CML accounts to 31st December 2015

The accounting period for both Cairngorm Mountain Ltd and Natural Assets Investment Ltd was changed from April – March to January to December in the calendar year 2015 so both sets of accounts are only for 9 months.   This needs to be kept in mind when comparing these accounts against those of the previous financial year to 31st March 2015 which was for 12 months.    Its not unexpected that turnover is down because Cairngorm normally brings in more money in the winter months, January – March, and would employ more staff at this time (the cost of sales line) and that period is not covered in these accounts.  What’s more, January – March 2016 was a good year for snowsports on Cairngorm – unlike this year – so the fact there is a much larger loss than the previous 12 month financial year is not surprising.  What you cannot tell from the accounts is how well Natural Retreats were managing to increase business outside the winter season, which was one of reasons for their appointment – how to increase the summer use and make the funicular financially viable.

 

What may be significant though is that administrative expenses appear proportionately much higher for this nine month period compared to the previous financial year.  If like for like – and they had gone up the previous year significantly –  one might have expected them to be c£760k but they are almost £920k.  This could be an indication that money is being siphoned out of Cairngorm: on the basis of these accounts HIE should be asking Natural Retreats why administrative expenses have increased so much, compared to expenditure on front-line staff, since they took over.

The additions line shows investment on the ground, in real things such as snow fencing.

Natural Retreats certainly didn’t incur these additional admin costs overseeing a significant investment programme.   Janette Janssen claimed in the Strathy (see above) that ”Natural Retreats is invested in CairnGorm Mountain and the surrounding community for the long term”.  What the accounts show is that  investment in assets at Cairngorm was only £351,849 compared to £616,514 the year before.   So investment actually dropped.

 

The replacement snow fencing around the Shieling ski tow, only completed after public pressure had forced Natural Retreats to submit a retrospective planning application for the unlawful track they had created by the tow

I would expect levels of investment to increase in the next accounts for 2016 because Natural Retreats started, after public criticism, to replace the old chestnut fencing which it is paying for.   This however followed the good ski season of 2016 and its reasonable to ask, given issues raised in the Strathy, whether Natural Retreats will be in a position to fund such work in future?   Not, I would suggest, unless they reduce their administrative expenses and keep staff – who did this work – instead of talking about redeploying staff (to far off places like Lewis and John O’Groats where Natural Retreats is also working with HIE).

Notes to accounts are often very informative

The notes on creditors shows the amounts owed to group undertakings, third line down, more than doubled – an indication that money is being taken out of Cairngorm – while the doubling of what was owed to trade creditors suggest other businesses on Speyside may be suffering through not being paid on time.  Whatever the precise interpretation, the amount of money owed by Cairngorm Mountain almost doubled and at the end of the financial year Cairngorm Mountain Ltd was basically bust, having greater liabilities than assets.

 

The position as expressed in the parent company, Natural Assets Investment Ltd’s,  accounts is far worse.  The accounts cover both the group as a whole (ie including Cairngorm Mountain Ltd) and the holding company itself.   The  bottom line of the extract below shows net liabilities have increased for the group by over £5m (left hand two columns) and for the company by over £3.25m).

 

 

Now look at turnover for the year (below).  Its tiny compared to the group liabilities, less in fact than the increase in liabilities in the period, so the financial position of NAIL is getting worse.  The group appears unable to generate sufficient income to pay off its liabilities.

The only reason the group has not gone bust is because almost all of the money owed is to David Michael Gorton £42,139,121 – yes over £42 million – and he has said he will support the group for another year (this guarantee is from the date of the accounts were signed, i.e February 2017, not from December 2015).  The same note to the accounts show he is also receiving lots of interest £2,351,590.

You might also note from this that the turnover of the Natural Assets Investment Ltd group is barely sufficient to pay the owner interest.    It would need record snow years at Cairngorms for probably the next ten years to change this situation – the way our climate is changing at present makes that appear highly unlikely.

 

So, how did HIE ever agree to sell Cairngorm Mountain Ltd to such a group?   In the tender process for Cairngorm HIE ruled out a local bid because it did not meet the pre-qualification criteria of £500,000 turnover for the previous three years.    I will come back to this again but, instead of considering a local company which had relatively small turnover but which was sound financially,  HIE sold CML to an untested holding company which, just three years later, appears to be a financial basket case.

 

What does this mean at Cairngorm?

 

A month or so ago, after I had discovered that HIE had paid for the unlawful works at Cairngorm and then asked Natural Retreats to pay £2000 back, I asked HIE who was going to pay for the new montane planting and the remedial work to the Shieling ski tow that was approved by the Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee (see here).  I was pleased to be told by HIE that Natural Retreats will pay for this.     It will be interesting to see if this happens and how long it takes to complete the snow fencing and all the other remedial works and tidy up needed at Cairngorm.

 

The way Natural Retreats are running Cairngorm, they are totally dependent on public funds for all significant investments.   I don’t think there will be any significant investment from David Michael Gorton unless there is a guaranteed income and its hard to see how the original plans for new buildings can deliver this.    The introduction of parking charges look like the only alternative source of income and that will be met by public outcry.   So, what that means is HIE will spend more public money, money which then ends up benefitting a few individuals rather than the people of Speyside.

 

There must be a better way of managing and spending public money at Cairngorm.  In my view HIE should be planning to terminate its lease with Natural Retreats, before it completely implodes financially, and at the same time supporting the development of a community run organisation to operate Cairngorm alongside or with conservation and recreation interests.

Trap intended for stoat probably baited with part of a mountain hare just outside southern boundary Cairngorms National Park February 2017

In what I believe is a very positive development Onekind has launched a campaign to protect mountain hares in the Cairngorms National Park (see here).  I think they are right to focus on the National Park – if we cannot protect wildlife in our National Parks then we are unlikely to protect wildlife anywhere except for places in conservation ownership – and Mountain Hares are a good species to start with since they are not fully protected (there is an open and close season) unlike raptors which in theory are (though in practice the laws to protect raptors have made little difference which is why there is also a compelling case to license all hunting in our National Parks).

 

In choosing this campaign, Onekind I suspect, has picked up that the general public feel very strongly our National Parks should be different from other places and part of that means wildlife should be protected there.   This is reflected in Raptor Persecution Scotland/UK’s 7th Birthday blog – congratulations to them, they are doing a fantastic job of exposing how Raptor Persecution is being allowed to continue.   The RPS post listed the ten most popular posts of the last year.  What struck me is that two of their most popular posts had “Cairngorms National Park” in the title and three others covered ground within the National Park:

  1. Natural England issues licence to kill buzzards to protect pheasants (here)
  2. National Trust pulls grouse shooting lease in Peak District National Park (here)
  3. Queen’s Balmoral Estate accused of mountain hare massacre (here)
  4. Faking it (here)
  5. More mountain hares slaughtered in the Angus Glens (here)
  6. More mountain hares massacred in the Cairngorms National Park (here)
  7. The illegal killing of birds of prey in the Cairngorms National Park (here)
  8. Chris Packham has a message for Marks & Spencer (here)
  9. Mass raptor poisoning in Wales: location revealed (here)
  10. Catastrophic decline of breeding hen harriers on grouse moors in NE Scotland (here)

 

I have commented previously about National Parks,  the power of the idea.   It  makes sense for animal welfare and conservation organisations to use it and I also welcome the fact that, in raising awareness about what is going on in our National Parks, animal welfare and conservation organisations are increasingly working more closely together.

 

In response to Raptor Persecution Scotland’s post on the Onekind campaign (see here) there were two very interesting comments (and I hope the authors and RPS don’t mind me quoting them).

Solway Ladder Trap used to trap corvids (crows, magpies,jackdaws) on side -out of use – Dalnamein. When uptright crows drop through the ladder – running across middle of trap – and cannot get out due to the shape of the trap’s roof

Protected areas and wildlife

 

Here’s the comment from Alistair Clunas:

 

Many respondents on this blog expect wildlife to be specially protected in our National Parks. This is not the case.

All National Parks in the UK are Category V Protected Landscape/Seascape. A protected area managed mainly for landscape/seascape protection and recreation.
http://www.nationalparks.gov.uk/students/whatisanationalpark/nationalparksareprotectedareas/iucncategories

This means that protection of ecosystems and wildlife is not, as it should be, a function of the national park. The Scottish Government when it set up the national park system should have created Category II Nation Parks where areas are managed mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation. At the very least a core area in Cairngorms National Park should have been designated as such.

 

I agree with Alistair that wildlife is not specially protected in our National Parks but the important thing is the public EXPECT wildlife to be protected in our National Parks.    While I believe that having Category ii National Parks would help, as Alistair suggests, I don’t think this is  essential to protect wildlife far better than we are doing at present.  Our current National Parks could do this if they had the will.   The first aim in law of both our National Parks is to “(a) conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area” and what’s more where there is conflict with the other three aims, “the authority must give greater weight to the aim set out in section 1(a)”.   Note it says  NOT “should” but “must” – conservation must come first.

 

A large part of the problem in my view is that our National Parks have simply not done what they should be doing, they have not put conservation first.  Its not even that they have put their fourth aim ” (d) to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities” first.  Its that they have interpreted this to mean that they should put  landed, business and financial interests first.   The onekind campaign is an opportunity to put a small part of this right.

 

Having said that, I agree with Alistair, that we should be creating  core areas within our National Parks where natural processes and wildlife come first or, as Ron Greer described it, we should create “wildlife refugium”  (see here).   While this idea has been knocked sideways in the Cairngorms, it has never formed part of the thinking in the Lomond and Trossachs National Park – it should do, there are some great areas of wild land where natural processes could be allowed to hold sway.

 

What about other species than mountain hare and raptors?

 

The second comment was from Iain Gibson:

 

It’s time to consider the position regarding the entire principle of controlling predators, which is falsely justified simply by tagging them with the label “vermin” or “pest.” I see no reason why foxes should not be protected. It’s only because of country lore and tradition that we continue to persecute them. Personally I would like to see a society in which all wildlife is protected by law, and guns removed from the equation, but this appears to be unrealistic at present due to the fanaticism of our own version of the gun lobby, which insists farmers can’t cope without the ability to kill so-called “vermin.” It is true however that some do, including a few hill sheep farmers who manage to survive without having to control foxes. Surely our understanding of nature and ecology has reached a sufficiently advanced stage to realise that vermin control is unnecessary except where a serious threat to human health is involved. So long as conservationists continue to make exceptions for Red Foxes and Carrion Crows, ignoring scientific evidence, gamekeepers can accuse us of hypocrisy. I suspect few readers of RPUK are aware that crows have been taking a hammering since the rise of the Countryside Alliance, in effect because ignorant farmers, gamekeepers and wildly right-wing “country sports” supporters are taking out their frustration against enlightened people, aka “townies.”

Stoat trap, Dalnaspidal, within the National Park. There appears to be no difference between the number of traps on the part of this estate that is within the National Park and that outside the National Park.

 

 

 

Iain, I think is spot on.   The level of trapping of “vermin” such as weasels and stoats  in the Cairngorms National Park (see here for Dinnet example) is as much a disgrace as the slaughter of Mountain Hares.   This is not just a Cairngorms issue.   Last year I was talking to a keeper in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park who told me he had lost count of the number of foxes he had killed.    It made me think afterwards about how many foxes I had ever seen in the LLTNP.  In hundred  of visits, I have probably seen less than five foxes, while in Glasgow, where I run the streets most days, I see them 3-4 times a week.

So, both of our National Parks need to address wildlife persecution, not just hares but other species, and what better place to start than in their new five year partnership plans which have to be agreed this year?        Mountain Hares should be just the starting point for a much wider vision of the wildlife potential of our National Parks.

 

General View over part of Badaguish site Feb 2017 showing rubbish, incomplete tree planting that was required as a condition of planning consent and which has largely failed, part of a bike track and some accommodation pods and lodges.     Is this the standard of development we should expect in the National Park?

On Friday 19th August 2016, after a site visit, Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee passed the latest, and certainly not the last, of a series of highly controversial planning applications by the Speyside Trust, which manages a large site at Badaguish, in the heart of Glenmore Forest.  The applications are controversial because the Speyside Trust has frequently breached planning regulations, because the applications are riddled with inaccuracies and false statements, and because the area around Badaguish is a breeding site for Capercaillie, a bird needing special protection.  There is a European Conservation Site (SPA), some 200 metres from the Badaguish boundary.

A further photo (taken Feb 27 2017) showing the car park without required edging of logs and with material still piled up as it was at the time of the 2016 site visit by the CNPA Board. Innappropriate gorse plantings can be seen on the bank and a lodge in the background.

One of the conditions attached to the CNPA’s planning permission in August 2016 read as follows:

 

Within 6 months of the date of this permission the parking area shall be edged with logs to define its boundaries and thereafter kept free for the parking of vehicles, unless otherwise agreed in writing with the CNPA acting as Planning Authority.
Reason: To ensure that the development fits into the landscape setting and future landscaping approved for this site in accordance with Policy 5: Landscape of the Cairngorms National Park Local Development Plan 2015.

 

The six months is now up and yet again nothing has happened.

 

CNPA Planning Officers have regularly, since September 2011, had some of the more blatant inaccuracies and untruths pointed out to them, by telephone, by e mail, and by personal visits to their offices by myself and members of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group.  So far, they have chosen to ignore these warnings which I believe is a total abdication of their responsibilities to their office, the public and the environment.

 

To demonstrate one of the more obvious and crucial pieces of false information, I will consider documents submitted to planning about capacity at the site.  The charts Capacity and Flows and Loads were submitted by the Speyside Trust to support the original application, 2011/0206/DET, submitted in June 2011.

Note how capacity is presented as having reduced since 1996

 

 

On the Flows and Loads chart it is stated, in block capitals, “THIS SHOWS THAT THE NEW PROPOSALS ARE OFFSET BY THE EXISTING SCHEME THAT IS TO BE REMOVED.”  This strongly suggests the applicant is stating that there will be no increase in the capacity of the site. Assuming so, this document, and the capacity chart giving a history of site capacity, appear designed to deceive.  The potential number of people camping has always been the same.  The licence, issued by the Highland Council is for 100 tents and 10 caravans.   How many people is that?  Over 200, yet Speyside Trust claims there will be just 100 campers.   However, the numbers of fixed beds have increased enormously since 1996.

 

My comparison chart Flows and Loads compared with Capacity chart shows the anomalies.

 

Basically, in 1996 there were about 50 beds on site, mainly bunkhouse style.  When all the proposed new beds are in place, it will be something over 300 despite 2 buildings no longer having bunks in them.  And why give figures for lodge occupancy in 1996, when the lodges were not even built? The first 4 lodges were built in 2001 and a further 4 in 2007.

 

CNPA officers’ responses to my clarification of the information has been mixed.  There was no response at all in 2011.  In September 2013 I was astounded to hear  “We have to believe what an applicant tells us” from senior planning officers at a meeting in the CNPA offices in Grantown.  The latest, and surely most pathetic, is in an e mail I received.   A senior planning official from CNPA stated:

 

Based on information provided with planning applications and recent planning consents, the Badaguish site has planning permission for developments with a bed provision of 221 and a camp site of unspecified capacity.  The figure of 262 was one claimed for the site in 1996 when the accommodation on site was significantly different. The CNPA can’t verify whether that figure of 262 is accurate or not. The planning permissions granted in the past few years don’t limit the number of people who may visit the site.  However, whether the 1996 figure was accurate or not does not affect the planning permissions that have been granted.

 

So the senior CNPA planner is unable to verify the facts.  Perhaps he could ask – the number of Highland Council, the Planning Authority in 1996, is in the phone book.  And he seems to believe that the current bed capacity is 221, when in fact it is over 300.  And if he could be bothered to read the site camping licence, he would discover that the campsite is not, in one respect, “of unspecified capacity”.  This huge increase in bed capacity was never discussed at planning meetings, and goes against all the local plans for the area for the last twenty years:

 

Note back in 1997 (4.14.1)  there was a “strong presumption against further development” while the Glenmore Strategy agreed last year looks like this:

No sign of any visitor infrastructure improvements being agreed for Badaguish, in fact it does not even feature on the map!

 

Here is another document in the 4 submitted, headed “The Proposal” from the supporting documents submitted in 2011.

 

 

I will explain some of the financial figures in my next post.  However, observant readers will note that one of the funding partners, with a donation of £40,000, is the CNPA.  What was the purpose of this grant and how does it fit with the planning applications?  I think we should be told.

 

What’s wrong about all of this is that the CNPA is allowing Badaguish to grow in size contrary to all plans and by default.  While expressing concern about failures of the Speyside Trust to abide by planning conditions, it will be interesting to see if it does anything about the latest breach.  Meantime the CNPA has just decided not to call in an application to convert a toilet block into a campsite warden’s office  (Ref 16/05426/FUL, on HC website), even though the wrong location has been highlighted on the location plan.  About 20-30 metres out!

Following my posts (see here) and (here) on the rights of and need for National Park Board Members to speak out, this excellent letter appeared in the Strathie this week.  (I know Peter very slightly, he preceded me on the Board of SNH, but I have not had contact with him for c 10 years).

 

What I think Peter has missed – and which I have only found out in the last week – is that the right to speak out is not just about the Code of Conduct but also the CNPA’s Standing Orders (the rules which set out how the Board operates).  They include this clause:

 

30. Board Members share corporate responsibility for decisions taken by the Board as a whole. Members must therefore either accept and publicly support the collective decision of the Board or resign. Members must respect the confidentiality of sensitive information held by the organisation, as well as the discussions and papers taken in private session.

 

In other words, once the Park Board has taken a decision, Board Members are gagged under the rules of the Park.     While Peter Argyle denies that he tried to get Cllr Lobban to resign, it appears if he had done so he would have only have been following the rules of the National Park.

 

I found this quite extraordinary so I checked the rules of three other environmental Non-Departmental Public Bodies.   Neither SNH or the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park contain similar clauses in their Standing Orders.  However, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has a similar if less draconian gagging clause:

 
Collective Responsibility and Confidentiality
79.SEPA’s boards and committees operate on the basis of collective responsibility for decisions.
Members are therefore expected, if questioned on a matter where a board or committee has
taken a view, to support the position reached

 

The gagging clauses appear to be incompatible with the Code of Conduct for Board Members.  For example all four Boards have a clause in their Code of Conduct on Accountability and Stewardship which reads as follows:

 

You are accountable for your decisions and actions to the public. You have a duty to
consider issues on their merits, taking account of the views of others and must ensure that
SNH uses its resources prudently and in accordance with the law.

 

It appears that the CNPA is try to make Members accountable to itself rather than to the public.   This is wrong.

 

That this is not just a National Park or environmental NDPB issue is demonstrated by Paul Hutcheon’s investigation in Friday’s Herald on the resignation of Moi Ali from the Scottish Police Authority after the chair tried to silence her (see here).  The parallels with CNPA Board Convener Peter Argyle’s alleged attempt to silence Cllr Bill Lobban are striking and one can’t help thinking that Moi Ali should have followed Cllr Lobban’s lead and refused to resign.

 

The story also mirrors other things that have been happening in our National Parks.  The Scottish Police Authority’s attempt to delay publication of Board Papers until the day of the meeting mirrors the LLTNPA decision in 2015 to change their Standing Orders so that papers only needed to be published 3 days (instead of 7) before meetings.   If you don’t know what’s on the agenda of course, you don’t know if its worth attending.    The increasing propensity of the SPA to meet in private, which led to Moi Ali’s resignation, is nothing compared to the LLTNPA which developed the camping byelaws which are due to come into force next week over 12 secret Board Briefing sessions between September 2013 and April 2015.   Moi Ali’s observation that “If dissent is only allowed privately, then I think decision-making becomes enshrouded in a type of fog” seems a pretty good description of the byelaw making process.

 

What the experience of the LLTNPA also demonstrates is that you don’t need formal gagging orders enshrined in Standing Orders in order to silence Board Members.  The problems go far deeper than that and appear to be linked to a style of leadership which appears authoritarian rather than democratic.

 

What needs to happen

 

The inclusion of gagging orders in NDPB Standing Orders conflicts with the Code of Conduct for Ethical Standards in Public Life for Members of those Boards.  While members of the CNPA Board therefore need to review their standing orders, the Standards Commission which oversees and enforces the Code of Conduct for NDPB Board Members, should have a role here.   What the public, to whom Board Members are accountable, deserve to know is the extent to which Board rules and practices enable and facilitate individual members to abide by their Codes of Conduct.

 

The Scottish Government also needs to start taking an interest in how our National Parks operate and to introduce reforms which would increase transparency and public accountability.    That should include the abolition of gagging orders – what is a Board Member not even allowed to approach the Minister if s/he thinks a decision by the Board is fundamentally flawed.   I would also like these to include a requirement that Board Meetings should always be held in public (with any confidential business held in private at the end of the meeting), that all Board Meeting should be recorded as available as pod/broadcasts for at least a year after the meeting and that papers for meetings should appear at least one week before the meeting is held.

The construction track as it looks after “restoration”  .   It appears very little vegetation was saved prior to construction for use once the track was removed and the pile of boulders created by the construction work has simply been left without any attempt to re-position so they would appear more natural.   Photo Credit Jonathan Binny

The stretch of land between Dalwhinnie and Feagour, on the A96 west of Laggan, taken by the Beauly Denny powerline is fairly unfrequented.   Following my posts on the Beauly Denny at Drumochter (see here) and (here), my thanks to Jonathan Binny for sending these photos of the section between Feagour and the col east of Meall nan Eagain.

 

 

The Scottish Government, which overruled the objections of Cairngorms National Park Authority to the Beauly Denny, required all construction tracks  to be restored to their original condition. These restoration works were supposed to be complete last year, so the photos show the “final restoration” – clearly not the original condition.

 

In 2013, Ben Alder Estate, which covers part of this area, applied for planning permission to keep part of the construction track (just like the Drumochter Estate did at Drumochter) but this was refused by the CNPA – for which they deserve credit.  I suspect it helped the CNPA that an excellent case was made by John Thomas for refusing the track, including the added impact it would have on wild land (see here).     (NB I know John slightly but I had no idea he had made representations on any part of the Beauly Denny until I checked the application on the Park’s planning portal).   The primary problem that the photos illustrate is not that the CNPA are failing to consider planning applications properly or set appropriate conditions – they do most of the time – its that they are failing to enforce those conditions.

 

I checked with the Scottish Government about responsibility for enforcing the Beauly Denny planning conditions:

 

My question

“I am interested in trying to find out what the role of the Scottish Government is in ensuring the Planning Conditions that were attached to the decision to allow the Beauly Denny powerline to be constructed are enforced”

The Scottish Government Response.

“In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place.”

 

I think this is pretty clear.  Responsibility for ensuring Scottish and Southern Electric properly restored the land after the construction of the Beauly Denny lies with the CNPA within the Cairngorms National Park.     I can sympathise with the CNPA that they never wanted the Beauly Denny to run through the National Park but once that decision was made their responsibility was to ensure the work was done to the highest standards.  That clearly hasn’t happened and there is no record of the National Park taking any enforcement action.

 

In case any reader is thinking from all the photos of destruction posted on parkswatch that destruction is an inevitable consequence of development in our hills, its worth comparing Jonathan’s photos with restoration work elsewhere

Photo of moorland restoration on the upper Gynack hydro scheme Kingussie February 2016.  The line of the pipeline runs from the view up the centre of the photo.

The Pitmain Estate avoided constructing a new track here and used different construction techniques for this hydro (which I will feature in a future post) but you can see quite clearly that heather has been retained and then replanted.  Most hillwalkers probably walk past this pipeline without realising its there.  That is not going to happy any time soon with Beauly Denny – in fact they are now talking of 20-30 years before the land “recovers”.   That is NOT restoration but a very slow reclamation by nature processes.

Part of the track from Feagour went through woodland. Photo Credit Jonathan Binny.

 

The land looks just like any other clearfell, a mess, which will take years to recover.   Contrast this with the restoration of the ground in Stank Glen by Loch Lubnaig in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs

National Park

The line of the pipeline runs diagonally across photo from bottom left and has been cut through the trees.

Again, this was not restoration of a track as shows, but does show how woodland can be restored after major construction works.  The work here post-dates the Beauly Denny and will be all but invisible long before nature reclaims the Beauly Denny destruction.

In addition to the destruction caused by the construction track, which appears to have been in addition to the forest track far right, you can see the usual failure to restore the ground around the base of the pylons Photo Credit Jonathan Binny

 

What Jonathan’s photos demonstrate along with the photos published in earlier posts, is that there has been a serious failure to restore the ground and tracks after the Beauly Denny works within the Cairngorms National Park.    This should matter to SSE the developer – it claims to take a responsible approach (see here), including treating staff decently and tackling climate change.  Along with claims about sustainability  its foundational aim is to “Do no harm”.   That’s not what these photographs show.   SSE’s claims seem to count for nothing when it comes to how it treats the land.

 

However, responsibility for addressing SSE’s failures lie with the CNPA.   This is not just one isolated bit of land that has been trashed by some landowner that doesn’t care, its a huge swathe of ground running right through the National Park.  The CNPA should be exposing SSE for failing to hold by its own claimed principles.  This is actually one case where the public could have an influence.   If the destruction was publicised and SSE does nothing, customers could change their accounts.   There is huge potential in this case for CNPA to sort matters out without the costs of any legal action simply through the adverse publicity for SSE which would be created if it threatened to take enforcement action along the length of the Beauly Denny.  What has the CNPA got to fear?