Tag: CNPA

January 17, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Badenoch and Strathspey Herald 11/01/18

Last week, nine months after Highlands and Island Enterprise launched its so called masterplan for Cairngorm (see here), the Strathy announced  the date of the pre-planning consultation event on the proposals to revamp the Ptarmigan near the summit of the hill.  At the same time it also broke the news that the Scottish Ski Club, which has a hut at Cairngorm, was proposing to spend £1.4m on a new lift at the White Lady.  This post will consider how both proposals fit with the need for a wider plan for Cairngorm and what is really going on there behind the scenes.

 

The Ptarmigan proposals

There were two main elements to the Cairngorm masterplan what wasn’t: a dry ski slope by the carpark, which now appears to have been ditched (a planning application was submitted before being quickly withdrawn last year), and the Ptarmigan.  From the Strathy article it appears that the proposals have not changed greatly in the last nine months since the concept was revealed, with the extension to the building and revamped exhibition both included in the original plans, although the plan for a walkway out over the funicular appears to have been altered slightly.  It now apparently goes around or over the roof:

Extract from 365 Degree Architecture’s previous plans released under Freedom of Information – if the reports of a rooftop walkway are correct, it appears that the design of the building will have been changed.

The basic idea however remains the same, try and get more people to use the funicular by creating a visitor attraction at the top of it.   The idea is totally flawed.  In landscape terms National Parks should not be permitting new developments near the summits of mountains and in visitor experience terms, to use that awful phrase, the plan is complete stupidity.   The Ptarmigan is shrouded in cloud for much of the time and subject to high winds, so the claim that the rooftop walkway will “maximise the amazing vistas all year round” is complete tosh.   HIE appears to be preparing to lend another £4m of public monies to create yet another white elephant at Cairngorm.

What’s worse, HIE appears to be pressing ahead with this proposal before it – or rather Natural Retreats – has produced an overall plan for Cairngorm, as it committed to do under the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy which was approved in 2016 and before it has completed its review of ski infrastructure at Cairngorm.  This is important because in terms of use of public money, HIE should have fully assessed the cost-benefits of expanding the Ptarmigan compared to other options BEFORE endorsing any planning application.

 

The White Lady ski lift proposal

The former White Lady lift before the removal of the old lift base with the Scottish Ski Club Hut above it. August 2017.

HIE’s inability to produce any sort of coherent plan for Cairngorm is nicely shown up by the proposal from the Scottish Ski Club to reinstate the White Lady lift, probably in the form of a state of the art t-bar which apparently would cost £1.4m and which they hope to fund.  This is most interesting, not least because it suggests that new lifts could be installed in Coire na Ciste for less than the £4m HIE are proposing to lend to Cairngorm Mountain in order to develop the Ptarmigan.    So, would it not be better to use public monies to support the proposals from the Ciste Group and Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust to redevelop the Ciste rather than waste it on the Ptarmigan?  Add those proposals to the White Lady lift and the use of snow making machines and one might, once again, have skiing worthy of the name at Cairngorm.

While the White Lady Lift proposal appears welcome, the evidence suggests that behind the scenes HIE has yet again not been honest about what they are up to while the Scottish Ski Club has allowed themselves to get caught up in HIE and Cairngorm Mountain shenanigans.  The Strathy story quotes the Scottish Ski Club as saying they have been in collaboration with HIE and Natural Retreats  to look  at the feasibility of the proposal.  This must have taken time and it seems reasonable to conclude therefore that HIE must have known about this when they tendered for their review of ski infrastructure at the end of November (see here).  That tender included in its scope the development potential of Coire na Ciste but NOTHING about the development potential of Coire Cas where the White Lady is situated.  So has HIE helped commission another study, which they have kept secret, about the ski potential in Coire Cas or have they just missed an opportunity to get independent evidence on the Scottish Ski Club proposals which could be used to justify some public financial investment?   Either way the lack of join up by HIE between the various initiatives at Cairngorm is quite staggering and yet more evidence of the need of a proper overall plan.

While I can understand that the Scottish Ski Club needed to get HIE, as the owners, and NR as the operators, on board, it appears they may have allowed themselves to get too close.  Its much easier to understand now why the SSC did not  make an issue when Cairngorm Mountain staff entered the Ski Club Hut and removed the Winter Highland webcam without permission (see here).  If they had done so, Natural Retreats might have refused to co-operate with their proposal.   Easier too to understand why Cairngorm Mountain thought they could get away with this highhanded action.    It would be in interests of all who care about Cairngorm if SSC were to talk now to the Ciste Group and Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust and ensure all their plans fit as one cannot see either HIE or Natural Retreats doing this.

So is Natural Retreats still Natural Retreats and if not who is running Cairngorm Mountain?

While the Scottish Ski Club reported they had been talking to Natural Retreats, I suspect this is because the staff they spoke to never told them what was going on – or perhaps even they didn’t know.  I think it is significant in this respect that the Ptarmigan proposal is being push in the name of Cairngorm Mountain with not a mention of  Natural Retreats.  The original proposals for the

The branding strapline from an earlier version of the proposals for the Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan were branded on every page as coming from Natural Retreats.  I suspect that at the consultation event there will be not a mention of Natural Retreats, which we know is no longer a so-called international operation, and the UK part of which appears to have transferred to the UK Great Travel Company on 1st November  (see here) and (here).  I have since found out – as a result of a comment on the blog that the Great Travel Company Ltd had registered a person with Significant Control – that there are in fact two Great Travel Companies, both operated by former directors of Natural Retreats:

The UK Great Travel Company is the new name for the Natural Retreats UK and has three Directors, Ewan Kearney, Anthony Wild and Matthew Spence and, while it has still failed to register who has significant control, we know from past accounts that it used, at any rate, to be controlled by David Michael Gorton, the same man who controls Natural Assets Investment Ltd, the owner of Cairngorm Mountain.

The Great Travel Company was incorporated – i.e created as a new company – at the end of October 2017 with Matthew Spence as sole Director and owning over 75% of the shares.

So what is happening?   The former company Natural Retreats UK, before it became the UK Great Travel Company, appeared to service all the companies owned by Natural Assets Investment Ltd .  As remarked in my last post, there is still a Natural Retreats UK website but all mention of Cairngorm Mountain has been removed from it and a new marketing manager is/has been appointed based at Cairngorm.  It appears therefore the companies are being separated.   The creation of the Great Travel Company suggests that Cairngorm Mountain is not the only part of the Natural Retreats business which is being separated off.  But why then create a company with such a similar sounding name and why is Matthew Spence a director of both?  A recipe for confusion unless something else is going on.

Before the latest changes, I has written to HIE expressing concern about what is going on behind the scenes and who actually now manages and controls Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.  I had a very polite and clear response from their Chief Executive, Charlotte Wright, just before Xmas:

1              Information on Companies House website

Companies House data should be kept up to date, and I understand you raising this as a concern.  However, as I said before, HIE believes that this is a matter for the company.  I would assure you that we do not rely solely on Companies House information for our monitoring activities, which are regular and robust.

What this told me was that even if HIE do know who owns the UK Great Travel Company, they don’t see it as being in the public interest that this information is made public.   Given that Scottish Limited Partnerships, money laundering and tax evasion are in the news on a daily basis at present, one would have hoped that all public agencies in Scotland were ensuring the organisations they contract with meet these basic legal obligations.  All it would take is one call from them saying “publish the correct information or there will be contractual consequences” and the UK Great Travel Company would oblige.   That they have not done so suggests other things are going on.

Within this context it appears foolhardy in the extreme to be pushing ahead with an ill conceived scheme which will hand yet more public money to the shadowy companies that own and manage Cairngorm and whom we know were, until recently at least, controlled by a hedge fund manager.

January 16, 2018 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Speyside Way extension along line of former powerline between Lynwilg and Alvie – Photo credit Peter Crane

Following last week’s post on the undergrounding of powerlines in Glen Tromie (see here), in which there was a photo showing how they had blighted the Speyside Way extension, Peter Crane from the Cairngorms National Park Authority sent me a photo of how it looks now, after the powerlines have been removed.   Thank you Peter.

You can judge for yourself the difference by comparing to a couple of my photos below from December 2015 but in my view, with the removal of the powerlines, the Speyside Way is far more worthy of a planning award than it was in 2016 (see here).

The Speyside Way extension will be a much better walk with the removal of the powerlines

Following this improvement I would, though, still like to see the CNPA promoting a variant to this section of the Speyside Way along the fine section of river at Kinrara which has been avoided by the extension.  This would also make it far more obvious to people that they could do circular walks using this section of the Way.   The challenge is getting landowners to agree to this – time, as Dave Morris proposed in his interview with Scotland Out of Doors at the weekend, for Public Authorities to be given Compulsory Purchase Powers to put paths in place.

January 12, 2018 Nick Kempe 2 comments
The powerlines which blighted the Speyside Way extension south of Aviemore have now been removed

While the Beauly Denny has been a blot on the landscape, as a consequence of the visual impact of the pylons and the poor restoration of ground around (covered in my last post (here)), elsewhere in the National Park a very different approach is being taken.   The powerline infrastructure is being modernised but to the benefit, not at the expense of, the landscape.

Much of this is due to the Cairngorms National Park Authority which, while failing to stop the Beauly Denny, did win support for the associated rationalisation scheme for the the removal of c93km of existing LOW voltage or redundant tower lines from Etteridge, through Boat of Garten,  Tomintoul, the Lecht and Strathdon towards Tarland – a great arc around the north of the National Park.   The Report on the Beauly Denny at the December planning Committee reports this is now complete:

 

The scheme started in 2014 and completed in the summer of 2017 with the removal of the last towers between Ruthven and Etteridge. Much of the new low voltage line has been undergrounded using a mole plough for cabling so there has been relatively little disturbance of vegetation. CNPA officers have undertaken site inspections and advised upon some technical matters relating to natural heritage. There have been modifications to wayleaves and some tree removal during the project but the work has been undertaken in a satisfactory manner and with minimal disturbance so has been successful

 

There are many positive consequences of this for everyone who lives in and visits the Cairngorm National Park (see photo above and here) and this should be seen as a great success story.    What particularly interested me from the report, however, was CNPA officers positive assessment of how the work was done, by mole plough.  I had come to similar conclusions about the benefits of using this technology to bury powerlines from two visits to Glen Tromie in November.  The rest of this post will use what is happening at Glen Tromie to illustrate the benefits of using this technology before arguing it provides a great opportunity to enhance the landscape throughout both our National Parks.

 

 

The current work to underground the Glen Tromie powerline starts at the hideous Lynaberack Lodge in Glen Tromie. The ground here, where the undergrounded line joins with the overhead powerline, is more disturbed than almost anywhere else along the route.

In November, as part of my visit with Dave Morris to discuss hill tracks (see here), Thomas McDonnell, the Conservation Manager of Wild Land Ltd, took us up Glen Tromie to look at tracks there.  On the way we stopped off at Lynaberack Lodge, a planning disaster which thankfully the estate intend to remove, so Thomas could have a word with a team who were about to return to Germany with their mole plough (sorry no photos!).   It was as a result of this that I became aware that part of estate’s programme to re-wild the landscape is to underground powerlines – work which is basically being paid for by Anders Povlsen, the billionaire owner.  Two weeks later I went back myself to take a proper look at how the work has been done.

Evidence of the amount of new electric cable which has been undergrounded

The work is not yet complete.  While the contractors have buried the new cable,  it is not yet connected and removal of the existing powerline and clear-up has still to happen.  The advantage,in terms of the timing of my visit, was I could record the landscape impact of the existing powerline.

The road is just to the right of the photo

Imagine the difference, when this section of powerline is removed.  While there is still a road running up the glen, to the person walking or cycling along it the view  will feel significantly wilder.

The new powerline, which lies beneath the vehicle track starting bottom centre, will replace the pylons.
Few people would know, just a couple of week after the work had been carried out, that the reason for this ground disburbance is an electric cable had been buried  unless it was for the sign
You can however see some evidence that a mole plough has been used. In places boulders have been excavated  to allow the passage of the plough and cable.

Apart from the removal of boulders, the vegetation has been little disturbed and on the grassy floor of the glen should recover from the passage of vehicles very quickly.  I suspect by next summer, when the grass has had time to grow again, it will be very hard to detect the line of the buried cable.

The buried cable is under the disturbed heather on the left side of the road

I was most impressed that the mole plough could also be used on heather moorland and cause so little destruction to vegetation.  Again, I think the vegetation here should more or less fully recover in a season.

There was a section further up the glen where I had great difficultly following the line that had been taken and wondered whether I had reached the end of the work.

The worst area of ground disturbance/destruction of vegetation on moorland

I then came across the patch of very disturbed ground in the photo above.   I was unable to ascertain the cause of this – it may have been a consequence of the land being very boggy – but in the context of several kilometres of buried cable it just served to illustrate in general how well the work had been done and the potential of using mole ploughs.

The line of the Glen Bruar power cable runs along the line of disturbed vegetation on the left of the road to the powerhouse which you can just see top right

The advantages of using the mole plough can be seen by comparing the powerline burial in Glen Tromie with that to the new Glen Bruar scheme.  While parkswatch has given extensive coverage to the Glen Bruar pipeline restoration above the powerhouse, below it several miles of new electric cable was required to connect it to the grid.  The work for this was generally to a high standard – and hence I have avoided comment – but the methodology used was to excavate a ditch, bury the cable and then refill it.  Despite the care taken, over two years on the line of the cable is more visible than that in Glen Tromie two weeks after the work finished.   The lesson, I believe, is that burying cable with a mole plough, if done well, does significantly less damage that any methods that involves removing vegetation, excavating a ditch and then trying to restore this work.

I had seen one example of excavation in Glen Feshie – the hole appeared for connection purposes.  It is very difficult – and incidentally far more labour intensive – to restore the ground caused by such digging.  Compare this to the impact and work involved in using a mole plough.  Thomas MacDonell told us, if my memory is correct, that it had taken just five days to bury the cable in Glen Tromie and, from I saw, very little further work or monitoring will be needed.

Sign marking where cable crosses the track leading up to the upper Allt Bhran hydro intake – the track below the moraine leads to the Gaick

I left the line of the buried cable to head further up the Allt Bhran and look at tracks there (to be covered in further post) convinced that mole ploughs are the way forward and wondering why there is a paucity of contractors using this technique in Scotland.

 

What needs to happen

While I hope in due course to visit sections of the powerline that has been undergrounded in the Beauly Denny restoration scheme (any photos from readers of before and after would be welcome), from the evidence I have seen at Glen Tromie, there is no reason to disbelieve the statement by CNPA staff that the use of the mole plough there has been very effective.  I think there is an opportunity for the CNPA to advertise and build on that success with a view to ensuring that as much low voltage cable as possible is undergrounded in the National Park.  Among the ways the CNPA could help this to happen are:

  • to commission research/publish a  study on the impacts and costs of the mole plough compared with traditional ditch digging techniques to underpin a future action plan in the National Park
  • to share this experience with other planning authorities, including the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, and with landowners.
  • to encourage other private landowners to follow the brilliant example set by Wild Land Ltd and to consider what other opportunities there might be for enhancing the landscape through burial of further powerlines in the National Park
  • to develop planning policy in this area, as part of its consultation on the new National Park Development Plan, with a policy presumption against any new overhead powerlines and guidance on how any new powerlines can be buried
  • encouraging contractors to purchase the appropriate equipment and develop the expertise to use it effectively

That then would leave for the future the big challenge, how we can undergound the HIGH voltage powerlines which blight our National Park landscapes, like the Beauly Denny or the many that cross the Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

January 11, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The Drumochter, a fine landscape forming a gateway between north and south, marred by development – the line of the “restored” Beauly Denny construction track is marked by the scar behind the pylons

Over the last year Parkswatch has featured a number of posts about the destruction of the landscape at Drumochter, including:

  • the unrestored Beauly Denny construction track between Dalnaspidal and Drumochter (see here);
  • the failure of Scottish and Southern Electric to restore the ground at Drumochter as required by the Beauly Denny planning consent from the Scottish Government  (see here for example);
  • progress on the restoration of the Beauly Denny construction track from just south of  Drumochter Lodge to the end of the A9 shelter belt opposite Dalwhinnie (see here)
  • and, the continued proliferation of hill tracks and inappropriate use of All Terrain Vehicles around Drumochter (see here for example).

Two of these issues were considered by the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee in December (see here for papers) and will be covered here.  While welcoming the CNPA’s continued interest in Drumochter and the actions taken, this post will argue they do not go far enough and suggest some alternative measures to restore and enhance the landscape and its wildlife.

The North Drumochter Estate Beauly Denny track restoration

In February 2015 the CNPA gave consent to the North Drumochter Estate to retain a section of the Beauly Denny construction track outwith the Drumochter Hills Special Area of Conservation  and Special Protection Area (above in red) on the condition that the track was narrowed and a belt of native trees was planted alongside it.  The restoration, with the exception of the shelter belt was due to be completed by June 2016.

The start of the northern section of the Beauly Denny construction track (as indicated by arrow in map above) as it appeared in February 2016. Note the ridge of vegetation covered spoil running along the left side of the track.

A year ago the restoration had not started but sometime between then and August 2017, when I next visited, the northern section of the track (above my arrow) was restored.  The work was done by McGowan, who provided the specification for the track which was submitted to the Planning Committee, and has generally been completed to a high standard, much higher than is usual for hill tracks or for most of the Beauly Denny restoration work to date:

The northernmost end of the track. Note how the low angle of the embankment above the track has enabled vegetation to recover quickly while stored turfs have been effectively used to restore the ground below the track.  October 2017.
Before restoration, the track extended almost to the edge of the culvert. The bare banks on either side of the culvert appear the consequence of insufficient turf being stored for restoration purposes and are at high risk of erosion.  October 2017.
Looking back down a line of new grouse butts – which appear to have been installed without the appropriate consents and have caused significant damage to vegetation – to the restored section of track which starts to the right of the first pylon. The track is hardly detectable from this distance compared to the unrestored section to the left of the pylon. August 2017.

While generally McGowan has done a very good job, their ability to restore the track to the standards set out in the specification appears to have been affected by a number of factors.  Throughout its length the section of restored track is broader then specified by the planning conditions:

While generally the sides of the track have been well restored in places there appears to have been insufficient vegetation to do this: here there is an unvegetated section of ground to the right of the track while the unnecessarily large passing place appears to be another solution to this lack of material (which was not their responsibility).

The reason for this appears to be that insufficient turves were stored for restoration purposes so that there wasn’t enough material available to restore the track to the required width.  I don’t think matters too much here because the track is hidden from a distance and because of the proposals to plant native trees to help conceal it.  However, it provides yet more evidence of why planning authorities need to monitor very closely any requirements that developers store turves properly when restoration of construction tracks in required. This in my view has been the key failure of the Beauly Denny construction.

Poorly finished culvert which is fairly typical of this section of track – the dry stone finishing in the photo above was the exception. Note the grouse tick mops in the background.

My main grouse – an appropriate word here as that is the main wildlife you are likely to see? – is that most of the culverts have not been properly finished.  This I hope is something which will be pursued by the CNPA.

Another more minor grouse is that vehicles continue to be driven over areas which have been “restored” adversely affecting vegetation recovery.

Its within the context of this work that the North Drumochter estate made a further planning application to remove the requirement from the planning consent to plant native trees alongside the track.   I am pleased to say that CNPA officers recommended that this be rejected  (see here) and the Planning Committee endorsed that recommendation.   Both the North East Mountain Trust and Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group had objected to the removal of this condition and I suspect that helped the CNPA to stand its ground.

On the north section of the track, the main short-term landscape impact of the continued requirement to plant a 5m strip of native trees between it and the existing shelterbelt will be to soften the edge of the line of trees.  If the shelterbelt was ever to be felled, however, it would then be the only thing screening the track.  It is therefore a good decision in landscape terms.  Its good too for ecological reasons.  While there is generally too much emphasis on planting native trees, rather than reducing deer and sheep numbers and seeing what grows (trees will grow in some places not others),  here the trees will provide an alternative to the intensive grouse moor management which dominates the landscape.  They should provide a home to other forms of wildlife and maybe even a partial refuge to some of the creatures which are persecuted on the grouse moors.

To construct this section of track Balfour Beatty as the main contractors allowed imported material to be dumped on the moor without any apparent attempt to save the vegetation beneath (there is no evidence of vegetation being stored

Further south, along the section of track which remains to be restored, the native trees will fulfil a far more important landscaping function as the track runs higher across the hill away from the existing A9 shelterbelt and is highly visible.    The restoration of this middle section of the track poses considerable technical challenges as it has basically been floated across the moor.   In my view the best solution would be to remove all the excess aggregate from site – rather than trying to bury it under vegetation – and use it for the construction of the new A9.  Perhaps the CNPA could persuade Transport Scotland and the north Drumochter Estate to work together on this?

 

The restoration of the Beauly Denny by SSE

The second “Drumochter” item considered by the December meeting of the Planning Committee was an update report on SSE’s restoration of the Beauly Denny Item10AABeaulyDennyUpdate.

This represents a breakthrough as SSE had previously been claiming the restoration of the Beauly Denny was nothing to be concerned about and that the destruction caused to the landscape could be repaired through natural regeneration alone.      CNPA staff are to be congratulated in getting SSE, who are a very powerful organisation, to accept this officially after doing nothing for two years.

SSE provided a summary report of this year’s survey results (see here) for the Planning Committee.  This contains no analysis of what caused the problems while the solutions its proposing to pilot in 2018 – some re-seeding and fencing off of ground – are minimalistic.   The entire focus of the report is on vegetation.   There is no mention of the landscape issues and more specifically of the failure of SSE to ensure that where the track was removed, the land was restored to its existing form as required by the original planning consent.  This has left large “benches” cut across the hillside (photo above) which are still being used as estate tracks (below) and have a considerable landscape impact:

 

By contrast, although I was disappointed the CNPA report did not cover SSE’s failure to restore landforms as required, the report does explain why re-vegetation has been so poor:

There appear to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, in some areas, the soil management and handling during construction as well as restoration was poorly executed, leaving little soil material or very wet ground and secondly, there has been no clear management for grazing sheep and deer. It is clear that even where some regrowth has occurred it is heavily cropped by mammals.

Its good to see CNPA recognise that for effective restoration to take place vegetation and turf has to be set aside and stored properly from the beginning.    Evidence that SSE failed to do this can be seen everywhere:

A great swathe of moorland just north of the track as “restored” under SSE’s aegis. There has been no apparent attempt to keep vegetation separate from the stony substrata with the result there is now a boulder field just like the one created by the Glen Bruar hydro

The CNPA and SSE reports differ too on their assessment of the seriousness of the situation.  The SSE survey claims that:

“Of the sites monitored throughout the CNPA area, 41% are assessed as being in Good or Excellent condition for revegetation and a further 20% are showing demonstrable improvement.”

and then classifies the remaining 39% as being of concern.  The CNPA by contrast are sceptical about the improvements claimed and conclude

“59% are mediocre or sparse and more than half of these were also sparse last year, with no significant improvement so are likely to required additional mitigation measures to ensure full revegetation within the five year period”

Having walked the entire Drumochter section of the Beauly Denny I have to say I have strong doubts that the sites SSE chose to survey are representative – it would be in the public interest the full survey is released – and that the CNPA’s assessment of the situation is far nearer the mark.  My view is that at least 2/3 of the “restoration” is not fit for purpose.

Tower south of Dalnaspidal. Some revegetation has taken place but because soils have been so disturbed and not replaced properly grass and rush have replaced heather (as seen beyond the tower).

While  I don’t doubt that grazing is having an impact on the ability of vegetation to re-colonise bare ground, this is not the fundamental issue.   Because of the way the ground has been disturbed, SSE has created more mineral soils which will promote vegetation that is good for animals to eat. Couple that with the large number of deer in the southern part of the National Park and you have a problem.  The proposed solution to fence off areas, avoids the issue.  It would be far better for SSE to be asked to finance deer culls and compensate the estate for removing sheep from the area and aid vegetation recovery that way.

Even better would be for the CNPA to advocate the solutions which have been developed in Glen Bruar, where a failure to store vegetation properly during the hydro pipeline construction (see here) created a landscape scar several kilometres long just like through the Drumochter.  Those scars have now almost disappeared due to the application of different techniques, which involve careful robbing of vegetation, and in a very short timescale (see here) with McGowan again the contractor.  So why not at Drumochter?

 

What needs to be done to make the Beauly Denny restoration happen

While I very much hope that CNPA staff keep up the pressure on SSE, I would like to see them encouraged by their Board and Planning Committee to go several steps further than they have at present and:

  • Consider the Beauly Denny restoration from a landforms perspective and more specifically how to heal the scars that have been left by the poor removal of the construction tracks.  A first step  on this would be for SSE to commission an independent report on what needs to be done to restore the landscape to its original state (as required by the Scottish Government planning consent).  A plan could then be developed to implement this prior to any further vegetation restoration work.
  • Press for SSE to adopt a similar approach to landscape and vegetation restoration at Drumochter as was taken at Glen Bruar.
  • Reject the proposal to deal with grazing impacts through fencing and instead focus on how to reduce the number of grazing animals at Drumochter (which would also support the Board decision to require the retained section of track on the north Drumochter estate to be screened by trees)
  • Create a Drumochter landscape steering group which would bring together SNH, Highland Council, SSE and Transport Scotland (due to the A9 dualling) in order to ensure a holistic approach is taken to protecting the landscape, with a view to amelioriating/remedying past damage and mistakes and ensuring that these are not repeated when the A9 is dualled.

Most of this should be financed by SSE and would cost them far more money than their current meagre proposals.  As a consequence I expect SSE to be resistant to it despite their self-proclaimed mission to set an example as a responsible business  The most likely way to achieve change, will be if the wider public starts calling on the Scottish Government and SSE to fulfil their responsibilities and not leave everything up to the CNPA who, in the wider scheme of how this country is run, are not a particularly powerful public body.

January 8, 2018 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Cairngorm Mountain Logo – screenshot 8th January.  There is nothing in the Behind the Scenes section of the website to explain the changes which are happening at Cairngorm and the website is poorly maintained: Nic Bullivant, the Head Ranger in the central photo, retired six months ago.

Following the split of the US and UK parts of Natural Retreats, the company that ran Cairngorm Mountain, and the transfer of the UK part of the operation to the UK Great Travel Company Ltd (see here) further re-organisation of the group of companies controlled by hedge fund manager David Michael Gorton is continuing.   While its unclear at present why this is happening it appears unlikely to be for the benefit of people who enjoy Cairngorm or the wider economy on Speyside.

Sometime in the last few weeks reference to Natural Retreats has been removed from the Cairngorm Mountain logo.  Compare top left above with how the logo appeared in July 2017:

Screenshot Credit Internet Archive Wayback Machine

The Cairngorm Mountain Facebook Page though still retains the reference to Natural Retreats:

 

So has someone just made a mistake?  The evidence from the Natural Retreats website (see here) suggests otherwise.  All references to Cairngorm Mountain have been removed and it appears that Cairngorm is no longer being marketed under the Natural Retreats brand.  This would fit with Cairngorm Mountain Ltd advertising for their own Marketing Manager towards the end of last year (see here).

How long will it be before the Natural Retreats logo is removed from Cairngorm Mountain?

The changes raise  yet more serious concerns about the justification HIE gave for selling Cairngorm Mountain Ltd to Natural Retreats back in 2014 (see here for full news release):

 

“With over 100 years of relevant international and regional leisure and tourism experience, Natural Retreats’ senior management in both Europe and the US bring a wealth of expertise to the Resort. The UK’s largest and busiest skiing destination will be led by Natural Retreats’ market-leading operational team, who have over 65 years of experience within Ski Resorts worldwide. The brand currently operates in close proximity to four world-renowned US ski destinations and Cairngorm Mountain is the perfect addition to their portfolio.”

  • Gone is the US part of the operation
  • Gone is any expertise they claimed to have had in skiing (the fact they never used the experience of US ski resorts suggest this was perhaps not as strong as claimed)
  • Gone is the brand

So what justification does HIE have for allowing the rump of Natural Retreats to continue to operate Cairngorm?

The recent changes to the way Cairngorm Mountain Ltd is being operated also undermine any arguments that the local community on Speyside, who are preparing a takeover bid through the Cairngorm and Glenmore Community Trust, do not have the experience necessary to operate Cairngorm.

Whether the recent changes will affect the large amounts of money that Cairngorm Mountain Ltd has paid to what is now the UK Great Travel Company for services remains to be seen.  It was good in this respect to receive confirmation from HIE just before Christmas that the Outfitters Shop at Cairngorm was not connected with another of the Natural Retreats group of companies, Natural Outfitters at John O’Groats:

“The Outfitters shop at Cairngorm is managed by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.  Natural Outfitters at John O’ Groats is a separate entity”

 

How HIE should be judged over the next year?

I have made no secret of my view that the current disastrous management at Cairngorm will not change until ownership of the ski area is transferred from HIE and that the most likely way this will happen is through an asset transfer to the local community under the Community Empowerment legislation.   While few politicians openly support this at present,  here are some criteria by which they should judge HIE during 2018:

  • Will HIE ensure that Cairngorm Mountain Ltd engages with local and national stakeholders – as they have failed to do so far – about how the Cairngorms Ski Area will be managed?
  • Will a draft of the Cairngorm Management Plan, as promised to the Cairngorms National Park Authority under the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, be produced? (Natural Retreats was identified as the lead partner for this).
  • Will the current review of the ski uplift infrastructure take an objective look at the potential for skiing on the mountain or will it turn out to be fig leaf for decisions already taken behind the scenes?
  • What steps will HIE take to ensure that there is complete transparency about monies currently being extracted out of Cairngorm in payment for “services”?
  • What steps will HIE take to ensure that expenditure at Cairngorm benefits the local economy rather than the ultimate owner of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, David Michael Gorton?
  • Will HIE hold “Natural Retreats”/Natural Assets Investment Ltd to account and ensure they invest the £6.2m over 5 years which was promised in the News Release on their appointment?
  • Will HIE ensure that Cairngorm Mountain Ltd formally adopt and adhere to the former environmental standards which were formerly governed all management operations at Cairngorm (off road use of vehicles etc)?  The CNPA asked for this 18 months ago but so far there has been apparently no response.
December 30, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist

Twelve days ago I went with Dave Morris for a walk around Beinn Ghuilbin on the Kinveachy Estate, south of Carrbridge, after a reader had reported seeing some dire new forest tracks there.   I had never walked around this part of the estate before but had been keen to visit for many years because it contains a large area of Caledonian Pine forest which has several nature conservation designations including that of Special Protection Area for capercaillie and scottish crossbill.

Evidence of forest operations appeared on a side road soon after we started up the Wade Military Road which goes from near Kinveachy over the hill to Sluggan Bridge on the river Dulnain.   The first sign provoked a thought.   Fair enough, in one of the last remaining strongholds for the capercaillie, to keep dogs on a lead during the breeding season but what is the impact of these forest operations on that species?  Do we know?   The part of the forest though where timber cutting was taking place, between Beinn Guilbin and the A9, is outside the boundary of the nature conservation sites and therefore outwith the control of Scottish Natural Heritage.

Photo credit Dave Morris

The middle sign beyond provoked disbelief.  Yet another sign in our National Parks that contravenes the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.    Signs on land management operations are meant to be specific and offer alternatives (see here for SOAC sign_template_-_woodland_management).  We reported it to the Cairngorms National Park Authority after our visit and received an immediate acknowledgement and assurance they would investigate. (I have still had no acknowledgement from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority to High Velocity Rifles in use Keep Out signs south of Ardlui which I reported on 4th December (see here) whereas the CNPA has stated they will refer the “Welcome to the Moor” signs, which featured in that post, to the Cairngorms Local Access Forum for consideration).

The former Wade Military Road, which forms the northern boundary to the protected nature sites, provided a good walking experience and an example of how tracks should be.

Over the hill we turned south and first followed a track which was even more minimalistic than the one above:  just two landrover wheel ruts but after a couple of kilometres it had been subjected to more extensive engineering works.

The track – a path formerly followed this line – appears to have been excavated with diggers and the finishing, e.g the bank on the right and the drainage ditch beyond, is poor. Photo credit Dave Morris.

The track was still narrow and had very little impact at the landscape scale, being sunken and weaving through the old trees and areas of regenerating woodland (there was lots of signs of recent regeneration – welcome when ten years ago, when this site was last assessed according to information on SNH sitelink, it was in unfavourable condition due to lack of regeneration).

Where the track ended we cut up over the south ridge of Beinn Ghuilbin heading for the forestry tracks marked on my old OS map.    Once outside the Special Protection Area we found the tracks and a quagmire.

Photo Credit Dave Morris

This was only walkable because partially frozen.

Photo credit Dave Morris

On one section of the track network there had been an attempt to preserve the former track (right) by creating a new track alongside which illustrates the impact that these forest operations have had on the rest of the track network – obliterated!   Unfortunately my photos did not come out but all along the main tracks, side tracks had been created through the trees for thinning operations, leaving huge ruts everywhere.

While the area of forest operations is not designated, it is right next door to the designated sites and with a bit of vision would offer a fantastic opportunity to extend the area of “natural”  forest.   That would  probably require tree felling but without the use of heavy forest machinery which has had such a major impact on the soil and vegetation here.   Why can’t our National Parks promote use of horses or smaller machinery to remove trees in areas such as this which incidentally would provide employment for far longer periods?   I have been unable to find the Forest Plan for Kinveachy on the Forestry Commission Scotland website (most plans are still not published ) to ascertain if this has been considered.

The main reason though our public authorities are able to get away with allowing work such as this in a National Park is that at present relatively few people walk or cycle in the area.  We saw nobody in five hours.  If the area had been better used – and if for example the tracks had been included on the core path network (they are not) – far more care would need to have been taken.  There are some very good examples of forest practice in the Cairngorms National Park – the challenge for the CNPA is to ensure that best forestry practice applies everywhere.

December 24, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking back from ground west of the Allt na Benne towards Newtonmore

Last Saturday, I had a great day ski touring around and up A’Chailleach above Newtonmore.  There were feet of snow at the back of A’Chailleach and its wonderful how it obliterated most of the usual signs of human impacts, instant re-wilding!

We skied from the village, gliding over the fields by the wildcat trail which are usually a cattle induced quagmire and over the flatter area of boggy moorland.  Both areas I would normally avoid.   On the far side of the moor, as the hill began to rise, we flushed what I at first thought was a huge flight of red grouse, over 150 birds.  I then realised they were red legged partridge, just a few hundred metres from the feeding station we had seen a few weeks before (see here).  You could see where they had been sheltering and feeding in willow scrub between the moraine.   Higher up they gave way to red grouse and above that we saw several dozen mountain hare at the top of the Allt na Benne

And that prompted this thought for the first day of Christmas.  How is it that in the Cairngorms National Park, which should be the finest area for nature conservation in the British Isles and where wildlife should be wild, that there are no controls on the introduction of game birds but beavers are subject to strict controls?

Red Legged Partridge, a native of south west Europe, may now be naturalised in the British Isles but its range has only extended to the Highlands because of deliberate introductions.  This partridge is said to favour dry farmland, heaths and scrub, similar to the mediterranean habitats from which it originates and yet we are allowing landowners to breed it on bog.  Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if they provided food for hen harrier but that bird is conspicuous by its absence.   Meantime, there is plenty of suitable habitat for the beaver downstream at the Insh Marshes but there are no plans to re-introduce what was a native species to the Cairngorms.    Would that the National Park could re-wild as quickly as the snow…………..

Happy Xmas!

December 19, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Poor construction increases visual impact of tracks on landscape – track Dalnamein Nov 2016

For the last 18 months parkswatchscotland has been highlighting the failures of both our National Parks to protect the landscape and more specifically to ensure that planning conditions are enforced.   On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee, on which all Board Members sit, approved a plan  to address the issues.  Its extremely welcome and while I’d recommend all who care about our landscapes read it in its entirety (see here)  this post will explain why I believe its such a major step forward and indicate some of the challenges ahead.

The paper starts from a position of honesty and many of the cases highlighted on Parkswatch are mentioned in the report, from the unlawful creation of  hill tracks at Cairngorm, Dinnet and Cluny to the destruction caused by work on the hydro schemes at Bruar and Corriemulzie.    Other examples – yet to be featured on parkswatch!  are also mentioned and the paper ends by referring to “breaches that could have been avoided”.  That is an honest assessment of the situation and combined with a clear view of the role of enforcement “a discretionary function but one that is important to confidence in the planning system”   provides a sound framework for action.

I was pleased that the actions are not just about enforcement and that the paper considered why things to wrong:

and preventive solutions:

I would have gone further than this, believing that we will never have effective monitoring of schemes in remote areas unless that monitoring is undertaken by a truly independent person, rather than an Ecological Clerk of Works paid for and therefore in hock to the Developer.   I would also like to see more detailed specifications for hill track design and ground restoration but this could still be included in the proposal to tightening the wording of conditions imposed on developments.   What officers have been doing however is a major step forward.

Three major new changes were announced/approved to make enforcement more effective and have driven due to concerns about the proliferation of unauthorised hill tracks in the Cairngorms.   The first is that in order to take enforcement action against such tracks the CNPA needs to know where existing tracks are and is basically setting up a track register:

 

It may be almost 30 years since the former Kincardine and Deeside Council mapped hill tracks in their area but that the CNPA has now picked up that mantle again is extremely welcome.

More innovative, is the proposal to make it much easier for hill goers to report tracks:

Encouraging involvement from the recreational community – and others who go on the hill –  in this way is extremely welcome.   Apart from slight tensions when reporting the destruction of the Shieling Hill Track at Cairngorm, I have to say that for every other track I have reported, I have always had a positive response from staff at the CNPA.   Many of those cases I understand are included in the further 12 hill track cases, involving 40k of track, where the CNPA is now taking enforcement action.  There is no need to wait until  the online facility is created, you can send reports and photos to planning@caingorms.co.uk.

The third element of the proposals is to delegate enforcement powers from the Committee to officers.  While I have expressed many concerns about the way the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority have delegated decisions to officers – far more than in the CNPA and its been a disaster – in terms of practical enforcement actions, time is of the essence and enforcement should not wait for weeks until it can be considered by committee.  I therefore believe the proposals to devolve to officers the ability to issue notices about planning contraventions, breach of conditions,  requiring developers to apply for planning permission (section 33) and to stop works is absolutely right.   My only concern is that the temporary stop notice is described as a last resort when actually, in cases where a developer does not immediately stop unlawful works voluntarily, it should be the notice of first resort.

In summary,  the CNPA has now given itself the tools it needs to ensure developers respect the planning system in the National Park far more than they have up to now.  The big challenge now is to implement this and ensure it happens.  How big a challenge that is is demonstrated by the CNPA’s planning enforcement register a link to which is provided in the report.  The last entry is for 2016:

 

So, making enforcement happen, through the Courts if necessary, remains a major challenge.

In terms of other next steps, the CNPA has stated that the issue of hill tracks on open moorland is one it would like to tackle in the Main Issues report for the new Development Plan  and is inviting public support for this which is welcome.  I believe though it also needs to strengthen the messages it is giving to landowners NOW and rather than admonishing them for breaches of planning conditions starts warning them of the consequences of the failure to comply with the planning system.  Sending every landowner and every land agent/factor who operates in the National Park a copy of the Enforcement Report with a covering letter warning them what action the CNPA will take against breaches of planning condition/unauthorised developments in future would be a good start.

If landowners and land agents believe the National Park is serious about enforcement action, then failure to abide by the planning system will become a financial liability with cost implications which will also affect the value of their land.  The CNPA only need to demonstrate they will pursue a couple of enforcement cases to the bitter end and I believe every landowner in the National Park would start to take the planning system more seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

Trap by Allt Beul an Sporain west of Balsporran Cottages

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

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

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

Pheasants v grouse

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Notice issued by Scotland Contracts Portal)

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

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

 

The implications of Natural Retreats change of ownership

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

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

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

Companies House extract as it appeared 5th December

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The proposed study will be neither neutral nor “independent”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What needs to happen

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Information on how the pipeline was restored

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

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

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

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

 

The quality of the hill track restoration

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

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

This is how the restored area looks now:

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

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

The worst of the protruding culverts

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Why not any of the others?,

 

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this work has still to be done?

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

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

External sections of pipeline

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

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

Before
After

 

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

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

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

 

Other restoration work

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

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

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

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

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

What can be learned from this?

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

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

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

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

 

The Strone hill track

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burn flowing across road with excavated material dumped in foreground

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

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

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

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

 

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

Unfinished culvert and new drainage ditch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The way forward

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

November 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
New track, slopes Creag an Loin, Glen Banchor looking towards Creag Dubh on the Pitmain Estate, behind Kingussie. You can tell this is intended as a track, rather than just caused by ATV use, by the bouldes lining the right hand side

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

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

Map credit Cairngorms National Park Authority estate maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Red legged partridge in cage at feeding station

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

 

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lessons from the Glen Bruar restoration

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

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

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

The financial position of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd

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

Extract from Note 1 to the CML Accounts to December 2016

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

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

CML and Natural Assets Investment Ltd

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extract group accounts

 

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

What needs to happen

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

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

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

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

 

October 30, 2017 Nick Kempe 19 comments
Latest version of Welcome to the Moor sign, North Drumochter Estate.   Among the organisations endorsing the sign is the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)

Increasing numbers of a new version of the “Welcome to the moor” sign are now being erected across Scotland, particularly in the Cairngorms National Park, but so far have received, as far as I am aware, little critical comment.

Earlier version of sign, Dinnet Estate

When is a welcome not a welcome?

I have no problem with people being welcomed to moorland, in fact the more the better, but included in both versions of the Welcome to the Moor sign under the section on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a rather significant qualification “It is recommended to keep to paths and tracks when possible”.  So, people are not really being welcomed to the moor, only to paths and tracks, a small percentage of total moorland.

Now I was involved in drawing up the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) and the only place it says that people should keep to paths and tracks is the section on privacy where it advises people to keep to a path or track –  if there is one – when passing people’s houses.   The whole point of the access legislation is it gives people a right to roam, whether on paths or off-paths.  While no detailed guidance for grouse moor has been developed under the SOAC, detailed guidance was produced for deer stalking – after endless discussion and debate between recreational organisations and landowners – and that is very clear:

“Any requests (to avoid certain areas) should relate to specific days and apply to the minimum necessary area – this is more likely to encourage a positive response than a longer-term and more general message”.

Extract from Stalking and Public Access: Guidance for Land Managers

The furthest official guidance goes on deer stalking is to say that when stalking is actually taking place, “you can help by using paths, following ridges and following the main watercourse if you have to go through a coire” (see left).  Contrast this with  the Welcome to the Moor signs.   They recommend people remain on paths and tracks at ALL times.  The implication is that if you ignore the recommendation, you are being irresponsible.  Even for  people who are fully aware of their  access rights, ignoring such signs creates a feeling on unease – will someone challenge you if you go off path?

 

There is no justification for the “recommendation” on the sign.  Driven grouse moor shooting takes place on only a few days of the year and model signage has been produced to inform walkers that shooting, like deer stalking is in progress.   The Welcome to the Moor sign makes no reference to the use of temporary signs to alert walkers when shooting is taking place because to do so would be to undermine the general message which is the public should stick to the path.   The hypocrisy is these same estates are allowing vehicles, which do far more damage, to be driven willy nilly across grouse moors.

 

It is significant that these signs have not been endorsed by the National Access Forum and the latest version does not include the SOAC logo.  So why is the Cairngorms National Park Authority, which is the statutory access authority and has a duty to protect access rights, lending its name to an initiative that is trying to undermine access rights?

 

The conservation benefits of grouse moors?

Its worse than that though.  The first heading “Moorlands are full of wildlife” is for much of the Cairngorms National Park – and particularly where these signs are being erected – a lie.  A few years ago  I started wondering if I was missing something about grouse moor managers claiming moorland is good for wildlife – I would describe myself as a bad bird watcher – and deliberately went for a number of walks over moorland wildlife watching rather than walking up hills.  Apart from red grouse and meadow pipit I have seen very little.

 

There is a reason for that and its got very little to do with my wildlife obervation skills. There is very little to see.   In the September edition of Scottish Birds, the journal of the Scottish Ornithologists Club,  there was an excellent article about the Lammermuirs which received  national publicity (see here).    Its not just about raptors, since the 1980s waders have declined as much as merlin, while grey partridge and short-eared owl had disappeared completely, the sound of the cuckoo was much rarer, while on the burns common sandpiper and dipper were hard to find.  In addition, the authors found young ring ouzel appeared to have a fatal attraction to traps.    I believe these findings are equally applicable to the Cairngorms.

 

As evidence for this (the exceptions prove the rule) you could do no better than read the Glen Tanar estate blog (see here) – and thanks to Raptor Persecution Scotland for the tip-off.   The descriptions of stoat hunting hare are fantastic.  What a brilliant estate!  Unfortunately your chance of seeing stoats or raptors in much of the National Park is minimal.

 

 

Trap on north Drumochter estate

The reasons for this are twofold.   The first is that any wildlife that is perceived as impacting on Red Grouse numbers is being systematically exterminated on most grouse moors in the National Park by a variety of means including trapping.    That trapping is becoming a very political issue is seen by the claims last week (see here) by the Scottish Gamekeeper Association that visitors have been tampering with traps.   The real question is not this – if its happening I can understand why people are angry enough to do so – but why our National Parks allow ANY trapping of wildlife?  And if you think that is radical, its worth reading this comment from the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (link above) that the UK is the ONLY country in the EU to still allow Fenn traps (the traps you find in the wire cages that are placed on logs across streams to catch stoat and weasel):

Fenn Trap Dinnet Estate
Lizzybusy

October 27, 2017 at 10:14 pm

Almost all shooting estates, and predominantly grouse shooting estates, use Fenn Traps. These diabolical traps should have been outlawed in the UK in July last year but the UK government was the only EU country to seek a derogation of implementing the ban for two years. These traps have been banned in the rest of the EU, Canada, the USA, and Russia and negotiations on the International TREATY have been taking place since the 1990s. The ban in the UK should have been enacted under the AIHTS (Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards) which outlaws traps which do not kill the ‘target’ animal within a certain time period (depending on the species) and by crushing the skull. Fenn Traps do not meet the criteria.  In October 2015 Defra commissioned animal research into possibly two traps to determine whether these traps met the criteria. The research finished in February 2016 and the report of the results was given to the government just before the ban deadline. Defra claim there are no traps which meet the criteria which have been drawn up before any new traps can be approved for use with stoats (the animals they are allegedly used to ‘control’ In the UK on grouse moors. I have been waiting and repeatedly waiting for a copy of the report since July 2016 which is supposed to be released ‘soon’ ‘shortly’. In the meantime Defra have held Ministerial meetings about this international agreement with all the usual brigade (GWCT, BASC, NFU, NGA, MA, CA etc) but no animal welfare groups (or rather Defra identifies the establishment that carried out the lethal animal research as the animal welfare representative group!). All these groups and MPs with pecuniary interests in the shooting industry have held meetings with Defra and Ministers about the AIHTS for years.  A key meeting with about 20 individuals and pro-shooting groups was held in January 2016 which was attended by Senior Defra officials. Following the meeting, Defra officials worked with some of the lobbyists to draw up an action plan for derogating the Agreement. Despite repeated FOI requests, Defra claims that no minutes of that meeting to discuss compliance or non compliance with an International Treaty were taken by Defra officials and none of them took notes!   The GWCT have confirmed to me that their representative chaired the meeting and one of their group took the minutes of the meeting. They are refusing to release them to me and Defra claims not to have received copies of the minutes of this important legally crucial meeting so they cannot release them!

 

There is a link between the signs telling people to keep to the path and the persecution of wildlife in our National Parks.  Most grouse moor managers just do not want the public to see what is going on.  It won’t be long until landed interests start calling for access bans from grouse moors to preserve the rural way of life.  The best thing anyone who cares about wildlife in our National Parks can do therefore is to leave the path, record the wildlife you see (for example on birdtrack) and record traps and other signs of wildlife persecution.

 

The second reason why you won’t see much wildlife in our National Parks is because of the way heather is promoted above all other plants, partly through moorland drainage but mainly through muirburn.

The destructive impact of muirburn, Glen Gairn

The only reason moorland is a rare habitat globally, as stated in the Welcome to the Moorland sign, is that no other country allows land to be managed in this way and yet we continue to do so, even in National Parks.   On the one hand the Welcome to the Moor sign claims moorland is an important carbon store, in the next its describing muirburn which releases carbon.   The sign claims muirburn is a carefully planned operation when in fact its highly disputed and contentious.  The evidence for this can be seen in the new Muirburn Code which was issued in September:

The boxes in orange indicate the issues which have not yet been agreed – almost all are about how muirburn should be carried out.

In relation to the Cairngorms National Park, one might ask how the CNPA’s endorsement of these signs compatible with what is has said about moorland management during the development of the National Park Partnership Plan:

  • Controlled muirburn reduces the fuel load and can reduce the likelihood of spread of wildfires. Poorly managed muirburn can lead to destruction of rare habitats, carbon emissions, impact on water quality and creation of wildfires. A more selective approach would provide increased habitat biodiversity by leaving areas of scrub around the moorland edge, rather than managing simply in terms of either forest or moorland.  (The Big 9 issues report).
  • In some places however, the intensity of management measures to maintain or increase grouse populations is out of balance with delivering wider public interest priorities
  • During the course of this Plan period we seek to establish, deliver and promote a shared
    understanding of what good moorland management looks like in the Cairngorms National
    Park. There is national guidance and current initiatives such as the revised muirburn code, and
    the Principles of Moorland Management. We will work with moorland managers and all relevant
    interests to agree what practical implementation of these means in a Cairngorms context and to
    deliver greater public benefits alongside other estate management objectives.

There was nothing in the Partnership Plan to say heather moorland was a globally threatened habitat yet the CNPA has endorsed a sign which says just that.  There is nothing in the signs which says the estates concerned have made any commitment to change the way they manage grouse moors so the implication is the CNPA is endorsing the way these estates are managed at present, which involves muirburn, bulldozing of tracks, persecution of wildlife.

 

What needs to happen?

The CNPA by endorsing these signs is in effect endorsing the intensive type of grouse moor management, which it says it wants to move away from, and undermining access rights.  The CNPA keeps trying to say its caught between landowners and conservation and recreation interests and needs to take a middle way.  However, when when push comes to shove it appears to end up supporting landowner interests rather than the rights of the public.

 

What is should do is tell the sponsors of this sign, Scottish Land and Estates, the Scottish Countryside Alliance Education Trust and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust that it will no longer support these signs and that the message about access needs to be changed to make it clear that people are welcome all over grouse moors.  If necessary, it could work with recreation interests and the National Access Forum to apply existing guidance under the SOAC to grouse moors so grouse moor managers are absolutely clear about what is acceptable.

 

Meantime I think the only signs the CNPA should be associated with are on estates like Glen Tanar which do respect the vast majority of wildlife and try to manage the land in the way the CNPA set out in their Partnership Plan.

October 27, 2017 Nick Kempe 5 comments

The funicular railway at Cairngorm has always been a white elephant, HIE’s white elephant, but at least it brought some benefit to the local community.   The latest accounts of the companies now involved in operating Cairngorm were published on the Companies House website at the beginning of October.  These shows that the amount of money Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, the company that operates the ski area under the Natural Retreats brand, is paying to Natural Retreats UK Ltd for services has increased significantly while investment in the mountain has not.

Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML) accounts

Its the first six lines of the accounts which are most important for understanding what is going on a Cairngorm.  In comparing what has happened in the latest year to December 2016, its important to appreciate the previous financial year, was only 9 months, from April – December 2015, as Natural Retreats brought the financial years of all the companies it operates into line.  For full accounts (see here)

 

The accounts show turnover was significantly up.  This was because 2016 was a good ski season:

Extract from Natural Assets Investment Ltd (the parent company) accounts 2016

Natural Retreats’ Directors do not provide a commentary in the CML accounts on what is really happening at Cairngorm (as used to happen in the past – see below) but it appears likely that increase in the Cost of Sales line, by well over £1m, reflects recruitment of temporary staff to operate the ski tows.  Nothing wrong with that – assuming they were properly paid.  It appear too that it was the good ski season which was also responsible for the turnaround in gross profit to £1,090,146.  Indeed because the previous financial year was only 9 months and excluded the ski season while making a loss of £308,607,  it appears reasonable to conclude summer operations at Cairngorm have not been turned around since Natural Retreats took over and its still skiing which determines whether or not CML makes a gross profit.   This is important for the debate on the future direction of Cairngorm.

 

Despite what appears a healthy operating profit, once you factor in administrative expenses, CML still  made an operating loss in 2016, albeit a much smaller one of £224,825 compared to £1,219,606 in 2015.  The question HIE needs to ask and answer publicly is why have administrative expenses risen so enormously at Cairngorm since Natural Retreats took over.  Taking account of 2015 being a 9 month year, and making adjustments for that, real administrative costs increased by £100k.  Perhaps that does not sound much until one considers where these administrative expenses go.

 

Under the Related Party transactions (Note 14) the CML accounts show that

So that is over £800k going to Natural Retreats UK.  Look at the NR UK accounts for 2016 and they state:

 

The accounts show that the cost of sales for Natural Retreats UK is just one third of the income generated which means that the gross profit on sales is c66%.  So, unless CML is being treated differently to other Natural Assets Investment Ltd  group of companies, it would appear that out of the £800k being paid for services, well over £500k of the administrative expenses charged at Cairngorm is contributing to the gross profit line of Natural Retreats UK.  This is money that could be invested in Cairngorm.

 

What the NR accounts then show is that administrative expenses are almost as much as turnoever and just like at Cairngorm Mountain large amounts are being sucked out of the company leaving a net loss.   Natural Retreats UK parent company is Natural Retreats LLC which is registered in Delaware in the USA.   This is the US state notorious for its lack of tax transparency.  The accounts do not indicate what transactions if any took place with the parent company or the reason for the administrative expenses.

 

Meantime the CML accounts show the Natural Retreats invested very little in Cairngorm in 2016, certainly nothing like what is needed:

The additions column to the Tangible Fixed Assets gives an indication of levels of investment.  It shows £360,882 was invested.   Note how little was invested in ski equipment despite this being an excellent year for skiing.  The important thing to remember though is NAIL purchased CML for £231,239 – far less than the assets are worth (see here) – and the only possible justification for this by HIE was that the cheap purchase price would enable NAIL to invest more in the mountain.  The accounts show that has clearly not happened and what investment there has been appears to be linked to minimal contractual requirements.  HIE’s line on this, according to the Susan Smith interview on Out of Doors (see here), is that it is still “early days”.

Not only that, despite the good ski season, average numbers of employees has gone down.  I suspect this reflects a transfer of some basic administrative functions out of CML and thus out of Speyside to Natural Retreats headquarters down in Cheshire.

 

The CML accounts say nothing about what the company’s management at Cairngorm or about the Natural Retreats’ Group future plans, for example in relation to investment.  This contrasts to the information which used to be provided in CML accounts which included transparent information about its relationship with HIE.  For example, according to the 2011 accounts, CML paid a turnover commission of £385k  (see below) to HIE. In the summer I asked HIE under FOI for information on all the payments HIE had received from CML for the lease of the Cairngorm but they refused:

 

It has been decided to withhold any details of the dates of all payments of turnover rent which have been made by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd to HIE since the date of entry in 2014 for the reasons set out below. Having also reflected on the public interest test, my decision is that the public interest does not favour the disclosure of this information.

 

HIE need to come clean about whether Natural Retreats have met the lease conditions or not.

 

CML, when publicly owned, also used to report on what was happening with staff, what they had invested, what they hoped to invest and what they had paid HIE.

What the CML accounts show is that Natural Retreats has ditched all of that soft information which is so important to help understand what is going on and now only reports the minimum it is is required to be law.  This is not in the public interest but HIE unfortunately has been only too happy to go along with this, developing its plans for Cairngorm in secrecy and only coming clean about what its having to spend on the mountain as a result of FOI enquiries.

 

All of this provides yet more evidence of what is going wrong at Cairngorm and why both HIE and Natural Retreats are unfit to manage it.  Cairngorm is now not just a white elephant but a milch cow – all courtesy of HIE.   The question is when is Fergus Ewing, as the Government Minister responsible, is going to act and stop this?   With the creation of a clear alternative, the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust, who are seeking that the management of Cairngorm be transferred to the local community, he has no excuse for not doing so.

 

In my next post on Cairngorm I will consider how the financial risks associated with Natural Retreats operation of the ski area are increasing day by day and why action is urgently needed.

October 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

Just when it appeared that the Cairngorms National Park Authority was starting to get a grip on the proliferation of hill tracks which has blighted the Cairngorms landscape, they have blown it.  Faced with a proposal by WildLand Ltd, the company controlled by Anders Povlsen, the Danish billionaire to create almost 15 miles of new hill tracks between Glens Feshie and Tromie, they have decided these can go ahead without any planning approvals.   This is an astonishing decision which undermines the planning system as well and the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year.  (You can view all the documentation that has been made public on the Highland Council Planning portal here)

Photo/photomontage from the landscape assessment

The purpose of this post is not to consider the details of the proposed tracks, which form part of a wider plan to reforest a large area between the Feshie and Tromie with native woodland and which I will consider in a further post (there are I think many positive aspects to the proposals), but to look at this decision from a policy and planning perspective.   What is important here is not just the size of the proposed developments – 15 miles of track in a National Park – but that 7.3km of the track are within the Cairngorms National Scenic Area and 9 km in the Cairngorms Wild Land Area.

 

The policy position of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and this decision

Many conservation and recreation organisations welcomed the statement in the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year that there would be a presumption against new constructed tracks in open moorland areas.

 

This commitment was developed further in the Main Issues Report, which set out the main areas for public consultation in the forthcoming Local Development Plan, which was considered by the CNPA Board on 6th October:

 

Preferred Option

The existing Local Development Plan includes a specific policy on landscape. It outlines a presumption against any development that does not conserve the landscape character and special qualities of the National Park. This has been used effectively to control and mitigate the impacts of new hill tracks in cases where they require planning permission. We think the existing policy will continue to provide an appropriate means for controlling these forms of development in the future. However, we also think that we could give more clarity on the issue of hill tracks by amending the policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s specific presumption against new tracks in areas of open moorland.

 

“Do you agree that the new Local Development Plan should include an amended policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s presumption against new hill tracks in open moorland areas?”

 

It is somewhat ironic that just the day before (see here), on 5th October, CNPA staff had emailed Highland Council that despite the potentially significant landscape impact, they were content for the proposed tracks to be dealt with by Highland Council under the Prior Notification System.

The track proposals, the green area on the right marks the National Scenic Area while the tracks in the bottom half of the map are in the Cairngorms Wild Land area. Some of the proposed tracks including U-V, A-B and B to the green which marks the edge of the forestry plantation, run across open moorland. W-X is an upgraded ATV track which runs along the ridge of the Corbett Carn Dearg Mor.

What is even more extraordinary about the CNPA decision is that back in the Spring, in their response to the Government planning consultation on People, Places and Planning they had argued (rightly in my opinion) that the whole Prior Notification system for hill tracks was flawed and that tracks should require full planning permission:

 

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 Feshie track proposal was, one might have thought, an ideal opportunity for the CNPA to consider properly the implications of a large development of hill tracks under the planning system and allow the public to comment.  Instead, the CNPA have totally contravened their own policy position.

The brown shading marks the Cairngorms Wild Land areas where there is supposed to be a presumption against new developments. Most of the proposed tracks in the application which fall into this area are in what is currently open moorland.

The situation is much worse than that however.   By allowing the proposal to be decided under the Prior Notification system – which was introduced for agricultural and forestry tracks which are treated as permitted developments under our planning system – even if significant parts of the development were justifiable, the CNPA has lost any ability to control what happens under what the planning development and left the entire development to trust.

 

Where a track is agreed through the planning system, a planning authority will always attach conditions, for example about how it should be constructed.   Wildland Ltd has produced far more documentation than would normally be submitted for Prior Notifications, for which it is to be commended, and many of these look good.  However, not only is the public being given no chance to comment – representations from the North East Mountain Trust who were consulted privately that the visual impact of the tracks would be reduced by a vegetated central strip have been ignored –  the CNPA and Highland Council now have no means of ensuring what has been proposed happens in practice.  Without planning conditions, there can be no enforcement.  This development is being left to trust.

 

What is going on?

I do not think responsibility for this mess lies with the Feshie Estate/WildLand Ltd but with our public authorities.  These include Forestry Commission Scotland, SNH, Highland Council as well as the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  Its clear from references in the planning documentation that Wildland Ltd consulted with our public authorities as early as last December.  Its also appears that initially the CNPA did the right thing and asked for a full landscape assessment, as is evidenced by his extract from a communication quoted in the landscape assessment produced by Wildland Ltd:

What then happened is also revealed by the WildLand Ltd documentation:

So, just as the CNPA were telling the Scottish Government that the Prior Notification system was not fit for the purpose and before they had received any detailed information about whether the tracks could be said to be forestry or not, they had agreed that the proposals should be dealt with under the Prior Notification system.    This effectively pre-judged the decision and ruled out any public engagement and consultation.  I had been feeling a bit guilty that it has taken me three weeks, since I first heard about the proposals, to consider them on parkswatch but its clear the decision was effectively made well before then.

 

There is nothing to indicate that WildLand Ltd would have objected if they had been asked to submit a full planning application which could have been considered by the public.  While there are legal complexities about when a forestry track is a forestry track, the Wildland Ltd documentation makes it clear that these tracks are also to assist with deer management and have been designed to improve recreational access by walkers and cyclists.   In other words they are not pretending, as many estates do, that these tracks are solely for forestry purposes and therefore don’t require planning permission.   And while there might have been complexities in considering in one application tracks that did not require planning permission with those that should have required it, it is clear from the fact that WildLand Ltd submitted this as one proposal – rather than the normal track creep which is so evident in places like Drumochter – that they are trying to be open and transparent.  Its our public authorities which are the issue.

 

I can think of several possible explanations for the CNPA’s stance, none of which in my view are appropriate for a National Park:

  • A full planning application – which would have required Board visits etc – was too much work.
  • The CNPA trust WildLand Ltd, in a way that they don’t trust other estates – hence they don’t see the need for planning conditions.
  • That because Glen Feshie has been successfully reducing deer numbers and enabling native woodland to regenerate, its crucial to the National Park achieving its landscape scale restoration targets, and the CNPA therefore did not want to risk this being disrupted in any way through a planning application.

To me though none of these quite ring true.   I had started out by thinking perhaps the CNPA was under huge pressure from Glen Feshie estate but looking at the planning I don’t think that is the case.  Feshie appear to have been co-operative.  I am left with the suspicion that there is some hidden factor behind this terrible decision.   Perhaps the CNPA will disprove this and publicly explain their position and why they appear to have ignored their own and national policy?

 

Its time the CNPA started to put its money where its mouth is, trust public consultation processes and use them properly.   Had they done so, I am sure the end result could have been a new track network which achieved conservation purposes but with less impact on the landscape and wild land then the current proposals.  Examples of this will be considered in a future post.

October 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

Highlands and Islands Enterprise are currently in serious trouble at Cairngorm.  Their Chief Executive may have ignored my email Charlotte Wright 170825  and other such representations from the public, but their actions and failures are now being given far more extensive coverage in the traditional media.  This is forcing them to respond and reveals that they are rather like a headless chicken.

 

Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Minister behind much of the disastrous management of Cairngorm, appears to have recognised the crisis and at the end of September convened a “closed” stakeholder meeting at Aviemore which HIE said was “to maximise the benefits of snowsports on Cairngorm Mountain, a shared aim of everyone present”.  While Mr Ewing claimed the meeting was with “HIE, Highland Council, snowsports community representatives and Natural Retreats” the community representation had been fixed.   There was no invitation to Save the Ciste or members of the Aviemore Business Association who have been behind the creation of the Cairngorm and Glenmore Trust which would like to takeover Cairngorm and have been advocating for snowsports there.

 

Instead, the Cairngorm Mountain Trust, which sold Cairngorm Mountain Ltd to HIE back in 2008, was asked to represent the community.  As an organisation its been fairly moribund since then but on  27th August 2017, according to information filed in companies house, two new Directors were appointed, Lesley McKenna (Manager Pipe and Park Team, British Ski and Board) and James Patrick Grant of Rothiemurchus (Financier).  This has clearly been deliberately engineered – the Cairngorm Mountain Trust is a self-appointing group of people with no democratic links to the community – and explains how HIE and the Scottish Government were able to invite Lesley McKenna to the meeting.  How Euan Baxter, who the Strathy said was present, got invited, I am not sure, but HIE has clearly included both in a desperate attempt to maintain some credibility with skiers.

 

HIE’s destruction of the ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

While Parkswatch has given some coverage to the Cairngorm “Cleanup” which has resulted in the removal of ski lifts from Coire na Ciste (see here), a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes by Save the Ciste activitists to reveal what has been going on.  This has been given excellent coverage in a series of articles by Roger Cox in the Scotsman, a fantastic example of investigative journalism.  The basis story is that  HIE has spent £267,000 of public money on the chairlift demolition with no option appraisal, and without looking at the alternatives.  This quote from the fifth article by  Roger Cox is, I believe, essential reading for anyone who skis or who is concerned about HIE’s mismanagement of Cairngorm:

 

“Thanks to an FOI request by the Save the Ciste group, I have a copy of the report prepared by ADAC Structures, dated October 2016. It concerns the state of the concrete bases to which the chairlift towers were secured, not the towers themselves, and it notes that 20 per cent of the bases were in a stable condition, a further 16 per cent were buried, so could not be assessed, and the remaining 64 per cent were in need of repair or replacement. I ask if HIE got an estimate for the cost of replacing the damaged bases.

“No,” says Bryers.

And did HIE get an estimate for the cost of repairing the lift towers?

“No, we didn’t, no,” says Bryers.”

Wright then brings up a piece of EU legislation called the Cableways Directive, which she says “increased the standards required” of chairlifts like the ones in the Ciste. Bryers says he thinks this directive made it “impossible for [those chairlifts] ever to run again.” But, I suggest, as we’ve already established there were no attempts made to find out how much it would have cost to restore the bases and towers to working order, we’re really only guessing here – aren’t we? “Yes,” says Bryers, “to some degree we’re guessing, but some of the [staff at CairnGorm Mountain] are very experienced at dealing with these sorts of things so they have a good idea of what things are likely to cost and how practical they are.”

During my conversation with Adam Gough, it transpired that there is soon to be a review of uplift across the ski area. Given the safety concerns about the lift towers in the Ciste, I ask, would it not have been possible to simply un-bolt the towers and store them somewhere temporarily rather than chopping them down and scrapping them? That way, if it was found during the course of the review that there was a case for putting lifts back in the Ciste, it might have proved cheaper to renovate the bases that needed fixing and bolt the towers back on than to construct new lifts from scratch. Was that ever considered as an option? “I can see why somebody might put that together as a realistic option,” says Wright, “but I think our experience would say that it was absolutely unlikely that that would give us a safe, modern system.”

Shortly after my conversation with Wright and Bryers, I receive an email from Calum Macfarlane, media relations manager at HIE. “On reflection,” he writes, “I felt there was a lack of explanation on why HIE did not explore the cost of renovation/redevelopment/replacement of the chairlifts on Coire na Ciste. I asked my colleagues about this after the call and they explained that any redeveloped facility would have needed a commercial operator and there was no interest from the current or previous operator in restoring and running the facilities [in] Coire na Ciste.”

 

You can read the report on the state of the ski lift structures here and the full set of articles via the following links:

Introduction

The Community Bid

Natural Retreats view

Disputed account of what is going on

HIE’s defence (which includes the quote above)

 

The local community versus HIE

Another piece of great coverage of Cairngorm was on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors the last two Saturdays. If you have not listened to the interviews on I would recommend you do so while they are still on iplayer.

 

The first programme (see here 35 – 45mins into programme)  features Mike Gale and Mike Dearman, two Directors of the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust (see here), about the community bid to take-over Cairngorm.  I found both pretty impressive but you can judge for yourselves.

 

The second programme (see here) features two interviews with HIE staff as well as an interview with Ray Sefton about the closed funicular system.

 

The first part of programme (from 45 secs to 6 mins) was an interview with Sandra Holmes, Head of Community Assets at HIE whose job is to help community buyouts.  She did not allow HIE’s ownership of Cairngorm get in the way with explaining how community asset transfers work and explained there are four requirements for this to happen, which are worth quoting:

  • First is support from the local community
  • Second is that the transfer can demonstrate community benefit and public interest
  • Third is that the community has the capacity to manage the asset
  • Fourth is that the community can raise the purchase trust.

Its worth turning these questions around.  How much support does HIE have from the local community?  With all the money at Cairngorm going to a company ultimately owned by a hedge fund manager, how much community benefit has Natural Retreats brought to Cairngorm and how is this arrangement in the public interest?  And as for capacity to manage Cairngorm, what do Charlotte Wright and Keith Bryer’s response to Roger Cox’ question say about HIE’s capacity to manage Cairngorm?

 

Later in the programme (from 22 mins 30 secs to 29 mins 30 secs) Susan Smith, Head of Business Development at HIE was interviewed.  This was full of excuses such as “natural retreats quite rightly had to take time”  and Natural Retreats are only 3 years into a 25 year lease. This gave the impression that Natural Retreats are about to invest something in the mountain but despite references to a defined business plan and investment plan for the next three years, Susan Smith did not actually say whether any of the investment would come from Natural Retreats (we know HIE has committed £4m).

 

Information from the latest accounts of Cairngorm Mountain’s parent company Natural Assets Investment Ltd (which I will come back to in a future post) shows net liabilities have increased from £22,831,678 to £29,380, 827, yes, they were a further £6.5m in the red by the end of December 2016.    As HIE has been waiting for Natural Retreats to invest, their parent company has been getting more and more into debt and only continues to operate because of assurances from its main shareholder and creditor, David Michael Gorton.  Its hard to see Natural Retreats investing any money at Cairngorm anytime soon.

 

The interview was full of further misleading responses:

  • Talk about stewardship of the mountain and ensuring it is managed properly but no mention of: the work that took place last year at the Shieling outwith planning permission; HIE’s abandonment of previous standards for managing Cairngorm; or Natural Retreats failure to produce a comprehensive plan for Cairngorm as agreed in the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy.
  • A repetition of the claim that the Ciste towers had to be demolished for Health and Safety reasons (disproved by Roger Cox above) when the Ciste building, which is far more dangerous, has still not to my knowledge been demolished.  Moreover, there was no mention of the state of the concrete lift bases in Coire Cas (some of which are little better than those in Coire na Ciste)
  • Reference to HIE agreeing Service Levels with Natural Retreats, as if everything is ok then,  but no explanation of whether these have been met.  Information on Natural Retreats performance need to be made public.
  • Claims that HIE is committed to work in partnership when they won’t even co-operate with the Cairngorms National Park Authority on the production of a plan and standards for Cairngorm (as the CNPA has requested).   The history of HIE’s failure to engage with community, recreational or conservation interests is now a long one and their latest stance, which is that they will engage with skiers once the snow making trial planned for this winter is complete, says it all.   They are only trialling the new snow making machines because of pressure from groups like Save the Ciste but won’t even discuss how this might best be done.
  • The claim that HIE is totally committed to winter sports.   This is simply not true.  HIE’s whole strategy since the funicular was constructed has been to try and increase summer use and it has lamentably failed.   It appointment of Natural Retreats, an operator which had no experience of snow sports, fitted with this strategy.  What has become clear though is that the only time Cairngorm Mountain makes money is when there is lots of snow.   There is clear evidence for this in a place you might not expect, the accounts of Natural Assets Investment Ltd (the company which owns Caingorm Mountain):
  • So, NAIL is acknowledging winter revenue is crucial and also that all the planned investment at Cairngorm is to reduce reliance on winter season revenues.

What the recent public interviews show is that HIE cannot be trusted to manage Cairngorm.  The Community Asset transfer request needs to be evaluated against that record.

 

It would not be difficult to manage Cairngorm better than HIE but it looks like the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust is assembling a very strong team.   The public can go and judge for themselves at an open day the Trust is holding on Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore, on Tuesday 7th November between 2-8pm. “Everyone is invited to drop in and see the Trust’s outline plans for the future and to give us your ideas and feedback”.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Section south of previous photo looking north

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Structures are only the start

Extract from report on last CNPA National Park Partnership Plan progress

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Hill tracks and protected areas

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

 

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

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

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

What needs to be done

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Extract from Main Issues report

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

 

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

 

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

 

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