Tag: CNPA

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

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

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

Map credit Cairngorms National Park Authority estate maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Red legged partridge in cage at feeding station

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

 

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Hill tracks and protected areas

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

 

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

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

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

What needs to be done

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Extract from Main Issues report

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The restoration of the shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who paid for the pump house?

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

The landscaping of the area around the Shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The area above the Shieling rope tow

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

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

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

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

The finishing of the culverts is very poor.

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

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen in Coire Cas?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pylons are numbered north to south

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The failure of the track to meet approved standards

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

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

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

 

The purpose of the track

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

Crow trap

 

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

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

 

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

September 25, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 The tender process and award

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

September 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

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

It brought to mind An Camas Mor……………

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

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

 

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

 

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

September 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 8 comments

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

THE ORIGINAL PARAGRAPH WHICH FOLLOWED HAS BEEN CORRECTED FOLLOWING CLARIFICATION

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Extract from CNPA committee report August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Camas Mor, rewilding and the Cairngorms National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

September 4, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

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

 

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

Statement: Hen harrier disappearance

1st September 2017

From Grant Moir CEO, Cairngorms National Park Authority

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

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

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

(see here for link)

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Looking south from Aonach Shasuinn, May 2017

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

 

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

 

The Inverlochlarig hydro scheme

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

 

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

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

If you want to get involved…………….

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The hill track to the Ptarmigan

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

 

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

 

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

Extract from Wm Gray proposed method statement for development at Ptarmigan

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

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

 

Standards for work at Cairngorm

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The environmental damage being created by the clear-up

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The destruction of ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

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

 

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

 

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

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

The flawed decision-making process

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

 

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

 

The implications of the proposed An Camas Mor Recreation Management Plan

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Implementing the Recreation Management Plan

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The need to develop an alternative plan

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

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

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

 

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

 

What needs to happen

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

 

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