Last week, nine months after Highlands and Island Enterprise launched its so called masterplan for Cairngorm (see here), the Strathy announced the date of the pre-planning consultation event on the proposals to revamp the Ptarmigan near the summit of the hill. At the same time it also broke the news that the Scottish Ski Club, which has a hut at Cairngorm, was proposing to spend £1.4m on a new lift at the White Lady. This post will consider how both proposals fit with the need for a wider plan for Cairngorm and what is really going on there behind the scenes.
The Ptarmigan proposals
There were two main elements to the Cairngorm masterplan what wasn’t: a dry ski slope by the carpark, which now appears to have been ditched (a planning application was submitted before being quickly withdrawn last year), and the Ptarmigan. From the Strathy article it appears that the proposals have not changed greatly in the last nine months since the concept was revealed, with the extension to the building and revamped exhibition both included in the original plans, although the plan for a walkway out over the funicular appears to have been altered slightly. It now apparently goes around or over the roof:
The basic idea however remains the same, try and get more people to use the funicular by creating a visitor attraction at the top of it. The idea is totally flawed. In landscape terms National Parks should not be permitting new developments near the summits of mountains and in visitor experience terms, to use that awful phrase, the plan is complete stupidity. The Ptarmigan is shrouded in cloud for much of the time and subject to high winds, so the claim that the rooftop walkway will “maximise the amazing vistas all year round” is complete tosh. HIE appears to be preparing to lend another £4m of public monies to create yet another white elephant at Cairngorm.
The White Lady ski lift proposal
HIE’s inability to produce any sort of coherent plan for Cairngorm is nicely shown up by the proposal from the Scottish Ski Club to reinstate the White Lady lift, probably in the form of a state of the art t-bar which apparently would cost £1.4m and which they hope to fund. This is most interesting, not least because it suggests that new lifts could be installed in Coire na Ciste for less than the £4m HIE are proposing to lend to Cairngorm Mountain in order to develop the Ptarmigan. So, would it not be better to use public monies to support the proposals from the Ciste Group and Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust to redevelop the Ciste rather than waste it on the Ptarmigan? Add those proposals to the White Lady lift and the use of snow making machines and one might, once again, have skiing worthy of the name at Cairngorm.
While the White Lady Lift proposal appears welcome, the evidence suggests that behind the scenes HIE has yet again not been honest about what they are up to while the Scottish Ski Club has allowed themselves to get caught up in HIE and Cairngorm Mountain shenanigans. The Strathy story quotes the Scottish Ski Club as saying they have been in collaboration with HIE and Natural Retreats to look at the feasibility of the proposal. This must have taken time and it seems reasonable to conclude therefore that HIE must have known about this when they tendered for their review of ski infrastructure at the end of November (see here). That tender included in its scope the development potential of Coire na Ciste but NOTHING about the development potential of Coire Cas where the White Lady is situated. So has HIE helped commission another study, which they have kept secret, about the ski potential in Coire Cas or have they just missed an opportunity to get independent evidence on the Scottish Ski Club proposals which could be used to justify some public financial investment? Either way the lack of join up by HIE between the various initiatives at Cairngorm is quite staggering and yet more evidence of the need of a proper overall plan.
While I can understand that the Scottish Ski Club needed to get HIE, as the owners, and NR as the operators, on board, it appears they may have allowed themselves to get too close. Its much easier to understand now why the SSC did not make an issue when Cairngorm Mountain staff entered the Ski Club Hut and removed the Winter Highland webcam without permission (see here). If they had done so, Natural Retreats might have refused to co-operate with their proposal. Easier too to understand why Cairngorm Mountain thought they could get away with this highhanded action. It would be in interests of all who care about Cairngorm if SSC were to talk now to the Ciste Group and Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust and ensure all their plans fit as one cannot see either HIE or Natural Retreats doing this.
So is Natural Retreats still Natural Retreats and if not who is running Cairngorm Mountain?
While the Scottish Ski Club reported they had been talking to Natural Retreats, I suspect this is because the staff they spoke to never told them what was going on – or perhaps even they didn’t know. I think it is significant in this respect that the Ptarmigan proposal is being push in the name of Cairngorm Mountain with not a mention of Natural Retreats. The original proposals for the
Ptarmigan were branded on every page as coming from Natural Retreats. I suspect that at the consultation event there will be not a mention of Natural Retreats, which we know is no longer a so-called international operation, and the UK part of which appears to have transferred to the UK Great Travel Company on 1st November (see here) and (here). I have since found out – as a result of a comment on the blog that the Great Travel Company Ltd had registered a person with Significant Control – that there are in fact two Great Travel Companies, both operated by former directors of Natural Retreats:
The UK Great Travel Company is the new name for the Natural Retreats UK and has three Directors, Ewan Kearney, Anthony Wild and Matthew Spence and, while it has still failed to register who has significant control, we know from past accounts that it used, at any rate, to be controlled by David Michael Gorton, the same man who controls Natural Assets Investment Ltd, the owner of Cairngorm Mountain.
The Great Travel Company was incorporated – i.e created as a new company – at the end of October 2017 with Matthew Spence as sole Director and owning over 75% of the shares.
So what is happening? The former company Natural Retreats UK, before it became the UK Great Travel Company, appeared to service all the companies owned by Natural Assets Investment Ltd . As remarked in my last post, there is still a Natural Retreats UK website but all mention of Cairngorm Mountain has been removed from it and a new marketing manager is/has been appointed based at Cairngorm. It appears therefore the companies are being separated. The creation of the Great Travel Company suggests that Cairngorm Mountain is not the only part of the Natural Retreats business which is being separated off. But why then create a company with such a similar sounding name and why is Matthew Spence a director of both? A recipe for confusion unless something else is going on.
Before the latest changes, I has written to HIE expressing concern about what is going on behind the scenes and who actually now manages and controls Cairngorm Mountain Ltd. I had a very polite and clear response from their Chief Executive, Charlotte Wright, just before Xmas:
1 Information on Companies House website
Companies House data should be kept up to date, and I understand you raising this as a concern. However, as I said before, HIE believes that this is a matter for the company. I would assure you that we do not rely solely on Companies House information for our monitoring activities, which are regular and robust.
What this told me was that even if HIE do know who owns the UK Great Travel Company, they don’t see it as being in the public interest that this information is made public. Given that Scottish Limited Partnerships, money laundering and tax evasion are in the news on a daily basis at present, one would have hoped that all public agencies in Scotland were ensuring the organisations they contract with meet these basic legal obligations. All it would take is one call from them saying “publish the correct information or there will be contractual consequences” and the UK Great Travel Company would oblige. That they have not done so suggests other things are going on.
Within this context it appears foolhardy in the extreme to be pushing ahead with an ill conceived scheme which will hand yet more public money to the shadowy companies that own and manage Cairngorm and whom we know were, until recently at least, controlled by a hedge fund manager.