Tag: Freedom of Information

Caravan parked west Loch Lomond May 2017

Over the last month, a number of  examples have come to light about the LLTNPA’s inequitable application of the byelaws, the most notable being that Park staff have been told not to apply the byelaws to people in caravans (see here).    This post will look at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Authority’s selective application of the camping byelaws which I believe is contrary to natural justice and human rights.

The LLTNPA’s continued attempt to enforce the camping byelaws against campervans

 

Regular readers will know that the byelaws make it an offence to sleep overnight in a vehicle unless this is on a road.  The legal definition of a vehicle includes both campervans and caravans (more on why the LLTNPA has decided to exempt caravans below) while the legal definition of a road includes their verges and private roads over which people have a right of passage.   This means campervans do not need permits in permit areas which are part of the road system, as is the case with the laybys on north Loch Earn.    The LLTNPA has obviously taken note as yesterday I spotted this notice (below) at Inveruglas which had not been there the week before.

 

The notice demonstrates how far senior management at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Authority are out of control and making up the law as they go along.   The purpose of LLTNPA’s claim that there is “no public right of passage between 7pm and 7am” is clearly to try and stop campervan and motorhome owners claiming they do not need to a permit to stop off overnight here because it is part of the road system.    The LLTNPA however have NO legal power to suspend public rights of passage on a whim and are acting ultra vires.   They need to be held to account.  This sign in itself warrants a judicial review of the entire manner in which the LLTNPA has been implementing the byelaws.

 

Land within the camping management zones exempt from the byelaws

 

Land has also been exempted from the byelaws in an arbitrary manner.   In order to allow existing campsites within the camping management zones to continue to operate the LLTNPA and Scottish Government approved the following clause:

 

(10) These byelaws shall not apply to areas within Management Zones which have been exempted from the application of any provision of these byelaws by the Authority from time to time.

 

On 5th April I asked the LLTNPA what land they had exempted from the byelaws and, on 4th May,  received this response together with a template of an exemption letter they had sent to landowners.   The response shows the land exempt from the byelaws consists entirely of caravan/campsites confirming that the purpose of byelaw 10 was to allow formal campsites to continue to operate and the intention was not to allow camping and staying overnight in vehicles to continue elsewhere.

 

The list of exempted campsites makes interesting reading.  It fails to include at least two existing campsites:

 

 

The first is the Loch Lomond Holiday Park, between Inveruglas and Ardlui, on the west shore of Loch Lomond.   This is ironic because one of the main aims of the camping byelaws on the west shore of Loch Lomond appears to have been to try and force people to use formal campsites in order to benefit business.    Indeed the Loch Lomond Holiday Park obtained planning permission last summer for new motor home places to take advantage of the business bonanza promised by the camping byelaws – hence the sign (top right) in the photo.    Unfortunately, any motorhomer handing over their cash to Loch Lomond Holiday Park has been committing a criminal offence!

 

The second missing campsite is even more extraordinary,  the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority’s own campsite at Loch Chon.   Loch Chon, is a campsite, not a permit area.  The need for LLTNPA to exempt its own land is demonstrated by the fact that the other campsite it owns, the Cabin at Loch Lubnaig, is included in the list of sites it has exempted.    So,  people forking out £7 a night to stay at Loch Chon have been committing a criminal offence!   I trust that the LLTNPA will now issue a public apology and write to all people who have a booked a place at Loch Chon with a personal apology and providing assurances that they will not be prosecuted under the camping byelaws.

 

If you think that is bad,  the LLTNPA has also decided on a whim to exclude other land from application of the byelaws without any applications for examption at all.   Evidence for this is found in the excellent newsletter of the Buchanan Community Council, the Communicator (see here).   The May issue contained an update on the camping byelaws, the last sentence of which reads:

 

The Camping Bookings Team at the National Park have recently confirmed that as long as camping takes place within the curtilage of your home then it isn’t affected by the new Camping Management Byelaws.

The east Loch Lomond byelaws exempted land around buildings from their provisions in order to prevent local residents  from being criminalised for allowing people to camp or stop off overnight in campervans in their own gardens.   The provision was removed from the camping byelaws approved by Aileen McLeod, the hapless Scottish Government Minister responsible, and instead an exemption was introduced for landowners and their close relatives:

 

(12) These byelaws shall not apply to any: landowner; tenant; or connected person authorised by the relevant landowner or tenant using land within a Management Zone owned or leased by such landowner or tenant for any of the activities listed in these byelaws.

 

The point about this exemption is it only applies to particular people, not the land: the landowner themselves, their tenant or “connected persons” who are basically defined in the byelaws to mean the landowner’s spouse, parents or children.  Under the new byelaws therefore landowners have no power to authorise other people to camp or stay overnight in vehicles on their own land.   That means if you are resident in a camping management zone and invite people to camp in your own garden that those people would be committing a criminal offence.  YET the LLTNPA are now saying in effect no, allowing people to camp on your land will not make them criminals if this takes place within the curtilage of your property.  The LLTNPA staff have NO legal authority for doing this and again are acting ultra vires.

 

The reason why the LLTNPA is not enforcing the byelaws against caravans

 

While it is  right that the LLTNPA does not try to enforce the byelaws about caravans parked in laybys – as a caravan like a campervan is legally a vehicle and the byelaws allow people to stay overnight in vehicles on roads – any touring caravan parked off road is committing a criminal offence.

 

The issue for the National Park is that businesses house many of their employees in such caravans and, if the LLTNPA took legal action against the people occupying these caravans, there would be chaos.  Hence its decision not to apply the byelaws to caravans – perfectly sensible but it undermines the whole basis of the byelaws.  The fact though that the LLTNPA are still trying to enforce the byelaws against campervans by trying to claim there is no right of passage over certain roads exposes the byelaws as rotten to the core.

 

If the byelaws cannot be enforced equitably, they should be revoked

 

I have heard recently that the LLTNPA has now referred at least 5 cases to the Procurator Fiscal involving breach of the byelaws.   I do not know why these cases have been referred but, whatever the reasons, the PF should reject the referrals on the grounds that it would be totally unfair to take action against some people who have breached the byelaws but not others.   Justice requires the law to be enforced equitably and its clearly unjust that the LLTNPA is trying to enforce the byelaws against some people but not others.   As Martin Luther King said,   “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” .

 

Before people think I am condoning irresponsible behaviour, if the referrals to the PF include cases of antisocial behaviour, littering or damage  the PF should take action under the existing law which deal with these issues, not the camping byelaw.  If they don’t, if for example they concern people who have refused to apply for a permit or who have camped/stopped outwith a permit area they should just be dropped.

 

There is now abundant evidence that the byelaws are not being enforced on an equitable basis.   This comes as no surprise as they are fundamentally flawed, not just because of the way they have been worded (the definition of “road”, “vehicle” etc)  but because they are fundamentally misconceived.      The LLTNPA appears incapable of sorting this out, of admitting the terrible mess and inequity it has created, and as long as its allowed to remain unaccountable will continue to act ultra vires, as it has done with the latest signs, and bring the law into disrepute.

 

When is the Scottish Government going to act?  Or is a judicial review the only way to sort out this stain on Scotland’s reputation for fairness and equitable application of the law?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What needs to happen

 

  • The HIE Board need to get a handle on what staff are presenting to them about Natural Retreats and the plans at Cairngorm
  • Charlotte Craig, the Acting Chief Executive, needs to get a handle on what staff are doing and writing in her name.
  • HIE needs to explain why its lending £4m to a company that appears effectively bankrupt and whose business plan has not been finalised.
  • Audit Scotland should start asking some of these questions
Photomontage of option 1 for Ptarmigan contained in undated Cairngorm Mountain; Pre-planning feasibility document

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Spot the difference with the earlier version below:

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Screening Opinion

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Cairngorm Mountain: pre-planning feasibility document
Extract from secret Board Meeting about implementation camping byelaws. The claimed antisocial behaviour has been grossly overstated as has its popularity as a camping destination – too inaccessible for most.

By Ross MacBeath

What differentiates a campsite from wild camping?   Most people would say at the very least the existence of  services such as the provision of drinking water and toilets.  The evidence from my visits to  Loch Chon the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority cannot even provide a reliable water supply for the £7 a night charge  (see here for post and here for a set of photographs of wider issues with the campsite).

 

The reasons why the water supply at Loch Chon is defective

 

One of the first principle of designing a private water supply it to ensure the availability of water from the source stream by carrying out a year long study of peak water flow. What follows below shows that  these investigations were either not carried out or ignored but its worth considering first why the LLTNPA has behaved in this manner..

 

Gordon Watson at a Public Meeting with Strathard Community Council on the 4th July 2016 stated that the Loch Chon campsite was chosen for it’s suitability and merits as a campsite rather than its availability.  The slide above, which was obtained subsequently through FOI, shows that this is not true and that Loch Chon was the ONLY option  that would allow the LLTNPA to deliver the  number of pitches they had promised to Scottish Ministers by 1st March to enact their byelaws.

 

What this shows is that the LLTNPA intended to build a campsite at Loch Chon no matter what.  For how the LLTNPA dealt with its planning permission to itself (see here). This is reprehensible behavior on all counts and LLTNPA are quite clearly paying the price with a defective water supply. But ultimately it’s visitors and communities who will pay the real price for this unwarranted development going forward.

 

Peak water flow and the LLTNPA Loch Chon water supply

 

An unsightly installation with loops in blue water pipe makes a poor impression.  When taken together with the positioning of the intake manifold, which is partially out of the water, unsecured and likely to be dislodged the first time the stream is in spate, it provides a rather damming but realistic indication of what was initially installed.

 

Just while we’re looking at this image, you can see that the concrete floor of the culvert under the bridge is smooth and curved.  This is done intentionally to stop materials collecting on the surface.  When the stream is in spate, large boulders are transported in the torrent of water and the smooth culvert base ensures they can roll right through preventing them from  causing an obstruction under the bridge. We will see why this is important later in the article.

 

Another important factor in providing a water supply is water pressure

 

One measure of the effectiveness of the water supply is determined by the water flow from the taps, which is of course dependent on the water pressure.  Water pressure in turn determined by the difference in elevation between the tap and the intake manifold.  The greater the height between the two the greater the pressure.

 

At this development the Park Authority have chosen to place the intake manifold almost 2  metres underground just by the road bridge over the stream  though it is still above the level of the taps which are further down the slope.  Not sufficiently high though to provide a sufficient head of water which is responsible for many of the issues with the water supply.   It would seem clear then that the intake manifold is in the wrong pace. It’s a basic design flaw and still goes uncorrected even though the LLTNPA is aware of the fact.

An essential requirement is that the intake manifold is always underwater

 

You would think that making sure the intake manifold is always under water would be a given. Yet here we are at Loch Chon on the 12th  March 2017 with the manifold almost completely uncovered  drawing air into the system.

 

Water intake pipe is aove the water level of the river drawing air instead of water.
Image 12th March 2017 lying on surface at water level

 

The problem is clear that the stream does not have sufficient water flow in dry periods.  This was evident during a dry spell starting before March 1st and through 12th March when the water supply failed intermittently when the intake pipe was not fully submerged causing air to be drawn into the system. In this location there is sufficient depth of water the intake is just not positioned properly.

 

 

Of course once the air lock is in the system it won’t self clear easily as water won’t flow up hill.  So many basic principles have just been overlooked cumulatively resulting in poor system design. This is a contributory factor together with the failure of staff, the clerk of works and the contractor to understand the basic requirements for implementing such a water supply.

 

One must ask who is managing this project, clearly the people involved with the development at Loch Chon have little or no understanding of stream feeds to private water supplies or their design. This lack of capability is worrying in an organisation which claims to wish to provide more campsites.   The LLTNPA is evidently not up to the task.

 

One week later the water was partially on, there was drinking water but no toilets

 

One week later on the 19th March 2017 the intake pipe was submerged once more, after some rainfall, however the water to the toilets and wash hand basins was still off.  You can see here the pipe had been removed from the clips removing the ridiculous upward loops in the water feed pipe.

 

Recent rainfall has caused the stream level to rise and cover manifold The Intake Manifold under the surface of the stream after rainfall

The water supply was still causing issues, drinking water was  available but toilet flushing was not.

Two weeks later there is still no effective water supply

 

On the 2nd of April the water supply was again only partially functioning the intake manifold was submerged  and there was water.   This time while one toilet was working the drinking water wasn’t.  3 of the 4 toilets remained locked.  The disabled toilet wass open and functioning with wash hand basins.

 

Another week on engineers were working on the system and some water was flowing

 

10th April 2017 – Water was now available from the outside taps though pressure was so low the auto shut off taps fail to operate correctly.  Well at least there was drinking water on site.  Although container filling took a while, it was better than nothing.

 

Again only one toilet was unlocked but I am pleased to report  it was flushing and the wash hand basin was operational. The other three toilets remain locked and strangely it was not the disabled toilet that was open.

 

It had taken the LLTNPA well over a month since the date the campsite was officially open to get even a basic water supply in place.  This was my first visit where toilets and drinking water have been available together but it is clear the LLTNPA are not out of the woods yet with low flow rates and intermittent supply. The test will be when all 4 toilets are in operation and water still comes out of the taps.

 

The engineers were working on the system when I arrived and allowed an opportunity to see whats inside the container next to the toilet block. It does look like there is a leak in the container roof.

 

The confusion over the hot and cold taps had also been sorted and there were now neutered tap tops both supplying cold water.

 

The  LLTNPA have been busy correcting some of the issues above and creating others

 

My visit on the 10th of April 2017 showed some changes.  The main visible differences one week on were  up by the intake manifold.  They had cut the pipe back and fitted a black sheath which is far less  intrusive.  The had also removed the old stainless steel manifold and fitted a cage to cover the end of the pipe.  However the pipe end is open and directly facing into the water flow with nothing to prevent  pebbles and smaller items being transported down the stream from finding their way into the system, so anything smaller than the mesh can also enter the intake pipe.  I think this may pose a problem for the future, potentially causing blockages in the intake pipe and significant costs and disruption to clear it. Some form of strainer or baffle is surely required.

 

Cage fitted over intake pipe, small stones of dam will be washed away with first rains In dryer weather the water level fails to cover the intake pipe

Click on images for zoomed view

 

The second and most important is the placement of the intake port on to the surface of the culvert, these images are very telling considering the recent weather has been wet followed by a short dry spell, the level here has dropped 20 cm since last checked.3 weeks ago.

 

This indicates the Peak flow of the stream may be very small in dry weather.

The problem is clear, the peak flow of the stream on dry days is so small that the water level in the culvert is no more than a centimetre or so and doesn’t even cover the intake pipe.  To solve this a small dam, and I mean small, has been created with stones and gravel where the depth of water behind this is sufficient to cover the intake pipe.

 

Culverts are designed to prevent debris collecting

As we discussed already, the smooth curved floor of the culvert is designed to prevent debris collecting in this location.  The Debris (dam) (photo above) will be removed by fast water flow.

Even with the current level of water flow the smaller stones and gravel around the intake pipe will be washed away eventually breaking the dam causing the water level to drop below the intake pipe and the water supply to fail.

 

In Spate the stream will remove all debris

With any heavy rain storm the stream will be in spate, the force of water will clear all of the rocks forming the dam in the culvert.  When in spate the stream can also carry branches and fallen trees down through the culvert but now with the fixed obstruction of the mesh cage there is a possibility that these will damage the cage or more likely get jammed on it causing a build up of debris in the culvert. This is not good practice and I would think it should be avoided.

 

The arrangement of the pipe has changed, now entering the river bank at a much lower level, the pipe is not secured on it’s traverse across the culvert and the gap underneath will most likely collect sticks and other vegetation then a build up of debris will possibly  occur.

 

Two months on and no further forward.

 

Around 2 months since the water problems became public and it would seem we are right back where we started with an intermittent supply determined by rainfall.   The National Park Authority really have to get their act together on this and stop penny pinching.  There is a problem with the water supply and it’s clear what it is.  In dry spells there is no water.  Get it sorted!  The solution is simple providing the stream does not dry up altogether, and only time will tell if that’s going to happen.

 

One thing remains clear, the LLTNPAs current solution is unlikely to work effectively even in the short term.

The real problem here is systemic failures within the LLTNPA

 

The LLTNPA Board should have been well aware of these problems as some apparently visited the campsite but have denied their existence in almost every public forum, even at their own board meetings.  I’m aware of one occasion where their spokesperson stated “As with any new site, there have been some snagging issues such as the running water which was unavailable for a few days due to a temporary problem with the new connection”  at least finally giving a nod to a problem everyone knows exists.     41 days of no water, limited water or intermittent water supply is hardly reflected by their “temporary problem”.   I believe it’s clear from the series of images here that the  problem has existed from the beginning and the vagaries of Scottish weather has determined if water was available or not. The solutions created  just promise more of the same – an ineffectual, intermittent water supply.

 

See here for video on the 19th March and here for the 2nd April

 

In the strange world of infallibility the LLTNPA inhabit even when they’rere wrong, they say they’re right and put out statement claiming all is well, whether it’s true or not.  This was certainly what happened at their board meeting on the 13th of March when numerous board members patted each other on the back for a job well done at Loch Chon and for getting the site finished on tiime.   This was witnessed by seven members of the public but should have been recorded for all to see.   Quite a surreal experience to see a National Park Authority  behave in this way.

Ledard Farm, owned by Councillor Fergus Wood, situated by the start of the popular southern approach path to Ben Venue (heads up by Ledard burn to left)

At the beginning of March Councillor Fergus Wood, owner of Ledard Farm and a member of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, submitted a planning application to develop a small camp and chalet park on the shore of Loch Ard.   Some of the documents associated with the application were published on the LLTNPA website in the second half  of March (see here).   While there is a need for more campsites in the National Park and there are several positive aspects to this application, it does raise a number of serious questions about the relationship between Board Members personal interests and the public interest and how this is being managed by the LLTNPA.   This posts explores the issues.

 

The positives

The proposed campsite will be accessed off layby (right of photo) and be located by line of trees which are growing by the Ledard burn

On entering the Trossachs West “Camping Management” zone, what is striking is that most of north shore of Loch Ard is uncampable – though not in the mind of Park officials who are so divorced from reality that they believe people can camp on rocks and in water,  About the only good place for camping on the north shore is in the fields in front of Ledard Farm which are owned by Cllr Wood.

Most of the north shore of Loch Ard is uncampable and was hardly ever used for camping – it did not stop the camping ban being extended to cover this area though, more evidence irrationality of the LLTNPA proposals.

Cllr Wood, unlike other Board Members, is obviously not against camping.  Indeed, the proposed campsite will be in full sight of his house.  What is more the LLTNPA, who claim they have been trying to persuade private landowners to develop new camping provision within the National Park, have had almost no success in doing so.  Cllr Wood, therefore, by submitting this application is setting an example to other landowners.   He is clearly not part of the NIMBY brigade – the contrast between what he appears to want to happen on Loch Ard and the exclusion of campers from the area around Loch Venachar House, the residence of the former convener Linda McKay, is striking (see here).

The Trossachs West management zone runs from Loch Ard to Loch Arklet and contains only two official places to camp and no campervan provision

 

What is also the case, if you accept the logic of the camping byelaws and the LLTNPA’s attempt to ban camping under access rights from the lochshores, is that Cllr Wood’s proposal addresses a serious shortfall of places to camp in the Trossachs West “camping management zone”.  Apart from the con at Loch Chon – where the LLTNPA has made no provision for campervans – the only other place people are allowed to camp (campervans can stop off as long as its on what counts at the verge of a road) is the permit area on the southern side of Loch Ard (which according to someone who visited and commented on parkswatch was not fit for use on 1st March).   Under the logic of the camping ban therefore, and I expect the LLTNPA to make this argument in their evaluation of the planning application, the proposed site helps reduce a shortfall of places to camp in Strathard.

In landscape terms there are questions about developing a campsite here – its a more open site than the site plan (above) illustrates suggests – and yet another chalet development would appear inappropriate.  However, the use of the word “chalets” appears misleading if the photos on the plan illustrate what is intended (camping pods would be a more appropriate term) and there are, in planning terms, a number of positive aspects to this development.   First, Cllr Wood has included accommodation for a site manager in the reception building, a contrast to the tourist developers in Balmaha who have failed to provide sufficient staff accommodation (see here).   This is also something the LLTNPA made no provision for at Loch Chon, their 26 place campsite just up the road.    Second, the planning application states the proposed toilets will be available for public use – a boon for walkers setting up Ben Venue – and a positive step to addressing the lack of public toilets in the Park – the number one issue that came up on visitor surveys until the LLTPNA stopped asking about this.   It would be good if the toilets could be open all year, unlike the LLTNPA’s own facilities.

 

Cllr Wood also set an example to other Board Members when, at the Board Meetings in both October and December 2016, he declared an interest “as a result of a potential future planning application” (the one that is now being considered by the LLTNPA) and then left the meeting for the “Your Park” items.   This was the first time I had heard a Board Member declare an interest and then decide they should not take part in discussion.  Cllr Wood’s actions contrast with those of his former convener, Linda McKay, and Board Members Martin Earl and Owen McKee, who not only failed to declare they owned property in a management zone at the meeting in April 2015, which approved the camping byelaws (Cllr Wood was not present at that meeting) but appear never once to have left a meeting.    What is highly ironic is that the one Board Member who has shown himself NOT to be a NIMBY has excluded himself from meetings but other Board Members who live in the camping management zones have contributed to the LLTNPA narrative on campers (irresponsible louts who always leave a mess) which has fed NIMBYIST views and never once recognised this as a conflict of interest. In my view, Cllr Wood’s action rather shows up the corruption at the heart of how the camping byelaws were developed.

 

Private interests and the public interest

 

Although Cllr Wood appears to be well ahead of most of his fellow members on the LLTNPA Board in being open about his interests, the planning application provides a number of reasons for the public to be concerned.

Extract from planning application for Ledard farm campsite as it (still) appeared 10th April

First, the application clearly does NOT state Cllr Wood is a Board Member.  Now I am sure this is just a mistake, but the whole point about including this section on all planning applications is to ensure transparency.  Board Members should be checking what is submitted in their name – it appears Cllr Wood has failed to do this and what’s more LLTNPA staff have failed to pick up the error in the ten days it took for them to publish the form.    Board Members have had endless training in declaration of interest over the last year and still neither they nor Park officials appear to be able to get even the basics right.  I am afraid its yet more evidence about basic failures in governance at the heart of the LLTNPA.

 

Second, and I believe significant, the application shows that that LLTNPA staff provided pre-application advice to Cllr Wood back in September 2015.

 

This raises two questions.

 

First transparency.  There is no information on the LLTNPA planning portal about what advice was given to Cllr Wood prior to this application (despite the reference number) but its not unreasonable to suppose the current application reflects advice from Park officials and they are therefore likely to recommend to the Planning Committee (all applications by Board Members have to be decided by the Committee rather than officials) that the application be approved.   Its in the public interest therefore that all communications from Cllr Wood or his agent and the LLTNPA’s responses should be publicly available to ensure Cllr Wood, as a Board Member, was not being favoured in an way.    Related to this, any consideration of the application also needs to state clearly whether there has been any discussion between the LLTNPA and Cllr Wood about financing the costs of this proposed development, whether this Cllr Wood was asking for financial assistance from the LLTNPA or conversely if the LLTNPA put any money on the table.

 

Second, the date of the pre-application advice, September 2015, tells us Cllr Wood has been considering this application for sometime.   While the two public Board Meetings which considered the camping byelaws pre-date that, in 2016 there were no less than six secret Board Meetings, four of which considered the byelaws and camping development plan.   As a result of an FOI request I have ascertained that the LLTNPA did ask for declarations of interest at these meetings (see here for example) BUT, because the LLTNPA claims no minutes are taken of these meetings, its not possible to tell either who attended or if they declared an interest.   This is wrong.   It also betrays the double think  behind how the LLTNPA operates,  on the one hand they claim these secret Board Meetings don’t take decisions but then at the same time they ask Board Members to declare interests at those meetings.   There is no way of the public knowing therefore if Cllr Wood took part in the secret Board discussions about campsite plans about which he had an interest or not.   This should be a matter of public record.  It would show either that Cllr Wood did the right thing from the start, and did not take part in these discussions, or else that his departure from public meetings was for show and that behind the scenes he had been contributing to discussions which impacted on his private interest.   There is therefore a serious issue here about the public interest, which while in this case is about Cllr Wood, is actually much wider than that, its about all Board Members and how the LLTNPA Board should operate.

 

The reason why its important to know about Cllr Wood’s involvement in Board discussions about the camping byelaws is they have an obvious impact on the financial viability of his proposed campsite.  Demand for the campsite will be influenced by where people can camp nearby and, while the planning proposal can be seen as a way of meeting a shortfall in provision locally, the converse to this is the way the West Trossachs Camping Management zone has been designed means that, if approved, people will in effect be channelled by the LLTNPA into Cllr Wood’s campsite.  This is most clearly seen in the case of campervans, where there is NOT one permit place for campervans in the whole of Strathard.  This means that any campervanner who did not know their rights would be likely to end up using one of the four motorhome places proposed for the Ledard Farm campsite, benefitting Cllr Wood.

 

Again, to give credit to Cllr Wood, he recognised this in respect of the planning application the LLTNPA made to itself for the Loch Chon campsite last year:

 

FW declared an interest as a landowner within a camping management zone in respect of item 4 North Car Park off B829 Loch Chon as he has an interest in loch shore campsite provision on his land. FW advised that he would leave the meeting for Agenda Item 4

 

While the minute shows Fergus Wood left the meeting, it also shows not a single other Board Member questioned the lack of motorhome provision at Loch Chon.   This I find very strange:  the effect will be to channel motorhomes to Cllr Wood’s campsite if his planning application is approved.   It seems to me that in order for the LLTNPA and its staff to avoid any suspicion of collusion in favour of Cllr Wood – and I am not suggesting he has had any part in this, indeed being pro-access the decision at Loch Chon might have been better had he remained at the meeting! – the LLTNPA need to open up the Loch Chon campsite to campervans.

 

The conflict of interest issues are even broader than this and concern Board Members contributing to the development of policies which have a direct impact on their own interests.   Whatever stage he decided he needed to leave meetings, Cllr Wood would appear to have taken part in policy developments that will facilitate his proposed campsite at Ledard Farm.  This is not just about the camping byelaws, although if he took any part in the development of the idea of camping management zones (before considering whether he should develop a campsite) that could be seen to have contributed to his private interests.  Its also about the development of the  Park Development Plan which was approved last year.  In that plan, planning applications for developments in the countryside will be considered in certain circumstances, one of which is if they contribute to the National Park Partnership Plan – which includes new camping infrastructure.   I somehow doubt Cllr Wood excluded himself from every Board discussion which has resulted in the current policy position of the LLTNPA which will be used to determine this planning application and which might benefit him.

 

Does this matter?   While I am sure Cllr Wood would claim at the time of those discussions he had no idea that he was going to propose a camping development at Ledard Farm, once he did start to think about this, it seems to me that a conflict of interest was created and the question then should have been not just about whether Cllr Wood would absent himself from specific discussions, but whether he should have continued to take part in more general policy development which impacted on his interests.

 

In a Public Authority with a different ethos, other Board Members might well have started asking questions and Cllr Wood might have, for example, stepped down from the Planning Committee.  This is the second major planning application Cllr Wood has made to the LLTNPA – the first was in 2013 for the Ledard hydro scheme.   Again, while he took no part in the meeting which determined that application, Cllr Wood had, as a planning committee member, been involved in developing LLTNPA policy and practice around hydro schemes.   Its possible to see this either as Cllr Wood setting a good example, doing himself what the LLTNPA was asking others to do, or as a conflict of interest.

 

In my view, its fine for Board Members to start practicing what they preach but, in any case where they might then benefit from this financially – in other words their business interests are clearly impacted on by the decisions being taken by the National Park Authority –  the only way they can remain squeaky clean is to step down.  While I respect Cllr Wood for his lack of NIMBYISM and preparedness to welcome visitors who may not spend lots of money, his business interests appear so entwined with what the National Park is doing that I don’t believe his current position is tenable.

 

With the local elections coming up, there is an opportunity for Cllr Wood to stand down voluntarily and for Stirling Council to replace Cllr Wood as one of their two nominees on the LLTNPA Board.  The much bigger issue however is how do establish a National Park Board which has a clear moral compass and sound governance.

Milarrochy, on east Loch Lomond, has been used by people to launch boats for years. Its one reason why the shoreline around the bay is a shingle beach and devoid of grass – a sign of thousands of people enjoying themselves here.

 

Three years ago I knew nothing about boating on Loch Lomond and, if you had asked me about the Loch Lomond byelaws, – the ones that control boat users on the Loch – my response would have probably been along the lines of “anything which controls speedboats must be a good thing”.  That way of thinking, which I am afraid was born out of ignorance on my part, is exactly why we have ended up with camping byelaws.   The view of the general population and local communities in the face of relentless propaganda from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority could fairly be summed up as “anything that stops people abandoning tents or having a rave on the lochside must be a good thing”    What I appreciate  now is that such views, whether about boating or camping,  are not just held out of ignorance, they ignore the rights of other people.   We should never condemn the many because of the few, whether we are talking about campers or religion.

 

I have also learned in two years of campaigning against the camping byelaws that it has been boat users, whether motorised or not, as represented by the Loch Lomond Association,  who have been the strongest defenders of the right to camp in the National Park. So effective indeed has been their opposition, that the LLTNPA deliberately excluded the Loch Lomond islands from the camping byelaw consultation because of the trouble they knew this would create for them.

 

About six weeks ago the LLTNPA announced in a letter to registered motor boat users on Loch Lomond that they intended to close the slipway at Milarrochy from 1st April.  There had been no warning of this, no consultation and the “decision” was taken by LLTNPA staff, not the Board, allegedly on grounds of health and safety.    The nature of the “decision” and the way its been taken should be of concern to all recreational users of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park whether walkers, sailors, cyclists, fishermen and women, birdwatchers or anyone else who enjoys the National Park.  …………………..

 

The letter is full of the type of parkspeak which permeated the camping byelaw consultation “we want people to continue to enjoy this area” – “speak” for “its another ban” – “difficult decision” and “striking a balance”:

I therefore submitted an FOI request, along with a number of other people. about the basis of the decision and a week ago received this response EIR 2017-018 Response Milarrochy.

 

Analysis of LLTNPA response by Peter Jack

Peter Jack, chair of the Loch Lomond Association, who has attended every Board Meeting for the last two years as a member of the public, has undertaken an excellent analysis of the response which I am pleased to be able to feature here.  Its well worth reading, to understand just how the Park operates,  along with the Park’s “Health and safety” assessment which is pasted below it.

 

 

 

 

 

You can see the numbers of launches here Milarrochy March-Boat-launch-figures.   The LLTNPA Health and Safety assessment consists of four lines – note the assessment which the LLNPA claim to have undertaken is NOT on their website, the only information is that pasted below:

I have commented before on the arbitrary exercise of authority by the National Park, but if the LLNPA is allowed to take decisions on this basis, they could close down anything for health and safety reasons.  Note the lie, motorboats……….. must be dangerous for swimmers etc.   In fact, guess who lobbied the LLTNPA to take action to ensure inadequate health and safety measures at one of the mass swimming events in the lochs was addressed?  The LLA.  And its boating volunteers who provide the voluntary escorts at these “wild swims”.

 

The real reasons for the decision to close the Milarrochy slipway

 

This decision clearly has nothing to do with health and safety.  My initial view was that it was probably about releasing park rangers to police the camping byelaws.   In the last paragraph of their response the LLTNPA has used a spurious interpretation of my use of the word “policing” to avoid answering the question on whether rangers were to be redeployed to chase off campers and I have therefore refined my request..

 

However, I also think the motivation for stopping boat launches at Milarrochy could be to test out the strength of the LLA with a view to deciding when the LLTNPA should start trying to extend the camping byelaws to the Loch Lomond islands.  This decision was minuted at the Board Meeting in April 2015, which approved the camping byelaws, and also appears, heavily disguised, in the draft  National Park Partnership Plan which will be launched for consultation by the Board at their meeting on Monday: “The access and use of the Loch Lomond islands still requires attention to ensure their precious habitats can thrive alongside land and water based recreational activity.”    The words “still requires attention” is code for more camping bans.    Every reason therefore for other recreational groups to support the LLA in their efforts to get the Milarrochy “decision” reversed.

 

Today though, I also came across this in the Operational Plan for the Park for the new financial year under the Park’s commercialisation programme.  :

 

 

I believe the kiosk is to be the old Ranger base at Milarrochy – so this looks like part of the LLTNPA’s strategy to hand over as much of its property within the National Park as possible to commercial businesses in return for rent.  The same commercialisation policy is driving the incremental introduction of car parking charges  across the National Park.   I will comment on the Partnership Plan in due course, but part of what needs to be changed within that plan is the neo-liberal ethos that sees National Parks as having to make money.  Some things should be beyond price and that includes the right of people to launch boats onto the loch.

 

What needs to happen

 

The Board meeting on Monday needs to re-assert the need for decisions like this to be taken at Board level and overturn the decision of staff to shut the Milarrochy slipway.   A test of the new Convener, James Stuart’s, mettle.

 

Slide 17th August 2016. The Park is far more interested in branding than getting signs to be information. How would you know from these signs that the byelaws apply to campervans and motorhomes or shelters?

Ten days ago I received a response to another Freedom of Information request,  EIR 2016-068 Appendix A list meetings of the secret Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board business sessions that took place in 2016.    There were six of them, a slight reduction from the ten  held in 2015 (at the height of the Board plotting on the byelaws) and back to the average since 2010.  That’s still six secret meetings compared to four public meetings, worse than Police Scotland which is rightly being criticised for wanting to hold 50% of its meetings in private (see bottom of last past).    I have also obtained, thanks to the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the Park required to make public if asked written materials from such sessions,  written materials circulated at these meetings.  The LLTNPA has not put these on the FOI section of its website – indeed so far it has put up none of its FOI responses sent out in 2017 – so if you are interested in seeing/scrutinising any of them please contact parkswatch which will cover some of them in due course.

 

This post covers the secret Board Meeting held on 17th August 2016 which was devoted wholly to  camping YP Informal Briefing – 17th August 2016 – FINAL Staff.  While the agenda described it as an informal briefing, that is quite obviously false as you can see from this slide:

 

Recommendations are not made to informal briefing sessions, only to decision making meetings.  The whole way the LLTNPA Board has operated in developing the byelaws is corrupt.

 

The content of the slide is of great significance.   It shows there still appear a few decent staff in the Park, who are prepared to hang on to their principles, because they recommended to the Board there should be NO charge for camping permits. (You can see the logic in the argument in the full presentation 20160817 – Your Park Camping Management Models Final).     Indeed, staff estimated only c£6k would be raised through sale of permits, so it was hardly worth doing and in fact they thought the costs of collecting the money might be more than that.   However, staff appear to have been overruled by the Board  because in the paper to the Board in 2016 (see here) in the section on “Permits: Charging considerations” (paras 5.8ff) there was no reference to the principle of charging for access, the  proposal to accept donations had disappeared completely and instead there was only one option, to charge £3.    This makes it pretty clear that its the Board that is behind charging for access and is yet another example of the Board acting ultra vires because it is supposed to take decisions in public.   Reason enough for the Scottish Government to intervene now and insist all charges for permits are dropped.

 

Another example of secret decision making is that in the August slides the original proposal for campsite fees was £7.50 (up from £5 due to the extravagant costs of creating the Loch Chon campsite) but the option put to the Board in December and then approved was £7.  Perhaps the reduction in charge was because in October 2016 this is what the LLTNPA told the Scottish Government in response to a question about charges:

 

 

 

 

No indication there that the Park had been discussing a 40-45% increase in charges: the Scottish Government civil servants don’t appear to have appreciated yet that they really cannot trust anything that the Park tells them.

 

The development of the Your Park signage

 

While there was very little debate on charging at the December Board Meeting, there was debate on the signage examples accompanying the Board paper  some of which was quite encouraging (see here). What I and other members of the public did not appreciate at the time was that the Board had already discussed all of this in August.   No wonder staff looked put out when Board Members belatedly realised and suddenly started to insist, quite rightly, that there should be signs telling people when they were leaving the camping management zones.

 

A comparison of the August proposals with those put to the Board in December  (see here) is revealing:

The signage examples presented to the Board at their secret meeting in August 2016.  The permit area sign and colouring was in paper approved at the public Board Meeting in December 2016.

The “NO CAMPING HERE” signs, proposed at the secret Board Meeting in August were completely absent from the December Board paper and it appears the Board decided there shouldn’t be such signs at the August meeting.   I says “appears” because it is possible the Park decided NOT to present the “NO CAMPING HERE” in December because this would appear anti-access:  because there were no camping management signs of any description when I visited the Trossachs a week ago (they were supposed to be put up from the beginning of February), I was unable to check.

 

If NO CAMPING HERE signs are now being erected, then it appears that has been done contrary to the approval given at the Board Meeting in December.  If, however, the LLTNPA has indeed  decided there should be no NO CAMPIMG HERE signs, that will make the byelaws even harder to enforce.   The problem is neatly illustrated by the slide below presented at the August secret Board meeting:

 

The A82 is a major through route with tens of thousands of people driving along it each year.  So, drivers glimpse a sign as they roar past at 60mph saying “Camping Management Zone”  and even possibly “Camping in the Park”.   What would your reaction be?  Great, let’s find somewhere, stop and pitch our tents…………….so unless there is a NO CAMPING HERE sign in every single stopping off point, as was proposed back in August,  what’s going to happen is people are going to pitch tents and completely unknowingly committed a criminal offence.   The NO CAMPING HERE signs put to the August meeting were crucial for enforcement purposes.

 

However, what do the NO CAMPING HERE signs tell the public apart from tents are not allowed?  What about campervans, motorhomes or sleeping in the back of the car?    And, then consider the wording of the byelaws:

 

Unauthorised Camping
(6) It shall be an offence for a person to:
(a) set up, use or occupy a tent, wigwam or bivouac at any time; or
(b) set up, use or occupy overnight any other form of shelter (other than an umbrella)
within a Management Zone unless they have been authorised to do so by the Authority
under byelaw 11.

 

Does the NO CAMPING HERE sign give you the message that pulling off in a campervan or putting up any other form of shelter apart from an umbrella is a criminal offence?   How on earth will the fishermen or anyone else know from the signage that hanging a tarp between trees or putting up one of those fishing shelters are criminal offences, with fines of up to £500, which could result in them losing their jobs or being prevented from travelling abroad?  They won’t.

 

The LLTNPA’s signage, whether or not it includes the “NO CAMPING HERE” sign is completely inadequate.   The Park is pretending to be in favour of camping and encouraging it (“camping management zones”, “camping in the park”) while at the same time trying to ban it.  Its then tried to reduce the criminal law to a branding exercise where people are supposed to be able to tell from signs and symbols what they can and can’t do.   This won’t work.

 

Even if the Park put the NO CAMPING HERE signs in every layby and added smallprint so people could see shelters were banned it would still not tell campervans where it is legal to stop off overnight.  The Park would need to put signs up indicating to campervaners all the private roads in the Park (where you can stay overnight in a vehicle) for the byelaws to be properly understood.  That is never going to happen and as a consequence the byelaws are unenforceable.

 

The consequences of this is the Park is going to have to deploy its Rangers, as they do at present on Loch Lomond, chasing away campers and campervaners from every place that is not properly signed.  This is a complete waste of resource.   The new Convener, James Stuart, when he starts on Wednesday, needs to signal a completely new direction for the Park otherwise its going to sink.

Sign in centre of Balmaha (see below). Park Rangers have passed this sign on an almost daily basis for over 10 years but no-one from the LLTNPA ever thought to challenge it

I have now had responses to two of the issues I took up with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park  after the appearance of Gordon Watson, their Chief Executive, on the Out of Doors programme on National Parks early in the New Year and which I covered in a post at the time (see here).

The first issue, I took up with Gordon Watson directly by email.   Here is my question and the LLTNPA reply, which they have dealt with – as is their way – as an Environmental Information Response:

 

So, in respect to Mr Watson’s claim that “some signs are put up by landowners” it turns out that he had no specific sign in mind and indeed, what’s even more telling, the LLTNPA holds no information about “No” signs put up by landowners.   In other words Mr Watson’s statement was completely made up – it bore no relation at all to the truth.   Funnily enough I could have told Mr Watson of one sign on east Loch Lomond (see above).  I don’t think though that this sign contradicts the general point made by Mark Stephen and Ewan McIlraith, that the first things that hits the visitor on east Loch Lomond are the “No” signs  and most of them are put there by or with the agreement of the National Park Authority – a point Gordon Watson was trying to deny.

 

I took the second issue up with Linda McKay, the LLTNPA convener (the letter is pasted below), because one of the duties of the LLTNPA Board is to hold its Chief Executive to account and that, to my mind, should include ensuring any public statements he makes bears some resemblance to the truth.  His claim that “measures we are taking are purely about heavily used areas” was clearly utter rubbish.

 

Instead of apologising for this – and in the heat of an interview it is very difficult to get your words right – I received COMP 2017-008 Complaint Response reply from the Park’s Governance Manager (who no longer signs her letters so I am unclear if this really was sent by Ms Amanda Aikman or not).   Here is an extract from my response which is now being dealt with as a stage 2 complaint about Mr Watson:

 

“it is completely irrelevant that Mr Watson was not speaking in detail about “levels of usage”.  What he said was that the “measures we are taking are purely about managing heavily used areas”.   “Purely” is a very strong word.  If Mr Watson had said “mainly about” I would have had no complaint but he said “purely” which is not true.  I stated to Linda McKay in my letter that I appreciated words could slip out in interviews and suggested that if the words were not intended, if Mr Watson apologised I would not pursue a complaint.  Since the LLTNPA has chosen to deal with this as a complaint, I can only assume Mr Watson is not prepared to apologise, although I note in your response there is no indication of whether you have actually asked Mr Watson whether he believes his statement was correct or not.      I can therefore only assume that Mr Watson is standing by a statement which is clearly false.”     

 

I have little faith that the LLTNPA will investigate this properly because under their procedures complaints about the Chief Executive are investigated by a fellow Director – in other words someone whom Mr Watson directly line manages.  This is wrong.  There are very few people brave enough to find against their boss.  In my view it should be Board Members who investigate complaints against the National Park Chief Executives as part of their role of holding the post-holder to account.    That will never happen while Linda McKay is convener but needs to change once James Stuart becomes convener in March.

 

Previously where the LLTNPA has failed to uphold my complaints, I have been unable to take them to the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman because in order to do this you need to have suffered a personal injustice or hardship (e.g the public authority has caused you some harm).   What is shocking is that if you complain on matters of principle or governance to the National Park you have no redress.   However, and the point of outlining my complaint in public in this post, is its my reputation as a commentator on National Parks that is now at stake.  The camping byelaws are not purely about heavily managed areas as Mr Watson himself wrote in a paper for the secret Board Briefing session on  16th June 2014  (see here) released after the intervention of the Information Commissioner:

So, if whoever has been allocated to investigate my complaint fails to do so properly and to take account evidence such as this,  I will  take this complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman on the grounds that I have suffered “personal injustice”.      If they still maintain such a complaint is outwith their remit, I think that adds to the case that the law needs to change.  The public need to have some way to hold Chief Executives of Public Authorities to account when their Boards fail to do so.

 

Addendum – email to LLTNPA convener

 

Dear Ms McKay,

You may be aware that Gordon Watson was on the Out of Doors programme on Saturday and while in my view he made a number of misleading statements, one was clearly wrong:

“measures we are taking are purely about heavily used areas”. 

He said this in the first part of the programme in which he was featured (which starts after 7 minutes 53 seconds).

The reason this statement is not true is that:

a) the camping byelaws clearly cover areas which are not “heavily used” .  Data held by the Park’s disproves this including the  maps that were presented to the secret Board Meetings in September and October 2013 (see here) and Ranger records which have been made public as a result of Freedom of Information requests (which show very low numbers of people camping at Loch Arklet for example).   Mr Watson, as Chief Executive, is fully aware of this – as is the Park Board which has clearly stated that the reasons why the byelaws cover some areas is not that they are heavily used but because of anticipated displacement (the justification used for Loch Arklet for example).   He has therefore deliberately misled the public.

b) if the measures the LLTNPA were taking was purely about heavily used areas, the LLTNPNA would not now be building a campsite at Loch Chon, which is inaccessible and currently where very few people camp

c) if the measures the LLTNPA were taking were about heavy use, as Mr Watson’s statement implies, then the Park would be allowing some use to continue.  You are of course doing that in some areas, including the four permits that will be allowed on the lochshore by your own house, but there is not provision for a single permit along the shores of west Loch Lomond (which was not in any case one of the most heavily used areas)  which again shows that the byelaws are not “purely about heavily used areas”.

I am aware that interviews can be difficult and its easy to say things that might not be right and therefore if the National Park is prepared to issue a statement apologising for Mr Watson’s misleading statement that would satisfy me otherwise I would like to pursue this as a formal complaint.  As I have previously stated to you I believe there are serious deficiencies in the Park’s complaints procedure in that complaints against the Chief Executive are investigated by people managed by him which cannot be right and again ask that if you proceed to investigate this as a complaint, rather than issue a public apology,  that this is conducted by Board Members.

Yours Sincerely,

Nick Kempe

 

Extract from decision paper written by Gordon Watson, current Chief Executive, and presented at secret Board Meeting on 16th June 2014 and obtained as a result of an appeal to the Information Commissioner.

The above extract speaks for itself and confirms what most people already knew, the LLTNPA deliberately omitted the Loch Lomond Islands from the camping byelaw consultation because they thought if they did so, this might stop their attempt to undermine access rights because of the opposition it would create.   This extract and the minute of the Board Meeting of April 2015 both record that the islands will be next.

 

The LLTNPA is picking off recreational groups one by one.  The boating interests on the loch were first and they have just been told that the boat launching facility at Milarrochy will be closed from 1st April.  That leaves just one place to launch boats onto Loch Lomond – and this is meant to be a National Park that serves the people on the west of Scotland.    It appears likely that the Rangers that were deployed to help boats get onto the loch are to be redeployed in order to enforce the camping byelaws.     In other words, the various attempts to control recreational use are all connected, and people need to set aside their own recreational perspectives (which tends to divide motor boats from dinghy sailors and campervans from campers) and see the wider picture.   I would like to see recreational organisations unite against what is happening and not allow themselves to be divided by their differences.   This ultimately is about people retaining their rights to enjoy the countryside.

 

The extract is also significant because it provides yet more proof that the LLTNPA’s claim that the secret “Board Briefings” did not take decisions is complete rubbish.  Recommendations were clearly made and approved in a meeting that was not open to the public.      This is not how public authorities should operate and I will repeat my call that the new Convener, James Stuart, should abolish this practice as soon as he takes up post on 1st March.

Ardchullarie hydro intake. While the intake is well located, nestling in the burn, the finishing contravenes the Loch Lomond National Park Planning Guidance on renewables: the intake dam is concrete and not finished with natural materials; the two intake vents are the usual Park blue whereas they should be in colours that match the natural landscape; the safety fencing on the intake again stands out and the slope on the right is an eyesore. Photo Jane Meek.

A few weeks ago Jane Meek sent me photos of the Ardchullarie hydro scheme.   The Ardchullarie Burn runs parallel to the path popular with hillwalkers that leads into Glen Ample and Ben Vorlich from Loch Lubnaig.   I checked the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority planning portal to find out more about this scheme.  A large number of documents, which the developer was required to submit by the Decision Notice which approved this scheme, were missing.     This caused me, quite mistakenly, to wonder if the documents had for some reason been submitted to Stirling Council.    In its response EIR 2017-003 Response Ardchullarie the LLTNPA has clarified that the documents were sent to them but also that it does NOT publish any planning information that it requires to be submitted to it as part of a Decision Notice:

 

The claim that “Post Decision information is not published” is not true, as is shown in this case, where  the LLTNPA did publish one piece of information (on the design of the pipe bridge), but also other cases where some information does appear post-decision.   I find it hard to comprehend the thinking behind the decision to remove the one small piece of information in this case.

 

The barriers on the pipe bridge were subject to further approval by the Park but the designs for this, where were on the planning portal, have now been removed. The ground beyond the pipe bridge, through which the pipe runs, has been better restored than the access tracks, but the concrete holding walls for the pipe bridge again are not in natural materials and could have used all the boulders dumped below and to the left of the rear wall. There has been no attempt to blend the casing of the pipe bridge into the landscape as recommended in the Park’s design guidance. Photo credit Jane Meek.

The Park’s explanation for its actions is that unless it is legally required to make information public, it won’t do so.   I find this shocking.  Our National Parks should be demonstrating best practice but instead appear to be trying to cover up what they are doing (see here for lack of openness in Cairngorms National Park).  The only reason for the Park not to publish information about the implementation of planning decisions is to make life as difficult as possible for people who want to monitor them and to cover up what is actually happening.

 

Why its important to know what is in planning documents is illustrated by the Construction Method Statement EIR 2017-003 Ardchullarie Appendix A which the Developer was required to submit as part of the Decision Notice.   Here is an example:

 

 

The new access track linked an existing track to the Ardchullarie intake (the hill path to Glen Ample is just beyond the end of the track in the  photo). Photo Jane Meek.

The access track has clearly not been restored to quadbike width.  What is the Park doing about this?  Does the Park really believe that placing a line of boulders down the middle of the construction track, to demarcate what is track and what is “restored”, demonstrates good practice for hill tracks in our National Parks?   If the information was public, we might know the answers to these questions.

The poor finishing of culverts pictured here is evident in almost all the hydro scheme tracks in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Photo Jane Meek.

 

Ardchullarie is a very small hydro scheme and being in woodland, its landscape impact is at present limited – limited until that woodland is felled.    However, it illustrates some of the fundamental problems at present with how our planning system operates in our National Parks.

 

The  fundamental problem is that, while as in the Ardchullarie scheme the Report on the planning application may be very thorough 2013_0151_DET-Delegated_report_final-100102989 Ardchullarie,  the approval in effect is for an outline plan which then requires further documents to be submitted.   In a significant number of cases, the required documents are not submitted or approved before work commences.   If the Planning Authority does not publish all these documents, the public simply don’t know if planning requirements are being met and indeed cannot report breaches of planning permission (including works commencing before the Planning Authority is notified).   So, any Planning Authority which is committed to operating a planning system which is open, transparent and effective should be publishing all the documents it requires developers to submit as a consequence of Decision Notices.   The LLTNPA is saying they won’t publish any.  That speaks for itself.

 

This issue is not just about the Construction Method Statement which I obtained via FOI (and which you can read above).  There were 21 Conditions attached to the Decision Notice (I must commend the Park officer for their thoroughness in this case) and what the Park is saying is it won’t publish as a matter of course ANY information about the implementation of ANY of those conditions.    So, documents you or I might want to see that help explain the photos above include those required to illustrate “finishing materials and colours of all above ground structures” and the Landscape Restoration Plan (which was separate to the Construction Method Statement).  The only way to get those is through constant FOIs, where the Park then takes weeks to respond.

 

It would be interesting to know if the decision to make none of this information public and to operate in such an obstructive way came from the Board or is a staff decision.  I wonder too whether this has  been approved by the Information Commissioner.

 

What needs to happen

 

  • The LLTNPA and Cairngorms National Park Authority should commit to making public, as soon as they are provided, all documents submitted to them as part of planning decisions and also to publish the National Park’s response to these (eg correspondence if they are not adequate)
  • The Scottish Government should require – it could make a commitment to do this following the current consultation on its planning white paper – all planning authorities to publish Post Decision planning information on their planning portals.
  • I would like the Information Commission to include in their guidance on publications schemes, that Planning Authorities should be publishing post Decision Notice information relating to that Notice.  Unfortunately, the Information Commissioner does not have the powers to force the National Park to do this.

 

Extract from Convener’s notes for the secret Board Briefing session on 8th December 2014 which forms part of the latest batch of information provided by the LLTNPA – for commentary on this see below

At 16.42 yesterday, just five hours after my last post which explained how I was still waiting for the further information from the secret Board Briefing sessions which the Information Commissioner had told the Park to send to me on 11the January, it arrived!     Funnily enough, there was a similar delay in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority releasing the slides from the secret Board Briefing sessions back in November but again a few hours after I had made this public in a post, bingo (see here)!   

 

I did get a letter from Gordon Watson, the Chief Executive, though, headed  Compliance with Decision Notice 209-2016 Response – you need to read to the last line to find the apology the Information Commissioner asked the LLTNPA to make.   Most of the letter is the Park’s explanation for why it did not declare it held this information at the first time of asking.  I am sceptical about this.  In my last post I commented that it defied belief that Gordon Watson, who was in charge of the development of the byelaws, and then, as Chief Executive, must have been involved in the attempt to claim that written information about the secret Board Briefing sessions was exempt from Freedom of Information laws, did not know there was more information available.   The information I received yesterday provided direct evidence to substantiate my scepticism –  among the new information is a lengthy cover paper prepared for  the Secret Board Briefing Sessions on 15th September 2014 (see here) and the author is………..Gordon Watson!

 

The short extract above on Declarations of Interest provides more evidence of just how warped LLTNPA Board Meetings became during the development of the camping byelaws (see here for full convenor briefing).   First, the Convener, Linda McKay, even for a non-public Board Meeting which the Park claims is not minuted (they refused me minutes under FOI on the basis there were none), is provided with a script which she reads out – quite extraordinary!.  Second, note how Linda McKay has been provided in bold with the exact words she should use in her own declaration of interest.   Now I thought declarations of interest are meant to be the responsibility of individual Board Members.  It seems though in the LLTNPA staff provide a script to every Board Member telling them what they should say.  One wonders why Board Members have so little understanding of the Code of Conduct for Ethical Standards in Public Life that they need to be told what to declare?     Third, its worth asking why there was such an emphasis on declarations of interest when according to the Park no minutes were taken of any of these Board Briefing sessions and these meetings never took any decisions?   It cannot too be right that on the one hand the Park recognised that discussions could lead to conflicts of interest but then never recorded whether these took place.  There have been fundamental failures in governance in the way the camping byelaws were developed and in which the LLTNPA has been operating.

 

Its worth noting too that this extract refers to two further sets of scripts which have NOT been provided under FOI: the script from Sandra Dalziel on her role and the scripts for individual Board Members telling them what they should declare.   Maybe all electronic records relating to them have been destroyed but I suspect if the Information Commissioner had the powers they could find them somewhere on the LLTNPA’s IT system.  There is good reason to believe that the Park has still not provided all the written information that relates to these meetings;  still there is plenty more to comment on meantime.

Slide from the Secret Board Briefing Session of September 2014.  This provides evidence of the Park’s failure to create new camping provision as planned.  In the two years since these pretty pictures were produced  the Park has, within the proposed management zones:  unveiled plans for just 20 places for campervans (and removed campervan bays which were planned for carparks as at Loch Venachar); started constructing one new 20-40 pitch campsite at Loch Chon,a place very few people visit; created not a single new 5-10 pitch campsite but instead is going to charge people for permits to camp in places with no new facilities; and agreed not a single seasonal campsite (which are commonplace in the English National Parks).

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that the Information Commissioner wrote to me on 11th January (see here) to say that they had ascertained that the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park holds more  information about its secret Board “Briefing” sessions which it failed to declare.    The Information Commissioner had previously required the Park to make public all but one of the slides (example above) presented to the Board (see here).   The slides, the Park had claimed, were the only information it held from the Secret Board discussions which developed the byelaws.   The Information Commissioner has now told the Park to make the additional information public and asked them to apologise to me by the end of the month.    I have not yet had either the information or the apology.

 

The Information Commissioner’s letter is worded very carefully but is revealing about the LLTNPA’s disregard for the truth and due process.  The Information Commissioner’s  staff, who I cannot praise highly enough, have tried to find out why the Park failed to declare to them this information.  That information should have been provided as part of my appeal into the Park’s refusal to disclose any information from the 10 Secret Board Briefing Sessions.  The way the process is supposed to work is that if a public body wishes to withhold information, the Information Commissioner’s staff look at that information, and then decide whether or not it should be in the public realm.  The whole process is dependant on the public body being honest enough to declare the information it holds in the first place.

 

In the case of the LLTNPA, it clearly wasn’t honest and open with the Commissioner.  The main reason I believe the Information Commissioner has been able to investigate this further was not the obvious gaps in the information provided (why was there information for some meetings but not others?)  (see here) but  because I provided them with a written agenda and briefing  from the Secret Board Briefing session in April 2015 (see here).   This set out for the Board what interests the Convener of the National Park, Linda McKay, should declare at the public Board Meeting later in the day which “approved” the camping byelaws.  It had been obtained by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards as part of their investigation into Board Members failure to declare ownership of property within the proposed camping management zones and subsequent fiddling of the minute of that meeting.   The LLTNPA however never gave it to the Information Commissioner.

 

Moreover, the reason the LLTNPA has given for not providing this further information about the Board “Briefing” Sessions to the Information Commissioner is laughable.   The LLTNPA apparently tried to claim that they intepreted my request too narrowly – I had asked for ALL written information relating to those briefing sessions – and that they “wrongly assumed all information and documentation” relating to my request was held at a central location.    Now it defies belief that the current Chief Executive, Gordon Watson, was not fully aware of the information request which concerned the operation of his Board.   Moreover, Gordon Watson previously had  lead responsibility for the development of the byelaws and it also defies belief that he did not attend most or all of those Briefing Sessions.  He therefore must know what written information had been produced for and about those meetings, even if he could not remember all the details. He could therefore have told  staff where to find it.  He clearly didn’t and the question that needs to be answered is why not?    The case provides yet another example of the cover-up and conspiracy that lies behind the camping byelaws.

 

What needs to happen

 

Unfortunately the Information Commissioner does not have the powers to deal with situations like this, where it appears that senior staff in public authorities are undermining the intentions behind our freedom of information laws – which were increasing the transparency about how public bodies operate and take decisions.   It appears to me therefore that there is a very strong case for the Information Commissioner to be given further powers to conduct widescale investigations into public authorities in cases such as this and to be able to order improvements.

 

While I cannot see the Park investigating their own serious failures while Linda McKay remains convener, there will be a new convener from 1st March, James Stuart, who has hinted he considers there is a need for a change of course.  A good start would be to get the Board to change the way it  operates:

  • End the practice of secret Board Briefing Sessions and replace these with public Board Meetings
  • Record and broadcast all Board Meetings as per the Scottish Parliament
  • Publish papers for Board Meetings at least a week beforehand (not three days) and publish agendas at least two weeks in advance to enable the public to know what will be discussed
  • Issue draft minutes of all meetings within two weeks of them taking place so the public know what decisions have been made

 

The former torpedo range by Arrochar is just one big rubbish dump – is the LLTNPA ever going to do something about this?

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park has been nominated by BBC Countryfile presenter as National Park of the year (see here)  There are four other nominees, South Downs, Peak District, Snowdonia and Yorkshire Dales.  The LLTNPA was quick to get in on the act, issuing its own press release and then arranging for this motion to be lodged in the Scottish Parliament: 

 

Motion Number: S5M-03569
Lodged By: Dean Lockhart
Date Lodged: 22/01/2017

Title: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Motion Text:

That the Parliament congratulates everyone at Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park on it being shortlisted for the title of National Park of the Year 2017; notes that it is the only Scottish park in the final of the competition, which is run by the BBC Countryfile magazine; understands that the competition, which is in its sixth year aims to celebrate the importance of the British countryside and its people, nature reserves and heritage attractions; notes that the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs park covers over 720 square miles and includes 21 Munros, two forest parks and the Great Trossachs Forest, which was recently been named the UK’s latest and largest national nature reserve; understands that the park is renowned, not only for its undoubted beauty, but also as a living, working landscape that offers a home to unique wildlife as well as providing a range of activities for visitors and locals alike, and wishes all of the nominees, and the rest of the UK’s national parks, continued success.

 

This interest in National Parks in the Scottish Parliament is a positive thing.  However, both the motion and the Countryfile nomination confuse the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, the place, with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority,  the body responsible for  running it.   They are quite distinct.

 

While National Parks, as places, change a little each year, this is not  enough to explain why a National Park should be nominated one year rather than the next.  If thought, the Award, is supposed to be about the performance of National Park Authorities, there is no information provided by the BBC to enable people to compare how each of the National Park Authorities nominated for the award are doing.  The result is people will vote for the place they like, rather than what any National Park Authority is doing.   This will suit the LLTNPA, which does not like its performance to be scrutinised, and will be hoping that everyone in Scotland will vote for it simply because its a nomination from Scotland.

 

Before rushing headlong into supporting this piece of marketing, I hope our MSPs will consider the  LLTNPA’s performance in 2016.  The LLTNPA has a large communications team of, I believe, 8 staff to sing its own praises, so here I will only list some of the things they try to avoid mentioning:

 

  • In April the Standards Commission found against Board Member Owen McKee, the planning convener who traded in Scotgold Shares after the Cononish goldmine was approved.  Unfortunately the Standards Commissions did not have the powers to investigate how the Board covered this up.
  • The destruction of landforms and landscape in Glen Falloch, on an industrial scale, in order to construct new hydro schemes reached its apogee.  With staff having previously reversed the decision of Board Members that all the access tracks should be removed, these tracks now form permanent scars on the landscape.  The LLTNPA has failed to enforce its own standards for hydro schemes, including landscaping, colour of material used and width and design of access tracks.
  • The LLTNPA conducted a community planning consultation in Balloch – called a charrette, funded by the Scottish Government – without telling the local community that a company called Flamingo Land had been appointed to develop the large Riverside site and that as the National Park Authority it had been on the selection panel for that developer.
  • The secret and unaccountable Board Briefing sessions LLTNPA continued throughout the year –
  • The LLTNPA’s promise that it would provide new camping places if the camping byelaws were agreed collapsed.  The Five Lochs Visitor Management Plan, which included specific plans for campsites, along with the Stakeholder Group which contributed to it,  appears to have been abandoned entirely.    It has been replaced by a series of vague promises that the Park is continuing to work to develop new campsites in the proposed camping management zones.
  • Instead the LLTNPA committed to spending £345k on a new 26 place campsite at Loch Chon, which is inaccessible to anyone without a car, and where there is little demand.  The campsite was totally overspecified, which explains the cost, and the only justification for spending this money was so the LLTNPA could satisfy a promise to the Minister that they would develop new camping places before the camping byelaws commenced.
  • The LLTNPA developed a new permit system to control camping in the management zones which had not been subject to public consultation and then failed to consult its own Local Access Forum, a statutory consultee, on the implications for access rights.   Freedom of Information requests demonstrated that the LLTNPA’s decision to “create” 300 places where people could camp, was not based on any evidence about the impact of campers.
  • The Scottish Information Commissioner forced the LLTNPA to make public all but one of the slides that had been presented at the Secret Board Meetings which decided the camping byelaws and was investigating the failure of the LLTNPA to declare all the information it held about these meetings at year end.
  • The LLTNPA diverted a considerable proportion of its resources into a single issue, how to ban campers, and consequently failed to progress many far more important matters.  This was epitomised by the non-appearance of the new Park Partnership Plan (the Cairngorms National Park draft plan was consulted on over the summer) which is due to be signed off by Ministers in 2017
  • One year late, the LLTNPA published the Keep Scotland Beautiful litter audit.  During the course of Board Meetings it emerged that once again the LLTNPA had again failed to take any meaningful initiatives with its local authority partners on how to address litter problems in the National Park.  The litter strategy, promised in the Five Lochs Visitor Management Plan, is now several years overdue.
  • The LLTNPA planning committee refused to delay consideration of a planning application for housing next door to their HQ in Balloch until after the community planning event and instead approved the housing plans.

 

This is not intended as a balanced appraisal, for that one would need to add some positives and then look at how the overall scorecard squared with the performance of the other National Parks nominated by John Craven.  However, information like this needs to be put into the public arena if we are to have any chance of our current National Parks improving and meeting the objectives for which they were created.     Our MSPs, instead of accepting the marketing hype issued by the LLTNPA,  should start scrutinising what it is actually doing.

Slide presented at secret Board Meeting in September 2014.   What do the dots mean?  Surely somebody in the Park must know?

After the Information Commissioner forced the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park to make public the slides that had been presented to the Board in the secret Board Briefing Sessions I asked follow up questions about three of those slides, including the one above.  The answer was unsatisfactory EIR 2016-062 Response, so I asked for a review of my request and yesterday received a response EIR REVIEW 2016-062.

 

The answers tell us a lot about the secretive way the Park operates and the conspiracy to undermine access rights:

  • The LLTNPA is simply refusing to tell me (or you the reader or the public) what the different coloured dots on the map of Loch Voil mean.   The FOI Act only requires the public authorities to provide written information, not to explain this information – a weakness in the law demonstrated by the slide above.  So, the slide is supposed to provide to the Board a detailed example of what the Park staff were proposing for Loch Voil  but the Park staff are now refusing to say what this was  (was this campsites, toilets, carparks, signs?).   The Park’s Chief Executive Gordon Watson must know what this means, along I would think with a whole number of Board Members who were at the session, but rather than just be open, it appears the LLTNPA would prefer to keep this secret.  What is there to hide?
  • Much more significant politically is that the Park has now stated quite clearly it has NO information on how it has worked out the number of camping permits.   So, the 300 number, which is the total number of camping places and permits the Park has agreed for the four management zone is totally made up.   Its obviously not based on any evidence of camping impacts or carrying capacity of the land.   It appears the number could have been 500 or 100 so why 300?.   My best guess is the Park has decided this number which would sound ok to Scottish Ministers and is the least it could get away with.  The public and Scottish Government need to realise there is no rationale for this, whether its the Park’s decision to allow just four camping permits along the Invertrossachs shore on Loch Venachar (which just so happens to be where their current Convenor, Linda McKay lives and which was a popular place for camping) or not a single permit along the A82 north of Inveruglas.
  • The response to the third question is interesting because although the Park has dropped any reference to peak weekends, it showed it never had an definition of what these were anyway.  I think its further evidence to show the LLTNPA has tried to create a new terminology to describe camping and campervanning and persuade people into supporting its proposals that is based on a whim, not fact.

 

 

The plan of Scottish Enterprise and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is to develop the greenspace next to Loch Lomond Shores and at the head of the River Leven. Is this what National Parks are for?

I was as shocked as the 33,000 people who signed the public petition after Scottish Enterprise announced the appointment of Flamingo Land (see here).   To find out more about how this had  happened I submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority and Scottish Enterprise in September and then a follow up to SE in November.    While it has taken SE two months to respond to my last request Scottish Enterprise FOI response 170114, the information provided is very clear compared to that provided by the LLTNPA EIR 2016-051 Response.   In November I showed that the claims made by the LLTNPA about their involvement in the appointment of Flamingo Land were totally misleading  (see here).  Together, the two responses from Scottish Enterprise  show the LLTNPA’s claims are a travesty of the truth and what’s more that the LLTNPA has been involved in selecting a developer which scored less on the design objectives which it helped develop.

 

Here’s what Scottish Enterprise has said about LLTNPA involvement:

 

“Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority (LLTNPA) endorsed the ‘SE Design Principles’ set out in the scoring document and were fully engaged in developing the marketing strategy as well as being part of the process to award Flamingo Land preferred developer status at West Riverside”

“The design principles were set out fully within the original marketing brochure  and both this and the scoring document were endorsed by the LLTNPA.”

 

Contrast this with EIR 2016-051 Response where the LLTNPA failed to mention they had been involved in the marketing strategy or the scoring document and claimed their involvement had been about planning advice.

 

Correspondence and meetings with Scottish Enterprise
Scottish Enterprise sought informal pre planning application advice and met with a member of the Park Authority’s planning team in March 2015. Email correspondence to arrange this meeting is attached in Appendix A.

 

A totally different view to SE.    What is more, according to SE FOI response 161017, the marketing strategy  in which LLTNPA was involved  “divided West Riverside into five development areas and stated that Scottish Enterprise (SE) would fully consider any interest in individual plots 1 – 5 as well as whole site interests.”

 

The suggested uses for each of the five development areas which went beyond anything contained in the LLTNPA  Development Plan and included development of Drumkinnon Woods.     It appears therefore that LLTNPA staff have been closely involved in deciding how the site should be used and what uses would be acceptable BEFORE any consultation with the local community.   This raises further questions about the extent to which the LLTNPA manipulated the Balloch Charrette (see here), where the local community were not told about the appointment of Flamingo Land or, it now appears, the proposals that the LLTNPA staff had been engaged in scoping for each section of the West Riverside site.

 

There is reason to believe LLTNPA involvement goes further than this.   In EIR 2016-051 Response Appendix A the LLTNPA only made public emails which date from March 2015 though I had asked for  all written information about the development of the site without time limit.  Its hard to believe the Park hold NO information about their close engagement with SE on the marketing of the site or that none of this took place before 2015 or indeed that they hold no other information about communications with SW about the site apart from that .   The more probable explanation is the Park has decided to try and cover up the extent of their involvement in what should happen on the site.   Why?

 

The LLTNPA’s second claim was that:

 

“Scottish Enterprise invited the Park Authority’s Head of Visitor Experience to be involved in the process of reviewing the submissions for the West Riverside site. This involvement was in an advisory capacity in relation to tourism considerations and separate from, and without prejudice to, any consideration of planning issues. The decision regarding a preferred developer was for Scottish Enterprise as landowner to make.”

 

This is disproved by SE’s two responses.

 

All the proposals were scored by a panel comprising of representatives from SE, LLTNPA and SE’s Property Advisors (Bilfinger GVA) in accordance with the issued evaluation criteria and methodology outlined in the attached development brief.

 

Moreover, the Developer’s brief WR Interests – Dev Brief – Final  starts by saying:

 

Introduction
Scottish Enterprise, in partnership with Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, are promoting West Riverside and the undeveloped sites within Loch Lomond Shores for tourism and leisure-based developments

 

Being in partnership with SE and scoring the developer’s submission, as described by SE, is very different to “reviewing” the applications and acting in an advisory capacity.    What’s more LLTNPA were involved in a follow up meeting with Flamingo Land prior to the appointment being confirmed:

 

SE & LLTNPA had one meeting with Flamingo Land prior to progressing the award of preferred developer status. This meeting took place at the end of September 2015.

 

I believes this information confirms beyond doubt that LLTNPA were very involved in selecting the developer and therefore in selecting one set of proposals over another.

 

It gets worse than that however.  The submissions were scored according to certain evaluation criteria, which rightly included design objectives , which LLTNPA was involved in developing.

 

While four developers made submissions for this site two were very close:

Scoring of Flamingo Land bid (the information here and below  comes from the scoring matrix supplied by SE under FOI)

In fact Flamingo Land scored just ten points more than the other developer although the scores are made up very differently.

 

 

The scoring of the rival front-runner, who name has been withheld under FOI

 

 

 

The unsuccessful bid scored more than Flamingo Land on the design objectives, experience and track record but less on financial viability and funding strategy and deliverability.     What this tells us is – leaving aside the question of whether the design objectives which LLTNPA had been involved in developing were the right ones – that the LLTNPA has been involved in selecting a developer whose design proposals were  second best.   Now, if there had been huge differences with the other developer on deliverabiltiy or financial viability, this might have been justifiable but there weren’t.  The two developers were separated by just 10 points in all and the biggest difference between their scores  was on design, what should have mattered most to the LLTNPA.

 

There are further questions you could ask about this.   We now know from SE that “there was no provision for a score to be assigned for payment of the Scottish Living Wage”.  Wages rates could have affected the financial viability of the proposals.    Flamingo Land’s accounts suggest that while it is a profitable company it also appears currently to pay many staff rates at or around the UK statutory living wage, i.e below the Scottish Living Wage.  Now of course the other Developer might have been no different and there are many other factors which affect financial viability, but its also possible that the other Developer scored less on financial viability because it pays its staff more.   It would be very interesting to know therefore whether LLTNPA staff, before they endorsed the scoring matrix, made any representations about the need for better paid jobs in tourism in the National Park and how the scoring matrix supported their statutory duty to promote “sustainable economic development” in the Park.

 

The consequences of all this are huge and undermine  LLTNPA’s claim that their involvement has been “without prejudice” to the planning decision and indeed to their wider statutory objectives.  Supposing Flamingo Land submits planning proposals which accord with the submission the LLTNPA scored, I cannot see how the LLTNPA could possibly now refuse such an application – even if much better alternatives are obviously available – as to do so would open up the possibility of Flamingo Land suing the Park for all their development costs.   Their grounds for this would be that the LLTNPA had already endorsed what they were proposing, through approving their development bid,  and that as a consequence they had been led up the garden path.

 

The converse of this is that it was very much in the interests of Scottish Enterprise  to avoid a situation where they appointed a developer and agreed proposals which the LLTNPA then knocked back.     It was in their interests therefore to involve the LLTNPA as far as possible and it appears they have done this very successfully.    The LLTNPA  should have never allowed itself to get into this position and its hands are now very dirty.

 

What is happening and what needs to happen

 

Based on experience of how they worked the camping byelaws,  there appears a high likelihood that the LLTNPA are now working behind the scenes to win over selective stakeholders  to what has already been agreed with Scottish Enterprise before any planning application is made.   There has for example been a follow up consultation on how to develop the “cycling hub” proposal.   The LLTNPA  will then  try and present Flamingo Land’s proposals as the only option and one that has sufficient enough support for politicians to be wary of intervening.

 

I don’t think this should be allowed to happen anywhere, let along in the National Park.   Rather:

 

  • The LLTNPA ‘s Board should initiate a transparent review of its staff’s involvement in the  process that led to the selection of Flamingo Land as preferred developer for the Riverside site and the implications for it as planning authority
  • In order to re-establish public confidence the LLTNPA should commission a proper independent consultation –  not the biased charrette which failed to put it and SE’s plans on the table – on the type and intensity of  developments that would be appropriate for the West Riverside Site given its in a National Park.   Until this happens any further work on developing Flamingo Land’s proposals should be suspended.

 

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board meeting in December failed to consider or scrutinise the proposed on-line booking system for permits (see here) so I  submitted a number of Information Requests.  This post will consider the information I have obtained on the proposed electronic booking system for campsites and permits, including the cost  (see here) and how the booking system is likely to operate as set out in the specification in the final section of the tender document.    The way the booking system will operate has significant implications for access rights.

 

First, the costs.  The response provides further evidence (see here for car park charging example) of the complete incompetence of the LLTNPA when it comes to procurement of infrastructure.  The Park thought it could buy an all-singing and all-dancing electronic booking system for one year for between £10-£20k.  Anyone with a bit of basic common sense should have been able to tell them that the requirement in the tender document that the “Supplier must be able to provide a technical support hotline between 9am and 5pm, five (5) days a week between January and October” in itself would have cost more than this.  Or was the Park expecting the technical support to be farmed out to somewhere in Asia where people get paid peanuts?    Couple this with designing/adapting software, meeting Park staff, training etc and its not surprising therefore the lowest tender return was £37k and the highest £72k, i.e way over the Park’s estimates.

 

This matters for two reasons.  First, its not just the booking system but also the cost of new campsites (£345k for Loch Chon), the cost of signage (£100k for an inadequate set of signs), staff time,  in fact the whole Your Park “project” that the LLTNPA has failed to cost properly.   Some of this is due to the incompetence of staff but some also is due to a failure of the LLTNPA Board, despite all their secret meetings, to think through the financial implications of the camping byelaws.  This failure is something the Park’s Auditors and Audit Scotland should be investigating.   The second reason this matters is that there has been no cost/benefit analysis of the proposed byelaws.    One of the main original justifications of the camping byelaws on east Loch Lomond was that if the Park could prevent problems happening it would reduce costs.   In fact Ranger Patrols increased on east Loch Lomond, because of the need to chase away all those pesky West Highland Way backpackers, and I believe the new permit system will increase those costs even further.    The time required to check permits and see if campers are in the right place (see below) will be significant.   As I have said before, more and more of the LLTNPA resources are being diverted into policing the unpoliceable without any consideration of the alternatives.

 

Civil liberty implications of the booking system

 

The tender document shows  the LLTNPA, in order to operate the byelaws, is going to be collecting and keeping a wide range of personal information on people.  This contrasts to the current position where, under access rights, people can go to the countryside and not tell anyone who they are and where they intend to go.  In effect the Park is proposing to remove  civil liberties and the right to freedom of movement and replace this by an extensive surveillance system.

 

The core data the Park will be collecting on people, which in parkspeak is called “Customer information”  – if you are being forced to apply for a permit to camp in what sense are you a “customer”? – will include the following (with the ability to add additional fields):

 

a. Contact name: first, last, title;
b. Phone numbers: mobile, home, business, other;
c. Email address;
d. Mailing address;
e. Billing address for card transactions;
f. Preferred method of contact;

 

What’s not clear yet is what will happen if people are unable to fill in these basic fields (e.g you are homeless or have no email) or don’t want to give this information to the LLTNPA.    This though is just the start:

 

6. The system must capture the following information for each booking;
a. Customer name;
b. Date of arrival and departure;
c. Method of arrival; (car, cycle, foot, boat, other)
d. Vehicle registration number if arriving by car;
e. Amount paid and payment method (e.g. cheque, credit/debit card or cash)
f. Number of adults and children in group and ideally age ranges
g. Description of tent; ( make, colour)
h. Acknowledgement of site rules;

 

So what business of the Park is it to know HOW people  intend to travel to the campsite or permit area?   Why do they need this information, is it because the next thing the LLTNPA want to do is control how people travel to campsites and permit areas? (There’s reason to believe so, see below)  What’s going to happen if someone changes their mind and decides to travel by car instead of bike – will they have to make a new booking?   What’s going to happen if there is a group, a couple of whom have cars and  haven’t decided or change their mind at the last minute of which car they want to use?   Why should people tell the Park the make and colour of their tents and what happens if people have not decided what tents to take?

 

Its easy to see why the Park want to collect this information, they think it will make it easier to enforce the byelaws (“ah, I can see an green vango on pitch x, that looks like the right person is staying there, no need to check the permit”).  Unfortunately for the LLTNPA, people do not behave in the predictable ways the Park wants.  One of the beauties of access rights is there is no-one watching you or there to object if you change your plans.

 

The tender suggests that the LLTNPA is intending to keep ALL the data required by the booking system, including  personal information:

 

At the end of the contract, Supplier must make all data available to Park Authority in a format agreed with the Park Authority. 

What is more it makes it clear that:

 

Customer information may be used for byelaw enforcement purposes so the system needs to incorporate an appropriate form of verification of customer information.

So, not only will people have to provide far more information than they would making an online booking to a normal campsite (who rarely ask for number plates let alone colour and make of tent) they will have to prove this information is correct.  How?  Will people have to scan in a form of i.d?

 

What the Park has also failed to explain  is how all this information on campers will be used for enforcement purposes.   To give an example, Park Rangers visit a permit area one morning to find a signficant mess, indeed criminal damage has been caused  – the other campers in the area say it was not them but two people in a green vango nemesis who got up and left early.   Is the Park then going to search the database for all people who have previously registered a green vango nemesis tent when booking a permit and use this to try and catch the people?   We simply don’t know.  The scope for the Park to mis-use this data seems enormous and they have given no indication of why they should be trusted with it.

 

The further erosion of access rights

 

The tender specification  has a section called “Campsite and permit area information” which interestingly at present contains NO provision to book campervans and which has further implications for access rights:


c. Maximum number of vehicles allowed;

 

Vehicles are not covered by our access legislation but by the road traffic acts.  Indeed roads, verges and laybys are specifically exempt from the camping byelaws so there is nothing to stop people leaving their vehicles on the “road” by a campsite or permit zone as long as this is not prohibited under other legislation (see here).    The Park though appear to be planning to refuse permits once the “maximum number of vehicles allowed” have been booked which is no doubt why they are wanting to know how people intend to arrive at a permit area   In my view, this would be unlawful because even if a permit area has no formal parking places or what off-road car parking places there are  are fully booked, the Park have no power to stop a person travelling to the permit area by a vehicle and leaving it on the verge of the road (unless a clearway order is in place) or an official layby.


e. Pets allowed or not;

 

Similarly, the LLTNPA only have the right to limit pets – though why would they want to do so? – on formal campsites, not in permit areas.   There is no provision to ban or control dogs or other domestic animals that would count as pets in the byelaws and under the Scottish Outdoor Access Rights “Access rights apply to people walking dogs as long as their dogs are kept under proper control”.  Anything in the booking system therefore that suggests that people are not allowed to bring pets to a permit area would be in contravention of access rights and  again opens the LLTNPA to legal challenge.


h. Arrival time and instructions;
i. Departure time and instructions;

j. Specific clean up requirements;

 

Currently under access rights if a person arrives at their intended camping location early, it does not matter and if its bucketing  with rain they just put up their tent and that’s that.  Now, if a person turns up early they potentially commit an offence.    It will be interesting to see if the LLTNPA try to add anything to “instructions” beyond that contained in the camping provisions of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  The field for “specific clean up requirements” suggests they intend try and do so.

 

What next?

 

I hope this analysis has shown that the implications of camping byelaws, as illustrated by outline of the camping booking system,  are far more complex than the LLTNPA has indicated to date and that they have failed to consider these implications properly.   Its not just the LLTNPA Board has failed to consider this properly, the Local Access Forum, a statutory consultee, has been given no opportunity to do so – amazingly, at their last meeting on 4th October, just weeks before the camping development strategy and permit system was to be considered by the Board, the Your Park section of their agenda consisted of a “verbal update”.     The LLTNPA has continued to disregard the role of the LAF as statutory consultee and I think its long past time that they were removed from the National Access Forum  and that the National Access Forum subjects the LLTNPA proposals to proper scrutiny and produces a report on their implications for access rights.   Much as I would like the Scottish Government to do the same, at present they seem blind to the implications for access rights though I have hopes that with public pressure,the Scottish Parliament will eventually wake up as to what is happening.

 

 

slide-phase-1
This slide from 13th/15th April shows that the LLLTNPA  had already taken a decision before the public board meeting on 27th April which was ostensibly held to decide on the byelaws.   How else could the Park have told the Community Councils prior to the Board Meeting which of their suggestions it had agreed?

Following the Scottish Information Commissioner’s decision (see here) that the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park should have to disclose the presentations given to the Board at its secret meetings to develop the camping byelaws and undermine access rights, the Commissioner’s staff said they would check that the Park had given me ALL the slides.   I thought this was being needlessly thorough but then low and behold late on Friday afternoon I received this email from the LLTNPA:

 

Dear Mr Kempe

I refer to my email of 8th November 2016. I inadvertently missed some slides, which are now attached. The additional slides are:

Slide Presentation 23 February 2015 – Slide 3

Slide Presentation 13 & 15 April 2015 – Slides 29, 31, 33 and 35

In my covering letter, I explained that a personal email address has been redacted from a slide, for the avoidance of doubt, this is slide 8 from Slide Presentation 23 February 2015.

Yours sincerely

 

Now, most normal organisations save their slide shows as one document, not as a series of separate slides and the the only explanation I can think of is that the member of staff involved was told to remove certain slides, which included the ones above, from the slideshow.   This is reinforced by fact they are all about the same thing, the manipulation of due process and public opinion.  All praise therefore to the Information Commissioner’s Office for the thoroughness of their staff in detecting this.  Every camper should be grateful to them for this.  Freedom of Information processes may be slow and bureaucratic but the Information Commissioner’s Office is one of the most important safeguards we have against arbitrary authority and abuse of power.

 

What do the missing slides tell us?

 

The slides provide proof us that the LLTNPA approved the camping byelaws BEFORE the Board Meeting on 27th April (no wonder the Your Park item was over in less than half an hour).  The Park is supposed to take decisions in public but the current Board makes decisions in private and contrary to proper governance.  Legally it may well have acted ultra vires.    No wonder the LLTNPA did not want this information to become public and thank goodness for the Scottish Information Commissioner who clearly stated the information should be made public because it was important our public authorities should be accountable for what they do.

 

slide-phase-2
The messaging “officers have made a recommendation to our Board” and this would be considered at the Board Meeting on 27th April was a complete lie because, as other slides show, the Board had already taken a decision
slide-phase-3
Again the messaging is a lie. The decision was taken beforehand and that’s the only reason the message could also be decided beforehand. Note also the “informal briefing” before the full Board Session. We know, thanks to the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life investigation that the Board practised what declarations of interest to make beforehand and no doubt rehearsed who would say what that afternoon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

slide-23rd-february
The significance of this slide from 23rd February is the word “discussion”. This shows that this session was not simply a briefing of what staff were proposing but included a discussion of how the Board would respond. In other words it was a decision making meeting.

 

 

While the slides are now public, questions remain about what other information is being kept secret

 

In response to the Information Commissioner’s decision the LLTNPA has now made all the information I requested available on the FOI section of its website http://www.lochlomond-trossachs.org/park-authority/freedom-of-information/.    I believe the LLTNPA has tried to cut its losses rather than the information being released slide by slide.  Why do I think this?  Well all the missing slides are on the website so obviously this was put up after the Scottish Information Commissioner had been in contact and after I started blogging about this.   I hope people will look at the slides and start raising asking their political representatives if our National Parks should be allowed to take decisions in this way.  I will continue commenting on what the slides tell us about the corruption at the heart of the National Park over the next few weeks and following the slides up with further FOI requests.

 

The biggest single secrecy issue is that I  do not believe the LTNPA has declared all the information it has.  While it provided the slides from the secret meetings that took place from 15/9/14 until 21/9/15 there are no slides or apparently any other written information from the earlier meetings that took place on 9/9/13,  28/10/13, 9/12/13, 17/3/14 and 16/6/14.   The LLTNPA has clearly claimed to the Scottish Information Commission that there is NO written information for any of these meetings.   The Information Commissioner can only force public authorities to disclose information which they admit to existing.  I am afraid I don’t believe that briefing meetings, some of which devoted over an hour to briefing Board Members on camping issues, were conducted with no written information other than agendas (see here).   Perhaps the LLTNPA has destroyed the information but the lack of it is I believe a further strong indication that there has been a conspiracy to undermine access rights.

 

What needs to happen

  • Scottish Ministers should suspend the proposed camping byelaws because of the LLTNPA’s failure to follow due process and because it has taken decisions ultra vires
  • Scottish Ministers need to require all Board Meetings of our National Parks to be held in public, papers to be published at least a week beforehand, all sessions to be recorded and broadcast like the Scottish Parliament (a podcast recording would cost almost nothing) and then properly minuted.

loch-chon-original-camping-proposalA few hours after yesterday’s post on the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Decision (see here) and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s failure to provide me with the slides presented at the secret Your Park Briefing Sessions,   I received them by email (see here for accompanying letter).   This is not a coincidence as the Park have monitored everything I do and say for quite some time.   The power of social media!     I don’t believe though that the Park have sent the slides because they are concerned about what the public think about them taking over 4 weeks to send a set of slides as ordered by the Scottish Information Commissioner, its that they are worried their minders at the Scottish Government might ask them questions.   If asked, the Park will simply shrug off the delay as a minor oversight on their part rather than part of a systematic attempt to deprive the public of information.

 

A quick look at the content of the slides though has shown me why the Park did not want them in the public realm.   They provide further proof that the Park’s proposed camping ban is not based on any rational evidence, of its complete inability to deliver basic facilities like camping places and of the way it has systematically tried to manipulate public opinion (and the withholding of information is part of that).

 

The slide above on the plans for Loch Chon, which have been covered extensively on Parkswatch, (see here) and (here) provides a good example.  This slide was presented to Board Members at secret briefings on 13th and 15th April 2015 two weeks before the Board formally approved the “Your Park” recommendations at the Board Meeting on 27th April.  The discussion at the open Board Meeting which is where the Park is supposed to take decisions was over in half an hour – I know because I timed it.  I realised then that the Board had already made their decision on the byelaws in secret beforehand and this slide is just one example of how thoroughly Board Members had discussed the Your Park proposals before they went public.   The Board had nothing to discuss on 27th April because the decision had already been made in private at Briefings such as this.   This is a fundamental failure in democracy and accountability.

 

The numbers on the slide tell a tell.  Regular readers will recall that the planning application the Park submitted to itself to build a campsite at Loch Chon earlier this year was originally for 33 places but, after community protests, was reduced to 26 places with Gordon Watson, the Park Chief Executive, claiming this number of places was necessary to make the campsite financially viability.

loch-chon-october-2016

 

So, the Park has cut the numbers of people it was prepared to allow to camp at Loch Chon from 50 in April 2015 to 26 now.  Ignore the fact that there is not even the demand for 26 places at Loch Chon (see here) and think about what this shows about the Park’s claims that the National Park can only sustain 300 more camping places above those provided in formal campsites.   The National Park claims there are too many campers, but one moment is prepared to accept 50 at Loch Chon, the next 26.   The Park also claims it needs to reduce campers  to sustainable levels and has fixed on 300 as the total number of places it would allow, in addition to pre-existing campsites, across the four management zones.   This raises questions not just about how the Park decided one moment that the natural environment around Loch Chon could  sustain 50 places and the the next 26, but also why the areas the 24 “surplus” places were transferred to could suddenly sustain this extra number of places.   The truth, as this slide demonstrates (and you might also wish to note that the permit area at Loch Ard has changed from 5-6 places) is that the number of places is based on prejudice, the NIMBY interests who dislike people camping on popular lochs, and political expediency (so when the Strathard Community Council objected the Park simply transferred the places to the Forestry Commission land at Forest Drive because they knew FCS could not object publicly).

 

The even more worrying thing shown by the slide is the extent to which the National Park is exercising its powers arbitrarily.   For everyone who cares about access rights the choice is whether to oppose the byelaws or subject yourself to the arbitrary authority of the Park.    No-one should trust the current propaganda from the Park on its camping plans that numbers are not fixed because they want to be flexible.   This is code for saying if we get a complaint from a NIMBY, we will simply change the area where people are allowed to camp.  The recreational movement needs to re-assert that access rights and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code are the only appropriate way to manage informal camping in the National Park.

On 6th October the Information Commissioner for Scotland ordered the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority in Decision 209/2016 (see here) to provide me with written information from ten Board Briefing Sessions that had developed the camping byelaws which it wanted to keep secret. It was only when I received a letter from the Commissioner informing me of the decision that I learned that the written information consisted of a number of powerpoint slides presented to the Park Board.  While my appeal was classified as being “partially upheld” this is because the Commissioner decided the LLTNPA was entitled to withhold just one slide out of the 119 presented to the secret Board meetings.   Basically the Commissioner agreed with me that the LLTNPA should not have withheld the information – a small victory.          This follows two other cases where the Commissioner did not reach a formal decision against the LLTNPA because they at the last minute decided to provide me with the information.  That information included extracts from the minutes of the Strategy Group meetings which discussed the byelaws foi-2015-021-response-appendix-a-strategy-group-notes

 

I have still not seen the slides, which I will publish on parkswatchscotland, because the law gives public authorities six weeks to provide information once they have been ordered to do so by the Commissioner.   Its now well over 4 weeks since the LLTNPA received the Commissioner’s decision and the fact that I have still not received the 118 slides in my view says a great deal about the way the LLTNPA operates.  But then the Commissioner’s report makes clear (paras 14-20) that while the LLTNPA claimed during the investigation that 77 slides were already in the public domain, when asked to send them to me the LLTNPA declined to do so on two occasions.

 

While regular readers will know what I think about the governance of the LLTNPA, I am pleased to say that the Information Commissioner has now joined the Standards Commission (see here) in having critical things to say about the way this National Park operates:

 

“the investigating officer was unable to locate the withheld information which LLTNPA was now claiming to be publicly available”.

“46. The Commissioner is somewhat confused by LLTNPA’s submissions. On the one hand, it considers the information in the 52 slides is now in the public domain. On the other, it has been unable to confirm that the information in the public domain is identical, or even substantially similar, to that recorded on the slides.”

“50. In any event, LLTNPA has been asked to identify where in the publicly available information the information in the 52 slides is to be found. It has been unable to do so with any remotely appropriate degree of specification. The Commissioner can only therefore conclude that the information in the slides is not publicly available, never mind easily accessible to Mr Kempe: some of it may be, but the onus must be on the publicly authority to satisfy the Commissioner that this is the case. It has failed to do so.”

“117. The Commissioner is concerned that, in this case, LLTNPA has been unwilling to disclose to Mr Kempe the information which, during the investigation, it had identified as suitable for disclosure, and similarly unwilling to provide him with details describing where he could access other information which it claimed was now publicly available. This was not good practice.”

 

The public interest and the development of the byelaws

In my view the most important part of the Commissioner’s decision is where she says the information the Park withheld should have been subject to public scrutiny and that the LLTNPA needs to be accountable and transparent:

 

93. The Commissioner considers there is a strong public interest in allowing public scrutiny of the information withheld under this exception. In her view, this would add to the public’s understanding of how the proposals for the camping development plan and byelaws were progressed, particularly in light of their impact on the environment and the community. There is a public interest in ensuring that LLTNPA is accountable and transparent, and in understanding what matters were presented to Board members at Board Briefing Sessions, in this process.

 

This puts in a nutshell everything that has been wrong with the development of the camping byelaws – Scottish Ministers and politicians take note!   Unfortunately, its outwith the powers of the Information Commissioner to require public authorities to operate in an open and transparent way unless one is prepared to go through very lengthy processes.   While my appeal to the Commissioner was lodged in April 2016 (and might have taken less than 6 months to decide if the Park had been more co-operative) the original response to my FOI request was received in May 2015.  It took me almost a year before I was able to lodge a valid appeal with the Commissioner.

 

Part of the problem is asking the right questions.  I asked for the dates of all the meetings involving Board Members which considered the Your Park proposals and received this extensive list foi-2015-021-response-appendix-a-meetings-that-discussed-ban in response in May 2015.  It did NOT contain the first two Board Meetings which discussed the byelaws but I only found this out later – the Park would no doubt justify omitting these two meetings because they were held before the “Your Park” concept was created and I had asked about “Your Park” meetings.    The letter foi-2015-021-response-project-board accompanying the list of  meetings stated there were NO “meeting notes” or “papers” relating to the Board Briefing sessions  but, in their usual helpful way, the Park avoided letting me know there might be other written information which did not fit these categories.  It was only when I explicitly asked for copies of any presentations given at the Board Briefing Sessions that the Park admitted in January 2016 foi-2015-058-response, that “Presentations and briefing documents were produced for some of the Board Briefing sessions that considered the Your Park proposals”.  Their refusal to  provide this information led to my successful appeal to the Commissioner.

 

What all this shows is that although the LLTNPA may abide by the letter of the FOI/EIR legislation, they don’t abide by its spirit and their Board and senior management are doing everything they can to obstruct people who are questioning how they operate.

 

What should happen now

 

While one might hope that after this decision the LLTNPA would review its practice and start to operate more openly, I am afraid all the signs are the opposite will happen.  The Information Commissioner noted “the LLTNPA’s arguments that making the information available would likely lead to fewer updates being provided to Board members, resulting in their involvement in matters, such as the formulation of policies, becoming inhibited.”  In effect the LLTNPA were saying to the Information Commissioner that if you make us disclose information from secret meetings, we will stop circulating ANY information at those meetings.  In other words, the Park will deliberately avoid committing anything to paper that might result in them subject to public scrutiny or held accountable for their actions.

 

The LLTNPA are not the only public authority who are doing this in Scotland and this way of operating threatens to drive a coach and horses through our Freedom of Information legislation.   It will also result in Board Members and senior staff becoming less and less accountable.

 

The Scottish Government has the power under the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 to issue Directions and Guidance to our National Parks:

16 Directions and guidance

(1)The Scottish Ministers may give a National Park authority directions of a general or specific character as to the exercise of the authority’s functions; and the authority must comply with those directions.

It should now use this power to issue directions on transparency and accountability.

The Owen McKee case (see here),  which I last considered a couple of months ago (see here), is on the agenda for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Board Meeting on Monday.   Owen McKee was the former convener of the LLTNPA planning committee who, after approving the Cononish goldmine, started trading in the shares of the company that owned the mine, Scotgold Resources Ltd.  When the Board found out they conducted a secret investigation and covered up what had happened.   This came to light six months later through my FOI requests about discrepancies in the LLTNPA Board minutes.  After I referred Owen McKee to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in public life he resigned last year.   A Hearing of the Standards Commission in April found Owen McKee had breached the Code of Conduct and would have suspended him had he not resigned.
The reason the Owen McKee case on the agenda is not because the LLTNPA Board has suddenly  started to act transparently but because the Standards Commission has forced them to do so agenda-item-6-appendix-1-standards-commission-hearing-decision.    In this letter dated 15th April the Standards Commission Chief Executive informed the Park the law required them to consider the content of the decision within three months (in public).   There is nothing in the Board paper agenda-item-6-standards-commission paper to indicate that the Park asked  for an extension and it could and should have been considered at the June Board Meeting.  Another basic failure in governance which the Park’s new auditors should take a look at.
The Board paper itself says very little.  It ask Board Members to approve a) that their attendance at a further training workshop on the registration and declaration of interests in December 2015 was an appropriate response to what happened and b)  that they should continue to update their own register of interests and declare interests at meetings.  Why Board Members should have found the declaration of interests so difficult that they needed to attend extra training, I am not sure, particularly when they rehearsed what declarations they would make at the secret Board Briefing session which took place before the meeting that approved the camping byelaws (see here):
Declarations of Interest & Decision Making 09:50-09:55
I will now hand over to Sandra to brief you on how Declarations of Interest and Decision
Making will be handled at the Special Board Meeting today.
 
Rehearse declarations.
As we are discussing Live Park any Members with property interests (including residential
property) in the Park, should declare a potential interest in this matter.
 Linda “I declare a potential interest in both the Your Park and Live Park
items. I own a residential house [and an area of adjoining land] within the
Park. In relation to Your Park, this may be relevant because the house is
within the boundary of the proposed Trossachs North management zone”.
 David McCowan – potential interest in business, landowner on boundary of Park
 Owen McKee – village shop, residential shop selling fishing permits, half acre land
and vice Chair of Management Committee of Rural Stirling Housing Association.
 Martin Earl – residential house
 David McKenzie – residential house in Blairmore
 David Warnock – residential house in Callanderand why they need to approve what they are legally bound to do anyway is beyond belief.
 
The ironic thing about this was, having written down exactly what she would say, Linda McKay forgot to actually say it at the meeting which led to another investigation by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards.    Just why the LLTNPA on Monday also need to approve that they should keep their register of interests up to date and declare interests at meetings, when they are legally bound to do anyway, is beyond belief.
 
When I discovered the LLTNPA Board had covered up the Owen McKee case I referred all the Board Members at the time to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards for acting contrary to the principles of transparency, honesty and integrity which are supposed to govern public life.  The Commissioner for Ethical Standards however said that since there was NO specific clause in the Code of Conduct requiring Board Members to report colleagues who had breached the Code he could take no action.    I found this bizarre but accept that what the Commissioner can and can’t do at present  is closely regulated.
 

What the LLTNPA should do following the Owen McKee Case

LLTNPA Board Members though do have a chance to redeem themselves on Monday.  The Paper asks them for any other actions or decisions as a result of the decision by the Standards Commission.   I think they should welcome what the Standards Commission panel chair, Kevin Dunion,  said after the Hearing:
 
The failure to declare such interests removes the opportunity for openness and transparency in a Board Member’s role and denies any member of the public the opportunity to consider whether a Board Member’s interests may or may not influence the decision making process”
and admit they were wrong not to refer Owen McKee to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards.
 
They could consider:
 
  • whether it was right for Board Members to sign off the investigation into Owen McKee by the chair of Audit, Lindsay Morrison, without reading his report
  • whether Owen McKee’s backing for the Cononish goldmine planning application prior to buying the shares was motivated by a wish to benefit from this personally and what influence Owen McKee had, as planning chair, on the decision-making process
  • why Owen McKee continued to purchase shares in Scotgold Ltd (as documents in Lindsay Morrison’s report) when the share price was falling
  • what procedures need to be put in place to ensure cases like this are referred to their auditors timeously (Audit Scotland only found out when the story appeared in the Sunday Herald)
  • the role of their Audit Committee in such cases.  The Audit Committee never considered the case despite referring to “the Authority’s values of transparency” and claiming that “The Committee has received full reports on issues raised; considered recommendations
    made; and approved responses and actions” in their annual report to the Board which also appears in Monday’s meeting papers.
  • the role of their Convener, Linda McKay, in the whole debacle and whether they should not have challenged her further on the need to  refer Owen McKee to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards (as suggested by one Board Member).

Whether the Board will consider all of this is another matter.

If you have been onto the LLTNPA website recently you will notice it has been totally revamped.  While its a lot faster than it was, the information available on it has been greatly reduced.   I did not appreciate to what extent until last night.   While working on my piece on the Glen Falloch hydro schemes, I went to check the papers for the planning committee in 2009 which approved the proposals and found they have all gone.

 

In fact the LLTNPA appears to used the website re-vamp as an opportunity to wipe history – something that normally only dictatorships attempt to do.  Here are a few examples:

 

1) All Board Meeting papers pre-2014 have been removed completely and replaced by this message:

If you’d like information on meetings which have taken place before 2014, please contact us: email: infomailbox@lochlomond-trossachs.org or tel: 01389 722 600.

2) All links with the Your Park consultation about the camping byelaws have been removed although the your park website still exists at http://www.thisisyourpark.org.uk/ – for how long one wonders? – and there is still an active “Your Park” facebook page.

3) There is now a page headed “Freedom of Information responses”, which is welcome, but there are just two responses which have been published one on black grouse and one on dark skies.  None of the Freedom of Information requests submitted by myself and others which uncovered the Park’s manipulation of police data in the Your Park consultation or the Owen McKee cover-up have been published.   The rationale for this is given on the webpage:

“Information related to very specific, individually focused issues may not be suitable for wider publication, as without understanding the context of the information, it wouldn’t necessarily be useful to anyone other than the original requester”

4) Search for the Five Lochs Visitor Management Plan – which contained excellent plans for campsites which the Park has since abandoned – and you get “page not found”.

 

Take all this together and its quite clear that the LLTNPA is deliberately trying to avoid publishing information which would help hold it to account.   The replacement of information about Board Meetings pre-2014 by a facility to request these is a huge step away from transparency because without having a good idea of what might have been discussed or decided  its impossible for any member of the public or researcher to know what to ask for.  It also makes it much harder to question the Park because instead of being able to access the information immediately you are likely to have to wait 3 weeks to obtain it under FOI.    So, on Glen Falloch, while I know the hydro schemes were discussed by the Planning Committee in 2009, its very difficult to find out whether the significant changes that have been made to those schemes were agreed by the Board or not.  There are lots of other examples where knowing the history of decisions (or lack of them as the Park decides so much in secret outwith Board Meetings) is absolutely in the public interest:  the  collapse of the camping proposals in the 5 Lochs Management Plan; the Owen McKee case; the increasing commercialisation of the National Park.

 

The only historic information that is still available relate to planning applications and associated papers (although these do not include Planning Committee Reports which contain information on all the important decisions).   This is because  information on planning applications is published on a national planning data base – as part of a drive to greater transparency – and is outwith LLTNPA control.   It demonstrates just how out of step the LLTNPA is when it comes to transparency and provides more evidence that it has a lot to hide.

 

Luckily, I think this attempt to wipe history can be reversed.  Every public authority in Scotland is required to adopt a publication scheme by the Information Commissioner (the LLTNPA’s publication scheme incidentally is not on its new website).   The Commissioner requires each public authority to publish certain classes of information and this includes a category of “How we take decisions and what we have decided” which is described as “Information about the decisions we take, how we make decisions and how we involve others”.   There is no time-limit put on this and, given that many of the current issues in the National Park go back many years, it seems to me that the LLTNPA should be publishing this information on its website and are falling foul of this requirement from the Information Commissioner.

Something therefore that I and other activists will take up with the Information Commissioner.   Something too that the Scottish Government should be telling the LLTNPA it needs to get sorted and quick.

 

 

 

A fair amount of information has come to light in the last three weeks about the LLTNPA’s camping plans which raises serious further concerns about both the adequacy of those plans and the whole camping byelaw proposal.

 

Camping in Strathard

 

It says a lot about the LLTNPA that they have kept their camping development plan secret, refusing on a number of occasions to divulge it under FOI legislation on the grounds that it is not yet finalised or else that this would prejudice negotiations with landowners.   However, after local residents in Strathard  demanded more information from the LLTNPA about their plans at a public meeting on the Loch Chon planning application (see here), they have been forced to provide some basic information. Strathard Community Council should be congratulated for publishing all the information they have been able to obtain on their website http://strathard.org.uk/national_park_camping_proposals.htm

 

The information includes the written response loch_chon_gw_13_july they received from Gordon Watson, the LLTNPA Chief Executive, following the public meeting.   For the first time this makes public how the LLTPNA intends to apportion the 300 places it has committed to providing across the four “management zones” where camping is banned.  It also shows I was not entirely correct to suggest (see here) that another campsite was being planned at Loch Ard on land owned by local Board Member Fergus Wood – instead an area has been identified where camping will be allowed under permit.   Almost every point made by Gordon Watson raises serious concerns and illustrates the fundamental incoherence of both the proposed bye laws and the Park’s camping plans:

 

  • South Loch Ard Permit Area (point 1).  Mr Watson provides a map of the proposed area southlochard.    Its on the very edge of the proposed management zone.   Now I guess some fishermen may be prepared to pay for a permit to be able to camp nearer to where they want to fish but for anyone else, they are likely to simple move over the line to where they can camp for free.   A campsite at Loch Ard with basic facilities would help reduce impacts, e.g through provision of a toilet, and could be attractive to visitors but having to pay a fee to camp in a place the Park is saying people will need to walk to when they can walk ten steps further and camp for free is unlikely to be attractive anyone.  Who thought this up or is it simply so the LLTNPA can claim to have “provided” 300 camping places?
  • Extent of provision (point 3).  Mr Watson states that within the proposed West Trossachs zone, which extends from Loch Ard to Loch Arklet along the road to Inversnaid,  “there is no other plans for camping provision apart from the campsite at Loch Chon and permits in an area by Loch Ard”.   What this means is:
    • No-one will be able to camp along the north shore of Loch Arklet, where the bye-laws were extended after consultation.   It doesn’t matter if you are fishing or using the underused path along the north shore for cycling or camping, you won’t be able to camp.
    • The LLTNPA’s oft repeated claims that the camping bye laws were needed because of the sheer number of campers are complete bunkum.   This is not about a reduction in numbers, it’s a complete ban – there is no evidence that the north shore of Loch Arklet is a particularly sensitive site and the  evidence of the Park’s own ranger patrol records is that very little camping ever took place along this shore anyway.    There is no justification for this, legal or otherwise and its a complete abuse of power.   In how many other places is the Park intending to ban camping completely without any justification?  No wonder the Park is refusing to reveal its plans.
    • Since all the “pitches” in the proposed campsite at Loch Chon are located away from the loch shore and GW has confirmed there will be no permits, no-one will be able to fish from their tents in future around Loch Chon.   A large number of campers by the lochsides are fishermen, most are responsible and all require permits to fish (which is outside access rights), but the pleasure of being able to sit by your rod and tent will no longer be possible in this area of the National Park except for the small permit zone at Loch Ard.   Is the intention of the LLTNPA to replicate this across all the management zones and destroy the tradition of folk being able to fish by their tents?
  • Size of proposed Loch Chon campsite (point 5). Mr Watson’s claim that a large campsite at Loch Chon is required because only a large campsite would be financially viable is risible.   The Park’s own data shows that the numbers of campers at Loch Chon rarely exceeds 10 so if large campsites are needed then this is NOT the place to do it!   If this is true, why then did the Park claim as recently as 25th May not to have taken a decision about the north Loch Venachar campsite  and other proposed campsites in the 5 Loch Visitor Management Plan all of which were much smaller?     Mr Watson’s comparison with the Sallochy which is a thirty place campsite is equally ludicrous.  Sallochy is on the West Highland Way on the east shore of Loch Lomond and demand there far exceeds supply.  What I find most worrying though are his statement that “I am prepared to consider modest reductions (in the size of the site)” and “I would be prepared to reduce the number by 5 to 28”.  Since when were decisions about the number of camping places delegated to Mr Watson to decide personally?
  • On-site supervision (point 6).  Local residents in objecting to the planning application rightly objected to the creation of a large campsite without a warden.  Mr Watson’s suggestion that this might be paid for out of campsite fees appears pie in the sky.   What is likely to happen at Loch Chon, should a large campsite go ahead, is that it will be empty most of the time – a waste of resource but this also means there will be very little income.  However, as one of the few places close to a loch within the National Park where people would still be allowed to camp in numbers, its quite predictable that on occasion large groups will decide to turn up and probably party.  I see little chance of the Park being able to arrange a warden when one might be needed.   This is the wrong place for a large campsite. There are other places in the National Park, at Balmaha on east Loch Lomond for example, where there is high unmet demand and a campsite could  easily support a warden but the Park has so far refused to progress sites in such areas.
  • Alcohol byelaws (point 7).   Mr Watson repeats yet again that alcohol byelaws are nothing to do with the National Park – when of course on east Loch Lomond they were brought in as part of a package of measures including the camping ban there and the 5 Lochs Visitor Management Group regularly discussed alcohol byelaws, in fact these were part of the 5 Lochs Plan.  What has happened to the vision of the National Park co-ordinating and joining up activity between all public authorities?   Is that not what the LLTNPA’s partnership plan was for?  Mr Watson appears to have taken another unilateral decision to abandon all of that.

 

The Your Park Camping Proposals and the Park’s Development Plan

 

Parkswatchscotland has previously covered the inconsistent and contradictory terminology which the LLTNPA has applied to camping provision in its Your Park Plan and Camping Development Plan (see here).   I am delighted that the Reporter appointed to scrutinise the draft Development Plan asked the LLTNPA to explain this.  The LLTNPA has now provided their response Information Request 02 Issue 22 Visitor Experience V1_0

 

The LLTNPA are claiming that because camping definitions appeared in guidance that is intended to accompany the Development Plan, but not the plan itself, this is not a matter for the Reporter and is something the Park will address at a later date.   The Park has already had over a year to resolve the inconsistencies between its two plans, done nothing and now apparently believes it is acceptable for it to sort out these fundamental issues at some unspecified time in the future.   However, the LLTNPA in its  Loch Chon planning application has used the terminology from the Development Plan Guidance to describe its camping proposals so this issue is current – its not one that can wait.  How can planning committee members can be expected to take a decision on the Loch Chon campsite when their basic policy position on camping development is so unclear?

 

While technically the LLTNPA may or may not be correct that accompanying Guidance is separate to the actual Development Plan and therefore outwith the remit of the Reporter, this begs the question about whether the definitions should not be part of the Development Plan itself – I suggest they should be as the Park needs to be clear about what levels of camping provision DO require planning permission (eg would a campsite where the only facility was a tap and composting toilet require planning permission?).   I hope therefore the Reporter insists this is considered at the Public Hearing on the Development Plan.

 

What’s happened to the proposals in the 5 Lochs Management Plan?

 

The Park has continued to deny that it has made any definitive decisions about the campsites that were proposed and not delivered in the 5 Lochs Management Plan.  Two weeks ago I received EIR 2016-024 Response to my request for copies of minutes of the the 5 Lochs Visitor Management stakeholder group which had taken place since December 2014. The stakeholder group consists of Board Members, community councils and public sector partners such as Stirling Council and the Sports Council. The response states that two meetings have taken place, the last in November 2015.   So the external stakeholders in the 5 Lochs VMP have been given no opportunity to participate in the development of the Park’s camping development plan since the Minister approved the byelaws, despite the 5 Lochs VMP have developed a coherent set of proposals for a large part of the Trossachs area.

 

The LLTNPA  has refused to provide the minutes of the November meeting on the grounds they have not yet been finalised so its impossible to tell if the group were consulted then about the camping development plan.   Anywhere else failure to finalise minutes 9 months later would be consider a fundamental failure in governance.  In the LLTNPA it is one of the methods used to avoid having to make information public.

 

The Minutes of the April 2015 meeting Finalised Minutes contain some other interesting information:

  • Bridget Jones, the member of staff who chaired the meeting,  informed those present about the proposed new camping management zones which would cover more than the original 5 Lochs area.  The St Fillans Community Council rep Nice Muir asked what the  implications of this for the 5 Lochs Visitor Management Plan – an excellent question.  The minutes record (4.1 (g)) he was told that there were two scenarios but its NOT recorded what these were.   Reason for another FOI request!
  • Graham Archibald, another member of staff, reported on what is described as the Phase 2 Loch Venachar developments – which were part of the 5 Lochs VMP – and involved improvements to two laybys on the Invertrossachs Rd. Work had started in January.  What is not recorded in the minute is whether he explained that the original plans had been changed and the reasons for this.   At the Loch Venachar Quay site the changes included installation of a gate (a member of the group asked if it would be locked), planting of prickly shrubs along the fence with the neighbouring property where grass had originally been planned  and planting of trees all over the old quay which had been gifted to the people of Callender for their enjoyment.  The neighbouring property, Loch Venachar House, happens to be the home of the Park’s convener Linda McKay.
  • Sue Morris, the Trossachs Community Council, had to ask about what was happening at the North Loch Venachar site where an eight place campsite had been planned.  She was told budget had not been available to proceed with this work – nothing about small sites such as this being financially unviable as Gordon Watson is now claiming – but there might be money available in the next year.  As parkswatch has previously reported the North Loch Venachar plan has indeed gone ahead but without the campsite.http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/05/27/disappearing-campsites-loch-lomond-trossachs-national-park-development-plan/

In April the Standards Commission decided that  Owen McKee, the former  convener of Planning for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park who had been trading in the shares of the Cononish goldmine, had breached the Code of Conduct for Standards in Public Life.  They would have suspended him  if he had not resigned http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/04/20/owen-mckee-hearing-standards-commission-2/    Clearly what Owen McKee had done was wrong.  However, what I believe was more serious was that the LLTNPA had tried to cover this up and then failed to report this to Audit Scotland http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/04/22/owen-mckee-case-lltnpa-audit-scotland-3/

 

I was slightly surprised therefore that the Government has now revealed that it was informed about Owen McKee’s share-trading, at the time,  in December 2014  Scottish Government EIR Response 4 May Cononish goldmine  through a telephone call from the LLTNPA Convener, Linda McKay, to the lead civil servant for the Park, Keith Connal.  What we still don’t know – and I suspect never will as there appears to be no written record of the conversation – is actually what was discussed or decided in the conversation or if Scottish Ministers were informed.

 

However, what the information does tell us is that a) the Government received a copy of the Investigation Report and b) knew that the full report had not been seen by Board Members .  This suggests that civil servants in the Scottish Government – and I would be very happy to offer them space on parkswatchscotland to refute this –  were, at the very least, content that the matter should be taken no further:   no need for anyone to report Owen McKee to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards; no need for anyone to report the matter to Audit Scotland.   The implications are that officials in the Scottish Government believe it is acceptable for breaches of the Code of Conduct not to be reported to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards and also that is acceptable for Audit Scotland to produce their Annual Reports on non-departmental public bodies, which include a section on sound governance, without being in possession of the relevant facts.   I believe this is serious.

 

What is more, the original response to my information requests to the LLTNPA (http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/04/05/owen-mckee-hearing-standards-commission/)  showed that one Board Member, David McKenzie, to his credit, had raised the need to call in the Standards Commission.  Linda McKay had replied on 18th December 2014  “I have been considering at what point to draw in the Standards Commission” but there was no further information supplied about why this was never progressed.   It now appears possible, depending on the date of the telephone call, that  it could have been the telephone conversation between Linda McKay and Keith Connal at the Scottish Government where it was decided  not to refer the matter to the Standards Commission and even perhaps not to make the report public and keep the involvement of other Board Members to a minimum.   In other words that there was a telephone discussion raises questions of how far Scottish Government involvement in the Owen McKee cover-up might have been pro-active, not just complicit.

 

There are still no definite answers to the question as to why would the civil servants and the LLTNPA Board wanted to cover up Owen McKee’s share-trading?    There was little to no risk, as the Park Investigation Report concluded, of Owen McKee’s share-trading undermining the original planning approval for the Cononish goldmine, so why not let the matter become public?    A more likely answer is the Park were worried that any publicity about Owen McKee’s resignation as convener of planning might be difficult to manage and could influence people’s response to the Your Park consultation on the camping bye-laws and these worries were shared by the civil servants, if not the Scottish Government.   In other words nothing was to be allowed to get in the way of the approval of the camping bye-laws.

 

Whatever the reasons for the cover-up, I believe the handling of the Owen McKee case has implications for the civil service and all non-departmental public bodies which needs to be considered by the new Scottish Parliament.  Specifically there needs to be a public duty on all Board Members AND civil servants to report breaches of the Code of Conduct to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards.    If a Board Member knows someone on the same Board has breached the Code of Practice – and the LLTNPA did know this, they accepted Owen McKee’s resignation – there should be a duty to report this.  Similarly, if a senior official within a NDPB or the civil service becomes aware, they should also have to report this.  Otherwise we are keeping the doors to corruption wide open.

 

In the Government Press release announcing the camping byelaws Dr McLeod made a powerful claim to justify her decision:

 

“The evidence that I have seen of damage caused, particularly in some of the most environmentally fragile spots in the National Park, tells a compelling tale of the need for action. Abandoned campsites, discarded litter, destruction of plants and trees and the cumulative environmental damage caused by irresponsible campfires is not something that we can allow to happen.”

As a result of this statement, I asked both the Scottish Government and LLTNPA about what visits Dr McLeod had made to the Park, whether the Park had submitted any other “evidence” to the Government apart from the papers which had been considered at the Board meeting which approved the byelaws and what other evidence had been obtained by the Government (e.g advice from Scottish Natural Heritage) .   The Government’s response Scottish Government EIR Response 12 April 2016 (11 February 2016) is revealing:

  • Annex A states the Dr McLeod made just one visit to the Park to look at the countryside, in July 2015, when she visited three places.  The first, Loch Lubnaig North,  where I know from personal observation that the local landowners who run the campsite and cafe do a fantastic job picking up litter dropped by day visitors and keep the place spotless, so no evidence there then of problems.  The second, the Mhor 84 hotel in Balquidder, where she is extremely unlikely to have seen evidence of camping impacts.  The third, the Loch Earn Horseshoe layby,  where there had been a history of encampments, was the one place where she might have seen problems.   If there were problems at the time of her visit I wonder if she was told how these  could be dealt with under existing legislation and about the Park’s failure to work with others to enforce existing legislation?   This official response from the Government however is contradicted by the Ministerial Letter to Linda McKay – Byelaw decision  in which Dr McLeod claims to have “visited the Park on a number of occasions over the summer months to see for myself the range of issues being faced”.  Both statements from Dr McLeod cannot be true, she can’t have visited the Park once and also on a “number of occasions” and I have written again to the Scottish Government asking them to clarify the information they have provided.        
  • Annex B includes the following statement:
    “The Scottish Government does not have any further information that would count as evidence as damage provided by Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park to the Minister.  Following submission of agreed and finalised proposals from the Park Authority, the Scottish Government did not request advice on the question of damage or impacts from other public authorities. Additionally, although individuals and organisations expressed a wide range of views and opinions on the Park’s proposals, we do not hold any further information that we consider would count as evidence of damage or impacts provided by people resident in the Park or by other individuals or organisations.”

So, what this means is that Dr McLeod decided that she could not, to use her word, “allow” camping and fires to continue under access rights because of the folder of photos and the papers sent to her by the LLTNPA Board.   Among other things, the Minister never thought to check whether:

  • the folder of photos was representative – it was in fact a completely dodgy dossier, as I pointed out to Dr McLeod in my Open letter to Minister – and how the locations where the photos were taken  fitted with the proposed  camping management zones
  • the ranger patrol data held by the Park, but not submitted to Ministers, supported the claims that the sheer number of campers was an issue across the four management zones.   It doesn’t, there are many places in the zones where camper numbers are never high, as for example demonstrated in my West Loch Lomond Ranger Data analysis.  Where numbers can be high, this is almost without exception on just one or two weekends of the year
  • Police Scotland could attribute crimes reported in Operation Ironworks to campers rather than locals or other visitors (the Park submitted to the Minister a long list of crimes most of which had no obvious link to camping at all)
  • SNH, the Government’s statutory adviser on nature conservation, or SEPA, which has responsibility for water quality, agreed with her assessment that allowing camping to continue would “risk these special places being lost to future generations”

The Government’s EIR response provides further evidence that Aileen McLeod’s approval of the camping byelaws was not evidence based and confirms she did not make  basic checks with other public authorities before making her decision.   This is inexcusable: Aileen McLeod had received representations from both individuals and  recreationaI organisations about aspects of the “evidence” assembled by the LLTNPA – for example the Mountaineering Council of Scotland had sent her a critique of the way the LLTNPA had misrepresented police statistics  – and should have sought a second opinion.  She had over six months to do so, after receiving the recommendations of the LLTNPA Board, but did nothing.  At the end of the period she simply accepted the spin of the Park Authority.

 

I now  believe the “evidence” referred to by Dr McLeod would never stand up in a court of law.   This creates lots of opportunity for the bye-laws to be challenged but it also presents a great threat to our access rights.   If Ministers can remove access rights in a National Park on the basis of claims unsupported by evidence, they could do so anywhere in Scotland.    This is fundamentally wrong.

 

I am generally against introducing bureaucratic processes into access rights – the big mistake down in England – but if Ministers cannot be trusted not to remove access rights on a whim, they need to be forced to take decisions based on certain objective criteria (including what counts as evidence).   Alternatively, such decisions should be subject to scrutiny and approval in the Scottish Parliament which would allow all the rational arguments against the byelaws to be given a public hearing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week I received EIR 2016-003 Review Response from the LLTNPA which confirmed their decision not to release information about why they had decided to develop a campsite at Loch Chon http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/03/27/con-loch-chon-proposed-trossachs-west-camping-management-zone/.   I will appeal to the  FOI Commissioner  (my fourth appeal, the first two of which have resulted in the Park releasing information and the third of which is in progress) but meantime its worth explaining how this fits into their failure over the last three years to deliver the campsites they have promised and failure to account for how decisions are made.

 

The basic issue here is the Park Board should be able to account publicly about why they have decided to develop a campsite at Loch Chon, which will require a large investment from them, in the proposed management zone which has the lowest demand of all for camping.   What’s more the Park appears to be devoting its entire camping budget for the next year to this campsite.

 

The Park has tried to obscure this in their response claiming that because the full details of the campsite development have not been agreed (or is incomplete) they cannot release information about why they chose this piece of land for a campsite.      They are also claiming there are elements of this decision which are “commercially confidential” when the owner of the land is another public authority, Forestry Commission Scotland.   Both bodies could and should operate transparently.

 

So what is going on?     One interpretation is that the Park wanted to be seen to have made progress when the Minister, Aileen McLeod, announced she had approved the camping bye-law proposal in January and, in the absence of anything else to report,  decided to announce the campsite at Loch Chon in their own press release.  Then, realising one small campsite might not look good, they announced it would be a big one,  30 places.   Unfortunately, as the Park’s latest letter indicates, they had not done any proper financial planning and the consequence is that they are now backtracking on the 30 places.  Truth or conjecture?   If the Park released the information I had asked we would have a much better idea.

 

What we do know though is that the LLTNPA has  a history of failing to deliver the campsites it has promised and changing its plans in secret.    In  2012, as a result of efforts from Grant Moir, now Chief Executive at the Cairngorms Park, and Kevin Findlater, Chief Inspector of the Police (and the person who first drew attention to the civil liberty implications of the proposed camping bye-laws)  the Park produced the excellent 5 Lochs Visitor Management Plan for the Trossachs area.

It included costed proposals along with detailed plans for four new campsites to be delivered at Loch Lubnaig (2012-13), Loch Venachar North (2013-14), Glen Oglehead (2014-15) and Loch Earn (no date given).  Loch Chon was not thought important enough in 2012  to be included in the Five Lochs Plan – which is another reason why its in the public interest to know now why the Park has chosen this area for a campsite.  Of the campsites in the 5 Lochs Plan, only Loch Lubnaig has been delivered, and that over a year late.

 

Its been very hard to establish what has actually been decided about the other campsite proposals and the basis for any decisions that have been made, just like Loch Chon.  After some investigations, I did my best in a document I sent to the Minister, Aileen Mcleod, on 1st October 2015 Appendix 1 – LLTNP plans for camping development at Loch Venachar and Glen Oglehead .   The story reads:

2012                      Five Lochs Visitor Management Plan published

2013-14               New campsite north Loch Venachar   due to be delivered; budget available but proposal delayed due to delays delivering Loch Lubnaig campsite

IMG_5171
The site at North Loch Venachar which is owned by LLTNPA and therefore one might think easy to develop

2014-15               Again budget said to be available north Loch Venachar (FOI 2015/026) but this is contradicted by minutes of Five Lochs Visitor Management Stakeholder Group of 1/4/15  right at the beginning of the financial year (provided as appendix C to FOI 2015/026) which indicates that the north Loch Venachar development is now likely to be in 2015-16.

October 2014     Launch of Your Park consultation on new camping bye laws and camping places.  There is no no mention that LLTNPA owned land which had been identified for campsites in the Five Lochs Management Plan at both north Loch Venachar (within the proposed management zone and a priority area) and Glenoglehead (outwith the proposed zones)

3/12/14                At a poorly attended Visitor Management Stakeholder Meeting (Appendix D to FOI 2015/026) Bridget Jones, the member of staffing who was chairing meeting, said in response to a question that camping provision at north Loch Venachar was “no longer part of any plans”.

2/7/15                  FOI Review 2015/026 Response LLTNP states that “the Park authority has not shelved any camping developments”; that Glenoglehead remains a potential development and “the Loch Venachar campsite has not been abandoned”. In explanation of this it stated the then Chief Executive, on the advice of her staff, had decided to look at alternative sites around Loch Venachar due to concerns about the suitability of the site: the one concern mentioned in the FOI was potential impact on ancient woodland.  (This is another area where more damage to trees by the roads department than by campers) .The letter states a decision will be made once the Minister has made a decision on the bye laws.

 

The Environment Minister, Aileen McLeod, has never responded to the concerns I have set out in that letter.

 

There is an easy solution.   It should not be difficult for the Park to produce a camping development plan which it then consulted on with relevant interests instead of taking decisions in secret.  The Five Lochs Plan shows the way.  First identify areas of highest demand for camping from the ranger patrol records (which the Park failed to use in the Your Park consultation).  Second, outline a range of options for campsite facilities, taking account of the Loch Lubnaig experience but also of campsites outside the Park (there are wonderful campsites with simple composting toilets).   Third, list the land owned by public bodies that might be suitable for campsites and private landowners who have indicated an interest.   From this it should not be difficult to produce a prioritised list for campsite development on the Five Lochs model.   Unfortunately, I suspect that until someone tells the Park that they need to act openly and transparently and stop responding to behind the scenes lobbying its going to be continued smoke and mirrors about every aspect of their camping proposals.

 

Time therefore to submit another FOI asking if the Park have now taken a decision, as they said they would in FOI 2015/026 response,  about Glenoglehead and Loch Venachar North.