Tag: HIE

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

(Notice issued by Scotland Contracts Portal)

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

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

 

The implications of Natural Retreats change of ownership

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

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

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

Companies House extract as it appeared 5th December

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The proposed study will be neither neutral nor “independent”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What needs to happen

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

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

November 26, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

November 13, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

A strange thing happened on the 1st November, Natural Retreats UK changed its name to the UK Great Travel Company Ltd.  This took place in the middle of a massive row which has erupted over a “Natural Retreats” planning application in the Yorkshire Dales.   This post looks at the potential implications of both for Cairngorm.

 

What could be the implications of Natural Retreats UK changing its name?

 

Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, which is the company Highlands and Islands Enterprise sold to Natural Assets Investment Ltd and has a 25 year lease for the Cairngorm ski area, operates under the brand name Natural Retreats (see above).   Natural Retreats UK was the company which provided services to the companies owned by Natural Assets Investment Ltd, including Cairngorm Mountain.  In 2016 Cairngorm Mountain Ltd paid Natural Retreats UK £640,414 in management services and £175,220 for purchase of fixed assets and other services (see here).   Natural Retreats UK also provided part of  a joint USA/UK holiday bookings business called Xplore https://www.naturalretreats.com/about.   This appears to have been facilitated by Natural Retreats UK being owned by Natural Retreats Management LLC, which is registered in Delaware, in the USA.

 

The relevance of this background information is that I have been informed by someone who contacted the Natural Retreats Head Office that there has been a split between the American and British parts of the Natural Retreats operation.  If this is the case (and there is nothing on the Natural Retreats website about this), that would suggest that Natural Retreats UK is no longer owned by Natural Retreats Management LLC.  If so, that might explain the name change, particularly if the US based part of the operation had legal rights over the term or brand name “Natural Retreats”..

 

To date no  information about changes in ownership has been registered at Companies House. Instead, under Persons with Significant control is the following:

Screenshot 13th November

Now it stretches credulity to breaking point that the Directors of Natural Retreats UK Ltd, as it then was, did not know if there were persons who had significant control of the parent company, Natural Retreats Management LLC.  However,  if there has been a change in ownership they should now be able to answer the question of whether anyone has significant control.

 

This failure to provide information is illustrative of a wider problem.  Companies House employs just 4 people to check 4 million entries onto its data base each year (see here), so there is little incentive for companies to provide information in a timely manner.  This system facilitates lack of transparency and consequently makes it hard to ascertain what is going on in companies, just as its very hard to ascertain who owns land.    Indeed on the Companies House website there is a similar entry for both Cairngorm Mountain Ltd and Natural Assets Investment Ltd:

 

Screenshot 13th November

This appears completely wrong, unless there have been changes since Dec 2016, as the accounts of NAIL clearly stating that the ultimate controlling party is one David Michael Gorton whose occupation is given as Fund Manager.  At the same time Delaware is a US state notorious for its lack of transparency (you can purchase for $20 a list of documents a company has filed but not actual copies of those documents), so its impossible to find out what’s happening from that end either, ie whether Natural Retreats Management LLC has sold or transferred ownership of the company.  Highlands and Islands Enterprise should be insisting that “Natural Retreats” makes this information public and lodges the proper records at Companies House.

 

Who owns the UK Great Travel Company Ltd could have implications both for how much CML pays in administrative charges each year but also for the Natural Retreats brand – both good reasons for HIE to take an interest in this (rather than leaving it “to the market”).  One suspects that whatever the explanation for what it going on it won’t be in the interests of Cairngorm and instead of these company shennanigans we would be a lot better off if Cairngorm Mountain was owned by the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust.

 

Developments in Yorkshire

Meantime, the name Natural Retreats has been used to promote a planning application by Yorkshire Dales Ltd, another subsidiary of NAIL, in Richmond, Yorkshire for holiday lettings and houses to sell.    HIE should take note of the large number of local criticisms of how Natural Retreats have used the planning process and what is being proposed (see here) (I have commented on application, drawing Richmond Council’s attention to the financial position of NAIL and how these might impact on the proposed development).   The failures to engage and work effectively with local communities appear to be not just limited to Cairngorm.

 

The NAIL accounts to Dec 2016 tell us that the Yorkshire development if it was approved is not to be funded by the David Michael Gorton but by the banks (HSBC already have a standing security lodged over the assets of Yorkshire Dales Ltd for a previous loan).

After the experience of Bank of Scotland (it had to write off large amounts of money it had lent to develop the funicular), it appears unlikely that any bank would risk such investment at Cairngorm which probably explains why HIE is having to pay for all investment there.

 

While the Yorkshire development may appear safer from a bank lending perspective, the NAIL accounts indicate that the Natural Retreats holiday letting business (including Scottish operations) is not exactly doing well:

While occupancy levels vary considerably across the sector, top performing areas would expect around 70% for self-catering accommodation and higher levels than that for serviced accommodation.

 

HIE justified its appointment of “Natural Retreats” to run Cairngorm on the basis it had both international expertise – which may have just changed – and as an experienced holiday operator.  Actually, it was a new company with relatively little experience and what is happening elsewhere in the NAIL group of companies does not inspire confidence in their ability to turn Cairngorm around.

 

As further confirmation of this, compare how this statement from the NAIL accounts fits with Fergus Ewing’s claims (see here) that HIE are absolutely committed to winter operations at Cairngorm:

So, there we have it, HIE committed apparently to winter operations at Cairngorm while its tenant is trying to do the opposite.    Why then would HIE be funding these developments at Cairngorm if they will not help the winter experience?

November 3, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Extract from this week’s Strathy (in which I am quoted)

The financial position of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd

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

Extract from Note 1 to the CML Accounts to December 2016

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

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

CML and Natural Assets Investment Ltd

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extract group accounts

 

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

What needs to happen

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

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

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

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

 

October 27, 2017 Nick Kempe 5 comments

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

Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML) accounts

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

October 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

“No,” says Bryers.

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

“No, we didn’t, no,” says Bryers.”

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

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

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

 

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

Introduction

The Community Bid

Natural Retreats view

Disputed account of what is going on

HIE’s defence (which includes the quote above)

 

The local community versus HIE

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The interview was full of further misleading responses:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The restoration of the shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who paid for the pump house?

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

The landscaping of the area around the Shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The area above the Shieling rope tow

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

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

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

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

The finishing of the culverts is very poor.

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

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen in Coire Cas?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

September 25, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 The tender process and award

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

September 3, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Letter Badenoch and Strathspey Advertiser 31st August

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The hill track to the Ptarmigan

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

 

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

 

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

Extract from Wm Gray proposed method statement for development at Ptarmigan

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

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

 

Standards for work at Cairngorm

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

August 28, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
The first tower above the Ciste carpark appears to have been in good condition and perfectly usable but McGowan’s have chopped through the legs making unusable.

Following my post on the destruction going on at Cairngorm (see here) parkswatch has been sent more photos which show that HIE and Natural Retreats appear to have deliberately destroying infrastructure at Cairngorm that could have been re-used.

Its worth repeating that there has been no consultation on this from either HIE or Natural Retreats and neither organisation has made public, let alone consulted on, a plan for how Cairngorm should be managed. Instead, in full knowledge that local and skiing interests had been looking at an alternative plan for Coire na Ciste which involved restoring the Coire na Ciste chairlift, HIE and Natural Retreats are destroying infrastructure that could have been re-used.   A community buyout  of Cairngorm would have fundamentally challenged the position of HIE, as landowners and Natural Retreats, who lease the land.  Its hard to avoid the conclusion that both HIE and Natural Retreats are trying to make a community operated alternative as difficult as possible.

 

HIE then has a reserve line of defence to protect its empire as it holds the purse strings and would be key to funding a community effort.  A conflict of interest, if anything was.

 

Natural Retreats has received a lot of criticism about what is going on at Cairngorm on social media and as a result their Facebook Page (see here) issued a post on Saturday directing people to an HIE news release issued early August (see here).  It looks like an attempt to shift the blame to HIE.   While the News Release does say:   “Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has awarded a contract to Aviemore based civil and environmental engineering firm, McGowan Limited”  the signs on site tell a different story:

Since Natural Retreats are named as the client they must have some responsibility for the work being undertaken by McGowan.    It therefore looks as if both HIE and Natural Retreats are in this together, jointly responsible for the destruction.

 

In the FOI material published in my last post, there is a statement from HIE that once a tender was conducted the costs would be known and funding then sought.  That was in May.  I have searched the Scotland Contracts portal, where all public contracts are supposed to be advertised, and cannot find any tender from HIE for the works at Cairngorm.   HIE therefore need to explain who actually appointed McGowan to do this work, how this was done and why they decided to do so.

 

Meantime, Natural Retreats appears to have provided the public with no information about the removal of lift infrastructure or the clearup – for example there is nothing on the Behind the Scenes section of the Cairngorm Mountain website which is supposed to provide an insight into what is going on at Cairngorm.  They have however held a drop-in consultation and provided some information on the proposed dry ski slope at Coire Cas.

Its worth comparing the colour of the slope with that which was contained in the plans obtained under Freedom of Information (see here).  Its has been toned down considerably, in an attempt to magic away its impact on the landscape.

What the dry ski slope consultation shows is that Natural Retreats only consult the public or inform people what is going on when they  have to – in this case the consultation will have been driven by the planning system which requires developers to engage the public before submitting any application.   Its to tick a box and it is likely the intention of Natural Retreats was to submit a planning application for the dry ski slope, funded by HIE, fairly soon.

 

That I think may now be derailed by what is going on at Cairngorm.   If you want to understand just how far HIE and Natural Retreats have alienated skiers its worth reading the comments on the Cairngorm Mountain Facebook Post (see here).  Skiers don’t see a dry ski slope as being any compensation for the continued removal of much of the lift and other skiing infrastructure and are increasingly angry.  I hope they tell our politicians that Cairngorm needs both an alternative plan and  a change of ownership and management.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The environmental damage being created by the clear-up

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The destruction of ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

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

 

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

 

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

What needs to happen

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

 

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

 

 

July 6, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
The Fiacaill t-bar dump in 2016
The Fiacaill t-bar dump in July 2017
Image from Save Cairngorm Facebook Page

Over the last fifteen months Parkswatch has highlighted the lack of maintenance and rubbish at Cairngorm, one of the worst examples being the dump at the former Fiacaill T-Bar.  This was originally justified as a temporary holding area for old fence posts which were supposed to be removed in the winter season but never were.  Instead, Natural Retreats started to burn fence posts in skips on the mountain (left) and added materials to the dump.

 

With Natural Retreats seemingly immune to any adverse publicity, Save the Ciste group  activist George Paton wrote to Highlands and Islands Enterprise on 21st June pointing out the temporary dump had been growing for 18 months and that “if little Johnny was injured or worse” they would ultimately be held responsible.   Here is the response:

 

30th June

Dear Mr Paton

Your email of 21 June 2017 to my colleague Keith Bryers, has been passed on to me, as HIE’s Customer Service Improvement Manager, for response.

Health and safety within the Cairngorm Estate is, naturally, of paramount importance, both for HIE as landowner, and CML [Caingorm Mountain Ltd] as operator of the visitor facilities.  HIE staff meet CML regularly to monitor performance on a broad range of operational issues, including safety.

With regard to your specific concerns about the present conditions in the Fiacaill T Bar area, our understanding is that this location is being used temporarily to store materials while current maintenance works are progressing.   We have already discussed this issue with CML and will raise it again, both to be assured on health and safety matters, and to ensure that the area is tidied as soon as is practicable.

 

Playing the Health and Safety card appears to have worked because in the last few days (see photos above) Natural Retreats has started to  clear the Fiacaill T-bar area.  Well done George, it shows how activists can make a difference.

 

The downside is that at present it appears the only way to get HIE to act at Cairngorm is threaten them with Health and Safety.  The test in this case will be whether, having tidied up the site and made it “safe”, HIE stop Natural Retreats using it as a dump and get them to remove the concrete plinth which formed part of the t-bar structure.   I have my doubts. HIE, like many other public authorities, is far more interested in large new capital vanity projects than in restoring sites affected by past developments or in basic maintenance.  What Cairngorm needs first and foremost is some attention to basics and all the evidence shows this is not happening.

 

Natural Retreats’ failure to develop an environmental plan or standards for Cairngorm

 

Last year, after parkswatch drew attention to the lack of any proper environmental management plan at Cairngorm (see here) CNPA staff wrote to Natural Retreats urging that they develop a set of standards for operating at Cairngorm.    This request was repeated by the CNPA Convener of Planning, Eleanor Mackintosh, in a letter (see here – thanks to George Paton who obtained it through FOI) to Natural Retreats dated 14/2/17:

 

“I would also urge you to develop some simple, best-practice management standards for your operations that you can consistently apply to your own works or those undertaken by contractors”.

 

Actually, there is no need for Natural Retreats to develop new best practice standards, because these already exist.  What they should have been doing, in consultation with conservation and recreational interests, is to review and update standards for the management of ski areas which were developed back in the 1980s (see here) as well as those developed during the construction of the funicular.   It has suited HIE to forget this history, the lessons from the past and, if there is one thing CNPA should be doing at present, its to demand that these lessons are incorporated into new standards.

 

Where Eleanor Mackintosh got it wrong, I believe, was to suggest to Natural Retreats that the management standards should be “simple”.   Cairngorm is a complex mountain environment and the examples of best practice that have been developed over time range from the simple to the highly complex depending on what is proposed.  To apply best practice standards consistently and appropriately would require the types of skill and expertise which are sadly lacking among managers at both at Natural Retreats and HIE.

 

The crumbling environs of the Day Lodge

Clearing up the Fiacaill dump takes very little effort or money, it could all be done in a day.  That it has taken so long tells you something about the way Cairngorm is being managed.  Its not just the natural environment that is being mismanaged though, the state of the buildings at Cairngorm tells a similar story, as these recent photos from around the Day Lodge show.

Before Natural Retreats bought Cairngorm Mountain Ltd from HIE, they were paid a sum, which I understand was c£600k, to cover delapidation works to buildings.  A sad indictment of HIE’s failure to maintain the buildings at Cairngorm during the period 2008-2014 when it had direct control.  This money appears to have been either insufficient or has not been spent by Natural Retreats as intended.

The failure to carry out basic maintenance and repairs is a UK wide phenomenon.  The powers that be, in both public and private sectors, would prefer to let buildings collapse and then build new ones, rather than spend any money on maintenance.   Money spent on maintenance though not only improves amenity – what message do these photos give to visitors to Cairngorm? – it helps create local jobs.   Natural Retreats appears though to have no interest in investing in the things that matter at Cairngorm but would rather be involved in grandiose new projects financed by the public sector.

Under the terms of HIE’s lease, Natural Retreats are supposed to maintain buildings in a reasonable state of repair and has to contribute to both a Buildings Sinking Fund and Asset Replacement Fund.  It would be in the public interest that Natural Retreats’ contributions to these funds (they were supposed to pay £11k to the ARF in March 2016 and £27k in March 2017) and expenditure from them are made public – I will ask!

How long before a visitor trips on this edge and sues Natural Retreats?

I suspect Natural Retreats will only maintain the built environment around the Day Lodge when forced to do so for health and safety reasons – if I was their  insurers I would be upping their premiums.    It shouldn’t need health and safety though for basic maintenance and care of buildings to take place at Cairngorm, it just needs an owner and operator that cares about the place.    Unfortunately all the evidence shows that neither HIE or Natural Retreats care and, while activists need to press for improvements at Cairngorm, the only long-term solution is for the land to be taken away from HIE and transferred to an organisation that does have the interests of the mountain and the people at its heart.

June 20, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

Following the downpour at Cairngorm (see here and left) the photo above taken last week shows the impact of such flood events.  While Natural Retreats and HIE’s recent mismanagement of Cairngorm has contributed to this, the problems go back much longer and the large car parks for example contribute to the rate that water runs off the hill.  The motor car (which most people including this writer rely on for transport much of the time) has been central to the unsustainable development of Cairngorm ever since the ski road was constructed.  As part of the Cairngorm masterplan (see here) Natural Retreats included a section on transport.   The analysis and proposals in it are far more sensible than the Ptarmigan re-development or installation of snowflex artificial ski slopes above the Coire Cas carpark but do they offer a way forward?

 

Natural Retreats’s brief summary of the transport situation at Cairngorm, if you read past the marketing speak, is pretty damning:

Extract from FOI

Poor public transport, no imaginative solutions such as those used in the Alps (where school buses are used to transport people up valleys in the holidays), no bike or ski racks, a lack of path connections.   So what are Natural Retreats’ solutions?

While there are some good ideas here the package has a whiff of self-interest.    The short-term proposals should be easy to do, as they are all minor improvements, but could be read as a smokescreen for implementing parking charges at Cairngorm (which is one of HIE’s objectives).  There is no information about how they, or more importantly the medium and long term proposals, could be financed despite the owner of Natural Retreats, David Michael Gorton, being extraordinarily rich – but then the way his companies are operating currently at Cairngorm is to take money out of the area rather than invest in it.  Its not surprising therefore that the proposals such as hybrid buses, which the owner of Natural Retreats could afford to pay for now, have been scheduled as “Medium to Long Term”.   There is no indication that he is going to invest anything that does not guarantee large immediate returns (like car park charges) or will not rely on the public sector to pay for everything while NR take the profit.

 

The proposals have been developed without any consultation.  Under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy, approved last year, Natural Retreats were supposed to be part of a Cairngorm & Glenmore Transport Working Group involving Highland Council, HITRANS, Forest Enterprise Scotland and the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  Its not even clear whether this group has ever met let alone been and its telling that Natural Retreat’s refer to a slightly different group of stakeholders in the transport section of the masterplan  including “the Glenmore Masterplan” (is this the same as the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy?), the CNPA, Cairngorms Connected and  Active Cairngorms.  In other words HIE’s and NR’s proposals don’t appear joined up with the plan developed by the CNPA.    There are a couple of specific examples of this.

 

NR’s proposals make no reference to the action point in the Glenmore Strategy that there should be a  “Feasibility study for improved public transport and park and ride approach”.    So, does Natural Retreats support a feasibility study or not and will it contribute to the cost?

 

There is also no reference to the proposal for a new cycle route up to Cairngorm, the cycle link, as set out in the map below:

On the other hand, HIE and NR have plucked out of a hat a new proposal for a “tourism train like that seen at Chamonix or York”.  I am a fan of the Chamonix train  – its free if you are staying in the valley – but to treat a back of a fag packet idea as a proposal without any consultation or working with other people on how it will be financed tells you everything you need to know about how NR and HIE operate.

 

What needs to happen

 

While some of NR’s proposals could support the objective of the Glenmore Strategy that, there should be “Improvements to transport and access infrastructure will increase public transport and non-motorised access to the area from Aviemore and beyond; and walking and cycling within the area”, they are unlikely to “Make a significant change in the way people access the area to increase the proportion of non-car access” because of the way they have been “developed”.   Natural Retreats needs to start consulting the local community, business, visitors, conservation organisations and other stakeholders and to support structures set up in the National Park before it does anything else.

June 3, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Strangled hare beneath Cas Gantry at Cairngorm 2nd June  – Photo Credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

Parkswatch received information that there was a strangled hare under the Coire Cas t-bar gantry (see here) and is very grateful to members of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation group who visited the site today and confirmed this (above photo, which has had coverage on twitter).  Natural Retreats’ staff then turned up, presumably to check on what was being photographed, and stated they would inform the manager.   What the manager should have done then was inform the police and leave the hare as a potential crime scene – we will see.

 

Tnere appear two potential explanations for what has happened.  The first is that this was an accident.  That a hare, taking shelter on the piles of rubble under the gantry became entangled in this string/twine and strangled itself.   If so, I think Natural Retreats and Hightlands and Islands Enterprise still bear a high degree of responsibility.  They are meant to be custodians of Cairngorm but instead have failed to adhere to basic standards of good stewardship and have caused environmental destruction and  left rubbish – which harms wildlife (as this case might show) – all over the mountain.   These failures have been epitomised by their actions at the Cas Gantry where Natural Retreats bulldozed a far wider area than necessary for the “de minimis” emergency repair work that Highland Council agreed could go ahead without planning permission.

View of Cas Gantry August 2016

What’s more despite all the publicity on parkswatch Natural Retreats have still not restored the landscape properly, as you can see from the soil and boulders which still lie dumped below the gantry, on which the hare was found.

 

The second possible explanation is that this was deliberate and the string/twine was used as a snare.  This would need expert investigation to establish.

 

There is a possible motive for the hare being killed which has nothing to do with their alleged role in transmitting ticks to red grouse.   Natural Retreats took a long time  before it made any attempt to restore the slopes around the gantry and because they had failed to store any vegetation had to re-seed it, usiing a fertilised seed mix.   This did nothing for a while (see photo below) but now in the growing season is extremely attractive to hares – a large area of rich grass.   The hare/s therefore may have been threatening to destroy the re-seeding and, rather than fence off the area, perhaps someone thought it easier to set a snare?

 

Whatever the explanation of the strangling, accident or deliberate or something else,  the likely scenario is the hare was attracted to the re-seeded area before taking shelter under the gantry.

 

Erosion on the slope to the right of the Cas Gantry January 2017, with blue fertiliser pellets washed away.

If this was an accident, its an accident for which our public authorities bear some responsibility.  They have regularly been made aware of the destruction which has happened at Cairngorm since Natural Retreats took over.  Under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy HIE agreed to produce a Cairngorm Estate Management Plan, which could be used to ensure Cairngorm was managed to the highest standards.  Instead, they have tolerated Natural Retreats continued mis-management of the natural environment, from rubbish dump to off track use of vehicles.

Diesel tank adjacent to funicular station – note dead vegetation centre and left

A recent example – ignore if you can the half-hearted attempt to hide the tank behind a wooden fence – what has killed the vegetation here?   A diesel spill which was then cleared up, is one explanation – but perhaps Natural Retreats can offer an alternative?   (which Parkswatch would be happy to publish).  Whatever has happened does not appear good for either wildlife or habitats.

 

Meantime, there is no sign of the set of standards for environmental management which the Cairngorms National Park Authority recommended Natural Retreats adopt last year.   I would recommend their senior managers and Board Members go and take a look for themselves before parkswatch publish further photos – including how the Sheiling Track which they retrospectively approved is eroding as predicted.   The strangled hare is symptom of a deep malaise, more evidence that the way Cairngorm is being managed is not fit for a National Park, that Natural Retreats are not fit to be leaseholders and HIE is not fit to own it.

 

The solution is for management of Cairngorm to be taken over by a community consortium which includes conservation interests.

June 1, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Aerial view of the proposed two new ski slopes obtained through an FOI request

Natural Retreats proposals for two artificial ski slopes at Cairngorm, which HIE announced in April had been agreed as part of a masterplan (see here),  would, if given the go-ahead, add to the environmental and financial disaster taking place at Cairngorm.  The information on which this post is based was obtained through Freedom of Information – it should have been in the public realm.  The secrecy and failure of Natural Retreats and HIE to consult publicly before developing any new proposals helps explain why these  misconceived plans have been developed.

 

The Pre-Planning Feasibility document describes the artificial slopes, which would be located above the car park in Coire Cas as follows:

 

The initial proposal is to install two slope areas – a beginners slope of approximately 30m long x 60m wide in plan view to suit the land/building constraints and alongside this to allow progression – an intermediate slope of approximately 60m x 30m in plan view.
The beginner’s area will be served by three Double sided QueueDodger® rope tow and the intermediate area served by a Doppelmayr Highline surface drag lift. The lifts would hold a maximum capacity of 135 people at any one time.

 

It is proposed that the slope should be constructed out of snowflex.

The proposed location is totally inappropriate

The impact on the landscape will be huge.   No need to take my word for it, here is what the Cairngorm National Park Authority says:

Extract from email sent by CNPA to Highland Council 14th March

So a highly visible development from afar which will impact on all visitors to Coire Cas, whether constructed in white or green, the two colours available:

 

Not only that but the Scottish Environment Protection Agency believe it could have an unacceptable impact on the ecology of the area:

 

Extracts from SEPA letter to Highland Council dated 23rd March

The location is also wrong in terms of the logic of the pre-planning feasibility study which states there is a need to:

 

“Protect snow school operations in the winter and create a year round snow school offering”

 

Anyone who visits the Coire Cas Car Park regularly will know its extremely exposed to the wind.  There is probably not a more exposed, and therefore worse location, for a low down artificial ski slope anywhere on the mountain.     How could any snow school use this year round?

 

The justification for Natural Retreats’ proposal is wrong

 

A kicker is a soft landing area below a jump

Natural Retreats is proposing the slope should be constructed out of snowflex:

Unlike “dry” slopes, the friction is reduced through the misting of water across the slopes during operation.  This uses the BritonMist® slope lubrication system including a fully engineered water treatment and filtration systems for slope cleaning. This system also has a fully engineered water recycling system

 

 

Here’s the justification from Natural Retreats’ pre-planning feasibility study:

 

3 ARTIFICIAL SKI SLOPE PROPOSAL
In line with the intention to increase family focussed facilities, whilst also protecting snow school revenues and establishing a snow school operation all year round, plans have been developed to introduce a beginners and intermediate, artificial ski slope. This would be located close to the base station, in a more protected area improving beginner experience and allowing lessons to take place when the rest of the ski area may be closed due to adverse weather.

 

A “more protected area” indeed!

 

What Natural Retreats have not told explained in the documentation obtained through FOI, and apparently agreed by HIE,  is:

 

How the lubrication system will work in freezing conditions?   It won’t, so no beginners area therefore when its cold on the mountain but there is no snow.

Whether the artificial slope can be used when there is snow on it?  You cannot use piste machines on snow flex so as soon as it snows, it is likely to become unusable

The impact of the piping system on the ground vegetation and soils.  The documentation claims that snow flex can be easily removed but due to the piping system this is unlikely to be the case.

The basis for their claim that snowflex is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly option (the misting system is likely to make it more expensive to both construct and operate).

 

If HIE don’t want to take my word for this, perhaps they should start asking why Midlothian Council chose a totally different material, Neveplast, for the outdoor slope at Hillend:

 

The new ski slopes, 1.100 square metres in total, will be realized with Neveplast NP30 product. After a careful evaluation and testing of different materials the local council has opted for Neveplast surface which met all the guarantees required by the customer: Neveplast NP30 has been chosen among several competitors thanks to its unique properties of slipperiness, excellent lateral grip, low maintenance costs (no irrigation and drainage systems needed), the possibility to use the same equipment used on the snow, high safety standards, and for its extraordinary durability.

 

Natural Retreats’ useage figures in the Proposal Overview also raise interesting questions.   13,000 users a year comes to 35.6 users on average per day – a very low figure compared to the stated capacity of 210 users a day in summer and hardly viable (its about 4 people an hour).  This suggests that Natural Retreats may have already decided that its not going to operate the artificial slope for much of the year or realises that the slope will be inoperable for much of the winter (for the reasons explained above).   All the more reason that any business case for this investment by HIE should be made fully public.

 

The feasibility study claims there are at present “210,000 annual visitors (120,000 in winter and 90,000 in summer) with vast potential to increases”.    Its pretty clear that the vast increase is not going to come from the artificial slope.   I believe this is right because:

 

  • the potential attraction of an artificial beginners area low down on Cairngorm (“family focussed facilities”) is that parents could leave children there when there is insufficient snow on nursery slopes and go off skiing.   If the artificial slope cannot be used, because it is so poorly located and constructed out of the wrong materials, the slope loses its purpose.
  • the same arguments apply in summer, why would families bring children to learn on an artificial slope, when there is little else for them to do?  I guess Natural Retreats are hoping parents might leave their children while they take a trip up the funicular  but there is no evidence to suggest that will happen.   Where are the visitor surveys to inform the business case?

 

What then is the economic justification for this artificial slope?   HIE needs to explain itself and why it has apparently agreed to give Natural Retreats yet more public money for something so poorly thought out.

 

What a proper case for an artificial ski slope at Cairngorm might look like?

 

There is a case for an artificial ski slope at Cairngorms which has been developed by the Save the Ciste Campaign  http://savetheciste.com/campaign/  as part of its proposals to renew facilities in Coire na Ciste.    Its well worth while having a look at their photos which show that in the last winter, skiing would have been possible in Coire na Ciste, when it wasn’t elsewhere in the mountain.  The contrast between the StC proposals and those of Natural Retreats are striking:

 

  • their proposed artificial slope is on the west side of the Coire, facing east, out of the prevailing wind and generally sheltered.
  • their proposal artificial slope is tucked away and therefore would have far less impact on the landscape
  • their proposed slope is constructed out of neveplast, which can be used in snow, and can be pisted by machines, meaning it could be used throughout the winter.

 

There are still questions to be asked of course about the StC proposals, the impact of an artificial slope on the ecology of Coire na Ciste and whether it really could attract year round use, but what HIE and the public need to note is that a small voluntary group of skiing enthusiasts has produced a far more coherent proposal than Natural Retreats.  Another reason to add to why HIE should terminate its lease with Natural Retreats and get them off the mountain.

May 24, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

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
May 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Photomontage of Option 1 for proposed redevelopment of Ptarmigan.  As well as the raised viewing tower, note the glass viewing area added to  design

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

 

More development, high up on Cairngorm, is totally inappropriate

 

Design Option 2 for the Ptarmigan

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Advice from SNH obtained through FOI

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Why the proposals are misguided and what needs to happen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

May 18, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
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
May 15, 2017 Nick Kempe 7 comments
The unauthorised tip/storage area at the former Fiacaill T-bar loading area in Coire Cas has grown in  size

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

 

Coire Cas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

You can judge the quality of the repair for yourself.

Treatment of staff

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Coire na Ciste

 

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

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

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

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

Collapsed snow fencing,  approaching West Wall poma upload area

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

Abandoned chairlift sheaves which have been on the ground since 2012

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

Windblown? pipe January 2017 Photo Credit Louis Mullen

 

 

 

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

 

What needs to happen?

 

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

April 27, 2017 Nick Kempe 5 comments
Photo taken Sunday 19th March and posted by Donald Morris on the Save Cairngorm Mountain facebook page – great source of information for what is going on at Cairngorm. Natural Retreats were burning off the old snow fencing which they had previously committed to remove from the mountain.

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

HIE Response

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

Comment

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

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

 

HIE Response

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

Comment

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

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

 

HIE Response

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

Comment

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

The failures and lack of accountability of HIE

 

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

 

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

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

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

Natural Retreats is not fit to manage any development at Cairngorm

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cairngorm Estate Management Plan

 

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

April 15, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Plans to rebuild the Day Lodge and turn it into an international conference centre have been dropped

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Financial questions that need to be asked

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The wider questions about Cairn Gorm

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

March 8, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
The Strathy puts Natural Retreats under the spotlight again – and rightly so

 

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

 

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

 

Extract CML accounts to 31st December 2015

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Notes to accounts are often very informative

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

What does this mean at Cairngorm?

 

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

 

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

 

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

January 31, 2017 Nick Kempe 7 comments
Shieling rope tow and track Saturday 21st January. Gaps between heather and holes in foreground almost certainly were caused by diggers scooping out vegetation for replanting under the rope tow contrary to the planning application.

In my two posts on the retrospective planning application for the Shieling Ski tow track last week (see here) and (here) I outlined why this was a test case for the National Park.  On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Authority planning committee unanimously approved the recommendation of its officers and the application (see here for news release) or (here) for article in the Press and Journal   It was the wrong decision and while a number of Board Members asked searching questions of what is going on at Cairngorm, the CNPA still appears to prefer to put its head in the sand rather than safeguard the area for the people who care about it, including skiers.  It could have been so different…………….

 

Parkspeak

 

Here is what Eleanor Mackintosh, Convener of the CNPA Planning Committee said:

 

“Both applications [the Shieling was one of two]  comply with our planning policies but it is frustrating that the applicants did not gain the correct planning consents before undertaking their developments. That said – I am happy to support the enterprising developments at Inshriach – I think it provides the area with a unique tourist accommodation offering for visitors.

“I am also pleased that the proposals we are giving planning permission for at Cairngorm Mountain include a long term restoration plan for a wider area of ground, including the creation of new montane woodland habitat. This careful approach to balancing the operation of the ski resort with sensitive long term management of the ski area’s natural habitats is one we look forward to seeing as an integral part of all future plans to enhance the offering on the mountain.”

The development may have complied with planning policies but it certainly did NOT comply with wider Park policies (including the Glenmore-Cairngorm Strategy recently approved by the Board and flood risk reduction).  Development planning is supposed to support those policies, it says so in the Park Plan.  It also demonstrates just how weak the Park’s Development Planning policies are:  the hill track clearly contravenes SNH Guidance on Hill Tracks but this carries NO weight with the CNPA.  Inevitably the gravel surface on the hill track will erode but the CNPA has nothing to say about this as it has no policy in this area.  At a time when CNPA staff are struggling to respond to the unlawful hill tracks in the Park and generally atrocious standard of construction, this is a major failing which needs to put right.  Any policy on hill tracks in National Parks should be far stronger than SNH’s guidance because that policy covers the country as a whole and the public has a right to expect more from protected areas.

 

While the montane planting is a small positive step in the right direction and was presumably negotiated behind closed doors (will it be HIE or Natural Retreats that pays for this?)  perhaps Eleanor Mackintosh could explain why the CNPA didn’t take the opportunity to ask Natural Retreats to repair all the other damage it has caused in the Shieling area which was not part of the planning application?

The slope above the Cas Gantry 21st January which Highland Council exempted from the need for planning permission. There is a drainage culvert under the stone to the left of the bottom of the V but its too small for the volume of water or became blocked, so the water overflowed causing the erosion in the centre of the photo. Another example of very poor design from Natural Retreats.
The track that has been created by vehicles driving across the heather by the Car Park t-bar rather than use the existing track up to the mid-station. Natural Retreats claimed that the Shieling Hill track was needed to reduce vehicles driving all over the ski area but, the evidence suggests, continues to allow staff to drive vehicles wherever they wish.

 

 

 

Perhaps too Eleanor Mackintosh could explain how the CNPA’s failure to take any action to stop the destruction at the Shieling three months after being told about it demonstrates a careful approach?

 

The problem appears to be that the CNPA simply accepts whatever land-managers say is necessary for operational purposes, even in cases such as at Cairngorm where those operators clearly haven’t told the whole truth.   An example came at the meeting where in response to questions to why the track was needed, I am told Natural Retreats staff said it was necessary to ensure vehicles avoided crossing the electric ring main.    That this was nonsense was shown by Natural Retreats own landscape plan

The dotted yellow line starting mid-left, which illustrates the ring main, actually goes under the new hill track!    Furthermore there is no issue with vehicles crossing the ring main, it simply needs to be run through a duct  (see here).  Unfortunately the CNPA seems incapable of challenging Natural Retreats on these false claims.

 

Neither does the CNPA seem capable or willing either to consider alternatives which might be more in keeping with the aims of the National Park.   I know of at least two alternatives that were put to the Park.  I sent one, after my last post on the Sheiling, Email to CNPA re hill track,  suggesting that vehicles could use the rope tow uptrack for occasional use.  The North East Mountain Trust quite separately suggested that if the hill track was really only for occasional use, it should be resown and planted with heather to stop the erosion.  One could debate the merits of either proposal – and I am sure they were not the only solutions –  but the point is the CNPA appears to have failed to consider alternatives before taking the decision.    As long as developers know the CNPA is not prepared to force them to consider alternatives, its quite predictable that the whole sorry business of unlawful developments followed by retrospective planning applications will continue.

 

Still, according to feedback I have had from the meeting (its not in the news release), Eleanor Mackintosh did agree to write to Natural Retreats expressing the Committee’s displeasure at the retrospective nature of the application.  This is the third time I am aware of that she  has written such letters in the recent past (other cases have been the Dinnet Hill Tracks and the extensive development at Badaguish).  It would be interesting to know if the CNPA can provide evidence that this has made any difference?  Ultimately its actions, not words, that count.

 

What is different this time though is that the CNPA also agreed to write to HIE as landowner.   This is significant and a step forward because HIE as landowner has failed to exert any control over Natural Retreats, its tenant, and indeed, as parkswatch revealed last week, had actually paid them for the illegal works (though it is now asking for £2000 back).     Whether HIE will get this back, is less certain.  As of at 11am on 31st January the accounts for the year to December 2015 for both Cairngorm Mountain Ltd  (due on the 24th January) – the company vehicle through which Natural Retreats operates Cairngorm – and Natural Assets Investment Ltd (due 17th January) which owns CML Ltd were marked overdue on the Companies House website.   Is this failure in financial governance acceptable to HIE?   The best explanation for all the destruction at Cairngorm continues to be that this is all about money and the only reason for the hilltrack at the Shieling is that having destroyed the ground cover it was the cheapest option available to HIE and Natural Retreats.   Unfortunately the CNPA is continuing to allow money to be put before the natural environment.

 

The planning problem

 

While the Planning Committee has told Natural Retreats it expects them not to make retrospective planning applications in future, this is unlikely in itself to do anything to stop the destruction at Cairngorm.   First, Highland Council has simply approved certain works on a de minimis basis despite the evidence of the destruction Natural Retreats is causing through such works.

The poor “restoration” of the new car park t-bar cabling agreed by Highland Council on a de minimis basis. Boulders have been dumped by the fence and the cable trench has not been properly filled in so a drainage line has been created.

 

Second, where Highland Council did require Planning Permission, for the West Wall Poma, the CNPA failed to call in the planning application and Highland Council, like the CNPA at the Shieling, have failed to enforce planning requirements.  Perhaps they expected the CNPA to take this up?

The vegetation on the slope above the top of the new West Wall poma return station has been destroyed, the Ptarmigan beyond.   Whatever work was done here does not appear to have been part of the planning consent for the West Wall poma and the re-seeding pellets show the “restoration” has taken far too late in the year. Photo taken Saturday 21st January.

Third, Natural Retreats continues to drive vehicles and shift boulders and vegetation all over the hill – there is extensive evidence for this.

 

The way forward

 

Any long-term solution to the problems at Cairngorm will require a proactive National Park, a new landowner to replace HIE and an operator at Cairngorm which is accountable to the local community, recreational and conservation interests.  Meantime though, here are some things the CNPA could do to start tackling the problems at Cairngorm:

  1.  In their letter to Natural Retreats the CNPA should also ask them to produce an inventory of all the damage across the mountain with a view to developing proper plans – as were eventually submitted for the retrospective application for how to restore it – which should be subject to public consultation.  There is no need that the only consultation that ever takes place is when planning permission is required.
  2. The CNPA should also ask Natural Retreats to produce a  policy and proper procedures on how to protect the environment at Cairngorm (everything from use of vehicles to restoration of ground) as requested by Murray Ferguson in an email last year.  This too should be subject to public consultation.  Both could form part of the masterplan for Cairngorm which Natural Retreats has committed to producing this year as part of the Glenmore-Cairngorm Strategy.
  3. The CNPA in their letter to HIE should ask them publicly to commit to the points in points 1 and 2 above and, assuming they wish to continue their lease with Natural Retreats, amend it to incorporate these points.
  4. The CNPA should also write to Highland Council asking them to agree a joint approach to planning at Cairngorm which should involve no further works being agreed on a de minimis basis or emergency basis (which avoids the need for planning permission) and a rapid response to any reported breaches of planning requirements.    They should also agree what resource/expertise they need to oversee any future ground works at Cairngorm and who is in the best position to do this.