Dear Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority,
What would the poet of these hills, Duncan Ban MacIntyre, who decried the destruction brought by sheep have thought of this?
My old OS map shows only the track on the right, the new tracks appear to have been created as part of one of the Auch hydro schemes. Your Renewables Policy Guidance talks about influencing windfarm location and design outwith the National Park boundary but say nothing about hydro developments beyond the boundary. Isn’t it time you did so? Or are you worried other planning authorities might refer to the new network of tracks in Glen Falloch and Glen Dochart which you have approved and question what example you are setting as a National Park?
I had come over Carn na Drochaide and Carn Liath – crossing the track which runs up the fairy glen it is true – to be faced with the track which runs up to and across the Bealach Dearg, high under the western face of Culardoch. Besides the grouse, it services a scientific research station on the bealach (visible where the track bends left). The National Park has stated it wishes to stop track development in our hills, a welcome step, but I think it needs to go one step beyond, follow the example of the National Trust for Scotland on Beinn a Bhuird and start to identify tracks that should be removed to re-wild our landscape. The Culardoch track would be high on my list but why not ask other people what they think?
On 7th July, an application for a new hydro scheme on the slopes of Ben More by Crianlarich, one of the highest and best known Munros, was validated on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Planning Portal (see here) (or if the link does not work go to http://www.lochlomond-trossachs.org/planning/planning-applications/find-an-application/ and search for application Ref 2017/0119/DET or on Benmore farm). On Friday I went to have a look and have now submitted an objection to the application as currently proposed (appended to end of this post). This post is about why the new Benmore farm proposals are very different to the hydro scheme on Benmore burn which was completed last year and why I have objected. I hope people reading this will be encouraged to consider doing so too (its easy to do, just look up the application and go to the comments tab which allows people to support, object or comment on an application). The application is open for comments until 28th July.
The Benmore burn hydro scheme
This hydro scheme, which became operational in 2016, is one of the best I have seen in the National Park.
The “track” marks the line of the buried pipeline but generally the vegetation is recovering well. The burn was diverted to build the intake dam and the vegetation on the ground above the diversion channel has already recovered to the extent you would not know it was there.
The construction track was along the line of the pipeline and was removed completely. The ground is recovering well. The existing hill track – bottom right – was not used for the construction although it runs round the hill not far from the intake.
One thing I really liked about the intake was that instead of the normal concrete retaining wall, the development has embedded boulders in concrete. This creates a far more natural form. You can also see the browner rock below the intake which appears to mark the former “normal” flow levels of the burn. The hydro schemes are having a significant impact on river flows which will affect their ecology. I don’t believe we really know yet what the permanent impacts might be.
When you approach the intake though the most obvious feature is the metal fencing – contrary to Park guidance on use of natural materials (but is it really necessary?) – and the Lomond blue pipe. Its a shame that the left side of the intake has not been finished like the right had side but it does show, I think, what can be done. Well done somebody!
The recovery of the ground above the pipeline and construction track is not as good as it might have been because vehicles have been driven over land which is far too wet to support them.
It was good too to see that the dyke through which the 7m wide construction track had been taken had been narrowed (a contrast to the Falloch and Ledcharrie (see here) tracks) and restored to a high standard. It is possible to construct things of beauty in the hills! I must say I am not sure about the gate, even if its not used by vehicles its likely to encourage – and there were a fair few boot marks – a more direct walking route up the glen over what is very wet ground. So, some reservations, but generally this is a high quality scheme with very little snagging left to do – if only all schemes in the National Park were like this!
The new proposal
What prompted me to visit the location the scheme was the proposal to retain the new access tracks. Having removed the construction tracks to the intake in the Benmore Burn scheme, I wanted to understand why Benmore Farm were proposing to retain the construction tracks to the new intakes. Part of me reckons that this is because since 2013, when the first scheme was approved, the LLTNPA as Planning Authority have moved from a position of assuming tracks should be removed to allowing them to remain everywhere.
So, if other people are getting away with it, why should Benmore Farm follow best practice? That’s why people need to take a stand. The proliferation of hill tracks is destroying the landscape in the National Park – and indeed across Scotland – and those who care about the landscape need to put a stop to this.
The Design Statement gives two reasons for keeping the track, the first to help the shepherd/ess, the second to “provide for walkers who may wish to climb Ben More along Sron nam Forsairean”. The second claim is nonsense. Anyone wanting to walk up the Sron would normally do so from the north east side of Ben More, not from Benmore farm, and in any case walkers don’t need a 2m wide track (for that is what it is proposed to retain) which stops half way across the hillside. In relation to the first, shepherding is being cut like everything else and shepherds are under pressure to do more in less time. However, the Design Statement states the cost of scheme is approx £530,000 and annual revenue estimated at c£75k and the scheme to operate for 100 years. In other words it could make over £6m profit in its lifetime, ample to pay for reinstatement of track and to pay the shepherd to walk up to the intakes occasionally
Having visited the site I have become more concerned. The construction track will cut across the hillside from just after the top of the last zigzag on the existing track to just above the top of the plantation. This is steep ground. It means cutting a great bench into the hillside. There are diagrams illustrating this in the application but no indication of how long each steep cross section will be:
The applicants state that they will set out in the Construction Method Statement which would follow approval being given to this scheme how this track will be constructed. I don’t think the Park should accept this. The landscape impact of tracks across steeper slopes is all too evident on the other side of Benmore Glen.
There are huge challenges as to how to store the soil and rock excavated to create a track across steep ground and then restore them. I am concerned one reason why the developer may be proposing to retain the track is they know it will be very difficult to restore such ground.
This is not just a landscape issue. The top section of new track and intakes are within the Ben More Site of Special Scientific Interest and all works affecting the soils and vegetation are what are known as operations requiring consent – for complete list of Ben More SSSI ORCS site190-doc28. That is an additional reason to be concerned about the upper access track.
While four intakes are proposed, and the plan states they will be small, there are no photomontages in the landscape assessment of how they may look like in the landscape. This seems to me to be a failure. The landscape assessment says the intakes will not be seen from the summit of Ben More, but that is because its just over the brow of the steep slope, they are likely to be visible for much of the way up both the north east and north west shoulders of Ben More. The current plan is for concrete intakes – no mention of incorporating stone as was done on Ben More burn. Another step backwards.
Why its important to comment on this scheme
I started to look at hydro scheme planning applications after most of them had been approved and what is striking is that I have not yet come across a single objection to an application – not even the heart of Glen Affric! Ordinary people have just assumed hydro is good while our public agencies, including the National Park Authorities, are under pressure from the Scottish Government to do nothing which gets in the way of the hydro gold rush (most of the financial benefits of which end up in the City of London and nowhere near the people struggling to make ends meet in the Highlands). If no-one objects, our planning authorities, who are under great pressures, simply approve what is put in front of them. We are now reaping the consequences of poorly conceived and poorly executed hydro schemes across Scotland.
Its time therefore to make a stand and what better place than in a National Park which is supposed to have special regard to our landscape and wildlife. I am not against hydro schemes but this must not be at the expense of the landscape and at the very least, in this scheme, the construction track should be fully restored but I think the Park as Planning Authority should be seeking more information about how the track could be constructed and then restored on this ground. A copy of my objection is pasted below.
NB My objection should appear on the Park’s website BUT a previous comment on this scheme, dated 4th July (also appended), which pointed out that there was no mention on that date of this proposal affecting a SSSI, has not been published, although that omission has been rectified. Instead I was told: “Please be assured however that I am aware of the constraints on the site and all relevant consultees were consulted when the application was validated.” I guess if the LLTNPA had published my comment, someone might have used their failure to list the “constraints” affecting the site as a reason to invalidate the application, or maybe the just don’t like it when parkswatch picks up on mistakes?
Member of Public
Customer objects to the Planning Application
Reasons for comment:
Unlike the recently completed hydro scheme on Benmore Farm where the construction track was removed, in this case the applicant wishes to retain it which would have an adverse impact on the landscape of Glen Dochart. The justification for keeping the track is it would help the shepherd and provide for walkers who may wish to climb Ben More along Sron nam Forsaireana – actually walkers wanting to walk up the Sron do this from the north east and with £75k a year income the farm has plenty of money to employ the shepherd/ess to be a little longer on the hill. There is no proper assessment of retaining this track – eg no photomontage – which would be highly visible from slopes below Ben More summit. It is important therefore that the LLTNPA adheres to its policy guidance on renewables and insists if this hydro goes ahead the track is restored.
There are other issues with the scheme though: there are views from the summit down the north slopes of Ben More to the intakes (and to proposed track) and, while relatively small, they may be visible from above. Impact should be properly evaluated and could be reduced if intakes clad in natural stone (instead of plain concrete as proposed). In order not to impact on the landscape these schemes need to be as near to proper run of river schemes, with small intakes, as possible. In addition, the line of the construction track is across what is a steep hillside – as depicted in steepest cross section. For a construction track to be created here will require major engineering which is likely to be very challenging to restore (both to restore the materials which have been removed and then replace them). The Developer is suggesting this should be dealt with by Construction Method Statement post planning permission, I believe the Park needs to be confident the land can be fully restored before granting any consent.
Comments were submitted at 11:52 PM on 04 Jul 2017 from Mr Nick Kempe.
Benmore Farm Crianlarich Stirling FK20 8QS
Construction of a run of river hydropower scheme
Member of Public
Customer made comments neither objecting to or supporting the Planning Application
Reasons for comment:
There are no constraints listed against this application at present although the upper pipe and track appear to be within the Ben More SSSI. Could you please confirm whether this is case or not? Among Operations Requiring Consent for the SSSI are alterations of watercourses and construction of new tracks and drainage both of which are included in these proposals
The Corriemulzie community hydro scheme http://braemarhydro.org.uk/scheme/, just west of Braemar on the road to Linn of Dee, provides an interesting case of how developments can go badly wrong despite the best intentions of the main players. I first visited this scheme, which became operational last summer, in September 2016 and was horrified by what I saw. Subsequent research and correspondence with the Cairngorms National Park Authority established the situation was a little more complex than it appeared and both the CNPA and Braemar Community Hydro were taking action to rectify the damage that had been caused by the contractors and design failings. I have therefore delayed blogging about it but a check up visit last weekend (its a ten minute walk from the road and well worth a visit if in the area), on the way to a stravaig through the eastern Cairngorms, showed that remedial measures have only had a limited impact. I think its time therefore to publicise what appears to have gone wrong and what lessons could be learned for the future.
Historically there was a hydro scheme on the Corriemulzie burn which supplied power to Mar Lodge.
The new powerhouse sits by site of former powerhouse although the track to it, down from the Braemar to Linn of Dee Road, is new. In my view – and I realise this is just a matter of opinion – the wider landscape impact of the track is not a major issue. I did not revisit the track though last September there were both good things and bad about how the land around it had been restored.
In design terms the power house is well located, close to bank and trees, and the turning area for vehicles is small. All positives. The ground above the pipeline had recovered quickly, with evidence of turfs having been stored and replaced. Incredible care needs to be taken with removal of turf and topsoil if all the surface area is to be re-covered in restoration and in this area there was not enough to use on the banks (bare patch left) though I suspect this has recovered by now.
The track has been less well done, with large boulders left on the surface of what had previously been a grassy field. The bank on the right though is at a sufficiently low angle to recover quickly and a good example of track design.
The Corriemulzie hydro intake area
The main problem with the Corriemulzie scheme is around the main intake. It was not pristine prior to the hydro and the hill track and vehicle use had caused some needless damage.
The planning however was a chance to restore past damage and the intake was intended to look like this:
If this had been delivered, I would be congratulating Braemar Community Hydro and the Cairngorms National Park Authority whose landscape adviser had said “the location of intake is a small but very scenic a ‘gem’ of a location” and recommended the utmost care.
Unfortunately, what has happened is completely different to what was intended.
And this is an overview of how the area looks now:
The fundamental issues here are:
there has been no effective restoration of the bank along the burn;
the bank on the hill was excavated and is far too steep to be restored;
the track and turning area are far too wide.
While there had been obvious attempts at amelioration since September 2016 these have not in my view addressed the fundamental issues.
Four strips of fabric had been applied to the oversteep bank to reduce erosion but this has had no impact. There is no sign of vegetation re-establishing itself and the problems have been increased by deer (you can see hoof marks between 2nd and 3rd strips) walking down the slope.
There has been “compensatory” tree planting but no attempt to restore vegetation to the bank of the burn. This should have been done months ago at the beginning of the growing season.
A new signboard has been erected by the intake. The line of pylons is rather ironic given CNPA’s opposition to the Beauly Denny and I wonder what Prince Charles, who opened the scheme, and talks so much about architectural standards and traditional landscapes thought about the destruction. Its as if, though, everyone at the official opening had their eyes shut.
Despite the atrocious finishing along the bank and track, this photos shows some good things about the scheme. You can just see the pipe from the second hydro running below the bridge – you won’t see it unless you look out for it – and the CNPA told the developer there was no need to erect fencing around the intake. I agree. All that good design though counts for little if the destruction round about is not addressed.
So what has gone wrong?
I have tried since the weekend to look through planning documents. There are pages of them, one document submitted by Braemar Community Hydro is over 200 pages long, and seems to cover everything except a description of the detailed work that was planned to construct the main intake. The CNPA landscape adviser drew attention to this in an appendix to the Committee Report and recommended further detailed plans were required before planning consent was given. The Committee however gave approval on condition these documents were produced but unfortunately these documents, if they were produced, are not on the CNPA website. It is possible therefore that the CNPA allowed this development to go ahead without a proper landscape plan for the intake area. If so, that in effect allowed the contractor to do what they wanted in the intake area and undermined all the other efforts staff had made to ensure this scheme was of the highest standard possible. One small mistake can have huge consequences.
However, I don’t think all the emphasis should be on paperwork, which is beyond the capacity of any community organisation to deliver and which means they have to put themselves in the hands of consultants. I suspect if there was a hole in the paperwork, Braemar Community Hydro did not appreciate this either.
A fundamental problem with the proliferation of hydro schemes is that monitoring their construction is not being properly resourced. I think if there had been someone properly qualified on site, the bank on the hillside would never have been excavated because it would have been only too obvious it could not be restored properly. The problem is our National Parks rely on developers appointing an Ecological Clerk of Works to do the supervision and these people are beholden to the developer/contractor who pay their wages – they are therefore not independent. It may also be the case – given the many failures to restore construction tracks – that they don’t have the right skills.
A related issue is that both our National Parks only appear to start proper monitoring once construction is almost complete. Here is what CNPA Chief Executive Grant Moir told me in January:
“CNPA staff noted various breaches at the site in April 2016 during a routine monitoring visit. The agent was immediately contacted by phone to express concern and also contacted in writing. CNPA staff and the agent for the development met on site in May 2016 to discuss how to reinstate or mitigate the unauthorised or unsatisfactory works. The agent provided an initial written programme of reinstatement works in June 2016 which the CNPA did not consider satisfactory”
What a commendable response and the contrast with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority who treat everything as a Freedom of Information Request is striking. The problem though is once the construction has gone wrong, and created unnecessary damage, this becomes very difficult and very expensive to put right. Our National Parks need to try and find a way of preventing problems rather than detecting them after the event.
Lots of tree planting should not be seen as compensation for poor ground restoration work.
What needs to happen
I hope this post has demonstrated that the way the planning system operates at present, even when our National Parks’ have taken considerable and commendable efforts with hydro developments, they can go badly wrong.
The focus of the CNPA and Braemar Community Hydro needs to be around addressing the landscape damage around the first intake. I think that to remedy the damage will require considerable expertise and require money. If the contractor cannot be made liable, it means the shareholders for the hydro, who were expecting a 5-8% return (there is interesting information on the finances on the community hydro website), Mar Estate which is charging rent (and was responsible for previous damage in the area) and the community may have to wait for their return. It seems to people that all the people who were going to gain from this development have a collective responsibility to ensure that this is not at the expense of the landscape. Success would then be being able to promote this as being a nice place to go for a walk again – a “small gem” in the National Park – as it was in the past.
In terms of planning system failures, it seems to me these are twofold. First, not nearly enough emphasis is put on the landscape impact of construction prior to planning approval. Planning applications consider the wider impact on the landscape but not the more localised impact. Its hard to see the Corriemulzie intake from any distance but the local impact is huge. Our National Parks should be exemplars of good practice in this respect but they generally approve hydro schemes in principle without detailed Construction Method Statements. Then, once a scheme is approved in principle, its much harder for staff to influence and its probably less of a priority, because they are judged on the time it takes from planning application to approval. None of this is the fault of planning staff, its the system and that needs to change.
Second, the focus of monitoring needs to shift from the end stage of the construction to the beginning and be independent of both developer and contractor. This would prevent problems arising. For example, if our National Parks were ensuring all vegetation was properly removed and stored before pipelines were dug or tracks created or broadened, restoration would then be far more effective.
For this to happen though, our National Parks, like all our public authorities, need to be properly resourced.
Lastly, it would be good, given what I see as their good intentions, if the CNPA, Braemar Community Hydro and the other main players had a proper discussion, a post mortem if you like, about what lessons might be learned and then publicised this so they could be used to inform the development of hydro schemes, both community and commercial, in future.
During a round of the Glen Prosen watershed 10 days ago, I came across a bulldozed track on the plateau at the head of the Glen which appears to be just inside the boundary of the Glen Isla Estate and therefore created by that estate. The lack of vegetation on the surface – on what is a relatively fertile soil – and the state of the turves which have been piled by the track suggest the track is relatively recent. There is nothing about this track on the Cairngorms National Park Authority planning portal and it therefore would appear to have been constructed without planning permission.
I had not realised when blogging about the Glen Clova and Glen Prosen hydro tracks (see here) that the head of Glen Prosen was within Wild Land Area 16 “Lochnagar and Mount Keen”. There is a presumption against development in wild land areas – even more reason, if more were needed, for the CNPA to taken enforcement action and ensure the “temporary” hydro access tracks are removed.
After crossing Driesh and Mayar, we met the track near the Mayar Burn. While I was tempted to follow the northern section towards Dun Hillocks and Finalty Hill, I was not sure my legs would take it (first longer run of the year!). It was difficult to see how far the track goes because of the rolling nature of the landscape here which is well described in the Wild Land Statement (see here) which was published last year:
At a broad level, the landform tends to be convex, limiting visibility up and down slopes. This means that, from the hill tops, neighbouring glens are screened and there is a horizontal emphasis of open views directed over successive tiers of ridges and tops extending far into the distance and contributing to a sense of awe.
What is clear is that it penetrates well into the Wild Land area 16. I couldn’t tell either if it enters the Lochnagar and Deeside National Scenic Area, the boundary of which runs in a straight line between Mayar and Finalty Hill (any information on this, particularly photos, would be welcome).
The creation of the track has removed much of the challenge of navigating across what was a featureless area of plateau. If you have ever tried to walk between Tom Buidhe and Mayar in the mist you will know what I mean. This quality of the plateau, so important to adventure, is also well described in the Wild Land statement:
Despite a mixed composition of hills and undulations, the simplicity of the landform and land cover at a broad level means individual peaks do not tend to stand out and it can be difficult to estimate vertical scale or distance within the landscape. This makes navigation challenging upon the hills and plateaux, especially in low cloud, thus increasing risk.
Because its intermittent, although the constructed sections predominate, its possible that the track was not created all at once but over time.
The track has been created by a digger scraping off the turf and dumping it by the side of the new track. The positive thing about this is it should make restoration of the track quite simple. All the estate would have to do is replace the turves and soil onto the bare surface.
The older vehicle erosion shows that its not just constructed tracks which are the problem – its vehicle use. The CNPA should be addressing the issue of vehicular use on higher ground. A start would be to restrict the type of vehicles that can be used, ban heavier vehicles like landrovers and just allow quad bikes which are much lighter and, if used carefully, cause much less damage to vegetation. This could be done through the creation of conservation byelaws.
We didn’t follow the track over Mid Hill and so did not ascertain where it started (again photos would be welcome) but it appears most of it lies within the Cairngorms National Park boundary.
There is a short spur to the track down Broom Hill, which unlike other sections of track has been created by importing aggregate and dumping it on top of vegetation. This section of track will be much harder to restore.
Had I not stopped to take photos, we would have made fast time from the Mayar Burn to the bealach with Craigie Thieves. After that, the going was much slower and although the hills were much lower, they provided a wilder experience even after we had crossed out of the National Park.
Although there was a fence, the absence of track made a huge difference to the experience, altogether wilder and hard on the legs, and not just because I was forced to play the role of aged deerhound trying to keep within sight of my mate!
Until, that is, we came to this monstrosity on the Hill of Adenaich, well outside the CNPA boundary, and the responsibility of Angus Council to fix. Sadly, whether these tracks are created or not appears to have very little to do with the Planning Authority, its all determined by the landowner: most create tracks, some don’t. It would be good though if our National Parks became exemplars of good practice and the CNPA by its actions inspires Angus Council also to take action.
What needs to happen
I have reported the track featured here to the CNPA, asked them to confirm whether they were aware of it not and stated that it appears to have been constructed for sporting purposes and therefore should have required full planning permission. In my view the track should be removed. The CNPA in their new Partnership Plan, to their credit, have stated that there will be a presumption against new hill tracks within upland areas in the National Park. This one enters a Wild Land area to boot so there is every reason for them to take action. If the CNPA act fast, much of the damage could be restored quite quickly (because the turves removed to create the track are still usable) so I would urge them to do so.
Whether the Glen Isla estate, which straddles the National Park Boundary, will co-operate remains to be seen. While the Glen Isla estate appears on the CNPA map of estates which lie within the National Park (see here) there is no estate management plan. The CNPA initiative to get estates to publish management plans was a good one but has been ignored by many landowners. In my view the publication of management plans for all estates within the National Park should be compulsory and such plans should include maps of all existing tracks (and where they end) as well as a statement from each estate about what vehicles they use off track. This would it much easier for the CNPA to take enforcement action in cases like this.
A week before taking action against the Cluny Estate track (see here) the Cairngorms National Park Authority issued a planning contravention notice against the owners of the Glen Clova estate for failing to remove the temporary hydro construction track behind the hotel. This is another very significant action from the CNPA and should be welcomed by all who care about the landscape. First, because the CNPA approved the hydro scheme on the basis that the track should be temporary – its permanent access tracks which cause the greatest landscape impact with hydro schemes – so well done to the CNPA for putting the landscape before profit. Second, because the CNPA are now prepared to enforce the conditions of the original planning application, unlike the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority who caved in to the Glen Falloch Estate when they applied to make the temporary construction tracks there permanent (see here).
My thanks to Jojo Neff, who has been monitoring hill tracks and passed on some photos (above). Dismayed by what these showed, on Saturday I took the opportunity to have a look myself as part of a run round the Glen Prosen watershed. In the course of that I came across another temporary hydro track at the head of Glen Prosen which has also not yet been re-instated.
The track is visible from many points along the 8km ridge between Coremachy and Driesh. I was too far away – and without binoculars – to be able to tell if the horizontal scar across the hillside is still a track (would welcome information on this) or has been re-instated but to a very poor standard. The uphill section of the track is far more prominent than the lower part of the footpath to Loch Brandy.
The planning application was approved by the CNPA planning committee in 2010. There is no information on the CNPA planning portal at present following the decision letter. As a result there is almost no information about the construction track. All I could find was a reference to “temporary access tracks” in the Committee Report and this map which shows the pipeline, not a track, and indicates therefore there was no proposal for a permanent track:
The Decision Letter from the CNPA required the developer to produce a Construction Method Statement, which would have provided information about where the temporary access track was to be sited and how it was to be constructed and the ground then re-instated, but this information is not public. Nor is there any information on the planning portal about when the work started, when it was “completed” or subsequent correspondence between the CNPA and the Developer. I will ask for all this information under FOI but in my view the CNPA’s reasons for taking action should be public (and should not be limited to a one line entry on their Planning Enforcement Register). It would also be in the public interest to know just how long negotiations had been going on before the CNPA decided to take enforcement action.
The owner of the land and developer of the hydro scheme appears to be Hugh Niven, who runs the Glen Clova Hotel, the Glen Clova farm – which has been supplying Albert Bartlett with potatoes for over 25 years (see here) – and Pitlivie Farm, near Carnoustie in Angus. This according to information on the internet is the site of one of Scotland largest agricultural roof mounted PV installations. An interest in renewables then.
Mr Niven had a run in with Angus Council Planning in Glen Clova just before the Cairngorms National Park was created. In 2000 (see here) Angus Council initiated enforcement action against Mr Niven because he had created a new loch in the Glen without planning permission and there were sufficient safety concerns about the earthworks that the public road was closed for a time. Two years later Mr Niven applied for, and was granted, retrospective planning permission for the works (see here).
There are lessons for this for the CNPA. First, this is not the first occasion Hugh Niven has ignored planning law. In this he is not unusual – many landowners still see planning authorities as imposing unwelcome restrictions on their ability to manage land any way they wish. Second, back in 2000 it appears that Hugh Niven argued that what he had done was justifiable and the risk is that he will now do so again which will lead to years of wrangling. While the creation of a loch might have been acceptable on landscape grounds, the permanent retention of this track is not and the CNPA therefore needs to avoid drawn into negotiations about how this scar could be ameliorated and take a stand. This track needs to be removed and like the Cluny track, is therefore a fundamental test for the CNPA. They deserve the support of everyone who cares about the landscape in our National Parks.
As in the Cluny case, it appears that the developer does not lack resources: the latest accounts for Clova Estate Farm Ltd doesn’t show income (because they are abbreviated accounts – a fundamental issue in terms of business transparency) but does show the business has total net assets of £8,037,710. Hugh Niven therefore has the resources to pay for the re-instatement of the hydro construction track.
Glen Prosen hydro track
After completing the ridge on the west side of Glen Clova to Mayar and after coming across a new bulldozed track on the plateau leading from Bawhelps to Dun Hillocks (which I will cover in another post) the head of Glen Prosen is scarred by new tracks and clearfell north west of Kilbo.
On returning home I checked the planning report from 2013 which made clear that the construction tracks would be temporary: “Beyond the powerhouse there will be a temporary access road for construction to reach both intakes.” Again well done to the CNPA for putting landscape before profit.
The Committee Report also concluded:
Landscape and Visual Effects 40. The landscape impacts of this proposal are minor, given the scale of the development and the location in the upper Glen Prosen. Conditions relating to the construction phase of the development have been proposed to minimise any short term impact. In addition, the set of mitigation measures proposed are likely to have a positive impact on the development site in the long term.
The trouble is at present the landscape impact is anything but minor, as the photos show, and this is mainly because the construction tracks have not been removed, although the clearfell has added to the destruction. There were no signs of machinery on site and it appears therefore that the Glen Prosen estate, like the Glen Clova estate, thinks the work is finished and simply hopes to avoid the expense of re-instating these tracks. It will be much easier for the CNPA to take action if they show resolution in addressing the Glen Clova track. The message to landowners will be then loud and clear: you cannot afford to ignoring the planning rules in the National Park.
This post looks at the Conservation and Land Management section of the draft Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Partnership Plan (NPPP) which is out for consultation until 3rd July (see here). It argues that the Outcomes (above) in the draft NPPP are devoid of meaningful content, considers some the reasons for this and outlines some alternative proposals which might go some way to realising the statutory conservation objectives for the National Park.
Call me old fashioned but I don’t see why the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park needs a vision for conservation – “An internationally renowned landscape where nature, heritage, land and water are valued, managed and enhanced to provide multiple benefits for people and nature” – when it has a statutory is duty a) “to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area” and b) to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area. The statutory duty to my mind is much simpler and clearer, the vision just marketing speak.
Indeed, the draft National Park Partnership Plan is far more like a marketing brochure than a serious plan. This makes submission of meaningful comments very difficult. Feel good phrases such as “iconic wildlife”, “haven for nature”, “stunning and varied wildlife”, “vital stocks of natural capital” are peppered throughout the document. The reality is rather different, but you need to go to the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to find this out:
The Park has 27 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to grazing pressures
Three river and 12 loch waterbodies in the Park still fail to achieve “good” status in line with Water Framework Directive (WFD) objectives.
The Park has 25 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to pressures from Invasive Non-Native Species.
In other words progress during the period of the 2012-2017 Plan has not been what one might have expected in a National Park. Instead of trying to learn from this and set out actions to address the issues, the LLTNPA is trying to bury failures under the table and to conceal its lack of a clear plan with marketing speak. There is no need to take my word for it, the problems are clearly spelled out in the SEA:
The main weakness of the new plan over the extant plan is its lack of specificity combined
with its with its very strategic nature: given limited resources and the framing of the priorities in the draft plan, it is unclear how intervention will be prioritised. For example, in the extant NPPP [2012-17], waterbody restoration and natural flood management measures are focussed in the Forth and Tay catchments. The new plan does not appear to include any such prioritisation and it is unclear if there will be sufficient resources to deliver the ambitious waterbody restoration measures across all catchments during the plan period. This key weakness is likely to be addressed by using the new NPPP as a discussion document to formalise arrangements and agreements with partner organisations on an individual basis (e.g. using individual partnership agreements as per the extant NPPP). However, it would be preferable if resource availability (and constraint) is articulated clearly in the plan document to help manage expectations;
Or, to put it another way, the NPPP outcomes are so “strategic” as to be meaningless, the LLTNPA has failed to consider resource issues and is planning to agree actions in secret with partner bodies once the consultation is over. It appears that all the failures in accountability which took place with the development of the camping byelaws (developed in 13 secret Board Meetings) will now apply to conservation.
Economic interests are being put before conservation
This failure in governance – about how plans should be developed – conceals a skewing of the National Park’s conservation objectives towards economic interests (in spite of the duty of the LLTNPA, under the Sandford principle and section 9.6 of the National Park (Scotland) Act to put conservation first). The best example is the beginning of the conservation section where the LLTNPA outlines the main threats to the “natural environment” the Park faces:
Impacts on freshwater and marine water bodies from problems such as pollution from surrounding land uses [ e.g algal blooms in Loch Lomond];
Unsustainable levels of wild and domesticated grazing animals in some upland and woodland areas, leading to reduced tree cover and the erosion of soils, which are important carbon stores [the 27 sites according to the SEA];
The spread of invasive non-native species which displace our rich native wildlife; [we are given no indication of how much progress has been made tackling this over last 5 years]
The impacts of climate change leading to warmer, wetter weather patterns and a subsequent
increase in flood events, major landslides and rapid shifts in natural ecosystems.
Omitted from this list are the many threats to the landscape of the National Park which is being destroyed by “developments”: Flamingo Land, the Cononish Goldmine, transport routes and over 40 hydro schemes with all their associated tracks.
In the world of parkspeak however all these developments will be classed as successes. The reason? One of the measures of success is “Planning & Development: The percentage of the Park and/or number of sites with landscape mitigation schemes”. The developments in the photos above have all been “mitigated” by the Park as Planning Authority – an “unmitigated bloody disaster” would be a more accurate description of what the LLTNPA is allowing to happen.
Many of these developments also impact on the ecology of the National Park. For example, despite all the fine words about water catchment planning and flood prevention there is NO consideration of the impact of the 40 plus hydo schemes being developed in the National Park on flooding (send the water through a pipe and it will descend the hill far more quickly than in a river) or the ecology of rivers.
A more specific example is conservation Priority 11 which says the LLTNPA will “Support for land managers to plan and deliver multiple environmental and social benefits, alongside economic return, through the creation and delivery of Whole Farm and Whole Estate Management Plans”. This is the same LLTNPA which, while claiming 28% of the National Park is now covered by such plans, has recently refused to make them public on the grounds they are commercially sensitive(see here). If this is not putting commercial before conservation interests, I am not sure what is.
The few specific “conservation” objectives are not about conservation at all
While there are very few specific conservation objectives in the NPPP, those that do exist are clearly driven by other agendas
Conservation Priority 4 Supporting projects that enhance opportunities to enjoy landscapes particularly along major transport routes and around settlements and also that better meet the different travel mode needs of visitors, communities and businesses. Priorities include: – Implementing a strategically planned and designed upgrade to the A82 between Tarbet and Inverarnan;
-Continuing to review landslip management measures on the A83 at The Rest and Be Thankful.
Landscape conservation has been reduced to ensuring that people can enjoy the view from the road. There is no consideration on the impact of those roads (visual, noise etc):
It is important that we ensure that key areas of the Park where people experience the inspiring vistas found here are recognised and enhanced. This means that key transport routes, such as trunk roads and the West Highland railway line, along with the settlements in the Park, continue to provide good lines of sight to the stunning views of the iconic landscapes found here.
Biodiversity in the National Park
The new NPPP actually represents a considerable step backwards from Wild Park 2020 (see here), the LLTNPA’s biodiversity action plan, which is not even referred to in the NPPP. The vision set out in Wild Park (P11), which is about restoring upland and lowland habitats, enriching food chains (to increase numbers of top predators) woodland re-structuring etc, is worth reading – a far clearer and coherent vision than in the NPPP. That should have been the NPPP starting point.
Wild Park contained 90 specific actions, which were due to be reviewed in 2017 – “the Delivery and Monitoring Group will undertake a mid-term review in 2017 of progress overall on the projects and programmes in Wild Park 2020” . There is no mention in the NPPP about what has happened to that when it should have been central to developing the new plan. Part of the problem is the LLTNPA has taken very little interest in conservation over the last three years – there are hardly any papers to the Board on conservation issues as all its focus and the Park’s resources have been devoted to camping management.
The weakness in Wild Park was that while it included many excellent projects, these were mostly limited to small geographical areas and many were located on land owned by NGOs (eg a significant proportion of all the projects were located on NTS land at Ben Lomond and the Woodland Trust property in Glen Finglas). There was nothing on a landscape scale and very few contributions from Forestry Commission Scotland, by far the largest landowner in the National Park. The draft NPPP claims (under conservation outcome 1) to want to see conservation on a landscape scale but contains no proposals about how to do this apart from setting up a network of partnerships. This begs the question of why these partnerships will now work when we know over the last 15 years similar “partnerships” have failed to address the main land management issues which affect landscape scale conservation in the National Park, overgrazing and blanket conifer afforestation.
What needs to happen – biodiversity
First, the LLTNPA needs to have some ambition. On a landscape scale this should include a commitment to a significant increase increase in the proportion of forestry in the National Park which is managed in more sustainable ways. The SEA describes this as “there is an opportunity and interest in increasing the amount of woodland under continuous cover forestry (CCF) systems. This would reduce the amount of clear fell and associated soil erosion and landscape impacts”. So, instead of failing to mention the Argyll Forest Park, why is the LLTNPA not pressing the FCS to change the way it manages forestry there? How about aiming to convert 50% of that forest to continuous cover forestry systems over the next 10 years?
And on a species level, there is no mention of beavers in either the NPPP or SEA. Amazing the lack of join up:
Wild Park described one indicator of success in 25 years time would be that “The Tay catchment beaver population has expanded into the National Park at Loch Earn and Glen Dochart and is managed sympathetically to prevent damage to fisheries and forestry production, whilst also providing a significant new attraction to tourists and habitat benefits such as coppicing and pond creation in acceptable locations.” The LLTNPA should bring that forward and actively support beaver re-introduction projects now.
Second, there needs to be some far more specific plans (which the Park should have consulted on as part of the NPPP to guage public support) which are both geographical and theme based. Here are some examples:
So, what exactly is the plan for the Great Trossachs Forest, now Scotland’s largest National Nature Reserve, which is mainly owned by NGOs? (You would have no idea from the NPPP).
How is the LLNPA going to reduce overgrazing?
What about working to extend the Caledonian pine forest remnants in Glen Falloch (which would also hide some of the landscape scars created by hydro tracks)?
What does the LLTNPA intend to do to address the widespread persecution of species such as foxes in the National Park?
What can the National Park do to address the collapse of fish stocks in certain lochs or the threats to species such as arctic charr (whose population in Loch Earn is under threat from vendace).
I hope that people and organisations responding to the consultation will add to this list and demand that the LLTNPA comes up with a proper plan for the next five years and argue for the resources necessary to deliver such objectives.
What needs to happen – landscape
First, the LLTNPA needs to start putting landscape before development and state this clearly in the plan. There should be no more goldmines, large tourist developments (whether Flamingo Land or on the torpedo site at Arrochar) and improvements to transport infrastructure (which are needed) should not be at the expense of the landscape. Tunnelling the A82 along Loch Lomond – which has been discounted by Transport Scotland as too costly – should be put back on the agenda.
Second, I would like to see the LLTNPA have a bit of ambition and make an explicit commitment to restoring historic damage to landscapes. What about burying powerlines as is happening in English National Parks (there is one small initiative at present in the LLTNP)? How about restoring damage to the two wild land areas on either side of Glen Falloch, particularly the old hydro infrastructure south of Ben Lui, the largest area of wild land in the National Park?
The LLTNPA Board should also commit to a complete review of how it has managed the impact – “mitigated” – the construction of hydro schemes, engaging the people and organisations who have an interest in this. The big issue here is the hydro construction tracks, which the LLTNPA now allows to remain in place, and which have had a massive deleterious affect on the more open landscapes in the National Park. The LLTNPA’s starting point in the new NPPP is that there should be a presumption against any new tracks in the uplands and therefore that all hydro construction tracks should be removed in future. There should be a review of the tracks which have been agreed over the last five years and a plan developed on how these could be removed (the hydro scheme owners, many of whom are based in the city, are not short of cash and could afford to do this – that would be a demonstration of real partnership working).
Finally, as part of any plan to restructure conifer forests in the National Park, the LLTNPA also needs to develop new landscape standards for Forestry which should include matters such as track construction and felling. There should be a presumption against clearfell.
What needs to happen – resources
Just like the Cairngorms NPPP, the LLTNPA NPPP makes no mention of resource issues. Instead, the underlying assumption behind the plan is neo-liberal. The state should not provide – in this case the National Park cannot expect any further resources – and the priority of government is to enable business to do business, which (according to the theory) will all some benefits to trickle down to the National Park.
This is totally wrong. We need a proper plan which sets out what needs to be done, how much this will cost and how this will be funded. The Scottish Government could of course and probably would say “no” but things are changing politically and proper financing of conservation (and well paid rural jobs) are key to the third part of the NPPP which is about rural development.
On the longest day, the Cairngorms National Park Authority initiated enforcement action against the Cluny Estate for the unlawful track up Carn Leth Choin at the head of Glen Banchor (see here).
This is extremely welcome. In March the CNPA had written to me stating that they had been in discussions with the estate about restoring the track voluntarily but if the estate failed to do this the CNPA would take enforcement action (see here). The addition to the register indicates the estate is refusing to do this and the CNPA have been as good as their word. They deserve support from everyone who cares about our National Parks for initiating this action and will, I suspect, need ongoing support through what is likely to be a long and complex process. Its not easy to bring recalcitrant landowners to heal while removing tracks is not easy. It has been been done in the cases of a handful of hydro schemes, but these have been lower down the hill. The only time a track has been removed on high ground was when the National Trust for Scotland removed the bulldozed track on Beinn a Bhuird. This took place over a number of years, being completed in 2001, and took both significant investment and expertise.
Still, the Cluny Estate appears to be owned by the Qatari Royal Family (see here) who, even if they are under lots of pressure at present due to the blockade from their neighbours, are not short of a bob or two. There is no reason therefore why the restoration should not be to the highest possible standard. While they are about it perhaps the Qatari Royal Family, if its indeed they who own the Cluny estate, should also pay for the restoration of the lower part of the track which was constructed at an earlier date and is, I understand, outside the current enforcement action.
The significance of this action by the CNPA is far wider than just this hill track. In my view the Planning System in our National Parks (and indeed Scotland) has fallen into disrepute because enforcement action is hardly ever taken. The emphasis has been on co-operating with people who, like the owners of the Cluny estate or Natural Retreats on Cairngorm, appear to have no respect for the planning system, drag out processes of negotiation for years and do anything they can to avoid doing what is right. This therefore needs to be seen as a shot across the bows of all landowners in the National Park (its not the only one, as I will demonstrate in a future post). The CNPA need to see it through. I believe it will only take a couple of enforcement cases, where landowners learn what the costs of ignoring the planning systems are likely to be, and the whole attitude of landowners and their advisers to planning will change.
This is therefore a crucial test for the National Park and they should be congratulated for their new approach.
Back in March, hillwalker Rod McLeod, wrote an excellent report (see here) on Walk Highland about new track work he came across in Coilessan Glen, west of Loch Long, in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The glen is an important recreational route, being taken by the Cowal Way, and has recently become even more popular since Cnoc an Coinnich, the hill south of the Brack, was promoted to Corbett status.
Forestry Commission Scotland owns the land and also promote a cycle ride here:
Ardgartan shore and Coilessan Glen
Cycling – 6.9 miles / 11.0 km
Forest rides, loch shore and a fun descent back to the start.
Start by following the trail south towards the farm at Coilessan and round by the loch shore – you might just glimpse otters here. Then it’s a climb through red and roe deer’s territory in the shadow of Cnoc Coinnich before heading back down Coilessan Glen. Take a breather on the way to admire the view over Loch Long towards the Clyde!”
You might think therefore FCS would have an interest in improving the landscape and amenity in the area. The Argyll Forest Park is the oldest in Britain, created in 1935 and in its blurb the FCS exhort people to “Discover this beautiful, tree-cloaked corner of Scotland to walk, ride and relax in Britain’s oldest forest park.”
Instead FCS has upgraded part of the existing track network in Coilessan Glen by dumping aggregate on the earlier track. There is no planning application on the Loch Lomond and National Park Planning portal and the LINK Hill track group (see here) was not aware of the track through the prior notification system. While its possible the LINK hill track group missed the notification, its also possible that because this was an “upgrade” to an existing track the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority did not have to be notified (I will try and find out).
A sizeable new quarry has been created to source the new material for the track (the boulders in the middle ground are large) and gives some idea of how much aggregrate has been dumped on top of the existing tracks. In my view this should have required planning permission in the National Park.
The quality of the finishing – there was no evidence that machines are still on site or that the work is not regarded as complete – is extremely poor. It might be more accurate to say non-existent in places. Its does not appear likely that the FCS will try and extract trees up this corner so what is the argument for leaving it like this, apart from cost? This should not be acceptable in a National Park, whatever the commercial imperatives to extract timber.
The Dukes Path has been spared the upgrading work so far and gives an idea of what the tracks looked like previously. The silt trap is to catch the silt that is being washed down from the new track just above. The crushed schist forms a very fine material which is likely to continue to wash out of the new track surface for some time.
The lack of care for the landscape at the micro level is demonstrated not just by the abandoned pipe and decapitated cone but by the spoil heap at the side of the “new” track. The lack of care at the landscape level is demonstrated by the conifer replanting either side of the Dukes Path. This was one of the few sections of the Dukes Path where the walker is not hemmed in by forest on either side but but instead of using the felling as an opportunity to create a more diverse landscape, the replanting will have obscured the view completely in another 20 years.
This photo also illustrates difference between repairing a track surface compared to the upgrading work at Coilessan (below). The bare bank on left appears to date from original construction.
The history of a lack of care here is also demonstrated by the spoil to the left of the new track which has partly revegetated. It may date from earlier tree felling. Material from the new track will erode down the hillside.
The surface of the track is now firmer than two months ago, when Rod McLeod took his photos, and appears to have consolidated to an extent. I passed the Duke of Edinburgh Group shortly after taking this photo and asked them to rate the track and the walking experience. “Terrible” was the response.
Is this the way we would be treating what was a fine section of burn?
Compare the size of the former track on left with the upgraded one. Are bends this size really necessary?
In order to widen the track, further excavation of banks and ditches has been undertaken in places. The vegetated area bottom right represents former bank, a section behind appears to have been scraped bank behind that vegetated. I could see not evidence that any attempt had been made to store and replace turf over excavated areas, even in places such as this where there are native trees behind which one would hope will be left in place during the felling. The LLTNPA rightly requires vegetation to be restored in hydro track construction – even if it does not happen much of the time – and similar standards should be applied to forest track construction.
Will FCS do anything to improve this once the trees are extracted?
They have done very little to improve this section where felling is complete and indeed appears to have pre-dated the track. So, if the new track was not need for felling (top left) why is it needed now? Forest tracks have become larger and larger to accommodate bigger, heavier vehicles – just as in hydro track construction. The bigger the machines we use to work in the countryside, the bigger the tracks and the impact on landscape.
The contrast between the footpath construction in the upper part of the Glen and the track are quite stark. How can the FCS apply such difference standards? My 1980 1:50,000 map shows just a footpath, no track, up the Glen but now there is only a path in the upper part. A relief.
You can hardly see this plastic culvert under the path.
The care taken with the path contrast with the final section of the new track which finishes not far above.
The felling and replanting in background (slopes of Brack) all took place without this track “upgrade” demonstrating that there was no need for works of anything like the extent of those that have been undertaken.
How does this compare with the FCS blurb: “Ardgartan (meaning the High Garden in Gaelic) is at the heart of an area of vast natural beauty. The forest of Sitka and Norway spruce is an ideal habitat for red squirrel, roe deer, buzzards and owls. Mixed woodland along the many small rivers and burns is home to otters, kingfishers and bats.”
Even in the dense part of the forest, the upgraded track is visible from afar.
What needs to happen
The FCS needs to apply consistent standards of practice and up its game in our National Parks. In places, such as on east Loch Lomond, its doing some fantastic work to remedy past mistakes, in others, like here, it appears nothing has changed.
The LLTNPA meantime needs to start focussing on stopping any further destruction of landscape quality in the National Park through track construction, whether hydro schemes or forestry. In my view landscape protection and enhancement should be the number one priority in the new National Park partnership plan – instead of visitor management. Its not visitors that are destroying the landscape – their impacts are temporary – but how the land is managed. If the LLTNPA does not act, the very reason why people visit the National Park will disappear.
The LLTNPA and FCS need to start working together on these issues and start engaging the public about the quality of the “visitor experience” in conifer forests and how this might be improved.
Over the last couple of years, concerns in the outdoor community about the impact of hydro schemes has increased significantly and on Tuesday I went out with 6 members of the Munro Society http://www.themunrosociety.com/ to share knowledge and views on the ground. The Munro Society’s first objective is “To provide an informed and valued body of opinion on matters affecting the Munros and Scotland’s mountain landscape” and as part of this they have decided to survey the impact of hydro schemes. We went to the recently completed – or should that be compleated? – Ledcharrie hydro in Glen Dochart on what was a pretty wet day.
There was no machinery left of site, which is an indication that the developer, Glen Hydro Development Ltd, believes the work is finished. While I had seen plenty of hydro tracks with oversteep batter sides (banks) – which is contrary to the Loch Lomond and Trossach’s National Park Authority’s Supplementary Guidance on Renewables (see here) – I had not seen mounds of earth, as on the right. The way the land lies here, they are totally out of place and have changed the landscape. These things should matter in a National park.
Afterwards, I checked the planning application.
The diagram left shows the mounds of earth on the right of the track were supposed to be temporary. Why then are they still there?
The width of the new track is in places extraordinarily wide, as the double gates illustrate. Double gates have also been left in place at the Glen Falloch Hydro Scheme. One way the LLTNPA could help ensure tracks are narrower is by requiring all double gates to be replaced by single gates after construction has finished.
The LLTNPA’s Supplementary Planning Guidance actually recommends tracks are not even one gate wide:
Where tracks are to be retained, especially in locations which are sensitive in terms of landscape impact, they should be restored from the specification required for construction vehicles and be reduced in width to the minimum required for ongoing quad bike (or similar) access.
The LLTNPA’s Chief Executive subsequently clarified in a letter to Mountaineering Scotland that this should mean tracks are no more than 2m wide, which would allow for a vegetated central strip, except on uphill sections and bends where he has stated 2.5m is acceptable.
At Ledcharrie the planning documentation confirms this approach:
“Permanent access tracks will be restored to their original condition upon completion of the works. Temporary access tracks will be removed and the surrounding ground reinstated upon completion”.
A permanent track from the powerhouse to the primary intake (surfaced with local crushed stone and about 2 metres in width).
Now I think this is extremely welcome. Two metres is quite wide enough for a landrover or quad bike and would force vehicles to follow the same line along a track, allowing vegetation to establish in the middle of the track. Talking with members of the Munro Society they agreed. Maybe we need a compulsory National Standard for hill tracks in Scotland. The problem at Ledcharrie however is that almost everywhere the planning documentation for the track, and the LLTNPA’s own standards, have been ignored.
The tape measure here is extended to its maximum, 3m. The width of the track is close to 6m and there has been no attempt to restore the banks on either side creating a 9m broad scar up the hill. This should be totally unacceptable anywhere, let alone in a National Park, which says it believes uphill sections of track should just be 2.5m wide.
Not all the track restoration is as bad and there is short section above the double gate (above) where it almost meets the 2m specification and there has been a reasonable attempt to restore the land to its original condition. Why here but not elsewhere is a question worth asking? It seems totally arbitrary.
Even here, though, all is not as it should be. On the left bank the developer appears to have run out of peat to place on top of the bouldery soil. The Planning documentation required a:
management plan for the whole site shall be submitted and approved by the Planning Authority. This shall include details of:
The storage and management of the different habitat types and turves of different sizes and depths; and
Coding of habitats to ensure habitat turves are reinstated in the correct areas
Unfortunately the LLTNPA does not generally add documents required in a planning consent to the planning portal so its impossible for the public to see plan for retention of turves was agreed. The photos show however that whatever happened, insufficient care was taken in removing and restoring turves, with the result that large areas of ground have been left bare.
The planning consent also included a specific requirement that:
Turves should be reinstated over the pipeline as soon as possible to ensure maximum restoration.
The photo (above) shows this never happened – the problem is the LLTNPA is not monitoring its planning requirements on an ongoing basis through construction with the result they are ignored. While this is a failure, in landscape terms, the Munro Society members were generally agreed that the main landscape concern is the track because the vegetation above the pipe, although not restored properly, is likely to recover quite quickly.
The Munro Society team had between them been up almost every 30m bump in Scotland and besides the hill chat, one of the pleasures of going out with them was hearing what such experienced hill goers thought about various aspects of the hydro development. I have rarely seen a constructed stone culvert in the LLTNPA hydro schemes as above. They approved. While the track at Ledcharrie is far too broad, increasing its impact on the landscape, almost every culvert pipe had been properly finished, (unlike the Glen Falloch schemes). Just why contractors are good at one thing or in one area but then fail totally in others is another question that needs to be asked. I suspect the problem is a lack of monitoring from the LTNPA to ensure consistent high standards. If the problem is lack of resources to do this, the answer is simple: re-direct resources away from chasing innocent campers and direct them to protecting our landscape. The impact of even the most irresponsible of campers is temporary, the impact of these track is, in human timescales, permanent.
Just upstream of the culvert though, Stuart Logan, Munro Society President spotted that this. No-one present thought that lining stream beds with concrete is acceptable (this was the first time I had seen this). How could this happen in a National Park?
The track above the culvert was also very poor, not only far too wide, but it had been lined with blocks which appear to have been created by the developer blasting through rock bands where the soil was shallow. The end result looked more appropriate for a quarry than a National Park.
Another thing I had not seen was the use of netting in an attempt to hold soil in place at the edge of a track. Here the netting has totally failed and filled with material that has slumped down the slope, a consequence of the bank/edge of the batter being too steep. On the top right you can see how soil and rock, which could have been used to help reduce the angle of the slope, has been left dumped on top of vegetation.
On the downside of the track, below the scar in the photo above, the material excavated to create the track had been dumped on vegetation and no attempt has been made to restore this. The drainage ditch is a later addition bu,t instead of using the new turves to help restore the ground elsewhere, they had been left scattered on the neighbouring ground (large turf centre)
We had a good discussion about the main intake on the Ledcharrie burn. There was general agreement that the intake was well located being tucked below the level of the banks and surrounding ground and would not be visible from afar. There was debate about whether the rip rap embankment, in this case partially embedded in concrete, could have been designed better. I asked people about the concrete dam walls, pointing out the LLTNPA’s Supplementary Guidance suggests these could be faced in stone, although I had never seen this. Someone pointed out there was plenty of material available to do this from the old dyke behind the intake (centre of photo). So why not?
We then walked down the track a bit before heading up to the second intake which I had only realised was there because of the disturbed ground above the pipe. You could not see it from below and some of those present had doubts about whether there was a second intake – a really good sign! Again the visual impact of the intake itself was not significant in landscape terms, although the concrete walls could have been faced with stone.
The main difference in impact between the two intakes came down to the access track.
The first intake is hardly visible from 100m away except for the access track and turning area. (The burn slanting right to left has been diverted so it now enters the Ledcharrie burn above the intake. Another restoration failure can be seen centre far side of river – a patch of bare ground created because turves and topsoil were not properly stored).
The second, and more minor intake, has no access track and the ground has been completely restored and to a higher standard than that on either side of the track below. The line of the pipe and temporary construction track will probably have disappeared within a couple of years. Everyone thought this was great, its how hydro schemes should be.
This then raised the question of why access tracks are needed. I explained that the main reason to access the intakes is to clear them of vegetation. This can be done by a person with a rake. This raised the question of why, if maintenance staff are expected to walk to the second intake, couldn’t they also walk to the first intake?
This is what the LLTNPA’s Supplementary Guidance says should happen:
It is expected that any new access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored unless there is overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development.
The problem is that LLTNPA have not followed their own guidance. Had they done so and the track been removed, or restored to the condition of the old path/track which runs up the glen and then over to Balquhidder by Kirkton Glen (photo below), there was agreement that this hydro would have been quite acceptable.
There was a good discussion too about how many people used the old path and whether footfall would increase as a result of the new track (we were passed by one walker). While people were generally appalled by the standard of construction of the track, there was a recognition that in terms of both landscape value and recreational use, this was not one of the most outstanding areas of the National Park. While we didn’t reach a definitive conclusion, there was a feeling that if the track could be restored to an acceptable standard, then leaving it in place in this instance was just about acceptable.
The problem though is the message that the LLTNPA is giving to developers. Glen Hydro Development Ltd is part of a suite of companies, all with the same Directors but split into separate companies (which both limits liabilities but means that only limited financial information is available as small companies are exempt from producing full accounts). Adam Luke Milner, besides being a Director of Glen Hydro Ledcharrie, is Director of 19 further companies, mostly hydro schemes, including ones at Kinlochewe, Chesthill, Fassfern, Glen Dessary, Loch Eil and Corrimony Farm. Richard Haworth is also a Director of most of these companies. If developers can get away with unacceptable standards in a National Park, they will try and get away with poor standards anywhere. Ledcharrie is yet another indication that making money, rather than care of the environment, is the main motivation of the people financing and benefitting from hydro developments.
An added complication at Ledcharrie, and a number of other Glen Hydro companies, is that on 1st March 2017 a Jan Tosnar was appointed Director and now appears to have a controlling financial interest in these companies (50-75%) through parallel companies called Renfin Ledcharrie, Renfin Chesthill etc based in Czechoslovakia. What appears to have happened is first the farmer/landowner agreed with a developer they could develop a hydro (for a rent) but then these schemes have changed hands and most of the profit is now not just being channelled out of the area, but out of the country. In other words these hydro schemes will create little economic benefit for the area but are leaving a permanent impact on the landscape. Our National Parks should be exposing these issues and engaging with local communities and recreational organisations to devise better alternatives.
What needs to happen
I would like to see our National Park Authorities engage with people who care about the landscape about hydro schemes, both about where they might be acceptable but also in developing standards for how they are constructed and restored and thinking about how economic benefits could be retained in the local area. I know the Cairngorms National Park Authority has met with the Link Hill Tracks group, its time the LLTNPA started a similar engagement with a view to strengthening how it implements and enforces its Supplementary Planning Guidance. I would suggest a day out with members of organisations such as the Munro Society would be a good place to start.
At Ledcharrie, the LLTNPA needs to make public what plans it actually agreed following the granting of planning permission and then enforce them.
How you can help
Munro Society volunteers are starting to monitor hydro schemes across Scotland and will feed the results of their surveys to Mountaineering Scotland who has agreed to take up issues with Planning Authorities. This is a huge task and they are looking for more volunteers. If you could help or have photos of hydro schemes outwith the National Parks please contact them athttp://www.themunrosociety.com/contact-us:
I have agreed to co-ordinate surveys within our National Parks, so if you have photos or time to contribute to that please contact Nick.email@example.com
I predicted months ago that the track that Natural Retreats unlawfully created at the Shieling, and which was subsequently granted planning permission by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, would promote flooding and be subject to erosion (see here). My thanks to the reader who, in the downpour on Tuesday, visited the shieling to record what was happening at the Cas Gantry (works which Highland Council agreed did not require planning permission because they were “de minimis”), the new Shieling hill track and down below at the Coire Cas car park. The photos tell a powerful tale.
Water overflowing the drain created above the bulldozed slope and running down beside the Cas Gantry. You can see why the green fertiliser pellets have been washed away. The erosion has got worse since photo (left) previously featured in Parkswatch. Highlands and Island Enterprise and Natural Retreats have clearly done nothing to address the problem.
The erosion is even worse directly adjacent to the Cas Gantry, where water has removed all the top soil (the hare found strangled last week was under the girders to left of photo). Before Natural Retreats was allowed to undertake any work here, full planning permission should have been required, including hydrological surveys.
Below the gantry, the water runs down the bank which was re-seeded at an earlier date. This has helped limit the damage but for how long? No slope as steep as this will be able to withstand this amount of water for long. The problem is the works at Cairngorm have altered the pattern of water flows at Cairngorm, channelling water onto new ground which will not be able to withstand its erosive force.
The unlawfully created Shieling hill track is on the slope below the bank. As predicted water is running straight down it and, after the dry spring and winter, one downpour has been sufficient to erode the track. The CNPA was warned that a track here was not only too steep, contravening SNH’s good practice guidance on hill tracks, but would serve to channel water more quickly off the hill, advice which it ignored. The suggestion from the North East Mountain Trust that the track be fully revegetated and that occasional use of vehicles over heather would do far less damage has so far been ignored.
Washed out stones now litter the Shieling Hill Track.
Below the bottom of the Shieling rope tow (far distance) and by the unlawfully re-graded bank, the track has become a burn. You can see how water from the bank which Natural Retreats claimed they had “improved”is flowing onto the track. There is no way of measuring how this compares to what happened before, but the destruction of vegetation on the bank is likely to have increased the rate of water run-off.
All this increased water run off is not only increasing erosion of the natural environment, its impacting on humans. The bottom of the Cas carpark was a raging torrent and is.being washed away and down into the lower Cas carpark. Below that of course is the Allt Coire Cas and the people of Aviemore.
What needs to happen
The only good thing about planning disaster at Cairngorm is that, unlike in the case of most hill tracks and other developments high up in the hills, what has happened is being closely monitored and well documented by activists. It should become a text book case of what not to do for every countryside planner in Scotland. It also provides all the evidence the Scottish Government should ever need about why ALL hill tracks should require full planning consent. What the hill track at Cairngorm shows is that as part of formal planning permission, all such tracks should require a detailed assessment of how they increase water run-off from the hill and what mitigatory measures, if any, could cancel this out. In my view where the impact cannot be 100% mitigated, the development should be refused – full stop! – as should have happened at Cairngorm.
I would never expect Natural Retreats to care about what has happened but the CNPA has repeatedly claimed that its concerned about flood prevention and limitation. So, when is it going to admit it has made a disastrous mistake at Cairngorm, start holding HIE and Natural Retreats to account and insist that they pay for a full hydrological survey which identifies options for addressing the problems highlighted here? As a first step, why not try North East Mountain Trust’s advice and re-vegetate the Shieling Hill track? As a second step, the CNPA could develop planning advice on hill tracks along with conservation organisations, re-inforcing the SNH guidance and supplementing this with information on flood prevention.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On 6th May, during the very dry spell, I went for another walk over An Caisteal and Ben a Chroin, almost a year to the day after a similar round The Glen Falloch hydro schemes (2) (with several visits in-between). The walk provided yet more evidence of why Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority staff should never have approved these tracks (which in the original planning application consented to by the Scottish Government were to be removed) but also about the poor standards of restoration. This is a disaster for a National Park whose 2012-17 Partnership Plan, which is supposed to guide everything it does, starts with the statement that:
“we want the National Park to be an internationally-renowned landscape”.
How does what the LLTNPA have allowed to happen in Glen Falloch contribute to that? In the draft Partnership Plan 2018-23 which is now out for consultation (see here) it is telling that there is no evaluation of how successful the LLTNPA has been in achieving this aim.
Previously, I have stated that in my view the restoration of the ground in which the pipelines have been buried has generally successful and little cause for concern with it often being quite difficult to make out the line of the pipelines. While I believe that is still sometimes the case, the long dry spell has accentuated the differences in vegetation and its easy to see the landscape scars (above centre). The land may take longer to recover than I had thought.
Comparing the photo above (taken a year ago on a day with far less good visibility) with the first photo in the post taken a year later, you can see that the ground above the pipeline has recovered to an extent but has a long way to go. The track itself, despite the vegetation down the middle, looks little different and forms a permanent landscape scar.
The Eas Eonan hydro track leads into an area of core wild land. The new draft Park Plan states:
“The National Park provides opportunities for anyone to have their first experience of the ‘wild outdoors”
There is nothing in the plan about how the National Park, through all the developments it has approved, has eroded that experience in the last five years. Perhaps the National Park Board and senior management team believe walking up a bulldozed track is a wild experience? Its becoming harder and harder to have a wild experience in the National Park because of decisions made by the LLTNPA. Removal of the tracks, as originally planned, would have preserved some of that.
Coire Earb is wild, and indeed falls within a core wild land area. While there was an existing track by the upper reaches of the River Falloch, this ended 1 km before the new hydro dam and formerly was out of sight when you were descending the glen. The decision by LLTNPA staff to allow the track to remain permanently has changed the experience totally.
Would not the hydro here have had far less impact on the landscape if the track has been removed as originally planned?
The Upper Glen Falloch hydro close up
The approval of the LLTNPA to the track extension to the hydro being retained has made it easier for the Glen Falloch Estate to drive vehicles off-road further up the glen. A year ago (right) there was no evidence of vehicles being driven beyond the intake, now there are vehicle tracks beside it which are destroying the ground that was restored.
Vehicles are also being driven off the track with no regard for soil or vegetation. The consequence is the track is in places likely to end up being 5-7m wide instead of the 2.5m (and 3m on steep hills and bends) which the LLTNPA recommends in its “award winning” good practice guidance which it has never enforced.
The reason for this is that the LLTNPA has basically allowed a new wide track to be created to construct the hydro scheme but then allowed the batters (see diagram below) to remain in place with minimum attempts to re-landscape the flat surface of the track (a little bit of soil and peat has just been added to the outside edge of the track). The result is that its very easy for vehicles to drive off the track while in landscape terms the track is still effectively 5-7m broad in most places.
The design of the track together with the erosion caused by vehicles and cattle have had the result that in most places there is actually now less peaty soil by the track than there was a year ago (see above).
The failure to re-landscape the former road surface so that the remaining track moulds into the contours of the land has also made it easy for the estate to create new parking or working areas which add considerably to the visual impact of the track.
There little attempt (photo above) to shape the the fill so it merges into the contours of the land. The result is a broad bench cutting across the hillside. In landscape terms, the track here is in effect still 5-7m wide rather than the 2.5-3m recommended by the National Park.
Even on the better sections, the track is far wider than the LLTNPA requires. I took my 3m tape which is here fully extended on a section of track which slopes gently downhill. I think a 2.5m track would have been more than adequate here (and probably less as you can see from the vehicle marks) but the actual track is more like 3.5m wide. What is the LLTNPA going to do to address this? The wider the track of course, the more it will stand out from a distance. There is no evidence of the central grass strips which grace the Allt Andoran track (top photo).
If there was any serious intention to narrow the upper Falloch construction track this double gate would have been removed – another illustration of just how wide this track is.
Readers who have driven up the Glen Falloch or walked there will know that the construction compound is still in place and, during my walk, there was some evidence that some further work had been undertaken to restore the destruction caused by the hydro scheme.
The restored sections however are few in comparison to those that still need attention and at this rate the track is going to take years to restore to anything like an acceptable state. That is unacceptable in a National Park whose current Plan incidentally states (and rightly so):
The outstanding landscapes and special qualities of the Park should be protected and where possible enhanced
What needs to happen
The LLTNPA needs both to learn from the Glen Falloch disaster but also find ways to reduce the impact of what has happened. This is not just about Glen Falloch, but the forty odd other hydro schemes in the National Park, many of which have similar impacts. Here is my first go at a list of actions that are needed:
Planning decisions that have significant landscape implications should no longer be delegated to staff but considered by the Planning Committee, as in the Cairngorms National Park Authority.
The LLTNPA should commission an independent report into the Glen Falloch hydro schemes which should fully involve those who are concerned about the protection of Scotland’s landscape, which should look both at the mistakes that have been made and how they can be reversed.
The new Partnership Plan needs to incorporate a meaningful landscape policy which, like the Cairngorms National Park Authority, indicates areas where there will be a presumption against development. Unless the LLTNPA does this, the current destruction of landscape in the National Park will simply continue.
The LLTNPA Board should engage with the Glen Falloch estate and develop a plan on how to remove the hydro tracks granted consent by staff. Over the next ten years the estate will receive a huge income from the hydro schemes which could still be used, as originally intended, to remove the tracks.
Where existing tracks were widened, the LLTNPA needs to ensure that all the restoration meets the standards set out in its good practice guidance. Tracks which are broader than the maximum and unfinished culverts for example should not be tolerated.
The LLTNPA should put in place measures to control the off-road use of vehicles, particularly in wild land.
The LLTNPA Board and senior staff need to get out more and take a look at what is being done in their name.
One example is the pine hoverfly. Due to intensification of forest management over the decades this is now an endangered species, so rare in fact that it is restricted to a single location in the Cairngorms National Park. It depends on the deadwood cycle – the process of trees (in this case big old granny pines) falling over or succumbing to fungal disease and decaying. The pine hoverfly’s larvae live in wet role holes created by this process – a very specific niche. Natural occurrences of these “rot holes” are nowadays few and far between because most pines in forestry are felled before they get to be old, knarled granny pines. To help save the pine hoverfly from extinction, a range of organisations in the park have been making artificial holes in tree stumps to give the pine hoverfly a home. It is hoped that in the future numbers of the hoverfly will increase to levels that allow it can survive on its own, and with more pine forest in the park being managed less intensively, natural rot holes should become common again.
Thank goodness our public authorities don’t always co-ordinate what they put out to the media. The cracks between them are most revealing. And for a broader view of what is going wrong with the approach to tree “management” in the National Park, the same issue of the Strathie contained this very interesting letter from Basil Dunlop which appears to re-inforces previous points made on parkswatch about Loch an Eileen (see here).
Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend 12th – 14th May
The place of nature in the Cairngorms National Park is highly contested and full of contradictions and this is evident in the events being organised for the Big Nature Weekend (see here). There are some great events on and, due to the current attempts to criminalise people who enjoy the countryside in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, I particularly liked this one at Invercauld:
Camp fire capers – explore around the wonderful Invercauld Estate, collect sticks and other things from nature and learn how to light a small fire without matches. It’s not the easiest thing to do but a great skill to learn and a fab party piece. There will also be marshmallows for everyone to toast! Suitable for kids 3 years + (with a well behaved adult!)
Collecting wood for lighting fires is now of course a criminal offence in the LLNPA camping management zones, incurring a fine of £500 and a criminal record. So what’s being promoted in the Cairngorms National Park Authority is a criminal offence in the LLTNPA! This just shows how completely out of touch the LLTNPA are.
On May 1st though the CNPA put out a Cairngorms Nature email which highlighted events that were taking place on five estates under the heading “Behind the Scenes” which just so happens to be the same heading used Natural Retreats on their blog to explain what they are doing at Cairngorm!
Behind the Scenes
Part of the Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend is about offering opportunities that are not normally available to the public.
Landscape management is vital to the long term future of the Cairngorms National Park, it is a challenging task which is all about balance. The weekend will offer a number of opportunities to join the people who look after our landscapes on a day to day basis and get an exclusive ‘behind the scenes’ tour of a working estate.
The claim that landscape management is vital to the long term future of the Cairngorms National Park is highly ideological. What about the wild land/rewilding view? This explains that the reason why so much of the National Park is degraded in conservation terms is precisely because there is too much management: muirburn, proliferation of bulldozed tracks. Indeed one could cite the felling and replanting at Curr Wood.
The CNPA would, I guess, respond by saying “its all about balance” – to which the question needs to be asked, balance between what? Unfortunately while promoting these events at the Big Nature Weekend there appear to be no events being promoted by RSPB, SNH or NTS which might demonstrate some alternative ways of managing the land.
Click on Corgarff and you will find the event is on the Allargue Estate, which is described as conservation-minded – this is the estate where all the vehicles were parked that took place in aninfamous mountain hare massacre featured on Raptor Persecution Scotland (see here). The event is called “A Question of Balance – Wildlife and Land Management”. It makes you want to cry.
What needs to happen
The CNPA needs to stop promoting estates which do not adhere to the standards for conservation we should expect in National Parks. Now maybe the Allargue Estate has made a commitment to stop culling mountain hares. If so, I would applaud that but if not, the CNPA should not be promoting it.
The new Cairngorms Partnership Plan provides an opportunity for the CNPA to ask all estates within the CNPA that have not already done so to submit an estate management plan and for those who have them, to revise their current plans. Such plans should contain transparent statements on what wildlife is killed by estates, either for “sport” or “protection of wildlife”, on practices such as muirburn and how the estate is going to play its part in meeting the conservation objectives set out in the Partnership Plan.
On Wednesday evening I went to have another look at the northern section of the access track which had been created for the construction of the Beauly Denny powerline and which was due to be restored last year (see here). Its situated on the east side of the A9 behind the tree shelter belt and opposite the southern turn off to Dalwhinnie.
That post resulted in the North East Mountain Trust, who had been concerned about the original planning application, taking the matter up with the Cairngorms National Park Authority. It transpires that the Estate had been involved in lengthy discussions with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency about the details of how they were going to restore the track, missed the deadline and the CNPA has now extended it until the end of 2017. There was provision for this under the conditions attached to the planning consent which lasts until February 2018. Unfortunately there are still no details of this on the CNPA planning portal (see here) where the last available document is dated July 2015. If you are a member of the public, therefore, not only does it appear that the estate has failed to restore the track within the deadline but also that the National Park has done nothing about this. The CNPA is letting itself down and, I believe, making planning enforcement much harder for itself because of this lack of transparency.
The CNPA did though state to NEMT that, should the Estate fail to restore the track as per the planning permission it granted by the Park Authority, once the CNPA planning permission lapses the ground would need to be completely restored, as per the Section 37 Electricity Act consent for the Beauly-Denny. They said the Scottish Government would be responsible for enforcing this. (I am unclear how this can be reconciled with earlier advice I received from the Scottish Government that “In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place”). If it comes to that, four years will have been lost in which this land could have been restored properly to the benefit of both landscape and wildlife. Funny how delays in our planning system are always portrayed as being the fault of planning authorities when in fact by far the biggest delays and created by developers/landowners.
Meantime, the Scottish Government is even less transparent – one rule for local government, another for national government – and removes planning applications it approves from the public realm. There is therefore no convenient means for the public to find out how the restoration of the Beauly Denny is going. I resorted to a FOI request to the CNPA about what information they held and was – again very helpfully – provided with information about the restoration of land under the 76 towers and approx 28km of track that are within the National Park boundary.
According to SSE most of the restoration for which it is still responsible is going well – or rather is “of an acceptable standard”. I think the photos show otherwise, as does a report the CNPA’s peatland officer in 2015 (see here) – well done him and the CNPA. What the papers, which I will come back to in further posts, show is that SSE is just hoping all the destruction which it caused will regenerate naturally, whereas the CNPA and SNH are concerned whether this is going to happen. The problem is the CNPA appears to have very little power to make SSE do anything – although if it went public with its concerns that I think would make a significant difference.
So why has Ralia estate taken over the burden of restoring the land from SSE?
The amount of work – and therefore cost – in meeting the approved design plans for the track are considerable. The 4.7 km of track needs to be reduced from its current width of 5-7m to 3m.
So much aggregate has been imported to construct the track that even where turves have been properly stored, re-landscaping will be a real challenge. The planning permission granted by the CNPA specifies that excess materials will be removed, which would make landscaping considerably easier – a great requirement but will the estate do it?
The job will not be made any easier because so much of the temporary construction work was so poor. If this track is to be halved in width, so will the drainage pipes.
Bizarrely, among all the protuding pipes, there was one example of a culvert which had been properly finished – at both ends too! Unfortunately, the track here was even wider than normal, 7m rather than 5m, and at least one of the finished culverts will need be ripped out if the track is to be reduced in width to 3m. If this work was done by SSE, one wonders why? If by the Estate, that would suggest they are intending to keep the track at its current width, contrary to planning requirements.
The reason why the estate wanted to retain the track though quickly became apparent. It makes it much easier for the gamekeepers to manage animal traps or, from their viewpoint, “to conserve the countryside”. This was the first time I had seen a live bird in a Larsen trap in 100s of visits to the hills (not a coincidence, they are usually tucked away like this) and I found it quite distressing but then I see crows as beautiful creatures, one of the most intelligent of all birds, and not pests. The crow was hopping up and down and beating its wings against the side of the trap – that’s what’s meant to happen, it attracts other crows wishing to defend their territory. All my instincts were to free it but that, I recalled somewhere, is a criminal offence.
The ostensible purpose of Larsen traps is that the flapping crow (or other corvid) attracts others which are then lured into one of the two traps. In Scotland only hens’ eggs or bread are allowed as bait (as here). The theory and use of these traps from the landowner viewpoint is set out in guidance from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here). The trap in the photos appeared to meet all animal welfare requirements about provision of water, food and a perch for roosting at night. While Scotland has stricter requirements than England on the use of these traps, under General License under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it seems to me there is question about whether this General License should extend to National Parks.
While the GWCT claim there is little evidence of raptors being caught in such traps and that live traps such as this allow protected birds to be released, that claim needs to be taken with a pinch of salt given the level of persecution of raptors on grouse moors. Why would estates ever report if hen harriers, say, were found in such traps? Maybe I am unobservant, or always unfortunate in my timing, but while there were large numbers of grouse about (and some song thrush, pied wagtail and wheatear) there was not a sign of a hen harrier.
What was clear was that the estate was trapping anything else that might prey on grouse. The tracks make maintenance of such traps easier for estate staff.
A multi-catch cage trap was located slightly further away from the track – as recommended by GWCT – part of the reason being to avoid the public coming into them while in use and becoming distressed. What is clear to me is the CNPA, by granting planning permission, for the retention of this track has made it much easier for estate staff to trap and kill anything that is perceived as a threat to red grouse. The CNPA talks about the need for balance between competing interests, but in terms of species there is no balance. Everything is about increasing numbers of red grouse.
While as the link shows, the numbers of grouse at Ralia have increased dramatically, what is not reported is the numbers of other species that predate on them.
The CNPA’s consent to Ralia Estate retaining this section of track appears to have had little impact on their off-road use of vehicles. Indeed, Ralia estate appears to be creating further tracks without any planning permission.
The track that has been developed along the line of grouse butts on the north side of the Allt Coire nan Cisteachan. The installation of a water bar means, I believe, that this counts as a constructed track and should have had full planning permission – its purpose, along the line of grouse butts is only too clear and has nothing to do with agriculture (where developments only require “prior notification”).
The constructed nature of the track on the south side of the burn is even more obvious and to an appalling standard (I will report it to the National Park). Although the newly “constructed” section is short, its intention is clearly to enable vehicle access up the hillside easier and yet more scars on the Drumochter.
The issue at Drumochter therefore is not just about restoration of the Beauly Denny or planning permission for hill tracks and what they are then used for – although both have had major and unnecessary impacts on the landscape – its about what off-road use estates should be allowed to make of vehicles in the National Park. In my the National Park could contain and control all these issues through the use of byelaws which introduce licenses for hunting. Such hunting licenses could require estates not to use vehicles off-track or trap any animal without explicit permission.
Had this been been published when originally intended it would have been issued to subscribers at about the same time as the general election was announced yesterday! In the world of newspapers, radio and TV I guess the post would have been scrapped. I will persist! However, its worth saying first that the general election will provide an opportunity to consider why decisions at the UK still matter to Scotland’s National Parks, even though powers to create and manage National Parks belong to the Scottish Parliament.
For Scotland’s National Parks don’t exist in a vacuum but reflect wider changes and conflicts in society. Among the matters at stake in the General Election that will affect our National Parks are:
wage levels (employment law is controlled by Westminster) – average wage levels in the Cairngorms National Park are below the Scottish average
levels of public expenditure in our National Parks, which will be determined not just by any future UK Government’s commitment to “austerity” but what is proposed by the political parties proposals for rural expenditure post-Brexit
ownership of land through complex legal and financial vehicles (which are ultimately aimed at avoiding not just tax but other legislation such as the community right to buy
All these things ultimately impact on our landscape, wildlife and ability to enjoy them. Meantime though, a little more evidence of what appears on the ground.
Ardvorlich estate hydro scheme
Following my post on the Keltie Water hydro scheme (see here), I was up on the north side of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin at the weekend (about which more anon) and took the opportunity to have a look at the Ardvorlich hydro scheme. I returned home to find that Jim Robertson of the Munro Society had sent parkswatch photos of the Tarken Glen hydro on the north side of Loch Earn. Both are featured here and, while there are many positive aspects to the way both schemes have been designed and executed, both raise issues about how successfully the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority is protecting the landscape.
The Ardvorlich hydro was granted planning permission back in 2009, before the LLTNPA published its guidance stating that pipes should wherever possible be placed under bridges and the only paper currently on the planning portal is the decision notice (see here) . Its not possible therefore to what what consideration was given to this pipe across the burn which in my view is the single worst aspect of scheme. It should not have been so difficult to align the pipe with the bridge and track so the pipe was concealed by the bridge as at Keltie Water.
The biggest landscape impact is not where pipe runs underground – the ground above the buried pipe is recovering well – but the steep edge of the track – too steep to regenerate naturally and which is likely to continue eroding for years.
Same view from closer up: a few years and I suspect it will be very difficult, even for vegetation experts, to detect line of the pipeline, quite a contrast to the permanent landscape scar created by the track. According to my old OS Map, dating from 1988, at that time there was just a path up the west side of the burn. Now there is a vehicle track on both sides.
There are two intake to the hydro scheme. The main visual impact of the western intake is the concrete on left side of dam which has not been faced with natural materials. The concrete on the right side appears to have coloured due to water flowing over it regularly so it blends better into the landscape The wooden safety fence is also unobtrusive and fits in Park’s subsequent policy to use natural materials, such as wood for fencing.
Closer up the main visual impact of the dam remains the grey/white concrete. If our National Parks and other planning authorities required intake structures to be finished in stone, except where likely to be stained by water, their visual impact would reduce considerably. The cost of this would be minimal and it could reduce carbon imprints.
In the past natural stone was used a lot more (see photo below) as it was less easy to import materials and people consequently used whatever was to hand.
The visual impact of the dam is also reduced because the track does not go right up to the dam, as in most later developments in the Park. There is nothing to draw your eye to it and as a result many people walking up the track probably miss it.
The formal track also ends short of the eastern intake (to right of view in photo) although an ATV eroded track continues up the glen (in place of the old path). What is good about this track is that there is no large turning area which is so common with so many other hydro tracks.
The second intake is closer to the track than the first and more intrusive. While the lower concrete has stained there is a much greater expanse of light grey concrete retaining wall, which is made even more obvious by the Lomond blue piping. Added to this there rip-rap boulder embankment on the far side of the burn and the excavation of the banks on either side of the burn where vegetation has not recovered (its too steep, just like the bank of the track below the bridge). The design of this intake could, in my view, have been considerable improved and the impact on the landscape reduced.
Still, its a small scheme and within the landscape as a whole the impact is not great. In many places this would be judged a good scheme but it still falls short of what I believe we should expect in our National Parks. Its not the location of the scheme that should cause concern, its the execution.
Tarken Glen hydro scheme
The border of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park runs just north of Loch Earn and only the lower part of Tarken Glen, by St Fillans, lies within it. The papers on the LLTNPA planning portal show that LLTNPA staff, in deciding this scheme, worked closely with Perth and Kinross Council.
Within the National Park there is a small section of new track to the powerhouse, the powerhouse itself and a very short area of open pipeline behind the powerhouse. This is well concealed and not possible to see from Jim’s photos.
While the intake is outwith the National Park, it is fairly typical of those found within our National Parks, being constructed out of white/grey concrete partially concealed by rip rap tendering. The gantry adds to the visual impact although viewers will note the piping is not bright “Lomond” blue. The location of this dam in a wide open glen makes it more visible than those at Ardvorlich.
The rip-rap bouldering looks as artificial as the concrete dam.
An existing track was used for construction purposes and, because the size of the scheme was relatively small, it appears the track did not require extensive upgrading. Vegetation appears to be recovering well which will give it a more “natural” feel for walkers.
The track demonstrates what a track looks like from close up where there is a central vegetated strip – as advocated in the LLTNPA’s Best Practice Guidance.
The photo demonstrates once again that the main impact of hydro schemes is not the pipeline, where these are buried, but the access tracks. While in this case the track was already in place, where tracks cut across the grain of the landscape, as in the middle ground of this photos where the track goes diagonally uphill, they are particularly prominent. While the LLTNPA did refer to the visual impact of the scheme from the South Loch Earn road, it made no recommendations about what might be done to mitigate the impact of what can be seen from the National Park.
The Tarken Glen track though is not nearly as bad as the new track (above) you can see from the summit of Meall Rheamhar in Gleann Ghoinean which again lies outwith the National Park boundary to the south.
There is a much older hydro scheme at the head of Glen Tarken – part of the extensive Breadalbane hydro scheme – which demonstrates that at least in respect of pipelines, some progress has been made.
Jim’s photo though raises questions about how much progress has been made in reducing the impact of dams and hydro intakes. In this case, the intake diverts all the normal flow of the burn, which will only flow in spate conditions, whereas intakes are always designed nowadays, due to greater awareness of hydrology and the framework of water catchment plans, to maintain some flow. Are the concrete embankments of the existing hydro intake though any worse than the rip rap tendering shown in Jim’s second photo of the new scheme?
The photos also demonstrate just how long it takes for concrete retaining walls to be colonised by mosses and lichens and to start blending into the landscape. A good reason why theLLTNPA needs to enforce its guidance that concrete dam structures should wherever possible be faced with natural materials.
Parkswatch covers our two National Parks. The Munro Society is trying to survey the impact of hydro schemes across Scotland (see here) as part of its work on measuring change in our hills. This is incredibly important work because it will provide evidence of the impact of hydro developments in mountain areas on the landscape across Scotland. Parkswatch has agreed to share with the Munro Society photographic evidence of hydro schemes gathered within in our National Parks – so if you have photos please send them as Jim and others have done – but if you have photos from outwith the National Parks, do please contact the Munro Society directly (see here) and let them know what you might be able to share with them.
The LINK hill tracks group is doing similar work on hill tracks and also collects photographic evidence of their impact across Scotland and you can submit photos online (see here) .
The Munro Society has started to monitor hydro schemes – a very welcome development – and my thanks to Derek Sime who sent parkswatch a number of photos of the Keltie Water Hydro Scheme, situated between Callander and Stuc a Chroin. While the Keltie Water forms the eastern boundary of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park all the development associated with the hydro scheme lies within it. The hydro scheme was originally approved in 2013, revised plans approved in 2014 (see here) and map below and apparently constructed in 2016.
The track up the glen by the Keltie Water from Braeleny farm is the starting point for a number of fine walks, including the southern approach to Stuc a Chroin, along the prominent rounded ridge from Meall Odhar, and a wonderful round from Beinn Each to Meall na Fearna taking in Stuc a Chroin and Ben Vorlich. Derek’s photos, which are mainly of the access track and the pipeline – there are none of the two intakes – show some good and bad things about the hydro scheme but on balance this appears one of the better schemes in the National Park.
The power house is situated close to Braeleny Farm, has been finished with natural materials and is quite tucked away. It will have almost no landscape impact on the glen, which becomes wide and open higher up. The construction compound to the left of the building has been restored well – from this distance you would hardly know it had been there – and for good measure Drummond Estate have added three blocks of tree planting. While in the wrong place, tree planting can look artifical, not far south of the powerhouse on the far side of the river (outside the National Park boundary) there is a large block of forestry while further south, along the Keltie Water, there is some fine native woodland and the planting here has the potential to link to that.
Generally the LLTNPA has ensured the power house elements of hydro schemes in the National Park have been done well – their planners I think are more comfortable with buildings than landscape – and this is appears a good example.
The other element of hydro schemes that the LLTNPA have generally ensured is done well is restoration of the ground in grassland and peatland areas. If peat and turves are removed and stored before the trench for the pipeline is dug, once replaced the ground should recover quickly. A multitude of stones on the surface as along Glen Bruar (see here) is a sign that contractors have mixed up excavations with top soil and vegetation. While you can see some stones on the surface here, generally this section of pipeline restoration appears to have been done well and is likely to recover quickly. In two years it may not be possible to see the line of the pipeline.
The section of pipe on the left of the photo is another matter. It is one of several which appear to have been abandoned as all machinery has been removed from the site and there is no sign of ongoing works. There is no need for this and it is not acceptable. Sadly abandoned sections of pipe are a feature of a number of other hydro schemes in our National Park – its cheaper to leave them in situ than recycle them – including Glen Bruar. (Its also yet another example of why the litter left by a few irresponsible campers needs to be seen in perspective).
The restoration of the ground just south of the bridge over the Allt Breac Nic and beyond it on the left side of the track appears less successful, with far more stone visible and what appears to be a boulder dump by the sheep on the far left. I suspect part of the reason for this is the ground before the bridge slopes steeply and the depth of soil here was less. Where the soil is shallower its much more difficult to separate vegetation and topsoil from rocks if the work is done by machine as it invariably is nowadays. This is a problem not just at Glen Bruar but on sections of the Beauly Denny powerline. If our National Parks are serious about ensuring the highest standards of restoration I believe they need to consider and support the development of alternative “construction” techniques in areas of shallow soil. Meantime the LLTNPA needs to consider how its going to make the restoration of this area effective.
Prior to the construction of the hydro there was an existing track to Arivurichardich. This was upgraded to enable the construction works to take place. Drummond Estate’s planning application asked for the tracks, after restoration, to be 2.5m wide. The LLTNPA, stuck by their Planning Guidance and made the following requirements:
Notwithstanding the approved plans and for the avoidance of doubt these tracks shall be reduced to a width of between 2 metres, and 2.5 metres (at essential turning areas and steep gradients only), (to be agreed in writing by the Planning Authority), and shall have a grassed central strip.
What the photo above illustrates is that this requirement has not been met. This straight section of track is more than 2m wide. You can also see how aggregate from the track has spilled down the slope to the right, broadening it still further. There is no sign of a grass central strip. Perhaps that will be put in place this spring? The problem here is not with the conditions the LLTNPA required in this case, its the enforcement of them.
A close up of the area between the two bridges (above) illustrates a number of areas where restoration work could have been better. Left of the track large amounts of stony substrata has been mixed up with the peat and may change the type of vegetation that grows back here . Another piece of abandoned pipe is visible to the right of the sign. The track itself is clearly broader than the 2.5m the LLTNPA allowed for bends and junctions. And, while I am not against all signs – this is part of a core path network – did it really have to be bright red?
The old bridge south of Arivurichardich (above) over the Keltie Water was washed away on 18 August 2004, during a violent thunderstorm which sat over Stuc a’Chroin, and which was also responsible for sweeping away a number of other bridges in the area, including that on the public South Loch Earn road at Edinample. Since then the Keltie Water has been uncrossable when it has been in spate, and while of course the hydro pipeline will reduce those levels in future, the two bridges help make the area more accessible. This is a benefit on what is part of a core path network.
What Derek Sime’s photos illustrate is that the problems with this hydro scheme is not about its location but about the way its been finished. The officer’s report recommending approval for the scheme is very thorough and show a good appreciation of the landscape:
The site is within an expansive and unspoilt glen comprising a mosaic of sensitive habitats and watercourses featuring unique geological rock formations.
It then recommends a number of specific conditions which I think are welcome. For example, one condition was that the two dam intakes should be finished in local stone. While use of local stone to finish dams forms part of the LLTNPA’s Good Practice Guidance, in reality most dams and intake structures within the National Park have been finished in concrete and no requirements made to abide by the Park’s own guidance. So, the requirement in this case is very welcome. It would be interesting though to see if this has actually happened here – photos please!
It will be interesting too to see hat the LLTNPA does to ensure the other conditions it has made, particularly regarding the width of the track, are enforced. One problem with monitoring all of this – and it will be a challenge to all the Munro Society volunteers who are adopting hydro schemes – is that the LLTNPA is not adding any information to the planning portal once a decision has been made. There is no information publicly available about the Keltie Water hydro scheme since it was finally approved in 2014. Its impossible to see therefore whether Park enforcement have done anything to address the problems illustrated in the photos. The result is if you, I or Munro Society volunteers want to find out what has happened we have to submit Freedom of Information Requests. That is wrong and needs to change.
If, following the People and Places planning consultation, the Scottish Government publishes a new Planning Bill it should include a requirement to make Planning Authorities publish on their planning portals information relating to the implementation of planning consents, including whether planning conditions have been met . One would have hoped a National Park would be doing this anyway. In the case of the LLTNPA it appears it is frightened that if it made this information public, that would expose its failure to take proper enforcement action against landowners.
The Cairngorms National Park Authority Board is meeting on Friday to discuss and approve its new Partnership Plan, the overarching Plan which guides what it will do over the next five years (see here for the 60 page plan and supporting documents). The LLTNPA’s announcement about this can be read (here). Its positive the Board is devoting a whole meeting to consider the plan – it deserves this. What follows is not a comprehensive evaluation of the Plan but rather an attempt to highlight some key issues for those who aspire to create National Parks in Scotland which are worthy of the name.
Positive changes in the revised plan
It is clear that the CNPA has listened to criticisms of the draft plan and has made far stronger statements/commitments in certain areas. Among the specific changes which should be welcomed are:
to eliminate raptor persecution in the National Park (an ongoing issue as recent disappearance of a golden eagle on the North Glenbuchat estate shows (see here)
the recognition of the role of moorland management in creating flooding downstream
the statement that the Park will “plan proactively” for beavers
the presumption against new bulldozed tracks in the uplands
the commitment to join up the path network in the eastern Cairngorms and to create a new long distance walking route, the Deeside Way
There has also been some strengthening of the general statements that underpin what the Partnership Plan should be about, particularly the creation of a section on public interest priorities for landuse in the National Park This includes the role that National Parks can play in combating climate change, reversing loss of biodiversity and landscape scale conservation as well as how the National Park can promote best practice in terms of recreational visitors and empowering local communities.
All this is positive and suggests there are people within the CNPA who have clear aspirations for what the National Park could deliver.
Weaknesses in the revised plan
While the revised plan is more aspirational than the draft, it still seems to me to fall short of what we should expect from a National Park. Here are some examples:
In announcing the Partnership Plan the CNPA cited the inclusion of a target of 5000 hectares of woodland restoration in the next five years as showing its conservation intent. 5000 hectares sound a lot until you consider that the total area of the Cairngorms National Park is 4528 square kilometres or 452,800 hectares – so the target is to increase the amount of land with woodland cover in the National Park by about 1.1% in the next five years. Nothing in that target that remotely threatens to change the way that “sporting” estates are managed. Indeed its unclear if grouse moors or stalking estates are going to contribute anything to this target or whether it will be delivered by the NGOs and Forest Enterprise.
Connected to this, the Plan states that public interest land-use objectives, such as increasing woodland cover, should be delivered “in conjunction with private objectives”. In effect this means the objectives of sporting estates. If these remain untouched, will anything change as a result of the plan? My reservations are re-inforced by the section on deer management which contains actions like the further development of methodologies for establishing the “right level” deer grazing. This type of approach that has been taken for years without any meaningful results. There are no commitments from sporting estates to change what they do.
These weaknesses derive from an ongoing commitment by the CNPA to using the voluntary approach, and that alone, to achieve its statutory objectives: “All sectors must work together to deliver for the Cairngorms”. There is not, as far as I can see, any fallback position in the Partnersip Plan which sets out what the CNPA will do if this voluntary approach, once again, fails to work. What is the CNPA going to do if golden eagles are still disappearing in the Cairngorms this time next year? There is no plan B. Worse, in my view, if there is no stick there is absolutely no incentive or reason for private sporting estates to change how they manage the land on a voluntary basis.
The basic omission in the plan is about how the CNPA will tackle powerful interests in the National Park if they fail to act in the public interest. Land Reform is one way that the power of landed interests could be tackled but, while there are welcome statements in the Plan about empowering local communities, there is nothing to say how land reform might help the CNPA meets its statutory objectives. This is not just about land though – the CNPA rightly recognises low pay is a serious issue for the majority of those working in the National Park, but makes no proposals for how this might be tackled. Instead it wants to see the contribution tourism makes to the economy in the eastern Cairngorms increase – more low paid jobs? When one of the statutory objectives of the National Park is sustainable economic development, its a major omission when the Park Plan has nothing to say about whether changing the way land is managed could create more and better jobs.
At least though the CNPA is clear – unlike the LLTNPA whose thinking is far more overtly neo-liberal (they even have a commercialisation strategy) – that public investment is key to the future of both conservation and the people living in the National Park.
The Plan reads as if the CNPA has identified most of the key issues, its just not worked out yet how to deliver its aspirations.
Omissions from the Partnership Plan
In my view, in addition to any plan to tackle vested interests, there are two further major omissions from the plan
A lack of a vision for wild land and rewilding. While near the start of the Plan there is a map showing wild land in the Cairngorms, the Plan says nothing about how this will be protected or enhanced apart from there being a presumption against new tracks. There is no commitment to restore land that has been trashed by past developments – surely the National Park should be identifying tracks and other developments that impact adversely on wild land landscapes and which we should aspire to have removed? Nor does the Plan explain how the Park’s commitment to new hydro schemes fits with wild land. While re-iterating its opposition to windfarms, on landscape grounds, the CNPA seems to see hydro as unproblematic – there is plenty of evidence that this is just wrong (see here for example). The lack of vision however goes further than this: is there nowhere in the National Park where the CNPA would like to see natural processes predominate and where nature should be allowed to take its course; what about the re-introduction of species? The beaver is mentioned, but there are no firms plans, while of lynx, which would help reduce numbers of roe deer, there is not a mention. This is an opportunity missed, an opportunity for the National Park to take a lead that would inspire people.
What resources are needed. While there is much talk of partnership (and indeed even a statement that partnerships are a way of bringing resources together), there is no systematic attempt to describe what resources the various partners can definitely contribute to make the Plan happen (an exception is a list of major capital investment projects both private and public). Nor is there any attempt to describe the resource gap, things that the Partners would like to do if they had the resources. What most striking about this is its completely unclear how the Park’s conservation objectives in the Plan will be financed (apart from the Peatland Action project).
The Parternship Plan, once amended/approved by the Board needs to be approved by the Minister for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham. While there is a lot of good things in the Plan, much of this, particularly the conservation objectives, are likely to unravel because they are totally dependent on the voluntary principle. If the Minister really wants objectives such as the elimination of raptor persecution to be achieved, she would be wise to ask the CNPA to develop alternative mechanisms to ensure the Partnership Plan is delivered.
Following my post questioning what the Cairngorms National Park Authority was doing about the unlawful hill track leading onto Carn Leth Choin in upper Glen Banchor, west of Newtonmore (see here), I wrote to the Cairngorms National Park Authority. On 8th March (I have been in Norway in-between) I received this response from Murray Ferguson:
“Concerns about the track at Carn Leth Choin, Cluny Estate were brought to CNPA’s attention in 2014 and the CNPA raised the issue with Highland Council and Scottish Natural Heritage who had both been involved at earlier stages. Highland Council had previously determined that a lower section of the track was permitted development for agricultural purposes and so no further action could be taken. It appears that there was some confusion between SNH and the CNPA/Highland Council at the time over further part of the track and what had been authorised and only in 2015 did all the bodies come to understand the issues properly. A site visit was undertaken with SNH and Highland Council in October 2015.
Following the site visit, SNH undertook to pursue the previous owner of the estate on the grounds that the track was a breach of The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. The case was subsequently investigated by Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime team and CNPA were advised to hold off our own investigations while the criminal investigations were undertaken. Police Scotland concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.
This was reported to the CNPA in June 2016 and we re-opened our investigation in July 2016.The CNPA are currently in dialogue with the estate’s representatives and Scottish Natural Heritage about restoration of ground and mitigation of impacts and a meeting is taking place soon that our Head of Planning will attend. If action is not taken voluntarily by the estate in the next few months then the CNPA will move to take formal action.”
I believe this response is extremely welcome. It helps explain the background and makes it very clear that the CNPA is taking this issue seriously (and I would have to say is quite a contrast to the way in which the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park responds to concerns which I have raised with them about hill tracks). I believe though its worth considering some of the detail and the implications.
One of the problem with the preventing unlawful hill tracks, such as the one onto Carn Leth Choin, is that existing tracks have not been clearly mapped by planning authorities, including our National Parks. This makes it very difficult for Planning Authorities to establish when extensions have taken place and whether they should have come under the Prior Notification rules which came into force in December 2014 (this has been a problem for the CNPA on Deeside where the Dinnet Estate claimed its track extensions were completed prior to the new rules). In this case it has led to delays because its not been absolutely clear which section of track was agreed to by Highland Council as a permitted development. The solution to this problem was demonstrated by Kincardine and Deeside Council over 20 years ago when they marked the end points of all hill tracks on their Local Plan maps – a precedent that our National Parks should now follow.
While it can be difficult for Planning Authorities to prove that a track is NOT for agricultural purposes and therefore not a permitted development, in this case I believe Highland Council Planning Department made a serious mistake. Soon after crossing the Allt Madagain (top photo) the track enters the Monadliath Site of Special Scientific Interest and any track construction with this protected area was an “Operation Requiring Consent” from SNH:
Its not clear from the CNPA response if Highland Council planning department checked with SNH before agreeing to the lower part of the track as a permitted development as they are supposed to do for all developments within protected areas. If they did do so, there are some obvious questions that need to be asked about why SNH agreed to this. If Highland Council failed to do so that would have made it very difficult for SNH to take action subsequently.
In my view this was a serious planning failure. The lower section of track is too steep and is already eroding away. The landscape scar can only get worse. In this case this is not the fault of the CNPA as they can only “call-in” development that their constituent Councils and Planning Authorities have identified as requiring planning permission.
The fact that SNH referred the construction of the new section of track that leads to the summit of Carn Leth Choin to Police Scotland is significant. Breach of the Operations Requiring Consent is a criminal offence and the evidence shows that this clearly happened in this case: the photos below show extraction of materials, road construction and use of vehicles all of which needed permission. It would be in the public interest to know why Police Scotland decided not to prosecute in this case – it would have sent a clear signal to landowners all over Scotland of the consequences of ignoring the law governing protected areas. Its difficult to avoid the suspicion that as with raptor persecution Police Scotland treat landowners differently to the rest of the population – as being above the law.
Taking what the CNPA has said at face value, there are serious challenges with restoring this track. The material that forms the track needs to be returned to the “borrow pits” from which it was sourced.
I would suggest this material, which appears to have been simply dumped on existing vegetation (which was protected – its montane heath) cannot simply be removed by heavy machinery because that will simply further damage the ground underneath. The final removal of aggregate and restoration of the ground surface both beneath the track and over the borrow pits once the material has been replaced there will need to be by hand. That will require a skilled workforce which at present does not really exist because there has been no attempt to restore any hill tracks since NTS acquired Mar Lodge Estate and restored the Beinn a Bhuird track.
Any restoration will be very expensive but luckily the new owners, who were not responsible for constructing the track, do not lack a bob or two. They can either afford to pay for the restoration themselves or pay whatever it needs to recover money from the previous owner – who made £3.7m on the Cluny Estate in the fourteen years he owned it. For excellent background on the estate sale see Andy Wightman’s blog
Its time for the CNPA to be resolute and there are welcome signs that in this case they might be so. They only need to tackle successfully one unlawful hill track in the National Park and all landowners will start to take note of the risks of failing to comply with the law.
The stretch of land between Dalwhinnie and Feagour, on the A96 west of Laggan, taken by the Beauly Denny powerline is fairly unfrequented. Following my posts on the Beauly Denny at Drumochter (see here) and (here), my thanks to Jonathan Binny for sending these photos of the section between Feagour and the col east of Meall nan Eagain.
The Scottish Government, which overruled the objections of Cairngorms National Park Authority to the Beauly Denny, required all construction tracks to be restored to their original condition. These restoration works were supposed to be complete last year, so the photos show the “final restoration” – clearly not the original condition.
In 2013, Ben Alder Estate, which covers part of this area, applied for planning permission to keep part of the construction track (just like the Drumochter Estate did at Drumochter) but this was refused by the CNPA – for which they deserve credit. I suspect it helped the CNPA that an excellent case was made by John Thomas for refusing the track, including the added impact it would have on wild land (see here). (NB I know John slightly but I had no idea he had made representations on any part of the Beauly Denny until I checked the application on the Park’s planning portal). The primary problem that the photos illustrate is not that the CNPA are failing to consider planning applications properly or set appropriate conditions – they do most of the time – its that they are failing to enforce those conditions.
I checked with the Scottish Government about responsibility for enforcing the Beauly Denny planning conditions:
“I am interested in trying to find out what the role of the Scottish Government is in ensuring the Planning Conditions that were attached to the decision to allow the Beauly Denny powerline to be constructed are enforced”
The Scottish Government Response.
“In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place.”
I think this is pretty clear. Responsibility for ensuring Scottish and Southern Electric properly restored the land after the construction of the Beauly Denny lies with the CNPA within the Cairngorms National Park. I can sympathise with the CNPA that they never wanted the Beauly Denny to run through the National Park but once that decision was made their responsibility was to ensure the work was done to the highest standards. That clearly hasn’t happened and there is no record of the National Park taking any enforcement action.
In case any reader is thinking from all the photos of destruction posted on parkswatch that destruction is an inevitable consequence of development in our hills, its worth comparing Jonathan’s photos with restoration work elsewhere
The Pitmain Estate avoided constructing a new track here and used different construction techniques for this hydro (which I will feature in a future post) but you can see quite clearly that heather has been retained and then replanted. Most hillwalkers probably walk past this pipeline without realising its there. That is not going to happy any time soon with Beauly Denny – in fact they are now talking of 20-30 years before the land “recovers”. That is NOT restoration but a very slow reclamation by nature processes.
The land looks just like any other clearfell, a mess, which will take years to recover. Contrast this with the restoration of the ground in Stank Glen by Loch Lubnaig in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs
Again, this was not restoration of a track as shows, but does show how woodland can be restored after major construction works. The work here post-dates the Beauly Denny and will be all but invisible long before nature reclaims the Beauly Denny destruction.
What Jonathan’s photos demonstrate along with the photos published in earlier posts, is that there has been a serious failure to restore the ground and tracks after the Beauly Denny works within the Cairngorms National Park. This should matter to SSE the developer – it claims to take a responsible approach (see here), including treating staff decently and tackling climate change. Along with claims about sustainability its foundational aim is to “Do no harm”. That’s not what these photographs show. SSE’s claims seem to count for nothing when it comes to how it treats the land.
However, responsibility for addressing SSE’s failures lie with the CNPA. This is not just one isolated bit of land that has been trashed by some landowner that doesn’t care, its a huge swathe of ground running right through the National Park. The CNPA should be exposing SSE for failing to hold by its own claimed principles. This is actually one case where the public could have an influence. If the destruction was publicised and SSE does nothing, customers could change their accounts. There is huge potential in this case for CNPA to sort matters out without the costs of any legal action simply through the adverse publicity for SSE which would be created if it threatened to take enforcement action along the length of the Beauly Denny. What has the CNPA got to fear?
Following my post about the failure to restore the destruction caused by the Beauly Denny by the developer, Scottish and Southern Electric, I went last Monday to have a look at the section of the “temporary” construction track on the Drumochter Estate.
Under the Beauly Denny planning application determined by the Scottish Government, all construction tracks were to be fully restored. The Drumochter Estate however submitted an application in 2013 to the Cairngorms National Park Authority to retain the section of track on their estate. The first application was refused, mainly because the estate wanted to keep the entire section of track which ran through the estate. The section south of North Drumochter Lodge ran into the Drumochter Special Area of Conservation – why is it that only European designated sites appear to have any teeth? – and cut across the open hillside. The revised application removed the southern section of track but is still 4.7 km in length.
The Committee Report which considered the application in February 2015 track planning application was very thorough. The CNPA had opposed the Beauly Denny, was concerned about the proposed track, but was won over by arguments that with the new A9 dualling would make it very difficult for estate vehicles to access the existing hill tracks onto the east side of Drumochter. Their assessment of the construction track was pretty damning:
However, the assessment of staff was that as long as the construction track was narrowed considerably – to a maximum of 3m – and the spoil heaps used to do this, retention of the track was acceptable:
The North East Mountain Trust, which to its credit had objected to the application for the existing track was also persuaded and agreed not to object. Both the NEMT and the CNPA were no doubt partially persuaded by the illustrations from the estate of what they were proposing:
The problem is that two years later absolutely none of what was promised by the estate has happened.
Some of the track is “floating” which means it was created by dumping aggregrate onto the peat in sufficient quantities to support construction vehicles. Proper restoration would mean all this aggregate being removed. The estate promised to improve this by narrowing the track to 3m maximim and revegetating the sides using vegetation from a new drainage ditch and seeding.
The track is almost two landrover widths and should have been almost halved in breadth according to the planning conditions.
Part of the restoration proposed by the estate was removal of this “hammerhead. Nothing has been done. There are piles of spoil in the centre and along right side of the area.
Another view of one side of the hammerhead. All this ground should have been restored.
The priority of the estate is indicated by these new grouse butts. They were being brought in from the A9 by landrover and trailer. It appears it has suited the estate to retain a large storage area rather than restore the land as promised.
The CNPA, again to give it credit, had required that all the works be completed by June 2016:
Six months after the deadline for works to be completed, on the section I looked at at the north end of the proposed track, there is no evidence that any work has been completed. There are two issues here:
first you cannot tell from the planning portal whether the CNPA has agreed in writing with the estate to extend the deadline for completion of the works beyond June 2016 and, if so, the justification for this and what the new deadline is;
second, if the CNPA has not agreed an extension, its not clear what enforcement action they have taken if any.
Unfortunately, this is yet another planning case where the credibility of our National Parks is at stake. What appears to be happening in a number of cases from Natural Retreats at Cairngorm to the Bruar Hydro to Drumochter is that the CNPA approved planning applications with conditions which the developer then simply ignores. The failure of the CNPA to go public about this and use its enforcement powers gives a clear message to developers that as long as they pay someone to complete good looking paperwork, they can do what they want.
In the Drumochter access track case there is an added complication. SSE were supposed to restore this track and, being a huge company, obviously have the resources to do this properly (if there was anyone insisting they should do so). Having agreed that Drumochter Estate could keep the track, however, the risk is that all obligations of SSE will have been taken over by the estate. My guess is that will now make it impossible for the CNPA to turn round to the estate and say the planning permission no longer applies and ask SSE to do the works.
This supposition is reinforced by the fact that SSE has not been at all co-operative about restoration of the Drumochter and the atrocious standards of the restoration work they have undertaken.
The trouble is that the CNPA has allowed them to get away with this. Although very concerned about the standard of work, and taking time to visit the site, they have then resorted to their normal practice of writing letters rather than taking enforcement action when things go wrong:
20. The Convenor advised the Committee on her reflections following site visit with Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) to the Beauly – Denny overhead transmission line that she and other members had attended, along with SNH staff. She advised that it seemed that SSE Officers were not sufficiently clear as to what the restoration of the tracks involved. SSE Officers were also rather vague as to who was ultimately responsible for carrying out the restoration and reinstatement and what standard would be deemed acceptable. Following a full discussion the Committee agreed that Convenor of the Board should write to SSE expressing significant concerns. (Planning Minute June 2015)
The failure of the CNPA to take a robust line against either SSE or the North Drumochter estate means that the CNPA is storing up serious problems for itself at Drumochter and setting further poor precedents for the rest of the National Park.
The Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee on 8th July 2016 were informed under Any Other Business of the unlawful creation of yet another hill track in the National Park – at the head of Glen Banchor on the Cluny Estate. This was reported in the Strathy and the minute records that “The Committee were advised that there were ongoing investigations being carried out……………and agreed to delegate enforcement powers to Officers should they be required”. There was no further report under Matters Arising at the August Planning Meeting and I have been unable to find any further information: there has been no retrospective planning application submitted on the planning portal. Complete silence from the National Park.
I had been sent some photos of track and three weeks ago I went to look for myself, starting from Cluny Castle, over Srath an Eilich to Glen Banchor and then,from Dalnashallag bothy took the track to the summit of Carn Leth Choin.
My OS maps which are at least 20 years old show the Srath an Eilich track stopping at the bothy. Interestingly the map on the National Park planning portal also sees the track stopping here.
The creation of the track has not stopped off-track use of vehicles on the south side of the Allt Madagain.
The slopes on the south side of the Allt Madagain are just inside the Monadliath wild land area. One wonders how long it will be before the estate decides a track is needed here too?
The older section of the track is too steep – far steeper than in SNH’s Guidance on Hill tracks – and is eroding. Its only a matter of time before this track washes out.
This culvert also contravenes SNH’s good practice guidance – neither track nor culvert are appropriate in wild land areas in a National Park.
The track has now been extended to the summit of Carn Leth Choin at 843m well into the Monadliath Wild Land Area.
The aggregate has been dumped onto the hillside and in time will erode out over the grass slopes on the right.
The aggregate has been “won” from borrow pits at the side of the track, adding to the destruction of the summit heath.
You can even see the joins between the aggregate sourced from different borrow pits.
How can the National Park justify not taking prompt action about this?
The end of the constructed track – but vehicles continue from here along the ridge.
This is another example of hill tracks being unlawfully constructed in an area of wild land. Landowners need to notify the planning authority about all new tracks, and seek their views, and in planning terms all planning auuthorities now need to take account of wild land areas. In our National Park there should be no “ifs” and “buts” but a clear commitment to protect wild land. This track is also within the Monadhliath Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. Within SSSIs there are certain operations that require consent from SNH and among those listed for the Monadliath SSSI are the following:
20 Extraction of minerals including peat, sand and gravel, topsoil, sub-soil, limestone and spoil. COMMENT: so the estate needed permission before digging the borrow pits 21 Construction, removal or destruction of roads, tracks, walls, fences, hardstands, banks, ditches or other earthworks, or the laying, maintenance or removal of pipelines and cables, above or below ground. COMMENT: so the estate needed permission before constructing this track – did they ask and was it granted? 26 Use of vehicles or craft except on existing tracks. COMMENT: so has the estate got permission from SNH to drive its vehicles beyond the end of the new track?
Another reason for the CNPA to take action, both it and SNH need to work together to sort this track out (just as they need to do at Dinnet (see here)). The problem for the concerned public is there is a complete lack of transparency about what, if anything, is being done. A first step towards improvement would be if the National Park published all cases where it was investigating the need for enforcement action as well as what enforcement action it has taken http://cairngorms.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Planningenforcementregister1.pdf. The second problem is that the CNPA takes so long to take enforcement action that landowners reckon they can get away with anything – this is undermining the whole purpose of the National Park.
The new National Park Partnership Plan, which is due to be sent to Ministers for approval in a couple of months, could signal a change of direction and set out a new sense of purpose in respect of hill tracks if it made a commitment to:
mark the extent of all hill tracks in the National Park on a public map (as Kincardine and Deeside did 20 years ago) so that its easy for the public to report any unlawful new tracks
taking immediate enforcement action against any new hill tracks which are created without planning permission or prior notification and that these should be restored stone by stone if necessary
work with SNH, using powers under the SSSI legislation, to stop off-road use of vehicles in protected sites and to consider the introduction of byelaws to do the same in areas which are not SSSIs.
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…………….
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?
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The retrospective planning application for the unlawful hill track at Cairngorm (see here) and (here) will be considered by the Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee on Friday (see here for all papers). In contrast to the initial planning application to replace the lift at the Shieling, which consisted of just five documents (see here), the retrospective application consists of an incredible 83 documents. This is a consequence of the public protests at the way Natural Retreats has been managing Cairngorm, which have included a significant number of objects to the application, which in turn has forced Natural Retreats to produce further plans . Whatever happens on Friday, the protests have forced Natural Retreats to undertake a series of remedial measures and improvements on the site. The scandal is that without the public protest, none of this would ever have happened. This post considers the failures of our public authorities to safeguard Cairngorm the future of which is central to the future of the National Park..
The policy context
The Cairngorms National Park Authority has a number of policy documents and plans which should have informed how it responded to the planning application which are NOT referred to in the officers report to the Planning Committee (see here). This wrong because the Local Development Plan, approved in 2015, explicitly states in paragraph 1.20 that:
“The National Park Partnership Plan provides policy priorities and programmes of work to deliver the vision and long term outcomes. The Local Development Plan helps to deliver them by implementing those policies”
So, its quite clear in policy terms that the planning section should be helping to deliver the CNPA’s wider objectives. I will highlight here two pollcies/strategies which are very relevant to the current planning application.
In September 2016 the CNPA Board approved the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy (see here). A number of commitments from that strategy should have affected how the current planning application has been dealt with:
“The purpose of the Partnership is to collaborate in the strategic management of these landholdings in order to deliver: An exceptionally high quality natural environment” Comment: the Committee Report fails to explain how the destruction and poor restoration work in Coire Cas contributes to that purpose?
“Ensure enhancements within the ski area are implemented to high quality standards appropriate to the sensitive environment” Comment: so does the CNPA Planning Committee really believe the works associated with the Shieling Ski tow have been of an acceptable quality?
“1. Management interventions will improve the natural environment, landscape and visitor experience and retain the sense of wildness and space found in the area”. Comment: Natural Retreats has used claims that removal of the old bulldozed uplift track and bulldozing of the bank below the Sheiling have improved the landscape to justify everything it has done. Both claims are questionable. Yes, the old uptrack was highly artificial, but so is the smooth slope that has replaced it with hardly a sign of the many boulders which used to cover this glacial landscape.
“Natural Retreats and partners to develop and deliver masterplan for Cairngorm Mountain” Comment: how can the Planning Committee decide on agreeing to this track if there is no masterplan? Agreeing to the track will set a precedent for new tracks alongside every ski lift at Cairngorm. Is that really what the CNPA want? Its clearly not needed as skiing operations have been managed for over 50 years with a more limited track network.
The second policy relevant to the current planning application is flood prevention and management. Again, there is no mention of this in the Committee Report despite it being one of the 9 Big Issues in the draft Partnership Plan. That document explicitly says hill tracks can lead to increased flooding and also:
One of the most important factors with respect to managing flood risk is the maintenance and enhancement of vegetation cover, which may disrupt overland flow and reduce through flow.
There is also no reference to the Spey Catchment Initiative which states “the ability to manage land, particularly in the uplands, in a way that attenuates rates of runoff will be crucial to this process” (of flood prevention).
Officers have not only ignored their own policies, they have also made the following extraordinary statement in the Committee Report:
47. In terms of objections raised regarding the need for the track, Local Development Plan policy supports in principle the extension and diversification of existing operations. Objectors have raised the issue of no need being demonstrated for the retention of the track. In this regard it is generally considered, in the context of a track within an existing long established ski resort that the party best placed to determine the operational needs of their business are the applicants. In any case, the need for the track is not required to be demonstrated as it is not a requirement of policy. The role of the Planning Authority is to consider the land use impacts and merits of the proposal, assessed against policy.
The implications of this are that not only should the CNPA abdicate any role on Cairngorm, as Natural Retreats as operator are deemed best placed to decided operational requirements, but also that every landowner in the National Park would be given free rein to install new hill tracks wherever they want. It puts operational management before the natural environment. This is totally wrong. Cairngorm is part of a National Scenic Area and the statement is contrary to CNPA’s statutory objectives as a National Park.
The failure of the Cairngorms National Park Authority to take appropriate enforcement action
The photo above was one of five that Alan Brattey sent to the CNPA on 4th September 2015 along with the following email:
The email was passed to Planning Enforcement and when after four weeks Alan had heard nothing more he emailed planning enforcement on 5th October to try and find out what was happening. He eventually received a reply on 29th October which indicated that a member of staff had visited the site and thought there was no problem (I have all the emails). Alan then contacted the Head of Planning Gavin Miles and, on 8th December, the CNPA told Natural Retreats to stop the works immediately – three whole months after they had been notified of the problem. Despite knowing what was going on, CNPA staff allowed Natural Retreats to ignore planning requirements until it was too late and all the damage had been done. One could speculate whether this was a result of lack of skills and knowledge of the staff concerned (planning staff in our National Parks would appear to need more training on issues such as good track design, management of vegetation, flood risk etc) or a management decision not to challenge Highlands and Islands Enterprise on anything that goes on at Cairngorm, but whatever the case, lessons could be learned. The CNPA has a planning enforcement charter and extensive enforcement powers 160722PlanningEnforcementCharterFINALAPPROVED and it would have taken nothing for staff to have told Natural Retreats to suspend all work until they had clarifed what was going on and reached agreement on a way forward. They did not do so. There is of course no mention of these failures in the Committee Report.
The failure goes further than that though. This is part of what Gavin Miles wrote to Alan Brattey in December:
Waiting to the Spring was is fair enough but, over a year later, there is no evidence that the Park has undertaken a proper re-assessment of what Natural Retreats had actually done. The Committee Reports confines its considerations to the hill track and bank and provides NO assessment of the wider destruction and the impact that this has had.
The role of HIE in the Sheiling Hill track
I received a helpful email from HIE earlier this week which helps explain their role in the replacement of the Shieling ski tow.
First, the new Shieling ski tow, like the other ski lift infrastructure belongs to HIE but they decided to get Natural Retreats to install it because:
It is no exaggeration to say that Cairngorm is an exceptionally challenging environment, where contractors need to be highly flexible and ready to work carefully and quickly, often amid rapidly changing weather and ground conditions. Exceptionally, therefore, HIE agreed that it was appropriate for our tenant to manage the works to improve these HIE-owned assets, since they are in control of the assets, hold the health & safety responsibilities across the whole site and have the necessary specialised staff on site
The reason for this explanation is I suspect that under the procurement rules and their own procedures, HIE should have put the works at Cairngorm out to public tender (because of the estimated cost of £83k) instead of handing this to Natural Retreats. HIE are concerned they might be legally challenged on this, hence the first sentence. What should be quite clear to HIE now in view of what happened – works undertaken at the wrong time of year and without any regard being given to the Method Statement – that Natural Retreats do NOT have the “necessary specialised staff on site” to undertaken such works properly. All work that is paid for in future by HIE to upgrade or maintain its own assets therefore should go out to public tender.
As explained in my previous reply, CML were reimbursed by HIE for payments made against evidenced invoices paid by CML, with HIE checking the progress of the works. There is an overall project budget and estimates for each item are made within that. We have flexibility in how we manage the works and have not set a specific limit to spend as the scale of works is relatively small. I would stress, however, that works are discussed in advance and monitored carefully.
What this confirms is that HIE knew about the destruction but did nothing. What’s more, they paid Natural Retreats for works done in contravention of the planning approval:
“The estimate for groundworks was £83,000 excluding VAT. The final figure paid for groundworks was in fact £77,453 excluding VAT (correcting the figure of £78,353 excluding VAT given in the earlier FoI response).
I can confirm that CML will be repaying HIE for the value of the works undertaken to alter the bank without planning consent, which is £2,000.”
I am delighted that HIE has now, after I brought this to their attention, realised that they should not have paid for unlawful works and for the first sentence in the following statement:
HIE indeed requires those carrying out works it is funding to observe and abide by planning regulations, and we regret that this did not happen in this particular instance. To be clear, the creation of the track on the line of the old tow track was part of the works covered by the Planning Permission and was included in the method statement; the track was required to undertake the project. It is the proposed permanence of this track (rather than its reinstatement as authorised in the planning consent) that is now at issue and is included in the retrospective planning application.
The second part of this statement though appears wrong. The Construction Method statement 2014_0251_DET-METHOD_STATEMENT-100105315 is vague and contains no drawings but its quite clear from the photo above that NO temporary track was put in in order to undertake the works as HIE suggests. The track referred to in the application appears to be the old ski uptrack which of course did need to be restored and which appears to have been used by the diggers to access the site. So, its not true to calim that “it is the proposed permanance of this track that is now at issue”.
HIE appears to still be on the defensive. If they really cared about Cairngorm they could use this clause in their lease to take action against Natural Retreats.
All HIE have done so far is reclaim the £2000 they had paid out for unlawful works.
What needs to happen
The Planning Committee on Friday needs to ask some much broader questions than those covered in the Committee Report. I have suggested here this should include:
How the planning applications supports the wider policy and plans for the National Park
The failure of CNPA to take appropriate enforcement action and the lessons which could be learned from this
HIE’s role, as a public authority, in supporting the National Park to achieve its objectives.
In my next post I will demonstrate there is ample evidence on the ground to show why the current application should be rejected.
There is evidence that Natural Retreats have been undertaking some sort of tidy up at Cairngorm, which is welcome if not before time. The Shieling Rope Tow fencing has been completed. The section of the Carpark T-Bar fencing that had been taken down to allow a machine to move out of the uptrack has been nailed back on after lying on the ground for 3 months. Some of the spoil materials have been collected together and the place does look tidier.
Indeed Natural Retreats has claimed that some of the mess – such as that at the unofficial dump they created at the old Fiacaill T-bar base (photo above) would be cleared once the snows arrive. This, they have claimed, is because snow would reduce the impact of vehicles transporting redundant materials out. The trouble with this claim is not just that redundant materials such as the old chestnut fencing which is lying against the new snow fencing get buried as soon as it snows – which may explain why many redundant materials have been lying around since before last winter – its that Natural Retreats have been causing damage to vegetation elsewhere.
The Car Park T-Bar
Parkswatch have previously featured vehicles driving by the Carpark T-bar uptrack and the impact of that is clearly evident. The vegetation has been seriously damaged and the ground is now being eroded by water.
Highland Council approved the laying of new cable along the Car Park T-bar – which clearly needed to be done – without planning permission as they regarded the works as “de minimis.” Its clear that the impact of vehicle use here – whether for follow up work on the cable laying or for other works – has not been “de minimis”.
While the trench for the cabling by the Car Park lifties hut, which had been left open for something like six months (photo left) has now been filled in, the quality of the restoration has been extremely poor. You can still see a trench which will act as a drainage channel. The natural vegetation here had all been highly modified by the high levels of use but in order to help the ground recover and prevent erosion the trench should have been filled in months ago. The most recent good practice guidance all suggests that where trenches are required restoration should take place as the work goes along in order to reduce impacts. Maybe Natural Retreats has is a good explanation for the delay in this case? If so I would be happy to post this on parkswatch.
The Coire Cas T-bar gantry works
Highland Council agreed to emergency works on the Coire Cas Gantry in 2015 to make it safe for skiing and to “de minimis” groundworks and as a consequence waived the requirement for planning permission. They were informed this last time last year of concerns which they dismissed (see Letter re Coire Cas Gantry anonymised) and closed the case. I am afraid the recent photos show there has been a dereliction of public duty.
And this is how the lower slope adjacent to the gantry looks now
The topsoil is clearly washing out. This is partly a consequence of the steepness of this slope but also of a failure to store vegetation and re-seed the area in the Spring. Its fairly predictable that there will be further significant erosion during the rest of the winter and that the slope will become unstable – will the Natural Retreats solution be simply to scoop up more material from elswhere and dump it on the slope? Its time the CNPA talked to Highland Council and they agreed that all works should be required to meet certain standards and that this be enforced. If the only way to do this is to require planning permission whenever that is applicable, then that’s what our public authorities should do. All the evidence clearly shows that leaving Natural Retreats to supervise works continues to fail.
The Shieling Rope Tow area
The places where Natural Retreats’ contractors scooped out vegetation with diggers – in order to “restore” the reprofiled Shieling rope tow slope – have now predictably filled up with water. In flood prevention terms this may not be a bad thing, as all the other works Natural Retreats has done has had the effect of increasing water run-off, but it has changed the ecology of slope. What’s more the efforts to try and minimise the impact of the funicular, by taking extreme care over grounds works, has simply been undone. All this work appears to have been funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and I am currently in dialogue with them about exactly what they funded and what if any of the damage has been paid for by Natural Retreats.
The unlawful track that Natural Retreats created by the Shieling rope tow is due to be considered by the CNPA planning committee at the end of January. While the seeding has partially established grass along the track, the blue pellets and stones in the foreground indicate that the top of the slope has washed away again. Its too steep and the drainage scoops are unlikely to solve the problem. They are likely to be seriously eroded by the end of the winter.
The cumulative impact of the destruction of vegetation and increase in water run-off caused by the Shieling Rope tow appears to be impacting on the path below it. The path is now extemely soggy and you can see how lower down its starting to form a burn. I trust that the CNPA consider these issues at Planning Committee and how this fits with the local area flood prevention plan.