Tag: natural retreats

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What needs to happen

 

  • The HIE Board need to get a handle on what staff are presenting to them about Natural Retreats and the plans at Cairngorm
  • Charlotte Craig, the Acting Chief Executive, needs to get a handle on what staff are doing and writing in her name.
  • HIE needs to explain why its lending £4m to a company that appears effectively bankrupt and whose business plan has not been finalised.
  • Audit Scotland should start asking some of these questions
Photomontage of Option 1 for proposed redevelopment of Ptarmigan.  As well as the raised viewing tower, note the glass viewing area added to  design

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

 

More development, high up on Cairngorm, is totally inappropriate

 

Design Option 2 for the Ptarmigan

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Advice from SNH obtained through FOI

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Why the proposals are misguided and what needs to happen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Photomontage of option 1 for Ptarmigan contained in undated Cairngorm Mountain; Pre-planning feasibility document

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Spot the difference with the earlier version below:

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Screening Opinion

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Cairngorm Mountain: pre-planning feasibility document
The unauthorised tip/storage area at the former Fiacaill T-bar loading area in Coire Cas has grown in  size

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

 

Coire Cas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

You can judge the quality of the repair for yourself.

Treatment of staff

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Coire na Ciste

 

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

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

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

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

Collapsed snow fencing,  approaching West Wall poma upload area

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

Abandoned chairlift sheaves which have been on the ground since 2012

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

Windblown? pipe January 2017 Photo Credit Louis Mullen

 

 

 

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

 

What needs to happen?

 

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

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

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

HIE Response

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

Comment

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

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

 

HIE Response

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

Comment

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

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

 

HIE Response

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

Comment

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

The failures and lack of accountability of HIE

 

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

 

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

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

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

Natural Retreats is not fit to manage any development at Cairngorm

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cairngorm Estate Management Plan

 

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

Plans to rebuild the Day Lodge and turn it into an international conference centre have been dropped

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Financial questions that need to be asked

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The wider questions about Cairn Gorm

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Strathy puts Natural Retreats under the spotlight again – and rightly so

 

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

 

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

 

Extract CML accounts to 31st December 2015

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Notes to accounts are often very informative

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

What does this mean at Cairngorm?

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Officers Report for the Cairngorms National Park Planning Authority meeting on Friday which will consider the hill track at Cairngorm is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes.  This is over and above the policy omissions and enforcement failures considered in yesterday’s post.

 

On the positive side, there appears to have been a lot of bargaining behind the scenes, which has resulted in plans to improve the whole area, beyond the current application.

The brown areas are previous plantings, the green is additional planting proposed for 2017-18

 

 

 

The planting will not just hide some of the infrastructure, it should also – though there is no mention of this in the Report – compensate for some of the increased water run-off that has been created by the development.  There are some other positive things in the plan, including works around both ends of the ski tow to improve landscaping;  the work at the bottom will be done by hand.    All of this is good.  It should however have all been included in the original planning application, which was sketchy at the very least.   Its clear to me that the public pressure has helped (or is it pushed) CNPA staff to take more interest in the development.  A lesson here for the CNPA.  Well thought out plans properly enforced would avoid lots of problems and public criticism.

 

On the negative side though the Report, and accompanying documentation supplied by Natural Retreats, fails to explain a number of factors which are relevant to determining the application and indeed to the wider landscape improvement plan:

 

  • The implications of the new track failing to meet the design standards set out in SNH’s Guidance on “Constructed Tracks in the Scottish Uplands” is not considered nor is there any consideration of alternatives
  • There is no attempt to describe the extent of the area where works took place in breach of the planning permission (the application was for a strip of ground 30m broad).   This is important because without a description of what has been done, the CNPA is not in a position to stipulate what remedial measures are required.
  • Related to this, there is NO description of the impacts of the works on the hydrology of the area.

 

I will address each of these in turn based on the evidence I saw on my latest walk around on Saturday.   While I am not a trained path worker, ecologist or hydrologist I believe there is more than enough evidence to show that these issues need to be considered by properly qualified and independent professionals.

 

Location and design of the hill track

There has been a lot of nonsense talked about the hill track being needed for construction purposes.  This diagram from Appendix A to the Committee Report shows that this couldn’t have been the case.  The elevation of the new track is HIGHER than the previous sheiling tow uptrack which sat between two bulldozed banks (section GG).  In other words the hill track could only have been created AFTER the slope had been smoothed out (which was agreed in the original planning application).   This explains why there is NO evidence of any temporary construction track.   There wasn’t any. Natural Retreats appears to have confused the original ski uptrack with the new hilltrack in order to make the latter appear more acceptable by implying this had already been agreed on a temporary basis.

The most likely explanation for why Natural Retreats created the hill track is still that they did not have sufficient vegetation to replace that they had destroyed in the course of reprofiling the slope.  The track filled the gap.  The question that has still not been answered is where all the fine material that has been used to surface the new track has come from?  While on Saturday, there was good evidence of how this material gets washed away (see photo above) it was not until I received the photo below taken by Alan Brattey on Monday that I fully appreciated how quickly this happens.

There was no sign of the hole, centre right, when I walked down the track two days before.  Two days of freeze thaw and another section of track had been destroyed.

 

Part of the problem is that the track is too steep, contrary to SNH guidance.   Natural Retreats has appears to accept this in its comment that the track “is constrained to existing ground levels” – in other words its fundamentally flawed!

Natural Retreats has also accepted that the track washes away:

Natural Retreats solution is drainage bars which it says works well.   If CNPA officers had walked around Cairngorm at the weekend they would have seen every single steel drainage channel choked with eroded material

Choked steel drainage channel by Cas Gantry
Choked drainage channel below Ptarmigan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CNPA officers should have questioned the efficacy of steel drainage channels and its interesting why they have not advocated the use of natural materials, as in photo above.  Are the granite blocks any less effective in terms of drainage?   They are far more in keeping with the natural environment.

 

The problem which remains though is that the surface materials are too fine and will wash away whatever drainage is installed.  The track, as oriented, is simply not sustainable and the Planning Committee needs to consider alternatives.

Any alternative should consider that there will now be a new uptrack created by the rope tow.  Its  hard to see the heather planted along the line of the rope tow surviving (all the other uptracks lose their heather, with the car park t-bar below the Shieling almost completely bare of heather).   So, if planning permission is granted to the hill track there will be double the visual impact in the long-term, something the CNPA has apparently not considered.       If vehicle access is really needed occasionally, its strange that the uptrack, which is now totally smooth apart from the top section, was not considered as the means to do this.

 

Damage to surrounding ground and vegetation

In order to “restore” the damage caused by the works on the Sheiling slope, Natural Retreats scooped up vegetation from outside the area granted planning permission.

 

Photo Credit George Paton

I had not realised till Saturday that this appears to have been from a far wider area than that immediately adjacent to the shieling slope.

Hole scooped above track to Fiacaill dump
Another hole above track to Fiacaill dump

The whole of the bank above the track to the Fiacaill dump is full of holes where vegetation has been removed – the most likely explanation appears to be that this was used to replace the vegetation at the Shieling which had not been properly stored.

Area of ground above the unlawful works to create a new bank belong the shieling tow. This ground was not reprofiled and the most likely explanation for the bare ground and re-seeding is that Natural Retreats took vegetation from here for use on the Shieling tow.

 

The CNPA Committee Report makes no attempt to other describe or assess the impact of this destruction.  If it had done so, it would help put the remedial measures I described at the beginning of this post in context, as they do not address all of the damage that has been done or assess what impact this might have in the long-term.   A proper vegetation assessment should have been undertaken before any decision is made.

 

Drainage

While the CNPA Committee Report includes comments from their ecologist, this says nothing about either the damage outside the area granted planning permission or strangely about hydrology.   What is clear from my walk around is that there has been extensive work to alter the drainage of the shieling ski slopes and surrounding area.    I am not necessarily against such works – I recognise that ski slopes and bogs are not really compatible – but the point is that there should have been a proper assessment of the impact of such works and any mitigation measures BEFORE any work was undertaken.   This is because water run-off from drainage not only changes the local ecology, it increases the likelihood of flooding downstream – in this case of Aviemore – which is one of the Big 9 issues the CNPA is supposed to be trying to tackle.

 

Why a proper assessment is needed is illustrated by these photos.  Natural Retreats included the photo above in their plans showing what they had done.   The photo below shows how the area in the distance looked on Saturday.  The sandbags are proof that something is not working.

 

Section of poorly finished culvert crossing ski slope

In fact there are sandbags in several places on the slope – an illustration of problems that the CNPA has simply not considered – and also a significant number of culverts across and along the edge of the ski slopes.

 

Now, I am not sure when these were created but the only culverts referred to in the planning application were to channel the Allt Choire Cas, which runs across the bottom of the Sheiling Ski slopes, underground instead of the old wooden bridges.

New? and poorly finished culvert at bottom of Shieling slope on left.  There are at least three culverts, none of which have been properly covered, running under the southern of the two shieling slopes (right photo).

 

 

The seeding indicates that this culvert on right side of left shieling slope is new.   The drainage line to the left of fence is not mentioned in the Committee Report or accompanying papers.
Besides the culverts there are also drainage ditches across the slope

 

So where is the environmental impact assessment of all this drainage work?  What are the implications?   We simply don’t know.  I don’t think that is good enough.

 

The way forward

The CNPA needs to work out how access could managed to this site without agreeing to a track which is going to constantly erode, what damage there has been to vegetation outwith the site granted planning permission together with what remedial measures are required and also also ensure there is a proper assessment of the likely impact of the drainage works and how this might be mitigated

 

I previously called for an independent ecological assessment of the area and options to repair the damage that has been done.    In my view this is still needed and the CNPA is not in a position to take a properly informed decision about this planning application.   It needs to do so, not just for the landscape and wildlife, but the people who enjoy Cairngorm, not least the people who ski there.

Lower Coire Cas Saturday 21st January. The Shieling Hill track, the line of green in the centre, is to be discussed by the CNPA planning committee but the swathe of destruction in the foreground, has not been subjected to any planning controls.

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.
    How has burying boulders, posts and peat made the landscape more natural?   The Method Statement said Natural Retreats would recycle, not bury wood.   Photo Credit Alan Brattey


  • “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

This photo clearly shows that no vegetation was being stored by Natural Retreats as required (in their latest submission to the planning committee Natural Retreats again asserted that all vegetation was stored for re-use despite all the evidence to the contrary).

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.

The Fiacaill T-bar dump – photo credit Alan Brattey (all photos featured here by Alan date from 8th January 2017)

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

Car Park T bar uptrack vehicle damage – Photo Credit Alan Brattey 8/1/17

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”.

Photo credit Alan Brattey 8/1/16

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

The ground to the right of the gantry, looking uphill showing where the blue revegetation pellets and topsoil have been washed away       Photo Credit Alan Brattey 8/1/16

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.

View of the Coire Cas Gantry at the end of July showing the ground featured in the photos above and below – Nick Kempe

And this is how the lower slope adjacent to the gantry looks now

Photo Credit Alan Brattey 8/1/16
Photo credit Alan Brattey 8/1/16

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

Photo credit Alan Brattey 8/1/16

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.

Photo credit Alan Brattey 8/1/16

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.

Coire Cas circular path Photo Credit Alan Brattey 8/1/16

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.

The article that appeared in the Strathy last week

After the Strathy’s excellent coverage of the Save the Ciste Group’s criticisms of what is happening at Cairngorm  (see here) it was inevitable that Natural Retreats would try and suggest that they are in fact doing lots to improve the skiing experience at Cairngorm and the article above duly appeared last week.   While the work has been contracted for by Natural Retreats, who are therefore responsible for the quality of the  work undertaken, almost all the work listed has in fact been paid for by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (see here).   Indeed out of the £700k Natural Retreats claims to have spent on maintenance and improvement work  this year, it appears £601,286 has been paid for by HIE.  If this is right, it appears Natural Retreats has invested just £100k, which could easily be paid for out of £400k savings the accounts show they made the first year they owned Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.

 

The truth behind the spend on ski infrastructure listed in the article is as follows:

  • Replacement of West Wall poma return station – paid for by HIE grant – planning permission breached by Natural Retreats’ contractors
  • Strengthening Cas T-Bar Gantry – £73,377 paid for by HIE for all works associated with gantry – Natural Retreats had still not in mid-December properly restored the site (see here)
  • Installation new safety circuit cable –  £315,641 paid for by HIE (electrical upgrades to surface uplift)
  • Replacement of motors and drives at Ridge poma, Car Park Tow and Polar express – unclear if this part of the electrical upgrades to surface uplift and therefore who paid
  • Installation of 4km new fencing – this is being paid for by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, cost unknown.  The work however is not yet complete as implied in the article eg for photographic evidence showing West Wall poma uptrack fencing was not complete earlier this month (see here)
  • Removal of obsolete rope from Coire na Ciste chairlift – this is new, unclear who is paying
  • Installation of new haul rope for Polar Express – unclear who is paying for this
  • Completion re-instatement around Shieling rope tow and Cas Gantry – while the original works were paid for by HIE (£78,353 for Shieling ground works and £73,377 for Cas Gantry) I have submitted FOI request to HIE asking them to clarify if their payment included the costs of work undertaken by Natural Retreats without planning permission.

 

While I will submit a further FOI to HIE to try and clarify further what Natural Retreats has invested at Cairngorm, on the facts as presented by Janette Jansson it appears unlikely they are paying for all the items which were not clearly covered by the FOI request.  Indeed there are other items, not referred to by Janette Jansson,  such as replacement lift huts ,which we know HIE have paid for.   I think it is safe to conclude therefore that almost all of the investment that is going on at Cairngorm is coming from the public purse.

 

What Janette Jansson has failed to answer is the questions I raised previously:

“Can HIE and Natural Retreats answer publicly, whether they can evidence:

a) each are investing sufficient monies at Cairngorm, in their own areas of responsibility, to prevent further deterioration of the ski infrastructure, and

b) whether the cuts in staffing which were evident in Cairngorm Mountain Ltd’s accounts the first year Natural Retreats took over, has had an impact on the progress that has been made in replacing fencing at Cairngorm and other aspects of maintenance of the ski infrastructure for which they are responsible.”

 

If Natural Retreats are contributing so little to Cairngorm – indeed they appear from the accounts to have been taking money out of it – the public interest question is why should the public and the politicians who represent us allow the HIE lease with Natural Retreats to continue?

The Coire Cas t-bar Gantry December 2016. HIE has paid £73,377 towards emergency works to stop the gantry collapsing but they have not been completed a year later. Why not?  Photo Credit Alan Brattey

Ten days ago I raised question about how much Natural Retreats is actually investing at Cairngorm  (see here).   The question of who is responsible for investing what at Cairngorm is complicated and not easy to see from the lease between Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Natural Retreats (I am working on it).  This FOI response  does show what HIE spent between Natural Retreats taking over and August 2016 (a total of £750,275) but what is not in the public realm at present is planned planned future investment, either by HIE or by Natural Retreats.  Whatever the exact division of responsibilities, the latest photos from Cairngorm show its not working.

 

The Coire Cas T-bar Gantry

 

December 2016 Photo Credit Alan Brattey

Emergency works were agreed to the Coire Cas T-Bar Gantry over a year ago to prevent its collapse before the ski season (a legacy of underinvestment).  Highland Council agreed these could go ahead without planning permission because it was an emergency and the associated works on the track and embankment were described as “de minimis”.    HIE paid £73,377 of public money to Natural Retreats as follows:

t/ ALL WORKS associated with the Cas Gantry, including Groundworks, Surveying, Tendering and Mechanical Installation.

 

Its not clear from this if the £73,377 just covered the works to the gantry, as illustrated in the photos above, or whether it also included the reprofiling of the bank and widening of the track to the south.  What the photos show though is that none of the work has been completely properly or to the standard one should expect in a National Park.

 

The “restoration” of the embanking. The blue reseeding pellets have been spread too late in the year and are being washed away by rainfall.   You can see how the slope has begun to erode and its not difficult to predict that by the end of the winter the erosion will be far worse.

What we don’t know is if the £73,377 was insufficient to complete the works or whether Natural Retreats has not completed all the works it was supposed to do.  Either way, HIE should have taken action months ago to ensure the works were completed properly.    What the failures at the Cas Gantry also demonstrate is that the planning authorities, whether Highland Council for supposed minor works or the Cairngorms National Park Authority, should not be agreeing to such works going ahead without planning permission.  It  means they have deprived themselves of planning enforcement powers which could be used to force Natural Retreats/HIE to spend whatever is needed to complete this work properly.   Both could still call though for HIE/Natural Retreats to repair the damage under the agreements they made in the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy.

 

The West Wall poma

HIE paid a further £75,612 of public money to Natural Retreats for:

 

“u/ ALL WORKS associated with the proposed extention and fixed return bull-wheel installation, including all submitted contractors and supplier’s costs for total realization of this Project.

The West Wall poma extension, paid for by HIE was completed in October.

While the work from a distance appears better finished than the Cas Gantry, you can see the damage that has been created by the use of tracked vehicles in the foreground. Highland Council has still not responded to complaints about Natural Retreats’ failure to ensure their contractors adhered to the conditions set out in the Method Statement.

 

The new return wheel contrasts with the bottom of the West Wall poma which is falling to bits.

Loading ramp fencing in a dangerous condition

 

Loading ramp wood showing signs of rot
The control hut door does not close [tied together with twine but open enough to fill with snow in a storm.                          All photos Alan Brattey

 

I am not clear whose responsibility this is, HIE who is responsible for paying for major works on the infrastructure, or Natural Retreats who are responsible for more day to day maintenance.  The position as I understand it is further complicated because the lease refers to a schedule of delapidations which was to be agreed before the entry date but which is not yet, as far as I am aware, in the public realm.

 

While HIE had paid £12,626 to Natural Reteats by the end of August for “Replacement Lift Huts” this appears not to have covered the lifty hut at the West Wall poma which is falling to bits:

 

West Wall poma lifties hut

Neither does it appear to have included the White Lady ski Hut which is in an even worse condition.

   What does seem clear from the FOI and lease is that Natural Retreats are responsible for replacing the snow fencing at Cairngorm (which was generally in a terrible state).  Back in August Natural Retreats said this about the progress on new fencing along the M2 and West Wall poma uptrack:

The weather has been fantastic this week on Cairngorm Mountain and the fencing team have been making amazing progress on the M2 and the West Wall Poma uptrack.Ops team.

Posted by CairnGorm Mountain Ltd on Saturday, August 20, 2016

The West Wall pomoa uptrack fencing has been worked on sporadically over the last two summers but is nowhere close to completion and obviously needs doing.    Did HIE set Natural Retreats any deadline for the completion of these works?

West Wall uptrack snow fencing December 2016 Photo credit Alan Brattey

Other Fencing

 

In fact Natural Retreats has now been working on replacement fencing across Cairngorm for over two years and its far from complete.

Incomplete new snow fencing shieling rope tow December 2016 Photo Credit Alan Brattey

What needs to happen

Given the evidence of the photos above, I believe it would be in the public interest for HIE and Natural Retreats to answer publicly, whether they can evidence:

a) each are investing sufficient monies at Cairngorm, in their own areas of responsibility, to prevent further deterioration of the ski infrastructure, and

b) the cuts in staffing which were evident in Cairngorm Mountain Ltd’s accounts the first year Natural Retreats took over, has had an impact on the progress that has been made in replacing fencing at Cairngorm and other aspects of maintenance of the ski infrastructure for which they are responsible.

 

Its time too  the Cairngorms National Park Authority started to ask for answers to the same questions and to make it clear to HIE and Natural Retreats that it expects the highest possible standards at Cairngorm and will do everything in its power to see this happens.

Images and notes from completed reinstatement of sunkid lift (Shieling rope tow) November 2015 (Natural Retreats document submitted to Cairngorms National Park Authority).

Donald Trump was in the national media at the weekend for failing to keep to the planning agreements he had made at the Menie golf course North of Aberdeen.  While this should have come as no surprise to those who have followed that saga there are similarities with how  Natural Retreats have acted at Cairngorm.  There are several examples of both Natural Retreats and Donald Trump doing what they want and then either applying, or checking if they need planning permission afterwards.    Both appear to assume if planning permission is required it will be granted and the the planning authorities will never dare take action against them.

 

Photos taken at Cairngorm on Sunday provide more evidence to show that NR is no different from Donald Trump in failing to stick to their word.  From the comment on the photo above you would have thought the dump was temporary and would have been cleared up long ago.   In fact the photos below show that even more rubbish has been dumped at the former Fiacaill T-Bar loading area. There was no dump here until Natural Retreats took over Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.

Photo Credit Alan Brattey 11th December 2016

Photo credit Alan Brattey 11th December 2016

Parkswatch will publish more photos this week showing that there is now rubbish strewn all over Cairngorm and that the Fiacaill dump is just a small part of the problem.  It is though something the Cairngorms National Park Authority as planning authority should take action on.  Once you allow an organisation like Natural Retreats or Donald Trump to get away with breaching planning rules, you are just encouraging further breaches.  Partnership does not work with people to whom finance is king.  They need to be given limits and that means the CNPA taking enforcement action.

 

 

cimg9118
Photo of Natural Retreats’ dump at former Fiacaill T-Bar loading area taken 4th December 2016 and sent to me after my post yesterday. Cuts in costs by Natural Retreats are making the management of the mountain environment even worse, though standards had been dropping well before they took over. The dump now appears a semi-permanent feature of Coire Cas but is it a sign of investment?

Ewan Kearney, Director and the public face of Natural Retreats/Natural Assets claimed in the Strathy article last week that:

 

“Natural Assets has invested £1.3m into CML [Cairngorm Mountain Ltd] at Cairngorm over the last two years.   In addition to this any profit generated through CML as a result of the operation is invested back into the business”. 

 

My last post, which showed Natural Assets cut what was spent at Cairngorm by over £400k in the first year it owned CML while increasing administrative expenses by over £300k  and thus sucking money out of the company, casts serious doubt on the second part of the statement.  Its common practice these days for companies to hide and move profits through internal administration charges – Amazon is a well known example.  If Ewan Kearney stands by what he has claimed, then it would be easy for him to prove it:  he could simply make public the management accounts (which give details of all transactions) for Cairngorm and agree that all internal transactions between CML and Natural Assets/Natural Retreats could be open for public scrutiny.  Moreover,  he could release data on types and levels of staffing at Cairngorm, such as appeared in the CML accounts to March 2014 before Natural Assets bought the company:

 

staff
It would be in the public interest to know how many staff are now employed at Cairngorm and what they do to understand the relationship between staffing and the collapse of standards at Cairngorm.

 

What about investment then?

 

The figures from the accounts indicate there has been little or no investment in operational costs, such as staff, so I think we can take it most of Kearney’s claimed £1.3m over two years has been into capital.  The CML accounts tell us how much investment there has been into assets and of what type.  What they do not say directly is whether this is enough.

 

First another proviso.   Investment means different things to different people and Mr Kearney’s claimed investment into CML could include the £231,239 it cost to purchase it.   Unfortunately we won’t know the truth for another year because Natural Assets has changed the accounting year and the new accounts for CML will just be for 9 months until December 2015, 18 months after they bought it.      You can however see some of what happened in the the first 10 months Natural Assets owned CML.

 

investment
While the net book value of CML was £615,562 or thereabouts prior to purchase Natural Assets were able to buy the company for £231,239 because of “negative goodwill” – see previous post.

Line 2 under the Note on Tangible Fixed assets shows “additions” in the year to March 2015 of £616,544.  Double that and you are not far off Ewan Kearney’s claim of £1.3m of investment over two years.

 

However, all is not as it appears.  Look at the line below, “disposals” and you can see that Natural Retreats sold plant and machinery originally valued at £844, 715 which after “depreciation” (3 lines below) was worth c£140k.   Now if the disposal sold for a sum anything like that, Natural Assets realised a gain which it could use to help buy the £616k of additions.  That would mean a net investment of say c£480k.  Moreover, the note at the bottom of this section on Tangible Assets makes it clear that recorded under the “additions” is the full value of items held under finance leases or hire purchases agreements.  The value of “assets” held in this way increased between March 2014 and March 2015 by over £150k.  Assume a three year hire purchase agreement and that knocks another £100k off what was actually invested, meaning the real investment was c£380k or only just above what was invested in the  previous year’s accounts before Natural Assets bought CML.

 

It appears then that for Mr Kearney’s claim to be true Natural Assets must have invested c£920k in the succeeding financial year.   While we don’t have the accounts from March 2015-December 2015 we do know from a Freedom of Information Request, that was quoted in the Strathy article, that HIE has invested £601,286 into the assets CML operates since Natural Assets takes over.    (Thanks to George Paton for this cairngorm-hie-response-to-foi-on-cm-spend-17-august-2016  its well worth a read)  Now most of this expenditure to my knowledge appears to have taken place since March 2015 which raises the question of whether Ewan Kearney’s claimed investment of £1.3m over 2 years includes this support from HIE or not.   Now, as a result of my concerns about the unlawfully bulldozed track in Coire Cas (see here for example) and the extremely poor standard of work on the new Rope Tow.  I contacted HIE who said that Natural Retreats was responsible for the contractors, i.e had the contract with them.   This shows that HIE funded CML to do these works.  The key question therefore is whether Natural Retreats has included grant funding in their claimed investment of £1.3m at Cairngorm or whether the grant funding is on top of this.  Ewan Kearney and HIE should come clean now and release all the figures relating to capital investment.

 

While the answer will be interesting, whatever the case its clear the investment has not been  enough.  This is shown by the collapse of the Cas Gantry just over a year ago through lack of maintenance.

gp-gantry-works-in-snow
The initial works to “save” the Cas Gantry – Photo Credit George Paton

 

The FOI response shows HIE paid £73,377 to “fix” this.  Given the appalling standard of the work you wonder why HIE ever agreed to hand-over the money.  Indeed you could ask the same question about the installation of the Sunkid rope tow and associated works which HIE funded to the tune of £160, 596 or the replacement of the electrical cabling to the tows where they have  paid £315,641.  This expenditure has been the opposite of Best Value.  One wonders what else HIE is going to pay for and what else remains their responsibility (I have not been able to work this out from the lease yet).

 

I guess HIE saw these as trifling matters because the big prize in its view was redevelopment of the Day Lodge into a mountain conference centre which Natural Retreats claimed might cost £15m to complete http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-34651446.   This development was totally inappropriate for Cairngorm and has now collapsed.   Replacement of the Day Lodge was however so central to HIE that it was made a condition of the lease and therefore HIE could now, if they wanted, terminate this.  I think they should do so.

 

I believe the agenda of Natural Retreats is not about investing at Cairngorm but taking what money they can from it.   While the controlling interest of the Natural Assets/Retreats group of companies, is held by David Michael Gorton (http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/11/21/will-natural-retreats-bring-decently-paid-jobs-cairngorm/), who has sufficient funds to invest whatever was needed at Cairngorm and indeed a swathe of the Highlands, he has not chosen to do so so far.  His investment vehicle in holiday businesses, Natural Assets,  last year incurred losses of £5,734,703 and is £20,715,910 in deficit overall.   It has no money to invest and a bank would be mad to lend money to it.  What happens therefore entirely depends on the goodwill of Mr Gorton and whether he keeps taking money out of Natural Assets.    HIE should never have sold Cairngorm to such an organisation and should get out while it can.

 

These problems have arisen because HIE is still looking for the big fix at Cairngorm – the funicular was the previous attempt to do this.  What is needed is a totally different approach to development which respects the mountain environment while coming up with creative ways to enable people to enjoy it.    This needs to involve people with ideas, like the Save the Ciste Group, like montane shrub zone enthusiasts, the local community, recreational and conservation organisations.  I think this could happen if the lease with Natural Retreats was terminated, the land transferred from HIE to Forestry Commission Scotland and serious discussions started about creating a community consortium to manage Cairngorm.  It also needs a different form of finance but I think if HIE had funded a community organisation to the extent they have funded Natural Retreats there would have been much better outcomes for all who care about Cairngorm.

 

strathie-1This excellent article, about Natural Retreats’ failure to invest in Cairngorm and the possibility of a community run enterprise taking over the ski area, appeared in the Badenoch and Strathspey Advertiser last week.    While I have been in close communication with the Save the Ciste group, some of whose members have kept me informed of the destruction that has been going on at Cairngorm, and whose public meeting in Aviemore on their alternative proposals for Cairngorm prompted the article,  I had no idea they would get this coverage in the Strathie or that the finances of Natural Retreats would feature so centrally in it.

 

In response to the claims of the Save the Ciste Group (see end of post), Ewan Kearney, who is a Director and Chief Operating Officer of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML), denied any lack of investment.  Mr Kearney is also a Director of Natural Assets Investment Ltd (NA) which owns CML and Natural Retreats UK Ltd  which provides “services” to the companies owned by Natural Assets, including CML.  Interestingly, the spokesperson for Highlands and Islands Enterprise avoided saying anything about what was actually being invested and simply said they are working with Natural Retreats on alternatives to the planned replacement of the Day Lodge which has now collapsed.  I take this as a tacit acknowledgement from HIE that Alan Brattey and the rest of the Save the Ciste group are right.  If, as Alan suggests, you take a look at the latest accounts for these three companies (cml-accounts-to-march-2015),  (natural-assets-investments-financials to March 2015) and  (nr-uk-ltd-accounts-dec-2015) you can get a good idea of where the money is going at Cairngorm and from this its not difficult to reach the conclusion that Natural Retreats are most unlikely to be the saviours of Cairngorm.

 

In summary, for people who dislike poring over financial information and wish to read no further:

  • Natural Retreats cut costs at Cairngorm in the first year they owned it by over £400k
  • At the same time administrative costs increased by over £300k sucking money out of Cairngorm into another company owned by the Natural Retreats group
  • Natural Retreats, owners of CML, have huge debts to a hedge fund manager which are rapidly increasing – on paper its a financial basket case

 

I hope though its worth reading on to understand how this is happening.  The general populace as well as our National Parks need to start using accounts to stop being conned.   While I am not an accountant and there are all sorts of difficulties in interpreting the limited information which is available in the financial statements for the various companies, including that the different companies involved have different financial years and there is extensive internal “trading” between the companies controlled by Natural Assets, there is still a lot of interesting information about what investment is actually taking place and where the money is going.  A further proviso on what I say next is that the last accounts available for CML are for the year April 2014 – March 2015 (the latest accounts are due by the end of January 2017 so more information will be available then) and since NA bought CML in March 2014 not all the financial transactions reflected in the accounts that are public can be attributed to them.

 

What is a constant  behind the labyrinthine financial relationships of Natural Assets and Natural Retreats is the ultimate controlling interest is David Michael Gorton, (see here),  a multi-millionaire hedge fund manager.

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Extract from consolidated accounts of Natural Assets Ltd, who own Cairngorm Mountain, to December 2015. Note that despite taking almost £3m out of Natural Assets as interest the debt NA owes him has increased by over £2m.

 

David Michael Gorton has appointed the same four Directors to run the businesses in his Natural Assets/Natural Retreats group.   Ewan Kearney is the lead for Cairngorm.

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This list of shared Directors from the accounts of Natural Assets Investment Ltd omits name of Timothy Dennis although he is listed at Companies House as a Director of Natural Assets Investment Ltd, Natural Retreats UK Ltd and CML. Note the large amount of internal trading, in both directions,  between NA and NR.  Over £2m one way and £1m the other.  There is similar internal trading of Services between Natural Retreats Uk Ltd and CML.   HMRC would probably have to put someone onto this full-time to find out what is really going on.

While Ewan Kearney claimed in the Strathie that in 2016 Natural Assets had £30m of assets he said nothing about their liabilities.   In March 2015 were over £45m and left a deficit at that time in the consolidated accounts for the Group of £17,764,703.    Take away the subsidiary companies and the liabilities for Natural Assets exceeded assets by £20,715,910. The only way that Natural Assets will be able to invest in Cairngorm is if David Gorton decides to make more money available.

 

I did not follow the sale of CML to Natural Assets but Highlands and Islands Enterprise sold it  for £231,239, a sum that could easily have been raised by a Community Enterprise (or even by crowdfunding).    There is some interesting information in the Natural Assets accounts to March 2015 about this.

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If you look at the subtotal 7 lines down, of the total assets purchased from HIE you can see their book value was £614,954  but this was reduced by “negative goodwill”.  Now this is not about the value of the asset, which is calculated by depreciation of the original purchase cost, but about what use could be made of the asset (i.e the money that might be made from it).  If an asset is productive, goodwill will add to the book value but if the reverse, it will reduce it.  In agreeing the price it appears HIE accepted that there was a problem with the assets owned by CML which reduced their book value significantly.  We do not know why this is and it could be anything from CML had previously purchased the wrong type of equipment  to the likelihood of snowy winters enabling the new owners to make use of the asset.

 

This however was not the only thing  HIE did.  The CML the accounts show they also wrote off £516,068 of dividends that were due to them from CML at the beginning of the 14/15 financial year.

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Without this write-off from HIE (which is treated as interest payable in the profit and loss section of the accounts pasted below – see entry with note 3 by it) CML would have made a significant loss in the year they were taken over by NA.

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While the accounts provide no details of the operation at Cairngorm they do show turnover (income), which dropped by £115k, cost of sales, administrative expensive and Directors fees.

 

Cost of sales means the cost of the workforce at Cairngorm and all the costs such as fuel and power required to run the operation. This reduced to £3,352,081 or c£260k less than the previous financial year.    So while Ewan Kearney is claiming there has been investment in Cairngorm actually in terms of operating expenses there have been cuts.  This I believe helps explain the further drop in standards and lack of care that has been taking place at Cairngorm since Natural Retreats took over.

 

The position though is worse than it appears from the accounts.   I have found out from HIE – and I appreciate their rapid response to my question on this – that CML now employ the ranger service previously funded by HIE to the tune of £55,658 and Natural Assets as the new owners have apparently maintained that level of service.     Their strategy appears to have been to  fund this extra commitment through paid guided walks (see here) but this was an additional cost which they can only have absorbed by a further £55,658 of saving/cuts.  In addition, the notes to the accounts (see note below) shows that CML undertook £116, 026 of work for Natural Retreats which appears to be included in cost of sales and indicates staff employed at Cairngorm are now doing work for other companies in the Natural Assets/Natural Retreats Group.   An indication that even less money is being spent on Cairngorm itself.  In total it appears that there were c£430k in cuts at what CML spent on operating at Cairngorm the year NA bought it.

 

At the same time the administrative expenses recorded in the CML accounts increased by over £300k.   There is no explanation of why this is.  However, while some administrative expenses (eg designs for the new day lodge which is now off the agenda etc) may have been externally purchased, a large proportion of this administrative expenditure was for  “services” purchased from Natural Retreats UK Ltd, with the same four Directors and  whose parent company is now located in the USA.   cml-control

 

 

The total services provided by Natural Retreats UK in the first part-year Natural Assets owned CML came to £483,046 management services plus £122,996 in other services – call it £600k or over half of all the administrative expenses.   Since the Directors of the two companies are the same they can quite legally set internal charges between the two companies at whatever rate they want.   One explanation for the increase in administrative expenses – strange that a company that was so quick to cut costs of sales did not also look at cutting administrative costs – is the Directors have set far higher charges than CML incurred previously for standard services such as bookkeeping.  If so, this has had the effect of moving money out of CML to Natural Retreats UK Ltd.

 

In support of this theory is that while the fees of the Directors at CML  decreased by just over £65k

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the fees paid to Kearney, Dennis, Wild and Spence at Natural Retreats UK in the year till December 2015 increased by over £73k.

 

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The apparent saving in Directors costs at Cairngorm appears to have been more than offset by  increases in fees elswhere within the Natural Assets/Natural Retreats group of companies.  And remember these same four directors may also be receiving salaries which do not appear in the accounts.  The public should be very sceptical about this representing good value.

 

Now I have little doubt that what Mr Gorton and the Directors he appoints to carry out his wishes do is all quite legal (the Directors will be employed partly because of their skills in moving money to pay as little tax as legally possible and to extract money out of companies).  It is not however good for Cairngorm Mountain, the economy of Speyside or our National Park.  The scandal here is that a public agency, HIE, ever decided to sell CML to a company like Natural Assets.

 

I will cover in a further post about what Natural Assets has actually invested in Cairngorm – Mr Kearney claims this has been £1.3m to date – and their relationship with HIE.

 

What needs to happen

 

  • The siphoning of money out of Cairngorm, as illustrated by the CML accounts, is not in the public interest and needs to be stopped.   Nothing good is going to happen at Cairngorm while a company which is interested only in making money runs it.
  • The simplest way of doing this is to terminate the lease with Natural Retreats at Cairngorm.  There are a number of grounds for doing so.
  • HIE, which is responsible for the knock down sale of CML to Natural Assets should be replaced as landowner of the Cairngorm Mountain Estate as part of the Government review into its future

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Well paid jobs in rural areas in Scotland are few and far between and what I found the single most shocking single fact in the draft Cairngorms Partnership Plan was that the average wage in the Cairngorms National Park is 23% lower than the Scottish average.   A consequence of this is that  when developers come to the Highlands and promise benefits for local communities, for everything from goldmines or windfarms, not surprisingly people’s hopes are kindled and usually results in initial  support for such projects.   The appointment of Natural Retreats to run the Cairngorm Ski area is just such as case.   The converse of this is that the people employed by such developers tend to support them even when everything is unravelling.   An example is Iain Cornfoot’s support for the retrospective hill track planning application at Cairngorm (about which there has been silence from the Cairngorms National Park Authority for two months now):
Scottish ski resorts need to be as efficient as possible to continue to provide direct employment to the local communities, for which I, my friends and family rely on. A viable ski area will provide economic stability for the surrounding communities within the National park.
 
Now I believe that Natural Retreats main  interest in Cairngorm is to extract as much money as possible (see here for small example) – taking money out of the area and ultimately i – and has very little to do with the staff that work there.   As an example of this  its worth contrasting the financial position of the person who is now the ultimate owner of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd with staff at Cairngorm.
David Michael Gorton, whose address is 80-83 Long Lane, London EC1A 9ET – the heart of the City – ultimately controls (owns) Cairngorm Mountain Ltd through Natural Assets Investment Ltd.   He is currently Director of another 29 companies/limited liability partnerships.     While there are a group of companies linked to Natural Retreats, which I will come back to in future posts,  I have had a look at some of the other companies.  One of these is the London Diversified Fund Management (UK) Ltd, where David Michael Gordon is one of two directors:
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The company has 13 employees, the average salary is over £100k and, since I don’t expect the admininstrative staff get anything like that, most of the wage is probably split between the five Investment Managers:
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What I found most interesting though is that most of the company’s assets are in an Employee Benefit Fund.  Yes that looks like £85m for 13 employees (and whoever has been employed in the past):
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 In fact its not nearly as much as that as it turns out there are tax liabilities to HMRC relating to this fund going back to 2003.  A cool £31m owed in tax.
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That’s not the whole picture though because the accounts for london-diversitiified-fund-management-ltd show that in 2011 £18,378,604 were transferred out of the Employment Benefit Fund into an Executive Retirement Plan.  That’s in addition to the £53m remaining in the EBT so by my reckoning there is over £71m stashed away for the benefit of a handful of employees.
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The accounts  are coy about who will receive this money but I think we can take it that David Michael Gorton is one of the main beneficiaries as he is one of the two Directors.
Contrast this with the retirement benefits that will be paid to employees of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd which was taken over by Natural Retreats in June 2014 cml-accounts-to-march-2015.  The fund was revalued in the year by actuaries, which is why it is now shown as a liability, but what it tells us that the fund has under £1m in assets compared to the £70m plus available to David Michael Gorton and his fellow Directors/Executives at London Diversified Fund Management.
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Now, London Diversified Fund Management is completely separate from Natural Retreats as far as I can  see.  Its clearly not  Mr Gorton’s responsibility that Cairngorm Mountain Ltd had such a pitiful pension fund compared to what looks like being available to him.  I cannot though see Mr Gorton though using any of his considerable personal wealth – and this is just one company I have looked at, I am sure there will be more – to remedy the situation.
 
In fact what I think is likely to happen is the opposite.  Money earned from Cairngorm will – quite legally – ultimately end up in Mr Gorton’s pocket or in some off-shore tax haven.  I don’t think this will bring any good to the staff at Cairngorm and is unlikely to bring much benefit to the local economy.
 
I think the big question that needs to be asked is why Highlands and Islands Enterprise sold Cairngorms Mountain Ltd to Natural Retreats Investment Ltd?   It must have known who the ultimate controlling party was and a little research, such as I have done, would have shown them that person is involved in a company that has failed to pay tax due to HMRC timeously, is linked to tax havens and has amassed considerable personal wealth.  Surely this should have set some alarm bells ringing?
In future posts I will show that there is also plenty of reason to be worried about the financial group of companies around Natural Retreats which are also involved in other HIE contracts.   Highlands and Islands Enterprise is like Natural Retreats part of the problem at Cairngorm, not the solution.

Postscript

Richard Murphy’s blog, tax research uk, yesterday carried a press release from Christian Aid about how Councils are cracking down on tax dodging companies in England and Wales (see here).  We should be doing the same in Scotland and not just Councils but other government agencies like HIE.  So, the question HIE needs to answer is whether it is confident that the companies associated with Natural Retreats are squeaky clean when it comes to tax?

walking1

 

 

 

 

 

Natural Retreats included this graphic in its announcement that its guided walks to the summit of Cairngorm had stopped for another year.   It tells us a lot of what is going wrong at Cairngorm.

 

The walks cost £20 a shot which means Natural Retreats earned £36,640 from them between May and October this year.   While the charge includes the return trip on the funicular  (cost for an adult £12) I think we can safely say many of the people would never have taken the funicular unless they had been able to go for a walk at the top.   So, I think its safe to say this is extra income for Natural Retreats and extra visitors to contribute to its formal agreement with HIE (as written in the lease) that the minimum number of visitors it should attract to Cairngorm each year should be 210,000.

 

These walks only happen because of the closed funicular system as explained on the Cairngorm Mountain Website:

 

In order to protect the plateau outwith our snowsports operation, funicular passengers are not permitted to exit the top station to go onto the mountain unless they are booked on a guided walk or a guided mountain bike descent.

The closed system, which was intended to protect the Cairngorm plateau, is being used by Natural Retreats to raise extra income for itself.  At the same time Natural Retreats completely ignored their own method statement for the West Wall Poma, work which is now completed, and needlessly trashed a section of the plateau (see here).  

 

highland-council-letter-copyHighland Council were alerted to this when the evidence of destruction first became evident early September but have still not responded to the formal complaint which was submitted about unauthorised operations at the end of September.    Another example of the totally ineffective system of planning enforcement in our National Parks.

 

HIE meanwhile seem to be quite happy to allow Natural Retreats to destroy parts of the plateau on the one hand – they have not intervened as far as I am aware in the breaches of planning permission at the West Wall poma – while on the other charging people for walks to protect that same environment.

Part of lease agreement between HIE and Natural Retreats includes this clause:

 

Minimum of 1 Head Ranger and 2 season rangers to be employed for at least as many days and hours per annum as they are currently employed

So, maybe Natural Retreats are using the closed funicular system as a means to raise money to pay for the Ranger Service.   £36,640 would be enough to pay for a Head Ranger.   The trouble with this explanation is that as far as I am aware HIE still employ the Ranger Service at Cairngorm* and are in discussions with the CNPA about creating a unitary ranger service as part of the strategy for Glenmore/Cairngorm.  I will check with HIE about this but if they still employ the Rangers public monies are being used to raise money for Natural Retreats.   The much bigger issue though is that despite raising monies through the Ranger service for guided walks on the plateau, lower down the mountain they are completely failing to maintain the infrastructure that would enable people to conduct their own guided walks.

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The Cairngorm Mountain Garden Project is history repeating itself. It replaced the former Alpine Garden created by Ben Humble which had been neglected and was removed by the creation of the funicular. It is now sadly neglected.
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There is no sign of Natural Retreats investing in replacement signage
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The lack of care was very evident earlier this summer. No sign of the Alpine Bistort described by this sign. No sign for the Dwarf Cornel which was easy to see.

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The bleeding of Cairngorm

 

The wider message behind the charges for guided walks and the lack of investment in signage for walkers is really quite simple, Natural Retreats are taking every penny they can and investing as little as they can get away with at Cairngorm.    The way they are treating interpretation is just a small example of a much wider problem of what happens when you allow companies like Natural Retreats to operate what should be public assets.

 

The accounts for Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, the company which is owned by Natural Retreats and operates Cairngorm, show this quite clearly.  The last accounts ending March 2015 cml-accounts-to-march-2015 show a profit of £466,216.   I will come back to that figure and wider issues of how money appears to be being drained out of Cairngorm in future posts but just a small part of that profit could have renovated all the signs at Cairngorm and paid for a clean-up too.   Natural Retreats, in its first year of running Cairngorm Mountain Limited chose not to invest  money in what would benefit Cairngorm but instead to take make a profit.   This is the company which was widely touted as having the financial resources to invest in Cairngorm.   I will come back to a wider look at Natural Retreats finances in future posts but I believe understanding them is the key to understanding  everything that is happening at Cairngorm, from the protection of the environment, investment in the ski area, treatment of customers, whether skiers or summer visitors, to the treatment of staff.

 

A key question is why is HIE allowing all of this to happen?

 

Update

*I received this note from HIE on 22nd November “CML/NR have funded the Cairngorm Ranger Service since taking over the lease of the ski area”.     I am sorry I did not have time to check this properly before the post.  I think the main argument however stands and it raises questions about the National Park will be able to “Move to a single integrated ranger service across Cairngorm and Glenmore with increased presence on the ground” as set out in the Cairngorm/Glenmore Strategy approved in September.

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Photo credit Alan Brattey

On Tuesday I learned from one of the good folk at the North East Mountain Trust that a helicopter had been seen at Cairngorm carrying the sandbags, which had been sitting in Coire na Ciste, into the area by the Shieling Rope tow area.   Last night I was sent some photos.    Its not clear to me what the sandbags are for (whether they are intended as a dam or are simply being stored)  or who paid for them to be brought here – but it was by helicopter!

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The unlawful Sheiling track runs in front of the middle fence while the rope tow runs behind it. Photo credit Alan Brattey

That’s how it used to be done when our public authorities cared more about what happened at Cairngorm.    If sandbags can still be brought in by helicopter then so could all the materials for new fencing and for upgrading the lifts.  What that shows is there is NO need for the unlawful track that Natural Retreats has created, and which it claims is necessary for maintenance purposes (see here).   If it was the CNPA or Highlands and Islands Enterprise which required the sandbags to be brought in by helicopter they should be congratulated for acting at long last.     If the heli-lift was organised by another party, HIE and CNPA should take note and insist on such methods, which avoid damage to vegetation, being used for all future works.  Whatever the case there is no reason now for the CNPA not to reject the restrospective application for planning permission for the track and they should then start to turn their attention to how the damaged ground can be repaired and enhanced.

 

While its possible Natural Retreats organised the helicopter on its own initiative, there was plenty of evidence on Wednesday from elsewhere on the hill that basic standards are still being ignored.

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Photo Credit Alan Brattey

The fuel bowser is still on the  west wall poma site despite the Method Statement in the planning application saying it would be stored at the Ptarmigan Garage.  Highland Council, who approved this planning application, would still appear not to have taken any enforcement action.

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This ground, the line of the cable along the Car Park T-bar was supposed to have been restored but has now become a de facto track!              Photo credit Alan Brattey

The line of the ditch for the new cabling that was laid beside the car park t-bar has been turned into a new track by constant use.  There has been NO planning applications that I am aware of to create a new track here and of the justifications in the retrospective application for the shieling track was to enable vehicles to access the area from above without damaging vegetation lower down. Natural Retreats staff are clearly  driving their vehicles anywhere without any controls and HIE and the CNPA need  to stop this and ensure the damage is repaired.

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Photo credit Alan Brattey

The open ditch for the cables at the bottom of the Fiacaill Poma that I saw back on my first visit to Cairngorm in June is still there!   Another illustration of Natural Retreats incompetence.

 

HIE should terminate their lease with Natural Retreats at Cairngorm.   Unfortunately the environmental provisions in the lease are pathetic and the other clauses not much better.  This was illustrated by a story this week in the Press and Journal under the banner “Tourism goldmine being lost” about the limited opening hours of visitor attractions in the Highlands.  The article mentioned Cairngorm Ski resort which it said is open 9am – 4pm throughout the year.    Now the P and J may have made a journalistic or printing  error, but the HIE lease with Natural Retreats requires (Clause 4a) that catering facilities at Cairngorm should be open 9-5pm in summer and 9-4pm in winter.  So, is this another example of Natural Retreats simply ignoring the terms of their lease?

 

While HIE’s Cairngorm Mountain has never been a goldmine – a publicly financed bank would be a much closer analogy, with investment in the wrong things and with Natural Retreats siphoning public money out of the area –  the tourist offering at Cairngorm, as the article suggests, is not good.   While catering is a tiny part of this, as an example of the tourism failure in winter there are dozens of climbers returning from the northern corries after 4pm who cannot even get a cup of tea.

 

The questions that HIE should answer publicly about the Cairngorm ski resort are not just why its record on the environment is so appalling but why it cannot even get basic services right for visitors and how it ever appointed such an incompetent organisation to run the ski resort.    Whether or not they are ever brought to account for their record, the answers to the problems at Cairngorm lie in transferring the land back to the Forestry Commission and transferring management of the ski area from Natural Retreats to a community based enterprise.

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“This slope is revegetating well” CNPA ecology adviser 16th September 2016.

The CNPA planning committee is today but there is NOTHING on the agenda on the retrospective application for the Shieling Hill track or other works which Natural Retreats undertook without planning permission(see here).  The deadline for determining the planning application was 6th October so I thought it might appear but the CNPA  planning portal still does say whether the application will be decided by Committee or not.  Committee Members should ask officers what is going on.

 

Meantime, here’s some more evidence for them to consider.  Thanks to a reader for some photos of the bank  which was “reprofiled” by Natural Retreats without planning permission and which they have since claimed makes the area look more natural.  The latest photos show the revegetation referred to by the ecology adviser does not look quite so impressive from other angles.bank161019b

The bank below the Shieling rope tow 19th October 2016

 

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The lack of vegetation compared to what was there previously is obvious.  More evidence that Natural Retreats did not store or re-use most, if any, of the vegetation whch covered the old bank before they destroyed it in order to obtain material to raise up the bottom pylon of the shieling rope tow.

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The bank, on the right of the photo, was not eroding prior to it being destroyed as claimed by the ecology adviser in their report to the CNPA.

I was on the hill yesterday with a civil engineer who had been involved in construction of the funicular.  Not only was all the vegetation stored but each layer of soil was stored separately (in bags) and replaced in the right order.   The people involved made sure everything was done properly because they knew if not the then planning authority would have landed on them like a ton of bricks.  Everything they did was scrutinised.   The problem with the Shieling rope tow was not so much in the original planning – the Method Statement setting out the proposed construction techniques said most of the right things (its quite easy of course to pay consultants to write down all the things that should  happen) – it was the complete lack of monitoring by HIE and a lack of will on the part of CNPA to take enforcement action as soon as they were informed of what was going on.

 

Unfortunately, our National Parks are not alone in failing to enforce Method Statements.   The consequence has been that its common across Scotland for Method Statements, which tick all the boxes in terms of setting out good practice, to be ignored in practice.   Our National Parks should be doing better.  The current silence from the CNPA about the Shieling Hill track suggests they are simply hoping the matter will go away.

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On 11th October Natural Retreats posted this photo on the behind the scenes section of the Cairngorm Mountain blog.   The caption above it read:

The West Wall Poma project is progressing well, with the steel work installation scheduled to commence on Monday 17th of October. The picture below shows a 20 tonne excavator which has been instrumental in most of the excavations, ground works and lifting and positioning equipment. In this image you can see the driver creating a path of pads for travelling over the route to Tower 16.

 

Has good practice now arrived at Cairngorm?    Its too early to say, but I suspect excavator creating its own board walk was done for the cameras judging by the evidence from the Ptarmigan webcam just a few days earlier (see here).     You only have to scroll down to the previous post, dated 7th September, to see how Natural Retreats operates for most of the time.

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The caption to this read “Below you can see a digger starting work on the initial trench that that (sic) cable will go into. This ground will be fully reinstated once the entire cable is laid.”

What you can see clearly in the photo is how use by vehicles (which are not supposed to drive here), including the digger, have eroded the ground vegetation and created tracks prior to the cable trench being dug.   The ground could never be fully reinstated as Natural Retreats as claimed in their photo caption because their vehicles had already destroyed much of it.

 

Highlands and Islands Enterprise, are not just the landowners, they are funding much of this farce.  Dave Morris had a letter in the Herald on Friday (see here) about HIE which included this paragraph on HIE’s ownership of Cairngorm:

In 1971 a disastrous decision by the UK Government led to the transfer of nearly 1,500 hectares of the upper slopes of Glenmore National Forest Park from Forestry Commission ownership to Highlands and Islands Development Board, the HIE predecessor body. Today the First Minister can see the result of so-called stewardship of this iconic tract of land by HIDB/HIE – abandoned ski tows and chairlifts, derelict and decaying buildings, collapsed and rotting snow fences and zero possibility that her public agency knows how to plan for the future. The economic heart of our largest national park continues its downhill spiral. Ms Sturgeon needs only a brief exposure to HIE’s incompetence in mountain land management to realise this land must be returned to the Forestry Commission (FC) as soon as possible. We need integrated planning and operations, from the lowest to the highest slopes of Cairn Gorm, by the public body which has been managing land in the Cairngorms since 1923; even better if the FC can also establish a community development trust to involve local and national stakeholders in its management of the whole Forest Park.

With the Government currently reviewing the role of HIE it could, if it had the political will, put a stop to the destruction at Cairngorm in a twinkling as Natural Retreats have shown they won’t  do anything without public funding.

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The new concrete plinth for the replacement West Wall poma return wheel can be seen just left of centre
Breaches of the planning permission granted by Highland Council to Natural Retreats to replace the West Wall poma return wheel and re-landscape the off-ramp have been continuing (see here)
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Fuel bowser and plastic container on site

 

The Planning Method Statement required “All fuelling and oils to be carried out in appropriate areas” and stated this would be “outside top station garage, where all fuelling and proper storage of fuel is to be kept”.    The point of this was to prevent an oil spill on the plateau.  Natural Retreats and the contractors have ignored the requirement.

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McGowan’s vehicle parked on vegetation

Natural Retreats planning application claimed that “A site cordon for access will be established to control vehicle movement and prevent damage to vegetation” and required the “Contractor to park up any machinery on existing track”.  Again, this is clearly not happening.

 

These and other breaches of planning permission have been reported to Highland Council, who have at least visited the site, but so far no other action has been taken.  Both Highland Council and Cairngorms National Park Authority appear to be in a complete state of paralysis when it comes to using their enforcement powers.

 

“Empowering planning to deliver great places” is the title of the Scottish Government’s independent review of the planning system published earlier this year.    It’s quite clear about the need for planning authorities to use their enforcement powers:

 

We acknowledge that there are concerns about planning authorities not taking enforcement action. Our understanding is that the legislation already allows for a wide range of action to be taken and that there are already options to respond quickly to a breach including fixed penalties and interim stop notices. We also propose that this work considers whether fixed penalties and fees for retrospective applications should be substantially increased to provide a more effective deterrent. (paragraph 30)

 

Cairngorm is a great mountain, the Cairngorm ski area should be a great place and its time that CNPA and Highland Council recognised that Natural Retreats cannot be trusted to deliver that great place and they need to start exercising a far greater degree of control over what is happening there.  If they want advice on this perhaps they should ring Petra Biberbach, who was on the three member panel that produced “Empowering Planning” and is Chair of the Planning Committee at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.   I would hope she agrees that how Natural Retreats is operating is just the sort of thing that brings the planning system into disrepute.

 

Planning Authorities though also need to ensure the right specfications are agreed in the first place.     The Ptarmigan area has been overrun with vehicles during the works on the West Wall poma.  This presents a real contrast to the days when vehicle access to the hill was closely controlled and the access track to the top station was still called the “emergency access track”.

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Just how many vehicles are really required to do this work?                     Photo Credit Terry Smith 10/10/16
Unfortunately Highland Council never thought to question just how many vehicles would be brought up the access track and why.  Surely the contractor’s staff could have accessed the construction site  by the funicular reducing the erosion on the access track?  The problem is that the planners simply do not have the expertise to know what should be required for works in sensitive environments and whereas previously there used to be a comprehensive estate management plan for Cairngorm (cemp2-adopted-plan) which involved all the agencies, there is now………… nothing.      While primary responsibility for this lies with HIE, as the landowner, it is ironic that standards have collapsed during the lifetime of the National Park.
 
Its worth reading the vision from the last Cairngorm Estate Management Plan – its amazing that this was not simply updated for the Glenmore Cairngorm Strategy:
Our vision sees the high hills returned to the most natural state possible, while continuing to provide a high quality educational, wild-land and recreational experience, including downhill skiing facilities at Cairn Gorm, Glenshee and the Lecht. These uses will be managed to ensure minimal damage, and allow clear trends towards ground recovery by natural processes to develop. We also foresee that local communities will continue to benefit from the visitors who are attracted by the hills.

 

The last Estate Management Plan also provided for “An annual tour of inspection of the Ski Area will take place in May to which SNH and other interested parties will be invited. Works requiring restoration will be reported to Cairngorm Mountain Limited and others, as appropriate, for action.”     The planning authorities don’t need to re-invent the wheel, they simply need to say that they expect Natural Retreats to abide by former environmental standards and then enforce these.

 

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The problem and the potential: signs of neglect and mismanagement with montane scrub behind

A week ago,  on the same day that the consultation on the new Park Partnership Plan closed, the Cairngorms National Park Authority approved the Cairngorm Glenmore Strategy (see here).  This had been subject to public consultation earlier this year.

 

All the detailed visitor management proposals which were in the consultation draft have been stripped out of the strategy and will be worked up into a Glenmore Visitor Improvement Plan and Cairngorm Masterplan.  The final strategy is much shorter, simpler and easy to understand.   A great plus compared to the morass of documents and plans that made up the draft Partnership Plan and it has avoided being competely dummed down too.

 

In my view there are two glaring omissions.  The first is that Rothiemurchus Estate is not included, although its an integral part of Glenmore.  I am afraid the presentation of the strategy as being about public authority owned land is simply an attempt by the CNPA to put a good spin on this.  The fact is Rothiemurchus declined to join and the CNPA was powerless to make it do so despite the Scottish Government having agreed that Forestry Commission Scotland should acquire part of the estate for £7.4m last year.   The sad fact is landowners in the National Park are a law unto themselves.

 

One could also say that too of the Speyside Trust who run Badaguish and who have consistently ignored planning requirements.  The Strategy has nothing to say about Badaguish.  Its not on the map of sites identified for visitor infrastructure development, unlike Glenmore Lodge, the Youth Hostel and campsite despite far more development going on at Badaguish.  This omission is quite extraordinary and conspiracy theorists will note Badaguish is named on every other map in the Strategy document apart from the visitor infrastructure one!   This undermines the credibility of the Strategy much as I hope the CNPA Board has now decided to take a firm stand and use its enforcement powers to prevent any further unlawful development on the site.

 

On the positive front, the Strategy contains a number of actions for the Cairngorm ski area which I believe most people who cares about the place would agree with:

 

  • Safeguard the plateau habitats and species by actively managing recreation pressures
  • Develop action plan to enhance the ski area by improving storage and removal of disused items
  • Ensure enhancements within the ski area are implemented to high quality standards appropriate to the sensitive environment
  • Develop agreed best practice standards for development and enhancement works in the ski area [actually good practice standards have existed since the early 1970s, they just need enforcing]
  • Expand montane woodland establishment within and around the ski area
  • Support enhancement of the wintersports experience and year round activity provision

 

I was particularly pleased to see the commitment to clean-up the ski area and expand montane woodland within it – suggestions which have been made several time on Parkswatch.

 

However, the problem is that the strategy bears no resemblance to what is actually going on on the hill at present.    Natural Retreats simply ignore all planning requirements (further photos proving this will appear soon!) and Highland Council and the CNPA as planning authorities have so far failed to do anything.

 

What does ensuring “enhancements with the ski area are implement to high quality standards appropriate to the sensitive environment” mean when Highlands and Islands Enterprise, CNPA and Highland Council are not prepared to speak out, condemn Natural Retreats for their mis-management and intervene to stop this?

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The destruction around the Coire Cas Gantry – Photo Credit Terry Smith 23 September 2016

So what are CNPA, Highland Council and HIE going to do to meet the management aspirations set out in the Strategy?

 

Management interventions will improve the natural environment, landscape and visitor experience and retain the sense of wildness and space found in the area.

 

How does letting Natural Retreats get away with the destruction they have caused ensure that “Cairngorm and Glenmore will be a high quality mountain and sports destination”?

 

How can our public authorities claim that “Cairngorm and Glenmore will be at the heart of collaboration with neighbours to protect the mountain plateau”  when they are allowing Natural Retreats to destroy part of that very same plateau?  (see here)

 

The worst though is at the end of the Strategy where after saying that “Natural Retreats and partners to develop and deliver masterplan for Cairngorm Mountain” – a step forward – that “Natural Retreats and Forest Enterprise Scotland will lead on delivering spatial plans that set out the detailed actions focused on improving facilities at Cairngorm Mountain and Glenmore respectively. These plans are expected to be completed in the next year.”     How Natural Retreats can be trusted to lead on anything is beyond my ken.

 

Now this is not all the fault of CNPA.  HIE as landowner have primary responsibility for ensuring Natural Retreats as their leaseholder maintains the highest environmental standards and they have completely failed to do so.  Its about time that CNPA repeated the call they made on 7th November 2006 for the ownership of the Cairngorm Estate to be transferred to Forestry Commission Scotland:

 

“The board of the CNPA considered its response to the consultation on the transfer of the estate from current owners Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to FCS at its monthly board meeting on Friday 3 November.

David Green, Convener of the CNPA board said: “We fully support this transfer subject to the delivery of an inclusive approach to the estate’s management and the delivery of a wide range of public benefits.

“It seems sensible that Forestry Commission Scotland should assume ownership of the estate, rejoining it to its holding at Glenmore, and the organisation has a proven track record in managing land to deliver public benefits and ensuring that local and national interests are fully involved.”

Among the other points raised by the CNPA in its response to the consultation are:

  • An early priority should be the production of a management plan to steer the future of the estate and this should be done following consultation involving a wide range of interested parties. Such a plan should include ways of delivering the priorities emerging in the Cairngorms National Park Plan as well as incorporating integration with neighbouring land holdings.
  • Short term environmental improvements, such as the removal of some ski-ing infrastructure, should not be carried out at this stage. Decisions on these proposals should be deferred and instead considered through a full management planning process and through consultation with all those interested in this aspect of the estate.
  • Bureaucracy should be minimised and all meetings relating to the management of the estate should be open to the public.

Fiona Newcombe, the CNPA’s Head of Rural Development Strategy commented: “Forestry Commission Scotland is the obvious organisation to take over the Cairngorm Estate. As an enabling organisation, the National Park Authority is not best placed to own land, but rather positively influence land management by others. We are fully supportive of this move and welcome the principle of wide stakeholder engagement in the management of the estate.

I think the CNPA were right in 2006.  Until the Cairngorm Estate is transferred from HIE to FCS (and Natural Retreats replaced as operator of the ski area) the actions set out in the Cairngorm Glenmore Strategy will remain aspirations.

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The outline master plan for Scottish Enterprise’s west riverside side submitted by a developer to the National Park in 2012

The Observer on Sunday ran a full page article by Kevin McKenna on Flamingo Land’s appointment as preferred developer for the west riverside side in Balloch (see here and here).   I normally enjoy reading Kevin McKenna but did wonder if this is the same Kevin McKenna who had previously lambasted the development in an entertaining blog post entitled “Keep Flamingo Land away from Loch Lomond – we don’t want any old bouncy castle experience in our back garden”!  (see here)   Having played a small part in stoking up the anger that resulted in over 30,000 people signing a petition to stop the development, Kevin McKenna asks in the Observer article if the anger is justified?  While the article questions that opposition McKenna’s conclusion is “In the final analysis, Loch Lomond’s worldwide appeal will probably ensure that the development, when it happens, is as pristine, sustainable and sympathetic to the surrounding environment as anything containing “glamping pods” ever could be.”

 

I wish I could be so confident.   I think there are three major issues about the proposed development.

 

The first is the secrecy that has surrounded the appointment of a preferred developer and what appears to have been the deliberate exclusion of the local community and other interests from discussions about whether this was the best means to develop the site (see previous posts). This is  wrong, contrary to Scottish Government Policy but unfortunately is the way the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority currently operates.   Scottish Enterprise and the LLTNPA had every opportunity to consult through the local community planning event held earlier this year which considered plans for the area.  They didn’t and should be forced to explain why.

 

The second is Flamingo Land’s fitness to develop land in the National Park.  Flamingo Land’s experience is in running and developing theme parks not in protecting the natural environment and landscape.   The current destruction which is taking place under Natural Retreats at Cairngorm is a warning of what can happen when Enterprise Companies appoint a large developer whose interest is not primarily in the environment but in making money.   In my view the many local businesses operating around Loch Lomond who depend on protection of the landscape natural environment for their living would be a far safer bet to develop the site.

 

The third issue is the cost of improving the west Riverside site and I believe explains what is going on and will almost certain result in a development that compromises the National Park.  The west Riverside side covers former railway sidings, disused sand and gravel pits, a former silk dye works and some of the land has been reclaimed with former ash waste.   Some of this is definitely contaminated and all of it may be.  This will not be cheap to fix.  There will be other costs of clean-up besides contamination – Scottish Enterprise spent £40k after it acquired the site simply lifting sunken boats out the river.   The river bank is vulnerable to flooding, again more costs.   On top of that a walkway along the river will now have to be paid for  a good thing and a positive thing that did come out of the community planning event.   The total costs are likely to be significant, well beyond the means of any local business, hence the appointment by Scottish Enterprise of a single developer for the entire site.

 

If Flamingo Land have to pay for all of this they will need to get their money back somehow and they are not going to do this through a few glamping pods.   The pressure will be on for a more intensive development, not the type of low key developments outlined in the press release, and for the developments to raise as much income as possible,  with all that implies for other local businesses.   The way this is likely to work is that Flamingo Land will come up with an initial plan, which looks fine and gets planning consent, but then during the development processes unforeseen costs or other factors then lead to a dilution of the planning conditions.

 

The LLTNPA Park has quite a track record on diluting planning requirements (as in Glen Falloch where my next post will be on all the hill tracks that were supposed to be removed after the creation of the hydro schemes there).    In 2012 the LLTNPA provided a screening opinion  which indicated they would reject the outline master plan featured in the graphic at the top of this post.   Judging by that plan the funding of site improvements would have been through the sale of new luxury housing  along pier road and a large four star hotel on the banks of Loch Lomond.    New housing has been ruled out for the site which is earmarked in the latest development plan  for “Visitor Experience” (not Economic Development as stated in the Observer).

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The symbols in the draft development plan indicate what anyone applying for planning permission within the area needs to consider and includes contaminated sites, flood risk, drainage, landscape and impacts on woodland

A large hotel on the lochshore appears to have previously been ruled out through the screening opinion.  Without a hotel on the lochshore, which would have a big impact on the landscape, and the housing its very difficult to see how the cost of improving the west Riverside site can be funded.     Scottish Enterprise must have a good idea of the potential costs of putting the site right and I think they need to explain how they believe the developer will be able to do this while meeting the aims of the National Park.

 

An alternative way of improving the west Riverside side which would not have resulted in any inappropriate development pressures would have been for the public sector to pay for the decontamination of the land and the walkway (accepting that the businesses that caused the damage in the first place have long gone).  That would then enable local businesses to have come up with proposals that were compatible with the aims of the National Park.   Unfortunately  austerity, which is a political choice, is driving commercialisation in the National Park and threatening to undermine its aims.   The 30,000 are very right to be concerned.

 

 

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Photos of this hole and associated damage caused by Natural Retreats outwith the area granted planning consent was sent to Cairngorms National Park planners in early October a month after they were first alerted to the issues.   Photo Credit Alan Brattey.
Two weeks ago the Cairngorms National Park Authority added responses from their ecology adviser (see here) and landscape adviser (see here) to the retrospective planning application from Natural Retreats for the hill track at Cairngorm (see here).   While welcoming the transparency of the CNPA in making these public at an early stage (which has given the public a chance to comment) I believe the content of these assessments are not worthy of a National Park.
The Landscape Adviser has no comments to make about most of the unlawful works undertaken by Natural Retreats, such as the reprofiling of banks or the dumping of boulders or the poor quality of the finishing.
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How does this fit in with the planning permission granted?                Photo Credit Terry Smith 23th September
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Half exposed pipes seem of no concern to the CNPA’s landscape adviser          Photo Credit Terry Smith
The Landscape Adviser’s main comment concerns the track itself:
 
Within the ski area, on land previously integrated in the infrastructure of skiing, this track is acceptable as part of the landscape. The track in question consists of a short stretch, level with surrounding ground and vegetated with initial grass growth which will provide organic matter and
prevent erosion of the track. Addition of drainage channels will further prevent erosion.
 
This is factually  wrong and the thinking dangerous.  The track is not a short stretch, its several hundred metres long.  The angle of the top half of the track is 12 degrees, compared to the maximum angle of 8 degrees recommended by Scottish Natural Heritage to prevent erosion (see Alan Mackay’s excellent  critique of the retrospective planning application in which he went out and measured the angle of the track!  Its essential reading for anyone concerned about this and should be read by all Board Members on the Park’s Planning Committee).    The Landscape report contains no consideration of the implications of installing “access tracks” alongside all the ski tows in Scotland – the cumulative impact would be considerable.   The tracks are also completely unnecessary.   CNPA staff seem totally unaware of the  publication “Environmental design and management of ski areas in Scotland: a practical handbook” which showed tracks were unnecessary back in 1987.  Nothing has changed except our Public Authorities are no longer prepared, it seems, to enforce basic environmental standards.
 
The Ecology assessment is also wrong on several points.  In commenting on the re-profiled bank below the tow the assessment claims:
 
Re-grading has taken place at the bottom end of the track which has reduced the steepness of the slope, reducing erosion in this area. This slope is revegetating well.
This is wrong, there was no erosion previously as this photo from Alan Mackay’s response shows:
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The bank on the right of the track was covered with vegetation when work on the Shieling Rope tow started yet the CNPA claims it was eroding and appears to have used that claim as a justification for ignoring a serious breach of planning permission when Natural Retreats dug up this bank “to make it look more natural” (their words).  Photo Credit Alan Mackay
The ecology assessment further states:
 
The restoration works associated with the ski tow construction appear to be going well, won heather turves have been replaced on disturbed ground and bare areas seeded
No mention here that Natural Retreats was supposed to store all vegetation on terram matting and then replace it so there should have been no need to “win” vegetation from anywhere else.  The need for re-seeding should have been minimal but in fact has been required over large areas.   The Ecological Assessment makes no mention or comment on this.
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Extensive re-seeding near the top of the shieling rope tow – showing how little vegetation restoration has taken place  Photo Credit Terry Smith
Its hard to see how converting a slope from heather to grass can have no ecological impact and the ecological assessment furthermore fails to refer to the extent of the unlawful works.
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Re-seeding to the south of the car park t-bar well outside the zone granted planning permission. Parkswatch has photos of diggers working here – what were they doing and why? The re-seeding shows the extent of the damage.  Photo Credit Terry Smith

The assessment also wrongly claims “There is evidence of erosion on the new path which occurred during the late December 2015 storms.”    The track – its not a path, another piece of misinformation – has eroded several times already.  So, who told the ecology adviser this only happened once back in December?   The hill track is too steep but the ecology adviser, like the landscape adviser, appears unaware of the SNH guidance on hill track construction.

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The steeper top half of the shieling track erodes each time there is a storm because its too steep and each time surfacing from the track washes onto the surrounding re-seeded area    Photo Credit Terry Smith
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Is this high quality restoration work?                                              Photo Credit Terry Smith 23rd September

 

The truth is that the CNPA’s ecological assessment of the hill track and associated works is nothing of the sort.  A proper ecological assessment would have looked at the extent of the damage, the impact of the failure to restore vegetation (yes it will recover eventually but how long will this now take?), the impact of the hydrology of the area, including more rapid water run-off, and the impact on wildlife. The assessment does not even refer to the impact the works may have had on the water vole in the area, let alone other wildlife (see the response of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group for the potential impact of works on wildlife).
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The ecological assessment makes no reference to the number of trees killed by Natural Retreats or the vegetation they scooped out with diggers leaving holes across the bottom half of the slope Photo Credit Terry Smith
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The ecological assessment contains no reference to the quagmire that has been created by diggers driving across peat and then scooping holes out of the vegetation to “restore” the ski slope behind Photo Credit Terry Smith
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Th ecological assessment makes no reference to all the granite gravel that has washed off the lower part of the track onto the surrounding ground. Again the extent of destruction of the vegetation is striking. Photo Credit Terry Smith
The one positive suggestion in the assessment is that “there is a good opportunity to plant Dwarf Willow, Birch and Scots Pine on the re-graded bank” but why only here?    As I have argued previously, one way to compensate for the extensive destruction would be for the CNPA to require Natural Retreats to employ a properly qualified contractor to plant montane scrub across the area.
 
I suspect responsibility for the sub-standard quality of these assessments does not lie with the staff concerned but somewhere above them in the management chain.   To put it bluntly, the staff concerned have been told to tick a box.    The CNPA was first made aware of the unlawful works at Cairngorm on 4th September 2015 (I have seen the emails) and did nothing to intervene and stop Natural Retreats destroying vegetation and soils outwith the area granted planning permission.  They subsequently failed to do anything substantive for over 10 months but, after being forced to admit a retrospective planning application was required, it appears that staff are doing everything they can to ensure this is approved.   This behaviour is not worthy of a National Park.  It provides further evidence that there must be other things going on which explain why the CNPA is allowing Natural Retreats to do what it likes at Cairngorm.

What needs to happen to ascertain the extent of the damage and its impact on Cairngorm

The argument that the CNPA should require Natural Retreats to pay for an independent ecological and landscape assessment is even stronger now that the National Park has shown it is incapable of doing this properly.  Such an assessment should detail ALL the damage that has been caused at Cairngorm – not just the areas granted planning permission – and the options for restoration of the ground and vegetation.

Any proper assessment should be informed by the guidance contained in the following documents:

  • The past vegetation surveys that have taken place at Cairngorm (I asked Highlands and Islands Enterprise for copies of these under FOI but they have told me all surveys since the construction of the funicular are held by Cairngorm Mountain!   Why didn’t the CNPA landscape adviser ask for a copy?)
  • SNH’s Guidance on the construction of hill tracks
  • “Environmental design and management of ski areas in Scotland: a practical handbook”

 

 

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The foundations for the new fixed wheel at the top of the West Wall poma Photo credit Terry Smith

In May 2015 Natural Retreats were granted planning permission to Highland Council to replace the “floating” top wheel of the West Wall poma lift with a fixed wheel and to extend the run by 40m subject to certain conditions.   The Cairngorms National Park Authority, in their wisdom, did not  call in this application unlike the Shieling rope tow in Coire Cas and so have no formal locus in the case as planning authority.   Unfortunately, while Highland Council included conditions to protect nesting birds during the breeding season, there were no other stipulations of the timing of the work.  Natural Retreats started the work in September, far too late for the vegetation to recover before winter, and Cairngorm has been hit by two serious storms in the week since these photos were taken (and my thanks to Terry Smith for supplying me with photos from his visit on 23rd September).   Unfortunately too, Highland Council does not appear to have enquired about what Natural Retreats meant by the creation of a graded slope.

 

However, even if Highland Council had taken more care before approving the application, I am not sure it would have made a difference as Natural Retreats simply do what they like anyway.

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Digger operating outwith area granted planning permission – all vehicles were meant to be carefully controlled Photo from Cairngorm Mountain webcam (thanks to George Paton)

While Natural Retreats did commit  to meeting certain standards in their Method Statement (see here)  there is plenty of evidence these have been ignored just like with the Sheiling Tow in Coire Cas.

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“Contractor to park up any machinery on existing track, or outside top station garage, where all fuelling and proper storage of fuel is to be kept” – see centre left
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“Remove Turf from slopes where digger will use its reach from. Any aggregates and spoil from construction will be stored on Terram geotextile to be reused in landscaping” – no sign of terram geotextile but at least some turf is being stored unlike at the Shieling rope tow.

 

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This aggregate is not being stored on matting as specified either. Dumping spoil like this simply destroys a larger areas of vegetation.
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“A site cordon for access will be established to control vehicle movement and prevent damage to vegetation”- far left you can see new erosion caused by vehicles while the quality of the new drainage – again it appears Highland Council does not appear to have specified how this work should be done, looks very poor.

If you want a preview of the outcome of Natural Retreats’ failure to follow its own Method Statement there is evidence the other side of the snow fence (see photo below) where Natural Retreats installed new cabling.    Highland Council in their wisdom decided did not need planning permission because it was ancillary works to an existing development.p1020793-copy

The failure to restore the vegetation along the line of the ditch results from a failure to remove and store it properly pending re-instatement. The granite gravel surface will now be very vulnerable to erosion.

There is plenty of other evidence of a complete lack of care taken by the contractorsp1020782-copy

Cement bag in Allt na Ciste – its not hillwalkers or even general tourists who cause most of the rubbish at Cairngorm

 

 

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More rubbish from the construction blown into the burn
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The standard of work on the new fencing is extremely poor.   Just what quality control have HIE who I understand have funded this put in place How long will this bit of fence last?
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The old posts which supported the chestnut fencing have not been removed but simply broken off while there has been no attempt to clear up old cabling

 

 

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A lack of care in bringing vehicles up the mountain has damaged the access track. At one time permission had to be sought every time a vehicle was taken up the hill.

 

There is no excuse for Natural Retreats’ failure to follow its own Method Statement and for the lack of care it has taken on the upper slopes of Cairngorm.  Despite all the adverse publicity it has received over its failures to adhere to the planning requirements agreed with the CNPA for the Shieling Rope Tow in Coire Cas Natural Retreats appears to have made little attempt to improve its practice.   That says a lot about how effective our public authorities have been recently in protecting the natural environment at Cairngorm.   The poor standards evidenced by these photos would not have been tolerated 15 years ago before the Cairngorms National Park was created.  Whatever you think about the funicular there was a concerted attempt by our public authorities then to ensure the highest possible standards of construction.  Natural Retreats now appears free to treat them as an irrelevance.

 

What needs to happen

 

  • Highland Council and the CNPA as planning authorities both need to start using their enforcement powers at Cairngorm to make it very clear that breaches of planning permission will not be tolerated.    They need to work together on this and while CNPA is not involved in the West Wall Poma it could and should take action to re-instate the unlawful track in Coire Cas.
  • Highland Council should stop giving Natural Retreats the benefit of the doubt by assenting to works being undertaken without planning permission.   There is lots of evidence that such works (eg the laying of new cable) have been far more extensive than indicated by Natural Retreats.
  • Highlands and Island Enterprise as the landowner needs to start to manage all works undertaken by Natural Retreats and ensure these meet the highest standards
  • The CNPA should require HIE to produce a proper Environmental Management Plan at Cairngorm (I have established through FOI requests that there is none).
  • The CNPA should ask Scottish Natural Heritage  to start taking an active role at Cairngorm again and quality check all Method Statements and Plans to provide public re-assurance that they meet the highest standards
  • HIE, Highland Council and CNPA need to commission an independent report, which should be paid for by Natural Retreats, to survey and log all the damage that has been caused by Natural Retreats at Cairngorm and identify remedial measures.
  • The Scottish Government should instigate a transfer of the Cairngorms estate from HIE to the Forestry Commission