Tag: planning

December 12, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
This photo has been used to illustrate what the Park thinks protecting landscape, wildness and tranquillity is all about. What a disaster!  And more of the same is promised!    In my view any National Park worth its salt would have insisted this section of A82 upgrade, replacing the old single road at the traffic traffic lights, should have been tunnelled through the hillside to come out behind pulpit rock. To add human  insult to the injury inflicted on the natural environment, there is no path alongside the road and no safe place for cars of people who want to visit pulpit rock. to pull off and park.

The National Park Partnership Plan is supposed to be the most important document governing what happens in our National Park, setting out not just what our National Park Authorities do but also the commitments made by their partners, from public authorities to private landowners.  It was considered at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board Meeting today, a meeting I missed.  Its one of the democratic deficits in our National Park that if you cannot attend in person, its very hard to find out if there was any debate worth of the name – though the Park, under its new convenor James Stuart, is trying to get minutes and papers for meetings out earlier.

As austerity has bitten further, its become harder and harder however for public authorities to plan for the future and instead the main function of management now appears to be to ensure the books balance whenever the next round of cuts is announced.    Its not particularly surprising, therefore, to find the following judgement in the Strategic Environmental Assessment which accompanied the NPPP being considered by the LLTNPA Board today (see here for all papers):

“a key weakness of the new plan over the old plan is its lack of specific implementation detail”.

The LLTNPA and their Public Authority partners appear reluctant to commit to doing anything in the future.  Five years plans have as a consequence become something of a farce.  Large amounts of consultation and effort – for what?.

While since my posts  on the DRAFT NPPP (see here for example), the LLTNPA has made some improvementsto the plan (e.g there is a commitment to develop a woodland strategy and a target to increase the proportion of people getting to the National Park by other means than cars) if you look past the pretty photos and graphics, there is still no ambition.  The proposed outcomes remain more or less unchanged and are mostly difficult to disagree with, even if the purple prose occasionally overreaches itself and  becomes ridiculous (e.g the Park statement from the cutting above that says it will support projects that enhance opportunities to enjoy landscapes and then cites the works on the Rest and Be Thankful and proposed A82 upgrade as examples of this).  Most of the outcomes however contain no clear commitments to action and are as a consequence vague aspirations rather than outcomes.   It is almost impossible to work out from the Plan what the LLTNPA and their partners actually propose to do.

 

The LLTNPA’s indicators of success

A good sense of this is  given by the LLTNPA’s choice of key performance indicators:

Commentary

  • 2000 hectares of woodland expansion sounds good until you look at the area of the National Park, 1,865 square kilometres or 186,500 hectares.   That’s an increase of just of 1%,  almost all of it already accounted for by work already planned in the Great Trossachs Forest National Nature Reserve.
  • The target to increase the percent of protected nature sites in favourable condition from 76% to 80% is woeful  – here we have a National Park that appears to think its acceptable for protected natura sites to remain in unfavourable condition indefinitely.   This is simply not good enough but tackling this would mean tackling landowners and that is something this National Park won’t do.
  • The commitment to 25% of all new Homes being affordable,  means the LLTNPA wants 95 new affordable homes over the next five years.   Affordable is not the same as social housing.  This target will do almost nothing to help younger people move back into the Park – the LLTNPA is concerned about the ageing population – or enable people working in the tourist industry to obtain somewhere secure to live.
  • The target to increase the proportion of the public reporting a good quality experience is vague and meaningless.  Elsewhere the Park talks about the importance of SMART targets and then doesn’t include them in its plan.
  • The number of young people the LLTNPA wish to have an outdoor learning experience in the National Park, 2500, is truly pathetic (think 1.5m people  living Clyde Conurbation, that’s about 1% of school age children.  When I was on the Board of SNH in the discussions leading up to the creation of the National Park the aspiration was for EVERY school age child in the Glasgow conurbation to have an outdoor learning experience in the National Park.

And so on…………………………..

 

An alternative vision

I believe its time to call for end to this type of meaningless plan and to start developing alternatives.   Below are some ideas which could  be the starting point for an alternative vision to inspire people and give hope for the future:

  • Wildlife.  Re-introduce beavers (if they don’t make their own way from Tayside as appears increasingly likely) and develop ways to enable the public enjoy their presence (video links etc). When Michael Gove, no less, this week announced the re-introduction of beavers into the Forest of Dean, why cannot Scotland’s National Parks’ do the same?  After this, look at Lynx.
  • Wildlife. End persecution of native species, such as foxes and crows, so the National Park starts to live up to its name and the wildlife that exists is not limited to what landowners tolerate.  Enforce cross compliance between provision of public subsidies for land use and species protection.
  • Conservation.   Shift forest practice in the Argyll Forest Park from being primarily industrial, with the disastrous consequences that has – e.g all the larch are dying from pythopthera ramorum –  to being conservation based.  Get rid of the monolithic sitka plantations and replace with maixed woodland which would enhance the landscape, help wildlife and provide more local jobs.
  • Landscape enhancement.  Develop a plan to address existing blots on the landscape, including burial of existing powerlines and removing  tracks to hydro schemes.  New roads and road improvements should be tunnelled (as happens commonly in Europe).
  • Wild Land and re-wilding.   Stop developments in Wild Land Areas (Cononish gold mine) and   re-wild the area south of Ben Lui and Ben Oss, the largest area of core wild land in the National Park, by burial and removal of hydro electric infrastructure.
  • Land Ownership.  Identify all landowners in the National Park and analyse where the benefits of landownership are currently going (eg imuch ncome from many hydro schemes which the public pays for ends up in the city) and from this develop plans how land-based income streams could be re-invested in the land.
  • Land-ownership and community right to buy.  Where benefits of landownership are not being reinvested in the National Park and local communities, encourage local community buy outs/assets transfers.
  • Sustainable economic development.   Develop proposals for alternative forms of land-use which are compatible with the statutory objectives of the National Park (e.g the type of Forest initiatives promoted by Reforesting Scotland and which are conspicuously absent from the National Park.)    Stop developments, like Flamingo Land, which are not.
  • Outdoor recreation. Support/facilitate the creation of permanent jobs which support the right of people to enjoy the National Park (e.g in path construction and maintenance, pier maintenance etc).
  • Outdoor recreation and visitor management.  Focus on provision of facilities and services (including far better public transport) rather than on behaviour management.  Allow the camping byelaws to lapse at the end of the three years with the focus of camping management zones becoming the provision of infrastructure rather than trying to control people
  • Culture and history.  Promote the history and culture of the area as well as viewpoints.  For example, new cultural and history centres could be created at places like Balloch and Tyndrum, while far more attention could be given to raising awareness of the many historic sites in the National Park.
  • Re-open outdoor centres to enable the children and young people of the west of Scotland to experience something of the National Park while still at school.

Lot’s more is possible!

And in response to the argument that there is no money to do this, create it!   When Edinburgh is now seriously trying to promote a tourism tax to fund infrastructure there, why are our National Parks so far behind?   According to the National Park Plan Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is now a world class tourism destination……………so get those tourists to contribute something!  The Park has in effect taxed campers – most of whom are from the the poorest sections of society – £3 for the right to put up a tent in a grotty area, so why not  those staying in other accommodation?  The National Park should also be supporting the creation of a rural investment bank that could provide money for community buyouts and help finance new forms of economic development.

The LLTNPA’s Boards approval of a 5 Year Partnership Plan should not prevent ideas such as these from happening.  The Plan is so vague that most of the suggestions here could go ahead, if there was the will.   With our current governmental structures  imploding under neo-liberal ideology and austerity there is an opportunity for change and people need to start developing alternatives.

December 9, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Map of Flamingo Land proposal showing Drumkinnon Woods

This post takes a look at the current Flamingo Land proposal for the riverside site (reddish area above) against the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority’s policy for the area, as set out in various plans.   This reveals several shifts in policy in the last year.

The National Park Development Plan, approved by the Scottish Government earlier this year, included this map for Balloch.  NO development was envisaged for Drumkinnon Woods.  The Flamingo Land proposal for woodland walkways and holiday lodges in those woods is therefore contrary to the Development Plan.

Why are Flamingo Land therefore proposing to develop Drumkinnon Woods?   Well, they know the Loch Lomond and National Park Authority is under significant pressure from the Scottish Government to ensure development of the Riverside Site and certain other sites in the National Park to promote economic development.  That pressure was reflected in the DRAFT National Park Partnership Plan which contained this commitment:

The word “Delivery” is very strong and meant the LLTNPA was committing itself to complete developments in Balloch within the next five years.  It put Flamingo Land in a very strong position because, if they threatened to walk away, the LLTNPA would miss its target with all the repercussions that would have for its relationship with the Scottish Government.  It was an invitation to Flamingo Land to ignore the Development Plan.

It was a pleasant surprise therefore to see this in te revised National Park Partnership Plan to be considered by Board Members on Monday:

 

Instead of delivering key sites, the Plan now says the LLTNPA  will “support” developments.  What’s more the extract for Balloch (left) places the focus on the vision developed in the charrette (a community developed plan) and that again only proposed development for part of the Riverside site (see below).

Now the change of wording may only be because, having sat on the interview panel which selected Flamingo Land as the preferred developer, the LLTNPA might be open to legal challenge if it explicitly committed to delivering a development on the Riverside Site. It does however create the possibility for alternative plans to be developed.   A small positive step in the right direction.

The Charrette vision looks very different to Flamingo Land’s current proposal

Critics of the Flamingo Land proposals however need to appreciate that the LLTNPA has a history of fitting policy to developments (ignoring policy on wild land, landscape, nature designations to allow developments to go ahead) rather than ensuring developments fit with policy and planning objectives.   The challenge at Riverside is to ensure the LLTNPA sticks to its policy and statutory objectives.

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

(Notice issued by Scotland Contracts Portal)

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

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

 

The implications of Natural Retreats change of ownership

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

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

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

Companies House extract as it appeared 5th December

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The proposed study will be neither neutral nor “independent”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What needs to happen

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

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

December 3, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Flamingo Land is proposing more buildings the height of the Drumkinnon Tower along the shoreline at Balloch and to develop Drumkinnon Woods behind

There has been a lot of community activity in Balloch since Scottish Enterprise announced Flamingo Land had been appointed developer for the Riverside Site.  You can follow this activity and thinking through a number of Facebook Groups including “Balloch Responds”, “Friends of Drumkinnon Woods” and “Alternative Balloch – A Productive United Village”.

Recently people have been using these pages to articulate alternative visions for the future, complex arguments rather than social media soundbites.  To me, this is incredibly exciting.    While much of the thinking is not explicitly about National Parks as such and its focus more about an alternative vision for the area, the relationship between people and the natural environment is central to it.  As such it is helping to develop an alternative vision for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which should be of interest to anyone who is interested in the future of our National Parks. .

Bruce Biddulph on Balloch and Tourism

Below is what Bruce Biddulph, who contributed a post on Drumkinnon Woods in the summer (see here), wrote on the “Alternative Balloch FB page” on 22nd November.  It is published with his permission.

“Here is, I believe, a fair summary of what is missing in Balloch, certainly from a visitor point of view:

History: Visitor’s receive practically no idea of Balloch’s history. In fact, none. Even although Balloch sits at the centre of Scotland’s entire history, and has a wealth of historic world class interests in this regard, little is evident to them, and it is not capitalised on. This is an area that is ripe for exploitation – and there is nothing wrong with exploiting that resource for a market value – tourists expect it.

Local Produce and Provision: Sadly Balloch’s stock has gone down over the past few decades.  More and more provision is ‘standard’. Its two hotels and the new inn are now part of groups. there is only one boatyard in the village and no sense of Balloch as an open harbour, which is perplexing to the visitor who sees the river filled with boats but no engagement for them. The supermarket dominates to the extent it has now taken in footfall and has not spread the benefits, worsened by its taking of the post office into its back wall.

Tourist mementos: Lacking. One high end gift shop. Lack of truly Balloch branded stock elsewhere. No “Scottishness” as expected by the visitor. Little in the way for the day tripper to take away or find curiousity about. Linked to lack of historical interest in village’s wider realm.

Accommodation: There may be issues with accommodation but from what I have heard it is that it is a struggle for B&B owners most the of the year Easily addressed if Balloch is made more attractive and has seasonal events created by its community of residents and businesses in co-operation with each other.

All of the above is easily achieved with no great masterplan required. Scotland has many government agencies tasked with assisting communities to grow organically and to be more sustainably productive. The missing ingredient in this is people coming forward as a community to demand their rights as a community to being enabled.

Balloch’s prime disadvantage is Lomond Shores itself. It brings people into Balloch by car, but not to Balloch village itself. Therefore people going to Lomond Shores tend largely not to go any further than the retail area and leave via their cars by the same route. There is no meaningful through route or encouragement to do so. This is why Riverside and Pier Road could have been used as extensions of Balloch village.

There is so much that is positive about Balloch it makes it the envy of all other places in the Loch Lomond area. The lack in Balloch is the community of residents and businesses working together for the common good and for the fostering of other businesses Balloch requires. The above does not even bring into the equation the sheer numbers of related business scattered in its environs and the Vale of Leven that could be accommodated in a linked up and sensitively created expansion of Balloch’s thoroughfares that enhance the village and riverside and protect its beauty and its open access to all. Alongside public realm that has at its heart the spirit of honest  provision for local and tourist alike. Balloch’s success lies in its fusion of free space, its location, and its history of largely providing what visitors want and expect. That provision is going down, its diversity is becoming threatened by homogenisation and the proposal from Flamingoland does nothing to address the main opportunities nor does it do anything whatsoever to grow a future in the hands of Balloch and Balloch-born businesses.

Friends of Drumkinnon Woods

I have not asked to republish this so have just included the link:

The Economics of Free Wild SpacesIt's a sad reflection of our times that to make a case for almost anything now,…

Posted by Friends of Drumkinnon Woods on Tuesday, November 28, 2017

 

Imagine the potential if our Public Agencies, instead of supporting large businesses, started to support local people and local businesses to develop proposals for the Riverside site based on the Park’s statutory objectives of conservation, public enjoyment, sustainable economic development and sustainable use of resources.

December 1, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Its now two years since the Bruar hydro scheme opened and yet these broken sections of pipe and wrecked container have still not been removed from the glen

After my visit a few weeks ago to Glen Bruar and my post on the restoration work on the pipeline (see here), the Cairngorms National Park Authority indicated they had some further documentation about the restoration works and would place these on the planning portal.  They did so a couple of weeks ago (see here).   I found the documentation generally helpful and informative and welcome  the CNPA’s willingness to be transparent about the actions it has taken to ensure developers adhere to planning conditions.  The documentation also shows that the CNPA has been concerned about what went wrong and been taking appropriate action to remedy this.   This post will illustrate that, but also – as promised in my previous post –  provide evidence that there is still some way to go before the Bruar Hydro reaches the standard we should expect in a National Park.

 

Information on how the pipeline was restored

A section of the boulder scar which ran between the powerhouse and the intake which has not been restored.Somewhat paradoxically, what I regard as the most impressive aspect of the restoration work – the initial boulder scar was a landscape disaster (see here) – the “repair” of the land above the pipeline is least documented.  While detailed plans were improved in July to the minor intake, the two pipe bridges and the power house embankment, there is no proper specification for the restoration of the pipeline.  The documentation that has recently been added (see here), says little more than the reinstatement note from February 2016 which acknowledged the pipeline scar was an issue which would be fixed by removing some of the boulders and robbing turves from neighbouring areas.

Photo showing robbed area to right of track and restored area to left

The point here is that such work can be done well or badly and there appears to be no specification for the work.   I was interested to find out that the restoration work in this case had been done by McGowan, the same contractor who worked for Natural Retreats on the Shieling Rope tow at Cairngorm about which I had major concerns (see here). In this case they have done an excellent job – well done them!  I believe the explanation for this is that the excavations of the robbed turves are shallow and well spaced, allowing vegetation from the robbed areas to recover quickly.   The CNPA has told me long armed diggers were used by McGowan to avoid further damage to vegetation.  Great!   The work though appears to have been all done on trust and the question is what further recourse would the CNPA have if this work had not been done to such a high standard?  Indeed what recourse do they have to the developer for the further areas which still need attention?

While the primary focus of the CNPA should be on preventing the need for such restoration work to take place (and that means monitoring how developers remove turves when they dig pipelines or create new tracks so there is sufficient vegetation to re-cover the affected areas), there will be cases where this goes wrong.  Setting clear standards for how restoration work should be undertaken in such circumstances, based on what McGowan has done in Glen Bruar, would I  think be in the public interest.  All contractors would then know what was expected of them in such circumstances.

 

The quality of the hill track restoration

Apart from the final short section to the intake dam, there was already a track all the way up Glen Bruar but this was “upgraded” for construction vehicles.  This work included widening, adding further material to the surface of the track and creation of turning/laydown areas.  The intention had been that the track should be restored to how it appeared previously and this had now been done.   Its clear from the documentation that the CNPA has devoted considerable attention to the worst sections of track and this has had a positive impact.

The words in italics set out the CNPA’s concerns, the words below the photo the proposed response from the developer.

This is how the restored area looks now:

A significant improvement (although the right edge of the road has not been revegetated and is at high risk of erosion).  Other parts of the road along the glen appear to have also been narrowed with the result it is no longer a race track.

The finishing of the track however still in places leaves much to be desired:

The worst of the protruding culverts

There are a significant number of what appear to be new protruding plastic culverts along the track and there appears to rhyme or reason to what has been fully finished, partially finished and what just left:

Finished culvert with turf placed above stone
Same culvert, other side of road, protruding – why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One culvert is mentioned in the CNPA REINSTATEMENT_UPDATE_NOTE (the easiest document to read on the restoration works):

Why not any of the others?,

 

In several places the edge of the road is eroding.  It is hard to tell if the stone has been placed there for work yet unfinished or to mark the holes.

In other places dumped aggregate has not been removed and is spilling down the slopes beside the track.

The CNPA rightly asked for the pipe and storage areas to be restored:

The end result for the largest area (featured above) leaves a lot to be desired, with no evidence so far of the robbing turves technique to restore bare ground as used so successfully on the pipeline:

Same laydown area as in top photo, different angle – the pile of aggregate for filling potholes makes it look worse.

Perhaps this work has still to be done?

Poor finishing with material from the edge of the track spilling down towards the culverted burn below

In my view, there is still a significant amount of finishing work still required on the road.

External sections of pipeline

The restoration of these areas have been dealt with as Non Material Variations to the original planning application – an indication that the original plan were not perhaps as comprehensive as they should have been.

The first pipe bridge close to the power house had last year looked a total mess with the river threatening to wash the plinth away.  It is now much better:

Before
After

 

The restoration of the second exposed section of pipe plinth where it crosses a burn has been less successful.

The banks of burn below the concrete plinth which are bare and will erode contast with how the banks looked previously – heather covered. There is a very large patch of bare ground to the right.

The rip rap bouldering to protect the banks around the plinth looks a mess, there is a large patch of bare ground and the banks of the burn have not been restored with vegetation and one would have thought at risk of rapid erosion.

 

Other restoration work

The intake overflow pipes  – which were bright blue – have been painted and to my mind are far less prominent.

The CNPA has required a lot of further restoration around the top intake which you can read about in the restoration note update (see here).

A pool was created at the secondary intake to make it appear more natural.

While there has been significant improvements in revegetating ground around the top intakes, I am not sure that the work to improve the secondary intake has been successfully.  The river bed here was bouldery but the piles of boulders created to make the dam and cover up the concrete still look as though they have been bulldozed into place rather than deposited naturally.

There are also other major (first photo) and minor bits (photo above)  of clear up required.

What can be learned from this?

I suspect that CNPA staff have learned a great deal from what went wrong at Glen Bruar and all credit to them for the work they have done to try and reduce the impacts since the Hydro Scheme started to operate.   Almost all the issues they have had to tackle – and still need to tackle – stem from the work not being properly specified and supervised in the first place. Its much harder to address problems after the event rather than preventing them from arising in the first place.

The lessons from Glen Bruar therefore seem to be to be about the importance of getting high quality specifications agreed for works before they start and then monitoring these sufficiently to ensure they are adhered to.  Its almost certain our National Parks need more resources to do this.  The forthcoming planning bill should in my view include provisions for developers to pay for the costs of ensuring this happens.

November 28, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
Arrow shows location of Woodbank Inn relative to the proposed Flamingo Land development

Yesterday the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority planning committee considered a planning application from David McCowan, an elected Board Member and member of the Planning Committee (see here).  David McCowan represents the people of Balloch and West Loch Lomond and the planning application was to build a three storey extension onto the Woodbank Inn, on Balloch Rd, at the back of the Riverside/Flamingo Land site in the area he represents.

 

In contrast to the planning applications involving former Board Member Fergus Wood (see here) and (here) everything has been done by the book.   David McCowan declared his interest fully on the application form from the start, whereas in Fergus Wood’s case the original application form dated 3rd March was changed by LLTNPA at a later date as a result of a request from his agent (see here for full letter):

 

Instead of revising the date on the application form to reflect the change, the LLTNPA inserted the declaration they received on the 10th April into a superseded application form dated 3rd March which was given the date 13th March on the Planning Portal.  So, the good thing about the David McCowan application is it helps show up the failures in governance around Fergus Wood’s campsite application (which I have asked the LLTNPA to address).

 

While there were a number of objections to the application by residents who will also be impacted on by the Flamingo Land proposals – they must feel hemmed in from all sides – I will not consider the merits of the application here, only its implications in terms of Board Member interests and accountability.

 

Now I should say here David McCowan is one of few members of the old Board I have time for.  He is one of two locally elected LLTNPA members who makes any contribution at meetings, has consistently spoken out about litter problems in the Park and argued for a much broader approach than the one that has treated campers as the cause of every problem.   He has also been good enough, since James Stuart became convener, to come over and speak to members of the public after Board Meetings.

 

David McCowan’s application to extend the Woodbank Inn, however, raises issues about his ability to represent his constituents in future.   This is not about the Woodbank Inn application in itself, but rather about the relationship between his business, this application and the proposed development of the Riverside Site by Flamingo Land.  For in making the application, David McCowan must have made some judgement about the potential impact of Flamingo Land on his business which in turn must affect his ability to participate in any discussions about the merits of the proposed development of the Riverside Site.   On the one hand, if he supports the Riverside development, the suspicion must be that he is doing so because he thinks Flamingo Land will attract more people to Balloch and that will benefit his business.  On the other hand, if he opposes the development, that will be interpreted as him not wanting a competitor to his business.  In other words, by making this application – even though its to his credit that this has come before rather than after the Flamingo Land application – I don’t see how David McCowan can objectively participate in the Flamingo Land deliberations.  Whatever his motivation, there is scope for complaints to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards from all sides while the Board Members Code of Conduct makes it clear that Board Member interests must not affect the planning process.

 

If you accept this logic, this means David McCowan cannot take further part of the decision-making process in what is likely to be the biggest single development proposal which will ever effect his constituents.   Its arguable too that making a planning application is not the crucial factor and just through owning this business on the very edge of Flamingo Land he has an interest such that he should not participate in discussions.   David McCowan’s interests therefore raise fundamental issues  about democracy and accountability.   A key question is whether residents of Balloch have a right to expect their locally elected member should  listen to and then represent their views on the Riverside Site (accepting that local opinion may be divided) without being affected by his own interests?   If you think they should have that right, the logic seems to me that if David McCowan can no longer represent his constituents.    This is not just about the Flamingo Land Planning Application, its about the National Park Partnership Plan which is due to be discussed at the December Board Meeting:  one of the key targets in that is the development of the Riverside Site.

 

The simple solution would be for David McCowan to resign.  Even though it may now be too late for an election to be organised before Flamingo Land submit their planning application, it should be possible to hold an election before the application goes to Committee.  Alternatively he could decide to stay in post till July, when local members are up for election, and either stand down then or let the electorate decide.   The problem with this option is that its hard to see how he can effectively represent his consituents between now and then.   This then raises the question of what rights local constituents have if they are not happy with David McCowan’s ability to represent them and in particular whether they should have a right to recall him as their representative.  This is not a legal option at present but I think it should be,  not just for National Parks but for all elected representatives.  At present a very limited power to remove elected representatives exists where they have been convicted of certain criminal offences but I think it should also cover situations where a members interests prevent them from serving their electorate (Kezia Dugdale heading off into gameshow land is another possible example).

 

While I do not know David McCowan on a personal basis, I have now talked to him briefly on a couple of occasions and as well as finding him likeable have had respect for him up till now.  While I suspect he may have thought about some of the issues raised here, unfortunately I don’t he think he sits on a Board which has as yet developed a strong ethical sense.  The old Board tried to cover up the Owen McKee case (see here) and the new Board at present appears to be sitting on the fence as regards whether any action should be taken against Fergus Wood.  I am not sure therefore there is anyone on the Board with whom David McCowan could talk through the issues described here.  I hope this post will prompt him to think further about his position,  prompt the Board to openly discuss the issues raised and prompt the local community to consider and express what they want from their local representatives.

 

One question I believe local electorates need to consider more are the implications of people with significant business interests within the National Parks serving on their Boards.   While I am not equating David McCowan in any way with either Owen McKee or Fergus Wood, all three were democratically elected to the Board (while Fergus Wood of course was also removed from the Board when his local electorate chose to vote for other candidates in the Council elections earlier this year).    Business people may or may not make good local leaders but the challenge is how can their personal interests be kept separate from the interests of the National Park and the people they represent?

November 27, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking back along the Allt na Beinne track to the central Cairngorms. The movement of heavy vehicles along the track in wet conditions has caused significant damage and helped destroy its quality as a recreational route

Following my post on the new and “upgraded” hill track in Glen Banchor  (see here), the Cairngorms National Park Authority has informed Dave Morris and myself that they will fully investigate what has happened and feed back to us what action they can take. This is most welcome.  I also reported to them that works had taken place on the Strone/Allt na Beinne hill track on the same estate.  This post considers the issues this raises for the planning system and then makes some proposals for how the planning system could be reformed. (There is an ideal opportunity to change the current failed system in the forthcoming Scottish Planning Bill)

 

The Strone hill track

There has been a hill track by the Allt na Beinne, which is directly north of Newtonmore, for many years.  Its marked on my OS Map which dates from 1980.   Existing tracks, just like footpaths, need to maintained and therefore when a landowner decides to undertake maintenance work that should be welcomed.  However, two issues arise from this.  The first is the quality of the maintenance, with poor work having the potential to increase environmental damage and landscape impacts as well as negatively impacting on the recreational experience (see top photo).   The second is when does maintenance turn into an alteration, now that all alterations to hill tracks fall under the planning system?

Although there is Scottish Government Guidance on the distinction between maintenance and alteration under the Prior Notification System  (see here), when Forest Enterprise Scotland tries to pass off major alterations to tracks as maintenance (see here), you can see there are major challenges to the system.  What has happened to the Strone track provides a further illustration of the issues but also got me thinking about potential solutions within the National Park.

Looking across the moor from near Strone towards the Allt na Beinne.

The track starts at Strone and is clearly partly agricultural in purpose, therefore falling into the category of a permitted development right which did not require any form of planning approval before the creation of the Prior Notification System.   The first section is of good quality,  has blended into the surrounding ground and being on  flattish ground has very little landscape impact.  Its good for walking and well used.  It shows its possible to create good quality tracks outwith the planning system.

The creation of the drainage ditch has not solved the problem of water accumulating on the lowest section of track while there has been no attempt to landscape the excavated materials.

There was, however, evidence of some recent work on this first section of track.  The estate appears to have taken the opportunity of having diggers available for work higher up the track to try and improve the drainage on dips in the track.  There are several of these at present which either are filled with water (above) or are crossed by burns (below).  I think most people would class work such as this as maintenance rather than an alteration to a track and therefore not requiring any form of planning consent or prior approval (which Planning Authorities give under the Prior Notification system).   The problem is the work is of poor quality and not in my view fitting for a National Park.  Its storing up problems, not solving them.

Burn flowing across road with excavated material dumped in foreground

Its quite predictable that the burn flowing across the road will erode it in due course.  A solution to this was pioneered in Scotland almost three hundred years ago with the Wade and Caulfield Military Roads.  Where culverts would not work – as here because the road is too low relative to the surrounding land – they used paved cross drains.  There are plenty of stones here which have recently been unearthed and dumped by the side of the track that the estate could have used to line the cross drain but they have not done so.  What this shows is we need to find a way to ensure that maintenance work, whether of paths or tracks, is to an appropriate standard.

Once a track starts getting churned up, vehicles start creating alternative routes, spreading the damage.  Caterpillar track visible bottom right of photo.

Undertaking maintenance work in wet conditions – much of the initial damage in the photo above appears to have been done by heavy caterpillar tracked vehicles – also causes damage.  High quality maintenance is not just about appropriate design or the skill of the contractor, its about the timing of the work.

Towards the far end of the moor, before the track begins to rise, a borrow pit has been created (or extended).   While borrow pits for forestry tracks are classed as permitted development rights – so if the road is created lawfully, so is the track – for agricultural roads they are not.  Because of the size of the borrow pit my understanding is the estate should have applied for planning permission.

 

Further up the track there is evidence of other small borrow pits, with material dug out from the side of the track, without any attempt to restore the ground.  I suspect Planning Authorities would see small borrow pits as part of maintenance work rather than an alteration to the track and therefore not requiring planning permission under the current system.  Even if right, however, this leaves the question of whether poor quality work such as this should be allowed, particularly in a National Park.

Unfinished culvert and new drainage ditch

The extent of the track work increases as it enters the lovely small glen taken by the Allt na Beinne.   When does maintenance, which does not require any type of planning consent, become alteration which does?

The edge of the existing track appears to have been excavated to facilitate ATV access to land on the left creating a new track

The work in the photo above may not be finished but to my mind the excavations here are far more than maintenance, they are alterations.  Whether an alteration comes under the Prior Notification System or needs full planning permission depends on whether or not the track is for agricultural or forestry purposes.  The moorland above the steep section of track is covered with signs of intensive grouse moor management so I believe these tracks are clearly non-agricultural in purpose and therefore the alterations should have been subject to full planning permission from the start.

The track above the steepest section, showing a broad strip of disturbed ground on the right

We did not have time to get to the end of the track  but noted in many sections the total width of track plus disturbed ground appeared to be up to 20 metres and included piles of rocks and boulders.  Again the scale of this is such that it should be treated as an alteration to the track rather than maintenance and there are issues both about the longer term landscape impact but also the quality of the track (which is currently a peaty morass in places – as you can see in left of photo).

Its also clear the work is not finished though the end product is not relevant to the question of whether planning permission should have been applied for, only about whether the CNPA needs to take enforcement action.

ATV track heading round to the newly upgraded Glen Banchor hill track, which is visible just below the left horizon

The final issue was that lower down you could see how ATVs or tracked vehicles are being driven from the Strone track, apparently around to meet the new Glen Banchor track.   Where tracks are created by such use the question of maintenance and alteration is complicated by the fact that such tracks are not subject to any planning approval.  In this case they represent a major extension of the track network in the Glenbanchor/Strone area.

 

So what are the lessons for our National Parks and the planning system?

I believe the photos illustrate there is a fine line between track maintenance, which does not need any approval from the Planning Authority, and alterations to tracks which do.   The quality of both, however, matter, especially in our National Parks.  The situation is then further complicated because alterations to Forestry and Agricultural tracks – such as the lower section of the Allt na Beinne track – come under the Prior Notification system while those for other purposes such as deer and grouse moor management – upper section of the Allt na Beinne track – come under the full planning system.

While I believe the failure of the new owners of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate, who have owned the adjacent Pitmain Estate for several years, to consult with the Cairngorms National Park Authority before starting any work on the Allt na Beinne track (or Glen Banchor track covered in my previous post) is inexcusable – and they need to be held account – I think we need to recognise the current rules creates  a nightmarish situation for both land managers and planning authorities.

On one track the work being proposed could. for different sections, be classed as:

  • maintenance not requiring any approval;
  • alteration to a forestry or agricultural track requiring prior notification and possibly approval;
  • alteration for other estate management purposes requiring planning permission;
  • an extension for agricultural or forestry purposes needing prior notification;
  • an extension for other purposes needing planning permission.

I started thinking about this after my post on the Glen Feshie tracks, questioning why the CNPA had allowed them to go ahead under the Prior Notification system without approval  (see here).    Dave Morris and I went to see Thomas MacDonnell, the Conservation Manager for Wild Land Ltd who manages Glen Feshie, a couple of weeks ago.   He was extremely open about what the estate was trying to do and the fifteen or so miles of new tracks that had been given the go-ahead under the Prior Notification system.  He was clear – and the planning documents reflect this – that the track were not just about forestry (which comes under the Prior Notification System) but also deer management and recreation (which don’t) and that it was not the estate’s decision to deal with this as a Prior Notification.   What came out of this for me though is that dealing with some parts of the proposed tracks under the Prior Notification system and some under the full planning system would have been a nightmare for both the estate and the planning authorities.  It made me understand therefore why staff in public authorities might have wanted to deal with this as one single type of application.  The trouble – which I will come back to – is it did not fit into any single classification.

 

The work though that Thomas MacDonnell has been leading at Glen Feshie, points I believe, to some of the answers.  Thomas took us out to look at some of the work the estate is doing to upgrade and repair existing tracks as well as the locations for the proposed new tracks.

The work to upgrade existing tracks is generally of very high quality and its very hard to tell that extensive work has been done to improve this track

The work to existing tracks has been treated as maintenance, and not gone through the planning system., although in may cases badly eroded existing tracks have been transformed in appearance.   How the work has been done though has been governed by a standard specification for tracks (on dry ground) which has been developed by Wild Land Ltd.  It has used the same specification as part of the Prior Notification for the new tracks.

Extract from Prior Notification – note how Wild Land Ltd is able to extract timber using narrower tracks than those specified by the Forestry Commission.In other words, Wild Land Ltd is applying the same set of standards to all the work they do, whether track maintenance, track alterations or the creation of new tracks.  Now while its possible to question some of the details of that specification – the North East Mountain Trust for example would like to see a vegetated strip being included down the centre of all tracks (which are in place on some but not all Feshie Tracks) – the existence of a specification that delivers high standards seems to me to point to a way forward for hill tracks.

If all estates undertook track work according to agreed standards, the current distinctions between maintenance and alteration, and forestry/agricultural versus other tracks would become far less important.

The way forward

Working from the basis that all work on hill tracks should meet certain standards (and these could be higher in National Parks), the Prior Notification system could be adapted to be used where a landowner had agreed a set of standards with the Planning Authority.  Whenever the landowner was planning maintenance or track upgrade works it would notify the Planning Authority of the location of such works (so they could monitor that the adhered standards were being adhered to) but no planning consent would be required.  Alterations to the line of an existing tracks could also be dealt with under this system if the agreed standards included how unused/redundant sections of track would be restored.   This would simplify the system for responsible landowners.

If the agreed set of standards/specification also included provisions about off-track use of ATVs, whose purpose was to prevent tracks being created by default, that would help address the impacts such tracks have on the landscape and to bring them under control.

A full planning application, which gave the public and other stakeholders the opportunity to comment on (and object to) proposals, would still be required for new tracks (including those for agricultural and forestry purposes) and for any works on tracks which were not covered by the set of standards which had been agreed between the Planning Authority and landowner.  This would incentivise landowners to adopt and work to certain standards.

Planning Authorities would then be able to endorse certain existing model standards for hill tracks in their planning policies which could be adopted by landowners where they so wished.  For example while Wild Land Ltd has developed its own set of standards for most of the tracks on the estate – which are in my view much better than those of the Forestry Commission which were designed for industrial forestry and not for National Parks or other protected areas – for areas of deep peat it has chosen to adopt the SNH/Forestry Commission Standards for “Floating Roads on Peat 2010.

While changing the system in the way I have proposed here would require changes to hill track regulation nationally – hence the need for discussion in the forthcoming planning bill – the CNPA could also set and promote the adoption of approved standards for hill track work in its new development plan.  The Main Issues Report for this has just been issued for public consultation and provides an ideal opportunity for the CNPA to strengthen its policy in this area.

November 23, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Upper section of tracks in Coilessan Glen. Neither FES nor LLTNPA appear concerned about the landscape impact of the track works here. If these were not deemed forestry tracks, I believe the LLTNPA would have required a full landscape impact assessment.

Since my post in June (see here) on Forest Enterprise’s  “upgrade” of the Coilessan Glen forest track, I have been trying to get to the root of what has gone wrong.  First I established that no planning application or prior notification had been received by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, then I took the matter up with  Simon Hodge, Chief Executive of Forest Enterprise Scotland.  I believe my correspondence with him shows there are serious issues about how the Forest Estate is being managed in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and will highlight evidence for this in this post (you can view the full correspondence below).

The Prior Notification System and the track upgrade

Forestry Tracks are, under planning legislation, classed as permitted developments but under the Prior Notification System all new or alterations to existing forest tracks are supposed to be notified to the Planning Authority.    FES is usually good at doing this, and indeed has now done so for two small changes to the track in Coilessan Glen.  However, they disputed my claim that all the track upgrade and other works needed prior notification, claiming these were “maintenance” rather than alterations.

In response I sent them some photos:

View of track extension from below

FES response to photo:

In plain language this is an acknowledgement from FES that the works included a new section of track which they should have notified to the LLTNPA under the Prior Notification System.  However, they try and excuse this failure by saying they had told the LLTNPA about a new section of track in Coilessan Glen but in a different place, 250m away!  Imagine someone trying to justify building a house in one place on the grounds that the planning authority had accepted this in a different location!

The LLTNPA’s response to that Prior Notification (link to full letter below under correspondence) is telling:

 

Another view of the track extension

This extension is according to standard FES designs and therefore its reasonable to say that the original 250m away would have had a similar landscape impact.  Yet the LLTNPA was quite happy to state in response to the Notification that such extensions do not raise “any significant landscape” concerns.   I don’t think any recreational walker would agree.  The works have had a serious adverse impact on the Cowal Way.  The LLTNPA needs to ensure its staff and Board Members get out more and review their policy in this area.  I know the LLTNPA and other public authorities are strapped for resources but this is simply not good enough for a National Park.  At least according to the correspondence FES and LLTNPA have now met to discuss what to do about this section of track.  Now both need to explain publicly what they will do to restore the damage to the National Park landscape.

FES response to photo:

By saying this, FES seem to be trying to imply that this work to reinforce the side of the track is not an alteration but maintenance.  They have however accepted, by calling in the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, that the works could have  serious ecological implications (with silt eroding into the river).  Reason enough one might have thought to notify the LLTNPA.

Apart from the technicalities of the failing Prior Notification system, the substantive issue is that FES has trashed what would otherwise be an attractive section of river.  In the current Ardgarten Forest Design Plan (which is not publicly available although FES are now publishng new forest plans as they are agreed) all the main riparian edges in Coilessan Glen were designated for native woodland.  Good plan, shame its being ignored.

Evidence that FES had altered the track and extended it beyond its existing footprint

FES response to photo:

The evidence shows that what has been done is more then vegetation removal.  Scottish Government Guidance on tracks and the Prior Notification system SG FinalGuidance june 15 Smith et al 2014 states:

 

“The distinction between”alteration” and “maintenance” may sometimes be difficult to determine. Maintenance‟ work could include routine repairs to private ways such as filling potholes or clearing drainage channels or replacing culverts in line with recommendations and guidance by SEPA to comply with good practice.

Work such as resurfacing to provide a materially different road surface (for example replacing loose gravel with tarmacadam), or to widen or extend a track, would generally be considered an “alteration‟.

 

While I believe the Coilessan tracks have been altered, whatever the Prior Notification technicalities the substantive issue is why FES is allowed to do work like this in the National Park?  The slope is too steep, will erode rather than re-vegetate and contrary to good practice (such as contained within the LLTNPA Guidance on Renewables).   The LLTNPA should be demanding that Forestry Commission Scotland, which agrees the standard specifications for forest tracks, to review them to ensure they are fit for National Parks (and other areas of landscape importance in Scotland).

FES response to photo:

Accepting FES assurances that the work is not complete, it is  disturbing that National Park Officers apparently have deemed the work at Coilessan acceptable.  Do they not even think further monitoring is required to see that any restoration work by FES is acceptable?    I would like LLTNPA Board Members to go out – preferably in the company of people who have an interest in our landscape and nature conservation in our National Parks –  take a look and re-think.

FES response to photo:

So, quarries can be built and extended in National Parks outwith the planning system.  I am grateful that FES sent me the letter from FCS EIA101 Ardgartan Quarry – even if it basically attributes responsibility for this to them –  although they have made no mention of the mitigation measures which FCS said needed to be agreed with the LLTNPA and are not anywhere public on the Park’s planning portal.   While I will pursue this, the substantive issues is that  quarrying does not have to look like this.  Here is an alternative example from the Cairngorms National Park I came across last weekend:

Borrow pit in Glen Tromie on the Glen Feshie Estate. The photo accentuates the track up the slope, which is hardly visible from other angles.  Ignore too the heap of aggregate and foreground and note how vegetation has been replaced on the quarried slope even though, just to the left, the borrow pit is being worked.

In Glen Tromie (which I will blog about in due course because of the positive lessons there for the rest of Scotland) the estate are restoring the quarry as they go, a complete contrast to FES.  The contrast in how the land is being treated and landscape respect is in my view stark.

 

The new Prior Notification for a 70m section of track in Coilessan Glen

 

At the beginning of October, FES submitted a Prior Notification to the LLTNPA for further work in Coilessan Glen – to “straighten” the section of track beyond the bridge in the photo above.  The response of the LLTNPA was that this did not need Prior Approval (see here) because:

Leaving aside the implication that any forestry road deemed commercial can go ahead in the National Park without any consideration of landscape or conservation issues, the LLTNPA has failed to properly consider the issues as this extract from the second FES letter shows:

First, FES are now claiming the track is needed in case there is a need to fell larch trees in an attempt to prevent the spread of Phytopthera Ramorum, a disease that is decimating larch plantations across the UK and not for normal commercial forestry purposes.   Second, FES are not proposing to remove the old track but to leave it in place, so there will be two tracks at this point in the glen for what appear to be spurious reasons.  (I had been rather hoping they might use the opportunity to reduce the old track to footpath width so improving the walking experience on the Cowal Way).   So why did the LLTNPA not ask what was happening to the 70m section of old track before simply approving the new one?   If this is anything to go by it appears the LLTNPA are simply rubber stamping FES Prior Notifications without any consideration of the landscape or conservation implications.

 

What needs to happen

The issues raised here are much broader than the track in Coilessan Glen and have implications for the whole of the Argyll Forest Park.   When the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park was originally proposed, Cowal was not included, but this changed as a result of local pressure.  Part of this was because local people thought a National Park might be a way of changing how forestry was managed in the Argyll Forest Park.

Initially the LLTNPA did take an interest in Argyll and a new forest framework was produced lltnpa woodland framework action area 3. (This is not publicly available – the FES appears to have just one copy – but I am very grateful for the FES planning section for copying the relevant part of this and sending it to me by return without an FOI request).  While this did not propose a radical change of direction – it clearly states that commercial forestry would predominate – it did set out some aspirations and suggested areas for change (on some of which there has since been progress).  The problem is that the thinking behind the framework has never been reviewed or developed despite opportunities to do this, mostly recently in the draft National Park Partnership Plan consulted on earlier this year.

The most important thing that I believe needs to happen therefore is that the new National Park Partnership Plan should commit both the LLTNPA and FCS/FES to a public a review of Forest Management  in the Argyll Forest Park and how this meets the National Park’s statutory objectives.  While the spread of Phytopthera Ramorum – a conservation disaster which I will come back to – is another reason to do this, the failed operation of the Prior Notification system in Coilessan Glen and the landscape and conservation impact of track works there should in themselves be sufficient.  It will be interesting to see if the final National Park Partnership Plan due to be presented to the LLTNPA Board in December says anything meaningful about changing forestry practice in the Argyll Forest Park.

Addendum – correspondence with FES

  • 30/08/17 Email (see here) and link to my June post sent to Simon Hodge asking if agreed the Coilessan track works should have been notified to the LLTNPA
  • No acknowledgement
  • 19/09/17 Polite reminder sent (see here) with my MSP, who everyone knows as Nicola, copied in.  Hey pronto, immediate (same day) acknowledgement
  • 22/09/17 Response claiming Prior Notification not required as work within “footprint” existing tracks, that the final “running track” would be narrower and that the tracks were needed to control Phytopthera Ramorum  Final response to Mr Knowles
  • 02/10/17 Follow up letter sent with photographic evidence disputing FES claim that works within existing footprint Letter to Simon Hodge, Coilessan 171002
  • No acknowledgement
  • 17/10/17 Polite reminder sent (see here), noting further issues raised by recent notification to LLTNPA of work to straighten a section of track in Coilessan Glen, with my MSP once again copied in.   Hey pronto, acknowledgement!
  • 25/10/17  Response (see here), treated as Information Request, with two attachments: the first the LLTNPA response to a prior notification in 2016 for a new 50m section of track at Coilessan (on planning portal) (see here); the second, the response from Forestry Commission Scotland EIA101 Ardgartan Quarry saying an Environmental Impact Assessment was not needed for the quarry which has been used to source material for the tracks
  • 10/11/17 provision of Ardgarten Forest Plan (document too large to provide on website) and lltnpa woodland framework action area 3 by FES planning department.

 

The timing of the responses from FES is a neat illustration that when it comes to senior personnel in public authorities its not what you say that matters but who you know.

 

November 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
New track, slopes Creag an Loin, Glen Banchor looking towards Creag Dubh on the Pitmain Estate, behind Kingussie. You can tell this is intended as a track, rather than just caused by ATV use, by the bouldes lining the right hand side

Earlier this year, the owner of the Pitmain estate,  who appears to be Abdul Majid Jafar, bought the Glen Banchor and Strone Estate behind Newtonmore.   I say “appears” because the information on Pitmain Estate Ltd at Companies House fails to declare who has significant control over the company.

While  Abdul Majid Jafar resigned as a Director in June 2015, to be replaced by an Indian Accountant also based in the United Arab Emirates, it appears he is still the owner.   Its not only our landownership system which is opaque, our company system is too and there is abundant evidence for this in our National Parks.  Abdul Majid Jafar’s family run Crescent Petroleum, the Middle East’s oldest private oil and gas company, so not short of a bob or too and well able to afford to do things properly if he so wished.

Map credit Cairngorms National Park Authority estate maps

The previous owners of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate were the Lindt Family, of chocolate fame.  They appear to have managed the estate for purely private pleasure (for example the internet has stories about how you could not pay to stalk there).   This had its disadvantages, in that deer numbers were very high, but otherwise estate management appears to have been low key and unintensive.   That appears to have changed since Pitmain took over, with significant consequences for land-management.   This post will consider the new track works in Glen Banchor.

The section of newly engineered track above the esker – you can see one of the sheep dog trial gates on the left. The track bends left after about 700m to a sheep pen.

The boggy moorland where the road bends west into Glen Banchor (GR 702998) and lower slopes of Creag an Loin have long been used for sheep dog trials and there was a rough track along the fabulous esker – a deposit laid down by the glacier –  that snakes across the moor.  This then led up the slopes to a sheep holding pen.   Unfortunately I don’t have photos of the old track (photos gratefully received!), so you can compare then and now, but it was little more than two wheel ruts and much used by walkers.

The esker provides a dry passage across the moor but its character has been totally changed.  The top has been lopped off to create a track with no consideration given to the landscape impact.

Under the Prior Notification system, any changes to existing agricultural or forestry tracks which increase their footprint or new ones should be notified to the planning authority (see Scottish Govt statutory guidance Page 11 onwards).  There is no sign on either the Highland Council or Cairngorms National Park Authority planning portals that this has been done at Glen Banchor (I have written to the CNPA to double check and report the track works).

There is evidence all along the former landrover track that major upgrading works have taken place. Note the large lumps of turf in the foreground which could have been replaced down the centre of the track reducing erosion and the landscape impact.

While full planning permission is not needed for agricultural tracks, the point of the Prior Notification system is it is “an important tool in preventing inappropriate construction of private ways” (Government Guidance).   In this case there are plenty of signs of inappropriate construction (including above) which are not fitting for a National Park and do not meet SNH’s Best Practice Guidance on hill track construction.

The upper section of the track is too steep and already eroding away, not helped by the lack of vegetation down the middle and an absence of drainage bars which means water runs straight down the line of the track.

Start of track 7th November
Start of track 18th November

Since I learned about the track I have been twice, first time to have a quick look and then last Saturday when I walked along the track and beyond.  While it has been very wet, the two photos show there has been a considerable deterioration in the track over the intervening 10 days and much of it has been churned into a quagmire.

The turning circle at the top of the old section of track, sheep holding pen for the sheep dog trials in the background

The problem is even worse at the top of the old section of track.  I don’t think this mess has been created by sheep dog trials, the problem is the old land rover track is now being used for other estate management purposes and far more intensively than previously.  It links to a new estate management track (see top photo) which has been created without any planning permission.

The new track contours round and down the hillside from just below the sheep holding area. You can see the excavated boulders and vegetation dumped on the right of the track.

The new track leads to another turning circle and borrow pit:

The turning circle with hummocky moraine and Creag Dubh behind
The borrow pit below the turning circle

While the newly constructed track, which comes under planning law, ends at the turning circle beyond is an ATV track, if the quagmire created can be described as a track:

Behind the moraine on the right, the ATV track forks, one part linking to constructed tracks on the Strone part of the estate, the other heading up the hillside to a feeding station:

 

Red legged partridge in cage at feeding station

In terms of planning law, all this is important.  The new section of track is clearly for game management purposes and therefore does not come under the Prior Notification System.  Full planning permission was required, it has not been applied for and therefore this is yet another case of disregard of the planning system within our National Parks by landowners.  The ATV eroded track beyond, however, because it has not been constructed falls totally outwith the planning system.

 

What needs to happen

While I understand (from an update they provided) that the CNPA are still working on the enforcement action they have agreed against  the Cluny Estate for unlawful track on Creag an Leth Choin (see here), the basic problem the CNPA faces is that until they have taken effective enforcement action, landowners won’t see planning law as being important.  Generally landowners see themselves as having the right to manage land as they wish and not as custodians for it, even in the National Park.    The result has been that unlawful tracks continue to proliferate across the National Park.  The CNPA needs to be seen to take action (just as East Ayrshire has recently done for breach of planning conditions at a windfarm).

 

Determined and rapid enforcement action would I believe, make a great difference.  This track, being so recent, would be a good place to start.  In addition, while I appreciate the Prior Notification system is very weak and not fit for purpose, the creation of an unlawful track linked to an “upgrade” of an existing track, should make it easier for the CNPA  to argue that the “upgrade” of the existing track is more than that and not fit for purpose.

 

However, at present the CNPA has NO powers to address ATV created tracks, such as the featured here leading from the second turning circle to the feeding station.  While SNH has powers to control ATV use on protected sites, only the western half of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so there are at present no controls in this part of the National Park.  In my view this has to change.  I would like to see all ATV use on the open hill in National Parks being subject to consent through farm/estate management plans.  The CNPA could do this through the creation of byelaws for conservation purposes.

 

This leads to the wider issue of estate management and landownership.  On the landownership side, no additional checks are required before someone buys a large area of land in a National Park, either to establish whether they are fit to manage the land or what their intentions might be.    While the Gynack hydro schemes on the Pitmain Estate are in many ways exemplary (see here) , step beyond them and the tracks further up the hill are a disgrace to the National Park:

Massive turning circle on Meall Unaig, south of Carn an Fhreiceadain. This is visible from Glen Feshie.

I have always wondered why an estate can do one thing well and another so badly.  However, it appears from other new track works above Strone (which I will cover in a further post) that the estate is importing and applying its poor practice standards to Glen Banchor.   While the CNPA has tried to encourage estates to produce management statements for their land, neither Pitmain or Glen Banchor have done so.   The CNPA is therefore left in a position that when a new landowner takes over an estate, it has no idea what that landowner is planning to do in terms of estate management.  That cannot be right in a National Park.

 

What is clear from the new Glen Banchor track is that the new owners are wanting to produce more game for shooting on the estate – hence the feeding station for Red Legged Partridge.   This has implications beyond hill tracks and how they are designed.  The Red Legged Partridge, which is of Mediterranean origin, does best in the wild on dry sandy soils and so, in the wild, is normally found on agricultural land.  Increasingly though it appears to be being bred on moorland within the National Park.  This requires intensive game managements methods akin to farming.  On moorland, however, it is very exposed to predators, especially at feeding stations such as that featured here, and would provide the perfect food for hen harriers if they had not been persecuted close to extinction.  With feeding stations like this, we should expect the number of hen harriers to increase significantly.   Will that happen?

 

Leaving aside wider ecological consideration, feeding stations in our National Parks should only be allowed if estates can prove they are committed to protecting raptors.  In this case,  it would be in the public interest if that the Pitmain/Glen Banchor Estate were to clarify whether they are committed to this and whether clear instructions have been issued to staff telling them that if most of the Red Legged Partridge at the feeding station get predated by raptors that that is fine by the owners.  It would be good if the CNPA, which states it is committed to improving grouse moor management, started to ask the estate these questions and to make the responses public.

November 20, 2017 Nick Kempe 7 comments
Extract from Flamingo Land/Iconic Developments consultation display

On Friday I went to the first of the Flamingo Land consultation events at Lomond Shores in Balloch.  I was not sure what to expect partly because the proposals have been developed in secret (see here) but also because – like many people I suspect – I don’t think like a developer.   The display of the proposals – they are now all online (see here) – made it clear Flamingo Land want to develop ALL the land they and we/Scottish Enterprise own to create a holiday resort.  This is encapsulated in their portrayal of the “site wide experience” (see above) but there was already a big clue in the name of their development vehicle, “Iconic Leisure Developments”.

 

I left Lomond Shores thinking that the only way the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority can only approve the development of this holiday resort if they ignore all four of their statutory objectives, conservation, public enjoyment of the countryside, sustainable economic development and wise use of resources.

 

The “consultation”

Extract from Flamingo Land/Iconic Developments consultation display

While the detailed design plans for each component of the development may well be at an early stage,  Flamingo Land’s statement that it will submit an application for Planning Permission in Principle (see here) early in 2018 means the main elements of the proposal have already been decided.  If an overwhelming majority of consultees object to one or more elements of the proposal, there is no time to develop alternatives.  In addition, most parts of the Environmental Impact Assessment must either be well developed or complete by now but all of these have been withheld until the planning application is submitted.   So much for the Scottish Government’s commitment to “co-production”.  On the one hand they support community planning events, which included the Balloch charrette (see here) earlier on this year,  but at the same time they allow developers and “the market” to carry on as they always have.

 

Something is very wrong when consultation and involvement for what is an extremely large development in a National Park – and remember the emphasis now is on consultation prior to any planning application being submitted – is limited to a handful of days when the public can view an exhibition and are given the opportunity to comment on this.    Those attending were hit with a chocolate box of  new proposals from a mono-rail and aerial walkways to outdoor swimming pools and, while given the opportunity to ask questions of the team of consultants present, after this tasting were asked to give an immediate response.  While I overheard and took part in a number of very interesting discussions, there was no real opportunity to think or talk through the implications let alone offer alternatives.

 

There is another, and final, consultation event Monday 4th  December but at least the consultation questionaire is now online which gives people a little longer to consider how to respond.

 

The main elements to the proposals

Extract from map showing proposals for Riverside site

The two key big ideas developed in the Balloch Charrette, for a walkway along the River Leven connecting the town to Lomond Shores (about which I was sceptical) and a bridge across the mouth of the River Leven to connect Lomond Shores with Balloch Country Park (and therefore the countryside) have both been dropped.   Both proposals were about improving the public realm but neither would have brought financial benefit to the developer and its almost certain money is behind this raising the legitimate question as to what appointing a private developer will bring to Balloch.

 

Instead, the proposals appear to about using every available inch of space on the site to make money for Flamingo Land.

Greenspace 

While Flamingo Land are claiming to be preserving this, every element is to be intensively used, as you can see by the number of lodges in the proposals map above.   Just why this number of holiday lodges are needed at Balloch is not explained.

Drumkinnon Wood

This is very well used by the local community, but the proposal is for it to become one of the gateways to the development via an aerial walkway (4) which conveniently by-passes Loch Lomond Shores, as well as providing (from a count) 31 holiday lodges, some of which apparently may be up in the trees.  Along with this is a Forest Adventure Area” (3) and Children Area’s (5).   How this will leave any room for nature in what is an Ancient Woodland Site is not explained.

The parkland along the River Leven

This is to be filled with another 39 (again my count) Holiday Lodges (that makes 70 Lodges in all) but is also site for a new monorail linking the station to the Flamingo Land visitor hub.  This is private transport to take people to a private development,  quite a contrast to when the public railway took people to the edge of the loch in Balloch’s heyday.  While Flamingo Land are saying that none of the lodges will be fenced off, I think people will be left feeling intensively uncomfortable about intruding on private space if they step off the path which forms part of the John Muir Way.  The proposal changes what was a path through parkland into a path through a glamping site giving people every incentive to take the monorail.

The pierhead

The land at what is described as the pierhead (7 in diagram above), which currently offers the best views over Loch Lomond, is being proposed for intensive development which may be as high as the Drumkinnon Tower.  This includes a 60 place luxury hotel and an indoor water sports development.

Viewing Tower

For those who who not want to pay for the resort facilities to enjoy the views, the proposal is for a viewing tower behind the development so people can pay to look out over the hotel and watersports facility to see Loch Lomond.   This is I believe privatisation of a public good, made even worse because the design of the resort is such that there is nowhere else people can go to enjoy the views and nature.  This might have still been possible if a bridge was constructed over the River Leven into Balloch Country Park and if Drumkinnon Woods had been left as a space for informal recreation.

Transport

While the proposal claims to put walking and cycling at the heart of the development,  current roads and parking are basically to remain as they are, except for the Lomond Shores overflow carpark which is to be taken over for people staying in Flamingo Land accommodation despite current shortages.  Locals and visitors can therefore expect parking to get worse at peak periods.

The Ben Lomond Way behind the Drumkinnon Tower separating Lomond Shores from Drumkinnon Wood (photo from day of consultation event).  The lack of people tells you everything.

There are currently two roads to the the Pierhead area, Ben Lomond Way and Pier Rd. These see little traffic except when people are trying to access the Park operated public boat launching slipway, the only one left on the loch, and a parking area which is distinctively suburban.   The roads and carpark segment the site with the result that walking from Lomond Shores to the River Leven is not a good experience.   With a bit of radical thinking, consultation with boat users on their needs and alternatives and some expert input there must be opportunities to remove one of the roads  and the parking area improved.  Instead, the suburban blight is left at the heart of what is supposed to be an iconic development.  Another opportunity missed.

 

Are there any good elements to the proposals?

I thought there were two elements to the proposals that might enhance the National Park, rather than undermine its core purpose, and both were well away from the loch shores.

Extract from Flamingo Land/Iconic Developments consultation display – Station Square

 

The charrette identified the space by the bridge over the River Leven as needing improvement and the ideas Flamingo Land has produced appear informed by this (helped I think because there has been some involvement in other stakeholders such as Sustrans in how this part of the site might be developed).   Is a big developer needed to do this?  It seems to me the sort of proposals being made for this space could, with a little vision from our public authorities, be implemented by a Community Development Trust.   This could, for example, provide a bridge between people in the local community and effective use of the proposed outdoor performance space.

The other part of the proposal I liked was for the land in front of Woodbank House, basically a public space for people to enjoy themselves without having to spend money.   Not a natural landscape but not incompatible with the objectives of the National Park.

 

How do Flamingo Land’s proposals fit with the statutory objections of the National Park?

Conservation

The proposals are to jam pack the areas of ancient woodland on the Riverside part of the site with developments so they became a version of Go Ape.   That was not appropriate for Pollok Park in Glasgow and is not appropriate for a National Park.

In landscape shores, what can be seen from a sixth storey hotel bedroom, will equally be seen in the opposite direction.  Since the 1980s the woodland setting on the west side of the mouth of the River Leven has been progressively destroyed, first with Lomond Shores and now by the Pierhead Proposals.   The most intensive part of the development is in the wrong place.

 

Public Enjoyment

While the shoreline between Lomond Shores and the Maid of the Loch does not offer a quality experience in terms of the immediate environs, the public have a right to walk along most of shore and enjoy the views.  This space, if the proposals go ahead, will effectively be privatised while the ability of local people to enjoy Drumkinnon Woods will be severely compromised.

This is part of a wider process about control of space:  the camping byelaws for example, which prevent people from camping where they always have done in direct contact with nature, have been used to channel people to commercial campsites.  The commercial success of the proposed camping pods at Flamingo Land will depend on the continued ability and commitment of the LLTNPA to the camping ban.

Moreover, the Park’s statutory duty is to promote enjoyment of the special qualities of the Park, not to promote indoor leisure developments or intensively used tree top walkways.   I have been to Landmark in Carrbridge a couple of times, and while I have never much wildlife there,  at least you get the feeling that you could step outside the centre, away from the crowds and aerial walkways, and see something in the neighbouring woods.  At Flamingo Land there is no space left for nature or for people to enjoy it.

 

 

Sustainable Economic Development

Without detailed design plans, its not possible to tell yet whether the development will be sustainable in terms of issues such as use of materials and energy or how many and what type of permanent jobs it will create.     One can at this stage question other elements of sustainability.    Apart from the claim that Abellio is interested in improving the train service, all the indications are that the development will increase traffic to an area which already groans under the number of cars. The bigger issue though is about sustainable tourism and why people would wish to stay in a Flamingo Holiday Lodge or hotel at Balloch for a week?

The idea of promoting Balloch as a gateway to the National Park makes sense but people tend not  to linger in gateways for long (unless forced to do so, for example by the camping ban) and the  pattern of tourism to the countryside is changing to short stays.   There is not one element of the proposal that I can see that is about enabling people who book accommodation to travel out to experience and enjoy the National Park.  Instead, its about keeping people in the resort and getting them to spend money, not on enjoyment of the natural qualities of the National Park but on amusements.   How it contributes to the development of sustainable tourism in the National Park is something therefore the LLTNPA needs to answer.

 

Sustainable use of resources

Again, its too early to tell but to me the outdoor swimming pool area, no doubt heated, tells a tale.

 

What needs to happen

We need to remember that the Riverside element of the proposed development is publicly owned.   Our Public Authorities however are so wedded to the tenets of neo-liberalism – that only the private market can and should deliver developments – that they are happy to promote a development which is, judging by how it matches the National Park’s statutory objectives, to be in the private not the public interest.

A different approach is possible starting from the idea that publicly owned land should be used to deliver public goods in partnership with local people and other stakeholders to meet the statutory objectives of the National Park.   There are two ways this could happen.  The first is if the LLTNPA were to start upholding its statutory objectives rather than promoting/acting as a facilitator for inappropriate development.  The second would be if the local community were to launch a bid to takeover some or all of the site (just like the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust intend to do at Cairngorm).  Combine the two and you could develop a much better alternative to Flamingo Land’s offering.

November 17, 2017 Nick Kempe 23 comments
The Cononish gold mine as it looked on a dreich day in May – the same day as the pre-consultation event in the Tyndrum Village Hall

The failures in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s consultation system

A couple of weeks ago, at the Scottish Wild Group AGM, I was told that a planning application  had been submitted back in August for the new proposal for waste storage waste from the Cononish Gold Mine (see here).   The formal consultation period lasted 28 days and, while I have spent a few days feeling bad that I had missed this and failed to advertise what is being proposed, what I have realised is very few other people knew about the application either.  That is until Scotgold placed a story in the press earlier this week presenting the application as a done deal (see here for example).

 

This demonstrates a fundamental flaw in our planning system.  There was no a single objection on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority planning portal (see here) until I lodged one on Wednesday.  Although this was outwith the formal consultation period, because the application has not yet been determined, you can still lodge comments and I would urge anyone with an interest to do so.

 

The lack of public comment until this week – there are three letters of support which all appeared on the same day – is not I believe because people don’t care about what is being proposed.   There there were significant number of objections to earlier applications.  The reason is that either people don’t know what is being proposed or don’t understand.  I have checked and it appears that neither the Ramblers nor Mountaineering Scotland were informed about the application even though the Ramblers Scotland tweeted a photo of an unlawful Scotgold anti-access sign at the weekend (see here).  (The sign is unlawful because its placed far beyond the current working site boundary).   It should be the business of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority as Planning Authority to make sure that recreational organisations are informed.  When the LLTNPA consults RSPB as a matter of course (they did in this case and every hydro application I can recall) – a good thing – why cannot they also consult the Mountaineering Council about similar developments in the hills?

 

It took me a couple of hours to understand how the 147 documents then on the Park planning portal relate to each other.  There is the main Environmental Statement  then a jumble of appendices and supporting documents which unfortunately don’t appear in the right order.  After scrutinising this I realised the first two appendices to the Environmental Statement, the Pre-application Consultation summary and Consultees responses, appear to be missing from documentation:

 

I have asked the LLTNPA to make these missing appendices public.  There seems little point to the current emphasis the Scottish Government puts on open and transparent pre-consultation if that is not reported.  I look forward to seeing the responses scotgold has made to the questions I and a friend made when we visited the consultation event at the village hall, which were all about how much more mine waste was going to be dumped on the hillside and the reasons for this.

 

What’s going on at Cononish shows is that there are major democratic deficits in our planning system.  This suits Developers and, it appears, the LLTNPA, because it avoids planning proposals from being subject to external scrutiny.   Its really important that  the public demand that the Scottish Government address these failures in the forthcoming planning bill.

 

The main reasons why the new planning application must be refused by the LLTNPA

Its not clear how much of the 8000 tonnes of waste was stored in these bags when this photo was taken in May – but in visualising the impact of the waste of the new planning proposal assume there is 7000 tonnnes in the bags and consider what 100 times this amount of waste would look like.  That gives an idea of how much waste is to be dumped – sorry sculpted – onto the slopes below the mine.

Scotgold already has planning permission for the gold mine, subject to certain conditions, and earlier this year Scotgold they were given an additional permission to start work on processing 8000 tonnes of former mine waste to extract gold. For the waste pictured above thas produced ten one ounce rounds which the press reported this week were auctioned for £46k, a mark up on nearly 400% over current market price.  I will come back to how any of this can be considered sustainable economic development or sustainable use of resources in a future post.

 

Here I will focus on the two key differences from the earlier planning application.  The first is that far more waste will be dumped outside of the mine.  The original approval included the following conditions::

REASON: To minimise the adverse landscape and visual impact and ensure that the site is restored to a satisfactory standard in this sensitive area of the National Park.”

 

The key bit is under point 5, the  amount of waste to be stored outside the mine was limited to 400,000 tonnes because of the sensitivity of the National Park.  Since the original application, the areas of the gold mine has been included in the Ben Lui Wild Land area so any protection of that sensitivity should be even stronger than before.

 

In my posts earlier this year, I drew attention to the fact that that amount of waste Scotgold wanted to dump outside the mine had increased to 530,000 tonnes of tailings.  It now that this was a vast undersestimate and that in addition to this scotgold wants to dump another 170,000 tonnes of unprocessed rock waste outside the mine.  That makes 700,000 tonnes of waste in all, a 75% increase in the amount of waste that is to dumped on the hillside outside the mine.   Nowhere in the application is this enormous increase clearly stated.  It appears no-one wants the public to know.  One consequence, if this is approved, is that the waste is now going to be disposed over a far wider area than would be needed if it was limited to 400,000 tonnes as previously.

 

It appears money has driven this change.  It would cost far more to replace waste back in the mine because the construction of tailings dams requires large up front capital investment.  So the new plan is not only to avoid replacing waste back into the mountain, its to create 10 tailings stacks of approximately 72,0000 tonnes each.  The second main difference to the earlier proposal.   This represents one full year’s worth of waste if new mining machinery is installed, 6 months if its not.  The stacks will be up to 10m high and moulded into shapes Scotgold claim will resemble moraine.

Extract planning application

One of the interesting things about this is the current proposal is claimed to be much better in landscape terms than the last one – an admission that the tailings dam as approved would in fact have had an adverse impact on the landscape in a sensitive area  (and therefore should have been refused by the LLTNPA!).  This time though we are told there will be no adverse impact, even though almost twice the amount of mine waste is to be spread over the hillside.  I am sceptical and so should the LLTNPA.

The reason for this is that in order to extract the gold, the quartz ore need to be crushed until it becomes sand and it is this sand which will make up the bulk of the stacks.  Now while you find sand in glacial moraine there is also lots of rock and finer particles – silt which goes to make clay – which helps bind the whole lot together.    However, if you place sand onto what is a pretty wet hillside – it was sopping when I visited in May – it would all wash away which is no doubt why originally a tailings dam was proposed.   Scotgold’s proposed solution to this – although storing sand is never acknoweldged as far as I can see to be a problem –  is to use the rock waste which was to be left in the mine to line the ground, put a geo-textile on top of this and then mould the sand on top of that.    Here are the design criteria:

Now it doesn’t take an expert to see that there are potentially two major problems with this.  The first is there is nowhere I can see that any consideration is given either to the life span of the membrane or what happens when it breaks down as it eventually must.  A reasonable assumption is that when this happens the stacks of compressed sand will start to be eroded away from beneath.   I suspect by then scotgold will have long gone leaving the public to pick up the tabs for preventing an environmental disaster.

 

The second is there is no proper consideration that I can see of whether it is possible to revegetate heaps of sand in the Scottish Hills in such a way that they will be able to withstand the erosive force of water from above or from the sides.  The re-vegetation plan is to store turfs, up to 30 cm thick and then use them to cover the stacks.  How well these will take on dried sand, which should drain quickly and is different in composition to current soils/peat is unclear.   Cononish, as the chart helpfully shows, has over three metres of rain a year.  Some of that may run off the top of vegetation but some of it will seep into the dried out sand heaps.   What will that do?   And even if the vegetation does take and provides a waterproof seal, what happens if deer get into the enclosure and start to erode tracks over the mounds?    It seems to me there is a high and predictable risk of wash outs of the tailing stacks. And that’s without considering the risks of the Alt Anie changing course by more than the 30m safety zone or of other burns running between the stacks which could be subject to flash floods.  That sort of scenario lead to catastrophic wash-outs.

 

I find it strange that neither SEPA nor SNH in their responses – and they have a duty to protect the River Tay Special Area of Conservation  have asked critical questions about the risks associated with the current proposals or for evidence that the proposed techniques work in very wet climates such as Tyndrum.   Perhaps they think its ok for 530,000 tonnes of sand potentially to wash into the river system over say the next 200 years?   Smaller heaps, with less material as originally agreed, would of course reduce the size of this risk.

Hummocky moraine in Strathfillan below the gold mine. The slopes of many of these moraines considerably exceeds 30% but they have held together for thousands of years because of the mix of materials within them, blocky till set within a matrix and sand and silt which often sets like concrete.

I am no expert on erosion risks and there is some technical documentation in the application which relates to this which needs to be explained in lay terms as well as properly scrutinised.  However, from a scan of the documents – there are 100s of pages of engineering documentation – there is some information in the application which suggests storage of sand is problematic.  This indicates there are high risks of sand sheering on slopes of more than 30 degrees.  This is why the proposed stack heaps do not  resemble natural moraine (for an example see above) but are to be moulded across the hillside.

 

 The Landscape impact of the tailings stacks

One of the landscape visualisations. You can hardly see the enormous green shed below the mine or the tailings. The white/grey patch below and right of the mine represents an unrestored tailings stack.

The Environmental Statement contains a number of visualisations of the landscape impact from different angles (see above).  These without exception make the tailings stacks disappear into the hillside.  Maybe they will, but there are reasons to be sceptical:

 

  • All the visualisations are from a distance and none show what a 10m high stack will look like from close up either before or after restoration.
  • The photos are all browns, a depiction of the area in winter.  However, because the stacks will be well drained their vegetation is likely to be very different to the surrounding peaty slopes and therefore stand out from it.   How this might look is unclear.

 

There are no depictions of how the sand heaps will look when they start to erode away as eventually they must.

 

The landscape impact of the buildings and spoil around the mine is not really covered but is already having a significant landscape impact.  The assumption seems to be blots on the landscape, as long as developers can claim they are temporary (in this case it will be for over 20 years not for all time, are perfectly acceptable in our National Parks.

 

The wider implications of this application

Cononish is not the only potential goldmine in the area and scotgold, when trying to talk up its prospects to attract investors, claims there is potential for several other mines in the area.  So what will the cumulative impact be of potentially millions of tonnes of mine waste sculpted onto hillsides around the Tyndrum and Glen Orchy hills?

 

What needs to happen

The LLTNPA needs to subject the new planning application to  critical scrutiny and in particular make a clear statement about the sustainability or not of the tailings stacks.

 

If the erosion risks can be addressed, in terms of the existing planning permission, it might be better for 400,000 tonnes of waste to be stored in a stacks rather than in a tailings dam.  However, the LLTNPA needs to draw a line under the amount of waste it will allow to be stored on the hillside and this should not exceed the existing limit.

 

November 2, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
The area of the proposed application (from LLTNPA planning portal). There is nothing in the document about WHAT Flamingo Land are actually proposing

On 27th October, after six months of silence, agents for Flamingo Land lodged a pre-planning application consultation strategy with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.  Anyone who follows Scottish Government planning policy knows that one of the big ideas and big pushes is towards “front loading” the planning system, with a shift to consultation and engagement taking place prior to planning applications being submitted.  The idea is this should improve proposals and help create consensus around developments.   What front-loading fails to acknowledge is that current planning system is unbalanced, with local communities having little power, and is driven by the self-interest of developers.  This, and the pathetic inadequacy of current pre-application consultations are clearly evidenced by the Flamingo Land proposals.

Its still them and us

The “They” is the public, you and me – the heading illustrates typical attitudes of developers towards the public, a hurdle to be got past, not a partner in developments.

The Pre-application consultation is supposed to include the following:

The only description you will find in the planning documentation about Flamingo Land’s proposals is this:

 

 

 

The LLTNPA will no doubt be patting itself on the back that Flamingo Land is holding three consultation events, rather than the minimum recommended, which is one!   How the public are expected to meaningfully inform the proposals by turning up to an event on the day, with little idea of what to expect, and then respond with no time for reflection, I don’t know.  Any meaningful consultation has to take place over time, to allow exchange and development of views, but instead of using the last six months to do this, the LLTNPA is allowing Flamingo Land to run three tokenistic events.   This is apparently what good consultation looks like – the document states “Best Practice for Consultation is also outlined”  – in the planning world.  This is a major development proposal in a National Park which has enormous implications both for the local community and the National Park and is quite frankly not good enough.

Its also a recipe for conflict:

Extract from Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places. One of the three authors was Petra Biberbach from the Planning Advisory Service who is also on the LLTNPA Board and chairs the Planning Committee

So, why is Petra Biberbach not using her position as Chair of the LLTNPA Planning Committee to empower the local community to get actively involved in planning the Riverside and Woodside sites as she recommended two years ago?

Community Empowerment and planning

While Scottish Government pronouncements and the discourse of our public authorities is full of buzz words about “community engagement”, “community empowerment” and “co-production”, the actions of our Public Authorities continually contradict what is being said.  The Park of Weir planning decision, where Planning Minister, Kevin Stewart, overruled the views of the local community at Dunblane in favour of the developers is just one example of this.

Its worth reading what the organisation Planning Democracy had to say about the Scottish Government’s planning white paper (which was developed in response to the review of Planning Petra Biberach was involved in):

The lack of meaningful involvement however fundamentally comes down to power.   What the map above illustrates is that Flamingo Land could be granted a stranglehold over the land to the West of the River Leven and therefore over the local economy.   Scottish Enterprise has agreed in principle to sell the Riverside Site, which is currently in public ownership, to Flamingo Land while their purchase of Woodbank House and also the boathouse on the point to the north west of Lomond shores means they surround that development.  There are serious issues to be addessed about whether this is in the public or local community interest.

 

There is, however, now that the Community Empowerment Act is law, an opportunity to challenge this.  One way for the local community to prevent Flamingo Land from acquiring too much power would be to request the Riverside site from Scottish Enterprise as an asset transfer.  This would not be with a view to stopping all development from going ahead but rather to ensure the community is able to influence the development, retain control in the long-term and ensure some community development.   For example, if the local community owned the land they could refuse development in certain places, such as Drumkinnon Wood, prevent inappropriate applications being made in future (e.g viewing towers which I suspect will be the sacrificial lamb Flamingo Land offers up to get their development proposals through) and ensure community benefit through rent payments.

 

Against what criteria should Flamingo Land’s development proposals be judged?

While the planning application still describes the development as Flamingo Land, the developers have set up a website in the name of Iconic Leisure Developments. This is more informative than the planning application and makes clear that fundamental to the application will be an attempt to “drive the number of visitors”:

This is worrying.   It is  exactly the same type of wording which HIE uses at Cairngorm – we all know what happened there – and is, in my view, inappropriate for a National Park.

 

There is nothing wrong with development at Balloch as long as it is sustainable and benefits both local people and the wider public.  While its a gateway to the National Park, gateways are not normally places people choose to linger.  People want to get inside and in the case of National Parks to experience nature.  It appears the only way Flamingo Land believe they will be able to attract visitors to remain longer term is if they offer a theme park type development.  They may be right about this but it  would be totally inappropriate for a National Park.   The fundamental problem is that this site is being viewed from a commercial, rather than a National Park, perspective and that is likely to drive a certain type of development.  Most of it is still public land and other solutions are possible.

 

Whatever is proposed should, I believe, be evaluated against the National Park’s four statutory objectives.   Here are a few pointers of how I think the proposals should be judged:

  • Sustainable economic development
    • will the long-term jobs on the site be reasonably paid (talk in Scotland is now of £10 an hour minimum wage) and provide good terms and conditions or will the development provide yet more precarious jobs on the minimum wage with precarious hours?
    • will local community businesses and other organisations be able to operate within the development area on fair terms and conditions?
  • Conservation
    •  how much of green parts of the Riverside and Woodbank House sites will be retained, will aerial shots of the site look as green in five years time and will Mackinnon Woods be kept free of development?
    • what will the landscape impact of the development be and will there be a viewing tower which could be seen from the summit of Loch Lomond
  • Sustainable use of resources
    • Will any polluted land on the site be cleared up?
    • Will the development when operational be powered entirely by renewable energy?
    • Will the development result in more traffic and does it incorporate improved public transport links?
  • Public enjoyment
    • Will traditional informal recreational uses of the site be able to continue (boating and angling on river leaving, walking in Mackinnon Woods)
    • Will people visiting site be able to access nature easily, e.g, through a new bridge over the River Leven?
    • Will the amount of good quality public space increase or decrease?

This is far from an exhaustive list and other people will have different ideas.  The LLTNPA and Flamingo Land should have been engaging with the local community and nationally about such objectives but they haven’t done so so far although they have been clearly having secret talks since January:

The way its going Flamingo Land should provide an ideal opportunity for both local community and national lobbying organisations to demonstrate to the Scottish Parliament the inadequacies of our current planning system within the forthcoming Planning Bill which is intended to create a different approach.

October 31, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Forest Drive is the grey road bottom right of map (its one way) while the Dukes Pass Rd lies a few hundred metres to the left of the map.   Map from LLTNPA planning portal.
Map showing location from planning portal

In September the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority submitted a planning application (see here) to itself as planning authority for a new campsite on the south shore of Loch Achray on Forest Drive in the Trossachs.    There is widespread agreement that new campsites with basic facilities are needed in the National Park.  So far the LLTNPA has been poor at delivering these.  It appears to have abandoned the excellent Five Lochs Plan (see here for example) which proposed a number of new campsites in the Trossachs and has also failed to deliver a new campsite this year on the south shore of Loch Earn.  This application therefore is welcome.   In this post I will look at what the LLTNPA has learned from its experience at Loch Chon and the camping byelaws to date.

The main camping area will provide for 9 out of the 17 proposed places

The area to the east of the burn is excellent for camping, being a well drained grassy sward.  It is owned by the Forestry Commission and has  previously been managed by Forest Enterprise as a Youth Campsite without facilities for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions and Scout groups.  Its far better for camping than most of the permit areas at Forest Drive (see here for example).  What is also good about the proposal is it allows people to camp by the Loch shore – a contrast to Loch Chon where the Park tried to force campers away from traditional camping places by the loch up onto the hillside.

Extract from plans

However, you can see from the campsite plan above that the LLTNPA is still wedded to the idea of fixed camping pitches and what is even worse they appear to wish to replace the grassy sward with bark.  That is not a traditional camping pitch, its suburbanisation.  The Park would be far better to abandon any idea of fixing camping pitches in this area and allowing people to camp where they choose.  This would also enable areas of bare ground to recover.  All the Park would need to do to manage this is to put up signs by worn areas asking people to choose a less worn area to pitch their tent (this is how it should be dealing with erosion throughout the Park – there is no need to ban people to protect vegetation).

Another positive is that this campsite is significantly smaller than Loch Chon.  At Loch Chon, Park Chief Executive Gordon Watson insisted (see here) that the minimum viable size for a campsite would be 26 – he reduced the numbers from 33 after pressure from the Local Community.  At the time Parkswatch said this was rubbish and Gordon Watson did not know what he was talking about.  That the Park is now proposing a 17 place campsite provides proof of this.  Its good someone has listened but don’t expect any apology to the Strathard Community.

Having visited the site, I do think the recreational community should have concerns about some of the areas where it is proposed to locate the other 8 pitches.

How many people would choose this as a place to camp?

Three of the places (far left of map above) are in woodland up on the hill well away from the loch.  To provide camping places here will require the creation of paths and pitches like at Loch Chon.  I suspect the main reason for these pitches is to enable the Park can claim to have provided a certain number of new camping places – its target, which it has failed to meet, was to provide 300 new camping places in the first year of the camping byelaws.

 

The LLTNPA appears to be repeating he mistakes it made at Loch Chon, which was its failure either to consult campers about where they are likely to camp or to check whether the pitches, as depicted on the map, were campable or not.   At Loch Chon many were too sloping or covered in tree roots to provide good camping places.  They also failed to provide sufficient space, with many only providing for a tent and no suitable space for sitting or cooking round about.   Unfortunately there is still no sign of the Park consulting campers about what type of camping places are needed but the LLTNPA at least needs to undertake thorough checks before agreeing to the three places here, including that there is sufficient space.  I would argue that its money would be better spent on creating camping pitches elsewhere, e.g. at Inveruglas, where the camping permit area is rough  and not good for camping at present, similar to these three places, but is much closer to the lochshore and the toilet (if it was opened).  If the LLTNPA  are going to engineer new camping places, they should consult campers about where best to do this.

Area on left (west) side of burn

On the low-lying area on the west side of the burn (upper centre part of site plan) the LLTNPA is proposing to provide a further 3 places.  This is much closer to the loch than the proposed pitches on the hillside but the edge of the lochshore here is boggy, the ground itself boggy in places and has become overgrown.  This perhaps explains why there is little sign of people camping here at present.  It could though potentially provide good camping places with some engineering.  While not designated as ancient woodland some of the fungi on the trees are fantastic.  I would like to see mimimal path creation,  with importing of hardstanding materials limited to the boggy areas., to keep it as natural as possible.

Looking up hill from camping area on east side of burn towards where disabled camping pitches will be located

The site includes proposals for two camping pitches suitable for people with wheelchairs (bottom of site plan).   Its very positive the Park is including facilities for people with disabilities, who are too often excluded from enjoying the countryside, but its unfortunate because of the very steep approach to the loch shore disabilities that people with disabilities will in effect be segregated from other campers (bottom two places in diagram).   I hope the places get used.  What the LLTNPA should be doing is consulting organisations representing people with disabilities to ensure it has got this right (there are no disability or recreational organisations on the list of those consulted).

 

The proposed facilities at the campsite

Evidence of site investigations at Loch Achray – September 2017

The LLTNPA appears to have learned from its Loch Chon experience and conducted more thorough site investigations for utilities prior to the planning application being submitted.   This is to be welcomed.  Six months after the LLTNPA had got a certificate signed at Loch Chon stating the work on the campsite was complete, there was still no water.  As a consequence bottled water had to be provided to campers for most of the year and the stench from the toilets was at times terrible – another own goal for Gordon Watson, the Park’s Chief Executive, who had claimed to Strathard Community Council that composting toilets don’t work properly.

 

However, having checked with the LLTNPA, I can confirm that at present there are NO plans for a chemical disposal point to be included with the toilet block.  This is despite the LLTNPA trying to encourage more campervans to Forest Drive.  The consequences are predictable.  At some stage someone in a campervan will empty the contents of their toilet out on Forest Drive (as has happened elsewhere in Scotland where there are no facilities).  If the Park and Forest Enterprise are going to promote Forest Drive as somewhere to stay, they have a responsibility to ensure the right infrastructure is in place and the Park Planning Committee should insist on a chemical disposal point here.

 

Another aspect of the application which needs to be changed is there is no provision for any campervans in the parking area.  While there are permit places for campervans on Forest Drive, none offer toilets and smaller campervans don’t have their own internal toilets – so why not allow them to stay here?  In addition, groups of people wanting to enjoy time away together often include both campervanners and campers.  The Park still appears to have an unwritten policy of trying to segregate the two – it was still impossible by the end of September to book to stay at Loch Chon if you were a campervanner despite there being lots of parking space there.   Its time the Park abandoned this approach which appears to have developed out of a desire to divide campers from campervanners in order to rule.

 

Finally, given all the publicity about the toxic effects of diesel, its very disappointing the National Park are proposing a diesel generator to pollute the atmosphere along with what may or may not be an aerobic digestion system.  If this behaves like the one at Loch Chon it will fill the surrounding air with a malevolent stench. There is no detail on the cycle time of the generator running times, fuel consumption or fuel storage and any bunded facility to prevent environmental pollution in the event of a spill incident. There is no detail on the effects of air pollution in the way of diesel fumes presents to the local environment the environment. The diesel generator is not eco friendly, and it is a missed opportunity for the National Park who claim to champion the environment to provide a solar/ wind powered combination. There was however a diesel generator at Loch Chon, even after the connection to the National Grid had been made and it appears that the LLTNPA may be trying to re-use equipment it has already bought.

Restrictions on vehicle access at Forest Drive

At present the gates to Forest Drive are locked at 4pm over the summer months which prevents people turning up on spec.  In addition Forest Drive is one way at present  and its about a 6k drive round Forest Drive to get to the site of the proposed Loch Achray campsite.   If the campsite is to be a success, both of these restrictions need to be changed.   I look forward to seeing proposals about two way access between the main road and the campsite – which would reduce carbon emissions and disturbance to other people staying along Forest Drive – and how current access restrictions could be lifted in the Planning Report when the application goes to Committee for decision.

 

Comments on the planning application

While welcoming the proposal for a campsite on Loch Achray, the planning application shows the Park has still not learned all the lessons it should have about campsite development and I have therefore objected to a number of aspects to the proposal.  This helps ensure these will be properly considered by the LLTNPA.  I would encourage others to do so.  You can make a comment online (here) – click on the comments tab.

October 26, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Looking southwest down Gleann Casaig. The track on the left preceded the hydro scheme, while that on the right marks the pipeline and, as part of the restoration work, was granted planning consent as a new footpath. Photo credit Jim Robertson (all other photos unless otherwise credited Jim Robertson).

Gleann Casaig runs from the east shore of the Glen Finglas Reservoir, north of Brig O’Turk, up to the ridge between Ben Ledi and Ben Vane in the Trossachs.  The glen forms part of the Woodland Trust’s Glen Finglas estate and part of the Great Trossachs Forest project which in 2015 was designated as Scotland’s newest and largest National Nature Reserve.  It lies wholly within the Ben More and Ben Ledi Wild Land Area, where national policy indicates there should be a presumption against development.   In December 2014,  a few months after National Policy on Wild Land Areas had been issued, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority issued consent for the Allt Gleann Casaig hydro scheme.

 

The development has been completed much quicker than most (November 2016) and in July 2017 Jim Robertson, from the Munro Society, went out to have a look.  Jim is helping co-ordinate the national survey of hydro schemes by Munro Society volunteers (see here – which explains the scheme and how you can get involved) and he used his visit to help trial the hydro scheme reporting form I helped the Munro Society develop.  I have been meaning to blog about what he found ever since but meantime Jim has made another visit to check a couple of things.  We have had a very good dialogue about this and while this post is based on what Jim has found, the opinions in it are solely my own.

 

Jim’s report (see here) – which is well worth reading – and photos show that most aspects of the design and restoration of this scheme have been done well.

The vegetation over the lower section of pipeline is recovering well and the line will soon only be detectable by the marker posts
The powerhouse has been clad in natural materials and the surrounds are less suburban than many schemes
The main intake is well hidden
as is largest of secondary intakes
although in my view the landscaping around the main intake is better

While some of the finishing of the development could be better (e.g the walls of the dam could have been disguised more and if you look carefully you will see yet another blue pipe, contrary to LLTNPA best practice design), I agree with Jim that generally the work on this scheme has been carried out to a high standard.   Indeed, Jim was unable to identify to spot the other intakes which were included on the approved plan.

 

Approved location plan – LLTNPA
Braemar community hydro – photo Nick Kempe

While it is possible the plan was amended post-consent – the LLTNPA is still refusing to publish documentation required by planning consents as a matter of course making it almost impossible for the public to understand what standards have been applied to each development and to report breaches of these – the plans showed intakes C-F were tiny (less than 1.5m broad) and therefore like the example left hard to see from any distance.  In landscape terms if a concerned hillwalker cannot see these micro intakes or the lines of the pipes, that is a job well done.

 

The main concern about this development, as with most of the hydro schemes in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is the track which, as the top photo shows has a significant landscape impact.

 

The track which is supposed to be a footpath

Unfinished culvert

In track construction terms, the new track up Gleann Casaig is in my better than most and Jim commented its one of the best he has seen.   The banks on the uphill side are not too steep and while sufficient vegetation was not retained to cover them, they should revegetate in time.  Jim identified some poor finishing but this should not be that difficult to address and could be done without large machinery (which has all been moved off-site).

The problem though is that in planning terms (see here for all papers) this track is supposed to be a footpath and that the LLTNPA gave consent for a new footpath into a wild land area without any proper consideration of the impact on landscape or wild land .  This “path” was not needed to provided access to the intakes because there was already a track up the Glen and the application included an extension of the existing track up to the main intake which was consented to by the LLTNPA:

 

Landscape and Visual Impact

A Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) was submitted in the ES.  The consultation response from NP Landscape Adviser notes that existing access tracks will be used and extended to reach the intakes and the penstock route will be fully reinstated leaving a 2m wide new footpath to provide a circular route for recreational users.  The Landscape Adviser agrees with the findings of the LVIA, that during construction there will be significant visual effect on Glen Casaig footpath and also during the operational period at The Mell near the powerhouse.  The proposed mitigation would however reduce this over time.  In terms of landscape effects the wooded upland glen is highly sensitive but no significant effects will result on this or the other LCT’s.  (Extract from Report which approved the application)

 

The LLTNPA not only decided there would be no impact on the landscape – the top photo shows that this is NOT true – it also decided there would be no impact on wild land:

 

Impact on Wildland

The proposed development is located within the SNH Ben More ‐ Ben Ledi (Area 7) area of wild land and within the LLTNPA wildness buffer area, adjacent to an area of core wildness.  An assessment in the ES states that the proposed development would not result in a reduction of the overall wild land quality.  The introduction of new infrastructure – specifically the new footpath alongside the pipeline route, the new access track spur to the main intake and the intake structures themselves – must be considered alongside the presence of the existing access track through the glen.  Appendix 5E of the ES sets out a number of mitigation measures during construction, as well as restoration and enhancement measures post construction.  Provided these are implemented the development should integrate with the landscape and not detract from the special qualities of the wild land character.

 

The logic here appears to be that because there is already one track into a wild land area, that means there is no problem adding a second track.  On this argument we would end up – and indeed are ending up – with tracks everywhere.   The LLTNPA appears to be completely unaware of the Unna Principles governing the land Percy Unna bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland which said there should be NO new footpaths into the hills and the subsequent heart searching which led to the current position where footpath work in hill areas on NTS is seen seen as being only justifiable in response to severe erosion.   One might have hoped that our National Parks would support that position – indeed that has generally been the position in the Cairngorms – but instead the LLTNPA is consenting to new paths and tracks into Wild Land areas without any proper consultation or debate.

 

This failure to protect Wild Land was not helped by SNH’s response to the consultation which failed to make any mention of the Wild Land Area (see here) but left it to the LLTNPA to consider all the issues (despite the fact that it was SNH which drew up the excellent reports describing the special qualities of the wild land area).

 

While the LLTNPA consults the RSPB as a matter of course – in this case the RSPB drew the Park’s attention to Black Grouse leks which could have been affected by the development – they do not consult recreational organisations. Unless recreational organisations are alerted about developments which impact on Wild Land its impossible for them to keep up with what is going on and there were NO objections to this development.  In my view our National Parks should consult all the main recreational and landscape interests about all developments affecting Wild Land (e.g Ramblers, Mountaineering Scotland, Scottish Campaign for National Parks – I am a member of all three) so they can comment on developments such as this.

 

The first thing the LLTNPA might have questioned was whether there was any demand for a circular route round the Glen.

The LLTNPA could also have asked how the new circular route would fit into the network of tracks promoted by the Woodland Trust at Glen Finglas.  The current leaflet on walks in Glen Finglas shows no routes round Glen Casaig (centre of map above).   One wonders if the Developer ever talked to the Woodland Trust about this?

 

The other thing the LLTNPA could have questioned is why a path 2 metres wide was needed.  Most paths into the hills, unless severely eroded, are far narrower than this so how does a 2m wide footpath fit with generally accepted standards for footpath construction?

Track October 2017 – is this really a path?

In the Report that approved the application the  National Park access adviser is quoted as saying this:

 

“The development will bring benefits to public access through a new loop option and hopefully improved path surfacing. Final specifications for this new path need to be agreed.”

 

Whatever vision National Park staff had, its not been realised.  The truth is this track was never intended as a footpath.  Being 2m wide – in fact Jim has confirmed with me that the track is more than 2m wide in many places so does not even conform to the planning consent – it can still be used by vehicles and is, making the track totally unsuitable in walking for places.

 

There appear to be several possible explanations for why  this “path” was proposed.  The first is because it allows more direct access to the intakes than the older track up the Glen, which winds round the hill, and therefore takes more time.  The second is that it could potentially assist with other aspects of estate management (e.g future tree planting planned as part of the Great Trossachs Forest) – if that is the case that should have been made clear.  The third was it enabled the developer to save on restoration costs:  so instead of fully restoring the ground above the pipeline, by including in the application a proposal for a 2m wide footpath the developer was able to reduce the amount of turf and soil it stored and reduced the amount of land it needed to restore.  It seems to me that none of these reasons justify the retention of this track.

 

What needs to happen

While legally  its too late now for the LLTNPA to require this track to be removed, it should take enforcement action to ensure that the restoration of the land around the track is the best possible standard and the track stops looking like a track and starts looking like a footpath.  That means banning vehicles from using it.  I am sure because the land is owned by the Woodland Trust, which should be more sensitive than most landowners to adverse publicity, that this should be possible (if any reader is a member of the WT please contact them and ask them to stop vehicle use of this track).

 

What Gleann Casaig and theGlen Feshie track prior notification covered in my last post show (see here) is that our National Parks are failing to consider properly developments which intrude into Wild Land areas.  Our National Parks should be at the forefront of protecting wild land and developing best practice into how developments which impact on wild land should be treated.   Instead, their actions are undermining the whole concept of Wild Land Areas.    I believe there is an urgent need for both our National Parks to develop explicit policies to inform how they respond to developments in Wild Land area and that a key part of this should include consultation with recreation and landscape interests.   The sad fact is that the LLTNPA in particular only stands up to developers if somebody objects to an application and therefore the best way to improve how they protect Wild Land is to ensure the public are aware of all such developments through recreation and landscape organisations.

 

I would also like to see that where our National Parks do consent to new paths or tracks, they include conditions about how they are used.  These should include presumptions against motorised vehicles using new paths and also conditions forbidding vehicles from going off track.  This would prevent the “track-creep” we see in both our National Parks where new tracks, instead of stopping vehicle erosion, simply open up new areas to vehicular use and all the damage that creates.

October 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

Just when it appeared that the Cairngorms National Park Authority was starting to get a grip on the proliferation of hill tracks which has blighted the Cairngorms landscape, they have blown it.  Faced with a proposal by WildLand Ltd, the company controlled by Anders Povlsen, the Danish billionaire to create almost 15 miles of new hill tracks between Glens Feshie and Tromie, they have decided these can go ahead without any planning approvals.   This is an astonishing decision which undermines the planning system as well and the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year.  (You can view all the documentation that has been made public on the Highland Council Planning portal here)

Photo/photomontage from the landscape assessment

The purpose of this post is not to consider the details of the proposed tracks, which form part of a wider plan to reforest a large area between the Feshie and Tromie with native woodland and which I will consider in a further post (there are I think many positive aspects to the proposals), but to look at this decision from a policy and planning perspective.   What is important here is not just the size of the proposed developments – 15 miles of track in a National Park – but that 7.3km of the track are within the Cairngorms National Scenic Area and 9 km in the Cairngorms Wild Land Area.

 

The policy position of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and this decision

Many conservation and recreation organisations welcomed the statement in the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year that there would be a presumption against new constructed tracks in open moorland areas.

 

This commitment was developed further in the Main Issues Report, which set out the main areas for public consultation in the forthcoming Local Development Plan, which was considered by the CNPA Board on 6th October:

 

Preferred Option

The existing Local Development Plan includes a specific policy on landscape. It outlines a presumption against any development that does not conserve the landscape character and special qualities of the National Park. This has been used effectively to control and mitigate the impacts of new hill tracks in cases where they require planning permission. We think the existing policy will continue to provide an appropriate means for controlling these forms of development in the future. However, we also think that we could give more clarity on the issue of hill tracks by amending the policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s specific presumption against new tracks in areas of open moorland.

 

“Do you agree that the new Local Development Plan should include an amended policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s presumption against new hill tracks in open moorland areas?”

 

It is somewhat ironic that just the day before (see here), on 5th October, CNPA staff had emailed Highland Council that despite the potentially significant landscape impact, they were content for the proposed tracks to be dealt with by Highland Council under the Prior Notification System.

The track proposals, the green area on the right marks the National Scenic Area while the tracks in the bottom half of the map are in the Cairngorms Wild Land area. Some of the proposed tracks including U-V, A-B and B to the green which marks the edge of the forestry plantation, run across open moorland. W-X is an upgraded ATV track which runs along the ridge of the Corbett Carn Dearg Mor.

What is even more extraordinary about the CNPA decision is that back in the Spring, in their response to the Government planning consultation on People, Places and Planning they had argued (rightly in my opinion) that the whole Prior Notification system for hill tracks was flawed and that tracks should require full planning permission:

 

We also consider that the review should consider whether some development that can
be undertaken through prior notification or approval as agricultural and private roads
and ways should simply require planning permission. Many tracks on open moorland
and hills have some link to an agricultural purpose, even where the primary use is for
sporting activities. These tracks can be contentious, but the public may never know of
their approval nor have an opportunity to make representation on them. We suggest
that new tracks on open ground that are not in enclosed farmland should simply require
planning permission, irrespective of the purpose of the track.

 

The Feshie track proposal was, one might have thought, an ideal opportunity for the CNPA to consider properly the implications of a large development of hill tracks under the planning system and allow the public to comment.  Instead, the CNPA have totally contravened their own policy position.

The brown shading marks the Cairngorms Wild Land areas where there is supposed to be a presumption against new developments. Most of the proposed tracks in the application which fall into this area are in what is currently open moorland.

The situation is much worse than that however.   By allowing the proposal to be decided under the Prior Notification system – which was introduced for agricultural and forestry tracks which are treated as permitted developments under our planning system – even if significant parts of the development were justifiable, the CNPA has lost any ability to control what happens under what the planning development and left the entire development to trust.

 

Where a track is agreed through the planning system, a planning authority will always attach conditions, for example about how it should be constructed.   Wildland Ltd has produced far more documentation than would normally be submitted for Prior Notifications, for which it is to be commended, and many of these look good.  However, not only is the public being given no chance to comment – representations from the North East Mountain Trust who were consulted privately that the visual impact of the tracks would be reduced by a vegetated central strip have been ignored –  the CNPA and Highland Council now have no means of ensuring what has been proposed happens in practice.  Without planning conditions, there can be no enforcement.  This development is being left to trust.

 

What is going on?

I do not think responsibility for this mess lies with the Feshie Estate/WildLand Ltd but with our public authorities.  These include Forestry Commission Scotland, SNH, Highland Council as well as the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  Its clear from references in the planning documentation that Wildland Ltd consulted with our public authorities as early as last December.  Its also appears that initially the CNPA did the right thing and asked for a full landscape assessment, as is evidenced by his extract from a communication quoted in the landscape assessment produced by Wildland Ltd:

What then happened is also revealed by the WildLand Ltd documentation:

So, just as the CNPA were telling the Scottish Government that the Prior Notification system was not fit for the purpose and before they had received any detailed information about whether the tracks could be said to be forestry or not, they had agreed that the proposals should be dealt with under the Prior Notification system.    This effectively pre-judged the decision and ruled out any public engagement and consultation.  I had been feeling a bit guilty that it has taken me three weeks, since I first heard about the proposals, to consider them on parkswatch but its clear the decision was effectively made well before then.

 

There is nothing to indicate that WildLand Ltd would have objected if they had been asked to submit a full planning application which could have been considered by the public.  While there are legal complexities about when a forestry track is a forestry track, the Wildland Ltd documentation makes it clear that these tracks are also to assist with deer management and have been designed to improve recreational access by walkers and cyclists.   In other words they are not pretending, as many estates do, that these tracks are solely for forestry purposes and therefore don’t require planning permission.   And while there might have been complexities in considering in one application tracks that did not require planning permission with those that should have required it, it is clear from the fact that WildLand Ltd submitted this as one proposal – rather than the normal track creep which is so evident in places like Drumochter – that they are trying to be open and transparent.  Its our public authorities which are the issue.

 

I can think of several possible explanations for the CNPA’s stance, none of which in my view are appropriate for a National Park:

  • A full planning application – which would have required Board visits etc – was too much work.
  • The CNPA trust WildLand Ltd, in a way that they don’t trust other estates – hence they don’t see the need for planning conditions.
  • That because Glen Feshie has been successfully reducing deer numbers and enabling native woodland to regenerate, its crucial to the National Park achieving its landscape scale restoration targets, and the CNPA therefore did not want to risk this being disrupted in any way through a planning application.

To me though none of these quite ring true.   I had started out by thinking perhaps the CNPA was under huge pressure from Glen Feshie estate but looking at the planning I don’t think that is the case.  Feshie appear to have been co-operative.  I am left with the suspicion that there is some hidden factor behind this terrible decision.   Perhaps the CNPA will disprove this and publicly explain their position and why they appear to have ignored their own and national policy?

 

Its time the CNPA started to put its money where its mouth is, trust public consultation processes and use them properly.   Had they done so, I am sure the end result could have been a new track network which achieved conservation purposes but with less impact on the landscape and wild land then the current proposals.  Examples of this will be considered in a future post.

October 20, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The upper part of track in the photo appears (from the site plans) to be new, the lower part of the track to have been widened

Following my post about how the planning documentation for the Ledard farm campsite has been altered  (see here), I have been trying to obtain final confirmation from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority of the status of the new track being used to construct the Hydro Scheme (see here).  On 28th September a member of staff  told me:

 

“I can confirm that the temporary track which has been constructed does not have planning permission.  The route of the track follows the route of the approved penstock and has been subject to monitoring as part of the approved hydro scheme ref 2013/0267/DET.  The agent was advised that planning permission was required for the track and this has led to the submission of the planning application which is currently being considered.”

 

However the day before, when I visited the site with a friend, it was claimed (see below) that planning permission for a temporary track had been consented by means of a Non-Material Variation to the original application.  I therefore asked the LLTNPA three weeks ago for a final clarification but have not had a response.   I therefore need to qualify what I say here but it appears that Fergus Wood, who until every recently was an LLTNPA Board Member and Member of the Planning Committee, has allowed a track to be constructed without planning permission on his land.    This post will develop the argument that unless the LLTNPA refuses the retrospective planning application that has been submitted for this track (see here), the credibility of the entire planning system in the National Park will be in shreds, and that to enforce the planning conditions will benefit the local economy.

Powerhouse is wooden building right of centre

The first section of track above Ledard Farm was already in existence but has been broadened and the creation of a pipeline through the trees has made the section of new track above more visible (see top photo).

The existing track appears to have ended just above the trees and section in the bottom 2/3 of the photo is new.  The buried pipeline is to the right (the pipeline is not the issue).
The track without planning permission is marked in red as a “working corridor”.

A document uploaded to the planning portal in October after our visit described this as a “working corridor” (see left).   The photo above shows that this is not true.  A track has been constructed.  At the time of our visit there had been recent work both to landscape it (the mound of earth on the left) and to created a drainage ditch.

This section of track is not only highly visible it is also quite steep and appears to exceed the maximum angle recommended by SNH in the Good Practice Guidance on Hill Tracks – 14 degrees.   Another reason, no doubt, why staff would have originally advised that there should be no access track constructed on the east side of the Ledard burn.

 

 

Above the steep section the track turns west and takes a more or less horizontal line across the open hillside.  It was the visibility of this section of track from afar which informed the advice staff gave to Fergus Wood, prior to the original application, that the access track should be on the far side of the Ledard burn (through the trees beyond the digger).  The reasoning behind this advice was repeated in the report to the LLTNPA Planning Committee which approved the original application.  Fergus Wood, who is still the landowner,  has nevertheless allowed the developers to construct a new access track on this section of ground.   If Board Members can ignore planning conditions and requirements, I am afraid the message is so can everyone else.  This is why the LLTNPA should have taken enforcement action as soon as they heard about this and should now refuse the new planning application.

Its not just that a track has been created, a large section of hillside above has been altered – another concern in the original committee report – and various soil types mixed.  The LLTNPA had agreed to some work here – necessary to construct the pipeline – but a much wider section of land than that set out in the original working corridor appears to have been affected.    The LLTNPA should be requiring a full report on the works that have been carried out, including their ecological impact.   The planning application to retain the track says this section of hillside will be planted with trees.

Another photo showing works appear to have been carried out outwith the working corridor approved by the National Park Authority.   We wondered if turf had been “robbed” from here in order to restore the land above the pipeline?  (The work on the ground in this photo is unlikely to have any significant landscape or ecological impact but the point is its being carried out on a Board Member’s land apparently outwith planning consents).

The intake to the hydro scheme is well hidden and will have almost no impact in landscape terms – the creation of a hydro scheme on Ledard Farm is not the issue.  The question for the LLTNPA though is how much of the excavation of the hillside on the right was agreed as part of the pipeline work and how much due to the creation of the construction track (e.g as a “borrow pit” from which to obtain materials to created the track)?

Incidentally, its worth noting how the muddy water in the burn below the intake, a contrast to the water above (see left) which was totally clear.   This is why detailed plans about how sediment will be prevented from entering river systems are required as part of planning consents.  I don’t have the expertise to know whether the amount of sediment entering the river in this case is within agreed limits or not but SEPA have been notified.

 

Could the track have been granted planning permission?

On returning down the Ben Venue track we were met by Fergus Wood and a group of people working on the site (who appear to included staff from Vento Ludens, Baby Hydro and the contractors MAM).  It quickly became apparent that most of the workforce, who were friendly, did not really know what was going on and the main discussion was between my friend, myself, Fergus Wood and another person who did not introduce himself but appeared to represent Vento Ludens. He confirmed that Vento Ludens had bought the scheme from Fergus Wood, something I had not been certain of up till then and had obviously read the articles on parkswatch because he claimed a permanent access track was needed to allow future maintenance to the site.

 

The only reason I can repeat what was said next is that I had taken the precaution of switching my voice recorder on before starting our walk round the site and can produce this in Court if the man who appeared to speak for Vento Ludens wanted to challenge the veracity of what I have to say next (we were potentially two witnesses against six).   This person claimed to me that a temporary construction track (as in the photos above) had been agreed by the LLTNPA by means of a Non-Material Variation (NMV) to the original planning application.  I replied that I had looked carefully at the planning portal and as far as I could recall the NMVs that appeared there did not include a temporary construction track.  However, accepting I could have missed something or the Park might have failed to publish the consent, I requested that he could send me the NMV consent and I would be happy to publish with a correction on parkswatch.  When he repeated the claim, another guy, who wanted to be helpful, asked for my email – I said it was on parkswatch – so he could send the NMV to me.  He obviously believed an NMV had been submitted and granted consent.    I have never received it and, having checked the planning portal again there is no such consent there.  This is why I have also asked the LLTNPA to confirm that when they say the access track never had planning permission, that includes any temporary construction track agreed by means of a NMV.

 

Once I have final confirmation of the planning position, I will comment further about the implications of this case for the Board Members Code of Conduct.  Meantime, I think there are some lessons here for the planning system.

Implications for the planning system

What struck me from the discussion on Ledard Farm is the workforce appear to have very little awareness of what has and what has not been agreed through the planning system.  The guy who said he would send me the NMV obviously believed such a variation had been agreed but it appears he had never seen the document.  It appears he trusted that someone had made the application.  This made me realise that people working for contractors on the ground on this or other hydro schemes often may have little idea about whether the necessary planning consents are in place, let alone what they require.   This is not their fault, they just do as they are told but this may help to explain why planning conditions are often not met, whether at Ledard, other hydro schemes, the Beauly Denny restoration etc.

 

What then happens is driven by money.  If developers and owners of hydro schemes also know the National Park is reluctant to take enforcement action, the temptation to take shortcuts to increase profit levels increases.        The man who claimed an NMV had been obtained for a temporary construction track at Ledard, also claimed that that “due diligence” had been carried out before the purchase of the hydro scheme.   Now, one might have thought, if an access track is essential for maintenance purposes as he claimed, due diligence would have included checks on whether consents were in place for access to the site both for construction and maintainance purposes.  Perhaps checks were undertaken, but if so someone appears to have concluded that the absence of consents for an access track would not impact on the value of the hydro scheme.  What does this tell you about the respect given to the planning system in the National Park?

 

The basic problem is that while many of the conditions the LLTNPA has applied to planning consents for hydro schemes are excellent, they are not enforced.  As a consequence they become meaningless as soon as a developer puts money before the natural environment or their own interests before the planning system.  While part of the solution to this is enforcement – which is why it is so essential the LLTNPA is seen to act robustly in this case involving (now former) Board Member Fergus Wood – the other part of the solution is to have an informed workforce.   Where developments are carried out according to planning requirements and shortcuts are not taken, that should create MORE work.  More work would give more pay to the people working on these schemes and put more money back into the local economy.   Its in the interests of the workforce therefore to understand exactly what planning conditions are in place and to empower them to speak out when these are broken.   The LLTNPA could be encouraging this.  It could ask all developers to confirm that every member of the workforce has seen the relevant plans that have been approved and could set up a confidential reporting line for use where they have been broken.   That would also help other people report potential breaches of planning permission (its hard to clype on your neighbours).

 

What’s good for the environment is good for local jobs

Vento Ludens (“Playing with the Wind”) – the company appear to have started out in windfarms before branching out into hydro – is a Company with their address registered in Scotland at South Charlotte St in Edinburgh.  It is ultimately owned by a company registered in Germany which is controlled by H.Walz (who is also Director of Vento Ludens).  Its latest accounts vento ludens accounts, for the year ending December 2016, show shareholders funds of £3,938,194.

 

This is important because developers in general are always complaining about the unnecessary costs imposed by the planning system.  Renewable energy developments, however, are are highly profitable, hence the investment from Germany in this case but also why many of our hydro schemes are now ultimately owned by the City of London or other tax havens.   Vento Ludens’ accounts show they have plenty of money that could be used to pay now for the re-instatement of the access track, which would provide more employment to the people working on the scheme.  They are also likely, once the scheme becomes operational, to make enough money to pay for the Ledard hydro intake to be maintained without an access track.  That would also help local employment (the time taken to walk up to the hydro instead of driving there to clear the screens of debris).  If  larger scale replacements – once every ten years? – could not be brought in by vehicle off-road, helicopters could be sued.   The LLTNPA therefore have no reason to fear that by enforcing planning conditions that would somehow harm the local economy.

 

The lesson from this I would suggest is that the best way the Park could help the local economy, is by ensuring the highest standards possible are applied to hydro schemes.  This would help reduce the amount of money taken out of the local area, Scotland and indeed the UK.

 

Even better would be if it could promote more community owned Hydro Schemes.  One wonders if Fergus Wood ever thought about trying to sell the Ledard hydro scheme to the local community in Strathard rather than to a company controlled from abroad and what sort of system might have helped him do this.

 

The Ledard Hydro track planning application is still open for comment and you can do so here

Addendum

At 13.20 today, 3 hours after this post appeared, I received an email from the LLTNPA which stated “that the change to a new track has not been considered as a Non-Material Variation”.  In other words a track that has been constructed on land owned by Fergus Wood when he was a Board Member and a member of the Park Planning Committee is unlawful.  This is a scandal which needs full public investigation.    I have removed the ? after “unlawful” in the original title of this piece and many of the other qualifications to what I wrote no longer apply.

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

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

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

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

 

The restoration of the shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who paid for the pump house?

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

The landscaping of the area around the Shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The area above the Shieling rope tow

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

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

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

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

The finishing of the culverts is very poor.

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

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen in Coire Cas?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

September 22, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist

Retiring Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board Member and former SNP councillor Fergus Wood was featured in the Stirling Observer last week due to his  alleged failure to abide by planning conditions set by the National Park Authority for the hydro scheme at Ledard Farm which he is reported as describing in the article as “my project”.   Fergus Wood is a paid Director and part owner of Ledard Farm Ltd which appears to own Ledard Farm.    Fergus Wood has been a member of the Park’s planning committee since at least 2013 and possibly since c2007 when he joined the Board.  (Councillors have traditionally sat on the Park planning committee but the LLTNPA’s removal of all Board records pre-2014 from its website has made it very difficult for the public to ascertain basic information like who was on what committee when).

 

The LLTNPA, as planning authority,  required Fergus Wood as applicant at the time,  to submit a Traffic Management Plan for approval as a condition of the planning permission .  This unfortunately has not been published on the Park’s planning portal, which makes it difficult for the public to submit specific complaints about breaches of planning permission, but will almost certainly have included requirements that the public layby should be kept clear.   Fergus Wood was also required to submit details of:

 

Its almost inconceivable that the Park would have allowed this on a public road.

 

Its also almost inconceivable that Fergus Wood, as a former councillor and member of the planning committee, would not understand the reasons for these conditions and as a local resident (the layby is opposite where the side road leaves the B829 for Ledard Farm) did not observe what was happening.   The first scandal therefore is that a member of the Park’s Planning Committee apparently knew the contractors/developers of the hydro scheme on his land were in breach of planning conditions and yet did nothing to stop this.

 

A second scandal is that Fergus Wood still hasn’t stopped the breach of planning conditions  despite the publicity and despite the claim (article above) by his former colleague  on Stirling Council, SNP councillor Jim Thomson, that the problem had been sorted (see the letter below, which appeared in the Stirling Observer today).

While Fergus Wood is about to retire from the Park Board, having lost his Council seat after ignoring the views of the local community over his proposed campsite (see here)and (here)  (the planning application was subsequently withdrawn), the LLTNPA cannot ignore this blatant breach of its own rules involving a Board Member.  To do so will bring them into further disrepute.   Board Members should be setting an example for any planning application which involves them because otherwise they undermine the very system of which they are supposed to be custodians.

 

An even bigger scandal however appears to be brewing at Ledard Farm.

 

The new planning application to “retain” a track used to construct the Ledard hydro scheme

 

In  August, Baby Hydro Ltd, acting as agents for Vento Ludens Ltd submitted what appears to be a retrospective planning application (see here) to retain a construction track along the line of the approved pipeline to the hydro intake (see here for all papers 2017/0270/DET).  None of the earlier planning applications related to the hydro scheme published on the Park’s planning portal appear to have included authorisation for a temporary construction track here.   While I have asked the LLTNPA to clarify this, a note of a telephone conversation by the applicant on the application form states “It was agreed therefore that a retrospective planning application was required”.  If  a retrospective planning application on a Board Member’s land is not bad enough, what’s worse is the LLTNPA Planning Committee had explicitly rejected an earlier proposal for a permanent track along this very route because of the visual impact it would have had.   The full story is quite complicated but is important to understand what is going on.

 

The original proposal for the hydro scheme was for an access track to approach the intake from the east along the line of the pipeline.  This was rejected by Park officers – and all credit to the landscape adviser for their strong recommendations on this – because of the visual impact:

Extract from committee report December 2014

As a consequence of these pre-application discussions, the revised scheme included proposals for access to the intake from the west side of the burn (on land not owned by Fergus Wood).  This was was approved by the LLTNPA planning committee in December 2014. (Because the applicant was a Board Member the decision was made by the full planning committee and not delegated to staff as now happens with most hydro schemes in the Park).

The is the best illustration I have found in the planning documents to explain the history. The original proposal for a track followed the pipeline marked in red and went through open fields above the wood – which were very visible, hence why this option was rejected. The proposal that was approved utilised the existing forestry track marked in blue and then added a short section of new track along a ride (the L-shaped bit of red line on the left).   The new track which has been constructed approximately follows the two red lines.

After receiving planning approval,  a significant number of alterations were submitted in the name of Fergus Wood to the original plans.  These were treated as Non-material Variations and dealt with by officers (you can see all the published planning documents relating to the original application at 2013/0267/DET).  Most of the NMVs approved were insignificant but then in 2016 an application was made to remove the  access track which had been approved on the west side of the burn completely.

Staff approved this  and in doing so were fully in accordance with the Park’s Supplementary Guidance on Renewables which states:

 

“It is expected that any new access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored unless there is overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development.”

 

The fact that no alternative proposals for an access track were submitted at the time would have led staff to believe that Fergus Wood had decided there was no “overhwelming reason” for permanent vehicular access to the intake.  Its not far from the farm and it could be maintained by occasional visits on foot.  I suspect if staff had known that  a further application might be submitted a year later along the line of the route that had already been rejected they would have been very alarmed.

 

Within the original planning application for the hydro scheme there were no proposals that I can find for temporary construction tracks.  The Construction Method Statement, which was approved by officers after the planning committee, also made no reference to temporary tracks being needed to construct the pipeline.  From what I have been able to ascertain from the published documents – and its not good that the position is not 100% clear – the pipeline was to be created by “tracked excavator”:

Being a small hydro scheme with a small diameter pipe it should have been possible to dig the ditch and bury the pipe without a track – a good thing.  However, because the position is not 100% clear I have asked the LLTNPA to clarify if any approval was given to Fergus Wood or his agents at the time for temporary construction tracks and if so where this is recorded.

 

The new planning application is for a track along the line of the pipeline – ie the very line that the LLTNPA rejected three years ago because of the visual impact!   However, formally Fergus Wood appears not to be involved.  Not only is the application in the name of Vento Ludens Ltd, the form includes this declaration:

So, Fergus Wood, as a Board Member has no formal interest in this development – which incidentally would allow staff rather than the full planning committee to decide this application -and yet another part of the form shows he is still the landowner!

Now, Fergus and Francesca Wood used to be directors of a company called Hydrocrofters Ltd whose address was Ledard Farm.  I suspect this was the company that was originally intended to deliver the hydro scheme but the two Woods resigned from the Company in May and Companies House records it as being dissolved on 26th September 2017 (bizarre, I know,  that is in the future!  – but in the unregulated world of capitalism at Companies House lots worse is allowed to happen!).  It appears possible therefore that Fergus Wood has sold or leased the hydro scheme to Vento Ludens but kept the land.   As landowner, however, he is responsible for what is going on on his land, and he appears to have admitted this when referring to the scheme as “my project”.  I think it inconceivable that the developer would construct a track on his land without his permission..

 

Its worth noting this is not the first time Fergus Wood has failed to declare an interest as a Board Member on a planning application form.   He also failed to declare an interest when he applied to build a campsite on his land last year (see links above).

 

The planning application form records there was a telephone call, office meeting and site meeting with park officers and, if the reference to agreeing the need for a retrospective planning application is correct, what the LLTNPA has once again failed to do it enforce its own planning conditions.   Sometimes retrospective applications can be justified instead of taking enforcement action but in this case officers should have known that the Board Planning Committee had previously rejected a track here, so why ask for a new application to be submitted?   I think we should told not just how this decision was made but by whom?  I somehow doubt it was the staff involved who had done a fantastic job first time round stopping a track from being created here.

Photo from current planning application of the new track which Fergus Wood wishes to retain.  It appears the pipeline has been buried on the left side of the track.

 

 

In view of all of this disregard of the planning system, its not a surprise that the photo above shows is that in constructing the “temporary” construction track and pipeline normal good practice has been ignored.   LLTNPA staff are normally very good at specifying both soils and turves should be stored properly to enable effective restoration. Spot any turves here?  Moreover the track has been cut through a bank on the right, leaving oversteep sides, which are very difficult to restore and will leave an even greater landscape scar unless the slope profiles are fully restored.  Again, what sort of example is this from a Board Member?

 

The reasons given by the applicants for keeping the track they have unlawfully created  are not credible:

The hydro is close enough to walk to for occasional cleaning.  If an ATV can carry in a large sluice gate at some indeterminate time in future, it can do so off road.  Occasional use of ATVs has far less impact on both vegetation and the landscape than this track will.  If Fergus Wood ostensibly accepted  for a whole year he could manage the hydro without a track, so can the new applicants.

 

What needs to happen

If you are concerned about what is happening at Ledard Farm, please submit an objection to the current planning application.  This will help put pressure on the LLTNPA to take what has happened seriously.   Just click on the comments box on the  planning portal for application 2017/0270/DET.  In my view the most important point to get across is nothing has changed since the Board originally decided a track was inappropriate.

 

Following on from the Owen McKee case, where the former Planning Convener was found to have been trading in Scotgold shares without declaring this (see here for example), it is absolutely crucial that the LLTNPA is seen to undertake an open investigation into Fergus Wood’s involvement of breaches of planning permission arising from works at Ledard Farm.   This must not be covered up, as the Park tried to do with Owen McKee, and my view is Fergus Wood should be suspended from the Board until this has been fully investigated.

 

The LLTNPA also needs to be taking effective enforcement action to redress current breaches in planning conditions at Ledard Farm.   This should start Monday.  While having accepted the retrospective application for a track, the Park will need to go through due process but because of Mr Wood’s landownership any decision needs to be taken in public by the full planning committee and not officers (and we should not accept the excuse that because Fergus Wood’s term on the Board is about to terminate this is no longer necessary).

 

I would also like to see an investigation cover Mr Wood’s involvement, since the day he joined the planning committee, about enforcement policy and enforcement decisions (or rather lack of them) made by the LLTNPA.  In my view, the LLTNPA uses its enforcement powers far too rarely.  When there are Board Members sitting on the planning committee who apparently don’t want planning requirements to apply to their own land, its quite reasonable to ask whether their own self-interests have not corrupted the entire system.

 

After Owen McKee and with Fergus Wood, its time there was a full review of the Park’s Planning Authority functions.  With new Board Members about to be appointed, it provides an ideal opportunity for change.

September 20, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Just what we want to see in the National Park, hill tracks so broad that people can walk five abreast! One reason why the Loch Lomond National Park Authority is dysfunctional at present is its marketing department appears unaware of the Park’s own policies – hill tracks where they exist should be quadbike width – and produces glossy brochures without reference to its own staff.

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Board Meeting on Monday (see here for papers) was far more open than meetings in the past but showed the Board still has a considerable way to go.   The fundamental issue is that most Board Members appear to have little idea of why they are there.  It was telling that under Matters Arising, there was not a single question about where the Board goes now the Scottish Government has rejected its suggestion the Board be reduced in size (see here).  This was an ideal opportunity to continue the discussion from the last Board meeting about the function of Board Members but ostensibly the matter is now being treated as closed.

 

Among the welcome signs of change at Monday’s meeting were:

  • The meeting time was changed to the morning which meant there was no time for the secret pre-meetings which used to take place under previous convener Linda McKay.
  • As a consequence there was more public debate, including on issues where Board Members previously appear to have been gagged.  For example, questions were asked about why plans for the National Park’s properties at Balloch, the Gateway Centre, and Luss Visitor Centre were so far behind schedule.  Even the financial consequences were touched on, both losses and costs, and while Chief Executive Gordon Watson was very reticient in his response, the good thing is more Board Members seem prepared to discuss these issues in the open.  I hope this creates an opportunity for the Board Members representing those local communities to engage with them on what is going on.
  • James Stuart, the new convener, reported to the Board he had spent a lot of time meeting stakeholders, including people who disagreed with what the National Park had been doing, and made it very clear he thought such engagement essential.  He even pointed to Ross MacBeath and myself in the audience and said he had had a constructive meeting with the two of us and Dave Morris on camping!  He reported on a meeting with SNH who were keen to develop far closer working – there has been a stand-off over the last few years where the Park has tried to do things itself without using expertise of SNH, for example on how to engage with recreational users, which contributed to the camping byelaw disaster – and the long delayed meeting with the Cairngorms National Park Authority is now going ahead.   The message was that James Stuart really does want the LLTNPA to work in partnership not isolation.   There was no rush from Board Members volunteering to get involved in this although my view is if the National Park is to change course, other Board Members need to start engaging too and means different people need to take on different roles.

 

While the meeting was conducted in a far more open manner than in the past two local people,  commented on the lack of meaningful discussion.   (Its well worth reading Trevor Scott’s account of the meeting (see here) on the Balloch Responds Facebook Page).  They were amazed when we told them the meeting was a considerable improvement to what used to happen!.    I think though they identified the main problem with the meeting:  the Board was not being asked to take any meaningful decisions and as result the meeting was over in under two hours.

 

This was despite  two very important matters being on the table, the “Your Park” progress report and the National Park Partnership Plan.   The way the reports on these subjects were drafted though suggests that it staff, not the Board, who are at present taking the decisions.

 

The camping plan and camping byelaws

Board Members were not invited to take any decisions about the Your Park plan, instead an update report (see here) was presented:   a  report for Ministers on the first year operation of the byelaws will be brought to the December meeting for approval.    I will analyse in further posts (see here for issues with the data presented in the report) the content of the paper including the Park’s failure to deliver additional campsites and the serious problems with the permit areas (all of which were glossed over)  and here focus on the Board reaction to the paper.

 

The first good news was that Colin Bayes, who chairs the LLTNPA delivery group (of Board Members and senior staff), announced that after meeting Ross MacBeath, Dave Morris and myself he had been out to see most of the permit zones with staff and Board vice-convener Willie Nisbet.  He acknowledged that there were some serious issues and that these are now being addressed. A positive development although it would have been good if staff could have been as open about this in their paper. Its possible that its as a consequence of Colin’s visit that some camping permit areas have now been removed from the booking system.

 

Also positive was Billy Ronald’s question – first time I have heard him speak – asking why anglers cannot buy a camping permit in local shops along with their fishing permit?  The answer from staff was that if the Park allowed paper permits to be issued by local shops, they could not control numbers and as a consequence more people might end up camping in a specific permit area  than Park staff have deemed sustainable.   No Board Member thought to follow this up by questioning the justification for stopping anglers from camping in the places traditionally used for fishing but which are outside the new permit zones or by asking staff how they decide what numbers are sustainable.

 

Most significant though was the statement from former Councillor James Robb,  that the clarification that the Park had “overreached its powers” – his phrase, not mine –   in trying to ban campervans from laybys was useful.   Now the Park has never publicly admitted this although it appears from Cllr Robb’s comment that it has briefed Board Members.   There was no single reference to campervans or the LLTNPA overreaching its powers in the update paper.  Indeed the LLTNPA has refused to clarify with parkswatch whether campervans are still included in the byelaws outside of laybys and if so where (see here).    It appears that the LLTNPA is still trying to cover up the extent of the campervan fiasco, including how they and Scottish Ministers approved camping byelaws which were legally unenforceable.  More importantly, they have not started to grapple with the question of fairness: if there are now no or limited controls on campervans and caravans, what is the justification for continuing with the byelaws?  I would suggest that this is the fundamental question that needs to addressed in the report to Scottish Ministers.

 

Councillor Robb also asked staff members to take him through the process of referrals to the Procurator Fiscal (7 people have now been referred for prosecution).   This was a very good question – one which the Park have refused to answer under Freedom of Information claiming it would interfere with law enforcement – and I was not surprised when staff failed to respond.   Cllr Robb then tried to talk through the process himself and asked whether when a person refuses to apply for a permit when camping in a permit area, they are then issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice?   This was a clanger of immense proportions.   Gordon Watson  had to explain to him there are NO Fixed Penalty Notices (which can only be used for civil offences) under the camping byelaws.   Here was one Board Member who had approved the camping byelaws without apparently appreciating that they would criminalise people (fines of £500 and a criminal record).    After 13 secret meetings to develop the byelaws, I find it staggering that staff had not properly briefed Board Members on this.  This points to the fundamental issue, there has been no-one on the Board with sufficient knowledge and understanding to ask basic questions like “is it really right we criminalise people simply for not being in possession of a camping permit?”.

 

There was evidence that other Board Members still have their heads in the sand.   Petra Biberbach, the convener of the planning and access committee, commented that she thought the data in the update paper was excellent.     Neither she or any other  Board Members thought to ask about what negative feedback there had been to the camping byelaws and what data existed on this?   This is despite it being clear that changes to the permit zones for example have resulted from complaints and public criticism.    Former Councillor and retiring Board Member Bob Ellis went further and said he was very heartened by the report, had only had positive feedback from campers (its good he is speaking to campers but those he has engaged appear to be a completely different subset of campers than those I have talked to), thought the report showed the camping byelaws were a great success and was proud to have been part of it.

 

To be fair to other Board Members, they did not follow this valedictory speech.  I think some of them are beginning to realise that the camping byelaws have been far from a success (no-one dared ask about the numbers of people who ignore the permit system) and that the delivery of proper new camping places is far harder than they ever envisaged.  This was reflected in several comments to the effect that “we are learning all the time”.   The prevailing assumption on the Board though still seems to be that as long as they keep throwing resources into various management measures, eventually they will be able to control all campers and make the byelaws work.  Maybe the new members coming onto the Board will be able to take a more critical look at what has actually been happening.

 

The draft National Park Partnership Plan

The development of the NPPP is well behind schedule, a reflection of the resources which have been devoted to Your Park and the significant number of staff who have left the National Park Authority.  The NPPP paper  presented the responses to the flawed consultation on the plan (see here) without saying how the Park would respond to these but that a revised plan would be presented at the December meeting for approval.

 

Colin Bayes, who is open and on the ball, pointed his finger at the issue when he asked staff what process would be used to decide how all the comments received would be fed into the final plan?  Gordon Watson’s response that the National Park Authority needed to be realistic about what it can achieve avoided the question but to his credit, David McCowan, another Board Member who is willing to be critical (he has consistently raised the Park’s failure to deal with litter) then asked that staff should record a response to every single comment received, including that resources weren’t available to deliver it.  Brilliant!   I think staff had assumed they could decide how to respond to comments without telling anyone.   A little bit of accountability at last.

 

In the main though this was an opportunity missed.  What staff should have done is brought to Board Members key issues for discussion based on the responses that had been received.  The Board could then have given a steer about how the Park should respond.   However, unlike in the Cairngorms National Park Authority, which based the whole of its consultation on its Partnership Plan on big issues it wanted to address, LLTNPA have avoided any mention of issues like the plague.  Instead, the LLTNPA consultation was based on visions and outcomes that were so broad as to be meaningless and which contained almost nothing about what partners would contribute.

 

Extract from consultation responses paper

This extract shows that a significantly higher proportion of organisations supported the draft NPPP than individuals.  In fact most of the critical comments come from individuals.   The reason for this is that the LLTNPA, through the NPPP, is not asking its public sector partners to do anything further than what is already planned.  What a relief given austerity induced budget cuts!   It suits their narrow self-interests to sign up quick and not think about really needs to be done to make this a National Park worthy of the name.   Fundamental challenges, such as how to change the industrial forestry that has wrecked Cowal, are simply avoided.

 

Even so, its noticeable how certain key public sector partners have failed to respond.   Cllr George Freeman lamented the failure of his own Council, many of the community councils and of the community trusts (which are supposed to be a key means of attracting investment to the National Park) to respond.   He was right to do so.  The LLTNPA are supposed to be working with Argyll and Bute Council to tackle litter but there is obviously no strategic liaison about this.    Later on in the meeting we heard that at Luss part of the litter problem is that Argyll and Bute are responsible for the car park, the LLTNPA for the grassy areas around it and Luss Estates for the shop and no-one can agree who is responsible for what.   My jaw dropped, but the reason for this is now fairly clear, Argyll and Bute are simply not engaging:  their new Councillors on the Board should just get stuck in and bang some heads together.

 

Hazel Sorrell, former councillor for West Dunbartonshire whom I have never heard speak at a Board Meeting (in two years), did not take the opportunity to mention the failure of her own Council to respond.  Perhaps she and they preferred not to draw attention to Flamingo Land? (the delivery of the Riverside site development being one of the few concrete actions named in the plan).

 

What these examples illustrate is not just the complete ineffectiveness of councillors on the LLTNPA at present but also that these councillors council potentially have a crucial role in enabling effective joint work between the LLTNPA and Councils.   With five new council members, the Board has a great opportunity to look at how they could improve partnership working with local authorities.

 

The most positive aspect of the NPPP paper was the Appendix with all the consultation responses (453 pages worth).  In the Your Park consultation  the responses were only made public through Freedom of Information and, as far as I am aware, Board Members were never allowed to see what people had actually said.  While at the meeting not a single Board Member referred to these responses – the sheer number are daunting – many of them have some very interesting things to say about where the National Park is going wrong and suggestions for how it could improve which I will cover in future posts.  Board members should be advised to read them and use the feedback to make a NPPP worthy of the name.

September 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 8 comments

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Sunday Herald 17/09/17 – inset to piece on Greenbelt poll

Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group recently had the bright idea of playing the political parties at their own game and commissioning Survation, who conduct weekly national polls, to ask what people in Scotland thought of the proposed development at An Camus Mor.   For those who care about the future of our National Parks it is very re-assuring to find that significantly more people are opposed to a new town in the Cairngorms National Park than support it.   And this despite all the effort that has gone into promoting development.   I suspect if those polled had been shown photos of what would be destroyed if the development ever goes ahead (see here), the level of opposition would have been far higher.

 

While the poll does not necessarily reflect local opinion, there is a message here I believe for our National Park Authorities.   The “many” really do care about what happens in our National Parks and, if our National Park Authorities were to show more leadership,  advocate for the principles which led to the creation and use these to take decisions, whether on new towns, gold mines or raptor persecution, I suspect they would be widely supported and popular.

 

Instead, the evidence shows that our National Park Authorities are constantly being forced to compromise in the interests of the few, even when this means ignoring their own (fairly weak) policies.   The  recent An Camas Mor Section 42 planning application made under the Town and Country (Scotland) Planning Act 1997 provides a good illustration of this.

 

Section 42 applications, which allows developers to ask for planning conditions attached to consented developments to be changed, involve fixed fees (currently £202) and the applicant is NOT required to conduct a pre-application consultation with the public.  This explains why the public, the “many”, were kept in the dark about the potential implications of the Section 42 application for An Camas Mor (see here) until a few days before the planning committee.

 

In the period between receiving the application in March and taking the decision to approve it in August, the Cairngorms National Park Authority incurred considerable costs.   They produced a Habitats Regulations Assessment, all 240 pages of it, which involved research, liaison with landowners as well as writing it up and, as far as we know, free help from another public authority, SNH.   They almost certainly will have had to obtain legal advice as a result of the questions asked by the Cairngorms Campaign and the potential for legal challenge:

Extract from the excellent Cairngorms Campaign newsletter raising legal questions about the S42 application. On the timing of the application, the CNPA in their Committee report stated that because it had been received by Highland Council before the deadline it was valid.

Board Members took another visit to the site, along with senior staff (£200 a day fee each, plus salary costs of staff accompanying them) and then there was the Committee meeting itself.    Someone could ask the CNPA to cost all the work it had conducted on behalf of the developer.  I would be very surprised if it came to less than £20k and is probably worth more than twice that.  The S42 application though cost An Camus Mor LLP, the development vehicle of the landowner Johnnie Grant, just £202.   When do ordinary people get subsidised by public authorities like this?   The truth is ordinary people pay money to the state in the form of taxes which is then redistributed to promote the interests of the rich and powerful.   The S42 costs the same whether you are a home owner, who wants to vary a condition attached to the development of your property, or a large property developer.  Our National Parks could be using these resources on much better things.

 

To give the CNPA credit, they do appear to appreciate this.  The Scottish Government’s consultation on the planning system earlier this year called Places, People and Planning asked about S42 applications.  Here is the question and the CNPA response:

 

“33(b) Currently developers can apply for a new planning permission with different conditions to those attached to an existing permission for the same development. Can these procedures be improved?


The current Section 42 application process is complicated and misunderstood by many stakeholders. The procedure is misused as a cheaper way of renewing planning permission with minor changes, or of turning an existing consent into a materially different permission. The rules about when S42 applications are legitimate, and a more appropriate fee structure should be considered to reflect the complexity of applications and work involved in processing them.”

https://consult.scotland.gov.uk/planning-architecture/a-consultation-on-the-future-of-planning/consultation/download_public_attachment?sqId=pasted-question-1467894590.05-55511-1467894590.71-30316&uuId=159369924

 

I think we can take it that the CNPA response was informed by An Camas Mor because at the time they were completing the response (April 2017) they were processing Johnnie Grant’s application.    The report to the Planning Committee, however, made no mention of the concerns of the CNPA  – it couldn’t without being seen to prejudice the process.  What’s happened at An Camus Mor, though, should give the Scottish Government all the evidence they need to end the current S42 system which enables developers to pass on costs to public authorities.

 

What the CNPA failed to mention in their response to the Government’s planning consultation the were the serious implications which can arise from the lack of any public consultation prior to S42 applications being determined.  Perhaps back in April, they didn’t appreciate this because at Camus Mor those serious implications arise from the mitigation measures  identified in the Habitats Regulation Assessment as necessary to protect capercaillie.  These clearly state that byelaws to restrict access could be used as a last resort to prevent visitors numbers increasing or people leaving designated paths.   It seems to me that Section 42 applications which have such implications should require public consultation.

 

The Developer has subsequently denied this on their Facebook page (see here) in a post dated 6th September:

 

An Camas Mòr will improve outdoor access for people living in Aviemore and Strathspey with new paths and beautiful riverside walks. In response to misreporting, we would like to re-state that no-one is going to remove your rights under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Some are opposed to the development of the area – they are trying to recruit people to their cause by suggesting that Rothiemurchus is going to remove people’s access rights.

 

These claims are just false.  Rothiemurchus Estate doesn’t have the power to remove access rights but the CNPA does, through its byelaw making powers, and explicitly mentioned this as a measure of last resort in its Habitats Regulations Assessment.  In fact, having stated that an increase in numbers of people visiting the pine woods from An Camas Mor could be mitigated if there was NO overall increase in visitor numbers, the only way the CNPA could guarantee this – and therefore approve the An Camas Mor development – was by stating that compulsory powers, ie byelaws, could be used to manage access.    If removal of access rights is not on the table as a consequence of the proposed An Camas Mor development, why is it in the Habitats Regulations Assessment?   If Rothiemurchus Estate disagrees with this, as it claims to do, why then  didn’t it object to the proposed mitigation measures at the planning committee meeting?  Why indeed don’t they appeal now to demonstrate their good faith to the public?

THE ORIGINAL PARAGRAPH WHICH FOLLOWED HAS BEEN CORRECTED FOLLOWING CLARIFICATION

The CNPA has confirmed with me, in response to a question (which I put as a potential FOI enquiry), that the applicants and other landowners whose land was covered by the Habitats Regulations Assessment saw the OBJECTIVEES of the Habitats Regulations Assessment. The developer has since clarified on Facebook that “An Camas Mor was not consulted on the inclusion of byelaws in the ‘The Habitat Regulations Assessment’.

 

All of this could have been flushed out into the open if the S42 application had required Rothiemurchus and An Camas Mor LLP to conduct a pre-application public consultation.  Instead, we are left in a ludicrous position where the CNPA has proposed byelaws as a measure of last resort to allow the development to go ahead but statutorily is bound to conduct a public consultation before it can approve any byelaws.   The CNPA has put itself into the invidious position where either it will be accused of having made up its mind in advance to allow An Camas Mor to go ahead or at risk of being sued by the developer if, at a late stage, it decides those measures of last resort are not publicly acceptable.   This situation could have been avoided if Rothiemurchus estate had been required to consult on the access implications of its proposals in advance (and note once again the costs of consulting on byelaws will fall to the CNPA, not the developer).

September 14, 2017 Nick Kempe 11 comments
Old pine tree surrounded by regeneration at An Camus Mor, isn’t this what our National Parks are for?

Large developments are, I believe, fundamentally incompatible with the whole concept of National Parks, wherever they are located across the world.   National Parks are places where the natural environment should come first, not second.  That’s why I, like many people, object to the An Camas Mor development in principle.  We should not be building new towns in the Cairngorms, whether or not these impact on protected European sites or have implications for access by visitors (see here).

That does not mean I am against new housing in our National Parks, indeed there is a crying need for social housing in the Cairngorms, but this must be of an appropriate scale and appropriately situated.   Anyone who cares about the natural environment should visit An Camas Mor and see for themselves.  In my view its a totally inappropriate location for housing, whatever the size of the development.
Earlier this week a reader expressed scepticism that the pole (left hand photo) could mark the centre of the proposed development.  I can well understand why, the location is beautiful and unspoilt, just the sort of place our National Parks were set up to protect.   I was shocked too when I visited two weeks ago and very quickly started asking myself how could the Cairngorms National Park Authority ever have consented to a development here?
Looking north towards the pole which marks the centre of the development. The Caledonian forest here is regenerating over heathland and rough pasture.

The most intensive building is proposed for the centre of the development  in the areas marked red on the map below (the pole in the photos marks as I understand it the centre of the green circle on the map).  The approved development  proposals include buildings 3.5 storeys high.   If you can see the Lairig Ghru from ground level at the centre of An Camus Mor, its quite obvious it will have a major impact on the landscape of Glenmore.  Indeed, the impact of the development on the landscape was one of the reasons why the CNPA imposed the condition that the development could be halted after 630 houses had been built.  The removal of that condition was the key change approved  by the CNPA when it agreed to vary the original planning application this August.

Extract from CNPA committee report August 2017

After my visit to the site, I believe the map in the Committee report showing the boundary of the site and dating from 2009 is totally misleading.

Much of the the east side of the site (left of the red line along the road, the B970, is depicted as rough grassland.  Its not, its regenerating  Caledonian pine forest. This is partially acknowledged by the Developer who describes the part of the site where houses will be built as “elevated woodland” – while carefully avoiding the term “Caledonian pine forest”!
This photo, from the planning papers, clearly shows that An Camas Mor is mainly woodland. You need to get up close to appreciate that a large proportion of it is regenerating Caledonian pine forest.

Unsurprisingly, in order to sell the development, those acting on behalf of Johnnie Grant, the landowner, included plenty of illustrations from Gehl, world renowned architects, of what the built environment might look like (and numerous sustainability features) rather than showing what the new town would replace.   Unfortunately very few people apart from quad bikers visit the site and experience for themselves what the developers are wanting to destroy.  I think if they did, there would be an uproar.  Yes, Gehl’s designs may be world-leading but these should be used for a new town somewhere else where they could be a credit to Scotland, not in a National Park.   While the CNPA Board did visit the site before taking their decision, they were transported along a  track by minibus – not the best way to see what it is really like.

One of the kettle holes on site, formed by the melting of the Glenmore glacier and home to rich wildlife, including the Northern Damselfly. The developers have now apparently agreed not to destroy these kettle holes, although we saw signs of recent works on the far bank.

An Camas Mor has had a variety of uses.  Parts have been and still are used for grazing cattle (which probably explains open nature of woodland in photo above) and parts have been planted (with grant aid).    In ecological terms however, much of the soil structure appears to be intact, which helps explain why, with trees regenerating, so much wildlife has now been recorded on the site.

Regenerating birch in Scots pine plantation
Granny pine in Scots pine plantation

Even where trees have been planted and the land ploughed, there has been regeneration, while old pines have been preserved. On my visit I saw Osprey, Red Squirrel, signs of badger and otter as well as rare funghi and various creepy crawlies (you can see excellent photos on the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group flickr album (see here)).

Regenerating woodland on the southern edge of the proposed development looking west to Aviemore

An Camas Mor, rewilding and the Cairngorms National Park

An Camas Mor is not pristine, one reason why its not so far been designated as a protected nature site, and there are plenty of signs of poor management.
Drain creation, Rothiemurchus style
This “forest” track was widened to provide access just prior to a pop concert a few years ago.
Eyesores from previous land-use remain

However, it is re-wilding.   Paradoxically one of the reasons for this is the proposed new town.  An Camas Mor has been left alone, allowing natural processes to take hold, while the land round about is intensively used.

Looking south from An Camas Mor across intensively farmed fields
From what I have learned though, An Camas Mor always had this re-wilding potential, because although partly abandoned now, much of it was never intensively used.   It is therefore just the sort of area that the National Park should have earmarked for regeneration and extension of the Caledonian pine forest.
The CNPA however appears to have turned a blind eye to the re-wilding potential and to have reached the wrong conclusion about the validity of the Environmental Statements accompanying the planning application:
Extract from Committee Report

The reason that the records of species found at An Camas Mor has increased is not just because there has been more recording – and part of the credit for that goes to the Badenoch and Strathspey conservation group rather than the developer – its because as a result of rewilding the wildlife on the site is improving the whole time.  The longer its left, the more will be found.  If the CNPA had insisted on proper surveys for the most recent application and compared these to all the species it has prioritised for protection in the National Park, it would have had lots of reasons not to agree to this development going ahead.

Unfortunately, the CNPA at present appears to give little priority to rewilding. Our National Parks, which could have offered a means to re-wild  parts of Scotland, have not had the drive or will to promote the potential of nature against the interests and wishes of landowners.  Meantime, apart from national nature reserves none of our other nature conservation designations – a major flaw – can be used to restore nature to places.   Our designation system is focussed on protecting what is there, not what could be.       We sorely need a means to promote re-wilding which is not entirely dependent on the goodwill of the landowner.
If Anders Povlsen, who is doing so much to re-wild Glen Feshie, or the RSPB rather than Johnnie Grant had owned this land,  I think it would be being quietly promoted as one of the jewels in the Cairngorms.   From a conservation perspective, the Scottish Government would have been far better giving Johnnie Grant £7.2m to buy up An Camas Mor than buying part of the Rothiemurchus Estate (see here), which was already fully protected.
While both the Scottish Government and the CNPA know that An Camas Mor sits at the centre of the main areas of woodland where Capercaillie now survive, they have seen the challenge as being to find ways to let the development go ahead without impacting too much on capercaillie.  Hence the detailed Habitats Regulations Assessment and mitigation proposals for An Camas Mor which, if enforced, will inevitably restrict access.   They could and should have looked at this from a completely different viewpoint.  What is the rewilding potential of An Camas Mor and what role could it play in saving the capercaillie (once again) from extinction in Scotland?
I have asked Gus Jones, convener of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group why there are not capercaillie in the woods?    The first reason he gave is recreational use, and by that he did not mean walkers (I did not see another walker in two hours on what was an English bank holiday)   but the use of the forest for quad biking.
The people quad biking were very nice, obviously enjoying themselves and I even heard the tour leader, who had stopped everyone at a particular point, explain the orange marks on some trees marked those to be felled and this was being done to improve ground flora in the woods. How this fitted with the proposed development I am not sure!
The second is that part of An Camas Mor is used for pheasant breeding.
While specific, let alone conclusive research, is lacking,  even the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here) admits that pheasant rearing can lead to competition for food and drive other game birds (in which they include capercaillie) from the most intensively used areas while also attracting predators.
Now I am not against either quad biking or pheasant rearing, in the right place.   However, given the current parlous state of capercaillie, surely what the CNPA should be doing is engaging with relevant interests to help capercaillie re-colonise this site (and other such woods)?   This should include, if necessary, helping the current businesses relocate (if An Camas Mor goes ahead they will be finished in any case).
In a previous post  (see here)  I argued  we need an alternative plan for An Camas Mor and this  could be funded by the money which the Scottish Government apparently intends to invest in the development.   Having had a good look at the site, I believe the core of an alternative plan for An Camas Mor should be about how we can allow it to continue to rewild.  That would not cost much in itself:  narrow a few tracks to footpaths, restore other damage, remove human artefacts and rubbish and then leave nature take over..    It would then leave plenty of money to develop social housing elsewhere.
The only problem?  Landownership and how to change who controls the land.
September 1, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
Hydro construction track in Glen Affric, a National Scenic Area and Special Area of Conservation because of the Caledonian pine forest. No designation at present can stop a hydro scheme and in the Lomond and Trossachs National Park not a single area has been designated as important enough for there to be a presumption against hydro developments.

While the impact of windfarms on landscape make front page news – the latest being the predictable decision by the Courts to uphold the Scottish Government’s decision to give the go-ahead to the Creag Riabhach scheme in Sutherland  (see here) – hydro schemes rarely receive any coverage at all.   For a long time, most people who care about the landscape, appear to have been blinded to their impacts.  Hydro sounds such a good thing it must be.   More and more people I meet and talk to however are now beginning to believe the evidence of their eyes, particularly the blighting of the landscape with new tracks.

Looking south from Aonach Shasuinn, May 2017

Parkswatch has been highlighting the destructive impact that hydro schemes have been having in our National Parks and, after my post on Ledcharrie http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2017/08/31/whats-gone-wrong-ledcharrie-hydro-scheme/ its seems an appropriate time to inform readers how they can help monitor and document what is going on.  This is important because our politicians and decision makers will I am afraid put the wishes of landowners and developers first unless they are confronted with evidence they cannot ignore (and remember most decision makers hardly visit the hills and have probably never walked round a hydro scheme).

 

Following my walk with Members of the Munro Society to look at the Ledcharrie scheme (see here) I have been working with them to develop a hydro scheme reporting form. The idea is to assemble information about hydro schemes, the good, the poor and the unacceptable, which can then be analysed and used by the Mountaineering Council and others.   Munro Society Members have now visited three hydro schemes in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which I had not seen and sent me their report forms.

 

The Inverlochlarig hydro scheme

To give an example of how the form can help, here is an example for Inverlochlarig, in the heart of Rob Roy country.  Its well worth reading and I found it incredibly informative.   When working on the form we had not thought of inserting photos into it – reporters don’t need to do this – but Derek Sime had the good idea and in my view they  illustrate his  report brilliantly.

 

While no two people are likely to have the same response to a hydro scheme, whether they see it on the ground or recorded in a form, its good to be able to give publicity to what I think is a good hydro scheme in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (there are others).  The intake is discrete, the pipeline hard to detect and because an existing track was used for most of the construction, without any widening, there has been little further landscape impact, even from the tops of the hills.  The hydro scheme is not perfect though and the report form records some oversteep banks which are not revegetating, a short section of new track which is too broad and some abandoned pipes, still there three years after the scheme was completed.   I hope the LLTNPA will address these outstanding issues and have agreed with the Munro Society to send the form to the them but overall I agree with Derek, this appears an exemplary scheme.

I will cover other reports of hydro schemes from the Munro Society in due course.  Meantime…………

If you want to get involved…………….

The Munro Society is looking for more volunteers to report on hydro schemes across Scotland.  They have a list of schemes they have prioritised for reports and if you would like to help with these, you can contact them through their website – just put in the subject line Hydro Scheme survey.   There is nothing though to stop people reporting on schemes they come across in the hills and if want to do so there is a blank report form Hydro scheme survey v3.  You can return this to the Munro Society or if the scheme is in a National Park you can send it to nickkempe@parkswatchscotland.co.uk  (we have agreed to share information about schemes in our National Parks).      Don’t worry if you cannot fill in all the form, or only fill in part of it – even partial information will help the Munro Society prioritise sites for full surveys.  And photographs are as important, if not more important than words………….

 

The form that we have created came about because of the walk I did with members of the Munro Society to look at the Ledcharrie scheme.  We realised we needed to do something to capture information on the impact of hydro scheme and I am sure this will evolve over time.  Learning what to look out for though is greatly helped by walking round schemes with other people.  I am hoping to arrange another such walk, probably in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park in the next month or two.  If you would be interested in this, please contact me at the parkswatch email with your contact details and indicating which day/s of the week are most suitable for you.

August 31, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
A example of the destruction created by the Ledcharrie track. The slope above the track is too steep and the spoil has been dumped below it without any sign of re-landscaping. The contractor had removed all equipment from the site indicating the Developer, Glen Hydro Development Ltd,  saw this as the “finished product”.

Following my visit to the Ledcharrie Hydro Scheme in Glen Dochart with members of the Munro Society (see here),  I made an information request to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority to find out what they were doing to address deficiencies in the development, particularly the  damage to the landscape that has been created by the new hill track.    The LLTNPA’s initial response to my request was to refuse to give me ANY information apart from the dates of monitoring visits,  claiming that they had not signed off all the works and provision of information could prejudice future enforcement action  EIR 2017- 050 Response Ledcharrie.   I treated this, as with so many responses from the LLTNPA, with a degree of scepticism, because I am unaware that they have ever taken enforcement action against hydro tracks, despite the large number of inappropriate and poorly restored tracks which now blight the National Park.

 

Leaving that aside, refusing to make public information that the developer was legally obliged to provide as a condition of the planning consent was in my view completely unjustifiable and I asked for a Review.  The LLTNPA has now backtracked  EIR REVIEW 2017-050 Response Ledcharrie hydro scheme and at the beginning of August sent me no less than 45 documents on a CD.  This post considers what the information tells us about how the LLTNPA  is “managing” the impact of hydro developments on the landscape of the National Park.

 

The information required as a condition of the planning consent

 

The Planning Consent which the Park’s officers agreed in December 2013 included 18 conditions, each of which required the Developer, Glen Hydro Ltd acting on behalf of Auchclyne Estates, to submit further information for approval before the development could go ahead.   This information includes assessments required (eg wildlife surveys), more detailed plans (eg for the powerhouse and track construction), standards governing the work and reporting arrangements.  Similar information and conditions are required for most planning consents for hydro developments.    In my view all such information should be public – people should have a right to know what has been agreed between planning authorities and developers – and it appears that the LLTNPA now agrees.  Over half the documents on the CD relate to the plans, reports and proposals the Developer had made to fulfil these conditions.

 

Unfortunately the information is not properly indexed by the LLTNPA and they have not told me whether they are still withholding information about the fulfilment of some of the conditions.  But, as far as I can tell from what has been supplied, Glen Hydro Developments did supply information on each of the 18 planning conditions.  The file sizes are large but the content is summarised in the chart on pages 6-12  here.

 

What is far less easy to see is what documentation was agreed by the LLTNPA.   Some conditions, including the first, to produce a  Construction Method Statement, were clearly approved Condition 1, 3, 6, 7, 8 and 9_20150827_Discharge of conditions. For others its very hard to tell.  For example, in relation to condition 12 on the design of the powerhouse, the Developer appears to have done everything the Park had asked Condition 12_20160314_Agent to NPA but there is no final sign off the from the LLTNPA.   Another example is that the Developer clearly stated that they would include information on several of the conditions (2,4,14) in the all important Construction Method Statement, but in approving this document (see above) the LLTNPA did not clearly say whether those other conditions contained in it were also discharged.

 

In my view our National Parks, which are meant to be beacons of good practice, should  be publishing information about the discharge of planning conditions on their planning portals so its readily available.   This should include both the information supplied by the Developer and the documents from our National Parks signing it off, the two clearly referenced.   This would empower the public and avoid the need for need for endless information requests.  The LLTNPA’s current stance however is it doesn’t make this information public because it doesn’t have to legally – so much for being a beacon of good practice!    In fact if the LLTNPA made these documents public, I think it would improve their practice because where approvals are unclear, as at Ledcharrie, they would be challenged.   This would also help Developers who are left in a difficult position when they are not clear about what has been approved either.   Its worth noting that Glen Hydro developments appears to have taken a far more systematic approach to the provision of information needed to disharge planning conditions – judging by their chart – than the LLTNPA.

 

What the information tells us about planning standards and protection of our landscape

Much of the documentation supplied by Glen Hydro and approved by the LLTNPA is excellent, for example it shows that lots of care is taken to ensure that walkers are informed of alternative routes and is a credit both to National Park staff and to developers.  However, what the EIR response also shows is that standards and documentation are much better developed in some areas than others.  So, the planners, whose stock in trade is new buildings, took huge amounts of care about the design of the powerhouse (see link to condition 12 above).  They also, because of environmental regulations, require very detailed information about the potential impacts on protected nature sites (informed by advice from SNH and their own ecological staff which is included in committee reports) and how these will be mitigated.  They also took great care with any aspect of the environment regulated by SEPA (hence all the plans to prevent stop silt filtering into watercourses).  All this shows that regulation and rules do work.

 

Ironically, because this is what the National Park was set up to protect, what the planners are not so good at is protecting the landscape, and more specifically the impact of new hill tracks.  Ledcharrie shows the problems were created even before planning consent was granted.  Here is what the Committee Report said:

 

  • “Effects on Landscape Character: There would be no significant adverse effects on the site landscape, published landscape character types and the designated National Park are predicted after construction is complete.”

and

  • the topography will screen the intakes, the pipe route will be restored, the track returned to its original state and the tailrace and powerhouse be assimilated in the landscape.
A section of the old track, it had almost disappeared into the landscape – the new track is on far right
And here’s how it looked when I visited with members of the Munro Society

Wishful thinking does not make things happen.  This weakness is carried through into the Construction Method Statement approved by the LLTNPA (see here).  The section headed Access Track is brief to the extreme, in contrast to other sections, and mainly about silt:

What the EIR Response shows is that in discharging this condition the LLTNPA agreed a far broader track than was reported in the the Planning Report and mentioned in my original post:

 

“A permanent track from the powerhouse to the primary intake (surfaced with local crushed stone and about 2 metres in width).”

 

In agreeing to a 3m broad track the LLTNPA also ignored its own good practice guidance which Gordon Watson, the Park’s Chief Executive stated should mean tracks are 2m broad except on bends where they may be 2.5m broad.   No wonder the Park did not want this information to be made public!

 

The Construction Method Statement did contain some further information on track construction and restoration under a section on Landscape Mitigation measures:

The second track, like the ground over the pipe, has been completely restored and generally well done

The problem is this is not a proper Construction Method Statement.  It says nothing about the angle of the track – key to future erosion (SNH tracks recommends a maximum angle of 14 degrees), the design of culverts or the angle of verges all of which have contributed to the adverse impact this track is having on the landscape:

While this section of track has been narrowed the section of bank on the left is too steep, the edge of the ditch crudely done and its too steep – you can see how it was already washing out before it bends left

Where the Construction Method Statement is stronger is the restoration of soil and ground vegetation:

I believe this helps confirm my analysis.   The LLTNPA has been good at ensuring that ground above pipelines has been restored well.  In this case the techniques for ensuring such restoration have also been applied to tracks.  The problem however is that if you get the track construction wrong (angle of slope, cutting through banks etc) that is much much harder to restore than land above a pipeline.

 

The lesson I think that the FOI material tells us is that the LLTNPA (and indeed other planning authorities) need to pay far more attention to the specification of tracks and use this to inform whether tracks should become permanent or not.

 

 

Following on from that, if its not possible to create a track which does not meet all the requirements of SNH’s excellent guidance on hill track construction, that should be an indication to our planning authorities, that these construction tracks should only be temporary and be fully restored, just like the pipelines.

The monitoring of the construction of the Ledcharrie hydro and enforcement of planning conditions

The LLTNPA has not given me a single document about enforcement of the planning conditions, claiming this might prejudice future enforcement action.  While this might be the case in some circumstances – for example legal advice – one would hope that the Developer would have been told by the LLTNPA which conditions it has so far failed to meet.  If so, its hard to see how provision such information could prejudice enforcement action.  If the Developer knows the concerns of the LLTNPA, why shouldn’t the public?    I suspect the reason for refusing this information is that if it became public more evidence would become available about the LLTNPA’s failure to enforce planning conditions.   This is far too systematic to be the fault of staff who I believe have neither the time or the expertise necessary to monitor these schemes properly.

 

Instead, staff depend on is Monitoring Reports and work from the “independent” Ecological Clerk of Works (who is contracted by the Developer and who is therefore dependent on the Developer to get paid).   The other suite of documents in the EIR response are 19 Monitoring Reports from the Ecological Clerk of Works (some of which cover several visits).

 

While these monitoring reports contain good things  – the reports show for example that the Ecological Clerk of Works  consistently identified issues with silt traps and actioned these – and many interesting photos,  I believe they also help explain why the hydro track at Ledcharrie is the mess it is.  The problems are illustrated early on:

Photo from report of site visits in August  2015 at initial stage of construction

This photo shows that turves were not being stored as had been specified in the Construction Method Statement – one layer deep and the right way up – but instead have been dumped in a heap.  The Ecological Clerk of Works makes no comment on this by the picture and no mention in the body of their report.

 

To their credit, the LLTNPA planning officer identified this as an issue.  We only know this not from information recorded by the LLTNPA but because its mentioned in the next suite of monitoring reports from the Ecological Clerk of works (ECOW)  which includes this:

Having asked why the turf had not been stored correctly, the member of the planning team  apparently then accepted the claim by the ECOW that the turf could not be stored successfully for long periods.  This is garbage.  Why did the Construction Method Statement say that turf would be stored in this way if it couldn’t?   Actually, I have just seen an example on the Ralia estate (which I will cover in due course) where turf was stored successfully for over three years.   Unfortunately, the LLTNPA appear to have accepted this claim, instead of challenging the ECOW and the Developer, and this helps explain much of the more restoration work alongside the track.

Bare ground all along the track results from the failure of the LLTNPA to enforce the planning condition that all turf be retained and stored properly.

Its worth having a look at the report  (20151007_Condition 18_Monitoring Report_Sep 2015. which has nteresting photos but bear in mind its right from the start of the works and only covers certain issues.  A couple of the photos show oversteep banksides, the ones that are now have such an adverse impact on the landscape as they are too steep to be restored.   Again there is no comment from the ECOW.  That’s maybe not their fault – their primary remit after all was for ecology, not landscape – but its a serious problem the LLTNPA needs to address.

 

The lessons that need to be learned from the information released by the LLTNPA on Ledcharrie hydro and what needs to change

The documents released by the LLTNPA tell us nothing about what the Park is doing to redress the damage caused by the construction of the Ledcharrie hydro, but they do tell us a lot about what is going wrong and I strongly suspect a similar tale could be told for many other hydro schemes in the National Park.

  • Far too little attention is given to the way track to hydro schemes are constructed in the planning process prior to work starting.  I think at the very least all proposal for tracks should have a specification which covers every aspect of SNH Guidance on the Design of Hill tracks (see here) and our National Parks and other planning authorities should evaluate proposals against that guidance
  • It appears that at present planning staff do not have the expertise necessary to ensure high standards of track construction nor are they able to call on this expertise from elsewhere (as they can with other specialist areas).  Our National Parks need to address this skills gap.
  • Unfortunately, it also appears that the Ecological Clerks of Works  lack expertise in this area too and its imperative that if our National Parks continue to get Developers their own practice that they engage people with the right skills.  That might mean a specialist track consultant.
  • The problem for both our National Parks and developers is that there is little evidence that there are currently people involved in hill track construction with the expertise to ensure tracks are designed to high standards and also to advertise where permanent tracks would have a deleterious impact on the landscape.  One solution would be for our National Parks and developers to engage people involved in footpath design to carry out this work.  In general the standards that are applied to footpath design are far far higher than those applied to hill tracks.  This might help provide permanent jobs to the people currently being trained as footpath workers in our National Park.
  • The biggest failure of all though is a lack of will.  There appears to be no ethos in the LLTNPA which encourages staff to take action when they identify things that are going wrong, secure in the knowledge that they will be backed to the hilt by their Managers and the Board.  Instead there is a development free for all which is undermining the entire credibility of the National Park Authority and will in the long-term destroy tourism, as its the landscape which is the reason why people visit our National Parks in the first place.    Then, when the results of this free for all are made public, suddenly the LLTNPA says it is considering enforcement action.    If action had been taken at the beginning of the construction at Ledcharrie, most of the issues could have been prevented.
  • As a start to rectifying these planning deficiencies, the LLTNPA should now commission an independent audit of a selection of hydro developments in the National Park causing public concerns.  This should analyse in how many cases the LLTNPA has approved tracks which breach its own best practice guidance and ask for recommendations about how this could be prevented in future.
  • In order to show a collective determination to tackle these issues, I think that the LLTNPA should no longer delegate decisions about hydro schemes to staff.  Like in the Cairngorms National Park Authority, all decisions about hydro schemes should be taken in public at the Planning Committee.
August 30, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Dumper truck on hill track down from Ptarmigan  carrying remains of concrete plinths from West Wall chairlift                                                                                                                               Photo Monday 28th August

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The hill track to the Ptarmigan

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

 

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

 

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

Extract from Wm Gray proposed method statement for development at Ptarmigan

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

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

 

Standards for work at Cairngorm

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The environmental damage being created by the clear-up

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The destruction of ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

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

 

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

 

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

What needs to happen

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

 

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