A week before taking action against the Cluny Estate track (see here) the Cairngorms National Park Authority issued a planning contravention notice against the owners of the Glen Clova estate for failing to remove the temporary hydro construction track behind the hotel. This is another very significant action from the CNPA and should be welcomed by all who care about the landscape. First, because the CNPA approved the hydro scheme on the basis that the track should be temporary – its permanent access tracks which cause the greatest landscape impact with hydro schemes – so well done to the CNPA for putting the landscape before profit. Second, because the CNPA are now prepared to enforce the conditions of the original planning application, unlike the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority who caved in to the Glen Falloch Estate when they applied to make the temporary construction tracks there permanent (see here).
My thanks to Jojo Neff, who has been monitoring hill tracks and passed on some photos (above). Dismayed by what these showed, on Saturday I took the opportunity to have a look myself as part of a run round the Glen Prosen watershed. In the course of that I came across another temporary hydro track at the head of Glen Prosen which has also not yet been re-instated.
The track is visible from many points along the 8km ridge between Coremachy and Driesh. I was too far away – and without binoculars – to be able to tell if the horizontal scar across the hillside is still a track (would welcome information on this) or has been re-instated but to a very poor standard. The uphill section of the track is far more prominent than the lower part of the footpath to Loch Brandy.
The planning application was approved by the CNPA planning committee in 2010. There is no information on the CNPA planning portal at present following the decision letter. As a result there is almost no information about the construction track. All I could find was a reference to “temporary access tracks” in the Committee Report and this map which shows the pipeline, not a track, and indicates therefore there was no proposal for a permanent track:
The Decision Letter from the CNPA required the developer to produce a Construction Method Statement, which would have provided information about where the temporary access track was to be sited and how it was to be constructed and the ground then re-instated, but this information is not public. Nor is there any information on the planning portal about when the work started, when it was “completed” or subsequent correspondence between the CNPA and the Developer. I will ask for all this information under FOI but in my view the CNPA’s reasons for taking action should be public (and should not be limited to a one line entry on their Planning Enforcement Register). It would also be in the public interest to know just how long negotiations had been going on before the CNPA decided to take enforcement action.
The owner of the land and developer of the hydro scheme appears to be Hugh Niven, who runs the Glen Clova Hotel, the Glen Clova farm – which has been supplying Albert Bartlett with potatoes for over 25 years (see here) – and Pitlivie Farm, near Carnoustie in Angus. This according to information on the internet is the site of one of Scotland largest agricultural roof mounted PV installations. An interest in renewables then.
Mr Niven had a run in with Angus Council Planning in Glen Clova just before the Cairngorms National Park was created. In 2000 (see here) Angus Council initiated enforcement action against Mr Niven because he had created a new loch in the Glen without planning permission and there were sufficient safety concerns about the earthworks that the public road was closed for a time. Two years later Mr Niven applied for, and was granted, retrospective planning permission for the works (see here).
There are lessons for this for the CNPA. First, this is not the first occasion Hugh Niven has ignored planning law. In this he is not unusual – many landowners still see planning authorities as imposing unwelcome restrictions on their ability to manage land any way they wish. Second, back in 2000 it appears that Hugh Niven argued that what he had done was justifiable and the risk is that he will now do so again which will lead to years of wrangling. While the creation of a loch might have been acceptable on landscape grounds, the permanent retention of this track is not and the CNPA therefore needs to avoid drawn into negotiations about how this scar could be ameliorated and take a stand. This track needs to be removed and like the Cluny track, is therefore a fundamental test for the CNPA. They deserve the support of everyone who cares about the landscape in our National Parks.
As in the Cluny case, it appears that the developer does not lack resources: the latest accounts for Clova Estate Farm Ltd doesn’t show income (because they are abbreviated accounts – a fundamental issue in terms of business transparency) but does show the business has total net assets of £8,037,710. Hugh Niven therefore has the resources to pay for the re-instatement of the hydro construction track.
Glen Prosen hydro track
After completing the ridge on the west side of Glen Clova to Mayar and after coming across a new bulldozed track on the plateau leading from Bawhelps to Dun Hillocks (which I will cover in another post) the head of Glen Prosen is scarred by new tracks and clearfell north west of Kilbo.
On returning home I checked the planning report from 2013 which made clear that the construction tracks would be temporary: “Beyond the powerhouse there will be a temporary access road for construction to reach both intakes.” Again well done to the CNPA for putting landscape before profit.
The Committee Report also concluded:
Landscape and Visual Effects 40. The landscape impacts of this proposal are minor, given the scale of the development and the location in the upper Glen Prosen. Conditions relating to the construction phase of the development have been proposed to minimise any short term impact. In addition, the set of mitigation measures proposed are likely to have a positive impact on the development site in the long term.
The trouble is at present the landscape impact is anything but minor, as the photos show, and this is mainly because the construction tracks have not been removed, although the clearfell has added to the destruction. There were no signs of machinery on site and it appears therefore that the Glen Prosen estate, like the Glen Clova estate, thinks the work is finished and simply hopes to avoid the expense of re-instating these tracks. It will be much easier for the CNPA to take action if they show resolution in addressing the Glen Clova track. The message to landowners will be then loud and clear: you cannot afford to ignoring the planning rules in the National Park.
This post looks at the Conservation and Land Management section of the draft Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Partnership Plan (NPPP) which is out for consultation until 3rd July (see here). It argues that the Outcomes (above) in the draft NPPP are devoid of meaningful content, considers some the reasons for this and outlines some alternative proposals which might go some way to realising the statutory conservation objectives for the National Park.
Call me old fashioned but I don’t see why the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park needs a vision for conservation – “An internationally renowned landscape where nature, heritage, land and water are valued, managed and enhanced to provide multiple benefits for people and nature” – when it has a statutory is duty a) “to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area” and b) to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area. The statutory duty to my mind is much simpler and clearer, the vision just marketing speak.
Indeed, the draft National Park Partnership Plan is far more like a marketing brochure than a serious plan. This makes submission of meaningful comments very difficult. Feel good phrases such as “iconic wildlife”, “haven for nature”, “stunning and varied wildlife”, “vital stocks of natural capital” are peppered throughout the document. The reality is rather different, but you need to go to the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to find this out:
The Park has 27 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to grazing pressures
Three river and 12 loch waterbodies in the Park still fail to achieve “good” status in line with Water Framework Directive (WFD) objectives.
The Park has 25 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to pressures from Invasive Non-Native Species.
In other words progress during the period of the 2012-2017 Plan has not been what one might have expected in a National Park. Instead of trying to learn from this and set out actions to address the issues, the LLTNPA is trying to bury failures under the table and to conceal its lack of a clear plan with marketing speak. There is no need to take my word for it, the problems are clearly spelled out in the SEA:
The main weakness of the new plan over the extant plan is its lack of specificity combined
with its with its very strategic nature: given limited resources and the framing of the priorities in the draft plan, it is unclear how intervention will be prioritised. For example, in the extant NPPP [2012-17], waterbody restoration and natural flood management measures are focussed in the Forth and Tay catchments. The new plan does not appear to include any such prioritisation and it is unclear if there will be sufficient resources to deliver the ambitious waterbody restoration measures across all catchments during the plan period. This key weakness is likely to be addressed by using the new NPPP as a discussion document to formalise arrangements and agreements with partner organisations on an individual basis (e.g. using individual partnership agreements as per the extant NPPP). However, it would be preferable if resource availability (and constraint) is articulated clearly in the plan document to help manage expectations;
Or, to put it another way, the NPPP outcomes are so “strategic” as to be meaningless, the LLTNPA has failed to consider resource issues and is planning to agree actions in secret with partner bodies once the consultation is over. It appears that all the failures in accountability which took place with the development of the camping byelaws (developed in 13 secret Board Meetings) will now apply to conservation.
Economic interests are being put before conservation
This failure in governance – about how plans should be developed – conceals a skewing of the National Park’s conservation objectives towards economic interests (in spite of the duty of the LLTNPA, under the Sandford principle and section 9.6 of the National Park (Scotland) Act to put conservation first). The best example is the beginning of the conservation section where the LLTNPA outlines the main threats to the “natural environment” the Park faces:
Impacts on freshwater and marine water bodies from problems such as pollution from surrounding land uses [ e.g algal blooms in Loch Lomond];
Unsustainable levels of wild and domesticated grazing animals in some upland and woodland areas, leading to reduced tree cover and the erosion of soils, which are important carbon stores [the 27 sites according to the SEA];
The spread of invasive non-native species which displace our rich native wildlife; [we are given no indication of how much progress has been made tackling this over last 5 years]
The impacts of climate change leading to warmer, wetter weather patterns and a subsequent
increase in flood events, major landslides and rapid shifts in natural ecosystems.
Omitted from this list are the many threats to the landscape of the National Park which is being destroyed by “developments”: Flamingo Land, the Cononish Goldmine, transport routes and over 40 hydro schemes with all their associated tracks.
In the world of parkspeak however all these developments will be classed as successes. The reason? One of the measures of success is “Planning & Development: The percentage of the Park and/or number of sites with landscape mitigation schemes”. The developments in the photos above have all been “mitigated” by the Park as Planning Authority – an “unmitigated bloody disaster” would be a more accurate description of what the LLTNPA is allowing to happen.
Many of these developments also impact on the ecology of the National Park. For example, despite all the fine words about water catchment planning and flood prevention there is NO consideration of the impact of the 40 plus hydo schemes being developed in the National Park on flooding (send the water through a pipe and it will descend the hill far more quickly than in a river) or the ecology of rivers.
A more specific example is conservation Priority 11 which says the LLTNPA will “Support for land managers to plan and deliver multiple environmental and social benefits, alongside economic return, through the creation and delivery of Whole Farm and Whole Estate Management Plans”. This is the same LLTNPA which, while claiming 28% of the National Park is now covered by such plans, has recently refused to make them public on the grounds they are commercially sensitive(see here). If this is not putting commercial before conservation interests, I am not sure what is.
The few specific “conservation” objectives are not about conservation at all
While there are very few specific conservation objectives in the NPPP, those that do exist are clearly driven by other agendas
Conservation Priority 4 Supporting projects that enhance opportunities to enjoy landscapes particularly along major transport routes and around settlements and also that better meet the different travel mode needs of visitors, communities and businesses. Priorities include: – Implementing a strategically planned and designed upgrade to the A82 between Tarbet and Inverarnan;
-Continuing to review landslip management measures on the A83 at The Rest and Be Thankful.
Landscape conservation has been reduced to ensuring that people can enjoy the view from the road. There is no consideration on the impact of those roads (visual, noise etc):
It is important that we ensure that key areas of the Park where people experience the inspiring vistas found here are recognised and enhanced. This means that key transport routes, such as trunk roads and the West Highland railway line, along with the settlements in the Park, continue to provide good lines of sight to the stunning views of the iconic landscapes found here.
Biodiversity in the National Park
The new NPPP actually represents a considerable step backwards from Wild Park 2020 (see here), the LLTNPA’s biodiversity action plan, which is not even referred to in the NPPP. The vision set out in Wild Park (P11), which is about restoring upland and lowland habitats, enriching food chains (to increase numbers of top predators) woodland re-structuring etc, is worth reading – a far clearer and coherent vision than in the NPPP. That should have been the NPPP starting point.
Wild Park contained 90 specific actions, which were due to be reviewed in 2017 – “the Delivery and Monitoring Group will undertake a mid-term review in 2017 of progress overall on the projects and programmes in Wild Park 2020” . There is no mention in the NPPP about what has happened to that when it should have been central to developing the new plan. Part of the problem is the LLTNPA has taken very little interest in conservation over the last three years – there are hardly any papers to the Board on conservation issues as all its focus and the Park’s resources have been devoted to camping management.
The weakness in Wild Park was that while it included many excellent projects, these were mostly limited to small geographical areas and many were located on land owned by NGOs (eg a significant proportion of all the projects were located on NTS land at Ben Lomond and the Woodland Trust property in Glen Finglas). There was nothing on a landscape scale and very few contributions from Forestry Commission Scotland, by far the largest landowner in the National Park. The draft NPPP claims (under conservation outcome 1) to want to see conservation on a landscape scale but contains no proposals about how to do this apart from setting up a network of partnerships. This begs the question of why these partnerships will now work when we know over the last 15 years similar “partnerships” have failed to address the main land management issues which affect landscape scale conservation in the National Park, overgrazing and blanket conifer afforestation.
What needs to happen – biodiversity
First, the LLTNPA needs to have some ambition. On a landscape scale this should include a commitment to a significant increase increase in the proportion of forestry in the National Park which is managed in more sustainable ways. The SEA describes this as “there is an opportunity and interest in increasing the amount of woodland under continuous cover forestry (CCF) systems. This would reduce the amount of clear fell and associated soil erosion and landscape impacts”. So, instead of failing to mention the Argyll Forest Park, why is the LLTNPA not pressing the FCS to change the way it manages forestry there? How about aiming to convert 50% of that forest to continuous cover forestry systems over the next 10 years?
And on a species level, there is no mention of beavers in either the NPPP or SEA. Amazing the lack of join up:
Wild Park described one indicator of success in 25 years time would be that “The Tay catchment beaver population has expanded into the National Park at Loch Earn and Glen Dochart and is managed sympathetically to prevent damage to fisheries and forestry production, whilst also providing a significant new attraction to tourists and habitat benefits such as coppicing and pond creation in acceptable locations.” The LLTNPA should bring that forward and actively support beaver re-introduction projects now.
Second, there needs to be some far more specific plans (which the Park should have consulted on as part of the NPPP to guage public support) which are both geographical and theme based. Here are some examples:
So, what exactly is the plan for the Great Trossachs Forest, now Scotland’s largest National Nature Reserve, which is mainly owned by NGOs? (You would have no idea from the NPPP).
How is the LLNPA going to reduce overgrazing?
What about working to extend the Caledonian pine forest remnants in Glen Falloch (which would also hide some of the landscape scars created by hydro tracks)?
What does the LLTNPA intend to do to address the widespread persecution of species such as foxes in the National Park?
What can the National Park do to address the collapse of fish stocks in certain lochs or the threats to species such as arctic charr (whose population in Loch Earn is under threat from vendace).
I hope that people and organisations responding to the consultation will add to this list and demand that the LLTNPA comes up with a proper plan for the next five years and argue for the resources necessary to deliver such objectives.
What needs to happen – landscape
First, the LLTNPA needs to start putting landscape before development and state this clearly in the plan. There should be no more goldmines, large tourist developments (whether Flamingo Land or on the torpedo site at Arrochar) and improvements to transport infrastructure (which are needed) should not be at the expense of the landscape. Tunnelling the A82 along Loch Lomond – which has been discounted by Transport Scotland as too costly – should be put back on the agenda.
Second, I would like to see the LLTNPA have a bit of ambition and make an explicit commitment to restoring historic damage to landscapes. What about burying powerlines as is happening in English National Parks (there is one small initiative at present in the LLTNP)? How about restoring damage to the two wild land areas on either side of Glen Falloch, particularly the old hydro infrastructure south of Ben Lui, the largest area of wild land in the National Park?
The LLTNPA Board should also commit to a complete review of how it has managed the impact – “mitigated” – the construction of hydro schemes, engaging the people and organisations who have an interest in this. The big issue here is the hydro construction tracks, which the LLTNPA now allows to remain in place, and which have had a massive deleterious affect on the more open landscapes in the National Park. The LLTNPA’s starting point in the new NPPP is that there should be a presumption against any new tracks in the uplands and therefore that all hydro construction tracks should be removed in future. There should be a review of the tracks which have been agreed over the last five years and a plan developed on how these could be removed (the hydro scheme owners, many of whom are based in the city, are not short of cash and could afford to do this – that would be a demonstration of real partnership working).
Finally, as part of any plan to restructure conifer forests in the National Park, the LLTNPA also needs to develop new landscape standards for Forestry which should include matters such as track construction and felling. There should be a presumption against clearfell.
What needs to happen – resources
Just like the Cairngorms NPPP, the LLTNPA NPPP makes no mention of resource issues. Instead, the underlying assumption behind the plan is neo-liberal. The state should not provide – in this case the National Park cannot expect any further resources – and the priority of government is to enable business to do business, which (according to the theory) will all some benefits to trickle down to the National Park.
This is totally wrong. We need a proper plan which sets out what needs to be done, how much this will cost and how this will be funded. The Scottish Government could of course and probably would say “no” but things are changing politically and proper financing of conservation (and well paid rural jobs) are key to the third part of the NPPP which is about rural development.
On the longest day, the Cairngorms National Park Authority initiated enforcement action against the Cluny Estate for the unlawful track up Carn Leth Choin at the head of Glen Banchor (see here).
This is extremely welcome. In March the CNPA had written to me stating that they had been in discussions with the estate about restoring the track voluntarily but if the estate failed to do this the CNPA would take enforcement action (see here). The addition to the register indicates the estate is refusing to do this and the CNPA have been as good as their word. They deserve support from everyone who cares about our National Parks for initiating this action and will, I suspect, need ongoing support through what is likely to be a long and complex process. Its not easy to bring recalcitrant landowners to heal while removing tracks is not easy. It has been been done in the cases of a handful of hydro schemes, but these have been lower down the hill. The only time a track has been removed on high ground was when the National Trust for Scotland removed the bulldozed track on Beinn a Bhuird. This took place over a number of years, being completed in 2001, and took both significant investment and expertise.
Still, the Cluny Estate appears to be owned by the Qatari Royal Family (see here) who, even if they are under lots of pressure at present due to the blockade from their neighbours, are not short of a bob or two. There is no reason therefore why the restoration should not be to the highest possible standard. While they are about it perhaps the Qatari Royal Family, if its indeed they who own the Cluny estate, should also pay for the restoration of the lower part of the track which was constructed at an earlier date and is, I understand, outside the current enforcement action.
The significance of this action by the CNPA is far wider than just this hill track. In my view the Planning System in our National Parks (and indeed Scotland) has fallen into disrepute because enforcement action is hardly ever taken. The emphasis has been on co-operating with people who, like the owners of the Cluny estate or Natural Retreats on Cairngorm, appear to have no respect for the planning system, drag out processes of negotiation for years and do anything they can to avoid doing what is right. This therefore needs to be seen as a shot across the bows of all landowners in the National Park (its not the only one, as I will demonstrate in a future post). The CNPA need to see it through. I believe it will only take a couple of enforcement cases, where landowners learn what the costs of ignoring the planning systems are likely to be, and the whole attitude of landowners and their advisers to planning will change.
This is therefore a crucial test for the National Park and they should be congratulated for their new approach.
The official consultation on the draft Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Partnership Plan (NPPP) 2018-23 closes on Monday 3rd July. The NPPP is the key document governing what the LLTNPA is supposed to do over the next five years so its important people respond. In this post I will take an overview of the consultation documents and then, in three further posts, will consider the three themes in the consultation, Conservation and Land Management, Rural Development and Visitor Experience, which broadly mirror the National Park’s statutory objectives. I hope people with an interest in our National Parks will respond to the consultation and that these posts may inform those responses. Its easy to be cynical about consultations, and I believe the LLTNPA consultation demonstrates just how hollowed out consultation processes have become, but public pressure does work. A good example is the pledge which was added to the Cairngorms National Park Partnership Plan to eliminate raptor persecution over the next five years. Pressure needs to be exerted on the LLTNPA to radically up its game.
Where is the review of the current NPPP?
A rational starting point for developing any new plan should be a review of existing plans, covering matters such as successes, failures and consideration as to what needs to change. The current NPPP, 2012-17, was initially reviewed on an annual basis, at a meeting chaired by the Environment Minister. The Reviews are available on the LLTNPA website NPPPlan but you will never come across these if you go straight to the consultation pages and there is no mention of them in the consultation documents nor is there any explanation of why the last one was in 2014. Had the reviews been undertaken as originally intended, the information from them could have been fed into the new planning process. Instead, publicly at least, there is a huge hole.
What the last review in 2014 does show is that the LLTNPA was facing certain serious issues and was lacking data on critical issues.
Note how the LLTNPA classed a drop in percentage of designated conservation sites in favourable conditions with an “equals” symbol, meaning there was nothing to worry about. And, were the LLTNPA to have collected data on % of visitors satisfied with cleanliness of the countryside I suspect there would have been a massive drop from 86%. This raises the question about whether the LLTNPA is now simply operating in a post-truth environment, that its not collecting and reporting data because it would not support its marketing hype. Other measures from 2013-14 were even worse: a drop in the percentage of new affordable housing from a baseline of 75% to 43% and a drop in new business start ups.
Where is the consultation on the issues the LLTNPA is facing?
The consultation documents do not ask people to consider the issues the National Park faces, quite a contrast to the Cairngorms National Park Authority consultation which was based around “The Big 9” issues they had identified. The only place that there is any consideration of the issues is in the Strategic Environment Assessment which most people won’t read as nowhere in the consultation does it suggest this might be worth reading. I can see why, because the SEA explains how the consultation should have been undertaken:
“the dynamic assessment of environmental objectives / targets with
trends data can help to identify emerging environmental issues that should ideally be
addressed early on.”
It then goes on to highlight “the most critical environmental issues (problems and opportunities) that should be considered in the development of the NPPP 2018-2023”. Nowhere does the LLTNPA explain how these issues have informed the development of the NPPP, indeed its not clear they have been considered at all.
Its well worth looking at Appendix 3 to the SEA to see how the LLTNPA is actually doing. Here is an example:
And here’s another: “The Park has 27 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to grazing pressures.”
So we have a draft NPPP which makes almost no mention of the serious issues the NPPP faces. This is a fundamental failing, nay a dereliction of duty – the plan has no foundations.
An outcomes based plan
Instead of considering the evidence and what issues it faces the draft NPPP starts and ends with a consideration of outcomes. It appears that what is driving this is the Scottish Government’s National Outcome framework.
While our National Parks can contribute to some national outcomes, actually that’s not their primary purpose, which is to meet their statutory objectives. The Plan though, instead of considering how it can meet those statutory objectives, is full of meaningless claims to be contributing to certain outcomes.
Near the top of each section in the plan there is this graphic – a graphic illustration of priorities. While the civil servants must be slavering all this does is make the LLTNPA look like a meaningless pawn controlled by central government.
The outcomes themselves, are very worthy – it would be hard to object to any of them – but so broad as to be meaningless.
If they were meaningful the LLTNPA should be able to explain the extent to which the outcomes are being met at present. They have made no attempt to do so. The problem is the first two consultation questions are devoted to asking people if they agree with these very broad statements:
Its unlikely any people will disagree. The Park has then identified a number of priorities for each outcome without any analysis of why that priority makes sense and again the priority is so broadly defined its rarely possible to tell what if anything the LLTNPA and its partners are planning to do:
The danger is that anyone who agrees with the priorities as proposed will be treated by the LLTNPA as agreeing to whatever actions they have or have not planned to do. It is amazing that under the conservation of landscape priority the only two actions are actually about altering, one might say “destroying”, the natural landscape.
The secret and biased consultation process
The draft plan does not explain how its been developed or how priorities might have been selected. To know this you need to read the LLTNPA’s Annual Report approved by its Board this week:
“The close of the year saw the Board approve our new draft National Park Partnership Plan 2018-23 for consultation following a hugely positive workshop with a wide range of stakeholders to discuss important issues and potential priorities. This presented an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the current plan.
To this end, a comprehensive discussion paper was developed and a day-long event was held for partners that have a role to play in the delivery of the new Plan”
So why is the comprehensive discussion paper not public and why has the LLTNPA not told the public what it believes these achievements were? (I have asked for these to be made public immediately).
What I do know is that the LLTNPA selected the invitees to the consultation meeting very carefully and the range of “stakeholders” was limited: recreational and other organisations were not invited to the main workshop though there was a later briefing. No wonder the NPPP gives no consideration to issues like the destruction of landscape and failures in conservation in the National Park.
Nowhere in the NPPP are the organisations which represent people who visit the National Park treated as partners or even key stakeholders. A fundamental failing – although of course the glossy brochure is full of photos of the people such organisations represent.
How does the NPPP fit with other Strategies and Policies?
Unlike the Cairngorms NPPP, which attempted to describe how their NPPP fitted with out plans that had been agreed for the area, the LLTNPA makes almost no mention of other local plans or targets and how they might feed into the NPPP. There are references to national plans and strategies, but generally this is again at a very high level and so broad as to be meaningless.
Part of the issue is that the LLTNPA has far fewer plans and strategies than the CNPA and those that it does have tend to be focussed on developments (Callander and Balloch). It does though have a biodiversity plan, Wild Park 2012 (see here) with lots of detailed actions and targets. How this fits with the NPPP, how its informed priorities and whether the LLTNPA is committed to a new biodversity action plan is unclear.
The draft NPPP would have us believe it is joined up to everything when the reality is it appears joined up to almost nothing and practically empty of real commitments from either the LLTNPA or the organisations it has identified as its partners.
Not all of this is the fault of the LLTNPA, much comes down to austerity – our public authorities are no longer being allowed to plan to do things which could improve everyone’s lives. But in my view our National Park Authorities out loud about resources, not just for themselves but for other partners, if any of its statutory objectives are to be achieved.
What needs to happen
People and organisations need to put pressure on the LLTNPA and the Scottish Government. A good start would be to respond to the NPPP objecting to the failure by the LLTNPA to review progress under the existing NPPP, consider the multitude of information about what is actually going on in the Park and the serious issues it faces. People should then use that reality to inform what issues they would like the LLTNPA to address in the new plan.
The LLTNPA needs to ensure that the new NPPP is based on a proper analysis of the evidence it holds and needs to take a critical look at how its being doing in relation to its statutory objectives.
I will cover the detail of this in posts over the next 10 days.
Following the downpour at Cairngorm (see here and left) the photo above taken last week shows the impact of such flood events. While Natural Retreats and HIE’s recent mismanagement of Cairngorm has contributed to this, the problems go back much longer and the large car parks for example contribute to the rate that water runs off the hill. The motor car (which most people including this writer rely on for transport much of the time) has been central to the unsustainable development of Cairngorm ever since the ski road was constructed. As part of the Cairngorm masterplan (see here) Natural Retreats included a section on transport. The analysis and proposals in it are far more sensible than the Ptarmigan re-development or installation of snowflex artificial ski slopes above the Coire Cas carpark but do they offer a way forward?
Natural Retreats’s brief summary of the transport situation at Cairngorm, if you read past the marketing speak, is pretty damning:
Poor public transport, no imaginative solutions such as those used in the Alps (where school buses are used to transport people up valleys in the holidays), no bike or ski racks, a lack of path connections. So what are Natural Retreats’ solutions?
While there are some good ideas here the package has a whiff of self-interest. The short-term proposals should be easy to do, as they are all minor improvements, but could be read as a smokescreen for implementing parking charges at Cairngorm (which is one of HIE’s objectives). There is no information about how they, or more importantly the medium and long term proposals, could be financed despite the owner of Natural Retreats, David Michael Gorton, being extraordinarily rich – but then the way his companies are operating currently at Cairngorm is to take money out of the area rather than invest in it. Its not surprising therefore that the proposals such as hybrid buses, which the owner of Natural Retreats could afford to pay for now, have been scheduled as “Medium to Long Term”. There is no indication that he is going to invest anything that does not guarantee large immediate returns (like car park charges) or will not rely on the public sector to pay for everything while NR take the profit.
The proposals have been developed without any consultation. Under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy, approved last year, Natural Retreats were supposed to be part of a Cairngorm & Glenmore Transport Working Group involving Highland Council, HITRANS, Forest Enterprise Scotland and the Cairngorms National Park Authority. Its not even clear whether this group has ever met let alone been and its telling that Natural Retreat’s refer to a slightly different group of stakeholders in the transport section of the masterplan including “the Glenmore Masterplan” (is this the same as the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy?), the CNPA, Cairngorms Connected and Active Cairngorms. In other words HIE’s and NR’s proposals don’t appear joined up with the plan developed by the CNPA. There are a couple of specific examples of this.
NR’s proposals make no reference to the action point in the Glenmore Strategy that there should be a “Feasibility study for improved public transport and park and ride approach”. So, does Natural Retreats support a feasibility study or not and will it contribute to the cost?
There is also no reference to the proposal for a new cycle route up to Cairngorm, the cycle link, as set out in the map below:
On the other hand, HIE and NR have plucked out of a hat a new proposal for a “tourism train like that seen at Chamonix or York”. I am a fan of the Chamonix train – its free if you are staying in the valley – but to treat a back of a fag packet idea as a proposal without any consultation or working with other people on how it will be financed tells you everything you need to know about how NR and HIE operate.
What needs to happen
While some of NR’s proposals could support the objective of the Glenmore Strategy that, there should be “Improvements to transport and access infrastructure will increase public transport and non-motorised access to the area from Aviemore and beyond; and walking and cycling within the area”, they are unlikely to “Make a significant change in the way people access the area to increase the proportion of non-car access” because of the way they have been “developed”. Natural Retreats needs to start consulting the local community, business, visitors, conservation organisations and other stakeholders and to support structures set up in the National Park before it does anything else.
Back in March, hillwalker Rod McLeod, wrote an excellent report (see here) on Walk Highland about new track work he came across in Coilessan Glen, west of Loch Long, in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The glen is an important recreational route, being taken by the Cowal Way, and has recently become even more popular since Cnoc an Coinnich, the hill south of the Brack, was promoted to Corbett status.
Forestry Commission Scotland owns the land and also promote a cycle ride here:
Ardgartan shore and Coilessan Glen
Cycling – 6.9 miles / 11.0 km
Forest rides, loch shore and a fun descent back to the start.
Start by following the trail south towards the farm at Coilessan and round by the loch shore – you might just glimpse otters here. Then it’s a climb through red and roe deer’s territory in the shadow of Cnoc Coinnich before heading back down Coilessan Glen. Take a breather on the way to admire the view over Loch Long towards the Clyde!”
You might think therefore FCS would have an interest in improving the landscape and amenity in the area. The Argyll Forest Park is the oldest in Britain, created in 1935 and in its blurb the FCS exhort people to “Discover this beautiful, tree-cloaked corner of Scotland to walk, ride and relax in Britain’s oldest forest park.”
Instead FCS has upgraded part of the existing track network in Coilessan Glen by dumping aggregate on the earlier track. There is no planning application on the Loch Lomond and National Park Planning portal and the LINK Hill track group (see here) was not aware of the track through the prior notification system. While its possible the LINK hill track group missed the notification, its also possible that because this was an “upgrade” to an existing track the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority did not have to be notified (I will try and find out).
A sizeable new quarry has been created to source the new material for the track (the boulders in the middle ground are large) and gives some idea of how much aggregrate has been dumped on top of the existing tracks. In my view this should have required planning permission in the National Park.
The quality of the finishing – there was no evidence that machines are still on site or that the work is not regarded as complete – is extremely poor. It might be more accurate to say non-existent in places. Its does not appear likely that the FCS will try and extract trees up this corner so what is the argument for leaving it like this, apart from cost? This should not be acceptable in a National Park, whatever the commercial imperatives to extract timber.
The Dukes Path has been spared the upgrading work so far and gives an idea of what the tracks looked like previously. The silt trap is to catch the silt that is being washed down from the new track just above. The crushed schist forms a very fine material which is likely to continue to wash out of the new track surface for some time.
The lack of care for the landscape at the micro level is demonstrated not just by the abandoned pipe and decapitated cone but by the spoil heap at the side of the “new” track. The lack of care at the landscape level is demonstrated by the conifer replanting either side of the Dukes Path. This was one of the few sections of the Dukes Path where the walker is not hemmed in by forest on either side but but instead of using the felling as an opportunity to create a more diverse landscape, the replanting will have obscured the view completely in another 20 years.
This photo also illustrates difference between repairing a track surface compared to the upgrading work at Coilessan (below). The bare bank on left appears to date from original construction.
The history of a lack of care here is also demonstrated by the spoil to the left of the new track which has partly revegetated. It may date from earlier tree felling. Material from the new track will erode down the hillside.
The surface of the track is now firmer than two months ago, when Rod McLeod took his photos, and appears to have consolidated to an extent. I passed the Duke of Edinburgh Group shortly after taking this photo and asked them to rate the track and the walking experience. “Terrible” was the response.
Is this the way we would be treating what was a fine section of burn?
Compare the size of the former track on left with the upgraded one. Are bends this size really necessary?
In order to widen the track, further excavation of banks and ditches has been undertaken in places. The vegetated area bottom right represents former bank, a section behind appears to have been scraped bank behind that vegetated. I could see not evidence that any attempt had been made to store and replace turf over excavated areas, even in places such as this where there are native trees behind which one would hope will be left in place during the felling. The LLTNPA rightly requires vegetation to be restored in hydro track construction – even if it does not happen much of the time – and similar standards should be applied to forest track construction.
Will FCS do anything to improve this once the trees are extracted?
They have done very little to improve this section where felling is complete and indeed appears to have pre-dated the track. So, if the new track was not need for felling (top left) why is it needed now? Forest tracks have become larger and larger to accommodate bigger, heavier vehicles – just as in hydro track construction. The bigger the machines we use to work in the countryside, the bigger the tracks and the impact on landscape.
The contrast between the footpath construction in the upper part of the Glen and the track are quite stark. How can the FCS apply such difference standards? My 1980 1:50,000 map shows just a footpath, no track, up the Glen but now there is only a path in the upper part. A relief.
You can hardly see this plastic culvert under the path.
The care taken with the path contrast with the final section of the new track which finishes not far above.
The felling and replanting in background (slopes of Brack) all took place without this track “upgrade” demonstrating that there was no need for works of anything like the extent of those that have been undertaken.
How does this compare with the FCS blurb: “Ardgartan (meaning the High Garden in Gaelic) is at the heart of an area of vast natural beauty. The forest of Sitka and Norway spruce is an ideal habitat for red squirrel, roe deer, buzzards and owls. Mixed woodland along the many small rivers and burns is home to otters, kingfishers and bats.”
Even in the dense part of the forest, the upgraded track is visible from afar.
What needs to happen
The FCS needs to apply consistent standards of practice and up its game in our National Parks. In places, such as on east Loch Lomond, its doing some fantastic work to remedy past mistakes, in others, like here, it appears nothing has changed.
The LLTNPA meantime needs to start focussing on stopping any further destruction of landscape quality in the National Park through track construction, whether hydro schemes or forestry. In my view landscape protection and enhancement should be the number one priority in the new National Park partnership plan – instead of visitor management. Its not visitors that are destroying the landscape – their impacts are temporary – but how the land is managed. If the LLTNPA does not act, the very reason why people visit the National Park will disappear.
The LLTNPA and FCS need to start working together on these issues and start engaging the public about the quality of the “visitor experience” in conifer forests and how this might be improved.
While looking at the Ledcharrie Hydro last Tuesday (see Sunday’s post), members of the Munro Society asked me whether I knew of any well-designed and executed hydro schemes in our National Parks which they could refer to comparison purposes. My immediate response was the Loch Gynack schemes at Kingussie. Asked why? The intakes have been well located and there is very little new access track but the real learning point is that construction methods have been far more sensitive than is normally the case in hydro schemes.
I have been been meaning to blog about them since visiting in February so thanks to the Munro Society for the prompt. There are three schemes on the River Gynack: I will consider the lower two here and the upper one in a further post. While the lower two are atypical, being small, located in woodland and being built on the sites of historic hydro schemes which had fallen into disuse, they still demonstrate.
Gynack Scheme 1 – Kingussie Community Development Company
The Community Scheme is tiny, 15 KW, and I almost walked past it after parking by the golf club to walk up the river Gynack – a good sign. The idea behind the scheme was to raise money for the local community and it has been built on a section of river which previously was used to provide hydro electricity back in the 1920s, on land more recently gifted to the community for that purpose. Unlike many hydro planning applications, including the upper Gynack Schemes, the Community Development Company provided a full overview of the scheme in one document, including why an earlier scheme approved in 2011 for an Archimedes Screw had been abandoned (see here). It includes photos of how the area looked previously.
The intake weir has been constructed against the old 1920s intake. The key thing to note is its a true run of river scheme. There has been no significant damming of the river and as a result the intake structure has a very low profile, unlike many of the hydro intakes in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which have raised water levels and are taller structures as a consequence. There are still exposed section of concrete at the intake, but this is far less than usual and although they have not been faced with natural stone, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, to its credit did require:
“Details of the final finish of all concrete work which shall reflect the requirement to encourage natural weathering and colonisation by algae. (e.g. use of textured formwork) Details for any protective fencing, and railings.”
This is probably the worst view of the scheme but positive features include: the edge of the pipe where it exits the dam (top left) has been finished in stone; the work to stabilise the river bed below this has been done by embedding rounded boulders in concrete mirroring the loose boulders in the river bed; and vegetation has been replaced around the rip rap bouldering that has been used to reconstruct the bank.
The power house has been constructed just 4m below the intake on a beautiful section of river by the former powerhouse (a remnant of the old pipe can be seen between the tree and powerhouse and there was a concrete base here previously). It is however tucked away and hard to see from above and the finishing, apart from the brick is good. The line of the pipe to the powerhouse is marked by the boulders on the bank on the left. In summer, when the trees are in full leaf, it would be even easier to miss.
Gynack Scheme 2
The mid-Gynack scheme has been constructed by the Pitmain Estate and runs from Loch Gynack to near the top of the golf course. Again its atypical because there was a scheme here constructed in the 1920s to provide electricity to the estate. Loch Gynack was dammed at that time and the old dam had fallen into disrepair and was leaking. The new dam has not raised water levels.
The profile of the new dam is low, and hardly visible from any distance, but close up the finishing is not good, with concrete wing walls which would be better faced with natural stone and metal railings contrasting with the wooden railings used in the Community Hydro. Why cannot our National Parks enforce a consistent approach which maximises use of natural materials?
However, and this is a big positive, the use of rip rap bouldering is minimal and may even revegetate in due course. Even better, I had not checked the line of the buried pipe beforehand, but could not see where it went, a sign of very successful restoration.
Lower down, I believe the pipeline runs under the track, although its been done so well it I cannot say this with certainty. The track however has already blended into the landscape, unlike most of the tracks featured on parkswatch. Positive features include: the edges of the track are vegetated and there was no sign of spoil spilling down the bank on left; the track is narrow, forcing vehicles to keep to the same line; and as a consequence the centre of the track is revegetating. This track, while going nowhere (its a dead end) provides a good walking experience.
Another photo demonstrating how good the restoration of vegetation has been. The line of the buried pipe that leaves the powerhouse can be seen, mainly due to the lack of rushes, but there is no bare ground at all. The contractor must have saved all the turf removed to bury the pipe and has then replaced it. This is something very rarely seen in hydro developments where failure to store and re-use turves is usually all too evident. The whole is only marred by the blue penstock.
The tailrace has also been well finished and the concrete around the pipe is almost invisible while again the rip rap bouldering between the tailrace and the river has been kept to a minimum. The landscape and ecological issue here is not the hydro scheme, or how it has been constructed, but rather earlier attempts to engineer the River Gynack which can carry huge volumes of water and threatens Kingussie. As part of river engineering, a separate planning application has been approved to construct a flood overflow channel from higher up the river down into Loch Gynack which I will consider in a post on the Upper Gynack hydro scheme. Here, the consequence of the river engineering is to narrow what once would have served as a flood plain, and the construction of a powerhouse here reduces the likelihood that will ever be reversed.
Above the intake, the River Gynack has been extensively engineered and you can see older engineering attempts to contain the river left and newer right.
Lessons and differences between our National Parks
I will consider what our National Parks can learn from all three Gynack hydro schemes in my next post on the upper Gynack scheme.
Meantime, its worth reflecting that while the Cairngorms National Park Authority, unlike the Loch Lomond NPA, does not have specific planning guidance on renewable energy developments (and might therefore be seen to be behind the LLTNPA), its planning committee consider all hydro planning applications (unlike the LLTNPA which delegates these decisions to staff). I believe that this makes a big difference, particularly in areas where Board Members live, where they have to be able to explain and account for these schemes to local communities who, as in the Gynack Schemes, may walk by the hydro on a daily basis. Landowners know this too and are incentivised to follow the highest standards. By contrast the LLTNPA staff who have been delegated powers to decide most hydro schemes are remote from everyone who has an interest in them and are unaccountable. As a consequence their Supplementary Planning Guidance has been all too easy to ignore (as in Glen Falloch).
The CNPA has had hydro disasters of course, including Glen Bruar (see here) and Corriemulzie by Braemar. The Bruar scheme though in a sense reinforces the point because its so remote there is no local residents, apart from estate employees to care about it – this reinforces the need for our National Parks to include as Board Members outdoor recreationists and ecologists who care about what happens in wild land. Meanwhile at Corriemulzie (which I will cover in due course) the local community has recognised things have gone wrong (its a community hydro) and are co-operating with the CNPA to try and restore the damage.
Over the last couple of years, concerns in the outdoor community about the impact of hydro schemes has increased significantly and on Tuesday I went out with 6 members of the Munro Society http://www.themunrosociety.com/ to share knowledge and views on the ground. The Munro Society’s first objective is “To provide an informed and valued body of opinion on matters affecting the Munros and Scotland’s mountain landscape” and as part of this they have decided to survey the impact of hydro schemes. We went to the recently completed – or should that be compleated? – Ledcharrie hydro in Glen Dochart on what was a pretty wet day.
There was no machinery left of site, which is an indication that the developer, Glen Hydro Development Ltd, believes the work is finished. While I had seen plenty of hydro tracks with oversteep batter sides (banks) – which is contrary to the Loch Lomond and Trossach’s National Park Authority’s Supplementary Guidance on Renewables (see here) – I had not seen mounds of earth, as on the right. The way the land lies here, they are totally out of place and have changed the landscape. These things should matter in a National park.
Afterwards, I checked the planning application.
The diagram left shows the mounds of earth on the right of the track were supposed to be temporary. Why then are they still there?
The width of the new track is in places extraordinarily wide, as the double gates illustrate. Double gates have also been left in place at the Glen Falloch Hydro Scheme. One way the LLTNPA could help ensure tracks are narrower is by requiring all double gates to be replaced by single gates after construction has finished.
The LLTNPA’s Supplementary Planning Guidance actually recommends tracks are not even one gate wide:
Where tracks are to be retained, especially in locations which are sensitive in terms of landscape impact, they should be restored from the specification required for construction vehicles and be reduced in width to the minimum required for ongoing quad bike (or similar) access.
The LLTNPA’s Chief Executive subsequently clarified in a letter to Mountaineering Scotland that this should mean tracks are no more than 2m wide, which would allow for a vegetated central strip, except on uphill sections and bends where he has stated 2.5m is acceptable.
At Ledcharrie the planning documentation confirms this approach:
“Permanent access tracks will be restored to their original condition upon completion of the works. Temporary access tracks will be removed and the surrounding ground reinstated upon completion”.
A permanent track from the powerhouse to the primary intake (surfaced with local crushed stone and about 2 metres in width).
Now I think this is extremely welcome. Two metres is quite wide enough for a landrover or quad bike and would force vehicles to follow the same line along a track, allowing vegetation to establish in the middle of the track. Talking with members of the Munro Society they agreed. Maybe we need a compulsory National Standard for hill tracks in Scotland. The problem at Ledcharrie however is that almost everywhere the planning documentation for the track, and the LLTNPA’s own standards, have been ignored.
The tape measure here is extended to its maximum, 3m. The width of the track is close to 6m and there has been no attempt to restore the banks on either side creating a 9m broad scar up the hill. This should be totally unacceptable anywhere, let alone in a National Park, which says it believes uphill sections of track should just be 2.5m wide.
Not all the track restoration is as bad and there is short section above the double gate (above) where it almost meets the 2m specification and there has been a reasonable attempt to restore the land to its original condition. Why here but not elsewhere is a question worth asking? It seems totally arbitrary.
Even here, though, all is not as it should be. On the left bank the developer appears to have run out of peat to place on top of the bouldery soil. The Planning documentation required a:
management plan for the whole site shall be submitted and approved by the Planning Authority. This shall include details of:
The storage and management of the different habitat types and turves of different sizes and depths; and
Coding of habitats to ensure habitat turves are reinstated in the correct areas
Unfortunately the LLTNPA does not generally add documents required in a planning consent to the planning portal so its impossible for the public to see plan for retention of turves was agreed. The photos show however that whatever happened, insufficient care was taken in removing and restoring turves, with the result that large areas of ground have been left bare.
The planning consent also included a specific requirement that:
Turves should be reinstated over the pipeline as soon as possible to ensure maximum restoration.
The photo (above) shows this never happened – the problem is the LLTNPA is not monitoring its planning requirements on an ongoing basis through construction with the result they are ignored. While this is a failure, in landscape terms, the Munro Society members were generally agreed that the main landscape concern is the track because the vegetation above the pipe, although not restored properly, is likely to recover quite quickly.
The Munro Society team had between them been up almost every 30m bump in Scotland and besides the hill chat, one of the pleasures of going out with them was hearing what such experienced hill goers thought about various aspects of the hydro development. I have rarely seen a constructed stone culvert in the LLTNPA hydro schemes as above. They approved. While the track at Ledcharrie is far too broad, increasing its impact on the landscape, almost every culvert pipe had been properly finished, (unlike the Glen Falloch schemes). Just why contractors are good at one thing or in one area but then fail totally in others is another question that needs to be asked. I suspect the problem is a lack of monitoring from the LTNPA to ensure consistent high standards. If the problem is lack of resources to do this, the answer is simple: re-direct resources away from chasing innocent campers and direct them to protecting our landscape. The impact of even the most irresponsible of campers is temporary, the impact of these track is, in human timescales, permanent.
Just upstream of the culvert though, Stuart Logan, Munro Society President spotted that this. No-one present thought that lining stream beds with concrete is acceptable (this was the first time I had seen this). How could this happen in a National Park?
The track above the culvert was also very poor, not only far too wide, but it had been lined with blocks which appear to have been created by the developer blasting through rock bands where the soil was shallow. The end result looked more appropriate for a quarry than a National Park.
Another thing I had not seen was the use of netting in an attempt to hold soil in place at the edge of a track. Here the netting has totally failed and filled with material that has slumped down the slope, a consequence of the bank/edge of the batter being too steep. On the top right you can see how soil and rock, which could have been used to help reduce the angle of the slope, has been left dumped on top of vegetation.
On the downside of the track, below the scar in the photo above, the material excavated to create the track had been dumped on vegetation and no attempt has been made to restore this. The drainage ditch is a later addition bu,t instead of using the new turves to help restore the ground elsewhere, they had been left scattered on the neighbouring ground (large turf centre)
We had a good discussion about the main intake on the Ledcharrie burn. There was general agreement that the intake was well located being tucked below the level of the banks and surrounding ground and would not be visible from afar. There was debate about whether the rip rap embankment, in this case partially embedded in concrete, could have been designed better. I asked people about the concrete dam walls, pointing out the LLTNPA’s Supplementary Guidance suggests these could be faced in stone, although I had never seen this. Someone pointed out there was plenty of material available to do this from the old dyke behind the intake (centre of photo). So why not?
We then walked down the track a bit before heading up to the second intake which I had only realised was there because of the disturbed ground above the pipe. You could not see it from below and some of those present had doubts about whether there was a second intake – a really good sign! Again the visual impact of the intake itself was not significant in landscape terms, although the concrete walls could have been faced with stone.
The main difference in impact between the two intakes came down to the access track.
The first intake is hardly visible from 100m away except for the access track and turning area. (The burn slanting right to left has been diverted so it now enters the Ledcharrie burn above the intake. Another restoration failure can be seen centre far side of river – a patch of bare ground created because turves and topsoil were not properly stored).
The second, and more minor intake, has no access track and the ground has been completely restored and to a higher standard than that on either side of the track below. The line of the pipe and temporary construction track will probably have disappeared within a couple of years. Everyone thought this was great, its how hydro schemes should be.
This then raised the question of why access tracks are needed. I explained that the main reason to access the intakes is to clear them of vegetation. This can be done by a person with a rake. This raised the question of why, if maintenance staff are expected to walk to the second intake, couldn’t they also walk to the first intake?
This is what the LLTNPA’s Supplementary Guidance says should happen:
It is expected that any new access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored unless there is overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development.
The problem is that LLTNPA have not followed their own guidance. Had they done so and the track been removed, or restored to the condition of the old path/track which runs up the glen and then over to Balquhidder by Kirkton Glen (photo below), there was agreement that this hydro would have been quite acceptable.
There was a good discussion too about how many people used the old path and whether footfall would increase as a result of the new track (we were passed by one walker). While people were generally appalled by the standard of construction of the track, there was a recognition that in terms of both landscape value and recreational use, this was not one of the most outstanding areas of the National Park. While we didn’t reach a definitive conclusion, there was a feeling that if the track could be restored to an acceptable standard, then leaving it in place in this instance was just about acceptable.
The problem though is the message that the LLTNPA is giving to developers. Glen Hydro Development Ltd is part of a suite of companies, all with the same Directors but split into separate companies (which both limits liabilities but means that only limited financial information is available as small companies are exempt from producing full accounts). Adam Luke Milner, besides being a Director of Glen Hydro Ledcharrie, is Director of 19 further companies, mostly hydro schemes, including ones at Kinlochewe, Chesthill, Fassfern, Glen Dessary, Loch Eil and Corrimony Farm. Richard Haworth is also a Director of most of these companies. If developers can get away with unacceptable standards in a National Park, they will try and get away with poor standards anywhere. Ledcharrie is yet another indication that making money, rather than care of the environment, is the main motivation of the people financing and benefitting from hydro developments.
An added complication at Ledcharrie, and a number of other Glen Hydro companies, is that on 1st March 2017 a Jan Tosnar was appointed Director and now appears to have a controlling financial interest in these companies (50-75%) through parallel companies called Renfin Ledcharrie, Renfin Chesthill etc based in Czechoslovakia. What appears to have happened is first the farmer/landowner agreed with a developer they could develop a hydro (for a rent) but then these schemes have changed hands and most of the profit is now not just being channelled out of the area, but out of the country. In other words these hydro schemes will create little economic benefit for the area but are leaving a permanent impact on the landscape. Our National Parks should be exposing these issues and engaging with local communities and recreational organisations to devise better alternatives.
What needs to happen
I would like to see our National Park Authorities engage with people who care about the landscape about hydro schemes, both about where they might be acceptable but also in developing standards for how they are constructed and restored and thinking about how economic benefits could be retained in the local area. I know the Cairngorms National Park Authority has met with the Link Hill Tracks group, its time the LLTNPA started a similar engagement with a view to strengthening how it implements and enforces its Supplementary Planning Guidance. I would suggest a day out with members of organisations such as the Munro Society would be a good place to start.
At Ledcharrie, the LLTNPA needs to make public what plans it actually agreed following the granting of planning permission and then enforce them.
How you can help
Munro Society volunteers are starting to monitor hydro schemes across Scotland and will feed the results of their surveys to Mountaineering Scotland who has agreed to take up issues with Planning Authorities. This is a huge task and they are looking for more volunteers. If you could help or have photos of hydro schemes outwith the National Parks please contact them athttp://www.themunrosociety.com/contact-us:
I have agreed to co-ordinate surveys within our National Parks, so if you have photos or time to contribute to that please contact Nick.email@example.com
I predicted months ago that the track that Natural Retreats unlawfully created at the Shieling, and which was subsequently granted planning permission by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, would promote flooding and be subject to erosion (see here). My thanks to the reader who, in the downpour on Tuesday, visited the shieling to record what was happening at the Cas Gantry (works which Highland Council agreed did not require planning permission because they were “de minimis”), the new Shieling hill track and down below at the Coire Cas car park. The photos tell a powerful tale.
Water overflowing the drain created above the bulldozed slope and running down beside the Cas Gantry. You can see why the green fertiliser pellets have been washed away. The erosion has got worse since photo (left) previously featured in Parkswatch. Highlands and Island Enterprise and Natural Retreats have clearly done nothing to address the problem.
The erosion is even worse directly adjacent to the Cas Gantry, where water has removed all the top soil (the hare found strangled last week was under the girders to left of photo). Before Natural Retreats was allowed to undertake any work here, full planning permission should have been required, including hydrological surveys.
Below the gantry, the water runs down the bank which was re-seeded at an earlier date. This has helped limit the damage but for how long? No slope as steep as this will be able to withstand this amount of water for long. The problem is the works at Cairngorm have altered the pattern of water flows at Cairngorm, channelling water onto new ground which will not be able to withstand its erosive force.
The unlawfully created Shieling hill track is on the slope below the bank. As predicted water is running straight down it and, after the dry spring and winter, one downpour has been sufficient to erode the track. The CNPA was warned that a track here was not only too steep, contravening SNH’s good practice guidance on hill tracks, but would serve to channel water more quickly off the hill, advice which it ignored. The suggestion from the North East Mountain Trust that the track be fully revegetated and that occasional use of vehicles over heather would do far less damage has so far been ignored.
Washed out stones now litter the Shieling Hill Track.
Below the bottom of the Shieling rope tow (far distance) and by the unlawfully re-graded bank, the track has become a burn. You can see how water from the bank which Natural Retreats claimed they had “improved”is flowing onto the track. There is no way of measuring how this compares to what happened before, but the destruction of vegetation on the bank is likely to have increased the rate of water run-off.
All this increased water run off is not only increasing erosion of the natural environment, its impacting on humans. The bottom of the Cas carpark was a raging torrent and is.being washed away and down into the lower Cas carpark. Below that of course is the Allt Coire Cas and the people of Aviemore.
What needs to happen
The only good thing about planning disaster at Cairngorm is that, unlike in the case of most hill tracks and other developments high up in the hills, what has happened is being closely monitored and well documented by activists. It should become a text book case of what not to do for every countryside planner in Scotland. It also provides all the evidence the Scottish Government should ever need about why ALL hill tracks should require full planning consent. What the hill track at Cairngorm shows is that as part of formal planning permission, all such tracks should require a detailed assessment of how they increase water run-off from the hill and what mitigatory measures, if any, could cancel this out. In my view where the impact cannot be 100% mitigated, the development should be refused – full stop! – as should have happened at Cairngorm.
I would never expect Natural Retreats to care about what has happened but the CNPA has repeatedly claimed that its concerned about flood prevention and limitation. So, when is it going to admit it has made a disastrous mistake at Cairngorm, start holding HIE and Natural Retreats to account and insist that they pay for a full hydrological survey which identifies options for addressing the problems highlighted here? As a first step, why not try North East Mountain Trust’s advice and re-vegetate the Shieling Hill track? As a second step, the CNPA could develop planning advice on hill tracks along with conservation organisations, re-inforcing the SNH guidance and supplementing this with information on flood prevention.
Last week the Scottish Government, in response to SNH’s research into the disappearance of satellite tagged eagles (see here) which showed almost a third of golden eagles being tracked by satellite died in suspicious circumstances on grouse moors, announced some new measures to protect Scotland’s birds of prey (see here). Many of the eagles which disappeared did so in or around the Cairngorms National Park (with one in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park) – (see here for excellent map from Raptor Persecution Scotland) – and one of the measures announced is specific to the Cairngorms. While I can understand why RSPB Scotland and Raptor Persecution Scotland welcomed the measures – after the recent abandonment of a number of prosecutions any action from the Scottish Government is a relief – I think people should be sceptical about the proposals.
On the plus side:
The Scottish Government has pledged to “Immediately review all available legal measures which could be used to target geographical areas of concern”. Since one of the main geographical areas of concern is the Cairngorms National Park, this review should include all the measures that could be adopted by National Parks under their existing powers (see here). This should include a permit system for hunting, use of the planning system (e.g to stop the creation of yet more “persecution tracks” on grouse moors) and cross compliance (so estates where raptors disappear should cease to receive any public subsidies or financial assistance from our National Parks.
Also positive was the announcement that the “expert group” that will be set up will not just look at eagle persecution but “managing grouse moors sustainably and within the law” and this will include “the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls”. The expert group should also be tasked explicitly with looking at the impact of hill tracks and control of other predators, such as crow and stoat.
On the negative side:
The Scottish Government ruled out “giving the Scottish SPCA more investigative powers, in light of legal advice”. Its in the public interest this legal advice should be made public.
But then, strangely, it has decided to pilot special constables in the Cairngorms National Park in order to “Increase resources for the detection and investigation of wildlife crime”. This was not a new announcement, it has previously been included in the Cairngorms National Park Plan which explains why it was warmly welcomed by Grant Moir in his response to the Government (though to be fair to him he did condemn raptor persecution absolutely (see here)). It appears unlikely to achieve anything. If the SSPCA, which has professional staff, cannot be given powers equivalent to the police, what will volunteers achieve? What’s the CNPA going to do when when the lairds ask all their tenants to enrol as special constables – another case of self-policing? And will the CNPA allow Raptor Monitoring Workers and members of RSPB staff enrol as special constables? Its hard to see how this can work. In any case the proposal misses the point: the idea that special constables will be able to patrol miles of grouse moor is farcical and the employment of even 100 special constables is unlikely to lead to the recovery of any “disappeared” satellite tagged golden eagle and even if they do detect more crime, what we know from what’s happened over the last few months is that the landowners aren’t prosecuted anyway (see here). It would be far more effective for the CNPA to stop funding landowners to employ Rangers, employ Rangers directly and use them to enforce hunting byelaws.
The proposal to “Examine how best to protect the valuable role of gamekeepers in rural Scotland” is a farcical. The Scottish Government might as well have announced how can we continue to exterminate wildlife in Scotland, because that is what Gamekeepers are employed to do. Now I am not against Gamekeepers as people, they usually work in very difficult circumstances, in precarious employment which depends on their success at increasing grouse numbers. What we need though is to look at how we create new and different types of job in the countryside which Gamekeepers could move into: the National Park, which is tasked with promoting sustainable economic development, should be a the forefront of this.
In the category, too early to tell:
Whether the expert group is any more than yet another talking shop (the Moorland Forum existed for years) will depend on whether Roseanna Cunningham tasks it with achieving real change. There is a precedent for her to follow, the National Access Forum, (on which I sat) and which was a talking shop until Lord Sewell tasked us with developing proposals within six months which would result in better access rights and told the landowners if they didn’t agree, the Labour Government would legislate anyway. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government at present appears to have ruled out primary legislation when I believe the threat of national hunting legislation would concentrate minds as it did with access.
“Commission research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity.” There is already a large amount of research into grouse moors and its unclear what more research the Government believes is needed. In my view there is a gap and that is looking at the alternatives, in other words the cost of grouse moors, both economically and ecologically, compared to other ways the land could be used.
Wildlife persecution and our National Parks
While wildlife persecution is a far more obviously a problem in the Cairngorms than in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, it goes on in both National Parks. I have commented on Parkswatch before that its much easier to see a fox in urban Glasgow than it is in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.
In considering wildlife persecution – and that includes the actions announced by the Scottish Government last week – whatever standards and rules are adopted, they should be higher and better enforced in our National Parks than the rest of Scotland. What this should mean is that animals that may be lawfully culled elsewhere – such as crows and stoats – should be protected in our National Parks and cease to be treated as vermin. Protecting wildlife, so all can experience it, should be a fundamental part of what our National Parks are about. Our National Parks are a long long way from that.
It appears that the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority don’t even recognise there could be a problem. In its draft National Park Partnership Plan out for consultation (see here) there are references to “rich”, “varied” and “iconic” wildlife, with scarcely a mention of what this wildlife is and no mention of what is missing due to habitat degradation (conifer plantations and overgrazed hills) or wildlife persecution. There is no reference to the fact many upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the National Park are in unfavourable condition and what could be done about it. There is one reference to “important populations” of species such as golden eagles and Atlantic Salmon and that is it: there is no explanation about whether the number of breeding eagles in the National Park are what one would expect and not a single reference to raptor or wildlife persecution. The conservation purpose of the LLTNPA appears to be limited to keeping campers away from loch shores (which were once far more intensively used) and tackling a few invasive species rather than doing anything positive for wildlife or habitats.
While I have been critical of the CNPA, it is miles ahead of the LLTNPA in the priority it gives to conservation in general and wildlife persecution in particular. The most important thing is it recognises there is a problem “The satellite tagging reviews findings are deeply worrying” and also that it has pledged in its National Park Plan (see here) “to eliminate raptor persecution”. In the original draft plan the commitment was to improve raptor populations, which was hopelessly vague, and in my view the revised plan is significantly stronger. The problem is the means that the CNPA is proposing to address raptor persecution – such as special constables and working with landowners in the east of the Park – are not strong enough to work. It now though has an opportunity: the Scottish Government announcement in effect gives permission to the CNPA to launch a public consultation on all the legal measures it could adopt to eliminate raptor persecution including byelaws, use of the planning system and cross-compliance. The CNPA should take the opportunity and get on and do this (while the LLTNPA would be well advised to follow in their footsteps).
Natural Retreats proposals for two artificial ski slopes at Cairngorm, which HIE announced in April had been agreed as part of a masterplan (see here), would, if given the go-ahead, add to the environmental and financial disaster taking place at Cairngorm. The information on which this post is based was obtained through Freedom of Information – it should have been in the public realm. The secrecy and failure of Natural Retreats and HIE to consult publicly before developing any new proposals helps explain why these misconceived plans have been developed.
The Pre-Planning Feasibility document describes the artificial slopes, which would be located above the car park in Coire Cas as follows:
The initial proposal is to install two slope areas – a beginners slope of approximately 30m long x 60m wide in plan view to suit the land/building constraints and alongside this to allow progression – an intermediate slope of approximately 60m x 30m in plan view. The beginner’s area will be served by three Double sided QueueDodger® rope tow and the intermediate area served by a Doppelmayr Highline surface drag lift. The lifts would hold a maximum capacity of 135 people at any one time.
It is proposed that the slope should be constructed out of snowflex.
The proposed location is totally inappropriate
The impact on the landscape will be huge. No need to take my word for it, here is what the Cairngorm National Park Authority says:
So a highly visible development from afar which will impact on all visitors to Coire Cas, whether constructed in white or green, the two colours available:
Not only that but the Scottish Environment Protection Agency believe it could have an unacceptable impact on the ecology of the area:
The location is also wrong in terms of the logic of the pre-planning feasibility study which states there is a need to:
“Protect snow school operations in the winter and create a year round snow school offering”
Anyone who visits the Coire Cas Car Park regularly will know its extremely exposed to the wind. There is probably not a more exposed, and therefore worse location, for a low down artificial ski slope anywhere on the mountain. How could any snow school use this year round?
The justification for Natural Retreats’ proposal is wrong
Natural Retreats is proposing the slope should be constructed out of snowflex:
Unlike “dry” slopes, the friction is reduced through the misting of water across the slopes during operation. This uses the BritonMist® slope lubrication system including a fully engineered water treatment and filtration systems for slope cleaning. This system also has a fully engineered water recycling system
Here’s the justification from Natural Retreats’ pre-planning feasibility study:
3 ARTIFICIAL SKI SLOPE PROPOSAL In line with the intention to increase family focussed facilities, whilst also protecting snow school revenues and establishing a snow school operation all year round, plans have been developed to introduce a beginners and intermediate, artificial ski slope. This would be located close to the base station, in a more protected area improving beginner experience and allowing lessons to take place when the rest of the ski area may be closed due to adverse weather.
A “more protected area” indeed!
What Natural Retreats have not told explained in the documentation obtained through FOI, and apparently agreed by HIE, is:
How the lubrication system will work in freezing conditions? It won’t, so no beginners area therefore when its cold on the mountain but there is no snow.
Whether the artificial slope can be used when there is snow on it? You cannot use piste machines on snow flex so as soon as it snows, it is likely to become unusable
The impact of the piping system on the ground vegetation and soils. The documentation claims that snow flex can be easily removed but due to the piping system this is unlikely to be the case.
The basis for their claim that snowflex is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly option (the misting system is likely to make it more expensive to both construct and operate).
If HIE don’t want to take my word for this, perhaps they should start asking why Midlothian Council chose a totally different material, Neveplast, for the outdoor slope at Hillend:
The new ski slopes, 1.100 square metres in total, will be realized with Neveplast NP30 product. After a careful evaluation and testing of different materials the local council has opted for Neveplast surface which met all the guarantees required by the customer: Neveplast NP30 has been chosen among several competitors thanks to its unique properties of slipperiness, excellent lateral grip, low maintenance costs (no irrigation and drainage systems needed), the possibility to use the same equipment used on the snow, high safety standards, and for its extraordinary durability.
Natural Retreats’ useage figures in the Proposal Overview also raise interesting questions. 13,000 users a year comes to 35.6 users on average per day – a very low figure compared to the stated capacity of 210 users a day in summer and hardly viable (its about 4 people an hour). This suggests that Natural Retreats may have already decided that its not going to operate the artificial slope for much of the year or realises that the slope will be inoperable for much of the winter (for the reasons explained above). All the more reason that any business case for this investment by HIE should be made fully public.
The feasibility study claims there are at present “210,000 annual visitors (120,000 in winter and 90,000 in summer) with vast potential to increases”. Its pretty clear that the vast increase is not going to come from the artificial slope. I believe this is right because:
the potential attraction of an artificial beginners area low down on Cairngorm (“family focussed facilities”) is that parents could leave children there when there is insufficient snow on nursery slopes and go off skiing. If the artificial slope cannot be used, because it is so poorly located and constructed out of the wrong materials, the slope loses its purpose.
the same arguments apply in summer, why would families bring children to learn on an artificial slope, when there is little else for them to do? I guess Natural Retreats are hoping parents might leave their children while they take a trip up the funicular but there is no evidence to suggest that will happen. Where are the visitor surveys to inform the business case?
What then is the economic justification for this artificial slope? HIE needs to explain itself and why it has apparently agreed to give Natural Retreats yet more public money for something so poorly thought out.
What a proper case for an artificial ski slope at Cairngorm might look like?
There is a case for an artificial ski slope at Cairngorms which has been developed by the Save the Ciste Campaign http://savetheciste.com/campaign/ as part of its proposals to renew facilities in Coire na Ciste. Its well worth while having a look at their photos which show that in the last winter, skiing would have been possible in Coire na Ciste, when it wasn’t elsewhere in the mountain. The contrast between the StC proposals and those of Natural Retreats are striking:
their proposed artificial slope is on the west side of the Coire, facing east, out of the prevailing wind and generally sheltered.
their proposal artificial slope is tucked away and therefore would have far less impact on the landscape
their proposed slope is constructed out of neveplast, which can be used in snow, and can be pisted by machines, meaning it could be used throughout the winter.
There are still questions to be asked of course about the StC proposals, the impact of an artificial slope on the ecology of Coire na Ciste and whether it really could attract year round use, but what HIE and the public need to note is that a small voluntary group of skiing enthusiasts has produced a far more coherent proposal than Natural Retreats. Another reason to add to why HIE should terminate its lease with Natural Retreats and get them off the mountain.
A year after Parkswatch first started to cover the hydro schemes in Glen Falloch and highlighted thefailure of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority to follow its own best practice guidance (see here) that penstock and other materials should wherever possible be in colours that blend into the natural environment, the penstock above the A82 has been painted. A belated well done to the planners!
The improvement though, to my mind highlights the light concrete which holds the penstock in place and will take years to weather. Why can’t the LLTNPA also get Falloch Estates to face the concrete with natural materials as per its own Guidance?
I had asked the LLTNPA what is was going to do about the penstock last year and received this non-committal answer which failed even to admit that anything had gone wrong:
Its good therefore the LLTNPA has implicitly recognised that blue penstock are not good enough but it has a long way to go in Glen Falloch if all the penstock are to be painted. While the Eas Eonan hydro pipe is buried below this penstock, it then emerges to cross the River Falloch and the penstock there is still bright blue. Not visible from the A82 but highly visible from the West Highland Way.
I also noticed driving up the A82 that the blue penstock crossing the Alt Chuilinn (and part of that scheme) is still bright Lomond blue – the pipe (photo left) should have been placed underneath the bridge but again the LLTNPA ignored its own guidance. I think its fair to say therefore that the makeover of the penstock has only just started. That it has taken a year to get this far demonstrates a lack of will but the basic problem is the LLTNPA has allowed the Glen Falloch schemes to be developed with inadequate specifications in place (blue penstock that needed painting should have never been allowed) and then has not been properly monitored.
There is a real risk the Park will run out of time to ensure the schemes meet its own Guidance – it has three years to ensure the planning conditions are met – as has happened with the award winning Allt Fionn scheme (which I visited on Friday and will cover in future post).
While working on Tuesday’s post, I was delighted to get a letter (see here) from the acting Chief Executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Charlotte Wright, who has confirmed my claims (see here) that there is NO masterplan at Cairngorm:
So, the acting Chief Executive of HIE now considers the word masterplan inaccurate when it was the hie news release of 12th April, in which she was quoted, which introduced the term masterplan through its headline “Masterplan Agreed for CairnGorm Mountain”! While I do appreciate Charlotte Wright might not have seen the HIE News Release which quoted, either it was a deliberate attempt to mislead the public, a lie in normal parlance, or HIE staff would appear to have no understanding of the difference between a “Business Plan” and a “Master Plan”. Neither explanation inspires much confidence.
While the letter is in response to my FOI request, it contains another extraordinary claim:
The statement “we understand that CML have conducted a consultation with………….Scottish Natural Heritage”, which to most people would imply that these meetings took place without HIE being involved, is totally disingenuous. HIE staff appear to have been fully involved. How do we know? Through SNH’s FOI response to George Paton and myself which provided emails about the “consultation” meetings which included HIE staff members Keith Bryers and Susan Smith. Here is an example:
The problems with lack of transparency and misrepresentation at HIE go very deep. I had also asked HIE for the minute of the April HIE Board Meeting which approved the £4million loan to Natural Retreats but this is still not on their website. How the £4m (see here) could be agreed by the Board when Charlotte Craig, the Acting Chief Executive, claims in her letter above that “the outcomes postulated in the Business Plan are not finalised or certain of certain” is difficult to understand and I believe should be a matter of great public concern. The failure of governance is even worse because the Board know Cairngorm Mountain must be trading at a large loss (see quote below) and should also be aware that Natural Assets Investment Ltd which owns them are effectively bankrupt, so then to approve a loan without an agreed business plan seems quite extraordinary.
The minutes of the February HIE meeting have now been published (unlike other public authorities there appear to be no Board Papers in the public realm) and contain this reference to Cairngorm:
At Cairngorm, HIE staff were continuing to work very closely with operating company Natural Retreats, which was suffering from a complete lack of any significant snowfall to date during the 2016/17 winter season. Building local engagement through stakeholder relations remained a key area of focus. A revised masterplan for Cairngorm Mountain Ltd was expected to be presented to the HIE Board in June.
Ignore the misrepresentations to the Board – what local engagement to build stakeholder relations has taken place? – companies don’t have masterplans, only business plans. A masterplan would be for Cairngorm, not Cairngorm Mountain Ltd. Perhaps this is an error in the minute but unless there is after all a masterplan, it looks like the business plan was due to be completed in June but for some reason was approved by HIE, incomplete, in April. If this is the case HIE need to explain why.
Keen readers, who read all of Charlotte Craig’s letter, will have noted that HIE are, in response to my FOI, refusing to divulge the business plan for Cairngorm on the basis that it contains “commercial information that is not publicly available and the disclosure of which would harm the legitimate economic interests of Natural Retreats” and that there is “no public interest in Natural Retreats’ competitors being given access to confidential business information” . I think this is totally wrong and will appeal. The public interest is surely in knowing why the business plan is so good that HIE are prepared to commit a further £4m of public money to Natural Retreats when Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, in the 9 months till December 2015 (see here for full analysis), made an operating loss of £1,219,606 and ended up with net liabilities of £1,316,645. To make matters even more risky at the end of the same period its parent company, Natural Assets Investment Ltd, had net liabilities of £22,831,678. Just what is the public justification for lending public money to a company that only continues to function due to guarantees from its ultimate owner, the hedge fund manager, David Michael Gorton?
What needs to happen
The HIE Board need to get a handle on what staff are presenting to them about Natural Retreats and the plans at Cairngorm
Charlotte Craig, the Acting Chief Executive, needs to get a handle on what staff are doing and writing in her name.
HIE needs to explain why its lending £4m to a company that appears effectively bankrupt and whose business plan has not been finalised.
Audit Scotland should start asking some of these questions
I understand that Natural Retreats were not happy last week that their proposals for Cairngorm were obtained through Freedom of Information (see here). As John Hutchison pointed out on twitter in response to my post, the secrecy at Cairngorm rather undermines – or perhaps reinforces the need for! – the current Scottish Government consultation onengaging with local communities on decisions about land (see here). While the draft guidance states there is no need for additional consultation where statutory consultation is required, it appears Natural Retreats and HIE are planning to submit a bog standard planning application without any specific consultation with the local community, let alone with the recreational community or conservation organisations, as would be required if a proper masterplan was developed. No change then to the way HIE has always operated at Cairngorm, plans are developed in secret and then presented as agreed.
More development, high up on Cairngorm, is totally inappropriate
Before considering why HIE are pushing the development of the Ptarmigan, its worth stating clearly why the proposal is fundamentally flawed:
Its near the summit of Cairngorm, one of our finest and best known hills. Its not the sort of place where a National Park, whose mission is to protect our finest landscapes, should be allowing further development.
HIE and Natural Retreats will doubtlessly argue that the increased visual impact created by their proposals will not be that significant, but the job of the National Park should be to see that existing impacts are reduced, not increased.
In tourist terms, Cairngorm is covered in cloud for much of the time so why would anyone take a train up to near the summit to see…………….. nothing? The concept is all wrong. If you want to get people to take trains or gondolas up mountains, they need to finish somewhere with a view. In Scotland, this means taking people half way up the hill where they might get a view most days of the year, like the Aonach Mor gondola, not onto the Cairngorm plateau.
Most tourists, however, want more than a view, which after all you can see easily enough on film. They want to experience the outdoors in some way, which means a walk. Leaving aside the legal agreement, which prevents non-skiers from leaving the stop station, Cairngorm is not a good place for a walk most of the time – the weather is just too wild, though maybe Natural Retreats think will buy a ticket up the funicular so they can be blown about on a viewing platform. Of course, Cairngorm in fine weather is wonderful, which is why so many people care about the place, but those days are far to few to support mass tourism developments high on the mountain
For these reasons further developments high on Cairngorm are objectionable in principle, something which conservation and recreational organisations have been trying to tell HIE for over twenty years.
Why do HIE and Natural Retreats want to develop the Ptarmigan?
While its not clear at present why the earlier plans to develop the Day Lodge were dropped, the current proposals suggest this is all about the funicular. The risk of developing the Day Lodge into a visitor and conference centre is that on those wet and cloudy days, people would not have bothered to buy a ticket up the funicular.
The funicular was supposed to increase the number of summer visitors to Cairngorm but Natural Retreats figures (from last year) say it all: “210,000 annual visitors (120,000 in winter and 90,000 in summer) with vast potential to increase”. The aim of the new Ptarmigan development appears to be to try and attract more summer visitors to Cairngorm.:
The initial plan was to increase visitor numbers through the creation of three mountain bike trails down from the funicular top station, as mooted in press. However, it appears the other public agencies made it clear they would not relax the legal agreement preventing people from leaving the top station. This is not surprising. One could hardly justify mountain bikers leaving the stop station while pedestrians were stuck inside.
Once the mountain biking proposal was dropped, the only option was to try and think of ways of turning the Ptarmigan into a tourist attraction which visitors would want to visit even though they were unlikely to see anything and would not be allowed out for a walk. Hence the proposals for viewing towers in the top two photomontages and for a wrap around viewing platform added on to the existing building (purple area below):
And, in order to give people an “authentic” taste of the outdoors, a board walk out over the top of the funicular tunnel was proposed:
Inside, the idea is first to provide a visitor attraction:
Then, a much larger cafe so people have somewhere to go and spend money after viewing the exhibitions.
And finally, to encourage people arriving at Cairngorm to buy the ticket up the funicular, a partial facelift for the funicular entrance and funicular itself are proposed:
Why the proposals are misguided and what needs to happen
Whatever you think of the designs – and the firms that have developed them, 365 and 442, have some very skilled people – the problem is they are for a development in the wrong place:
Adding glass covered walkways and viewing towers to a visitor facility is a good idea but not appropriate for Cairngorm
The proposals for the exhibition may be interesting, but the place for a visitor centre is lower down the mountain, where people can go out afterwards and experience some of what has been shown as in Coire cas.
The blingy funicular upgrade might be a great idea for Blackpool but not Cairngorm
The basic problem is that HIE are still hooked on trying to increase funicular numbers in summer, still trying to make their asset pay. They don’t appear to understand most people who visit the National Park in summer want to be outside. Why would such people ever want to take the funicular when they have the whole of Glenmore to experience? A visitor centre might be a good option for a wet day but a visitor centre up the top of a mountain on a wet day will be a disappointing experience.
Maybe HIE has conducted proper visitor surveys providing evidence that lots of people visiting Glenmore would pay to visit such a facility and this has informed their decision to lend £4 to Natural Retreats – but somehow I doubt it (I will ask). Consultation is not HIE’s forte.
A little early engagement with all interests (and not just public authorities) – as recommended by the Scottish Government – would prevent HIE adding to the financial disaster of the funicular, for which it of course was responsible.
Meantime, there is no sign of any proper plan being developed for Cairngorm. HIE was tasked under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy with producing a Cairngorm Estate Management Plan – there is still no sign of this or the proposed Montane Woodland Project on Cairngorm and in my view both should have been agreed BEFORE any development proposals. The Cairngorms National Park Authority also asked Natural Retreats to produce a set of standards to guide their operations on the mountain and there has been no sign of this either.
Its time for the Cairngorms National Park Authority to start speaking up for Cairngorm and a first step would be to ask Natural Retreats and HIE to start consulting on all the other proposed plans before any development proposals are considered. If they are also feeling brave, they could point out to HIE and Natural Retreats that the priority for sustaining the local economy is maintaining winter visitor numbers, not summer visitors.
The chaos at Luss (see here) on the first weekend in May, was experienced at several other visitor hotspots in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, but most notably and predictably at Balmaha. The LLTNPA has an opportunity to reflect on what happened when its Planning Committee considers draft Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) for Buchanan South (see here) at its meeting today. The SPG is also very relevant to the controversial proposed housing development in the Balmaha Plantation (see here). This post considers whether the new SPG will help address the issues at Balmaha in a way fitting for a National Park.
There are strict rules on what can be included in Supplementary Planning Guidance, which can only expand on, not change Development Plans.
What the LLTNPA Development Plan, approved by the Scottish Government earlier this year, proposed for Balmaha (see above) was however extremely vague. It allowed considerable scope therefore for the Supplementary Planning Guidance to draw on the Park’s policies, and explain how these would be applied to the area.
In the event the SPG only covers three of the policies set out in the Development Plan, Housing, Economic Development and Visitor Experience. The reason for this is not explained but the SPG does not cover over policy areas which are very relevant to Balmaha such as Transport and Natural Environment, the village being bordered by the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve and the Highland Boundary fault.
Visitors and visitor management at Balmaha
While Balmaha is not readily accessible, it is the easiest place to get to on the east shores of Loch Lomond and, with Conic Hill providing one of the best viewpoints in Scotland for a hill of its size and with the West Highland Way providing a walk along the loch shore, its not surprising the village is a popular tourist destination. With a poor bus service most people arrive by car. With just a hundred odd places in the carpark, and the road north of the village designated a clearway, its hardly surprising that cars overwhelm the village on sunny weekends and bank holidays.
The Park has recognised this in its new draft National Park Partnership Plan (above), which rightly states the “the road network can become very busy at peak times” but then in usual fashion partly blames this on visitors “problems can be exacerbated by illegal and irresponsible parking of vehicles”. Actually, this “problem” is what the LLTNPA was set up to address and its challenge I would suggest (its not easy) is the provision of infrastructure to support visitors, including alternative means of transport to get to popular places like Balmaha.
The Supplementary Planning Guidance, disappointingly, says almost nothing about this.
There is a reference to improving water transport (light blue arrow) and the Sustrans cycle path (dark blue arrow) but nothing on how the issue of too many cars for too few car parking places with no alternatives will be addressed. For once I agree with Gordon Watson, the LLTNPA Chief Executive, who stated to the Stirling Observer that “additional overflow” car parking places are required. Such provision used to be available. A farmer opened up a field to provide for parking but was given no support to manage this – people set up tents to stay the weekend – so stopped doing so. This is the obvious solution, one that is used successfully in England’s National Parks, and one that should be revived, but there is no mention of this in the SPG. I suspect this is because it would require resources from the LLTNPA (such as its Rangers helping to manage traffic rather than spending time chasing away innocent campers).
The lack of join up with the East Loch Lomond Visitor Management Plan 2014-19 – which the SPG interestingly refers to as “draft” even though it is published – is glaring. That plan recognised the pattern of visitor pressure and committed to:
Establish a multi-agency peak period management regime that puts in place procedures for staff across organisations
That commitment appears to have been abandoned. Why? And who decided this?
Meantime, the transport policies in the approved National Park Development Plan would appear not to be worth the paper they are written on:
“Land will be safeguarded for, and support will be given to, the transport infrastructure proposals identified within Town or Village proposals maps”
“Modal change from private car to more sustainable transport modes within settlements including the provision of integrated new or improved transport infrastructure,”
The SPG contains no hint of this vision, or of the aspiration of past plans, yet alone how land might be used to achieve this. Another opportunity to make things happen, make things better, lost. It should not be difficult. On the continent many places, not just National Parks, use school transport at weekends and holidays to provide public transport to rural areas for visitors. Balmaha and east Loch Lomond is an obvious place to start given the road is not a through route.
The SPG contains almost nothing outdoor recreation in its broadest sense, the reason most people visit Balmaha in the first place – what the Park calls “Visitor Experience”. This is illustrated by the Balmaha strategic principles diagram (above) which includes nothing about how, once people have parked their cars in the car park, they leave the village. The green lines on the diagram indicate views to the Loch should be maintained but nothing about how people might access the loch shore and the National Nature Reserve, which is supposed to be a place people can enjoy nature. There is no obvious way to access this at present. The thinking of the LLTNPA appears to have gone backwards since the proposal, several years ago, to create a path along the loch shore south of the village (abandoned I understand because the ground is very boggy). To the north, the West Highland Way to Rowardennan offers brilliant walking but with no way to get back unless you are prepared to retrace your steps or go the full way and try your luck with a waterbus. A hop on hop off shuttle bus would open up the West Highland Way for far more people to enjoy.
There is also nothing about the lack of camping provision, the major issue being backpackers along the West Highland Way have nowhere to stop off at the natural stopping off point of Balmaha because of the camping management zone. This is the National Park’s welcome to walkers who come from all over the world. The LLTNPA in response to comments on the draft Development Plan saying a campsite was needed at Balmaha, indicated that there was nothing in the Plan to prevent this: the failure of the LLTNPA even to mention the need for a campsite in the SPG tells you I think that the LLTNPA has no intention ever of trying to make this happen. There is an obvious place for this: the former playing field, marked development site, within the pink circle in the diagram above and adjacent to where the West Highland Way enters the car park.
Developments in Balmaha
The focus of the Supplementary Guidance is on the LLTNPA’s Housing and Economic Development Policies which I believe confuses rather than clarifies matters:
New development within Balmaha should reinforce its existing development pattern and be of appropriate (generally small) scale.
What the LLTNPA means by “small-scale” however is not the same as what most people would understand by the term:
All new development should be of appropriate scale. It will be site dependant but generaIly groupings of 3-8 dwellings should be the most easy to set comfortably in more open landscape. Small groupings should be based on existing development patterns where one (generally larger) property faces onto the road, with other smaller properties behind. If there is a need for larger development (i.e. more than 5 houses) it should be divided by robust landscaping and areas of open land to reduce the impact of development
The Strategic Principles diagram above includes some grey lines on either side of the road (the dark blue line with arrows), increasing in density as they approach the centre of the village. This looks like the LLTNPA is proposing to allow ribbon development either side of the road even though this was not part of the Development Plan. This would explain why, unlike other settlements, the LLTNPA has not demarcated the village boundary. It also could explain why the people who I understand are the two main landowners, the Duke of Montrose and Sandy Fraser of the Oak Tree Inn, responded so positively to the draft Supplementary Guidance (see here) about opportunities for development.
The clarifications in the Supplementary Planning Guidance that the LLTNPA will allow more new build at Balmaha raises questions about why the Balmaha Plantation site (which is still waiting to go to Committee) ever needed to be earmarked for affordable housing. LLTNPA’s recently approved policy on Housing in small rural developments is that “Development on these sites should provide for 100% affordable housing”, so by allowing more housing at Balmaha, the need for affordable homes could be met without destroying what appears to be an area of ancient woodland. Except that, in Balmaha the SPG now qualifies that Park Policy: “Some open market housing will be supported where this is demonstrated as necessary to help fund the provision of affordable housing on site.” I expect the landowners will claim they can afford to construct very little affordable housing and that therefore the Balmaha Plantation site is still needed while very little affordable housing will be provided along the ribbon development. The effect of the SPG therefore will be to reinforce the current trends towards social segregation of people and housing in Balmaha.
Setting aside the question of how else to provide affordable housing, the Balmaha plantation proposal still appears to be a glaring anomaly within the context of the Development Plan and SPG. The SPG fails to refer to the LLTNPA’s Natural Environment policies – a chance to explain the claim, made by some, that the plantation is not really an Ancient Woodland site. It also fails to explain how the size and density of the Balmaha Plantation proposal fits with the definition of the type of small scale development the SPG wishes to see in the area, 16 rather than 3-8 units, with density decreasing as you move away from the village centre.
What needs to happen
The LLTNPA needs to start joining up its various plans and to start implementing actions it proposed to do in the past but has since, without explanation, abandoned.
The LLTNPA needs to revive the east Loch Lomond Visitor Management Group (which did not meet last year) but make this both representative (recreational organisations were not included) and accountable (it is not clear who signed off or agreed the last plan and the LLTNPA failed to provide any resources to make it happen).
The LLTNPA needs to start implementing its development plan policies on a consistent basis, rather than changing them so soon after they were adopted. If the LLTNPA won’t abide by its own planning policies, there is no reason why anyone else should.
Thanks to Nick Halls for these photos and for information which has informed the commentary.
The area around the former southern entrance to the torpedo station remains in a very poor condition with concrete barriers now replacing the plastic barriers across the broken entrance gates.
The gates, which were installed to prevent vehicular access to the former torpedo station following an amenity notice issued by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority (see here) and were then broken open (see here), appear to have had very little impact.
Inside the gate is even worse. There has been a fire, whether this was an attempt to burn off rubbish or burn down the gate is unclear.
And there is yet more fly tipping down the bank.
Clydebank Developments, who as far as I am aware are still owners of the torpedo site, have now had 9 months to clear up the site since the LLTNPA issued the amenity notice last year. The problem is that no-one is monitoring the site, the developer appears to have no presence, there are now far fewer police based in rural areas and the LLTNPA has devoted all its energy to chasing innocent campers rather than fly tippers who cause far greater problems. There is clearly no proper enforcement taking place. The local community and National Park deserve better.
It was good to see the head of Loch Long, which suffers from a massive litter problem – the worst in the National park – in pristine condition 10 days earlier. What a contrast to the torpedo site just down the road. Local community pressure to address the marine litter problems has clearly had a positive effect. They have been involved in clearing the litter themselves and received grant funding, which has recently finished, to pay for the litter to be removed. The problem is there are no adequate long term budgets to address the issue and, as the March meeting of the Arrochar and Tarbert Community Council noted, while Argyll and Bute allocation of £200k to clear up litter from beaches is very welcome, the Council’s coastline is as long as France!
Another small step forward is that the LLTNPA has recognised there is a marine litter problem in its new draft Partnership Plan – the word “marine” failed to appear in the last plan at all! This is what the new draft plan has to say about it:
The volume of marine litter affecting communities on Loch Long is a long-standing issue which requires innovative thinking to resolve. (P28).
“Innovative thinking” is another example of parkspeak, whose real meaning is that the LLTNPA is not proposing to spend any resources on the marine litter problem which blights the National Park over the five years of the new Partnership Plan.
While it would be great to be able to address the causes marine litter in the Clyde, which would require much greater enforcement action than happens at present (yes, that word enforcement again), when litter is washed up at the head of Loch Long it needs someone to pick it up, just like it needs someone to pick up the litter at the torpedo site or at Luss (see here) or Balmaha on busy weekends. The problem is the LLTNPA is so obsessed with the litter left by a few irresponsible campers, it cannot see the litter problem as a whole despite all the evidence on the ground.
What needs to happen
The LLTNPA needs to develop a proper litter strategy, as it promised to do several years ago and has never delivered – there is no mention of this commitment in the new Partnership Plan. Without a co-ordinated plan, its target, to see a reduction of litter in the National Park over the next five years, is meaningless and will never be met.
The LLTNPA also needs to start telling the truth. In the new Partnership Plan the LLTNPA claims “Much public investment has already been targeted in raising the quality of visitor facilities in the busiest areas improving car parks, toilets, information points, litter facilities, viewpoints and campsites”. Yes, its spent money on carparks, viewpoints and campsites – whether this has been well spent is a separate issue – but litter facilities and toilets?? So what is the gap between what is needed and what is provided? The Partnership Plan is completely silent. The LLTNPA continues to avoid the real issues facing the National Park.
After Highlands and Enterprise announced a masterplan had been agreed for Cairngorm, without actually releasing any details of its proposals (see here), I asked for these under Freedom of Information. I was refused (see here) and on 24th April I submitted a formal review request as required under Freedom of Information procedures. Meantime, a number of other FOI requests were submitted to other Public Authorities about what information they held about the proposals for Cairngorm and the first response was from Scottish Natural Heritage (well done SNH!). Along with the response letter were over 20 MB of documents.
The information SNH has provided shows that HIE’s claim that “the CML Master Plan is commercially sensitive and cannot be published at this time” is complete rubbish. There is NO commercially sensitive information in the document but HIE’s usual modus operandi is secrecy. It appears HIE’s main concern is to keep consultation about the proposals it has developed with Natural Retreats as limited as possible and to try and stitch up a deal with other public agencies before any consultation takes place. This is wrong.
Its still not possible from the FOI material to tell exactly what is being proposed at Cairngorm and, I am pretty certain, SNH and the other public authorities don’t know either. This is evidenced by an extract from a letter from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to Highland Council dated 17th March 2017:
The revised masterplan mentioned in the SEPA letter appears to refer to a brochure produced by Natural Retreats (one of several) which contains this photomontage, again undated:
Spot the difference with the earlier version below:
Yes, the label to the green line has been removed but not the line itself!
HIE in their press release on 12th April announcing the “agreed masterplan” for Cairngorm, focused entirely on the Ptarmigan and Dry ski slope and made no mention of a funicular tunnel boardwalk, the shieling garage extension or changes to the car park contained in the “revised masterplan”. Its not clear therefore whether these are now being proposed or not.
What does appear to have happened though is that proposals to develop mountain bike trails across Cairngorm have been dropped, for the time-being at least:
Having debriefed after the meetings we have decided to drop any plans for Mountain Biking from this masterplan which leaves our current plans focussing on the artificial ski slope and improvements to the Ptarmigan (email from Natural Retreats 26th October 2016)
Diagrams of what was being considered did appear in earlier versions of the “Masterplan brochures” produced by Natural Retreats:
The pre-planning feasibility document is focussed on the two new developments announced by HIE, an extension to the Ptarmigan and a dry ski slope, which suggests it is the most up to date document about what is being proposed. It also contains a statement which suggests that HIE and Natural Retreats are no longer proposing any proper masterplan as such:
Now normally a masterplan would require an Environment Impact Assessment – Flamingo Land is producing one for Balloch (see here) – so no EIA, no masterplan. HOWEVER, the screening response referred to is NOT on the Highland Council Planning portal although there is a decision letter dated 24th February 2016 screening opinion coire cas, which contains this statement (the capitals are as per the letter) which is very clear:
It is considered that Environmental Impact Assessment IS required for the development described in the letter and information accompanying your screening request.
I hope that the Cairngorms National Park Authority will support this and insist a proper Environmental Impact Assessment is submitted before any planning applications are considered but also that a plan is produced for the whole mountain. What needs to be avoided is a situation where Natural Retreats and HIE come back with additional proposals, such as mountain bike trails, at a later date. There needs to be a comprehensive plan for Cairngorm.
One thing the material does show is that whatever is actually being proposed, the “project” its well behind schedule:
I will cover the proposed new developments – which are to be financed through a £4m loan from HIE – in detail in a future post. Meantime here is a photomontage of the design and location of the proposed dry ski slopes (there is also a green option). Comments welcome!
That campsites can become “political” issues is demonstrated in Strathard where Fergus Wood, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Board Member, lost his Council seat on 4th May (see here). On 11th May he withdrew his planning application for a new campsite by the shores of Loch Ard on Ledard Farm (see here).
The Interests of Board Members of the LLTNPA
The day before I received a very interesting letter from the LLTNPA EIR 2017-039 Response Ledard farm refusing to disclose correspondence between the National Park and Fergus Wood about this application. The reasons cited for this are “commercial confidentiality” and data protection:
Correspondence in relation to pre-planning requests for advice typically includes personal information and information that in its nature relates to commercial interests of an individual or business. The provision of a pre-application advice service helps in the delivery of an effective planning system, and it is important that such advice is provided confidentially. The practice of providing confidential pre-application advice to all planning applicants as required is common place across Scottish planning authorities and prospective planning applicants engage in the pre-application advice process with a reasonable and legitimate expectation of confidentiality
Note how the LLTNPA avoids saying whether the application contains personal information or commercial interests in this case. In fact, if there was personal information such as phone numbers on correspondence, normal practice is simply to redact this. Moreover, the fact there are commercial interests behind most planning applications is not the same as saying this is “commercial” information which might be exempt under our Freedom of Information laws. While the public may not expect every piece of correspondence they have with the National Park or other public authorities to be publicly available, Fergus Wood is not an ordinary member of the public but a Board Member. What should be important in terms of ethical standards in public life is there is complete transparency where Board Members make planning applications. Indeed the Scottish Government and Cosla has issued guidance on this http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0044/00444959.pdf.
Procedures should be conducted in a consistent and transparent manner to avoid
suspicions that councillors may have prejudiced their positions
While this statement was written about councillors taking the decision, rather than making an application, the principle should apply to both. Its quite clear the LLTNPA does not understand this at all:
“This individual would have had no expectation that correspondence regarding a proposed business development would be released into the public domain.”
The problem is there has been no transparency, Fergus Wood managed to fail to declare he was a Board Member when making the application, failed to engage with people (including neighbours who objected to the application) and he paid for this locally. Local people do not like the way this case has been handled. I am pretty certain the Park’s response to the information request will only make them even more suspicious should Fergus Wood submit a new application once he has stepped down from the LLTNPA Board.
Context for the objections to the Ledard Farm campsite planning application
There is a shortage of campsites in the National Park and, as been stated in previous posts, its positive that Fergus Wood, as a Board Member, has been prepared to cater for campers, if not in his backyard at least in view of his front garden.
The unprecedented number objections to this planning application can, I believe, be accounted for by the camping byelaws. The Friends of Loch Lomond and Trossachs, who rightly have long been arguing the need for new campsites across the National Park, in their letter of support for this application said they did so because it would make “a positive contribution to the Your Park Initiative”. The problem in Strathard, however, is “Your Park”, the contorted “vision” the LLTNPA has for camping.
As partial compensation for the camping ban across most of the lochshores in the National Park, the LLTNPA needed to show it was doing something. It therefore promised 300 new places to Scottish Ministers but to help meet this promised decided with Forestry Commission Scotland to develop a campsite on Loch Chon, a little further west along Strathard, where very few people had previous camped. The local community made representations about people being encouraged into the area without suitable infrastructure (the narrow road, supervision of the campsite etc) which the LLTNPA in its usual way said would all be addressed. What’s become clear in the last couple of months is that most of the re-assurances the LLTNPA made about that development are meaningless: the Park has failed to adhere to its own planning conditions and just a couple of weeks ago I found out that the warden appointed to supervise the site had left and a Ranger was driving in each day, a one hour trip, to manage the campsite (and presumably provide the bottled water which was needed because the water supply had failed – as predicted (see here).
So, the context to the large number of planning objections to the Ledard Farm campsite was that local people were worried that large numbers of irresponsible campers – and the LLTNPA has spent the last three years selling a myth to local communities that campers account for all the ills in the National Park – would all end up around Kinlochard at the Loch Chon and Ledard farm campsites. These places being where people could still camp in the National Park and far more attractive for camping than the “permit zones” on Forest Drive (see here). Had Fergus Wood taken up local concerns about the Loch Chon proposal, and used these to inform his own proposals, he might have avoided the backlash. Like other Board Members, however, it appears he had become complacent because all the complaints to the Scottish Government had fallen on deaf ears and he therefore believed the National Park could continue to bulldoze through whatever it liked. He had forgotten about democracy, the unfair consequence of which in this case is only that the Tory Councillor and LLTNPA Board Member Martin Earl, who like Fergus Wood endorsed the ill-thought out Loch Chon campsite, appears to have benefitted at the SNP’s expense.
Merits of the objections to the Ledard Farm campsite
Despite this context, very few of the objections to the Ledard campsite application (see here) appeared based on NIMBYISM and most in my view were well argued. Here are some of the main points made:
People referred to the Development plan context (which was also ignored at Loch Chon) stating that the size of the development was too large for the area
People pointed out that the development was on a flood plain – contrary to National Park policy
People argued that because of the open landscape character of the lochshore it would be much more appropriate to site a campsite on the north side of the A827.
People were concerned about an influx of campervans along a narrow road (a concern that is now probably unwarranted as its become clearer the LLTNPA will be unable to enforce the camping byelaws against campervans and there is little risks therefore of large numbers being driven into Strathard).
People were concerned about increased light pollution at night (the LLTNPA keeps promoting dark skies)
What the objections add up to is that this was a tourist development in the wrong place – I have to say that I tend to agree. While in many ways the planning application was positive (provision for staff to stay on site) it was still a development and would have introduced a high profile building close to the lochshore in a open situation:
There are plenty of better places for campsites in Strathard and if, as is rumoured, Fergus Wood intends to re-submit a planning application for a campsite once he has stood down from the LLTNPA Board, location will be all important. I would hope that both recreational and local interests would welcome a campsite in the right place.
A wider plan for the area
While Fergus Wood’s proposed campsite has created massive controversy, on the other side on Ben Venue, the LLTNPA consented on 3rd May to a small new campsite at Trossachs Pier, at the east end of Loch Katrine, just outside the camping management zone (see here for planning application). There were just two representations against the proposal demonstrating that local communities are not against all developments, but this one is small and located in woodland. It includes water and electric hook ups and an effluent disposal point for campervans in the car park, upgrade of public toilets to include shower/wet room, 8 low cost camping pitches and 8 camping pods.
The trustees of the SS Walter Scott (who include the chair of Friends of Loch Lomond and Trossachs, James Fraser, who like me is on the Committee of the Scottish Campaign for National Parks), who made the application, have developed the proposal from its initial concept in a short period of time and also raised the funds to build it. This puts the LLTNPA to shame and highlights their failure to deliver all the basic campsites they had promised to deliver in the Trossachs as part of the 5 Lochs Management Plan (which now effectively appears to have been dumped) (see here)
There is now the potential to develop a network of small campsites around Loch Katrine and Strathard which would enable people to make more use of the cycling and walking routes there.
The path which was created to connect Inversnaid to Stronachlachar Pier, at the west end of Loch Katrine, is sadly unused and the camping byelaws (which takes in all the land between the path and the Loch despite the small numbers of people who ever camped here – its even more remote than Loch Chon) make it useless for backpackers who don’t want to risk becoming criminals. Meantime while Stronachlachar Pier is just outwith the camping management zone, campers are not welcome:
While this is yet another unlawful no camping sign in the National Park, the request is not unreasonable. What is needed is a sign which directs people to a good camping spot locally.
If there was a small basic campsite at Stronlachar or Loch Arklet, this would create a network of campsites in the west Trossachs (in addition to those at Trossachs Pier, Loch Chon and maybe in future Ledard Farm) which would allow lots of opportunities for short backpacking and cycle tours, for example at weekends. In my view that is what the National Park should be about and I would hope that people in the local community would agree.
What needs to be done in Strathard?
The basic problem in Strathard is that the LLTNPA has tried to impose ill-thought out proposals which suit its agend but no-one else. Fergus Wood has paid a price for that. Strathard was never included in the 5 Lochs Management Plan but I believe what is needed first and foremost is a visitor management plan for the whole area. Unfortunately, the LLTNPA instead of building on the work for the rest of the Trossachs started by Grant Moir, now Chief Executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Kevin Findlater, former Chief Inspector with the police and others, has let that go and has nothing to replace it. Visitor Infrastructure and management is therefore a shambles with all resources being diverted to policing the unenforceable camping byelaws.
The way forward therefore is the creation of a stakeholder group for Strathard – which in my view should be independent of the Park Authority who at present cannot be trusted on anything but be supported by it (in terms of staff time and resources) – whose mission should be to develop a plan for Strathard. Such a group needs to consider the infrastructure and other issues identified by local residents as well as wider interests.
I would hope that such a plan included the following as starters:
proposals to develop a network of small campsites linking across the area (within which any proposal for a new campsite at Ledard farm could be judged)
the potential to introduce public transport at weekends and holidays (using school buses) to enable some increase in visitor numbers without encouraging more traffic
a reduction in the number of formal pitches at Loch Chon (which would be easy to achieve since many are already being overrun by vegetation) and abandonment of the current rules banning campervans from staying in the carpark or tents from pitching by the lochshore
On 6th May, during the very dry spell, I went for another walk over An Caisteal and Ben a Chroin, almost a year to the day after a similar round The Glen Falloch hydro schemes (2) (with several visits in-between). The walk provided yet more evidence of why Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority staff should never have approved these tracks (which in the original planning application consented to by the Scottish Government were to be removed) but also about the poor standards of restoration. This is a disaster for a National Park whose 2012-17 Partnership Plan, which is supposed to guide everything it does, starts with the statement that:
“we want the National Park to be an internationally-renowned landscape”.
How does what the LLTNPA have allowed to happen in Glen Falloch contribute to that? In the draft Partnership Plan 2018-23 which is now out for consultation (see here) it is telling that there is no evaluation of how successful the LLTNPA has been in achieving this aim.
Previously, I have stated that in my view the restoration of the ground in which the pipelines have been buried has generally successful and little cause for concern with it often being quite difficult to make out the line of the pipelines. While I believe that is still sometimes the case, the long dry spell has accentuated the differences in vegetation and its easy to see the landscape scars (above centre). The land may take longer to recover than I had thought.
Comparing the photo above (taken a year ago on a day with far less good visibility) with the first photo in the post taken a year later, you can see that the ground above the pipeline has recovered to an extent but has a long way to go. The track itself, despite the vegetation down the middle, looks little different and forms a permanent landscape scar.
The Eas Eonan hydro track leads into an area of core wild land. The new draft Park Plan states:
“The National Park provides opportunities for anyone to have their first experience of the ‘wild outdoors”
There is nothing in the plan about how the National Park, through all the developments it has approved, has eroded that experience in the last five years. Perhaps the National Park Board and senior management team believe walking up a bulldozed track is a wild experience? Its becoming harder and harder to have a wild experience in the National Park because of decisions made by the LLTNPA. Removal of the tracks, as originally planned, would have preserved some of that.
Coire Earb is wild, and indeed falls within a core wild land area. While there was an existing track by the upper reaches of the River Falloch, this ended 1 km before the new hydro dam and formerly was out of sight when you were descending the glen. The decision by LLTNPA staff to allow the track to remain permanently has changed the experience totally.
Would not the hydro here have had far less impact on the landscape if the track has been removed as originally planned?
The Upper Glen Falloch hydro close up
The approval of the LLTNPA to the track extension to the hydro being retained has made it easier for the Glen Falloch Estate to drive vehicles off-road further up the glen. A year ago (right) there was no evidence of vehicles being driven beyond the intake, now there are vehicle tracks beside it which are destroying the ground that was restored.
Vehicles are also being driven off the track with no regard for soil or vegetation. The consequence is the track is in places likely to end up being 5-7m wide instead of the 2.5m (and 3m on steep hills and bends) which the LLTNPA recommends in its “award winning” good practice guidance which it has never enforced.
The reason for this is that the LLTNPA has basically allowed a new wide track to be created to construct the hydro scheme but then allowed the batters (see diagram below) to remain in place with minimum attempts to re-landscape the flat surface of the track (a little bit of soil and peat has just been added to the outside edge of the track). The result is that its very easy for vehicles to drive off the track while in landscape terms the track is still effectively 5-7m broad in most places.
The design of the track together with the erosion caused by vehicles and cattle have had the result that in most places there is actually now less peaty soil by the track than there was a year ago (see above).
The failure to re-landscape the former road surface so that the remaining track moulds into the contours of the land has also made it easy for the estate to create new parking or working areas which add considerably to the visual impact of the track.
There little attempt (photo above) to shape the the fill so it merges into the contours of the land. The result is a broad bench cutting across the hillside. In landscape terms, the track here is in effect still 5-7m wide rather than the 2.5-3m recommended by the National Park.
Even on the better sections, the track is far wider than the LLTNPA requires. I took my 3m tape which is here fully extended on a section of track which slopes gently downhill. I think a 2.5m track would have been more than adequate here (and probably less as you can see from the vehicle marks) but the actual track is more like 3.5m wide. What is the LLTNPA going to do to address this? The wider the track of course, the more it will stand out from a distance. There is no evidence of the central grass strips which grace the Allt Andoran track (top photo).
If there was any serious intention to narrow the upper Falloch construction track this double gate would have been removed – another illustration of just how wide this track is.
Readers who have driven up the Glen Falloch or walked there will know that the construction compound is still in place and, during my walk, there was some evidence that some further work had been undertaken to restore the destruction caused by the hydro scheme.
The restored sections however are few in comparison to those that still need attention and at this rate the track is going to take years to restore to anything like an acceptable state. That is unacceptable in a National Park whose current Plan incidentally states (and rightly so):
The outstanding landscapes and special qualities of the Park should be protected and where possible enhanced
What needs to happen
The LLTNPA needs both to learn from the Glen Falloch disaster but also find ways to reduce the impact of what has happened. This is not just about Glen Falloch, but the forty odd other hydro schemes in the National Park, many of which have similar impacts. Here is my first go at a list of actions that are needed:
Planning decisions that have significant landscape implications should no longer be delegated to staff but considered by the Planning Committee, as in the Cairngorms National Park Authority.
The LLTNPA should commission an independent report into the Glen Falloch hydro schemes which should fully involve those who are concerned about the protection of Scotland’s landscape, which should look both at the mistakes that have been made and how they can be reversed.
The new Partnership Plan needs to incorporate a meaningful landscape policy which, like the Cairngorms National Park Authority, indicates areas where there will be a presumption against development. Unless the LLTNPA does this, the current destruction of landscape in the National Park will simply continue.
The LLTNPA Board should engage with the Glen Falloch estate and develop a plan on how to remove the hydro tracks granted consent by staff. Over the next ten years the estate will receive a huge income from the hydro schemes which could still be used, as originally intended, to remove the tracks.
Where existing tracks were widened, the LLTNPA needs to ensure that all the restoration meets the standards set out in its good practice guidance. Tracks which are broader than the maximum and unfinished culverts for example should not be tolerated.
The LLTNPA should put in place measures to control the off-road use of vehicles, particularly in wild land.
The LLTNPA Board and senior staff need to get out more and take a look at what is being done in their name.
Publicly, all has gone quiet at Cairngorm, though these photos taken last week during the dry weather tell a tale.
The promised clean up of Cairngorm does not appear to have lasted long.
Evidence of the basic lack of care by Natural Retreats, even of what is new, is not hard to find:
Buttons from new shieling rope tow, paid for by Highlands and Islands Enterprise for a cost of £82,243 left lying on the ground.
Judging by this work, the new Sunkid tow may not have been properly installed in the first place – who is paying for this, HIE or Natural Retreats who supervised the works?
About 1/3 way up the Shieling track, there is evidence of water seepage despite the long dry spell. In my critique of the Cairngorms National Park Committee Report which approved the retrospective planning application (see here) I raised concerns about the impact of the track on the drainage:
There is no attempt to describe the extent of the area where works took place in breach of the planning permission (the application was for a strip of ground 30m broad). This is important because without a description of what has been done, the CNPA is not in a position to stipulate what remedial measures are required.
Related to this, there is NO description of the impacts of the works on the hydrology of the area.
It doesn’t take any expertise in hydrology to appreciate that the track has not been properly constructed – patches are soft and spongy – and will not be able to bear regular vehicle use. Indeed the photo below shows how its continuing to erode even in a dry spell.
Meanwhile the CNPA’s agreement to grant planning permission to this track retrospectively has done nothing to stop Natural Retreats’ staff from driving vehicles all over the hillside causing yet more damage.
Still, on the plus side, Natural Retreats do appear to have started to repair the monoblock outside the Shieling:
You can judge the quality of the repair for yourself.
Treatment of staff
Meantime, this advert appeared recently http://www.environmentjob.co.uk/adverts/64102-senior-ranger. The Rangers were the people who have tried to repair all the damage caused by Natural Retreats at Cairngorm – I met one last year re-seeding a bulldozed area, trying his best to restore the damage caused around the Cas Gantry by the “de minimis” emergency works there. The advert describes the Senior Ranger “as an important cog in the operation of Cairngorm Mountain”. “Cog” tells you something.
Natural Retreats are proposing to pay the lead person with the expertise to care for the environment at Cairngorm all of £22-24k………and its worth reading the job description for what they are expected to do, including working bank holidays and weekends for no extra pay apparently……….tells you something more about how little Natural Retreats value their staff and the environment. While the average UK salary is now apparently £27k, wages in Scotland are lower and wages in the Cairngorms National Park lower still.
The contrast between what Natural Retreats pay their staff – and they have taken over the Ranger Service from HIE – and the wealth of David Michael Gorton, the man who basically owns and controls the Natural Retreats suite of companies (see here) is striking. According to efinancial careers (see here):
In 2002, London Diversified [the Hedge Fund he set up] spun out on its own. Initially, it did well. In 2004, Gorton and two others are said to have shared a 55m payout and the business expanded to around 70 people.
Yes, you have read that right, and this was just 14 months after David Gorton and two others had setup the fund. London Diversified was subsequently hit by the financial crisis – caused of course by the casino capitalism of the city of which it was part – and the assets it managed collapsed from $5 billion to $300m. David Michael Gorton though would appear to remain a very rich man being party in 2015 to a £12.5m divorce settlement (see here).
The disparity – gulf would be a more accurate term – between Mr Gorton’s wealth and the low pay at Cairngorm is not accidental, its connected and a reflection of our neo-liberal capitalist times. The rich have got richer at the expense of others. In my view the primary purpose of the Natural Retreats suite of businesses has nothing to do with caring for the environment or the people working at Cairngorm, its a vehicle for making money for its ultimate owner and one way that is done is by paying staff as little possible.
The other way is to invest as little money as possible in the environment and that is reflected in what you can still see on the ground at Cairngorm.
Coire na Ciste
The area by the former Coire na Ciste chair lift, where planning consent has now been granted to remove the abandoned buildings (and rightly so), is still a dump.
The historic neglect at Cairngorm of course is not Natural Retreats’ responsibility – its the responsibility of HIE. There have been no planning applications to demolish or remove the other abandoned infrastructure in Coire na Ciste and, because the masterplan for Cairngorm is still secret (see here), its not clear whether there are any such plans.
Natural Retreats’ lease however covers the whole ski area, including Coire na Ciste, and while the delapidated buildings and infrastructure may be HIE’ responsibility, Natural Retreats does have responsibility for the general amenity of the area.
Natural Retreats also has a specific responsibility for maintenance of snow fencing, though its not clear if anything has been agreed with HIE about removal and replacement of old snow fencing in Coire na Ciste.
Again, while this has not been caused by Natural Retreats, their purchase of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd has not resulted in any improvements to the historic delapidation and rubbish in Coire na Ciste.
However, judging by the age of this pipe, Natural Retreats appears to have added to it. The Allt na Ciste, within the ski area, has collected all sorts of rubbish and needs a clean-up.
What needs to happen?
The secret masterplan at Cairngorm needs to be made public and there needs to be a full consultation by HIE and Natural Retreats about how to address the historic neglect at Cairngorm as a precondition to any plans for new developments.
This post, following previous posts on the Loch Chon campsite in Strathard (see here) and (here) for example, looks at recent damage caused to the environment at Loch Chon by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority. The photos in this post were taken before the recent dry period.
Two new vehicle tracks have been created that are not on the plans
The Plans for the campsite at Loch Chon specifically state that environmental damage to the site will be kept to a minimum and anything that is likely to cause such damage will be vetted by the Environmental Clerk of Works, part of whose role is to prevent any work likely to cause unnecessary damage to the fragile environment and eco system of the ancient wood.
National Park Planning conditions (click to expand)
That said, where was the Clerk of Works when contractors decided to access the site from the B829 main road directly onto the hillside of the development. It should have been prohibited as promised by the LLTNPA’s Chief Executive Gordon Watson, who told us at the Strathard Community Council meeting on 4th July 2016 that pitches would be hand scraped. This lead people to believe no machinery would be used on the hillside. Instead the LLTNPA contractor has created two new tracks, the first down the full length of the hillside to the loch side path, the second joining the first at the new path just below pitch 19. Together these machinery tracks have caused serious environmental damage to the whole ecosystem. . This is a failure of the LLTNPA and their Clerk of Works to adhere to proper procedures put in place to prevent contractors from encroaching and damaging the fragile boggy environment within the ancient wood where their development is centered..
The creation of these tracks by the unwarranted use of vehicles has disrupted a long swathe of the eco system stretching down the the entire hillside forming some deep channels encouraging water to flow down the hill and creating new water courses in the process. What should happen is that the Planning Authority should intervene and instruct the applicant to restore these areas to their original state. However, the National Park Authority, as the body which applied for planning permission, have not set aside vegetation for restoration works as was stipulated as a planning requirement. So it will be interesting to see how the Gordon Watson the Chief Executive of the Planning Authority will enforce the restoration on Gordon Watson the Chief Executive of the Park Authority. How can there be anything other than a conflict of interest in this unhealthy arrangement.
Vehicle Track 1:
The image on the left shows Vehicle track 1 which runs down the entire slope to the lower transverse path by the shore.
Vehicle Track 2:
The image and track on the right side continues down to the path between pitch 19 and 20, a tree has been lopped off to clear the way for vehicles to pass.
There is also evidence of minor tree damage caused by vehicles: another broken promise by the NPA who promised to safeguard trees
Are contractors acting on their own or has the Clerk of Works sanctioned this damage?
Besides taking vehicles onto the hillside, outwith the scope of the planning permission granted, the contractors have also made modifications to the layout of the camping pitches. It is not clear if this has been agreed with the planning department or whether the Clerk of Works, who is supposed to be the intermediary and to vet all such operations, agreed to these changes in writing. This is because the NPA does not, following a planning decision, publish information about whether any changes have been made to the planning permission they granted, as one might expect. So, its not clear if the paperwork exists, but if it does, why are the documents not available for inspection?
For an organisation who claim conservation drive everything they do, the NPA have failed dramatically. It would seem the need to keep the development within budget has a far greater value than the conservation of the ecosystem they swore to protect and care for during this unwarranted development.
The two vehicle tracks meet just below the road then continue independently down the hillside to various locations.
Vehicle Track 1
The disruption to the vegetation and underlying peat structure at root level is evident.
Vehicle track 1 branches off to the top of pitch 19
At each branch, or turn of the vehicle, a more intensive area of damage is found. The major problem this creates is not limited to the scars that will take years to heal but the creation of vertical groves that will allow water to enter and move more rapidly down the hill in new channels with a danger of forming new water courses. This poses real risk to the soils and may wash them down the hillside forming a new stream..
Looking down Hill track 1 to the transverse “high path”
It is clear these two tracks have been used in the construction of pitches 19 and 20, as well as the paths used to access them, and other areas at this end of the campsite. In fact track 1 continues further down the slope to the path running along the shore. It appears the vehicle tracks are being used to deliver materials for modifications to pitch surfaces, which were unsuitable for camping, and in the process inevitably causing more damage.
There appears to have been no attempt either to protect the vegetation and little if any attempt to restore the damage.
Looking down the track from above pitch 19
The environmental damage is easily traced by the disturbed peat and the rust coloured remains of damaged mosses deprived of their water supply due to mechanical disturbance.and the churned up peat now waterlogged in many places. This is causing water to flow on the surface to collect In many locations where it did not do so before.
The track at this point diverges. The branch straight ahead crosses the new transverse path and continues downhill. The other branch, veering off to the left of the image above, is to the corner of the path where the vegetation and ecosystem around the corner has been churned up. This has formed a collection basin for water which flows both under, across and down the sides of the path. making the path unstable (spongy) and diverting water from the natural water course down the sides of the path.
There is also evidence here of another tree being sacrificed to allow the vehicle to pass as well as cross contamination of materials on the path sides, which extends far beyond the specified width of the path.
The vehicle track crosses over the path and continues on downhill
This environmental damage should have been avoided in the first place and it is obvious that the National Parks has failed in it’s duty of care. I wonder what the National Park, as Planning Authority, will do to enforce the reinstatement of the environmental damage created by the National Park itself?
When you build a transverse path across the hillside, this disrupts the natural flow of water downhill, with the potential to disrupt the whole ecosystem further down the slope. Evidence of this redirection will be covered in a future Post on paths.
It is clear that Hill Track 1 has been created by vehicles accessing the upper hill path and pitches in the campsite both from the B829 road above the campsite and from the lower shore path.
Vehicle Track 2
Vehicle Track 2 again starts from the B829 above the site and travels down hill to the junction below the road. Track 2 then cuts off to the North side. The impact appears slight at first (top photo).
Track 2 continues down the hillside
As the ground gets wetter the impact increases.
The tree in the foreground has been lopped of to allow the vehicle to pass. contravening planning and environmental protection conditions. Its fine apparently that the National Park and its contractors chop down trees but not if occasional rogue campers do this.
Hill track 2 meets up with the path between pitch 19 and 20.
The track has had a significant impact on the vegetation and the boogy soils within the woodland. There is something very wrong about a National Park Authority, which is supposed to be protecting the environment and who claim to have procedures in place to prevent such damage, have caused this damage themselves. The NPA appear to be incapable of setting up effective damage prevention procedures even where its paying for the works and the photos show vehicles have driven around the site at will.
There is now a distinct possibility that there will be follow on problems with changes to the ecosystem caused by diversion of water courses by these tracks and other LLTNPA created water channels.
In my last post on the Beauly Denny restoration (see here), I referred to the apparent contradictory views on who is responsible for ensuring the land is properly restored to its original condition, a requirement of the planning consent for the powerline granted by the Scottish Government. The restoration of much of the ground in the Cairngorms National Park falls well short of what we should expect in a National Park (see photos).
A Scottish Government official had told me the Cairngorms National Park Authority is responsible for enforcing the planning condition while an officer of the CNPA had told the North East Trust that they thought the Scottish Government is responsible. I am grateful to the reader who draw my attention to the Guidance from the Scottish Government Energy Consents and Deployment Unit (ECDU) on this topic (see here).
Ostensibly the Scottish Government official was right. The Guidance states:
ECDU, in consultation with the relevant Planning Authority, SEPA and SNH, who will all be asked to provide regular reports to ECDU, will monitor the performance of applicants in complying with the above conditions.The discharge, compliance and enforcement of deemed planning conditions is overseen by the relevant planning authority.
While there are complexities to the legal position of which is the planning authority in this case, the CNPA not having full planning powers, in practice the CNPA rather than Highland Council has taken the lead on the Beauly Denny (to its credit) so I think it is clear it is responsible for enforcing the planning conditions.
The problem however is the Guidance makes it clear that the Scottish Government is responsible for monitoring compliance with the planning conditions. Its difficult to see how legally CNPA could start taking enforcement action unless the Scottish Government accepted this was needed: Scottish and Southern Electric as developer could probably block any enforcement action in court on the basis that there was no evidence that the Scottish Government as the official monitoring body was concerned about the quality of the “restoration”.
So what is the position of the Scottish Government on the quality of the restoration?
From what I have been able to ascertain from a Freedom of Information request to the CNPA, the Scottish Government is doing very little to monitor critically the performance of SSE. While I might be wrong about this – I have not for example asked the SG yet for the information they hold on this – what appears to be happening is the SG are meeting SSE without SNH and CNPA present. Indeed CNPA were kept so far out the loop that in July 2015 the liaison process had to be explained to them by SSE 150729BDUpdateMeetingNote.
This is important because the CNPA has been raising serious concerns about the standard of the restoration. First, the then convener of the CNPA Duncan Bryden wrote to SSE outlining their serious concerns after a Board visit to the site 250615trackrestorationSSE:
Despite a long period of period of pre planning and preparation it does not appear to the CNPA that the methods used are commensurate with National Park sensitivities (including Natura 2000 designations), nor the high- profile nature of the works, immediately adjacent to and often highly visible from the A9, Highland main line, National Cycle Route 7 and surrounding Munros. For example, the original vegetation and turfs have not been removed and stored in such a way as to facilitate regeneration and there has been significant soil compaction and mixing of soil horizons.
These concerns were reinforced by CNPA officers at the meeting in July when the asked some SSE some crucial questions:
Why, given that certain activities had been planned, had they not then been implemented? Why, given that this was always known to be a challenging and high profile site, and that work was going on at present were the plans for re-vegetation/restoration not at more advanced stage?
The photographic evidence in my view contradicts the claim by SSE that “there have been isolated issues surrounding the separation and storage of soils” and that the whole project has been very successful. The Scottish Government needs to test the corporate governance speak against what can be seen on the ground.
While I have not yet been able to work out the numbers of all the pylons, in the monitoring produced in October 2016 SSE states that for almost all pylons on this section of line “Re-instatement of the soils is to an acceptable standard”. The photos I believe show otherwise and that the CNPA was completely right to raise concerns.
What needs to happen
What’s not in the public realm at present (as far as I have been able to ascertain) is whether the CNPA’s concerns have been submitted to the Scottish Government, and if so what the Scottish Government’s response has been. What is needed is join up between the Scottish Government’s ECDU and the CNPA and SNH. While a first step would be joint monitoring meetings, I think there also needs to be a joint approach to remedying what has gone wrong.
Meantime, at the end of April there was some good news about the impact of the Beauly Denny on the landscape in the National Park (see here). The pylons between Aviemore and Kingussie, including those that blight the extension to the Speyside Way (see here), are being removed. Although the CNPA did not manage to block the Beauly Denny they did achieve removal of these powerlines as a compensatory measure. The challenge now for the CNPA (and for landscape campaigners) is not to allow the Scottish Government to treat that welcome “compensatory improvement” as sufficient and the Beauly Denny as job done while burying their heads in the new soils that have been created at Drumochter.
Scotgold Resources Ltd are holding two “consultation” events at Tyndrum Village Hall on 10th and 24th May between 10.30 – 20.30 on new proposals for the Cononish goldmine. Their proposals are set out in a scoping report which is now on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Park Authority Planning Portal (see here). The Report does not contain a clear description of how the new proposals differ from those already granted planning permission or the rationale for the changes.
The core of the proposal however appears to be that instead of a large proportion of the waste being returned to the mine (underground waste facility in map above) and the eventual restoration of the tailings facility (within orange line above), Scotgold is now proposing that all the waste from the mine be left outside.
The consequence of this, which you can see by comparing the two maps, is that the waste from the mining operation will now cover a far larger area of ground. Instead of the orange area in the first map, about half the ground within the boundary to the mining operation contained within the red line would be covered in mine waste. In order to make this acceptable Scotland are proposing that the waste be shaped to look like hummocky moraine (outlined in blue).
To give an idea of the potential landscape impact, its worth considering the photomontage of the temporary tailings facility in the original proposal (above). Under the new proposal it appears waste will cover over three times the area of ground.
The proposal to create artifical moraine out of mine waste
While the proposal to create artificial moraine appears clever, it would be a major alteration of the landscape formed by glaciers. There is an extremely fine hummocky moraine field at the head of the Cononish Glen around Dalrigh but none below the Eas Anie, the fine waterfall just above the mine entrance – that’s not an accident. Hummocky moraine would never have developed here, its too close to the steep sides of Beinn Chuirn. What Scotgold is proposing therefore is totally artificial and out of place in this landscape. Its inappropriate for a National Park created to protect the landscape.
There is nothing in Scotgold’s scoping report to say how they intend to construct moraine out of mine waste. Moraine normally comprise blocky till set within a matrix of grit and sand which holds the landform together and has done so successfully for thousands of years. Scotgold have said nothing about whether the mine waste would contain the right mix of material to construct artificial moraine let alone how they would do this. Nor have they said what will happen when the Allt Eas Anie, which flows through the middle of the proposed artificial moraine field, changes course as it will at some point and starts to erode into the side of the moraine mounds. Will the whole thing collapse or will both burn and mound be held together with concrete?
In the original planning consent for the mine the LLTPNA made a number of requirements in respect to waste from the mine, including:
“removal of all materials within the TMF [tailings management facility] and recirculation pond (which were not won from within the TMF) which shall be returned to the underground mine in the first instance until it reaches capacity, and the remainder used to re-grade the mine platform/processing building area; and the landscaping and re-vegetation of the track from the farm to mine platform)”
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.”
In my view they should stick with those conditions and uphold the original reasons for that decision.
What cost our landscape?
Whether the LLTNPA will do so however is another matter.
The new proposals appear to be all about money or, more accurately, saving Scotgold money in order to make a profit for their investors (who would appear no longer to include Owen McKee, the former LLTNPA Convener of the Planning Committee (see here) at the time the original planning application was approved). Scotgold have been running a trial, following the alteration granted to the original planning permission in January 2015 which allowed them to store waste in bags, and my guess is that from that trial they have quickly discovered that there is not enough gold in the ore to pay for their original waste storage proposals or full restoration of the land (or for the jobs that that restoration would create). It would be much cheaper simply to leave the waste on site, hence the present proposal.
Its dressed up of course with a few sops to the public:
The risk is the LLTNPA will use these sops as an excuse to approve the new proposal when a planning application is submitted. What drove LLTNPA approval of the goldmine was the promise of jobs – the lure of gold – and this is reflected in the planning permission granted for the current trial:
The question for the LLTNPA – to which I will return – is whether the creation of a few temporary jobs justifies this destruction of the landscape and whether the proposals meets the LLTNPA’s legal obligation to promote sustainable economic development.
The need for transparent decision making
The list of secret LLTNPA Board Meetings since 2010 FOI 2016-002 Appendix A list topics at Board Briefing sessions shows that the number of such meetings puts those of the Scottish Police Authority which has recently been forced to go public into the shade. Three considered the Cononish application: 13/12/10; 20/06/11 and 19/01/15. Just why, in the case of the January 2015 meeting, Board Members had to be briefed prior to considering the application in public, should I believe be a matter of major public concern. While the slides, some of which are included in this post, appear quite neutral – unlike some of the Your Park slides – the real issue is what was discussed. We will never know as no minutes are kept of these sessions.
If Board Members are not capable of understanding the papers put to the public meeting, there are questions about their fitness to serve on the Board. If the briefing was not for that purpose, the only other explanation appears to be that the Board was in effect deciding what should happen in advance, in secret. That is wrong. The new LLTNPA Convener, James Stuart, really does need to stop this practice and make a public declaration that it will no longer consider planning applications in secret. If he fails to do that, the Scottish Government should step in and require the LLTNPA to do so.
The other problem with the LLTNPA’s failures in terms of transparency is illustrated by the Owen McKee case. Owen McKee had traded in Scotgold shares after consent had been given into the goldmine going ahead. The LLTNPA conducted a sham investigation into what happened (see here for example) which concluded that the basis of that planning decision had not been undermined by Owen McKee’s actions. The unanswered question is the degree to which Owen McKee, as Planning Convener, influenced other members to reverse their previous decision to refuse the goldmine application as inappropriate for a National Park because he hoped personally to profit from this at some time in the future. Its quite possible of course that Owen McKee never thought of buying Scotgold shares until after the planning consent had been granted although its probably impossible to answer this question now. The LLTNPA however never even asked the question which suggests that there were other agendas present. If so, those may still be relevant to how the new proposal is determined.
The public should be very sceptical about the whole planning process. As a start the LLTNPA should make public on its website all the information from the secret meetings which considered the Cononish application – the slides published above are not on the Park’s website – and the monthly monitoring reports which Scotgold has been required to provide since the current “trial” started.
On Wednesday evening I went to have another look at the northern section of the access track which had been created for the construction of the Beauly Denny powerline and which was due to be restored last year (see here). Its situated on the east side of the A9 behind the tree shelter belt and opposite the southern turn off to Dalwhinnie.
That post resulted in the North East Mountain Trust, who had been concerned about the original planning application, taking the matter up with the Cairngorms National Park Authority. It transpires that the Estate had been involved in lengthy discussions with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency about the details of how they were going to restore the track, missed the deadline and the CNPA has now extended it until the end of 2017. There was provision for this under the conditions attached to the planning consent which lasts until February 2018. Unfortunately there are still no details of this on the CNPA planning portal (see here) where the last available document is dated July 2015. If you are a member of the public, therefore, not only does it appear that the estate has failed to restore the track within the deadline but also that the National Park has done nothing about this. The CNPA is letting itself down and, I believe, making planning enforcement much harder for itself because of this lack of transparency.
The CNPA did though state to NEMT that, should the Estate fail to restore the track as per the planning permission it granted by the Park Authority, once the CNPA planning permission lapses the ground would need to be completely restored, as per the Section 37 Electricity Act consent for the Beauly-Denny. They said the Scottish Government would be responsible for enforcing this. (I am unclear how this can be reconciled with earlier advice I received from the Scottish Government that “In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place”). If it comes to that, four years will have been lost in which this land could have been restored properly to the benefit of both landscape and wildlife. Funny how delays in our planning system are always portrayed as being the fault of planning authorities when in fact by far the biggest delays and created by developers/landowners.
Meantime, the Scottish Government is even less transparent – one rule for local government, another for national government – and removes planning applications it approves from the public realm. There is therefore no convenient means for the public to find out how the restoration of the Beauly Denny is going. I resorted to a FOI request to the CNPA about what information they held and was – again very helpfully – provided with information about the restoration of land under the 76 towers and approx 28km of track that are within the National Park boundary.
According to SSE most of the restoration for which it is still responsible is going well – or rather is “of an acceptable standard”. I think the photos show otherwise, as does a report the CNPA’s peatland officer in 2015 (see here) – well done him and the CNPA. What the papers, which I will come back to in further posts, show is that SSE is just hoping all the destruction which it caused will regenerate naturally, whereas the CNPA and SNH are concerned whether this is going to happen. The problem is the CNPA appears to have very little power to make SSE do anything – although if it went public with its concerns that I think would make a significant difference.
So why has Ralia estate taken over the burden of restoring the land from SSE?
The amount of work – and therefore cost – in meeting the approved design plans for the track are considerable. The 4.7 km of track needs to be reduced from its current width of 5-7m to 3m.
So much aggregate has been imported to construct the track that even where turves have been properly stored, re-landscaping will be a real challenge. The planning permission granted by the CNPA specifies that excess materials will be removed, which would make landscaping considerably easier – a great requirement but will the estate do it?
The job will not be made any easier because so much of the temporary construction work was so poor. If this track is to be halved in width, so will the drainage pipes.
Bizarrely, among all the protuding pipes, there was one example of a culvert which had been properly finished – at both ends too! Unfortunately, the track here was even wider than normal, 7m rather than 5m, and at least one of the finished culverts will need be ripped out if the track is to be reduced in width to 3m. If this work was done by SSE, one wonders why? If by the Estate, that would suggest they are intending to keep the track at its current width, contrary to planning requirements.
The reason why the estate wanted to retain the track though quickly became apparent. It makes it much easier for the gamekeepers to manage animal traps or, from their viewpoint, “to conserve the countryside”. This was the first time I had seen a live bird in a Larsen trap in 100s of visits to the hills (not a coincidence, they are usually tucked away like this) and I found it quite distressing but then I see crows as beautiful creatures, one of the most intelligent of all birds, and not pests. The crow was hopping up and down and beating its wings against the side of the trap – that’s what’s meant to happen, it attracts other crows wishing to defend their territory. All my instincts were to free it but that, I recalled somewhere, is a criminal offence.
The ostensible purpose of Larsen traps is that the flapping crow (or other corvid) attracts others which are then lured into one of the two traps. In Scotland only hens’ eggs or bread are allowed as bait (as here). The theory and use of these traps from the landowner viewpoint is set out in guidance from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here). The trap in the photos appeared to meet all animal welfare requirements about provision of water, food and a perch for roosting at night. While Scotland has stricter requirements than England on the use of these traps, under General License under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it seems to me there is question about whether this General License should extend to National Parks.
While the GWCT claim there is little evidence of raptors being caught in such traps and that live traps such as this allow protected birds to be released, that claim needs to be taken with a pinch of salt given the level of persecution of raptors on grouse moors. Why would estates ever report if hen harriers, say, were found in such traps? Maybe I am unobservant, or always unfortunate in my timing, but while there were large numbers of grouse about (and some song thrush, pied wagtail and wheatear) there was not a sign of a hen harrier.
What was clear was that the estate was trapping anything else that might prey on grouse. The tracks make maintenance of such traps easier for estate staff.
A multi-catch cage trap was located slightly further away from the track – as recommended by GWCT – part of the reason being to avoid the public coming into them while in use and becoming distressed. What is clear to me is the CNPA, by granting planning permission, for the retention of this track has made it much easier for estate staff to trap and kill anything that is perceived as a threat to red grouse. The CNPA talks about the need for balance between competing interests, but in terms of species there is no balance. Everything is about increasing numbers of red grouse.
While as the link shows, the numbers of grouse at Ralia have increased dramatically, what is not reported is the numbers of other species that predate on them.
The CNPA’s consent to Ralia Estate retaining this section of track appears to have had little impact on their off-road use of vehicles. Indeed, Ralia estate appears to be creating further tracks without any planning permission.
The track that has been developed along the line of grouse butts on the north side of the Allt Coire nan Cisteachan. The installation of a water bar means, I believe, that this counts as a constructed track and should have had full planning permission – its purpose, along the line of grouse butts is only too clear and has nothing to do with agriculture (where developments only require “prior notification”).
The constructed nature of the track on the south side of the burn is even more obvious and to an appalling standard (I will report it to the National Park). Although the newly “constructed” section is short, its intention is clearly to enable vehicle access up the hillside easier and yet more scars on the Drumochter.
The issue at Drumochter therefore is not just about restoration of the Beauly Denny or planning permission for hill tracks and what they are then used for – although both have had major and unnecessary impacts on the landscape – its about what off-road use estates should be allowed to make of vehicles in the National Park. In my the National Park could contain and control all these issues through the use of byelaws which introduce licenses for hunting. Such hunting licenses could require estates not to use vehicles off-track or trap any animal without explicit permission.
After Highland and Island’s Enterprise announcement that they had agreed a new masterplan for Cairngorm, along with a £4m loan to Natural Retreats (see here), I asked HIE for a copy of the masterplan and any associated plans for the proposal- such as a business plan providing evidence for the proposals:
“At the HIE Board meeting on 11 April 2017, the Board approved CML’s [Cairngorm Mountain Ltd’s] new Master Plan. However, the CML Master Plan is commercially sensitive and cannot be published at this time.”
The business plan – although HIE has avoided answering whether such a plan exists – could be commercially sensitive and thus exempt from FOI law, but a masterplan is a planning document and should be available to the public.
I also asked for a list of all organisations HIE has consulted on this proposed and any information relating to that consultation:
“CML will be the applicant in terms of any forthcoming planning application. Both HIE and CML have been involved in prior consultation with CNPA, THC [Highland Council] and SNH.”
HIE have failed to answer whether they hold any information relating to this “consultation” with other public bodies.
My final request was asking HIE to clarify whether whether Schedule 4 to the current lease, which was about the requirement to deliver a new day lodge as part of the lease, has been revoked:
At the HIE Board meeting on 11 April 2017, the Board agreed that the legal documents will be amended to accommodate the new projects.
This is the only informative part of HIE’s response. What it means is that the HIE Board have agreed to drop the legally binding requirement in the original lease with Natural Retreats to develop a new Day Lodge. Its significance is that this was an opportunity for HIE to terminate their lease with Natural Retreats. They have chosen not to do so.
The failures and lack of accountability of HIE
It is not unreasonable to ask how a public authority, funded by public monies, believes it is acceptable to put out a press release stating a masterplan has been agreed at Cairngorm but then keep that masterplan secret?
The proposal for a masterplan at Cairngorm formed part of the Glenmore Strategy agreed by the Cairngorms National Park Authority last year.
While I cannot find any reference to a masterplan in the CNPA Local Development Plan agreed in 2015, the footnote to the table above indicates that the masterplan is a spatial plan and therefore, its fair to assume, a masterplan in the formal planning sense. Even if not, in terms of good practice, one might have hoped HIE would have taken some heed on the Scottish Government Planning Advice Note on developing masterplans (see here).
That guidance I believe is very relevant for Cairngorm. It requires site appraisal – for Cairngorm that would mean a look at the ski area as a whole – and consultation with local communities:
“When creating successful places, people must be at the heart of the process. The local community’s understanding of the needs of an area are invaluable in establishing priorities and arriving at a vision for a place. Once the local community and key stakeholders (the community in its widest sense) have been identified, early discussions can provide a wealth of information about the area’s history and how it functions. An engagement plan could be devised to identify mechanisms for involving the community. These will establish opinions and confirm local people’s aspirations for the place. Various types of interests may have to be engaged in different ways.”
While because of the special nature of Cairngorm, I would argue that consultation should be far wider, and involve for example recreational (e.g skiers and mountaineers) and conservation interests, the important point is there has NO consultation at all. HIE has apparently agreed what it wants to happen at Cairngorm with Natural Retreats and how to fund this through public money without any consideration of other views. A top down solution that again is likely to end in tears.
Natural Retreats is not fit to manage any development at Cairngorm
While HIE and Natural Retreats have kept all information about the proposed dry ski slope secret at present (e.g its location) one detail emerged on the Cairngorm Mountain facebook page on 13th April where they said it would be constructed out of snowflex . This raises some intriguing questions because the nature of the product http://www.snowflex.com/ which is “solid” rather than other types of artificial slope:
with no spaces for vegetation to grow through, it is likely to have a greater impact than other potential products on the vegetation and soils at Cairngorm;
without holes in the matting, there is higher friction and this means snowflex requires a water misting system which cannot operate in low temperatures because it freezes up;
because of the high friction, snow flex also needs to be installed on steeper slopes (unlikely to be of use at the Shieling rope tow which was installed for beginners). While the manufacturer states it can be used when frosted, in such condition it can only be used by better skiers and boarders. Not much use then for beginners in winter then;
if my understanding is correct and you cannot use piste bashers on snow flex, then if partly snow covered, snow flex could not be used at all (it would be like skiing over grass patches but worse).
There is nothing wrong with snowflex as a product, the trouble is its not designed for use in a mountain environment year round. Its advantage over other products comes in artificial snowparks (artificial half pipes etc). One wonders therefore if a summer snowpark is the secret plan for Cairngorm?.
If there is any case for an artificial ski slope at Cairngorm, it would be to provide a beginners area when there is insufficient snow and to link to the piste system. This has been done in other parts of the world using different materials.
The revelation about the proposed use of snowflex just provides further evidence of Natural Retreats’ lack of competence to manage the Cairngorm ski area.
Cairngorm Estate Management Plan
Meantime, there is no sign of HIE’s proposed estate management plan which might one have hoped excluded practices such as taking skips up the mountain to burn off fencing (first photo) and which needs to be considered along with any masterplan.