Tag: planning

February 17, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Story from the Herald 16th February – who placed it?

Until a couple of days ago, there was NO information on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority website about Board or Committee Meetings this year, no dates, nothing.  I had written to the LLTNPA about this a couple of weeks ago, only to be reminded that the October 2017 Board Meeting had agreed dates for all Board and Committee meetings in 2018 but because it was possible some of the dates might change as a result of a current review of governance,  nothing had been published on the LLTNPA website.   This is unacceptable.

 

Back in October a Planning and Access Committee meeting had been scheduled for 30th January but there was nothing on the LLTNPA website to say it had been cancelled.   And then, out of the blue, on the 15th the meeting date for a Special Board Meeting on Cononish appeared (together with the date of the March Board meeting) while the Committee papers were made public on the planning portal.

There are now two 2018 Board meeting dates advertised on the LLTNPA website: there is still not a single date for the Planning and Access Committee, Audit Committee, Local Review Body or Local Access Forum advertised

Such lack of transparency is practically unknown in other public authorities, a couple of clicks on google and you can find meeting dates for any Council, as the elected Councillors on the Board should well know (see here for Stirling).    The first challenge of the governance review ordered by Board Convener James Stuart should be how to change the senior staff management team so they start acting like public servants rather than unaccountable bureaucrats.

 

What’s going on with the Cononish Planning application is more serious however.    Its not clear who released the story the Herald – unusually no-one is quoted – but it appears to have been timed to coincide with the papers appearing on the Park website.   If it was the LLTNPA, it suggest they have already in effect taken the decision but if it was Scotgold, the timing suggests they were tipped off by Park staff when to contact the media.   After the Owen McKee scandal, in which the LLTNPA tried to cover up that Owen McKee the Convener of the Planning Committee had been trading in Scotgold shares (see here for example), one might have thought that Park staff would have done everything to ensure the LLTNPA was seen to be squeaky clean.

 

Either this media announcement was done with Board approval – in which case we are back to the bad old days of Linda McKay’s convenorship where the LLTNPA in effect took decisions at secret pre-meetings held before public Board Meetings –  or staff appear to be trying to pre-empt any proper scrutiny or debate about their recommendations.  I suspect the latter and, if so, the Board needs to hold staff to account and remind them its Board Members, not staff, who takes the decisions in such cases.

The assessment of the new Cononish Gold Mine Planning Application

In 2011 the LLTNPA reversed its opposition to a gold mine at Cononish and a planning application was subsequently approved in 2012.   Nothing significant then happened until 2014-15 when the LLTNPA agreed to a Section 42 variation and extended that permission for a further three years.   That permission ran out on 6th February 2018, ie just over a week ago, and means that the current application is the only one on the table.  Scotgold had previously advised its shareholders that if the new application, which is primarily driven by a need to reduce costs to enable the development to go ahead, was refused it could revert to the existing one.   That is no longer the case.

 

This is important because through much of the 72 page Committee Report and in many of the 210 accompanying documents (see here) the argument is that the new application is better than the old one and hence should be approved.  To me it rather begs the question of how a National Park Authority could have ever approved the old scheme if the impact on the landscape was worse and the risk of collapse of the tailings management dam was higher as is stated in the report?  This application needs to decided on its merits.

 

While the final part of the Committee Report does provide an assessment of the scheme against the LLTNPA’s Development Plan, the National Park Partnership Plan and the statutory objectives of our National Parks, in my view this is far from objective.  Here is how the first Local Development Plan policy is evaluated:

So the mine is acceptable because Cononish could be said be a derelict site!   I thought it had been designated as a Wild Land Area!!     Leaving aside the fact that the current operation and area of “dereliction” only covers a tiny proportion of the proposed site, the developer was required to take out bonds to guarantee restoration of the existing site once operations finished.   If the current planning permission was refused, the site would be restored and would not be derelict at all!    So, the conclusion that the proposal “can be said to comply with EDP2” is wrong.

 

Or how about the evaluation in the Committee Report of the mine against the Local Development Plan’s Mineral Extraction Policy 1 which states:

‘New mineral extraction sites shall only [my highlight]  be supported where the material to be extracted is required to facilitate the enhancement and maintenance of the National Park’s built environment or, where it can be demonstrated that there is an overriding national interest and there is no reasonable alternative source outwith the National Park.’

The assessment is 9.27 is quite correct and should mean the development should be refused.    Instead, para 9.27, gives a number of dubious reasons why Park staff believe the mine should go ahead, none of which override a policy which basically says there should be no gold or other mines in the National Park except for reasons of national interest.

 

After these examples (and there are many more), you will not be surprised to read that despite also finding that:

“During the construction, operational and decommissioning phases of the mine, years 1-17, this development will be contrary to the Local Development Plan as it will not safeguard, protect or enhance the Landscape, Visual Amenity, Wild Land, Special Qualities, Recreation and Access”

the final recommendation is that the application should be approved, albeit with no less than 57 conditions.   Senior Park staff have therefore failed to ensure that the Cononish gold mine application has been evaluated objectively against the LLTNPA’s own policies.   I don’t know why this is the case but the failures in logic are so glaring that it appears something else is going on.

 

What needs to happen

I hope that Board Members read the Committee Report and accompanying papers properly and are not put off by the huge volume of information.  If they do so, they should appreciate that reasoning of officers is seriously flawed in a number of places and their recommendations open to legal challenge on a number of grounds.  Reasons enough to reject the application.

 

I will consider the new Cononish proposal’s compatibility with the conservation objectives of the National Park in my next post.

February 15, 2018 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Track above Allt Coire Fhar, Drumochter – a convenient way to access col between Geal Charn and A’Mharconaich but which replaced a former stalker’s path and was extended further last year, apparently without planning permission. Note the width and the eroding banks on the right which add to the scar.

The Scottish Government’s Planning Bill and the CNPA response

In December, the Scottish Government published its Planning Bill and this is now going through Parliament and will be considered this month by the Local Government Committee.    While in the Memorandum  accompanying the Planning Bill the Scottish Government clearly states “The purpose of planning is to guide how land should be used to meet the needs of society”  our planning system is currently focussed on where and how development should take place rather than how all land should be managed.  While there are some good things in the Planning Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament, it reflects and indeed consolidates that development bias, containing no new measures to protect the environment or determine how land in the countryside is managed.

 

The gaping hole in the Bill is landownership and what happens when a landowner decides to manage land which does not “meet the needs of society”.    For example, while the Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham has accepted there is a need to review how grouse moors are managed and set up a Review Group to do this – whose remit is ALL about land-use – there is absolutely nothing in the Planning Bill which would enable Planning Authorities to influence, let alone control, how grouse moors might be managed in future.    While that presents a problem for many of our Planning Authorities,  it poses specific challenges for our National Park Authority whose primary purpose relates to the management of land within their areas.

 

Historically, our planning system’s approach to environmental protection in the countryside has been limited to the  designation of protected areas, from National Scenic Areas to Special Areas of Conservation.  These offer some “protection” against certain types of development.  The Planning Bill contains no new measures to strengthen or extend existing protection and indeed contains one measure which is likely to do the opposite:  the proposal to replace Simplified Planning Zones with Simplified Development Zones will remove the current statutory restriction on such zones being located in National Scenic Area or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (see here for excellent SPICE briefing on the Bill).

 

While the John Muir Trust is thankfully campaigning for the Scottish Government to add clauses to the Bill which would increase the protection offered to wild land (see here for lobby of parliament)  that appears to be it at present.    There is nothing in the Planning Bill to suggest that the Scottish Government has any idea how our European designated sites could or should change with Brexit looming.  This is important because the European Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation have become far more important and carry far more weight in the decisions our Planning Authorities make than our home spun designations such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Scenic Area or, dare I say it, National Park.

 

The Planning Bill is therefore a lost opportunity when it comes to the environment including the challenges faced by our National Park Authorities, which have responsibility for development plans on the one hand and for conserving landscape and natural heritage on the other. There is nothing, for example, in the Planning Bill which would enable or help the Cairngorms National Park Authority to achieve its aspiration to enhance the environment at the landscape scale.  It was disappointing therefore to read the CNPA’s draft response to the Planning Bill which was considered at its January Planning Committee (see here).   Staff accepted the format of the consultation – I appreciate they are hard pressed and probably did not have much time to consider this – which avoided all the big gaps in the Bill outlined above and failed to use the opportunity to articulate and provide more evidence of the very real challenges they are facing:

 

 

No suggestion here as to how the planning system could be developed to influence land-use within the National Park “to meet the needs of society”.

 

While the CNPA did strongly support some of the proposals in the Bill, I am surprised given what has been going on in the National Park they do not make more of them:

Given their experience of hill tracks for example does the CNPA really think the proposals in the Bill to strengthen enforcement are enough?   Why did they not supply all the evidence they had presented to the Board at their December meeting on the need for better enforcement (see here)?    In the case of the Cluny Hill track in Glen Banchor, for example (see below), do CNPA staff believe the proposed new enforcement powers would have resulted in this track having been restored by now?  If yes, it would have been good to know why, but if no, surely the CNPA should have suggested what further powers they need?

So, what would the CNPA need to charge to recover the costs of enforcing the proper re-instatement of the Glen Bruar hydro scheme (see below) for example?    Again, like enforcement powers, we do not know whether or not CNPA staff believe the new charging flexibility would cover costs.

 

Its possible of course that the CNPA planning committee strengthened the response and at least the CNPA response was considered by Committee.  There has been no Planning Committee meeting in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority and its impossible to tell if they have responded to the consultation or not.

 

The proposals in the CNPA’s Main Issues Report affecting land-use in the countryside – hill tracks

This narrow approach to development planning, which accepts the current ruling ethos that planning should primarily be about controlling development rather than wider land-use,  is reflected in the CNPA’s Main Issues Report which is out for consultation until the beginning of March (see here) .  While its positive that two out of the ten main issues identified for the new Local Development Plan are ostensibly about land-use, the section on Natura Sites is reduced to a consideration of how to protect Capercaillie ( I will come back to this in a future post).  I will consider here the section on hill tracks.

The new hill track at Glen Banchor above Newtonmore is already being seriously eroded. Photo Credit Dave Morris

I welcomed the commitment in the CNPA’s National Park Partnership Plan published last year that there should be a presumption against new hill tracks in open moorland areas but I do not believe the discussion in the Main Issues Report goes nearly far enough.

The claim that the current policy on landscape “has been used effectively to control and mitigate the impact of new hill tracks in cases where they require planning permission” is in my view not true.  For example, the CNPA is taking enforcement action against the unlawful Cluny Estate track (see here) and has spent a considerable time ensuring that the Glen Bruar hydro track met planning requirements (see here) and that is without considering all the tracks which have been created for moorland management but which estates claimed were for agricultural and forestry purposes and so did not need planning permission.   The analysis fails to consider the serious deficiencies in the Prior Notification system or the very real problems the CNPA faces in proving that a hill track is not for agricultural or forestry purposes.

Photo taken end January 2018 – Photo Credit Dave Morris

Is the hill track at Glen Banchor, for example, which goes through moorland an agricultural track because the newly constructed section leads to a pen used for sheep dog trials?

The problem is the proposed Development Plan policy strengthening, while well intentioned, is poorly worded and likely to be totally ineffective.  To illustrate this consider the 10 miles of new track over moorland in Glen Feshie which the CNPA decided last year did not need planning permission and could be dealt with under the Prior Notification system because part of the purpose of the new tracks was to plant new forestry (see here). Is the CNPA now saying that such tracks, which I argued might be justified but should have been properly considered through the planning process, would not be allowed?  I suspect not.  So when will open moorland be treated as moorland?  Will anyone who says they propose to plant a few trees or keep a few sheep as mops for the ticks which affect grouse be still able to do what they want?

The quagmire created by off road use of vehicles above the Glen Banchor track – Photo Credit Dave Morris January 2018

An even greater problem is that the policy says nothing about use of vehicles off road which eventually becomes so bad that it is used to justify the creation of new tracks.  You cannot deal with track issues without considering how vehicles are then used when they come to the end of tracks.

 

And the Main Issues Report says nothing at all about how the CNPA might strengthen requirements about how tracks are designed, whether these be new tracks or upgrades of existing ones.

 

What needs to happen

While I welcome the desire of the CNPA to stop the proliferation of hill tracks, if they are to be successful in this, they need to develop and extend their proposal that there should be a presumption against new tracks in open moorland areas.  For example, the CNPA could:

  • Use planning powers to ensure that where tracks are consented in other areas, conditions are attached preventing vehicles using such tracks to access open country
  • Develop guidance, in partnership with recreational organisations and conservation minded landowners, on the off-track use of vehicles and consider the development of byelaws in future to control such use of vehicles
  • Set obligatory minimum standards for tracks and where tracks did not meet these standards no “upgrades” would be allowed.  For example, SNH recommends a maximum angle of 14% for hill tracks because any more than this the track erodes.   The CNPA should no longer tolerate poorly constructed tracks.

I also believe that the CNPA needs to consult on and articulate clear criteria about when they would be prepared  to consider tracks in moorland areas, for example to enable forest restoration, otherwise they will risk undermining their new policy proposal before its even adopted.  I will explain why in a further post on Glen Feshie.

February 8, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The volume of material allowed to be stored in the tailings stacks it is proposed to create below the Cononish gold mine (to the right of the dark specks on left) will impact on their size and number. Under snow, you could barely see the bags of tailings currently stored below the mine.

Following my post on what is going on behind the scenes at Scotgold Resources (see here),  this post will take a further  look at the landscape and wild land impacts of their proposals for storing waste extracted from the mine and their response to the objections made by myself and Mountaineering Scotland (see here).   The more “technical” issues, relating to the design and restoration of the proposed tailings stacks, will be picked up in a further post.

 

Scotgold want to increase the volume of waste that can be left outside the mine

In early posts on the new planning application (see here for example) and in my objection to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority about that application, I expressed concern that Scotgold Resources was wanting to dump far more spoil outwith the mine than the 400,000 tonnes which had been previously agreed.   Scotgold’s response in December was in my view less than clear and tried to divert attention to the form of the tailings stacks rather than their volume.   Earlier this month, however, they produced a further document comparing the volume of the materials in the original and in the new application (see here).   I suspect this was as a result of a request from the responsible Planning Officer, well done them!    The document shows that I was right to claim that Scotgold want the LLTNPA to approve plans which would result in far MORE material being dumped outwith the mine than was previously agreed.

The new proposal is to store spoil in ten tailings stacks rather than single large tailings dam which would have required the Allt Eas Anie – of ice climbing fame – to be diverted and a large amount of material from the floor of the glen (the earthfill in the table below ) to be bulldozed to form the dam. Here are the two tables, merged to make comparison easier:

Original Proposal – New proposal
Dam Stacks
Tonnage Volume (m3) Tonnage Volume (m3)
earthfill not specified 130,273 n/a n/a
rockfill not specified 33,403 172,332 86,166
filters not specified 6,000 n/a n/a
tailings 400,000 296,296 552,779 345,487
subtotal ? 465,972 725,111 431,653
Re-circulation pond
earthfill 10,000
Plant Bund
27,670 19,602
Allt Eas Anie Diversion
earth -38,100
rock -6,900
Fill (alteration above existing landform) 503,642 451,255
Cut (alteration below existing landform) -45,000 0

If you set aside the earthfill, what the table  shows is that Scotgold want to increase greatly the amount of rock (from 33,403 to 86,166m3)  and tailings (from 296,296 to 345,487m3) extracted out of the mine.   This also has the effect of signficantly increasing the area of ground affected:

 

“The operational disturbance now relates to 451,255m3, while at restoration this total alteration to landform is 9% larger by volume.”

 

The point here is that whatever the merits of tailings stacks over a single tailings dam, there would need to be fewer tailings stacks affecting a smaller area of ground (or alternatively the size of the tailings stacks could be reduced)  if the LLTNPA retained their original condition that the amount of material that could be left outside the mine could not exceed 400,000 tonnes.  Indeed, on Scotgold’s figures in the table above, that would mean 325,000 tonnes of waste being returned to the mine – which would almost halve the number of tailings stacks required!   That really would be an improvement on the original proposal!!   That is the last thing Scotgold wants, however, which is why they have been less than clear about their proposals up till now.

Part of the reason is cost, its expensive to return waste to mines, although that of course would create far more local jobs, which was one of the main justifications for a gold mine in the National Park in the first place.  Also, the creation of a tailings dam requires capital expenditure up front – the dam has to be created first (hence the 130,273m3 of earthfill in the table above) – while the cost of creating the proposed tailings heaps would be spread across the life of the mine.

It appears another reason for the change though is that Scotgold want to be able to extend the mine in future if more gold is discovered:

Slide presented to Scotgold AGM in November 2017

What the schematic plan shows is that potentially there is more gold down there beyond that which has been granted permission to mine at present.    Scotgold would be unable to extract this “extra gold” if tailings had to be returned to the mine, as is required at present.  It appears therefore that Scotgold wish to be in a position where they could submit a further planning application in future to extend the size of the goldmine – and this in turn could result in even more tailings stacks!   The potential cumulative impact of the LLTNPA agreeing to any increase in the amount of tailings stored outside the mine is therefore immense.  The LLTNPA and the public need to realise that what is driving the tailings stack proposals is less a concern for the landscape but the financial interests of Scotgold’s main shareholder, Nathaniel Le Roux.

The wider implications beyond Cononish are also significant:

 

The Cononish mineralisation remains open at depth down plunge and to the west along strike. There is therefore potential to add to the resource by further extensional drilling.
In addition to the currently defined Mineral Resources, Scotgold believes that there is additional resource development potential close to the Cononish mine, subject to appropriate and successful further work. Extensive gold-in-soil anomalies, mineralisation associated with outcrops and trenching and geophysical anomalies close to the current resource clearly warrant further follow up. In addition, there are indications that other reefs are present in the area too. At this stage, such indications are highly conceptual and there is no guarantee that further exploration will define additional Mineral Resources.

 

So, Scotgold is potentially wanting to develop not just the existing mine at Cononish but further mines close by.

The green line on the schematic map is the National Park boundary

 

“Based on the resulting prospectivity map, the study identified a series of high priority targets, with 6 targets being located within a 2.5 km radius of Cononish, including 2 targets outside the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (LLTNP). A further 5 targets have been identified within the studied area, all of which are outside the LLTNP. Close to the Cononish deposit, Coire Nan Sionnach and Kilbridge are highlighted as highly prospective, along with two further parallel anomalies between the Cononish deposit and Coire Nan Sionnach.”

So, besides Cononish, Scotgold has identified 4 further “high priority targets” close by within the National Park and  five more high priority targets just over the boundary.   How many tailings stacks is that going to produce?

 

The landscape impact of the proposed planning application

“It must however also be noted that while the total volume is of the same order of magnitude, and a slight increase, the current proposal for tailings placement is far superior in relation to the ultimate landform and its landscape fit.”

New photo montage of tailings heaps from the north. The edge of each heap is outlined in red and barely visible.

The documents in the Environmental Statement Addendum added to the LLTNPA planning portal in December include further photo montages, requested by the LLTNPA (to their credit), of how the ten tailings heap may look from different angles.  Seen from above the size of the heaps is flattened and the photomontage assumes that each heap will fully re-vegetate.  There are a number of factors to doubt this, which Bill Stephen will come back to in another piece, but they include the toxic materials in the tailings (think of the all of the bare ground below the Tyndrum Lead mine, bare 170 years later) and the erosive power of rainfall.  If bare or even half bare the mounds would look totally different, even from the angle in the photo-montage.

Why do our public authorities believe that the tailings stacks will revegetate successfully when the evidence from the Tyndrum Lead Mine is that the waste is still not revegetating 200 years later?

In terms of landscape impact, in my view the LLTNPA should be asking the developers to prepare photomontages of what the area could look like if the plans to create a new moraine field don’t work.  It should also be asking for photomontages of what the site will look like from close up (images of what the moraine field will look like from ground level are conspicuously lacking), e.g to a climber approaching the Eas Anie.

Perhaps the LLTNPA has requested this but unfortunately at present they are refusing to publish the report from their Landscape Adviser about the potential landscape impacts of the development and how they could be mitigated.  In my view, its in the public interest that the LLTNPA makes such reports publically available at the earliest opportunity as it would enable further debate and comments about the proposals.

Gold mines and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park – a wider perspective

The blue lines demarcate areas licensed by the Crown Estate for exploration

What the Scotgold Map of “Near Mine Potential” demonstrates is what a huge mistake the Loch Lomond National Park Authority made when, under the convenership of the Linda McKay, it reversed its previous opposition to a gold mine within the National Park and consented to Cononish.  According to the map and other information on the Scotgold  website there are richer gold deposits outwith the National Park which would make far more sense to develop from a commercial perspective (and which incidentally could have met the demands of the local community for jobs).  However, because Cononish had been prospected first, that is where the developers first submitted planning applications.  If the LLTNPA had drawn the line they should have drawn – mining is incompatible with our National Park’s statutory objectives –  the developers would have had to focus on the high priority areas outwith the National Park boundary.

Instead, the LLTNPA potentially faces years of applications and proposals for new developments and waste heaps.

 

The Crown Estate and the destruction of the landscape

While the Crown Estate has tried to promote a positive image at Tomintoul, most people will not be aware that without its consent, the Cononish gold mine could never have happened.  Gold mines, and the exploration for gold, are controlled by the Crown Estate Commissioners who in 2012 granted an unconditional lease to Scotgold for Cononish.  Now would be a good time to ask why the Crown Estate was granting licenses and leases for gold mine in National Parks as, in 2016, in the Scotland Act they became accountable to the Scottish Parliament (one of the main recommendations of the Smith Commission).  Indeed there is currently a Bill going through Parliament which aims “to:

  • reform the duties of the managers of Scottish Crown Estate assets;
  • provide legal powers for the transfer and delegation of management of Scottish Crown Estate assets to bodies other than Crown Estate Scotland;
  • create a national framework which ensures local communities, local authorities and industries can benefit

The Scottish Crown Estate Bill seeks to achieve these aims by changing the duty managers to manage assets on a purely commercial basis and allowing them to take into account wider social, economic and environmental factors when making management decisions.”

An ideal opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to make it clear that gold mines and other such developments licensed by the crown are NOT compatible with the conservation objectives of National Parks and there should be a presumption against any new such licences or leases in National Parks.

For the record the Scotgold 2017 Annual Report stated it had, in addition to Cononish, made the following Mines Royal Options Agreements with Crown Estates Commissioners:

  • Glen Orchy: Location – counties of Perth and Argyll, Scotland UK
  • Glen Lyon: Location – counties of Perth and Argyll, Scotland UK
  • Inverliever: Location – counties of Dunbarton, Argyll and Perth, Scotland UK
  • Knapdale: Location – county of Argyll, Scotland UK
  • Ochils: Location – county of Clackmannan, Perth, Kinross and Stirling, Scotland UK

Plenty there to provoke debate in the Scottish Parliament.

What needs to happen

The LLTNPA has a means to prevent the scenario of ever more goldmines being proposed within the National Park  and that is to insist that the current planning application is revised so that waste is returned to the mine and the amount stored outside the mine does not exceed the 400,000 tonnes originally agreed.  This would have the added benefit of enabling the size and/or number of the proposed tailings stacks to be reduced – which in landscape terms would be an improvement on the application it has already consented.

In doing this, the LLTNPA could make it clear that it has a duty to consider the potential cumulative impacts of further tailings stacks within the National Park and a duty (having conceded that one mine is acceptable) to ensure the landscape impact is as small as possible.   It could probably go further and insist that the more profit the mine makes, the more waste should be returned to it (thus creating more jobs and protecting the landscape).

The Scottish Parliament could help strengthen our National Parks by removing the discretion of the Crown Estates Commissioners to grant gold mine and other licenses in protected areas such as National Parks.  In my view such decisions should only be taken by the Scottish Parliament and only in the most exceptional circumstances.

February 2, 2018 Nick Kempe 1 comment
This new track on the Dalnacardoch Estate, which was created to construct the Beauly Denny pipeline runs through the Drumochter Hills Special Area of Conservation.   All the original assessments and planning consents for the Beauly Denny stated that there should be NO new tracks created in European protected areas.  I am still trying to find out HOW the decision was changed (more soon!) but it appears this track could have only be allowed to remain if the landowners wanted it.    Another case of individual landowner interests taking precedence over national policy.

Further evidence of the political power of landowners in our National Parks was revealed yesterday when Kate Forbes, the SNH MSP  for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, held a reception for the Gift of Grouse http://www.giftofgrouse.com/ at the Scottish Parliament.    This was preceded by an excellent post from Raptor Persecution Scotland (see here) lambasting the claims from the Gift of Grouse organisation that grouse provide healthy and sustainable food and providing links to comments and research from Andy Wightman, MSP.    The persecution of raptors such as hen harrier and golden eagle on grouse moors is now well known and the eastern part of the constitutency which Kate Forbes represents is not only in the Cairngorms National Park, it is something of a raptor persecution hotspot (see here).     Getting a National Park MSP to host this event therefore was something of a coup for landowning interests – unless of course Kate Forbes told those attending the reception that the Cairngorms National Park Authority should be taking a lead role in correcting the ills of the grouse industry.

 

There have been two other recent stories covered by Raptor Persecution UK which illustrate the political power and influence grouse moor owners have over our National Parks – and we need to remember that National Parks are places where, legally, conservation is meant to come first.

The first was how the Moorland Association blocked a draft press release from the Peak District National Park in England on the results of the Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative which basically showed it had been a complete failure (see here)).  The significance of the Report was that it showed that the voluntary measures which the grouse moor industry repeatedly claim are the way forward do not work.   As a consequence of the Moorland Association’s actions the findings of the report received very little publicity.  I hope the CNPA Board formally consider the findings of that Report and its implications for the voluntary measures they are pursuing with landowning interests in the Cairngorms at present as set out in the National Park Partnership Plan agenda for action on Moorland Management.

The second news story was the Countryfile programme on Sunday evening (see here from 7.01 and 30 mins 30 secs) which filmed a hare cull in the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park and is well worth watching if you have not done so.  The estates that took part in the programme presumably did so because they thought they could persuade the public with images of dead hares being placed in refrigerators for consumption rather than dumped in stink pits.    Raptor Persecution Scotland (see here) reported a huge backlash on social media which was even picked up by the Daily Mail (see here) – a sign that grouse moor interests got this badly wrong.  The presenter was far more sensitive to public opinion than either the gamekeepers or scientists discussing research about hare numbers and summed this up really well when they stated that shooting  hares to create a habitat to shoot something else might seem hard to swallow.

The only shame was that the programme did not ask some more questions:

  • how mountain hare culling fits with the conservation objectives of the National Park?
  • how does hare culling, which removes the favourite food of golden eagles, fit with the lack of eagles in the eastern Cairngorms
  • how does the claim that grouse moors support rural employment fit with the abandonment of many of the remaining houses left on grouse moors and would not other forms of land-use create more rural jobs?
  • what did the estates concerned think of the east Cairngorms Moorland Partnership, the Cairngorm National Park Authoirty’s  preferred means to address moorland management issues?  (Raptor Persecution Scotland pointed out that keepers from the Edinglassie and Candacraigs estates were present on the programme and neither is part of the east Cairngorms Moorland Partnership).

These stories illustrate where we are at present in terms of grouse moor management in our National Parks.  Grouse Moor interests still have the political power which means they can still block anything which threatens their interests and in effect have prevented the CNPA from taking any meaningful action to change the way grouse moors are managed in the National Park.  However, like many interests with too much power (and there are interesting connections between grouse moors and bankers not least in the case of RBS where Fred Goodwin’s idea of a management development day was to go grouse shooting at huge expense) they have become divorced from public opinion. The ideas of the people who ultimately control what happens in our National Parks in respect to grouse moors are no longer the ruling ideas and in that lies hope for change.

The implications of this are that the CNPA and politicians like Kate Forbes risk alienating public support unless they start to address the issues.  I don’t believe the public will allow the Scottish Government’s review of grouse moor management – which has taken a lamentably long time to get off the ground (another example no doubt of the political power of landowners) – to become yet another talking shop.

January 30, 2018 Mary Jack No comments exist

The islands of Inchtavannach and Inchconnachan.  The green shaded area marks denotes the Special Area of Conservation on Inchtavannach and Inchconnachan.   The red lines demarcate planning applications and the large red area on Inchconnachan shows the location of the planning application referred to below.   LLTNPA Planning Portal.

The four aims set out by the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000:

  1. To conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area.
  2. To promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area.
  3. To promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public.”
  4. To promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.”

These aims are to be pursued collectively. However, if there is conflict between the first aim and any of the others then greater weight must be given to the first aim (section 9.6 of the National Parks (Scotland) Act).

but not always it seems!

Loch Lomond is famous for its beautiful wooded shores and islands.

Sadly the island of Inchtavannach, Loch Lomond no longer comes into that category.

Poisoned Beech trees and scraggy oaks on Inchtavannach, Loch lomond. Photo credit – Mary Jack

After what can only be described, in my opinion, as the appallingly disastrous poisoning of beech trees on the island of Inchtavannach (see here), I tried to find a Land Management reference to the whole debacle.

The Planning Application (Planning Ref. 2012/0103/DET (see here)) by Luss Estates, approved by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, for the demolition of the small disused lodge and boat shelter, and replacement with a huge lodge for holiday let with warden accommodation, boathouse and gated pontoon on Inchconnachan  contained an Inchconnachan Management Plan 2015-2020. It was here that I found, what to me are conflicting references to woodlands on both Inchconnachan and  Inchtavannach  (P.16) :-

 

“1.1 Past and present management for land management                                                        

The SNH Site Management Statement for the SSSI states that the oaks on neighbouring Inchtavannach were planted from Dutch stock approximately 200-300 years ago and were managed to supply small timber products and tannin for the factory at Balloch. Inchconnachan has a similar history with woodland management …”

 

So, the oaks on Inchtavannach are not indigenous, they did not originate or occur there naturally … but were planted!! So why,might you ask, were the beech trees poisoned?

 

“1.2 Impacts of development of lodge  

As the development footprint covers only a small amount of the semi-natural woodland it is expected that no W 17b oak woodland will require to be felled or cleared/thinned.

The development is expected to involve the loss/limbing of some of the non-native conifers and removal of the invasive Rhododendron/azaleas for the construction of the new lodge, path network, and pontoon/pier.

Care will need to be taken during construction of the new boathouse and access tracks to build the new lodge to ensure no damage to the mature Scots Pine, alder woodland and mature beech located along the shoreline.”

                                                                                                                                     

2.1.3 Potential for improvement of wildlife features

Inchconnachan and Inchtavannach SSSI interest has notifiable features upland oak woodland and capercaillie.  Site Condition Monitoring by Scottish Natural Heritage states that the oak woodland is also unfavourable condition (the capercaillie had died out)”

 

So, the management plan stated the mature beech along the shore on Inchconnachan were to be protected at the same time as improving the condition of the oak woodland.

 

The Planning Application

 

The area outlined in blue is the Special Area of Conservation for the Loch Lomond oakwoods, the red hatched area marks the Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Area (for capercaillie).

The 2012 planning application was for a development within the Special Area of Conservation, which is supposed to offer the highest level of protection for conservation areas, on Inchconnachan.  It appears to have been approved on the basis it was on the site of a former development on the island which had not yet been colonised by oak trees.   The LL&TNPA approved it providing no oak trees were affected and special measures were adopted to protect trees overhanging the site:-

3.Habitat and Species Protection Measures: No work shall commence on demolition of the existing or construction of the new building of the development hereby approved until the undernoted documents have been submitted to, and approved in writing by, the Local Planning Authority or otherwise complied with. The protection measures (as may be approved pursuant to this condition) shall thereafter be complied with during construction works.

a)       Any trees whose canopies overhang the development footprint should be covered by a Tree Protection Plan that will firstly be submitted to, and approved in writing by the Local Planning Authority before works commence.  The Tree Protection Plan shall set out measures to protect the root plates of these trees from vehicle pressure during and after construction, with particular regard for trees associated with oak woodland habitat.  No storage of building materials or piling of soil shall take place within the protected areas established pursuant to this condition.

 

The principle behind this decision appeared to be while existing oak trees should be protected, the potential for them to recolonise new areas was not so important and ground without them could be used for development.   One might ask therefore if the same principle could not have been applied to save the mature beech trees on Inchtavannach?   It appears however that its okay for development to take place in a Special Area of Conservation on one island within the Lomond Woods SAC but not for trees which preceded the oak woodland to remain on another.

So much for the four aims set out by the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 and aims 1 & 4 in particular.

Felled mature beech trees and standing oaks (… and pretty poor looking specimens they are too) on Inchtavannach, Loch Lomond. Photo credit Mary Jack.

It also appears to be permissable for the 300 year old beech trees on Inchtavannach, apparently both native and indigenous, to be poisoned by SNH but they must be cared for by Luss Estates on Inchconnachan!

How can this be?

The blame for the poisoning of the beech trees on Inchconnachan cannot be laid solely at the door of Luss Estates. Their Land Management Plan, to which I refer above, has many references to SNH and LL&TNPA and it is clear they approved the said Plan. There appears to me to be too many Government quangos with too many fingers in too many pies (incidentally, acorns were milled and used as flour in times past). This appears to result in conflict and botched undertakings as on Inchconnachan. It seems to me that many of these Government quangos do not consult with one another. Indeed it was suggested by a Board Member at an LL&TNPA Board Meeting (albeit on a different topic) that there was a need for more ‘joined up thinking’.

January 30, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist

This post explores considers very recent developments in what is going on at Cairngorm Mountain, following earlier posts (see here),  how this is symptomatic of wider ills in how companies are allowed to operate and the implications for the proposed development at the Ptarmigan.   Unfortunately being in a National Park offers no immunity to this lack of public accountability and failure to act in the public interest.

Over the last week there has been a flurry of activity on the Companies House website  related to the companies that appear to own and operate  Cairngorm Mountain, Natural Assets Investment Ltd (NAIL) and the UK Great Travel Company Ltd (UKGTCL).   Under Company Law UK companies are legally required to register and keep up to date certain information on the Companies House website, including who controls them.  Although information about who controls a company is also legally required to be included in company accounts, because these are often published a year or more after the financial year in question (the last accounts for NAIL are for the year ending December 2016), this does not tell you who currently owns a particular company.   That becomes particularly important when a company like Natural Retreats breaks up – its the only way the public can find out what is happening.

Unfortunately Companies House is grossly under-resourced and current legal requirements are not enforced so for the last few months there has been no information publicly available about who really owns and operates Cairngorm   My MP, Alison Thewliss, has been in the news about this this week calling, rightly in my view, for tighter regulation of Scottish Limited Partnerships.  While tighter enforcement needs to be extended to all companies, public authorities could help with improving transparency if they made it a pre-condition for all public contracts that the company concerned met Company House requirements.  I have been in dialogue with the Chief Executive of HIE, Charlotte Wright,  about this in respect to Cairngorm Mountain and had the following responses:

1              Information on Companies House website

Companies House data should be kept up to date, and I understand you raising this as a concern.  However, as I said before, HIE believes that this is a matter for the company.  I would assure you that we do not rely solely on Companies House information for our monitoring activities, which are regular and robust.

and then, when I questioned this further, received the following:

HIE’s approach to risk evaluation and treatment is refreshed continually, and overseen by our Risk and Assurance Committee which reports to the HIE Board and is attended by representatives of Audit Scotland and the Scottish Government.  We are always alert to changes that may affect individual projects, and that process is being followed in relation to the new arrangements for CML.

While I was disappointed that HIE is basically claiming “its not our job” to help ensure information about their contractors is available to the public, it is possible that they have had a word behind the scenes and that helps explain the activity in the last week on the Companies House website.   This started with information on the ownership of Cairngorm Mountain which confirms NAIL still owns it:

 

Form Description
22 Jan 2018 PSC02 Notification of Natural Assets Investments Limited as a person with significant control on 6 April 2016

And was followed on 26th January with notifications for six other NAIL subsidiaries confirming they were still owned by NAIL.   So far so good.  Then two further changes occurred, both of which raise serious questions about what is going on at Cairngorm and the extent to which HIE have any influence over this (remember NAIL and UKGTCL are managing what used to be public assets and Cairngorm Mountain Ltd leases what is publicly owned land).

 

Who controls NAIL?

NAIL, the company which was registered as having significant control in Cairngorm Mountain Ltd on 22nd January,  had declared on the Companies House website that there was a person who controlled but they did not know who this was (see below).  This appears to have mince – and illustrates just what companies can get away with –  because in its accounts for the year ending December 2016 NAIL stated that  David Michael Gorton (a fund manager) had significant control:

Then, on 26th January, Companies House published this notice for NAIL stating that the person with significant control statement has been withdrawn.

 

Form Description
26 Jan 2018 PSC09 Withdrawal of a person with significant control statement on 26 January 2018

 

So what is going on?   Has David Michael Gorton sold NAIL to multiple owners so there is no need legally to state who has “significant control” – which appears unlikely – and has HIE been informed?  Or is this simply a mistake?   I have written again to the HIE Chief Executive  to try and find out.

Ownership of the UKGTCL (formerly Natural Retreats)

The HIE tender published on 30th November for a review of ski infrastructure at Cairngorm (see here) stated that:

“In June 2014, following a public tender process to find a new operator for Cairngorm Mountain, HIE sold its shares in the operating company, CML, to Natural Assets Investments Ltd. CML is now operated by a Natural Assets subsidiary, UK Great Travel Company Ltd.”

So, according to HIE in November, when Natural Retreats broke up and the UK arm became the UKGTCL, it became a subsidiary (owned by) to Natural Assets (Investment Ltd) the same company that owns Cairngorm.    If this is true, it was never registered at Companies House.

On 29th January however I received the following information from Companies House:

“You have been sent this email because you are following THE UK GREAT TRAVEL COMPANY LIMITED (07232597)

The following information is available from the company’s filing history.

Date Form Description
26 Jan 2018 PSC02 Notification of The Great Travel Company Limited as a person with significant control on 1 November 2017″

In other words the UK Great Travel Company, the new name for Natural Retreats, is NOT owned by NAIL as HIE claimed but rather is owned by a new company, the Great Travel Company Ltd (the similarity in names is confusing), which Companies House shows is controlled by Matthew Spence (and not David Michael Gorton).  Either HIE has got it very wrong – which raises serious concerns about the robustness of the procedures they claim to have in place to monitor what is going on at Cairngorm – or ownership of the company has changed twice in the last four months or so.  If that is the case, none of the required documentation is on the Companies House website.

Who now operates and controls Cairngorm?  And what are the public interest implications?

The Cairngorm Mountain website included the following statement in its announcement (see here) of its (very brief) public consultation on the Ptarmigan extension “CairnGorm Mountain Ltd is operated by The UK Great Travel Company Ltd”.

So its now all clear, Cairngorm Mountain is OWNED by NAIL, controlled by David Michael Gorton, but OPERATED by UKGTCL which is controlled by Matthew Spence – who also happens to be one of the Directors of NAIL!

While there are further questions to be asked about the relationship between these companies, one of the most pressing issues is HIE’s proposal to lend millions of pounds to fund the redevelopment of the Ptarmigan.  Before this goes any further HIE need to clarify whether their proposed loan will be to:

  • Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, whose net liabilities at December 2016 were £1,092,906
  • UKGTCL, as the company which operates Cairngorm (whose net liabilities at December 2016 were £216,959) or to;
  • NAIL, the company which owns it whose net liabilities at December 2016 were £29,380,827?

HIE also need to explain publicly how they intend to secure the proposed loan when none of the companies concerned have sufficient assets to guarantee it.

Now that the ownership and management of Cairngorm Mountain appears to  have been clarified, HIE’s proposal to lend the operators/owners large amounts of public funds to redevelop the Ptarmigan appears from a financial perspective foolhardy in the extreme.   Time perhaps for Audit Scotland, who sit on HIE’s risk management committee, to have a look at what is going on and provide HIE with some advice?

January 29, 2018 Nick Kempe 4 comments
A sign no more.   This sign had been put up by Scotgold Resources beyond the perimeter of the proposed boundary to the Cononish gold mine and several hundred metres before the boundary marking the current mine workings.  It therefore contravened access rights but I am delighted to be able to report that, after the intervention of the LLTNPA’s access team, Scotgold agreed to remove it.

On 7th December, the same day that Bill Stephen’s objection to the Cononish goldmine planning application was published (see here), Scotgold Resources lodged an Addendum to their Environmental Statement,  a document which in turn included another five 5 addenda of its own.   A  a few days later, on 13th December, they lodged a response to the objections made by myself and Mountaineering Scotland (see here). Both documents appear to have been lodged in the expectation that the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority would shortly hear the planning application at a meeting of the full Board (there was a paper proposing this at their December meeting).  I will consider this additional documentation in my next post on Cononish but meantime will consider here what is going on behind the scenes.

First, however, the timescales for determining the planning application.    Scotgold has been telling its shareholders all year that its revised planning application would be approved in December and mining would start early in 2018.    Under the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, however, changes to Environmental Statements need to be advertised and consulted on and the LLTNPA only did this on 5th January.  As a consequence the special Board Meeting they had scheduled at the end of January to consider the application cannot now be held until well into February.  That extends the time people can object to the application.

 

What is going on at Scotgold Resources?

While the documents relating to the Environmental Assessment were submitted under the name of Scotgold resources, the actual planning application as lodged in August was from a new company, SGZ Cononish Ltd which was incorporated on 21st June 2017.  It has two Directors, the Managing Director, Richard Gray, who is a mining engineer, and Nathaniel Le Roux, who became chair of Scotgold Resources in March 2015 (see here) and owns 25-50% of shares in the new company.  There has been NO mention of this new company that I can see anywhere on the Scotgold Resources website which makes it difficult for shareholders, the public and indeed our National Park Authority to work out what is going on.  I have been having a looking through company documentation which has revealed some interesting information.

Nathaniel Le Roux appears to have a significant control in the SGZ Cononish Ltd through his significant control in Scotgold Resources which owns it:

Meantime Scotgold’s accounts show what money Mr Le Roux has been lending to Scotgold Resources over the last 15 months:

This shows that an UNSECURED 6% LOAN from Mr Le Roux which was due to be repaid in September 2018 was paid back in March 2017, i.e 18 months early, and replaced by a SECURED 10% LOAN which paid him a significantly higher rate of interest for a less risky own (as secured on the company’s assets). Its not clear from the accounts how Scotgold Resources dealt with the obvious conflict of interest with its Board of Directors agreeing a far more advantageous loan to one of its fellow Directors and the main shareholder in the Company.  It is legitimate to ask however if this was in the interests of any other shareholders?

Mr Le Roux’s degree of control over Scotgold Resources appears likely to increase further in the near future if it has not already done so.  On 13th November, Scotgold Resources published a Rights Issue (see here), an attempt to raise further capital, by offering two new shares for every three existing ones to shareholders and then another share for every five new shares.   Complicated, but if small shareholders do not sign up and Mr Le Roux takes up his rights, he will have ended up with a majority of shares in the company and therefore absolute control.

Mr Le Roux’ shares don’t appear in his own name but appear to be held by Hargreave Hale Nominees Ltd:

While almost the entire Hargreave Hale Nominees Ltd shareholding  would appear to belong to Mr Le Roux, for some of the other “nominee” shareholders, who holds shares on behalf of individuals, that is unlikely to be the case.   Hargreave Landsdowne, for example, deal in and hold shares for small shareholders and their holding therefore is  likely to represent holdings by a number of smaller shareholders.   That probably increases Mr Le Roux’s control of the company further.

Hargreave Hale Nominees Ltd’s function appears to be purely to hold shares as it does not trade and does not therefore have to lodge accounts.

While Mr Le Roux has currently waived his fees as a Director of Scotgold, Richard Gray the Managing Director earned $168,180 or approximately £100,000:

A “possible appropriate sustainable legacy”?

Scotgold has always presented itself as benefitting the local community and indeed committed to paying £350k over the lifetime of the mine to the Strathfillan Community Development Trust should it ever go ahead.  Now I am not against local jobs but the mine may have a lifetime of 8-17 years – hardly “permanent” jobs – while £350k seems a small price for the creation of what will be a huge dump above Strathfillan which has the potential, if it does not work, to blight it for hundreds of years.

I believe its worth contrasting the picture being sold by Scotgold with what the accounts show.  That is that the main beneficiary from the mine, should it go ahead and make money,  will be one person, Nathaniel Le Roux.  Depending on your perspective you can either see this as an example of benevolent paternalism or ruthless city exploitation.    I happen to believe that neither should have a place in our National Parks.   What price so called sustainable economic development?

January 26, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking down on the Cononish gold mine from the north ridge of Beinn Dubhcraig, Ben Nevis in distance.

The snow, last weekend, nicely brought out the relief around the Cononish gold mine but also covered up its visual impact, with the waste bags  covered by snow.  The photo shows, I believe, that what I stated in my last post (see here) on Cononish was correct:

 

“The Wild Land Assessment contained in the Environmental Statement suggests that the establishment and operation of the mine will have a ’moderate and significant effect on approaching the north-eastern hills’ but this will be medium term and localised to upper Glen Cononish with the effect on the local sense of sanctuary ‘minor and not significant’. The visibility of the mining site from the surrounding mountains and the effect that this will have on their landscape setting including that of the impressive Eas Anie waterfall and ravine is not considered.”

 

This demonstrates that the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority need to undertake and publish their own independent landscape assessment on the impact of the proposed gold mine as part of their consideration of the revised planning application.  This needs to take account of the landscape impact of creating 10 heaps of tailings in the large area below the mine (in the central section of the photo) and what doing so will do to the Wild Land Area which was created in 2014.  This will be a test of the value that our National Parks attribute to Wild Land Areas and will have implications for Wild Land Areas elsewhere.

I will consider what’s happening with the Cononish planning application more fully in my next post.

January 24, 2018 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Beachen Court – the Developer’s perspective

I have been aware of the Beachen Court housing development at Grantown for some time.  I believe it illustrates many of the fundamental issues facing the Cairngorms National Park Authority in respect to housing and planning, some of which it is currently consulting on in its Main Issues Report (see here).  The area, previously flower rich grassland used for informal recreation by local people, had been earmarked for housing in the CNPA Development Plan and subsequent site standards developed through consultation.

The development is taking place in phases, each subject to separate planning applications, subsequent to basic infrastructure being put in place.  There have been issues with the developer adhering to the planning conditions for this infrastructure which were referred to at the December CNPA planning committee in their report on enforcement:

a) Beachan Court, Grantown-on Spey
This is a housing development with permission for roads and plot layout for 53 houses (and full permission for 10 affordable units granted in October 2016) and included a range of conditions dealing with SUDS provision, levels, tree protection and measures for species protection. The opening up of the site, significant infrastructure works and interaction between different conditions has required monitoring to ensure conditions are complied with and development commences in a satisfactory way. The CNPA has investigated a number of enforcement enquiries raised by the public on the site.

Unfortunately the report did not explain what action the CNPA had taken as a result of those concerns.   That same meeting, however, also considered a planning application for the second phase of the development (the first phase being the construction of 10 social housing units by Highland Council), the subject of the Strathy article above.  The main point of contention in the application (which was objected to by the Community Council) was the proposed design of the housing which breached the design policy the CNPA had adopted for the site:  this has originally been that houses should be 1.5 storeys in height (with the upper floor set in the roof) but had been relaxed to a maximum of 1.75 storeys in height.  :

The appearance and size of a one and three quarter storey house is outlined in red, the new proposal for a full height two storey house in grey.  CNPA planning papers.

The Developer argued that full height two storey houses were needed to make the houses “affordable”:

The Design Statement explains that the type of housing complies with the Scottish Government’s “help to buy” scheme which helps buyers who would not otherwise be able to do so to buy a new home. The applicants assert that this has meant that 1 ¾ storey houses would be difficult to provide given the ratio of construction costs to valuation costs and this has led to the current proposal for two storey houses. The statement seeks to addresses the relationship to the original design brief as approved for the wider plot layout which set out design principles for future development and included a statement that all new housing would be a maximum of 1 ¾ storeys high which was reflected in the planning conditions attached to the original plot layout consent here.

The proposed appearance of the 2 storey dwellings CNPA planning papers

CNPA staff had this to say about the proposed design:

In terms of the design the houses types are considered to be functional and satisfactory, of simple design incorporating an acceptable range of materialswere not exactly enthusiastic about the standard of the design 

Hardly an enthusiastic endorsement, but they nevertheless recommended the designs be approved:

61. It is appreciated that the guidance contained in the non-statutory development brief for this site set out that development should be up to 1 ½ storeys. This was amended in the subsequent application for the wider site where 1 ¾ storey development was put forward in the accompanying design and access statement. The applicant is now putting forward the case for 2 storey housing on the application site. The financial reasons behind this are not considered to be an overriding planning consideration, but simply an explanation from the developer as to why they have gone down this route. The land use planning consideration here is simply whether or not on these particular sites two storey properties as proposed are acceptable.

62. Given that the house designs are satisfactory, there are no adverse impacts on amenity of neighbours and sections demonstrate that the houses will sit acceptably on the sites there is no planning policy reason to refuse the application simply because it does not comply fully with the guidance contained in the design brief and development brief.

What message does it give to developers if development briefs can be ignored?  If planning in the our National Parks is to become really effective, our National Park Authorities need to hold developers to agreed design briefs and to adherence to planning conditions.  I suspect the CNPA is storing up problems for itself for later phases of the development of this site (and its worth saying here there were many excellent elements in the original design brief including such things as dedicated cycle storage facilities – the proportion of National Park residents who cycle is very high) and the developer will come back with further proposals to relax the original design brief in later stages of the development.   We will see!

While the Planning Committee approved the proposal, to their credit three members of the Board supported an amendment that the CNPA should stick to their policy.  Further the mover of the amendment, the new Board Member nominated by Perth and Kinross Council, Xander McDade (referred to in the article above), hit the issue on the head when he stated it should be possible to provide high quality affordable housing, a challenge to the Developer’s claims that the changes were necessary to make the housing affordable.

 

Gus Jones, Convener of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group had an interesting letter in the Strathy last week about the decision which focusses on the alleged merits of the Help to Buy Scheme as a means of providing affordable housing.

The underlying issue here is the price of land.   This was subject to a very interesting report from the Scottish Land Commission Land Lines.  The housing land market in Scotland.The report is well worth reading in its entirety for anyone who wants to understand the housing market and its findings are very relevant to the CNPA’s consultation on its Main Issues Report.

Main findings

• House prices have risen dramatically in Scotland in recent decades, far outpacing
growth in incomes. The driving force behind rising house prices has been increasing
land prices.
• The way the land market operates depends largely on the laws, institutions and
political history of particular nations, and so varies widely. In Scotland, the key
characteristics are a reliance on the private sector operating on a speculative model
to deliver new house building; a legal framework that allocates the uplift in the
value of land resulting from planning permission to landowners rather than public
authorities; a liberalised mortgage credit market; a taxation system that is highly
favourable to land and property; and a paucity of publicly available information on
land values and ownership.
• This system has resulted in an under-supply of housing and escalating housing
costs, which in turn has undermined living standards, exacerbated economic
inequality, and stifled productivity growth and output.
• Policy options to improve the supply of land for housing include public land value
capture, compulsory sale orders, a new housing land development agency, tax
reform, and greater market transparency.
• Intervening in the land market would have a number of long-term economic benefits
including a more productive and dynamic economy; a fairer and more inclusive
society; improved living standards; and healthier public finances.

While I will come back to this in a more detailed consideration of the CNPA Main Issues Report, the relevance to Beachen Court is that good quality housing which met the original design requirements could have been provided for considerably less than £178k for two bedrooms if it had not been for the price of the land.  Hence, the message to the CNPA for their Main Issues Report is that if they truly want to deliver affordable housing in the National Park – given the enormous gap between current prices and the average income of residents – they need to start tackling the land question.

January 18, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Half removed ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste, a sort of tank trap for skiers – Photo Credit Ron Walker

I had not personally visited Coire na Ciste since HIE found £267k for a clear-up at Cairngorm (see here)  in which they removed the ski infastructure there without any consultation.  Having been sent the above photo (used with permission) I wish I had.   The half removed unmarked infrastructure is an obvious hazard which could have killed an off-piste skier using the lift system.

This hazard has been reported to HIE and I understand they have taken immediate action.  They now need to explain publicly how the current management at Cairngorm, who were supervising the contract to remove the infrastructure from Coire na Ciste,  either never checked on the work or, if they did, failed to identify this as a hazard and respond appropriately (which would have included reporting it to HIE if the money had run out).

More evidence that “Natural Retreats” (or whoever is now actually running Cairngorm) cannot be trusted to manage publicly funded contracts and the publlcly owned land at Cairngorm and more grounds for HIE to terminate their lease with them. If HIE does not act, the responsible Minister, Fergus Ewing, should.

January 17, 2018 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Badenoch and Strathspey Herald 11/01/18

Last week, nine months after Highlands and Island Enterprise launched its so called masterplan for Cairngorm (see here), the Strathy announced  the date of the pre-planning consultation event on the proposals to revamp the Ptarmigan near the summit of the hill.  At the same time it also broke the news that the Scottish Ski Club, which has a hut at Cairngorm, was proposing to spend £1.4m on a new lift at the White Lady.  This post will consider how both proposals fit with the need for a wider plan for Cairngorm and what is really going on there behind the scenes.

 

The Ptarmigan proposals

There were two main elements to the Cairngorm masterplan what wasn’t: a dry ski slope by the carpark, which now appears to have been ditched (a planning application was submitted before being quickly withdrawn last year), and the Ptarmigan.  From the Strathy article it appears that the proposals have not changed greatly in the last nine months since the concept was revealed, with the extension to the building and revamped exhibition both included in the original plans, although the plan for a walkway out over the funicular appears to have been altered slightly.  It now apparently goes around or over the roof:

Extract from 365 Degree Architecture’s previous plans released under Freedom of Information – if the reports of a rooftop walkway are correct, it appears that the design of the building will have been changed.

The basic idea however remains the same, try and get more people to use the funicular by creating a visitor attraction at the top of it.   The idea is totally flawed.  In landscape terms National Parks should not be permitting new developments near the summits of mountains and in visitor experience terms, to use that awful phrase, the plan is complete stupidity.   The Ptarmigan is shrouded in cloud for much of the time and subject to high winds, so the claim that the rooftop walkway will “maximise the amazing vistas all year round” is complete tosh.   HIE appears to be preparing to lend another £4m of public monies to create yet another white elephant at Cairngorm.

What’s worse, HIE appears to be pressing ahead with this proposal before it – or rather Natural Retreats – has produced an overall plan for Cairngorm, as it committed to do under the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy which was approved in 2016 and before it has completed its review of ski infrastructure at Cairngorm.  This is important because in terms of use of public money, HIE should have fully assessed the cost-benefits of expanding the Ptarmigan compared to other options BEFORE endorsing any planning application.

 

The White Lady ski lift proposal

The former White Lady lift before the removal of the old lift base with the Scottish Ski Club Hut above it. August 2017.

HIE’s inability to produce any sort of coherent plan for Cairngorm is nicely shown up by the proposal from the Scottish Ski Club to reinstate the White Lady lift, probably in the form of a state of the art t-bar which apparently would cost £1.4m and which they hope to fund.  This is most interesting, not least because it suggests that new lifts could be installed in Coire na Ciste for less than the £4m HIE are proposing to lend to Cairngorm Mountain in order to develop the Ptarmigan.    So, would it not be better to use public monies to support the proposals from the Ciste Group and Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust to redevelop the Ciste rather than waste it on the Ptarmigan?  Add those proposals to the White Lady lift and the use of snow making machines and one might, once again, have skiing worthy of the name at Cairngorm.

While the White Lady Lift proposal appears welcome, the evidence suggests that behind the scenes HIE has yet again not been honest about what they are up to while the Scottish Ski Club has allowed themselves to get caught up in HIE and Cairngorm Mountain shenanigans.  The Strathy story quotes the Scottish Ski Club as saying they have been in collaboration with HIE and Natural Retreats  to look  at the feasibility of the proposal.  This must have taken time and it seems reasonable to conclude therefore that HIE must have known about this when they tendered for their review of ski infrastructure at the end of November (see here).  That tender included in its scope the development potential of Coire na Ciste but NOTHING about the development potential of Coire Cas where the White Lady is situated.  So has HIE helped commission another study, which they have kept secret, about the ski potential in Coire Cas or have they just missed an opportunity to get independent evidence on the Scottish Ski Club proposals which could be used to justify some public financial investment?   Either way the lack of join up by HIE between the various initiatives at Cairngorm is quite staggering and yet more evidence of the need of a proper overall plan.

While I can understand that the Scottish Ski Club needed to get HIE, as the owners, and NR as the operators, on board, it appears they may have allowed themselves to get too close.  Its much easier to understand now why the SSC did not  make an issue when Cairngorm Mountain staff entered the Ski Club Hut and removed the Winter Highland webcam without permission (see here).  If they had done so, Natural Retreats might have refused to co-operate with their proposal.   Easier too to understand why Cairngorm Mountain thought they could get away with this highhanded action.    It would be in interests of all who care about Cairngorm if SSC were to talk now to the Ciste Group and Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust and ensure all their plans fit as one cannot see either HIE or Natural Retreats doing this.

So is Natural Retreats still Natural Retreats and if not who is running Cairngorm Mountain?

While the Scottish Ski Club reported they had been talking to Natural Retreats, I suspect this is because the staff they spoke to never told them what was going on – or perhaps even they didn’t know.  I think it is significant in this respect that the Ptarmigan proposal is being push in the name of Cairngorm Mountain with not a mention of  Natural Retreats.  The original proposals for the

The branding strapline from an earlier version of the proposals for the Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan were branded on every page as coming from Natural Retreats.  I suspect that at the consultation event there will be not a mention of Natural Retreats, which we know is no longer a so-called international operation, and the UK part of which appears to have transferred to the UK Great Travel Company on 1st November  (see here) and (here).  I have since found out – as a result of a comment on the blog that the Great Travel Company Ltd had registered a person with Significant Control – that there are in fact two Great Travel Companies, both operated by former directors of Natural Retreats:

The UK Great Travel Company is the new name for the Natural Retreats UK and has three Directors, Ewan Kearney, Anthony Wild and Matthew Spence and, while it has still failed to register who has significant control, we know from past accounts that it used, at any rate, to be controlled by David Michael Gorton, the same man who controls Natural Assets Investment Ltd, the owner of Cairngorm Mountain.

The Great Travel Company was incorporated – i.e created as a new company – at the end of October 2017 with Matthew Spence as sole Director and owning over 75% of the shares.

So what is happening?   The former company Natural Retreats UK, before it became the UK Great Travel Company, appeared to service all the companies owned by Natural Assets Investment Ltd .  As remarked in my last post, there is still a Natural Retreats UK website but all mention of Cairngorm Mountain has been removed from it and a new marketing manager is/has been appointed based at Cairngorm.  It appears therefore the companies are being separated.   The creation of the Great Travel Company suggests that Cairngorm Mountain is not the only part of the Natural Retreats business which is being separated off.  But why then create a company with such a similar sounding name and why is Matthew Spence a director of both?  A recipe for confusion unless something else is going on.

Before the latest changes, I has written to HIE expressing concern about what is going on behind the scenes and who actually now manages and controls Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.  I had a very polite and clear response from their Chief Executive, Charlotte Wright, just before Xmas:

1              Information on Companies House website

Companies House data should be kept up to date, and I understand you raising this as a concern.  However, as I said before, HIE believes that this is a matter for the company.  I would assure you that we do not rely solely on Companies House information for our monitoring activities, which are regular and robust.

What this told me was that even if HIE do know who owns the UK Great Travel Company, they don’t see it as being in the public interest that this information is made public.   Given that Scottish Limited Partnerships, money laundering and tax evasion are in the news on a daily basis at present, one would have hoped that all public agencies in Scotland were ensuring the organisations they contract with meet these basic legal obligations.  All it would take is one call from them saying “publish the correct information or there will be contractual consequences” and the UK Great Travel Company would oblige.   That they have not done so suggests other things are going on.

Within this context it appears foolhardy in the extreme to be pushing ahead with an ill conceived scheme which will hand yet more public money to the shadowy companies that own and manage Cairngorm and whom we know were, until recently at least, controlled by a hedge fund manager.

January 12, 2018 Nick Kempe 2 comments
The powerlines which blighted the Speyside Way extension south of Aviemore have now been removed

While the Beauly Denny has been a blot on the landscape, as a consequence of the visual impact of the pylons and the poor restoration of ground around (covered in my last post (here)), elsewhere in the National Park a very different approach is being taken.   The powerline infrastructure is being modernised but to the benefit, not at the expense of, the landscape.

Much of this is due to the Cairngorms National Park Authority which, while failing to stop the Beauly Denny, did win support for the associated rationalisation scheme for the the removal of c93km of existing LOW voltage or redundant tower lines from Etteridge, through Boat of Garten,  Tomintoul, the Lecht and Strathdon towards Tarland – a great arc around the north of the National Park.   The Report on the Beauly Denny at the December planning Committee reports this is now complete:

 

The scheme started in 2014 and completed in the summer of 2017 with the removal of the last towers between Ruthven and Etteridge. Much of the new low voltage line has been undergrounded using a mole plough for cabling so there has been relatively little disturbance of vegetation. CNPA officers have undertaken site inspections and advised upon some technical matters relating to natural heritage. There have been modifications to wayleaves and some tree removal during the project but the work has been undertaken in a satisfactory manner and with minimal disturbance so has been successful

 

There are many positive consequences of this for everyone who lives in and visits the Cairngorm National Park (see photo above and here) and this should be seen as a great success story.    What particularly interested me from the report, however, was CNPA officers positive assessment of how the work was done, by mole plough.  I had come to similar conclusions about the benefits of using this technology to bury powerlines from two visits to Glen Tromie in November.  The rest of this post will use what is happening at Glen Tromie to illustrate the benefits of using this technology before arguing it provides a great opportunity to enhance the landscape throughout both our National Parks.

 

 

The current work to underground the Glen Tromie powerline starts at the hideous Lynaberack Lodge in Glen Tromie. The ground here, where the undergrounded line joins with the overhead powerline, is more disturbed than almost anywhere else along the route.

In November, as part of my visit with Dave Morris to discuss hill tracks (see here), Thomas McDonnell, the Conservation Manager of Wild Land Ltd, took us up Glen Tromie to look at tracks there.  On the way we stopped off at Lynaberack Lodge, a planning disaster which thankfully the estate intend to remove, so Thomas could have a word with a team who were about to return to Germany with their mole plough (sorry no photos!).   It was as a result of this that I became aware that part of estate’s programme to re-wild the landscape is to underground powerlines – work which is basically being paid for by Anders Povlsen, the billionaire owner.  Two weeks later I went back myself to take a proper look at how the work has been done.

Evidence of the amount of new electric cable which has been undergrounded

The work is not yet complete.  While the contractors have buried the new cable,  it is not yet connected and removal of the existing powerline and clear-up has still to happen.  The advantage,in terms of the timing of my visit, was I could record the landscape impact of the existing powerline.

The road is just to the right of the photo

Imagine the difference, when this section of powerline is removed.  While there is still a road running up the glen, to the person walking or cycling along it the view  will feel significantly wilder.

The new powerline, which lies beneath the vehicle track starting bottom centre, will replace the pylons.
Few people would know, just a couple of week after the work had been carried out, that the reason for this ground disburbance is an electric cable had been buried  unless it was for the sign
You can however see some evidence that a mole plough has been used. In places boulders have been excavated  to allow the passage of the plough and cable.

Apart from the removal of boulders, the vegetation has been little disturbed and on the grassy floor of the glen should recover from the passage of vehicles very quickly.  I suspect by next summer, when the grass has had time to grow again, it will be very hard to detect the line of the buried cable.

The buried cable is under the disturbed heather on the left side of the road

I was most impressed that the mole plough could also be used on heather moorland and cause so little destruction to vegetation.  Again, I think the vegetation here should more or less fully recover in a season.

There was a section further up the glen where I had great difficultly following the line that had been taken and wondered whether I had reached the end of the work.

The worst area of ground disturbance/destruction of vegetation on moorland

I then came across the patch of very disturbed ground in the photo above.   I was unable to ascertain the cause of this – it may have been a consequence of the land being very boggy – but in the context of several kilometres of buried cable it just served to illustrate in general how well the work had been done and the potential of using mole ploughs.

The line of the Glen Bruar power cable runs along the line of disturbed vegetation on the left of the road to the powerhouse which you can just see top right

The advantages of using the mole plough can be seen by comparing the powerline burial in Glen Tromie with that to the new Glen Bruar scheme.  While parkswatch has given extensive coverage to the Glen Bruar pipeline restoration above the powerhouse, below it several miles of new electric cable was required to connect it to the grid.  The work for this was generally to a high standard – and hence I have avoided comment – but the methodology used was to excavate a ditch, bury the cable and then refill it.  Despite the care taken, over two years on the line of the cable is more visible than that in Glen Tromie two weeks after the work finished.   The lesson, I believe, is that burying cable with a mole plough, if done well, does significantly less damage that any methods that involves removing vegetation, excavating a ditch and then trying to restore this work.

I had seen one example of excavation in Glen Feshie – the hole appeared for connection purposes.  It is very difficult – and incidentally far more labour intensive – to restore the ground caused by such digging.  Compare this to the impact and work involved in using a mole plough.  Thomas MacDonell told us, if my memory is correct, that it had taken just five days to bury the cable in Glen Tromie and, from I saw, very little further work or monitoring will be needed.

Sign marking where cable crosses the track leading up to the upper Allt Bhran hydro intake – the track below the moraine leads to the Gaick

I left the line of the buried cable to head further up the Allt Bhran and look at tracks there (to be covered in further post) convinced that mole ploughs are the way forward and wondering why there is a paucity of contractors using this technique in Scotland.

 

What needs to happen

While I hope in due course to visit sections of the powerline that has been undergrounded in the Beauly Denny restoration scheme (any photos from readers of before and after would be welcome), from the evidence I have seen at Glen Tromie, there is no reason to disbelieve the statement by CNPA staff that the use of the mole plough there has been very effective.  I think there is an opportunity for the CNPA to advertise and build on that success with a view to ensuring that as much low voltage cable as possible is undergrounded in the National Park.  Among the ways the CNPA could help this to happen are:

  • to commission research/publish a  study on the impacts and costs of the mole plough compared with traditional ditch digging techniques to underpin a future action plan in the National Park
  • to share this experience with other planning authorities, including the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, and with landowners.
  • to encourage other private landowners to follow the brilliant example set by Wild Land Ltd and to consider what other opportunities there might be for enhancing the landscape through burial of further powerlines in the National Park
  • to develop planning policy in this area, as part of its consultation on the new National Park Development Plan, with a policy presumption against any new overhead powerlines and guidance on how any new powerlines can be buried
  • encouraging contractors to purchase the appropriate equipment and develop the expertise to use it effectively

That then would leave for the future the big challenge, how we can undergound the HIGH voltage powerlines which blight our National Park landscapes, like the Beauly Denny or the many that cross the Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

January 11, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The Drumochter, a fine landscape forming a gateway between north and south, marred by development – the line of the “restored” Beauly Denny construction track is marked by the scar behind the pylons

Over the last year Parkswatch has featured a number of posts about the destruction of the landscape at Drumochter, including:

  • the unrestored Beauly Denny construction track between Dalnaspidal and Drumochter (see here);
  • the failure of Scottish and Southern Electric to restore the ground at Drumochter as required by the Beauly Denny planning consent from the Scottish Government  (see here for example);
  • progress on the restoration of the Beauly Denny construction track from just south of  Drumochter Lodge to the end of the A9 shelter belt opposite Dalwhinnie (see here)
  • and, the continued proliferation of hill tracks and inappropriate use of All Terrain Vehicles around Drumochter (see here for example).

Two of these issues were considered by the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee in December (see here for papers) and will be covered here.  While welcoming the CNPA’s continued interest in Drumochter and the actions taken, this post will argue they do not go far enough and suggest some alternative measures to restore and enhance the landscape and its wildlife.

The North Drumochter Estate Beauly Denny track restoration

In February 2015 the CNPA gave consent to the North Drumochter Estate to retain a section of the Beauly Denny construction track outwith the Drumochter Hills Special Area of Conservation  and Special Protection Area (above in red) on the condition that the track was narrowed and a belt of native trees was planted alongside it.  The restoration, with the exception of the shelter belt was due to be completed by June 2016.

The start of the northern section of the Beauly Denny construction track (as indicated by arrow in map above) as it appeared in February 2016. Note the ridge of vegetation covered spoil running along the left side of the track.

A year ago the restoration had not started but sometime between then and August 2017, when I next visited, the northern section of the track (above my arrow) was restored.  The work was done by McGowan, who provided the specification for the track which was submitted to the Planning Committee, and has generally been completed to a high standard, much higher than is usual for hill tracks or for most of the Beauly Denny restoration work to date:

The northernmost end of the track. Note how the low angle of the embankment above the track has enabled vegetation to recover quickly while stored turfs have been effectively used to restore the ground below the track.  October 2017.
Before restoration, the track extended almost to the edge of the culvert. The bare banks on either side of the culvert appear the consequence of insufficient turf being stored for restoration purposes and are at high risk of erosion.  October 2017.
Looking back down a line of new grouse butts – which appear to have been installed without the appropriate consents and have caused significant damage to vegetation – to the restored section of track which starts to the right of the first pylon. The track is hardly detectable from this distance compared to the unrestored section to the left of the pylon. August 2017.

While generally McGowan has done a very good job, their ability to restore the track to the standards set out in the specification appears to have been affected by a number of factors.  Throughout its length the section of restored track is broader then specified by the planning conditions:

While generally the sides of the track have been well restored in places there appears to have been insufficient vegetation to do this: here there is an unvegetated section of ground to the right of the track while the unnecessarily large passing place appears to be another solution to this lack of material (which was not their responsibility).

The reason for this appears to be that insufficient turves were stored for restoration purposes so that there wasn’t enough material available to restore the track to the required width.  I don’t think matters too much here because the track is hidden from a distance and because of the proposals to plant native trees to help conceal it.  However, it provides yet more evidence of why planning authorities need to monitor very closely any requirements that developers store turves properly when restoration of construction tracks in required. This in my view has been the key failure of the Beauly Denny construction.

Poorly finished culvert which is fairly typical of this section of track – the dry stone finishing in the photo above was the exception. Note the grouse tick mops in the background.

My main grouse – an appropriate word here as that is the main wildlife you are likely to see? – is that most of the culverts have not been properly finished.  This I hope is something which will be pursued by the CNPA.

Another more minor grouse is that vehicles continue to be driven over areas which have been “restored” adversely affecting vegetation recovery.

Its within the context of this work that the North Drumochter estate made a further planning application to remove the requirement from the planning consent to plant native trees alongside the track.   I am pleased to say that CNPA officers recommended that this be rejected  (see here) and the Planning Committee endorsed that recommendation.   Both the North East Mountain Trust and Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group had objected to the removal of this condition and I suspect that helped the CNPA to stand its ground.

On the north section of the track, the main short-term landscape impact of the continued requirement to plant a 5m strip of native trees between it and the existing shelterbelt will be to soften the edge of the line of trees.  If the shelterbelt was ever to be felled, however, it would then be the only thing screening the track.  It is therefore a good decision in landscape terms.  Its good too for ecological reasons.  While there is generally too much emphasis on planting native trees, rather than reducing deer and sheep numbers and seeing what grows (trees will grow in some places not others),  here the trees will provide an alternative to the intensive grouse moor management which dominates the landscape.  They should provide a home to other forms of wildlife and maybe even a partial refuge to some of the creatures which are persecuted on the grouse moors.

To construct this section of track Balfour Beatty as the main contractors allowed imported material to be dumped on the moor without any apparent attempt to save the vegetation beneath (there is no evidence of vegetation being stored

Further south, along the section of track which remains to be restored, the native trees will fulfil a far more important landscaping function as the track runs higher across the hill away from the existing A9 shelterbelt and is highly visible.    The restoration of this middle section of the track poses considerable technical challenges as it has basically been floated across the moor.   In my view the best solution would be to remove all the excess aggregate from site – rather than trying to bury it under vegetation – and use it for the construction of the new A9.  Perhaps the CNPA could persuade Transport Scotland and the north Drumochter Estate to work together on this?

 

The restoration of the Beauly Denny by SSE

The second “Drumochter” item considered by the December meeting of the Planning Committee was an update report on SSE’s restoration of the Beauly Denny Item10AABeaulyDennyUpdate.

This represents a breakthrough as SSE had previously been claiming the restoration of the Beauly Denny was nothing to be concerned about and that the destruction caused to the landscape could be repaired through natural regeneration alone.      CNPA staff are to be congratulated in getting SSE, who are a very powerful organisation, to accept this officially after doing nothing for two years.

SSE provided a summary report of this year’s survey results (see here) for the Planning Committee.  This contains no analysis of what caused the problems while the solutions its proposing to pilot in 2018 – some re-seeding and fencing off of ground – are minimalistic.   The entire focus of the report is on vegetation.   There is no mention of the landscape issues and more specifically of the failure of SSE to ensure that where the track was removed, the land was restored to its existing form as required by the original planning consent.  This has left large “benches” cut across the hillside (photo above) which are still being used as estate tracks (below) and have a considerable landscape impact:

 

By contrast, although I was disappointed the CNPA report did not cover SSE’s failure to restore landforms as required, the report does explain why re-vegetation has been so poor:

There appear to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, in some areas, the soil management and handling during construction as well as restoration was poorly executed, leaving little soil material or very wet ground and secondly, there has been no clear management for grazing sheep and deer. It is clear that even where some regrowth has occurred it is heavily cropped by mammals.

Its good to see CNPA recognise that for effective restoration to take place vegetation and turf has to be set aside and stored properly from the beginning.    Evidence that SSE failed to do this can be seen everywhere:

A great swathe of moorland just north of the track as “restored” under SSE’s aegis. There has been no apparent attempt to keep vegetation separate from the stony substrata with the result there is now a boulder field just like the one created by the Glen Bruar hydro

The CNPA and SSE reports differ too on their assessment of the seriousness of the situation.  The SSE survey claims that:

“Of the sites monitored throughout the CNPA area, 41% are assessed as being in Good or Excellent condition for revegetation and a further 20% are showing demonstrable improvement.”

and then classifies the remaining 39% as being of concern.  The CNPA by contrast are sceptical about the improvements claimed and conclude

“59% are mediocre or sparse and more than half of these were also sparse last year, with no significant improvement so are likely to required additional mitigation measures to ensure full revegetation within the five year period”

Having walked the entire Drumochter section of the Beauly Denny I have to say I have strong doubts that the sites SSE chose to survey are representative – it would be in the public interest the full survey is released – and that the CNPA’s assessment of the situation is far nearer the mark.  My view is that at least 2/3 of the “restoration” is not fit for purpose.

Tower south of Dalnaspidal. Some revegetation has taken place but because soils have been so disturbed and not replaced properly grass and rush have replaced heather (as seen beyond the tower).

While  I don’t doubt that grazing is having an impact on the ability of vegetation to re-colonise bare ground, this is not the fundamental issue.   Because of the way the ground has been disturbed, SSE has created more mineral soils which will promote vegetation that is good for animals to eat. Couple that with the large number of deer in the southern part of the National Park and you have a problem.  The proposed solution to fence off areas, avoids the issue.  It would be far better for SSE to be asked to finance deer culls and compensate the estate for removing sheep from the area and aid vegetation recovery that way.

Even better would be for the CNPA to advocate the solutions which have been developed in Glen Bruar, where a failure to store vegetation properly during the hydro pipeline construction (see here) created a landscape scar several kilometres long just like through the Drumochter.  Those scars have now almost disappeared due to the application of different techniques, which involve careful robbing of vegetation, and in a very short timescale (see here) with McGowan again the contractor.  So why not at Drumochter?

 

What needs to be done to make the Beauly Denny restoration happen

While I very much hope that CNPA staff keep up the pressure on SSE, I would like to see them encouraged by their Board and Planning Committee to go several steps further than they have at present and:

  • Consider the Beauly Denny restoration from a landforms perspective and more specifically how to heal the scars that have been left by the poor removal of the construction tracks.  A first step  on this would be for SSE to commission an independent report on what needs to be done to restore the landscape to its original state (as required by the Scottish Government planning consent).  A plan could then be developed to implement this prior to any further vegetation restoration work.
  • Press for SSE to adopt a similar approach to landscape and vegetation restoration at Drumochter as was taken at Glen Bruar.
  • Reject the proposal to deal with grazing impacts through fencing and instead focus on how to reduce the number of grazing animals at Drumochter (which would also support the Board decision to require the retained section of track on the north Drumochter estate to be screened by trees)
  • Create a Drumochter landscape steering group which would bring together SNH, Highland Council, SSE and Transport Scotland (due to the A9 dualling) in order to ensure a holistic approach is taken to protecting the landscape, with a view to amelioriating/remedying past damage and mistakes and ensuring that these are not repeated when the A9 is dualled.

Most of this should be financed by SSE and would cost them far more money than their current meagre proposals.  As a consequence I expect SSE to be resistant to it despite their self-proclaimed mission to set an example as a responsible business  The most likely way to achieve change, will be if the wider public starts calling on the Scottish Government and SSE to fulfil their responsibilities and not leave everything up to the CNPA who, in the wider scheme of how this country is run, are not a particularly powerful public body.

January 5, 2018 Bill Stephens No comments exist

Objection to Planning Application 2017/0254/MIN   Development of a Gold Mine, Glen Cononish, Tyndrum

Cononish gold mine sheds May 2017 – Photo Credit Nick Kempe

[Editor’s note:  Bill Stephens submitted this objection to the current Cononish gold mine planning application on 5th December.  While the documentation on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park planning portal (see here) has been added to since then,  Bill’s objection contains a fine analysis of the issues for all those concerned about landscape and wild land in the National Park.   Since he submitted it Scotgold has responded to objections from myself and Mountaineering Scotland  (see here), prior to the special Board Meeting which is scheduled to determine the application on 29th January, and I will consider that response and other matters relating to the application then].

 

Introduction

The planning application is presented as a further revision of the planning consent granted in 2015, reference 2014/0285/DET, with the accompanying Environmental Statement suggesting that what is now proposed is more environmentally acceptable but the driver is clearly to reduce costs. The main differences are:

  • changes to the ore processing building and associated screening;
  • disposal of all the tailings on the surface in ten ‘stacks’ instead of partly underground and in a ‘cross valley impoundment’;
  • construction of more than 2 km of surface water interception ditches around the stack areas instead of the diversion of the Alt Eas Anie to the south of the impoundment; and
  • extending the duration of the mine from 10 to 17 years with the potential to further extend this.

This submission considers each of these changes in turn before highlighting the implications for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and the Ben Lui Wild Land Area. These mean that the National Park Authority must refuse planning permission for what is now proposed as well as not renew the consent for the approved scheme and should focus efforts on restoring the existing site.

Ore Processing Building

The building now proposed is 80 metres by 30 metres, nearly 50% bigger than the average Aldi store, and has a 6% larger footprint than that approved in 2015. The design is also more monolithic in appearance with reduced screen bunding and consequently will be an even more prominent feature in the landscape.

Tailings Management

The approved scheme is to deposit 147,000 tonnes of the ore processing tailings within the underground workings with the remaining 400,000 tonnes pumped as slurry to an ‘impoundment’ contained by an embankment constructed with some waste rock from the mine and excavated from the Alt Eas Anie diversion together with glacial till excavated from the impounded area.

It is now intended to reduce the water content of the tailings to a ‘damp sand’ and transport all the now estimated 530,000 tonnes by 25 tonne all-terrain dump truck to one of ten stacking areas. There will be a need to construct a haul road from the ore processing site to the stacks and a crossing of the Alt Eas Anie to stacks 3 to 6 but details do not appear to have been submitted with the planning application. The stacks will have a basal layer constructed using some 172,000 tonnes of waste rock excavated from the mine with the total amount of waste material to be disposed of in the stacks some 50% more than on the surface for the approved scheme.

An indication of the the scale of the tailings stacks, outlined in orange, can be seen by comparing them with the area of forest plantation top right. Extract from documentation on LLTNPA planning portal.

The footprint of the stacks range in size from 5,425 square metres to 15,498 square metres, larger than the outer perimeter of an athletics track, and in total cover an area twice that of the currently approved tailings management facility. The tailings are to be placed on a foundation of waste rock excavated from the mine and compacted in 300mm layers to the desired stack landform. The particle size distribution of the tailings indicates that 80% is finer than 125 microns and is more accurately described as a silty fine sand with engineering properties unsuitable for what is proposed.

Although laboratory analysis of samples from the existing waste heap at the mine and a single ‘representative’ tailings sample provided by Scotgold suggest that the material is ‘inert’ with acceptable acid rock drainage characteristics, it appears that the suitability of the material as a growing medium has not been assessed either for this planning application nor indeed for the approved scheme.

Spoil below the Tyndrum Lead mine where re-vegetation has still not taken place – photo Nick Kempe

The gold is to be mined from the Cononish Vein which had several lead mines along it in the past with the ore including galena (lead sulphide) and the spoil having elevated concentrations. The ore could therefore be similar to that mined from the Tyndrum Main Vein with the previous activity on the slopes of Sron nan Colan leaving large spoil heaps still unvegetated 100 years or so after mining ceased. This is typical of other lead mining areas where the difficulties of establishing vegetation on spoil heaps are well known.

It is intended that the final landform for each of the stacks will replicate the hummocky glacial terrain that is there now but it seems that these will be modelled on larger drumlin features and will look quite different.  It is also the intention that final restoration of the stacks will attempt to recreate the existing vegetation type in a few years that has taken 10,000 years or so to establish here.

The potential plant toxicity of the tailings combined with their engineering properties, the altitude of the site and its exposed location makes it extremely unlikely that the restoration aims set out in the Environmental Statement will be achieved. The cost of restoring the site to anything like what was there before mining operations commenced will cost many £ millions, much higher than the financial guarantees provided by the approved scheme legal agreement. It is also evident that these guarantees are inadequate for the remediation of the approved scheme.

 

Surface Water Drainage

Proposed site drainage marked in blue – from documentation on LLTNPA planning portal

The construction of the tailings management facility for the approved scheme requires the diversion of Alt Eas Anie with a channel to intercept its tributaries to the north and one of the stated benefits of what is now proposed is that these will no longer be required. However, because of the need to keep to a minimum surface water runoff entering the tailings stacks and avoid downstream watercourse pollution, over 2 kilometres of peripheral open drains will be required. These will have a man-made appearance and add to the difficulties of achieving the restoration aims.

 

Duration

The existing permission for the mine is for ten years but the planning application is now for 17 years to allow for a reduced rate of ore extraction and processing. Going further into the Cononish Vein and extracting more ore has previously been identified as a possibility and Scotgold have also highlighted six other priority targets within a 2.5 km radius of the Cononish Mine. These have the potential to extend the life of the operation well beyond the 17 years that planning permission is being sought for.

Planning permission for exploratory works to enlarge the existing adit and create a waste rock spoil heap was originally granted in 1988 and extended in 1989 with a scheme for the mine approved in 1996.  An amended scheme for the mine was granted consent in 2011 with an extension of time, that also included 24 hours working, approved in 2015. A nine-month bulk processing trial to extract gold from part of the existing spoil heap was given planning permission in April 2016 and approval was subsequently given to increase the amount of material to be processed as well as extend the duration of the trial to the end of March 2018.

Filling of geotextile bags at Cononish – Photo Credit Nick Kempe

The tailings from the processing trial are being contained in long geotextile bags which are much more intrusive than the spoil heaps. The planning permission stipulates that the bags can remain until May 2021 when the site ‘shall be restored and remediated…unless there is an extant planning permission for the development of a mine at the site’. How this has been allowed to continue in what is supposed to be a protected landscape for some thirty years with the prospect of another twenty years, should the current planning application be approved, and applications for further extensions to the size and duration of the mine likely, is difficult to comprehend.

 

National Park Aims and Landscape Special Qualities

The currently approved mining scheme was assessed in relation to National Park aims in the report on the planning application that was considered by a Special Board Meeting of the National Park Authority in October 2011. These aims are:

  • to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area;
  • to promote the sustainable use of natural resources of the area;
  • to promote the understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public; and
  • to promote the sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.

The Sandford Principle gives precedence to the first of these.

The report concluded that because of ‘the impacts on landscape and scenic qualities, wild and remote character and the associated recreation experience of walking and climbing in the surrounding area’, mining here would be contrary to the first and third of the aims. ‘However, as these losses and impacts would not be permanent and the special qualities and recreation experience could be recovered and moderately improved within a 10 to 15 year period the proposals could be argued to support these aims… the impacts and benefits associated with this development will, taken as a whole, have a favourable contribution to the National Park aims’!

Even more remarkably, it goes on to suggest that because ‘the impacts on natural heritage interests are temporary and will be ultimately conserved and enhanced in the long term’ the proposal is considered to contribute to the first aim. Consequently, there was considered to be no need to invoke the Sandford Principle and the planning application for the mine was recommended for approval. This was accepted by the Board with the National Park Authority Convener subsequently stating that ‘the glen will regain its quiet, remote character following closure of the mine and the landscape will be improved from its current state’.

The 2010 report on the Special Landscape Qualities of the National Park provides a baseline for the ‘celebration, promotion and safeguarding’ of the National Park. The report describes the special qualities of each area of the Park including ‘Wide Strath Fillan’ where reference is made to the Tyndrum mines ‘highly visible on the slopes of Sron nan Colan, stand out barren within the surrounding woodland, and are witness to the economic activity of the past’. It goes on to mention the glimpses of Ben Lui with the flat-bottomed Glen Cononish leading into the heart of the high mountains past the ancient Caledonian pinewood of Coille Coire Chuilc but no mention is made of the recent mining activity on the eastern slope of Beinn Chuirn, presumably because it was at that time still a relatively small-scale operation.

 

Ben Lui Wild Land Area

The Ben Lui Wild Land Area was designated in 2014 and most of the proposed mining operations lie within this. Although the protection of Wild Land Areas from development is currently advisory not mandatory, it is still a material planning consideration and the Environmental Statement provides a Wild Land Assessment.

The Wild Land Area description recently published by SNH mentions Ben Lui being regarded as the ‘Queen of Scottish Mountains’ and, quoting from the 2010 Special Landscape Qualities report, refers to the ‘great tract of hills and mountains rising steeply and dramatically from the glen floors…the bare upper hillsides and mountains appear untouched, remote and wild, rising above the long glens where farming, forestry and infrastructure are found’.  It goes on to highlight the affect that development has on emphasising the relatively small extent and sense of remoteness and sanctuary of the eastern part of the Wild Land Area. Mention is also made of the existing mine at Cononish but nevertheless did not exclude this from the designated area again, presumably, because of its relatively small scale.

The Wild Land Assessment contained in the Environmental Statement suggests that the establishment and operation of the mine will have a ’moderate and significant effect on approaching the north-eastern hills’ but this will be medium term and localised to upper Glen Cononish with the effect on the local sense of sanctuary ‘minor and not significant’. The visibility of the mining site from the surrounding mountains and the effect that this will have on their landscape setting including that of the impressive Eas Anie waterfall and ravine is not considered.

The Assessment concludes by stating that the restoration of the site will ‘enhance the naturalness of the existing situation and will be a positive effect in terms of these wild land qualities’. This ignores the fact that what is there now could be restored without having to extend the area of mining operations from less than a hectare to the 40 hectares covered by the planning application and downplays the landscape impact of what is proposed.

 

What Should Happen Now

The planning application Environmental Statement Overview indicates there is a ‘planning balance’ to be struck between the potential environmental impacts and socio-economic benefits of the proposal and that the findings of the Environmental Impact Assessment demonstrate that ‘there are no planning or environmental considerations which would give rise to reasons for refusal’. The Environmental Statement is of course only part of the EIA process with all consultee responses and other submissions an important part of this.

The short-term impacts on the special qualities of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and the Ben Lui Wild Land Area of building an ore processing shed the size of a suburban superstore, constructing tailing stacks the size of eight athletics grounds and 24-hour operation of the mine for up to 17 years is too great a price to pay for the anticipated economic benefits and mitigation measures offered. Uncertainties about restoring the land to anything like what it is now in the medium term and, probably, in the longer term, could well leave a huge permanent scar on what is one of Scotland’s most valued landscapes. Consequently, the precautionary principle should apply and planning permission for both what is proposed now and any application to renew consent for the currently approved scheme refused.

It is understood that the mine operator has lodged a financial bond with the Crown Estate, the owner of the mineral rights, that is intended to cover the restoration of the existing mining operations and area affected by the bulk processing trial. The efforts of the National Park Authority should be focussed on ensuring that this work is undertaken as soon as possible and not make things worse by extending the duration or size of the operations.

December 28, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The Ledard Hydro track approved by the Planning Committee just before Xmas follows the line of the pipeline.  The original planning decision required the track to be hidden in the woods on the west (side of the burn).

While  the Cairngorms National Park Authority took a significant step forward on planning enforcement and consequently the credibility of the planning system a couple of weeks ago (see here),  the planning system in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park fell further into disrepute on 18th December when a permanent access track to the Ledard Hydro intake, on former Board Member Fergus Wood’s land, was granted planning permission.   This reversed the previous decision the LLTNPA Planning Committee had made in December 2014 that there should be no permanent access track on the east side of the Ledard Burn and, in landscape policy terms, appears to contradict the LLTNPA’s decision to refuse a short track in nearby Kinlochard earlier in the year.  The story about what has happened illustrates a number of serious defects in the planning system in the National Park and shows its in need of a complete governance overhaul.

 

The planning status of the “temporary” construction track

The construction track to the Ledard Hydro was, according to material which has recently appeared on the LLTNPA planning portal, granted planning permission back in April although the Case Officer told me a couple of months ago it had NOT had planning permission.

In September, alerted by a local row about breach of planning conditions at the Ledard Hydro scheme on Board Member Fergus Wood’s property, I discovered that a few weeks earlier a retrospective planning application had been submitted for an access track to the intake (see here) and started to scrutinise the documents on the LLTNPA planning portal.    There was nothing I could find in the published documentation to show that a temporary construction track to the Ledard Hydro Intake had ever been approved by the LLTNPA, but I wrote to them asking them to confirm the planning status of the track just to make sure.    In an email dated 28th September (which I quoted in my second post on Ledard (see here)) the Case Officer stated:

“I can confirm that the temporary track which has been constructed does not have planning permission”. 

From this I concluded that the track had been unlawfully constructed on a Board Member’s Land and wrote to the Convener of the LLTNPA, James Stuart, to bring this to his attention and to ask him to investigate.  I believe breach of the planning system by Board Members should be treated as a very serious issue.   His reply, which staff appear to have drafted, claimed that the track had had planning permission but without providing any details, so I issued this challenge:

There is no document I can find on the planning portal that describes a temporary track, as has been constructed, and therefore it appears a temporary track in its current form has not been approved. Please do ask staff to provide both you and I with the document that shows the current temporary track was ever approved (line, construction method etc). If its there, I will be content, if its not, there is an issue.

Hey presto, when checking the planning portal for this post, four new documents had appeared although I have so far not been told about this!  According to these, the case officer who told me the track had not been granted planning permission was totally wrong as the portal now shows a full specification for temporary and permanent access tracks dated 24th April 2017 (see here).  So how could the LLTNPA have had this document for six months and the Case Officer did not know about it?  Perhaps she, like I and other members of the public, only had access to published information?

Because LLTNPA has a history of changing documentation, I have started to keep records of what appears on the planning portal (and would recommend others do so until the LLTNPA puts basic governance procedures in place) and therefore have proof the documentation has been changed:

 

The documents highlighted in yellow were NOT published on the dates shown, which is fairly apparent for the lower two as they are not in date order, but the proof of this is from photo I took on 29th September:

The changes to the documentation on the planning portal involve two fundamental failures in governance.  First, as I have long argued, the LLTNPA should be publishing all documents relating to the satisfaction of planning conditions as they appear.  If Baby Hydro, acting on behalf of the Developer, really did submit the specification for temporary and permanent access tracks in April, as required by the planning conditions for the development, and if this really was approved back in June the documents should have appeared on the portal then.  That would have saved a lot of bother.   Second, when documents are added retrospectively dates should NOT be falsified (another example of this took place with Fergus Wood’s application for a campsite at Ledard (see here).

The LLTNPA told me NOTHING about the existence of these documents in correspondence until I issued my challenge to the Convener (well done him for getting staff to act) and they are NOT referred to in the Committee Report.   This may be because the Access Track Specification dated 24th April makes it clear that the Developer intended the construction track to be anything but temporary:

 

while the LLTNPA, by approving this specification in June, had effectively agreed to a permanent access track on the east side of the Ledard Burn before someone realised this lay outwith the existing planning consent and indeed contradicted the previous decision of the Board.

 

What has gone wrong

The Report to Committee Planning_20171218_Agenda6_Ledard-Farm stated that the original approval given in December 2014, besides approving a permanent track on the west side of the burn “also included a temporary access track for construction of the hydro scheme which was to be located on the route of the pipeline”.  The go ahead for construction of this track was dependent on detailed proposals being submitted for approval in the Construction Method Statement:.

However, the original Construction Method Statement dated 10th June 2016 and approved by the LLTNPA  contained no reference to any temporary track or how it might be constructed which is why I and presumably the Case Officer deduced the track was constructed without planning permission.

An explanation for this can be found in the Landscape Visual Assessment:

 

This suggests that the Construction Method Statement contained no information about a temporary construction track because it had been decided such a track was not considered necessary.   Instead the use of low ground pressure vehicles to construct the pipeline would obviate the need for a track and, where the ground was soft, it could be protected by laying stone on a sheet which would later be removed.   This helps explain why none of the site maps show a temporary construction track by the pipeline but instead refer to a construction corridor:

In the site plans no temporary access track (tracks are marked in brown) is shown along the line of the pipeline.   Photo – LLTNPA planning portal

Such an approach made perfect sense given that in December 2014 the LLTNPA had decided any permanent track on the east side of the Ledard burn would be unacceptable in landscape terms and the cost of importing aggregate to construct a track and then removing it would be significant.  Better to find an alternative means of constructing the pipeline.

About the same time the original Construction Method Statement was approved, however, the LLTNPA also approved an application from Fergus Wood, through a Non-Material Variation to the planning consent (see here), to remove the proposed permanent access track on the west side of the burn (see inset above for location of this track).   The result was Ledard was a hydro scheme without any permanent access track.

How did the LLTNPA allow this to happen when the recent report to the Planning Committee stated: “The proposed track is assessed to be reasonably necessary for the operation and maintenance of the hydro scheme” ?    If access tracks are judged necessary, the LLTNPA, in approving the removal of the permanent access track from the  west side of the burn, were in effect giving the go ahead to the creation of a permanent track on the east side of the burn, where it had previously been rejected, without any Committee approval.   This should have never happened.

To cap it all, the conclusion of the Report to the Planning Committee then says:

“It is considered that a permanent track constructed at 2–2.5m width, with a central vegetated strip, would have less residual impact over the long term than the alternative option of no permanent track to the intake.”  

The hyprocrisy is staggering:  if staff had not consented to removal of the track on the west side of the burn (which was through woodland and totally hidden) the question of whether a permanent track would have more impact than ATV use would never have arisen.   It appears the LLTNPA has allowed their original decision, which was based on the need to protect the landscape, to be undermined incrementally by the actions of a former Board Member and Member of the Planning Committee.

The reason for this is, I suspect, money.   An earlier application to build a hydro on the Ledard Burn was withdrawn PSC_2013_0006-Withdrawn-100094334 because the owner of the land on the west side of the Ledard Burn had held the developer to ransom – i.e they had demanded huge fees for a new access track.  A possible explanation for what has happened therefore is that Fergus Wood was still faced with very high charges for the track on the west side of the burn, which affected the value of the hydro scheme.  However, by getting the LLTNPA to agree to remove the requirement for an access track in this location (and this consent was granted to Fergus Wood (see here)), the value of the scheme would have increased significantly.  It was then sold to Vento Ludens.   If this is right, the National Park appears to have gained nothing from the increase in financial value to the scheme to the owner and the landscape appears to have been put second to a former Board Member’s and the Developer’s profits.

 

The LLTNPA’s flip flop approach to landscape assessment and protection

Back in 2013 the LLTNPA’s landscape adviser judged that any permanent track on the east side of the Ledard burn would have an unacceptable landscape impact but now, just four years later:

“The National Park Landscape Adviser is satisfied that the track can be well integrated into the local landscape with the mitigation of compensatory planting and landscaping.”

The Planning Committee Report, maybe in an attempt to justify this volte face, claims that:

“The proposed route of this track was different from the current proposal under consideration. It was located further to the east and its proposed alignment was very angular involving a number of right angled turns as it traversed the hill rather than the current proposed track which has a more natural alignment, utilises a section of existing track close to the farm buildings and provides a more direct access route to the intake of the hydro scheme.”

The Committee Report however fails to refer to the original Environmental Assessment:

“4.6 Access and Maintenance Track
Initially a new track was proposed across open field areas from Ledard Farm to the dam. Because the contours of the area preclude a short direct route; it would have been quite prominent in more distant views, particularly looking over to Ledard from various observation points on the road above Loch Ard on the south side.”

The Committee Report fails to explain why the short direct route is now deemed acceptable or to mention that the gradient of the uphill track exceeds the 14% maximum recommended by Scottish Natural Heritage in their Good Practice Guidance on hill tracks.  Why?

The first section of the Ledard track approved by the Planning Committee is too steep which is why this line was originally rejected by the LLTNPA

The consistency of the Ledard Hydro track approval with other decisions

Its not just the internal logic of the LLTNPA which raises serious issues in this case, its also consistency with other decisions.   In January 2017 the LLTNPA refused an application for a 35m track in a field in the village of Kinlochard due to its landscape impact (the Ledard Hydro track is 385m or over 10 times as long).    The applicant appealed and the appeal was due to be heard by the Local Review Body last June (see here) although it was then withdrawn.

The papers are worth a read because of the really strong statements (e.g The proposal conflicts with clear planning objectives and policies that seek to protect views, scenic quality, amenity and special landscape character within the National Park) about the need to protect the local landscape in the photo below:

The track, to run from this fence to shed was deemed to have too great an impact on landscape to be acceptable. Photo credit: LLTNPA Review Body papers – officer photograph

So how does the LLTNPA explain the approach it has taken in this case compared to the Ledard Hydro Track just down the road?  Well, its because the track was judged not to be essential but then nor would the Ledard track if the LLTNPA had insisted the original plan for the track through the woods be retained.

While it looks from the documentation that has appeared on the planning portal as though I owe an apology to Fergus Wood for claiming that the construction track on his land was outwith any planning consent, the case still suggests he has exploited deficiencies in the LLTNPA’s planning system to further his own interests.

What needs to happen

In my view the LLTNPA still needs to conduct a full investigation into what has gone wrong in this case.  While initially, after I had been informed the new track had been constructed without planning permission, I thought this should have focussed on the LLTNPA’s failure to take enforcement action, now I think it should focus on how the LLTNPA ever agreed that an access track on the west side of the Ledard Burn was no longer necessary and the impact this had on the financial value of the scheme.

The Ledard Hydro track also shows is that the LLTNPA’s approach to landscape assessment is extremely poor.  Part of the problem was no proper independent visual assessment of the track was included in the Committee Report but the problem is wider than that.  At present responsibility for assessing landscape impact lie with a few individuals who, while working within certain policies inevitably take different approaches, with the result that decisions are inconsistent.   I believe the LLTNPA could learn a lot from the Cairngorms National Park Authority who firstly involve Board Members far more in decision making (which means that decisions are taking collectively rather than by individuals) but equally importantly go on far more site visits.   This leads to better informed decisions.   The Planning Committee should NEVER have agreed to reverse the decision of the earlier Committee without such a visit and without a full landscape assessment.

Hope though may be on the horizon.   At the last Board Meeting a Board Member raised the issue of delegated decisions by planning staff.  He suggested this required review.  The LLTNPA Convener, James Stuart, put it to the Board that the scheme of delegation should be reviewed and this was agreed.  This is most welcome and, if it takes account of the lessons that can be learned from the way the Ledard hydro track has been managed, could help avoid such fiascos which undermine the reputation of our National Parks in future.

 

December 19, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Poor construction increases visual impact of tracks on landscape – track Dalnamein Nov 2016

For the last 18 months parkswatchscotland has been highlighting the failures of both our National Parks to protect the landscape and more specifically to ensure that planning conditions are enforced.   On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee, on which all Board Members sit, approved a plan  to address the issues.  Its extremely welcome and while I’d recommend all who care about our landscapes read it in its entirety (see here)  this post will explain why I believe its such a major step forward and indicate some of the challenges ahead.

The paper starts from a position of honesty and many of the cases highlighted on Parkswatch are mentioned in the report, from the unlawful creation of  hill tracks at Cairngorm, Dinnet and Cluny to the destruction caused by work on the hydro schemes at Bruar and Corriemulzie.    Other examples – yet to be featured on parkswatch!  are also mentioned and the paper ends by referring to “breaches that could have been avoided”.  That is an honest assessment of the situation and combined with a clear view of the role of enforcement “a discretionary function but one that is important to confidence in the planning system”   provides a sound framework for action.

I was pleased that the actions are not just about enforcement and that the paper considered why things to wrong:

and preventive solutions:

I would have gone further than this, believing that we will never have effective monitoring of schemes in remote areas unless that monitoring is undertaken by a truly independent person, rather than an Ecological Clerk of Works paid for and therefore in hock to the Developer.   I would also like to see more detailed specifications for hill track design and ground restoration but this could still be included in the proposal to tightening the wording of conditions imposed on developments.   What officers have been doing however is a major step forward.

Three major new changes were announced/approved to make enforcement more effective and have driven due to concerns about the proliferation of unauthorised hill tracks in the Cairngorms.   The first is that in order to take enforcement action against such tracks the CNPA needs to know where existing tracks are and is basically setting up a track register:

 

It may be almost 30 years since the former Kincardine and Deeside Council mapped hill tracks in their area but that the CNPA has now picked up that mantle again is extremely welcome.

More innovative, is the proposal to make it much easier for hill goers to report tracks:

Encouraging involvement from the recreational community – and others who go on the hill –  in this way is extremely welcome.   Apart from slight tensions when reporting the destruction of the Shieling Hill Track at Cairngorm, I have to say that for every other track I have reported, I have always had a positive response from staff at the CNPA.   Many of those cases I understand are included in the further 12 hill track cases, involving 40k of track, where the CNPA is now taking enforcement action.  There is no need to wait until  the online facility is created, you can send reports and photos to planning@caingorms.co.uk.

The third element of the proposals is to delegate enforcement powers from the Committee to officers.  While I have expressed many concerns about the way the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority have delegated decisions to officers – far more than in the CNPA and its been a disaster – in terms of practical enforcement actions, time is of the essence and enforcement should not wait for weeks until it can be considered by committee.  I therefore believe the proposals to devolve to officers the ability to issue notices about planning contraventions, breach of conditions,  requiring developers to apply for planning permission (section 33) and to stop works is absolutely right.   My only concern is that the temporary stop notice is described as a last resort when actually, in cases where a developer does not immediately stop unlawful works voluntarily, it should be the notice of first resort.

In summary,  the CNPA has now given itself the tools it needs to ensure developers respect the planning system in the National Park far more than they have up to now.  The big challenge now is to implement this and ensure it happens.  How big a challenge that is is demonstrated by the CNPA’s planning enforcement register a link to which is provided in the report.  The last entry is for 2016:

 

So, making enforcement happen, through the Courts if necessary, remains a major challenge.

In terms of other next steps, the CNPA has stated that the issue of hill tracks on open moorland is one it would like to tackle in the Main Issues report for the new Development Plan  and is inviting public support for this which is welcome.  I believe though it also needs to strengthen the messages it is giving to landowners NOW and rather than admonishing them for breaches of planning conditions starts warning them of the consequences of the failure to comply with the planning system.  Sending every landowner and every land agent/factor who operates in the National Park a copy of the Enforcement Report with a covering letter warning them what action the CNPA will take against breaches of planning condition/unauthorised developments in future would be a good start.

If landowners and land agents believe the National Park is serious about enforcement action, then failure to abide by the planning system will become a financial liability with cost implications which will also affect the value of their land.  The CNPA only need to demonstrate they will pursue a couple of enforcement cases to the bitter end and I believe every landowner in the National Park would start to take the planning system more seriously.

December 18, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

One of the main arguments for National Parks in Britain and Northern Ireland has always been that planning has a key role in conservation, whether of the historical or natural heritage, and visitor management and that a dedicated National Park Authority will do this better than Local Authorities.   Three matters which have been covered by parkswatchscotland are on the agenda of today’s meeting of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Planning Committee:  the Loch Achray Campsite (see here), the Ledard Farm Hydro Track and the housing application for Balmaha (see here for all papers).    I had considered going to the meeting today but missed the deadline for registering a request to speak.  Here is what I would said about the Loch Achray campsite.

 

The proposed Loch Achray Campsite

The large flat grassy area to the east of the burn where 9 “pitches” are due to be located.   Due to foreshortening the eroded area looks much bigger than it really is relative to the grassy sward and there are plenty of place of camp.

While the planning application for the Loch Achray campsite is being presented to Committee because SEPA have objected due to the risk of the site flooding, there are other matters that I believe should be being determined by Committee rather than officers.

The photographs in the Committee Report (see here) do not give a true reflection of how the site looks and specifically there are NO photographs of the large flat grassy area which floods occasionally and which has been operated by the Forestry Commission as a youth campsite for about 30 years.  Those facts tell you two things.   First, that wild camping type experiences are quite compatible with flooding (people just choose elsewhere if a place is flooded or stay at home).  Second, that there is no need for artificial pitches, hence one of my objections to this application:

In response the LLTNPA as planning authority claims the National Park as applicant believes the raised camping pitches on plastic mats will “enhance the experience” of campers using the site.  No evidence is provided to support this claim and there has been no engagement with people who camp.  I wonder how many of you have tried to camp on a plastic mat?   Furthermore, as a National Park Authority in the Your Park plan you committed to enhancing the wild camping experience with informal style campsites.  Unfortunately, what is proposed here is the opposite and contravenes Park Policy intentions on camping although, after the changes you made to the Planning Guidance on the Visitor Experience at the last Planning Committee meeting, you make no formal distinction between different types of campsite.   That is fine, so long as staff and Board Members keep in the heads the fact the primary objective is to provide infrastructure that supports the wild camping experience and does not attempt to convert it into something else.   This campsite should be kept as informal as possible, as it has been for many years.

The only area included in the campsite where there is any justification to create artificial pitches is on the rough and boggy ground to the west of the burn, where no-one in their right mind would camp at present: but even here, those pitches should NOT be covered in plastic matting.

The reason for these fixed pitches is LLTNPA staff appear to want to control everything campers do.  This is well illustrated by the Job Description for the campsite wardens at this site which was advertised in the last month:

This is no longer about wild camping, its about GUESTS and the main tasks of the wardens is to ensure these guests camp and park in their allotted places.  Bureaucracy gone mad and a waste of scarce resources.

My second objection to this application is that there is no provision for campervans to dispose waste at the toilet block.   The LLTNPA and the Forestry Commission haves been busy promoting Forest Drive as a destination for campervans and creating more campervan permit places but without installing any facilities.  This is a recipe for disaster and the creation of the campsite is an opportunity to rectify this.  Instead, the LLTNPA  as planning authority is  saying they have no influence over the National Park as National Park Authority:

The lack of will to join up policy aspirations is in my view a failure which you as Board Members can put right.  Why campervans shouldn’t be able to stop in the car parking area seems like a repeat of Loch Chon where there was no provision for campervans, although in this case at least there is other “provision” nearby on Forest Drive.  But, campervans need places to dispose of waste and take on water and there is nowhere else to do this on Forest Drive.   Now, this might not be the best place to do so – maybe the Forestry Commission toilet block would be better? – but unless the Planning Committee knows alternative provision is planned, it should be insisting on such provision here.

Lastly, although no objection to the proposal has been lodged on these grounds, the Committee should I think make recommendations about two other aspects of the proposals.  The first is about access to the site which at present requires a five mile drive around Forest Drive when it is located just a few hundred metres from the main road:

While situated close to the main road – campsite is orange hatched area – Forest Drive is currently one way and the site can only be accessed from the top of the Duke’s Pass

This is hardly green and if you are approaching from the north, as people from Stirling might do, access requires a huge loop and will unnecessarily increase traffic on Forest Drive.  So, please ask your staff to approach FCS and make the section of Forest Drive to the campsite or indeed a little further to the campervan places along Loch Achray two way.

Second, the report reveals that the campsite will only be open from 1st March to 30th September

Every visitor survey the LLTNPA has done on facilities indicates that lack of toilets is a key issue for visitors to the National Park so why not keep the toilets here open?   The Park’s Director of Conservation at the September Board stated that there were significant issues with human waste in camping permit zones, and this is particularly evident on Forest Drive, so keeping the toilets here open for a longer period – or preferably year round – should be a no brainer.

While I appreciate that as members of the planning committee you may be limited in the extent you can impose formal conditions as applicants but you also sit on the Board of the LLTNPA which is the applicant in this case and therefore have the power to address the matters I have raised.  I hope you will do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The LLTNPA’s indicators of success

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

Commentary

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

And so on…………………………..

 

An alternative vision

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

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

Lot’s more is possible!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

(Notice issued by Scotland Contracts Portal)

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

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

 

The implications of Natural Retreats change of ownership

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

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

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

Companies House extract as it appeared 5th December

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The proposed study will be neither neutral nor “independent”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What needs to happen

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Biddulph on Balloch and Tourism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends of Drumkinnon Woods

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Information on how the pipeline was restored

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

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

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

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

 

The quality of the hill track restoration

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

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

This is how the restored area looks now:

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

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

The worst of the protruding culverts

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Why not any of the others?,

 

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this work has still to be done?

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

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

External sections of pipeline

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

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

Before
After

 

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

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

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

 

Other restoration work

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

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

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

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

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

What can be learned from this?

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Strone hill track

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burn flowing across road with excavated material dumped in foreground

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

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

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

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

 

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

Unfinished culvert and new drainage ditch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The way forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prior Notification System and the track upgrade

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

In response I sent them some photos:

View of track extension from below

FES response to photo:

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

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

 

Another view of the track extension

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

FES response to photo:

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

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

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

FES response to photo:

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

 

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

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

 

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

FES response to photo:

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

FES response to photo:

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen

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

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

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

Addendum – correspondence with FES

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

 

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