On the longest day, the Cairngorms National Park Authority initiated enforcement action against the Cluny Estate for the unlawful track up Carn Leth Choin at the head of Glen Banchor (see here).
This is extremely welcome. In March the CNPA had written to me stating that they had been in discussions with the estate about restoring the track voluntarily but if the estate failed to do this the CNPA would take enforcement action (see here). The addition to the register indicates the estate is refusing to do this and the CNPA have been as good as their word. They deserve support from everyone who cares about our National Parks for initiating this action and will, I suspect, need ongoing support through what is likely to be a long and complex process. Its not easy to bring recalcitrant landowners to heal while removing tracks is not easy. It has been been done in the cases of a handful of hydro schemes, but these have been lower down the hill. The only time a track has been removed on high ground was when the National Trust for Scotland removed the bulldozed track on Beinn a Bhuird. This took place over a number of years, being completed in 2001, and took both significant investment and expertise.
Still, the Cluny Estate appears to be owned by the Qatari Royal Family (see here) who, even if they are under lots of pressure at present due to the blockade from their neighbours, are not short of a bob or two. There is no reason therefore why the restoration should not be to the highest possible standard. While they are about it perhaps the Qatari Royal Family, if its indeed they who own the Cluny estate, should also pay for the restoration of the lower part of the track which was constructed at an earlier date and is, I understand, outside the current enforcement action.
The significance of this action by the CNPA is far wider than just this hill track. In my view the Planning System in our National Parks (and indeed Scotland) has fallen into disrepute because enforcement action is hardly ever taken. The emphasis has been on co-operating with people who, like the owners of the Cluny estate or Natural Retreats on Cairngorm, appear to have no respect for the planning system, drag out processes of negotiation for years and do anything they can to avoid doing what is right. This therefore needs to be seen as a shot across the bows of all landowners in the National Park (its not the only one, as I will demonstrate in a future post). The CNPA need to see it through. I believe it will only take a couple of enforcement cases, where landowners learn what the costs of ignoring the planning systems are likely to be, and the whole attitude of landowners and their advisers to planning will change.
This is therefore a crucial test for the National Park and they should be congratulated for their new approach.
While looking at the Ledcharrie Hydro last Tuesday (see Sunday’s post), members of the Munro Society asked me whether I knew of any well-designed and executed hydro schemes in our National Parks which they could refer to comparison purposes. My immediate response was the Loch Gynack schemes at Kingussie. Asked why? The intakes have been well located and there is very little new access track but the real learning point is that construction methods have been far more sensitive than is normally the case in hydro schemes.
I have been been meaning to blog about them since visiting in February so thanks to the Munro Society for the prompt. There are three schemes on the River Gynack: I will consider the lower two here and the upper one in a further post. While the lower two are atypical, being small, located in woodland and being built on the sites of historic hydro schemes which had fallen into disuse, they still demonstrate.
Gynack Scheme 1 – Kingussie Community Development Company
The Community Scheme is tiny, 15 KW, and I almost walked past it after parking by the golf club to walk up the river Gynack – a good sign. The idea behind the scheme was to raise money for the local community and it has been built on a section of river which previously was used to provide hydro electricity back in the 1920s, on land more recently gifted to the community for that purpose. Unlike many hydro planning applications, including the upper Gynack Schemes, the Community Development Company provided a full overview of the scheme in one document, including why an earlier scheme approved in 2011 for an Archimedes Screw had been abandoned (see here). It includes photos of how the area looked previously.
The intake weir has been constructed against the old 1920s intake. The key thing to note is its a true run of river scheme. There has been no significant damming of the river and as a result the intake structure has a very low profile, unlike many of the hydro intakes in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which have raised water levels and are taller structures as a consequence. There are still exposed section of concrete at the intake, but this is far less than usual and although they have not been faced with natural stone, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, to its credit did require:
“Details of the final finish of all concrete work which shall reflect the requirement to encourage natural weathering and colonisation by algae. (e.g. use of textured formwork) Details for any protective fencing, and railings.”
This is probably the worst view of the scheme but positive features include: the edge of the pipe where it exits the dam (top left) has been finished in stone; the work to stabilise the river bed below this has been done by embedding rounded boulders in concrete mirroring the loose boulders in the river bed; and vegetation has been replaced around the rip rap bouldering that has been used to reconstruct the bank.
The power house has been constructed just 4m below the intake on a beautiful section of river by the former powerhouse (a remnant of the old pipe can be seen between the tree and powerhouse and there was a concrete base here previously). It is however tucked away and hard to see from above and the finishing, apart from the brick is good. The line of the pipe to the powerhouse is marked by the boulders on the bank on the left. In summer, when the trees are in full leaf, it would be even easier to miss.
Gynack Scheme 2
The mid-Gynack scheme has been constructed by the Pitmain Estate and runs from Loch Gynack to near the top of the golf course. Again its atypical because there was a scheme here constructed in the 1920s to provide electricity to the estate. Loch Gynack was dammed at that time and the old dam had fallen into disrepair and was leaking. The new dam has not raised water levels.
The profile of the new dam is low, and hardly visible from any distance, but close up the finishing is not good, with concrete wing walls which would be better faced with natural stone and metal railings contrasting with the wooden railings used in the Community Hydro. Why cannot our National Parks enforce a consistent approach which maximises use of natural materials?
However, and this is a big positive, the use of rip rap bouldering is minimal and may even revegetate in due course. Even better, I had not checked the line of the buried pipe beforehand, but could not see where it went, a sign of very successful restoration.
Lower down, I believe the pipeline runs under the track, although its been done so well it I cannot say this with certainty. The track however has already blended into the landscape, unlike most of the tracks featured on parkswatch. Positive features include: the edges of the track are vegetated and there was no sign of spoil spilling down the bank on left; the track is narrow, forcing vehicles to keep to the same line; and as a consequence the centre of the track is revegetating. This track, while going nowhere (its a dead end) provides a good walking experience.
Another photo demonstrating how good the restoration of vegetation has been. The line of the buried pipe that leaves the powerhouse can be seen, mainly due to the lack of rushes, but there is no bare ground at all. The contractor must have saved all the turf removed to bury the pipe and has then replaced it. This is something very rarely seen in hydro developments where failure to store and re-use turves is usually all too evident. The whole is only marred by the blue penstock.
The tailrace has also been well finished and the concrete around the pipe is almost invisible while again the rip rap bouldering between the tailrace and the river has been kept to a minimum. The landscape and ecological issue here is not the hydro scheme, or how it has been constructed, but rather earlier attempts to engineer the River Gynack which can carry huge volumes of water and threatens Kingussie. As part of river engineering, a separate planning application has been approved to construct a flood overflow channel from higher up the river down into Loch Gynack which I will consider in a post on the Upper Gynack hydro scheme. Here, the consequence of the river engineering is to narrow what once would have served as a flood plain, and the construction of a powerhouse here reduces the likelihood that will ever be reversed.
Above the intake, the River Gynack has been extensively engineered and you can see older engineering attempts to contain the river left and newer right.
Lessons and differences between our National Parks
I will consider what our National Parks can learn from all three Gynack hydro schemes in my next post on the upper Gynack scheme.
Meantime, its worth reflecting that while the Cairngorms National Park Authority, unlike the Loch Lomond NPA, does not have specific planning guidance on renewable energy developments (and might therefore be seen to be behind the LLTNPA), its planning committee consider all hydro planning applications (unlike the LLTNPA which delegates these decisions to staff). I believe that this makes a big difference, particularly in areas where Board Members live, where they have to be able to explain and account for these schemes to local communities who, as in the Gynack Schemes, may walk by the hydro on a daily basis. Landowners know this too and are incentivised to follow the highest standards. By contrast the LLTNPA staff who have been delegated powers to decide most hydro schemes are remote from everyone who has an interest in them and are unaccountable. As a consequence their Supplementary Planning Guidance has been all too easy to ignore (as in Glen Falloch).
The CNPA has had hydro disasters of course, including Glen Bruar (see here) and Corriemulzie by Braemar. The Bruar scheme though in a sense reinforces the point because its so remote there is no local residents, apart from estate employees to care about it – this reinforces the need for our National Parks to include as Board Members outdoor recreationists and ecologists who care about what happens in wild land. Meanwhile at Corriemulzie (which I will cover in due course) the local community has recognised things have gone wrong (its a community hydro) and are co-operating with the CNPA to try and restore the damage.
Parkswatch received information that there was a strangled hare under the Coire Cas t-bar gantry (see here) and is very grateful to members of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation group who visited the site today and confirmed this (above photo, which has had coverage on twitter). Natural Retreats’ staff then turned up, presumably to check on what was being photographed, and stated they would inform the manager. What the manager should have done then was inform the police and leave the hare as a potential crime scene – we will see.
Tnere appear two potential explanations for what has happened. The first is that this was an accident. That a hare, taking shelter on the piles of rubble under the gantry became entangled in this string/twine and strangled itself. If so, I think Natural Retreats and Hightlands and Islands Enterprise still bear a high degree of responsibility. They are meant to be custodians of Cairngorm but instead have failed to adhere to basic standards of good stewardship and have caused environmental destruction and left rubbish – which harms wildlife (as this case might show) – all over the mountain. These failures have been epitomised by their actions at the Cas Gantry where Natural Retreats bulldozed a far wider area than necessary for the “de minimis” emergency repair work that Highland Council agreed could go ahead without planning permission.
What’s more despite all the publicity on parkswatch Natural Retreats have still not restored the landscape properly, as you can see from the soil and boulders which still lie dumped below the gantry, on which the hare was found.
The second possible explanation is that this was deliberate and the string/twine was used as a snare. This would need expert investigation to establish.
There is a possible motive for the hare being killed which has nothing to do with their alleged role in transmitting ticks to red grouse. Natural Retreats took a long time before it made any attempt to restore the slopes around the gantry and because they had failed to store any vegetation had to re-seed it, usiing a fertilised seed mix. This did nothing for a while (see photo below) but now in the growing season is extremely attractive to hares – a large area of rich grass. The hare/s therefore may have been threatening to destroy the re-seeding and, rather than fence off the area, perhaps someone thought it easier to set a snare?
Whatever the explanation of the strangling, accident or deliberate or something else, the likely scenario is the hare was attracted to the re-seeded area before taking shelter under the gantry.
If this was an accident, its an accident for which our public authorities bear some responsibility. They have regularly been made aware of the destruction which has happened at Cairngorm since Natural Retreats took over. Under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy HIE agreed to produce a Cairngorm Estate Management Plan, which could be used to ensure Cairngorm was managed to the highest standards. Instead, they have tolerated Natural Retreats continued mis-management of the natural environment, from rubbish dump to off track use of vehicles.
A recent example – ignore if you can the half-hearted attempt to hide the tank behind a wooden fence – what has killed the vegetation here? A diesel spill which was then cleared up, is one explanation – but perhaps Natural Retreats can offer an alternative? (which Parkswatch would be happy to publish). Whatever has happened does not appear good for either wildlife or habitats.
Meantime, there is no sign of the set of standards for environmental management which the Cairngorms National Park Authority recommended Natural Retreats adopt last year. I would recommend their senior managers and Board Members go and take a look for themselves before parkswatch publish further photos – including how the Sheiling Track which they retrospectively approved is eroding as predicted. The strangled hare is symptom of a deep malaise, more evidence that the way Cairngorm is being managed is not fit for a National Park, that Natural Retreats are not fit to be leaseholders and HIE is not fit to own it.
The solution is for management of Cairngorm to be taken over by a community consortium which includes conservation interests.
In my last post on the Beauly Denny restoration (see here), I referred to the apparent contradictory views on who is responsible for ensuring the land is properly restored to its original condition, a requirement of the planning consent for the powerline granted by the Scottish Government. The restoration of much of the ground in the Cairngorms National Park falls well short of what we should expect in a National Park (see photos).
A Scottish Government official had told me the Cairngorms National Park Authority is responsible for enforcing the planning condition while an officer of the CNPA had told the North East Trust that they thought the Scottish Government is responsible. I am grateful to the reader who draw my attention to the Guidance from the Scottish Government Energy Consents and Deployment Unit (ECDU) on this topic (see here).
Ostensibly the Scottish Government official was right. The Guidance states:
ECDU, in consultation with the relevant Planning Authority, SEPA and SNH, who will all be asked to provide regular reports to ECDU, will monitor the performance of applicants in complying with the above conditions.The discharge, compliance and enforcement of deemed planning conditions is overseen by the relevant planning authority.
While there are complexities to the legal position of which is the planning authority in this case, the CNPA not having full planning powers, in practice the CNPA rather than Highland Council has taken the lead on the Beauly Denny (to its credit) so I think it is clear it is responsible for enforcing the planning conditions.
The problem however is the Guidance makes it clear that the Scottish Government is responsible for monitoring compliance with the planning conditions. Its difficult to see how legally CNPA could start taking enforcement action unless the Scottish Government accepted this was needed: Scottish and Southern Electric as developer could probably block any enforcement action in court on the basis that there was no evidence that the Scottish Government as the official monitoring body was concerned about the quality of the “restoration”.
So what is the position of the Scottish Government on the quality of the restoration?
From what I have been able to ascertain from a Freedom of Information request to the CNPA, the Scottish Government is doing very little to monitor critically the performance of SSE. While I might be wrong about this – I have not for example asked the SG yet for the information they hold on this – what appears to be happening is the SG are meeting SSE without SNH and CNPA present. Indeed CNPA were kept so far out the loop that in July 2015 the liaison process had to be explained to them by SSE 150729BDUpdateMeetingNote.
This is important because the CNPA has been raising serious concerns about the standard of the restoration. First, the then convener of the CNPA Duncan Bryden wrote to SSE outlining their serious concerns after a Board visit to the site 250615trackrestorationSSE:
Despite a long period of period of pre planning and preparation it does not appear to the CNPA that the methods used are commensurate with National Park sensitivities (including Natura 2000 designations), nor the high- profile nature of the works, immediately adjacent to and often highly visible from the A9, Highland main line, National Cycle Route 7 and surrounding Munros. For example, the original vegetation and turfs have not been removed and stored in such a way as to facilitate regeneration and there has been significant soil compaction and mixing of soil horizons.
These concerns were reinforced by CNPA officers at the meeting in July when the asked some SSE some crucial questions:
Why, given that certain activities had been planned, had they not then been implemented? Why, given that this was always known to be a challenging and high profile site, and that work was going on at present were the plans for re-vegetation/restoration not at more advanced stage?
The photographic evidence in my view contradicts the claim by SSE that “there have been isolated issues surrounding the separation and storage of soils” and that the whole project has been very successful. The Scottish Government needs to test the corporate governance speak against what can be seen on the ground.
While I have not yet been able to work out the numbers of all the pylons, in the monitoring produced in October 2016 SSE states that for almost all pylons on this section of line “Re-instatement of the soils is to an acceptable standard”. The photos I believe show otherwise and that the CNPA was completely right to raise concerns.
What needs to happen
What’s not in the public realm at present (as far as I have been able to ascertain) is whether the CNPA’s concerns have been submitted to the Scottish Government, and if so what the Scottish Government’s response has been. What is needed is join up between the Scottish Government’s ECDU and the CNPA and SNH. While a first step would be joint monitoring meetings, I think there also needs to be a joint approach to remedying what has gone wrong.
Meantime, at the end of April there was some good news about the impact of the Beauly Denny on the landscape in the National Park (see here). The pylons between Aviemore and Kingussie, including those that blight the extension to the Speyside Way (see here), are being removed. Although the CNPA did not manage to block the Beauly Denny they did achieve removal of these powerlines as a compensatory measure. The challenge now for the CNPA (and for landscape campaigners) is not to allow the Scottish Government to treat that welcome “compensatory improvement” as sufficient and the Beauly Denny as job done while burying their heads in the new soils that have been created at Drumochter.
Planning powers are the most important tool our National Park Authorities have to achieve their four statutory aims, conservation and enjoyment of the countryside and sustainable use of resources and development. How they are used is crucial to the success of our National Parks and parkswatch has covered a number of planning failures and areas of concern.
While both our National Parks are required to have planning committees, how they operate is very different. The Cairngorms National Park planning committee comprises all Board Members but that in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park comprises a sub-group of Board Members (now increased to eleven). Its in the agendas and papers for planning meetings that you see major differences: the CNPA meetings tend to have quite lengthy agendas and papers, the LLTNPA much shorter ones. It appears that in the LLTNPA far more decision making is delegated to staff and therefore takes place behind closed doors. In the CNPA Board Members are far more involved – a good thing in terms of democracy – and how decisions are made is far more transparent (which is not to say it could not be improved e.g through following the Highland Council example of broadcasting all Planning Committee Meetings).
The CNPA’s more open approach is reflected in the papers for its planning meeting on Friday.
Response to People, Places and Planning
An illustration of the difference in approach can be seen in the two National Park’s responses to the current Scottish Government consultation on “People, Places and Planning” which will be considered by their Committees in the next week. The CNPA has presented a full response to Board Members to consider , the LLTNPA has reserved the response to what it describes as the “technical questions” to staff.
More significantly there are some welcome signs that staff in the CNPA have taken on board some of the criticisms levelled at them in terms of how the planning system operates. So, they have raised the question of hill tracks:
“We also consider that the review should consider whether some development that can be undertaken through prior notification or approval as agricultural and private roads and ways should simply require planning permission. Many tracks on open moorland and hills have some link to an agricultural purpose, even where the primary use is for sporting activities. These tracks can be contentious, but the public may never know of their approval nor have an opportunity to make representation on them. We suggest that new tracks on open ground that are not in enclosed farmland should simply require planning permission, irrespective of the purpose of the track.”
The response may be a bit wishy washy – there is plenty of evidence about the proliferation of hill tracks in the National Park – but here at last is a National Park giving a bit of a lead, saying that hill tracks should be removed from permitted development rights. Absolutely! What a difference to the LLTNPA who delegated powers to take decisions on hill tracks in Glen Falloch to staff (see here) with the consequent wrecking of the landscape in that glen.
The CNPA has also strongly supported increased enforcement and given examples – most welcome:
14. Should enforcement powers be strengthened by increasing penalties for noncompliance with enforcement action?
Yes. We also support an increase in planning fees for retrospective planning applications. The CNPA has considered a number of retrospective planning applications as a result of planning enforcement at relatively high profile locations including Cairngorm Mountain and Badaguish. For some operators, a financial disincentive would help focus their actions. It would also help resource the work that a planning authority does in enforcement time and advice that leads to the retrospective application.
The LLTNPA response by contrast is typically disingenuous:
Enforcement is also flagged as an area where public confidence is low. An independent study commissioned by the Scottish Government in this area (Planning Enforcement in Scotland: research into the use of existing powers, barriers and scope for improvement, Dec 16) concluded that mistrust of the system is a problem. The study acknowledges that so much of the work currently undertaken to resolve breaches of planning control is undertaken through flexible, informal means – by co-operation and agreement – rather than punitive action and, as a consequence, the influence of the system can be challenging to record and report upon. These conclusions are consistent with the National Park experience. We are confident that our approach to enforcement is effective in the vast majority of cases but, by virtue of seeking to resolve informally (with formal action or prosecution always as a last resort), there are challenges in capturing the effectiveness of the system. This experience will be shared in the National Park response to the consultation and a review of the options to strengthen the tools at our disposal is supported.
It will be very interesting to see if the full LLTNPA response to the review (which will be obtained through FOI if necessary) comments on:
the near universal failure of hydro schemes in the National Park to abide by the LLTNPA’s best practice guidance (just look out for those Lomond blue pipes)
the LLTNPA’s decision in response to my FOI on the Ardchullarie hydro scheme (see here)to remove all information on this scheme post-decision from the planning website – making it impossible for the public to know what the National Park is doing to enforce planning conditions
The Beauly Denny scheme
It was also welcome to see among the CNPA papers an update on the restoration of the ground affected by the construction of the Beauly Denny powerline and a commitment to report on this annually for the next four years Item10AABeaulyDennyupdate. While its very positive that the CNPA are monitoring the vegetation regrowth, the fundamental issue is that if the work had been done properly, there would be no need to do this. The problem is that the peat and surface vegetation was never removed and stored properly, the contractors have then mixed glacial materials with soils and changed the nature of the ground with the consequence that natural regeneration is likely to result different plant species suited to the new soils.
It was interesting to read that:
“One of the conditions of the consent provided a specific role for the CNPA as a member of an environmental liaison group. The group’s purpose was to provide advice on appropriate mitigation and construction procedures and associated restoration and habitat management measures. The other members of the group were the planning authorities, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Historic Scotland and Forestry Commission.”
The basic problem for the CNPA (which has also been a problem for the LLTNPA in many of its hydro developments) is that the appropriate construction procedures were not followed. The lesson surely is that monitoring of construction conditions should not be left to an Ecological Clerk of Works employed by the contractor – who because their job depends on the contractor cannot speak out – but by someone who is engaged directly by the National Park.
Planning Service Improvements
The CNPA also includes a paper on planning service improvements over the next year Item9AAPlanningServicePriorities2017-18 which is fairly open about human resource issues which have impacted on the service and also that there are improvements they need to make (a contrast to the LLTNPA which can never admit to any mistake)
The last point about this is about enforcement:
Review the way we report monitoring and enforcement activity in public (to improve public understanding of the system, awareness of consented developments and of the prioritisation of cases.)
In my view, this misses the most important point. The core problem is NOT members of the public failing to understand the system (something which is also promulgated by the LLTNPA – see above) – its that the CNPA has not been taking enforcement action where its needed. I know there are resource issues for all public authoriies but the point surely is that once landowners appreciate that our National Parks are no longer prepared to accept “crap” and are willing to take enforcement action, whatever the cost to the developer, the problems will stop and that will actually save CNPA staff lots of time spent uselessly try to persuade people to co-operate voluntarily. The biggest improvement the CNPA planning service needs to make in the next year is to establish its own moral authority.
Anything though the CNPA can do to make their actions more transparent would be welcome (a basic step would be to include all minutes of meetings and correspondence with developers on the planning portal) and might help make landowners and developers realise the CNPA is serious and committed to ensure the Park’s statutory objectives are met.
The stretch of land between Dalwhinnie and Feagour, on the A96 west of Laggan, taken by the Beauly Denny powerline is fairly unfrequented. Following my posts on the Beauly Denny at Drumochter (see here) and (here), my thanks to Jonathan Binny for sending these photos of the section between Feagour and the col east of Meall nan Eagain.
The Scottish Government, which overruled the objections of Cairngorms National Park Authority to the Beauly Denny, required all construction tracks to be restored to their original condition. These restoration works were supposed to be complete last year, so the photos show the “final restoration” – clearly not the original condition.
In 2013, Ben Alder Estate, which covers part of this area, applied for planning permission to keep part of the construction track (just like the Drumochter Estate did at Drumochter) but this was refused by the CNPA – for which they deserve credit. I suspect it helped the CNPA that an excellent case was made by John Thomas for refusing the track, including the added impact it would have on wild land (see here). (NB I know John slightly but I had no idea he had made representations on any part of the Beauly Denny until I checked the application on the Park’s planning portal). The primary problem that the photos illustrate is not that the CNPA are failing to consider planning applications properly or set appropriate conditions – they do most of the time – its that they are failing to enforce those conditions.
I checked with the Scottish Government about responsibility for enforcing the Beauly Denny planning conditions:
“I am interested in trying to find out what the role of the Scottish Government is in ensuring the Planning Conditions that were attached to the decision to allow the Beauly Denny powerline to be constructed are enforced”
The Scottish Government Response.
“In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place.”
I think this is pretty clear. Responsibility for ensuring Scottish and Southern Electric properly restored the land after the construction of the Beauly Denny lies with the CNPA within the Cairngorms National Park. I can sympathise with the CNPA that they never wanted the Beauly Denny to run through the National Park but once that decision was made their responsibility was to ensure the work was done to the highest standards. That clearly hasn’t happened and there is no record of the National Park taking any enforcement action.
In case any reader is thinking from all the photos of destruction posted on parkswatch that destruction is an inevitable consequence of development in our hills, its worth comparing Jonathan’s photos with restoration work elsewhere
The Pitmain Estate avoided constructing a new track here and used different construction techniques for this hydro (which I will feature in a future post) but you can see quite clearly that heather has been retained and then replanted. Most hillwalkers probably walk past this pipeline without realising its there. That is not going to happy any time soon with Beauly Denny – in fact they are now talking of 20-30 years before the land “recovers”. That is NOT restoration but a very slow reclamation by nature processes.
The land looks just like any other clearfell, a mess, which will take years to recover. Contrast this with the restoration of the ground in Stank Glen by Loch Lubnaig in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs
Again, this was not restoration of a track as shows, but does show how woodland can be restored after major construction works. The work here post-dates the Beauly Denny and will be all but invisible long before nature reclaims the Beauly Denny destruction.
What Jonathan’s photos demonstrate along with the photos published in earlier posts, is that there has been a serious failure to restore the ground and tracks after the Beauly Denny works within the Cairngorms National Park. This should matter to SSE the developer – it claims to take a responsible approach (see here), including treating staff decently and tackling climate change. Along with claims about sustainability its foundational aim is to “Do no harm”. That’s not what these photographs show. SSE’s claims seem to count for nothing when it comes to how it treats the land.
However, responsibility for addressing SSE’s failures lie with the CNPA. This is not just one isolated bit of land that has been trashed by some landowner that doesn’t care, its a huge swathe of ground running right through the National Park. The CNPA should be exposing SSE for failing to hold by its own claimed principles. This is actually one case where the public could have an influence. If the destruction was publicised and SSE does nothing, customers could change their accounts. There is huge potential in this case for CNPA to sort matters out without the costs of any legal action simply through the adverse publicity for SSE which would be created if it threatened to take enforcement action along the length of the Beauly Denny. What has the CNPA got to fear?
Following my post about the failure to restore the destruction caused by the Beauly Denny by the developer, Scottish and Southern Electric, I went last Monday to have a look at the section of the “temporary” construction track on the Drumochter Estate.
Under the Beauly Denny planning application determined by the Scottish Government, all construction tracks were to be fully restored. The Drumochter Estate however submitted an application in 2013 to the Cairngorms National Park Authority to retain the section of track on their estate. The first application was refused, mainly because the estate wanted to keep the entire section of track which ran through the estate. The section south of North Drumochter Lodge ran into the Drumochter Special Area of Conservation – why is it that only European designated sites appear to have any teeth? – and cut across the open hillside. The revised application removed the southern section of track but is still 4.7 km in length.
The Committee Report which considered the application in February 2015 track planning application was very thorough. The CNPA had opposed the Beauly Denny, was concerned about the proposed track, but was won over by arguments that with the new A9 dualling would make it very difficult for estate vehicles to access the existing hill tracks onto the east side of Drumochter. Their assessment of the construction track was pretty damning:
However, the assessment of staff was that as long as the construction track was narrowed considerably – to a maximum of 3m – and the spoil heaps used to do this, retention of the track was acceptable:
The North East Mountain Trust, which to its credit had objected to the application for the existing track was also persuaded and agreed not to object. Both the NEMT and the CNPA were no doubt partially persuaded by the illustrations from the estate of what they were proposing:
The problem is that two years later absolutely none of what was promised by the estate has happened.
Some of the track is “floating” which means it was created by dumping aggregrate onto the peat in sufficient quantities to support construction vehicles. Proper restoration would mean all this aggregate being removed. The estate promised to improve this by narrowing the track to 3m maximim and revegetating the sides using vegetation from a new drainage ditch and seeding.
The track is almost two landrover widths and should have been almost halved in breadth according to the planning conditions.
Part of the restoration proposed by the estate was removal of this “hammerhead. Nothing has been done. There are piles of spoil in the centre and along right side of the area.
Another view of one side of the hammerhead. All this ground should have been restored.
The priority of the estate is indicated by these new grouse butts. They were being brought in from the A9 by landrover and trailer. It appears it has suited the estate to retain a large storage area rather than restore the land as promised.
The CNPA, again to give it credit, had required that all the works be completed by June 2016:
Six months after the deadline for works to be completed, on the section I looked at at the north end of the proposed track, there is no evidence that any work has been completed. There are two issues here:
first you cannot tell from the planning portal whether the CNPA has agreed in writing with the estate to extend the deadline for completion of the works beyond June 2016 and, if so, the justification for this and what the new deadline is;
second, if the CNPA has not agreed an extension, its not clear what enforcement action they have taken if any.
Unfortunately, this is yet another planning case where the credibility of our National Parks is at stake. What appears to be happening in a number of cases from Natural Retreats at Cairngorm to the Bruar Hydro to Drumochter is that the CNPA approved planning applications with conditions which the developer then simply ignores. The failure of the CNPA to go public about this and use its enforcement powers gives a clear message to developers that as long as they pay someone to complete good looking paperwork, they can do what they want.
In the Drumochter access track case there is an added complication. SSE were supposed to restore this track and, being a huge company, obviously have the resources to do this properly (if there was anyone insisting they should do so). Having agreed that Drumochter Estate could keep the track, however, the risk is that all obligations of SSE will have been taken over by the estate. My guess is that will now make it impossible for the CNPA to turn round to the estate and say the planning permission no longer applies and ask SSE to do the works.
This supposition is reinforced by the fact that SSE has not been at all co-operative about restoration of the Drumochter and the atrocious standards of the restoration work they have undertaken.
The trouble is that the CNPA has allowed them to get away with this. Although very concerned about the standard of work, and taking time to visit the site, they have then resorted to their normal practice of writing letters rather than taking enforcement action when things go wrong:
20. The Convenor advised the Committee on her reflections following site visit with Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) to the Beauly – Denny overhead transmission line that she and other members had attended, along with SNH staff. She advised that it seemed that SSE Officers were not sufficiently clear as to what the restoration of the tracks involved. SSE Officers were also rather vague as to who was ultimately responsible for carrying out the restoration and reinstatement and what standard would be deemed acceptable. Following a full discussion the Committee agreed that Convenor of the Board should write to SSE expressing significant concerns. (Planning Minute June 2015)
The failure of the CNPA to take a robust line against either SSE or the North Drumochter estate means that the CNPA is storing up serious problems for itself at Drumochter and setting further poor precedents for the rest of the National Park.
In my two posts on the retrospective planning application for the Shieling Ski tow track last week (see here) and (here) I outlined why this was a test case for the National Park. On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Authority planning committee unanimously approved the recommendation of its officers and the application (see here for news release) or (here) for article in the Press and Journal It was the wrong decision and while a number of Board Members asked searching questions of what is going on at Cairngorm, the CNPA still appears to prefer to put its head in the sand rather than safeguard the area for the people who care about it, including skiers. It could have been so different…………….
Here is what Eleanor Mackintosh, Convener of the CNPA Planning Committee said:
“Both applications [the Shieling was one of two] comply with our planning policies but it is frustrating that the applicants did not gain the correct planning consents before undertaking their developments. That said – I am happy to support the enterprising developments at Inshriach – I think it provides the area with a unique tourist accommodation offering for visitors.
“I am also pleased that the proposals we are giving planning permission for at Cairngorm Mountain include a long term restoration plan for a wider area of ground, including the creation of new montane woodland habitat. This careful approach to balancing the operation of the ski resort with sensitive long term management of the ski area’s natural habitats is one we look forward to seeing as an integral part of all future plans to enhance the offering on the mountain.”
The development may have complied with planning policies but it certainly did NOT comply with wider Park policies (including the Glenmore-Cairngorm Strategy recently approved by the Board and flood risk reduction). Development planning is supposed to support those policies, it says so in the Park Plan. It also demonstrates just how weak the Park’s Development Planning policies are: the hill track clearly contravenes SNH Guidance on Hill Tracks but this carries NO weight with the CNPA. Inevitably the gravel surface on the hill track will erode but the CNPA has nothing to say about this as it has no policy in this area. At a time when CNPA staff are struggling to respond to the unlawful hill tracks in the Park and generally atrocious standard of construction, this is a major failing which needs to put right. Any policy on hill tracks in National Parks should be far stronger than SNH’s guidance because that policy covers the country as a whole and the public has a right to expect more from protected areas.
While the montane planting is a small positive step in the right direction and was presumably negotiated behind closed doors (will it be HIE or Natural Retreats that pays for this?) perhaps Eleanor Mackintosh could explain why the CNPA didn’t take the opportunity to ask Natural Retreats to repair all the other damage it has caused in the Shieling area which was not part of the planning application?
Perhaps too Eleanor Mackintosh could explain how the CNPA’s failure to take any action to stop the destruction at the Shieling three months after being told about it demonstrates a careful approach?
The problem appears to be that the CNPA simply accepts whatever land-managers say is necessary for operational purposes, even in cases such as at Cairngorm where those operators clearly haven’t told the whole truth. An example came at the meeting where in response to questions to why the track was needed, I am told Natural Retreats staff said it was necessary to ensure vehicles avoided crossing the electric ring main. That this was nonsense was shown by Natural Retreats own landscape plan
The dotted yellow line starting mid-left, which illustrates the ring main, actually goes under the new hill track! Furthermore there is no issue with vehicles crossing the ring main, it simply needs to be run through a duct (see here). Unfortunately the CNPA seems incapable of challenging Natural Retreats on these false claims.
Neither does the CNPA seem capable or willing either to consider alternatives which might be more in keeping with the aims of the National Park. I know of at least two alternatives that were put to the Park. I sent one, after my last post on the Sheiling, Email to CNPA re hill track, suggesting that vehicles could use the rope tow uptrack for occasional use. The North East Mountain Trust quite separately suggested that if the hill track was really only for occasional use, it should be resown and planted with heather to stop the erosion. One could debate the merits of either proposal – and I am sure they were not the only solutions – but the point is the CNPA appears to have failed to consider alternatives before taking the decision. As long as developers know the CNPA is not prepared to force them to consider alternatives, its quite predictable that the whole sorry business of unlawful developments followed by retrospective planning applications will continue.
Still, according to feedback I have had from the meeting (its not in the news release), Eleanor Mackintosh did agree to write to Natural Retreats expressing the Committee’s displeasure at the retrospective nature of the application. This is the third time I am aware of that she has written such letters in the recent past (other cases have been the Dinnet Hill Tracks and the extensive development at Badaguish). It would be interesting to know if the CNPA can provide evidence that this has made any difference? Ultimately its actions, not words, that count.
What is different this time though is that the CNPA also agreed to write to HIE as landowner. This is significant and a step forward because HIE as landowner has failed to exert any control over Natural Retreats, its tenant, and indeed, as parkswatch revealed last week, had actually paid them for the illegal works (though it is now asking for £2000 back). Whether HIE will get this back, is less certain. As of at 11am on 31st January the accounts for the year to December 2015 for both Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (due on the 24th January) – the company vehicle through which Natural Retreats operates Cairngorm – and Natural Assets Investment Ltd (due 17th January) which owns CML Ltd were marked overdue on the Companies House website. Is this failure in financial governance acceptable to HIE? The best explanation for all the destruction at Cairngorm continues to be that this is all about money and the only reason for the hilltrack at the Shieling is that having destroyed the ground cover it was the cheapest option available to HIE and Natural Retreats. Unfortunately the CNPA is continuing to allow money to be put before the natural environment.
The planning problem
While the Planning Committee has told Natural Retreats it expects them not to make retrospective planning applications in future, this is unlikely in itself to do anything to stop the destruction at Cairngorm. First, Highland Council has simply approved certain works on a de minimis basis despite the evidence of the destruction Natural Retreats is causing through such works.
Second, where Highland Council did require Planning Permission, for the West Wall Poma, the CNPA failed to call in the planning application and Highland Council, like the CNPA at the Shieling, have failed to enforce planning requirements. Perhaps they expected the CNPA to take this up?
Third, Natural Retreats continues to drive vehicles and shift boulders and vegetation all over the hill – there is extensive evidence for this.
The way forward
Any long-term solution to the problems at Cairngorm will require a proactive National Park, a new landowner to replace HIE and an operator at Cairngorm which is accountable to the local community, recreational and conservation interests. Meantime though, here are some things the CNPA could do to start tackling the problems at Cairngorm:
In their letter to Natural Retreats the CNPA should also ask them to produce an inventory of all the damage across the mountain with a view to developing proper plans – as were eventually submitted for the retrospective application for how to restore it – which should be subject to public consultation. There is no need that the only consultation that ever takes place is when planning permission is required.
The CNPA should also ask Natural Retreats to produce a policy and proper procedures on how to protect the environment at Cairngorm (everything from use of vehicles to restoration of ground) as requested by Murray Ferguson in an email last year. This too should be subject to public consultation. Both could form part of the masterplan for Cairngorm which Natural Retreats has committed to producing this year as part of the Glenmore-Cairngorm Strategy.
The CNPA in their letter to HIE should ask them publicly to commit to the points in points 1 and 2 above and, assuming they wish to continue their lease with Natural Retreats, amend it to incorporate these points.
The CNPA should also write to Highland Council asking them to agree a joint approach to planning at Cairngorm which should involve no further works being agreed on a de minimis basis or emergency basis (which avoids the need for planning permission) and a rapid response to any reported breaches of planning requirements. They should also agree what resource/expertise they need to oversee any future ground works at Cairngorm and who is in the best position to do this.
The Officers Report for the Cairngorms National Park Planning Authority meeting on Friday which will consider the hill track at Cairngorm is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes. This is over and above the policy omissions and enforcement failures considered in yesterday’s post.
On the positive side, there appears to have been a lot of bargaining behind the scenes, which has resulted in plans to improve the whole area, beyond the current application.
The planting will not just hide some of the infrastructure, it should also – though there is no mention of this in the Report – compensate for some of the increased water run-off that has been created by the development. There are some other positive things in the plan, including works around both ends of the ski tow to improve landscaping; the work at the bottom will be done by hand. All of this is good. It should however have all been included in the original planning application, which was sketchy at the very least. Its clear to me that the public pressure has helped (or is it pushed) CNPA staff to take more interest in the development. A lesson here for the CNPA. Well thought out plans properly enforced would avoid lots of problems and public criticism.
On the negative side though the Report, and accompanying documentation supplied by Natural Retreats, fails to explain a number of factors which are relevant to determining the application and indeed to the wider landscape improvement plan:
The implications of the new track failing to meet the design standards set out in SNH’s Guidance on “Constructed Tracks in the Scottish Uplands” is not considered nor is there any consideration of alternatives
There is no attempt to describe the extent of the area where works took place in breach of the planning permission (the application was for a strip of ground 30m broad). This is important because without a description of what has been done, the CNPA is not in a position to stipulate what remedial measures are required.
Related to this, there is NO description of the impacts of the works on the hydrology of the area.
I will address each of these in turn based on the evidence I saw on my latest walk around on Saturday. While I am not a trained path worker, ecologist or hydrologist I believe there is more than enough evidence to show that these issues need to be considered by properly qualified and independent professionals.
Location and design of the hill track
There has been a lot of nonsense talked about the hill track being needed for construction purposes. This diagram from Appendix A to the Committee Report shows that this couldn’t have been the case. The elevation of the new track is HIGHER than the previous sheiling tow uptrack which sat between two bulldozed banks (section GG). In other words the hill track could only have been created AFTER the slope had been smoothed out (which was agreed in the original planning application). This explains why there is NO evidence of any temporary construction track. There wasn’t any. Natural Retreats appears to have confused the original ski uptrack with the new hilltrack in order to make the latter appear more acceptable by implying this had already been agreed on a temporary basis.
The most likely explanation for why Natural Retreats created the hill track is still that they did not have sufficient vegetation to replace that they had destroyed in the course of reprofiling the slope. The track filled the gap. The question that has still not been answered is where all the fine material that has been used to surface the new track has come from? While on Saturday, there was good evidence of how this material gets washed away (see photo above) it was not until I received the photo below taken by Alan Brattey on Monday that I fully appreciated how quickly this happens.
There was no sign of the hole, centre right, when I walked down the track two days before. Two days of freeze thaw and another section of track had been destroyed.
Part of the problem is that the track is too steep, contrary to SNH guidance. Natural Retreats has appears to accept this in its comment that the track “is constrained to existing ground levels” – in other words its fundamentally flawed!
Natural Retreats has also accepted that the track washes away:
Natural Retreats solution is drainage bars which it says works well. If CNPA officers had walked around Cairngorm at the weekend they would have seen every single steel drainage channel choked with eroded material
CNPA officers should have questioned the efficacy of steel drainage channels and its interesting why they have not advocated the use of natural materials, as in photo above. Are the granite blocks any less effective in terms of drainage? They are far more in keeping with the natural environment.
The problem which remains though is that the surface materials are too fine and will wash away whatever drainage is installed. The track, as oriented, is simply not sustainable and the Planning Committee needs to consider alternatives.
Any alternative should consider that there will now be a new uptrack created by the rope tow. Its hard to see the heather planted along the line of the rope tow surviving (all the other uptracks lose their heather, with the car park t-bar below the Shieling almost completely bare of heather). So, if planning permission is granted to the hill track there will be double the visual impact in the long-term, something the CNPA has apparently not considered. If vehicle access is really needed occasionally, its strange that the uptrack, which is now totally smooth apart from the top section, was not considered as the means to do this.
Damage to surrounding ground and vegetation
In order to “restore” the damage caused by the works on the Sheiling slope, Natural Retreats scooped up vegetation from outside the area granted planning permission.
I had not realised till Saturday that this appears to have been from a far wider area than that immediately adjacent to the shieling slope.
The whole of the bank above the track to the Fiacaill dump is full of holes where vegetation has been removed – the most likely explanation appears to be that this was used to replace the vegetation at the Shieling which had not been properly stored.
The CNPA Committee Report makes no attempt to other describe or assess the impact of this destruction. If it had done so, it would help put the remedial measures I described at the beginning of this post in context, as they do not address all of the damage that has been done or assess what impact this might have in the long-term. A proper vegetation assessment should have been undertaken before any decision is made.
While the CNPA Committee Report includes comments from their ecologist, this says nothing about either the damage outside the area granted planning permission or strangely about hydrology. What is clear from my walk around is that there has been extensive work to alter the drainage of the shieling ski slopes and surrounding area. I am not necessarily against such works – I recognise that ski slopes and bogs are not really compatible – but the point is that there should have been a proper assessment of the impact of such works and any mitigation measures BEFORE any work was undertaken. This is because water run-off from drainage not only changes the local ecology, it increases the likelihood of flooding downstream – in this case of Aviemore – which is one of the Big 9 issues the CNPA is supposed to be trying to tackle.
Why a proper assessment is needed is illustrated by these photos. Natural Retreats included the photo above in their plans showing what they had done. The photo below shows how the area in the distance looked on Saturday. The sandbags are proof that something is not working.
In fact there are sandbags in several places on the slope – an illustration of problems that the CNPA has simply not considered – and also a significant number of culverts across and along the edge of the ski slopes.
Now, I am not sure when these were created but the only culverts referred to in the planning application were to channel the Allt Choire Cas, which runs across the bottom of the Sheiling Ski slopes, underground instead of the old wooden bridges.
New? and poorly finished culvert at bottom of Shieling slope on left. There are at least three culverts, none of which have been properly covered, running under the southern of the two shieling slopes (right photo).
So where is the environmental impact assessment of all this drainage work? What are the implications? We simply don’t know. I don’t think that is good enough.
The way forward
The CNPA needs to work out how access could managed to this site without agreeing to a track which is going to constantly erode, what damage there has been to vegetation outwith the site granted planning permission together with what remedial measures are required and also also ensure there is a proper assessment of the likely impact of the drainage works and how this might be mitigated
I previously called for an independent ecological assessment of the area and options to repair the damage that has been done. In my view this is still needed and the CNPA is not in a position to take a properly informed decision about this planning application. It needs to do so, not just for the landscape and wildlife, but the people who enjoy Cairngorm, not least the people who ski there.
The retrospective planning application for the unlawful hill track at Cairngorm (see here) and (here) will be considered by the Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee on Friday (see here for all papers). In contrast to the initial planning application to replace the lift at the Shieling, which consisted of just five documents (see here), the retrospective application consists of an incredible 83 documents. This is a consequence of the public protests at the way Natural Retreats has been managing Cairngorm, which have included a significant number of objects to the application, which in turn has forced Natural Retreats to produce further plans . Whatever happens on Friday, the protests have forced Natural Retreats to undertake a series of remedial measures and improvements on the site. The scandal is that without the public protest, none of this would ever have happened. This post considers the failures of our public authorities to safeguard Cairngorm the future of which is central to the future of the National Park..
The policy context
The Cairngorms National Park Authority has a number of policy documents and plans which should have informed how it responded to the planning application which are NOT referred to in the officers report to the Planning Committee (see here). This wrong because the Local Development Plan, approved in 2015, explicitly states in paragraph 1.20 that:
“The National Park Partnership Plan provides policy priorities and programmes of work to deliver the vision and long term outcomes. The Local Development Plan helps to deliver them by implementing those policies”
So, its quite clear in policy terms that the planning section should be helping to deliver the CNPA’s wider objectives. I will highlight here two pollcies/strategies which are very relevant to the current planning application.
In September 2016 the CNPA Board approved the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy (see here). A number of commitments from that strategy should have affected how the current planning application has been dealt with:
“The purpose of the Partnership is to collaborate in the strategic management of these landholdings in order to deliver: An exceptionally high quality natural environment” Comment: the Committee Report fails to explain how the destruction and poor restoration work in Coire Cas contributes to that purpose?
“Ensure enhancements within the ski area are implemented to high quality standards appropriate to the sensitive environment” Comment: so does the CNPA Planning Committee really believe the works associated with the Shieling Ski tow have been of an acceptable quality?
“1. Management interventions will improve the natural environment, landscape and visitor experience and retain the sense of wildness and space found in the area”. Comment: Natural Retreats has used claims that removal of the old bulldozed uplift track and bulldozing of the bank below the Sheiling have improved the landscape to justify everything it has done. Both claims are questionable. Yes, the old uptrack was highly artificial, but so is the smooth slope that has replaced it with hardly a sign of the many boulders which used to cover this glacial landscape.
“Natural Retreats and partners to develop and deliver masterplan for Cairngorm Mountain” Comment: how can the Planning Committee decide on agreeing to this track if there is no masterplan? Agreeing to the track will set a precedent for new tracks alongside every ski lift at Cairngorm. Is that really what the CNPA want? Its clearly not needed as skiing operations have been managed for over 50 years with a more limited track network.
The second policy relevant to the current planning application is flood prevention and management. Again, there is no mention of this in the Committee Report despite it being one of the 9 Big Issues in the draft Partnership Plan. That document explicitly says hill tracks can lead to increased flooding and also:
One of the most important factors with respect to managing flood risk is the maintenance and enhancement of vegetation cover, which may disrupt overland flow and reduce through flow.
There is also no reference to the Spey Catchment Initiative which states “the ability to manage land, particularly in the uplands, in a way that attenuates rates of runoff will be crucial to this process” (of flood prevention).
Officers have not only ignored their own policies, they have also made the following extraordinary statement in the Committee Report:
47. In terms of objections raised regarding the need for the track, Local Development Plan policy supports in principle the extension and diversification of existing operations. Objectors have raised the issue of no need being demonstrated for the retention of the track. In this regard it is generally considered, in the context of a track within an existing long established ski resort that the party best placed to determine the operational needs of their business are the applicants. In any case, the need for the track is not required to be demonstrated as it is not a requirement of policy. The role of the Planning Authority is to consider the land use impacts and merits of the proposal, assessed against policy.
The implications of this are that not only should the CNPA abdicate any role on Cairngorm, as Natural Retreats as operator are deemed best placed to decided operational requirements, but also that every landowner in the National Park would be given free rein to install new hill tracks wherever they want. It puts operational management before the natural environment. This is totally wrong. Cairngorm is part of a National Scenic Area and the statement is contrary to CNPA’s statutory objectives as a National Park.
The failure of the Cairngorms National Park Authority to take appropriate enforcement action
The photo above was one of five that Alan Brattey sent to the CNPA on 4th September 2015 along with the following email:
The email was passed to Planning Enforcement and when after four weeks Alan had heard nothing more he emailed planning enforcement on 5th October to try and find out what was happening. He eventually received a reply on 29th October which indicated that a member of staff had visited the site and thought there was no problem (I have all the emails). Alan then contacted the Head of Planning Gavin Miles and, on 8th December, the CNPA told Natural Retreats to stop the works immediately – three whole months after they had been notified of the problem. Despite knowing what was going on, CNPA staff allowed Natural Retreats to ignore planning requirements until it was too late and all the damage had been done. One could speculate whether this was a result of lack of skills and knowledge of the staff concerned (planning staff in our National Parks would appear to need more training on issues such as good track design, management of vegetation, flood risk etc) or a management decision not to challenge Highlands and Islands Enterprise on anything that goes on at Cairngorm, but whatever the case, lessons could be learned. The CNPA has a planning enforcement charter and extensive enforcement powers 160722PlanningEnforcementCharterFINALAPPROVED and it would have taken nothing for staff to have told Natural Retreats to suspend all work until they had clarifed what was going on and reached agreement on a way forward. They did not do so. There is of course no mention of these failures in the Committee Report.
The failure goes further than that though. This is part of what Gavin Miles wrote to Alan Brattey in December:
Waiting to the Spring was is fair enough but, over a year later, there is no evidence that the Park has undertaken a proper re-assessment of what Natural Retreats had actually done. The Committee Reports confines its considerations to the hill track and bank and provides NO assessment of the wider destruction and the impact that this has had.
The role of HIE in the Sheiling Hill track
I received a helpful email from HIE earlier this week which helps explain their role in the replacement of the Shieling ski tow.
First, the new Shieling ski tow, like the other ski lift infrastructure belongs to HIE but they decided to get Natural Retreats to install it because:
It is no exaggeration to say that Cairngorm is an exceptionally challenging environment, where contractors need to be highly flexible and ready to work carefully and quickly, often amid rapidly changing weather and ground conditions. Exceptionally, therefore, HIE agreed that it was appropriate for our tenant to manage the works to improve these HIE-owned assets, since they are in control of the assets, hold the health & safety responsibilities across the whole site and have the necessary specialised staff on site
The reason for this explanation is I suspect that under the procurement rules and their own procedures, HIE should have put the works at Cairngorm out to public tender (because of the estimated cost of £83k) instead of handing this to Natural Retreats. HIE are concerned they might be legally challenged on this, hence the first sentence. What should be quite clear to HIE now in view of what happened – works undertaken at the wrong time of year and without any regard being given to the Method Statement – that Natural Retreats do NOT have the “necessary specialised staff on site” to undertaken such works properly. All work that is paid for in future by HIE to upgrade or maintain its own assets therefore should go out to public tender.
As explained in my previous reply, CML were reimbursed by HIE for payments made against evidenced invoices paid by CML, with HIE checking the progress of the works. There is an overall project budget and estimates for each item are made within that. We have flexibility in how we manage the works and have not set a specific limit to spend as the scale of works is relatively small. I would stress, however, that works are discussed in advance and monitored carefully.
What this confirms is that HIE knew about the destruction but did nothing. What’s more, they paid Natural Retreats for works done in contravention of the planning approval:
“The estimate for groundworks was £83,000 excluding VAT. The final figure paid for groundworks was in fact £77,453 excluding VAT (correcting the figure of £78,353 excluding VAT given in the earlier FoI response).
I can confirm that CML will be repaying HIE for the value of the works undertaken to alter the bank without planning consent, which is £2,000.”
I am delighted that HIE has now, after I brought this to their attention, realised that they should not have paid for unlawful works and for the first sentence in the following statement:
HIE indeed requires those carrying out works it is funding to observe and abide by planning regulations, and we regret that this did not happen in this particular instance. To be clear, the creation of the track on the line of the old tow track was part of the works covered by the Planning Permission and was included in the method statement; the track was required to undertake the project. It is the proposed permanence of this track (rather than its reinstatement as authorised in the planning consent) that is now at issue and is included in the retrospective planning application.
The second part of this statement though appears wrong. The Construction Method statement 2014_0251_DET-METHOD_STATEMENT-100105315 is vague and contains no drawings but its quite clear from the photo above that NO temporary track was put in in order to undertake the works as HIE suggests. The track referred to in the application appears to be the old ski uptrack which of course did need to be restored and which appears to have been used by the diggers to access the site. So, its not true to calim that “it is the proposed permanance of this track that is now at issue”.
HIE appears to still be on the defensive. If they really cared about Cairngorm they could use this clause in their lease to take action against Natural Retreats.
All HIE have done so far is reclaim the £2000 they had paid out for unlawful works.
What needs to happen
The Planning Committee on Friday needs to ask some much broader questions than those covered in the Committee Report. I have suggested here this should include:
How the planning applications supports the wider policy and plans for the National Park
The failure of CNPA to take appropriate enforcement action and the lessons which could be learned from this
HIE’s role, as a public authority, in supporting the National Park to achieve its objectives.
In my next post I will demonstrate there is ample evidence on the ground to show why the current application should be rejected.
The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park has been nominated by BBC Countryfile presenter as National Park of the year (see here) There are four other nominees, South Downs, Peak District, Snowdonia and Yorkshire Dales. The LLTNPA was quick to get in on the act, issuing its own press release and then arranging for this motion to be lodged in the Scottish Parliament:
Motion Number: S5M-03569 Lodged By: Dean Lockhart Date Lodged: 22/01/2017
Title: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park
That the Parliament congratulates everyone at Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park on it being shortlisted for the title of National Park of the Year 2017; notes that it is the only Scottish park in the final of the competition, which is run by the BBC Countryfile magazine; understands that the competition, which is in its sixth year aims to celebrate the importance of the British countryside and its people, nature reserves and heritage attractions; notes that the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs park covers over 720 square miles and includes 21 Munros, two forest parks and the Great Trossachs Forest, which was recently been named the UK’s latest and largest national nature reserve; understands that the park is renowned, not only for its undoubted beauty, but also as a living, working landscape that offers a home to unique wildlife as well as providing a range of activities for visitors and locals alike, and wishes all of the nominees, and the rest of the UK’s national parks, continued success.
This interest in National Parks in the Scottish Parliament is a positive thing. However, both the motion and the Countryfile nomination confuse the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, the place, with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, the body responsible for running it. They are quite distinct.
While National Parks, as places, change a little each year, this is not enough to explain why a National Park should be nominated one year rather than the next. If thought, the Award, is supposed to be about the performance of National Park Authorities, there is no information provided by the BBC to enable people to compare how each of the National Park Authorities nominated for the award are doing. The result is people will vote for the place they like, rather than what any National Park Authority is doing. This will suit the LLTNPA, which does not like its performance to be scrutinised, and will be hoping that everyone in Scotland will vote for it simply because its a nomination from Scotland.
Before rushing headlong into supporting this piece of marketing, I hope our MSPs will consider the LLTNPA’s performance in 2016. The LLTNPA has a large communications team of, I believe, 8 staff to sing its own praises, so here I will only list some of the things they try to avoid mentioning:
In April the Standards Commission found against Board Member Owen McKee, the planning convener who traded in Scotgold Shares after the Cononish goldmine was approved. Unfortunately the Standards Commissions did not have the powers to investigate how the Board covered this up.
The destruction of landforms and landscape in Glen Falloch, on an industrial scale, in order to construct new hydro schemes reached its apogee. With staff having previously reversed the decision of Board Members that all the access tracks should be removed, these tracks now form permanent scars on the landscape. The LLTNPA has failed to enforce its own standards for hydro schemes, including landscaping, colour of material used and width and design of access tracks.
The LLTNPA conducted a community planning consultation in Balloch – called a charrette, funded by the Scottish Government – without telling the local community that a company called Flamingo Land had been appointed to develop the large Riverside site and that as the National Park Authority it had been on the selection panel for that developer.
The secret and unaccountable Board Briefing sessions LLTNPA continued throughout the year –
The LLTNPA’s promise that it would provide new camping places if the camping byelaws were agreed collapsed. The Five Lochs Visitor Management Plan, which included specific plans for campsites, along with the Stakeholder Group which contributed to it, appears to have been abandoned entirely. It has been replaced by a series of vague promises that the Park is continuing to work to develop new campsites in the proposed camping management zones.
Instead the LLTNPA committed to spending £345k on a new 26 place campsite at Loch Chon, which is inaccessible to anyone without a car, and where there is little demand. The campsite was totally overspecified, which explains the cost, and the only justification for spending this money was so the LLTNPA could satisfy a promise to the Minister that they would develop new camping places before the camping byelaws commenced.
The LLTNPA developed a new permit system to control camping in the management zones which had not been subject to public consultation and then failed to consult its own Local Access Forum, a statutory consultee, on the implications for access rights. Freedom of Information requests demonstrated that the LLTNPA’s decision to “create” 300 places where people could camp, was not based on any evidence about the impact of campers.
The Scottish Information Commissioner forced the LLTNPA to make public all but one of the slides that had been presented at the Secret Board Meetings which decided the camping byelaws and was investigating the failure of the LLTNPA to declare all the information it held about these meetings at year end.
The LLTNPA diverted a considerable proportion of its resources into a single issue, how to ban campers, and consequently failed to progress many far more important matters. This was epitomised by the non-appearance of the new Park Partnership Plan (the Cairngorms National Park draft plan was consulted on over the summer) which is due to be signed off by Ministers in 2017
One year late, the LLTNPA published the Keep Scotland Beautiful litter audit. During the course of Board Meetings it emerged that once again the LLTNPA had again failed to take any meaningful initiatives with its local authority partners on how to address litter problems in the National Park. The litter strategy, promised in the Five Lochs Visitor Management Plan, is now several years overdue.
The LLTNPA planning committee refused to delay consideration of a planning application for housing next door to their HQ in Balloch until after the community planning event and instead approved the housing plans.
This is not intended as a balanced appraisal, for that one would need to add some positives and then look at how the overall scorecard squared with the performance of the other National Parks nominated by John Craven. However, information like this needs to be put into the public arena if we are to have any chance of our current National Parks improving and meeting the objectives for which they were created. Our MSPs, instead of accepting the marketing hype issued by the LLTNPA, should start scrutinising what it is actually doing.
There is evidence that Natural Retreats have been undertaking some sort of tidy up at Cairngorm, which is welcome if not before time. The Shieling Rope Tow fencing has been completed. The section of the Carpark T-Bar fencing that had been taken down to allow a machine to move out of the uptrack has been nailed back on after lying on the ground for 3 months. Some of the spoil materials have been collected together and the place does look tidier.
Indeed Natural Retreats has claimed that some of the mess – such as that at the unofficial dump they created at the old Fiacaill T-bar base (photo above) would be cleared once the snows arrive. This, they have claimed, is because snow would reduce the impact of vehicles transporting redundant materials out. The trouble with this claim is not just that redundant materials such as the old chestnut fencing which is lying against the new snow fencing get buried as soon as it snows – which may explain why many redundant materials have been lying around since before last winter – its that Natural Retreats have been causing damage to vegetation elsewhere.
The Car Park T-Bar
Parkswatch have previously featured vehicles driving by the Carpark T-bar uptrack and the impact of that is clearly evident. The vegetation has been seriously damaged and the ground is now being eroded by water.
Highland Council approved the laying of new cable along the Car Park T-bar – which clearly needed to be done – without planning permission as they regarded the works as “de minimis.” Its clear that the impact of vehicle use here – whether for follow up work on the cable laying or for other works – has not been “de minimis”.
While the trench for the cabling by the Car Park lifties hut, which had been left open for something like six months (photo left) has now been filled in, the quality of the restoration has been extremely poor. You can still see a trench which will act as a drainage channel. The natural vegetation here had all been highly modified by the high levels of use but in order to help the ground recover and prevent erosion the trench should have been filled in months ago. The most recent good practice guidance all suggests that where trenches are required restoration should take place as the work goes along in order to reduce impacts. Maybe Natural Retreats has is a good explanation for the delay in this case? If so I would be happy to post this on parkswatch.
The Coire Cas T-bar gantry works
Highland Council agreed to emergency works on the Coire Cas Gantry in 2015 to make it safe for skiing and to “de minimis” groundworks and as a consequence waived the requirement for planning permission. They were informed this last time last year of concerns which they dismissed (see Letter re Coire Cas Gantry anonymised) and closed the case. I am afraid the recent photos show there has been a dereliction of public duty.
And this is how the lower slope adjacent to the gantry looks now
The topsoil is clearly washing out. This is partly a consequence of the steepness of this slope but also of a failure to store vegetation and re-seed the area in the Spring. Its fairly predictable that there will be further significant erosion during the rest of the winter and that the slope will become unstable – will the Natural Retreats solution be simply to scoop up more material from elswhere and dump it on the slope? Its time the CNPA talked to Highland Council and they agreed that all works should be required to meet certain standards and that this be enforced. If the only way to do this is to require planning permission whenever that is applicable, then that’s what our public authorities should do. All the evidence clearly shows that leaving Natural Retreats to supervise works continues to fail.
The Shieling Rope Tow area
The places where Natural Retreats’ contractors scooped out vegetation with diggers – in order to “restore” the reprofiled Shieling rope tow slope – have now predictably filled up with water. In flood prevention terms this may not be a bad thing, as all the other works Natural Retreats has done has had the effect of increasing water run-off, but it has changed the ecology of slope. What’s more the efforts to try and minimise the impact of the funicular, by taking extreme care over grounds works, has simply been undone. All this work appears to have been funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and I am currently in dialogue with them about exactly what they funded and what if any of the damage has been paid for by Natural Retreats.
The unlawful track that Natural Retreats created by the Shieling rope tow is due to be considered by the CNPA planning committee at the end of January. While the seeding has partially established grass along the track, the blue pellets and stones in the foreground indicate that the top of the slope has washed away again. Its too steep and the drainage scoops are unlikely to solve the problem. They are likely to be seriously eroded by the end of the winter.
The cumulative impact of the destruction of vegetation and increase in water run-off caused by the Shieling Rope tow appears to be impacting on the path below it. The path is now extemely soggy and you can see how lower down its starting to form a burn. I trust that the CNPA consider these issues at Planning Committee and how this fits with the local area flood prevention plan.
The entire edition of Out of Doors on Saturday was devoted to National Parks, in the USA and Scotland http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b087tgv4#play. This gave critical coverage of our National Parks, in which the presenters Euan McIlraith and Mark Stephen were, in their inimitable style, raising questions about what National Parks should be for. This is to be welcomed. There are interviews with Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority Chief Executive, Gordon Watson, at 7mins 50 secs, a discussion on east Loch Lomond from 1 hour, 5 mins and 50 secs and an interview with Grant Moir, Cairngorms National Park Authority Chief Executive, at 23 minutes.
The photo above is to illustrate the excellent question to Grant Moir by Mark Stephen who observed that in travelling up the A9 corridor on entering the Cairngorms National Park you “are hit” with pylons and asked whether this gave the wrong message? While Grant explained the CNPA had adopted a policy of no large wind turbines in the National Park, and that national priorities had overriden the objections of the CNPA to the Beauly Denny powerlines, he said nothing about whether the CNPA was happy with the quality of the work. The standards of ground restoration in the Drumochter appear all to similar to those in Glen Bruar (see here) and (here). A question for another programme maybe?
Our National Parks in context
The programme raised questions about what is perhaps the primary reason why our National Parks struggle so much at present, landownership. The contrast was made between Scotland, where much of the land in our National Parks is privately owned, and other countries where most land in National Parks is in public ownership. The programme did point out that in the USA rights of access are very different to Scotland and therefore part of the need there for public ownership is to enable public access. It also described the very interesting case of Point Reyes National Park in California, where in order to save land from development, it was purchased from farmers and then leased back to them. While suggesting this might be a model for Scotland, it did not explore the implications – too “political” for the BBC – indeed while a comment on Facebook that our National Parks are managed for landowners was read out it was accompanied by the comment “oh that’s rather political”.
Why not though nationalise all the hunting rights in our National Parks and then only lease back hunting rights to owners who were prepared to meet targets for deer culling and change the way grouse moors are managed? The programme also gave lots of other ideas that could be considered for our National Parks such as the way the US parks manage “visitor density”. Instead of making it up as they go along, as is happening in the LLTNPA, they could be learning from abroad. Neither interview with our National Park Chief Executives gave any suggestion that this was on their radar. If we want proper National Parks they need to be far less insular.
The usual parkspeak
Gordon Watson has got away with misleading statements to the media ever since he became LLTNPA Chief Executive and repeatedly claimed that the east Loch Lomond byelaws were responsible for an 81% reduction of irresponsible there when the police statistics were for a wider area. In a recent interview on Good Morning Scotland he claimed that the Loch Chon campsite was all about providing facilities for lochside camping when its quite clear that the campsite has been specifically designed to stop people camping by the lochshores (see here). The best example on Out of Doors was his statement that the “measures we are taking are purely about heavily used areas”. How then Mr Watson can you explain why you extended the camping byelaws to areas which are not so heavily used, as shown by the maps that were presented to the secret Board Meetings in September and October 2013 (see here) or why the LLTNPA are now building a large campsite at Loch Chon, where currently very few people camp? Gordon Watson also ducked a number of key questions including why the LLTNPA is trying to get FCS to raise its camping prices at Sallochy from £5 to match the £7 it wants to charge to pay for its development at Loch Chon.
“No National Park is anything without the people who visit them” (Mark Stephen)
While the presenters did not pick up on the detail of Gordon Watson’s claims – another was “it has to be realised that access can be damaging to the local environment and communities” (where is the evidence for this?) – what they did very effectively was to describe what its like on east Loch Lomond nowadays:
“We drove up from Drymen, just about every space where conceivably you could park, had a sign saying “no parking””.
“You know you are in a National Park by the number of signs saying no”
They then effectively mocked the current rules for managing visitors at Sallochy where they pointed out there are NO signs everywhere, no parking, no camping, no alcohol, no fires right next to signs that say but you can camp here, you can have a fire if you pay etc. They point out this is “very draconian”. Its worth a listen. Then, when Mark Stephen put to Gordon Watson there are lots of no signs, after first trying to dispute this he came up with the extraordinary statement that “some signs are put up by landowners that shouldn’t be there”. And whose job is it to ensure that there are signs that shouldn’t be there are taken down – the National Park Authority?! I enjoyed some of Gordon Watson’s other comments too, on wear and tear caused by visitors, including there is a “lot of human waste, however much you dig it in”. Gordon Watson keeps repeating this stuff when it appear to have been his decision to stop the programme of toilet installation planned for the Five Lochs Area. The mockery of the presenters was completely justified.
Knowing the LLTNPA I suspect what they will now do is submit a complaint to the BBC – I learned recently that when the Guardian ran a piece by Patrick Barkham against the byelaws the Park’s bloated media team submitted a complaint – so I hope readers interested in the byelaws will listen to the programme and let the BBC know what you think. You can also, if you believe any of Gordon Watson’s statements are misleading, submit a formal complaint to the LLTNPA.
A couple of other things that struck me from the programme
The first clip with Gordon Watson was about what National Parks are for. His answer was primarily visitor management and then he referred to development and promoting tourism related businesses. What is interesting is that conservation was not mentioned. I think that is an accurate reflection of where the LLTNPA is – conservation, which is supposed to take precedence over other National Park aims, is only considered in relation to visitor impacts which are minor compared say to all the hydro tracks that have been created in the National Park
Grant Moir was much better at putting development planning – the question he was asked about – into the wider context of the statutory aims of the National Park. However, what struck me was how accepting of the rules he is so he explained clearly that most housing in the National Park is being delivered by housing developers who have bought up land and that a quarter of this is for affordable housing because “that is the standard”. But hang on Grant, I wanted to say, your own Park plan clearly shows wages in the CNPA are well below the Scottish national average (which is low enough as it is) so how on earth will abiding by this standard address the need for affordable housing in the CNPA?
This is my second post on the Bruar Hydro Scheme (see here) which I visited at the end of August. I am fairly confident that few of the issues identified in this post will have been remedied since my visit but would welcome more up to date photos from anyone who is in the area.
The Glen Bruar Hydro track is about 12k in length in all. While prior to the installation of the Bruar Hydro scheme there was already a track from Calvine to Bruar Lodge, most of the track appears to have been “upgraded” to enable heavy construction machinery to be brought in. It has been extended in two main places (there is also a short section of new track close to the A9 which I have not looked at), the first a new spur off the existing track down to the powerhouse, the second from opposite Bruar Lodge up the west side of Bruar Water to the dam.
All along the track the remains of piles of aggregrate, that have been dumped on vegetation, are clearly evident. The SNH Guidance on hill tracks snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/heritagemanagement/cons.. does not say anything explicitly about storage of track materials – my guess is that this is because it assumed track constructors would never dump materials in this. Other parts of the guidance make it very clear it expected the verges of hill tracks to be properly restored:
The Environmental Statement from the developer (ultimately Atholl Estates) stated they would follow SNH’s guidance, so the question is why has this not been observed?
The side of the track here is eroding away and into the burn below. The SNH Guidance is very strong on the need to prevent track materials being washed into burns.
Another view of the eroding track edge. Note the boulders placed to prevent vehicles driving off the edge and the width of the track. Its c4m wide at this point. According to SNH Guidance the maximum required for 4 wheeled drive vehicles – all that is required here – is 3m and Lomond and Trossachs National Park Guidance indicates a maximum width of 2.5m on straight lengths of track. This track should have been reduced in width once the construction had finished. There is no sign there has been any attempt to do this.
Another view of the same section of track. Contrast the finishing of the original track here – the stone facing – with the latest work which appears to have consisted of dumping aggregate on and alongside the old track without any attempt at finishing.
The SNH Guidance clearly states track developers should restore/finish the edges of new tracks as construction progesses:
So much for the developer (Atholl Estates) providing an “immediate source of vegetation cover” to reduce the risk of erosion. I have looked through the planning documentation and part of the problem is that while the developer said they would follow SNH guidance, there is no documentation I can find in the planning application documents on the Cairngorms National Park Authority webite setting out how they intended to do this. Moreover, while the CNPA attached a large number of conditions to the planning permission (some of which were not observed and have never been enforced – see first post) very few of these concerned the track. Indeed the main requirements were for the short new section of track by the A9.
No requirements were made for the new section of track to the powerhouse. While there have been attempts made to revegetate the verges of the new sections of track, the track here is far wider than it need be.
Contrast the way this culvert has been constructed – which is typical of the culverts along the new sections of track – with what the SNH Guidance says on how it should be done:
A new drainage ditch has been dug along this section of upgraded track, its unfinished ditches and edge of track on left is unfinished – there has been no attempt to revegetate it, either with turfs or re-seeding.
Among the kilometres of upgrade track where there has been little or no attempt to mitigate the landscapes or environmental impacts of the work, this bridge stands out as an exception. Note the new retaining buttress on the right. Unfortunately it appears the work has never been finished as material is still spilling down round the edges of the stone work on either side of the bridge.
Another view of the not quite finished bridge
While the SNH Guidance allows for passing places this corner would be more suited to a race track. Large areas of vegetation have been destroyed and never restored. How can this be allowed in a National Park?
Here aggregate appears to have been dumped on the edge of the area excavated for the pipeline. The Developer claimed the poor restoration of the pipeline was because the organic material was too shallow but said nothing about how they had dumped other materials onto the line of the pipeline. This could only have happened after the pipeline had been “restored” as the road aggregate sits on top of the “pipeline restoration”.
The track is not even good for the people who live or work at Bruar Lodge. Here staff have had to mark the holes that have eroded out of the track. Its not clear to me why Atholl estates would have tolerated such poor work.
While there was mention of temporary areas of tracks and laydown areas in the planning application all were meant to be restored. Why has this vehicle area been left in the midst of the scar left by the pipeline? Its hard to imagine how restoration of a hydro pipe and track could be worse than this (do send in your photos).
By contrast the work on the new section of track beyond Bruar Lodge appears to have been constructed with far more care. It is much narrower than the section of upgraded track and restoration work has taken place along the verges. This is less than 2k though out of a total track length of 12k. The reason for this appears to be that the CNPA did set out conditions:
I have been unable to find the specific construction method statement among the planning papers on the CNPA website (I need to check again in case I missed them) but it does appear the CNPA has followed up this planning requirement and this has had positive outcomes. However, since there was also a track up to the dam on the east side of the river, there are now two tracks to the dam rather than one. Why was this necessary?
The turning/storage area by the dam however has not been restored or properly cleared up. Again note the track aggregate dumped on the bank on the left.
This is the section of the old track north of the dam, ie beyond the hydro scheme. It illustrates a number of features that the CNPA should ensure are applied to the 12k of track to the dam, namely its narrow, the sides are vegetated and a narrow vegetated strip runs down the centre of the track (as recommended in guidance by the Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority on hydro tracks). While this track penetrates a prime area of wild land, in design terms it illustrates the standards our National Park should be aspiring too where tracks are agreed.
The section of track linking Glen Bruar to Calvine appears to have been subject to far less upgrading work than that in Glen Bruar itself. If construction vehicles could access the Glen by this track, which is far steeper and narrower than any of the track along the glen, it begs the question of why the Bruar track needed to be upgraded. Possibly it was in poor condition but simply dumping tons of extra aggregate on top of the existing track as a quick fix, which is what appears to have happened, should never have been allowed.
What needs to happen
In my last post I made suggestions about what the CNPA needs to do to ensure proper restoration of the hydro infrastructure apart from hill tracks. In relation to the hill track, I believe the CNPA needs:
to commission an independent survey of the track along with options for restoring it so that at the very least it meets the standards set out in the SNH guidance on hill tracks
take appropriate enforcement action
learn from the experience of this and other tracks and adopt a clear set of standards for all hill tracks (it has guidance for hydro schemes but not for hill tracks as such)
After the Strathy’s excellent coverage of the Save the Ciste Group’s criticisms of what is happening at Cairngorm (see here) it was inevitable that Natural Retreats would try and suggest that they are in fact doing lots to improve the skiing experience at Cairngorm and the article above duly appeared last week. While the work has been contracted for by Natural Retreats, who are therefore responsible for the quality of the work undertaken, almost all the work listed has in fact been paid for by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (see here). Indeed out of the £700k Natural Retreats claims to have spent on maintenance and improvement work this year, it appears £601,286 has been paid for by HIE. If this is right, it appears Natural Retreats has invested just £100k, which could easily be paid for out of £400k savings the accounts show they made the first year they owned Cairngorm Mountain Ltd.
The truth behind the spend on ski infrastructure listed in the article is as follows:
Replacement of West Wall poma return station – paid for by HIE grant – planning permission breached by Natural Retreats’ contractors
Strengthening Cas T-Bar Gantry – £73,377 paid for by HIE for all works associated with gantry – Natural Retreats had still not in mid-December properly restored the site (see here)
Installation new safety circuit cable – £315,641 paid for by HIE (electrical upgrades to surface uplift)
Replacement of motors and drives at Ridge poma, Car Park Tow and Polar express – unclear if this part of the electrical upgrades to surface uplift and therefore who paid
Installation of 4km new fencing – this is being paid for by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, cost unknown. The work however is not yet complete as implied in the article eg for photographic evidence showing West Wall poma uptrack fencing was not complete earlier this month (see here)
Removal of obsolete rope from Coire na Ciste chairlift – this is new, unclear who is paying
Installation of new haul rope for Polar Express – unclear who is paying for this
Completion re-instatement around Shieling rope tow and Cas Gantry – while the original works were paid for by HIE (£78,353 for Shieling ground works and £73,377 for Cas Gantry) I have submitted FOI request to HIE asking them to clarify if their payment included the costs of work undertaken by Natural Retreats without planning permission.
While I will submit a further FOI to HIE to try and clarify further what Natural Retreats has invested at Cairngorm, on the facts as presented by Janette Jansson it appears unlikely they are paying for all the items which were not clearly covered by the FOI request. Indeed there are other items, not referred to by Janette Jansson, such as replacement lift huts ,which we know HIE have paid for. I think it is safe to conclude therefore that almost all of the investment that is going on at Cairngorm is coming from the public purse.
What Janette Jansson has failed to answer is the questions I raised previously:
“Can HIE and Natural Retreats answer publicly, whether they can evidence:
a) each are investing sufficient monies at Cairngorm, in their own areas of responsibility, to prevent further deterioration of the ski infrastructure, and
b) whether the cuts in staffing which were evident in Cairngorm Mountain Ltd’s accounts the first year Natural Retreats took over, has had an impact on the progress that has been made in replacing fencing at Cairngorm and other aspects of maintenance of the ski infrastructure for which they are responsible.”
If Natural Retreats are contributing so little to Cairngorm – indeed they appear from the accounts to have been taking money out of it – the public interest question is why should the public and the politicians who represent us allow the HIE lease with Natural Retreats to continue?
I have been meaning for several months to blog about the Bruar hydro scheme but have been prompted to do so by recent praise from the Cairngorms National Park Authority’s for their own planning performance (see here). I am not disputing there may have been improvements in certain aspects of the National Park’s planning performance, but the real question is are these the things that matter? The evidence of what is going on at Cairngorm (see here) and Dinnet (see here), suggests otherwise. In this, the first of three posts, I hope to show why what has happened at Bruar should be of major public concern and another touchstone planning case that the CNPA needs to address.
I first became aware of the Bruar Hydro Scheme in May 2014 when I spotted the construction works from afar when out for a run over Beinn Dearg and surrounding hills. I did not think twice of it then, like most of the population I assumed hydro was “a good thing”. Having become aware of the hydro planning disaster in Glen Falloch (see here for example) I went to have a closer look at Glen Bruar on 27th August 2016 (and I give the date because it is just possible some effective restoration work has taken place since then).
The Bruar Water was already part of a hydro scheme, its waters being channelled 7km through the hill to the Allt Ghlas Choire above Dalnamein and from there eventually to the Errochty power station. The new Bruar Hydro Scheme involved raising the height of an existing dam above Bruar Lodge, construction of a pipeline to a new power station just above the SSE intake pictured above and then burial of a new power line to Calvine.
While the new powerline is over 10k, its impact on the landscape has been relatively slight because not that much material had to be excavated to dig the trench where it was laid. While a lack of care in construction is evident – the photo above suggests that the turf removed to dig the trench was not properly stored as the developer said they would – vegetation is recovering quite quickly and I suspect in another year or so the line of the powerline will not be obvious to the casual observer.
The impact of the hydro scheme on the landscape however changes totally from just south of the new power house to the dam.
I can find no reference to this bulldozed area in the planning application or Committee report. While it probably dates from the construction of the SSE hydro tunnel it has clearly been used as part of Bruar hydro construction (see piles of aggregate top photo from 2014) possibly as a spoil pit to source aggregates to upgrade the track.
The planning application described two storage areas for pipes, above the power station and at the dam. Broken sections of pipe have still not been cleared away 18 months after construction finished. The CNPA never agreed to a new dump in the planning application. Why is this still here?
Is this acceptable in a National Park? There appears to have been no attempt at restoration. Maybe the Estate is just hoping the river erodes away the flattened area completely but what about all the silt which is being washed into the river system?
In order to construct the powerhouse in this location, a significant amount of material had to be excavated. The planning statement suggested this should be re-used in track construction but one wonders if it might have been dumped by the SSE intake (see photo above)? The CNPA needs to find out, if it doesn’t know, who was responsible for digging and dumping what and then take appropriate action in public. The planning application stated that the amount of hardstanding around the powerhouse should be minimised – you can judge for yourself from the above photo whether this has been observed. The building itself though in in my view perfectly acceptable: our planners and developers appear much better at ensuring buildings are symathetic to the landscape than they are at looking after the land itself.
CNPA planning guidance on hydro (see here) states the number of stream crossing should be minimised. This was hard to do on a 4.5k pipeline and at least the colour of the pipe is not bright blue as in Glen Falloch. The poor standard of work is obvious at both the concrete pipe supports and the material on the left is already being eroded away into the burn: its unlikely to survive a spate.
The Planning Report approved by the CNPA suggested the construction should re-use old SSE spoil materials from their tunnel, not create new ones. This has had a significant adverse impact on the landscape, a landscape of grouse moors which at present the Park is committed to conserving. So why has this been allowed to happen? How is it compatible with National Park policy?
Its the construction of the pipeline however that has had the biggest impact, creating a 4.5km trail of destruction up Glen Bruar.
While I have been very critical of the Glen Falloch hydro schemes, some of which should never have been allowed, in general the restoration of the land around the pipeline has been done well – unlike the tracks there – and it will be very hard to see the line of the pipes in a couple of years (see here). I have never seen such terrible restoration of ground above a pipeline as in Glen Bruar.
And it goes on for 4.5km.
Boulders which were below the surface have been brought to the surface and left there so there is now a 30m wide trail through what was previously peat moorland. According to the method, which set out how the pipeline would be constructed, the vegetation and organic matter would first be removed and stored, the ditch then dug, the pipeline laid on and packed small aggregate (high pressure pipelines need to be well enclosed/supported and then the ground above restored to how it looked before. It did not envisage problems with doing this.
I corresponded with the CNPA about this in September and was sent (which I appreciated, I did not even have to ask under FOI) this reinstatement note from the Developer. Basically they claimed that the boulder trail resulted from the soil being unexpectedly shallow, that they now proposed to remove the boulders and use to shore up the river bank belong the dam and they would “rob turves” from elsewhere on the moor to cover up the mess. By coincidence this is exactly what Natural Retreats tried to do at the Cairngorm Shieling tow after they had failed to store vegetation properly (see here).
While on the steeper banks, as in the photo above, the organic material might have been shallow, if enough care had been taken it could still have been saved and replaced. However, the ecological assessment conducted as part of the planning application clearly stated most of the pipeline was through moorland and peat. If shallow organic matter was present, surely the ecological assessment should have identified this before work ever started?
I think the truth is, as this photo shows, is that there was a considerable depth of peat along much of the pipeline and that the developer did make some attempt to store it in places even though where they did so they did not always replace it. The bigger problems was that vegetation and organic matter appears not to have been stored at all, as had been promised in the Method Statement. The fundamental issue is the develop has ignored its own Method Statement and this is therefore another enforcement problem. It demonstrates why our National Parks and other planning authorities should NEVER trust developers to monitor their own work. All that happens without independent monitoring is that the construction companies take shortcuts and ignore what’s in the Method Statements. Where shallow soil was a problem, if it really was so shallow that no turves could be stored, any responsible developer would have contacted the National Park as soon as they discovered this to discuss alternatives. Atholl Estates as far as I am aware never did this.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the developers have breached their own method statement. Indeed, there is also lots of evidence of them failing to keep to deadlines: for example, in their “reinstatement note” the developers had said they would remove all the boulders by Spring/early summer 2016. There was no sign of this when I visited at the end of August.
The one area where there does appear to have been an attempt to keep organic matter separate from the soils beneath and restore the ground properly is around the intake dam.
The old dam here has been raised by c1m. The dam wall itself hardly impacts on the landscape, the new intake wall and structures are more prominent from the angle this photos was taken as are the Lomond blue outlets. However, when you are on the floor of the glen these aspects of the development are hardly visible and in landscape terms the intake is well positioned.
Its clear though that even round the dam the restoration is far from complete. Why has the ground to the right been restored with peat but that in the centre foreground left as it is? When the Park granted planning permission in July 2012 a condition was that all of this area should be hidden within a new area of native woodland which would hide it completely and that plans for this would be provided BEFORE any work started. The plans were provided by Atholl Estates in February this year AFTER all the other work had finished and they then committed to planting in the spring of 2016. The CNPA told me in September the contractor was about to commence work.
The rip rap bouldering along the edge of the river contrasts with the natural erosion of materials that has taken place on the far bank.
Why has this all happened?
While the issues are not limited to those I have illustrated above (and I will cover the enhanced and extended track in a separate post) I hope I have shown enough to show that the Bruar hydro scheme should be of concern to anyone who cares about our National Parks.
I have read almost all the documentation associated with the planning application (see here) and the Report to the CNPA planning committee (see here) which set out 22 conditions for the development to go ahead. While in retrospect there are probably some gaps in the documentation, for example the working site does not appear to have been clearly limited and this has allowed the developer to work in areas outwith that granted planning, the method statement appears to me generally acceptable apart from the question of whether the soil above the pipeline could be restored. In my view, apart from this issue, the development was probably justifiable, even though in a remote of the National Park, because as the Committee report stated there was already a track up the glen, already a dam in place and already other hydro infrastructure as well as Bruar Lodge. If the work had been done to the highest standard there would have been relatively little impact.
If the soil was too shallow and the boulder scar an inevitable consequence of the works (which there is reason to doubt) in my view the development should not have gone ahead or else the CNPA should have required a proper tunnel linking the power house and dam, a distance of 4.5k. The tunnel connecting Bruar Water with the Allt Choire Glas is at least 7k and that was done I believe over 50 years ago so. What was good enough then should be good enough for a National Park now.
The failures of the National Park have come at the implementation stage through a lack of monitoring and enforcement. Our Planning Authorities to be taken seriously need to take action as soon as planning conditions were breached: in the Bruar case work started before all the required paperwork was in place. The CNPA should have put a halt to it there and then. They might then have been taken seriously. Instead, there is now a major problem, a long glen in the National Park has been seriously scarred for over 5k (not just the length of the pipeline but the areas beyond).
Ten days ago I raised question about how much Natural Retreats is actually investing at Cairngorm (see here). The question of who is responsible for investing what at Cairngorm is complicated and not easy to see from the lease between Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Natural Retreats (I am working on it). This FOI response does show what HIE spent between Natural Retreats taking over and August 2016 (a total of £750,275) but what is not in the public realm at present is planned planned future investment, either by HIE or by Natural Retreats. Whatever the exact division of responsibilities, the latest photos from Cairngorm show its not working.
The Coire Cas T-bar Gantry
Emergency works were agreed to the Coire Cas T-Bar Gantry over a year ago to prevent its collapse before the ski season (a legacy of underinvestment). Highland Council agreed these could go ahead without planning permission because it was an emergency and the associated works on the track and embankment were described as “de minimis”. HIE paid £73,377 of public money to Natural Retreats as follows:
t/ ALL WORKS associated with the Cas Gantry, including Groundworks, Surveying, Tendering and Mechanical Installation.
Its not clear from this if the £73,377 just covered the works to the gantry, as illustrated in the photos above, or whether it also included the reprofiling of the bank and widening of the track to the south. What the photos show though is that none of the work has been completely properly or to the standard one should expect in a National Park.
What we don’t know is if the £73,377 was insufficient to complete the works or whether Natural Retreats has not completed all the works it was supposed to do. Either way, HIE should have taken action months ago to ensure the works were completed properly. What the failures at the Cas Gantry also demonstrate is that the planning authorities, whether Highland Council for supposed minor works or the Cairngorms National Park Authority, should not be agreeing to such works going ahead without planning permission. It means they have deprived themselves of planning enforcement powers which could be used to force Natural Retreats/HIE to spend whatever is needed to complete this work properly. Both could still call though for HIE/Natural Retreats to repair the damage under the agreements they made in the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy.
The West Wall poma
HIE paid a further £75,612 of public money to Natural Retreats for:
“u/ ALL WORKS associated with the proposed extention and fixed return bull-wheel installation, including all submitted contractors and supplier’s costs for total realization of this Project.
While the work from a distance appears better finished than the Cas Gantry, you can see the damage that has been created by the use of tracked vehicles in the foreground. Highland Council has still not responded to complaints about Natural Retreats’ failure to ensure their contractors adhered to the conditions set out in the Method Statement.
The new return wheel contrasts with the bottom of the West Wall poma which is falling to bits.
I am not clear whose responsibility this is, HIE who is responsible for paying for major works on the infrastructure, or Natural Retreats who are responsible for more day to day maintenance. The position as I understand it is further complicated because the lease refers to a schedule of delapidations which was to be agreed before the entry date but which is not yet, as far as I am aware, in the public realm.
While HIE had paid £12,626 to Natural Reteats by the end of August for “Replacement Lift Huts” this appears not to have covered the lifty hut at the West Wall poma which is falling to bits:
Neither does it appear to have included the White Lady ski Hut which is in an even worse condition.
What does seem clear from the FOI and lease is that Natural Retreats are responsible for replacing the snow fencing at Cairngorm (which was generally in a terrible state). Back in August Natural Retreats said this about the progress on new fencing along the M2 and West Wall poma uptrack:
The weather has been fantastic this week on Cairngorm Mountain and the fencing team have been making amazing progress on the M2 and the West Wall Poma uptrack.Ops team.
The West Wall pomoa uptrack fencing has been worked on sporadically over the last two summers but is nowhere close to completion and obviously needs doing. Did HIE set Natural Retreats any deadline for the completion of these works?
In fact Natural Retreats has now been working on replacement fencing across Cairngorm for over two years and its far from complete.
What needs to happen
Given the evidence of the photos above, I believe it would be in the public interest for HIE and Natural Retreats to answer publicly, whether they can evidence:
a) each are investing sufficient monies at Cairngorm, in their own areas of responsibility, to prevent further deterioration of the ski infrastructure, and
b) the cuts in staffing which were evident in Cairngorm Mountain Ltd’s accounts the first year Natural Retreats took over, has had an impact on the progress that has been made in replacing fencing at Cairngorm and other aspects of maintenance of the ski infrastructure for which they are responsible.
Its time too the Cairngorms National Park Authority started to ask for answers to the same questions and to make it clear to HIE and Natural Retreats that it expects the highest possible standards at Cairngorm and will do everything in its power to see this happens.
On Tuesday I learned from one of the good folk at the North East Mountain Trust that a helicopter had been seen at Cairngorm carrying the sandbags, which had been sitting in Coire na Ciste, into the area by the Shieling Rope tow area. Last night I was sent some photos. Its not clear to me what the sandbags are for (whether they are intended as a dam or are simply being stored) or who paid for them to be brought here – but it was by helicopter!
That’s how it used to be done when our public authorities cared more about what happened at Cairngorm. If sandbags can still be brought in by helicopter then so could all the materials for new fencing and for upgrading the lifts. What that shows is there is NO need for the unlawful track that Natural Retreats has created, and which it claims is necessary for maintenance purposes (see here). If it was the CNPA or Highlands and Islands Enterprise which required the sandbags to be brought in by helicopter they should be congratulated for acting at long last. If the heli-lift was organised by another party, HIE and CNPA should take note and insist on such methods, which avoid damage to vegetation, being used for all future works. Whatever the case there is no reason now for the CNPA not to reject the restrospective application for planning permission for the track and they should then start to turn their attention to how the damaged ground can be repaired and enhanced.
While its possible Natural Retreats organised the helicopter on its own initiative, there was plenty of evidence on Wednesday from elsewhere on the hill that basic standards are still being ignored.
The fuel bowser is still on the west wall poma site despite the Method Statement in the planning application saying it would be stored at the Ptarmigan Garage. Highland Council, who approved this planning application, would still appear not to have taken any enforcement action.
The line of the ditch for the new cabling that was laid beside the car park t-bar has been turned into a new track by constant use. There has been NO planning applications that I am aware of to create a new track here and of the justifications in the retrospective application for the shieling track was to enable vehicles to access the area from above without damaging vegetation lower down. Natural Retreats staff are clearly driving their vehicles anywhere without any controls and HIE and the CNPA need to stop this and ensure the damage is repaired.
The open ditch for the cables at the bottom of the Fiacaill Poma that I saw back on my first visit to Cairngorm in June is still there! Another illustration of Natural Retreats incompetence.
HIE should terminate their lease with Natural Retreats at Cairngorm. Unfortunately the environmental provisions in the lease are pathetic and the other clauses not much better. This was illustrated by a story this week in the Press and Journal under the banner “Tourism goldmine being lost” about the limited opening hours of visitor attractions in the Highlands. The article mentioned Cairngorm Ski resort which it said is open 9am – 4pm throughout the year. Now the P and J may have made a journalistic or printing error, but the HIE lease with Natural Retreats requires (Clause 4a) that catering facilities at Cairngorm should be open 9-5pm in summer and 9-4pm in winter. So, is this another example of Natural Retreats simply ignoring the terms of their lease?
While HIE’s Cairngorm Mountain has never been a goldmine – a publicly financed bank would be a much closer analogy, with investment in the wrong things and with Natural Retreats siphoning public money out of the area – the tourist offering at Cairngorm, as the article suggests, is not good. While catering is a tiny part of this, as an example of the tourism failure in winter there are dozens of climbers returning from the northern corries after 4pm who cannot even get a cup of tea.
The questions that HIE should answer publicly about the Cairngorm ski resort are not just why its record on the environment is so appalling but why it cannot even get basic services right for visitors and how it ever appointed such an incompetent organisation to run the ski resort. Whether or not they are ever brought to account for their record, the answers to the problems at Cairngorm lie in transferring the land back to the Forestry Commission and transferring management of the ski area from Natural Retreats to a community based enterprise.
The CNPA planning committee is today but there is NOTHING on the agenda on the retrospective application for the Shieling Hill track or other works which Natural Retreats undertook without planning permission(see here). The deadline for determining the planning application was 6th October so I thought it might appear but the CNPA planning portal still does say whether the application will be decided by Committee or not. Committee Members should ask officers what is going on.
Meantime, here’s some more evidence for them to consider. Thanks to a reader for some photos of the bank which was “reprofiled” by Natural Retreats without planning permission and which they have since claimed makes the area look more natural. The latest photos show the revegetation referred to by the ecology adviser does not look quite so impressive from other angles.
The bank below the Shieling rope tow 19th October 2016
The lack of vegetation compared to what was there previously is obvious. More evidence that Natural Retreats did not store or re-use most, if any, of the vegetation whch covered the old bank before they destroyed it in order to obtain material to raise up the bottom pylon of the shieling rope tow.
I was on the hill yesterday with a civil engineer who had been involved in construction of the funicular. Not only was all the vegetation stored but each layer of soil was stored separately (in bags) and replaced in the right order. The people involved made sure everything was done properly because they knew if not the then planning authority would have landed on them like a ton of bricks. Everything they did was scrutinised. The problem with the Shieling rope tow was not so much in the original planning – the Method Statement setting out the proposed construction techniques said most of the right things (its quite easy of course to pay consultants to write down all the things that should happen) – it was the complete lack of monitoring by HIE and a lack of will on the part of CNPA to take enforcement action as soon as they were informed of what was going on.
Unfortunately, our National Parks are not alone in failing to enforce Method Statements. The consequence has been that its common across Scotland for Method Statements, which tick all the boxes in terms of setting out good practice, to be ignored in practice. Our National Parks should be doing better. The current silence from the CNPA about the Shieling Hill track suggests they are simply hoping the matter will go away.
On 11th October Natural Retreats posted this photo on the behind the scenes section of the Cairngorm Mountain blog. The caption above it read:
The West Wall Poma project is progressing well, with the steel work installation scheduled to commence on Monday 17th of October. The picture below shows a 20 tonne excavator which has been instrumental in most of the excavations, ground works and lifting and positioning equipment. In this image you can see the driver creating a path of pads for travelling over the route to Tower 16.
Has good practice now arrived at Cairngorm? Its too early to say, but I suspect excavator creating its own board walk was done for the cameras judging by the evidence from the Ptarmigan webcam just a few days earlier (see here). You only have to scroll down to the previous post, dated 7th September, to see how Natural Retreats operates for most of the time.
The caption to this read “Below you can see a digger starting work on the initial trench that that (sic) cable will go into. This ground will be fully reinstated once the entire cable is laid.”
What you can see clearly in the photo is how use by vehicles (which are not supposed to drive here), including the digger, have eroded the ground vegetation and created tracks prior to the cable trench being dug. The ground could never be fully reinstated as Natural Retreats as claimed in their photo caption because their vehicles had already destroyed much of it.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise, are not just the landowners, they are funding much of this farce. Dave Morris had a letter in the Herald on Friday (see here) about HIE which included this paragraph on HIE’s ownership of Cairngorm:
In 1971 a disastrous decision by the UK Government led to the transfer of nearly 1,500 hectares of the upper slopes of Glenmore National Forest Park from Forestry Commission ownership to Highlands and Islands Development Board, the HIE predecessor body. Today the First Minister can see the result of so-called stewardship of this iconic tract of land by HIDB/HIE – abandoned ski tows and chairlifts, derelict and decaying buildings, collapsed and rotting snow fences and zero possibility that her public agency knows how to plan for the future. The economic heart of our largest national park continues its downhill spiral. Ms Sturgeon needs only a brief exposure to HIE’s incompetence in mountain land management to realise this land must be returned to the Forestry Commission (FC) as soon as possible. We need integrated planning and operations, from the lowest to the highest slopes of Cairn Gorm, by the public body which has been managing land in the Cairngorms since 1923; even better if the FC can also establish a community development trust to involve local and national stakeholders in its management of the whole Forest Park.
With the Government currently reviewing the role of HIE it could, if it had the political will, put a stop to the destruction at Cairngorm in a twinkling as Natural Retreats have shown they won’t do anything without public funding.
The planning permission granted for the four Glen Falloch hydro schemes in 2010 agreed to some permanent new (short) tracks along the bottom of the glen to the powerhouses, some widening of existing tracks but stipulated that the tracks to the intake dams required for construction purposes were to be temporary. Once work was completed they were to be restored, just like the land over the pipelines and access to the intakes was to be argocat on “green tracks”. This position was agreed by the Board at the time (which had rejected an early application for hydro in Glen Falloch back in 2003 because of the visual impact) and later endorsed in the LLTNPA’s “award winning” Supplementary Planning Guidance on Renewables which stated:
It is expected that any access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored unless there is an overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development.
I could not work out from the original planning documentation (reference 2009/0249/ECN if you want to track this down at http://eplanning.lochlomond-trossachs.org/OnlinePlanning/?agree=0) why the tracks were still there. Then last week when the LLTNPA responded (see here) to some questions I had asked about the Glen Falloch schemes including the bright blue pipes. This showed a further four planning applications had been made to the LLTNPA between 2012 and 2015 to make ALL the temporary tracks permanent. All were agreed by officers under delegated authority and did not go to Committee. Given the history of the planning applications and the LLTNPA’s clear policy on hill tracks and renewables, that the LLTNPA Board has allowed staff to reverse their previous decisions appears to me totally wrong. A dereliction of the National Park’s duty to protect the landscape.
The first of the tracks to be approved was the Allt Fionn back in 2012. Originally the estate had wanted a permanent access track but the Committee report that recommended the Scottish Government approve the proposal in 2009 stated ” As a result of the pre-application process it has been agreed that the proposed access track to the intake will now be temporary rather than permanent.” It did not take long for Falloch Estates to get this decision reversed. The reason staff gave for approving this in their delegated report was:
As the proposed track is not just to service the intake, but also for estate/land management purposes which will be for the benefit of the estate as a whole, it is considered that the retention of this track is justified
Note that the decision is justified as being for the benefit of the estate, for the landowner, not the public interest or the landscape. This reasoning, about the needs of the estate, was repeated in the three other delegated reports in which officers agreed that all the temporary access tracks should become permanent. Now the LLTNPA has a very clear policy on this set out in its SPG-Renewables-final:
It is expected that any access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored unless there is an overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development.
The LLTNPA officers in my view totally failed to present an overwhelming need for these tracks given their impact on the landscape. While the LLTNPA has ignored its own policy, what is worse is there appears no-one in the National Park prepared to stand up for the landscape in the face of developers.
Evidence of this lack of care for landscape can be found throughout the reports that approved the tracks. For example, while the Allt Fionn report notes that the Falloch Estate had constructed “storage” by the Allt Fionn dam without planning permission, there is no consideration of whether this should be retained. The hill goer might have thought the need for a store would disappear with a permanent track, after all there is none by any of the other dams, but its still there.
The failure of the LLTNPA to protect the landscape of Glen Falloch is further demonstrated by the way the reports on all four schemes deal with wild land values. Again the LLTNPA has an apparently strong policy position on this in their Renewables Guidance:
“priority will be given to protecting these core areas of wild land character. These areas will therefore be safeguarded from development which may detract from their relative wildness.”
It is likely that a permanent track will erode the perception of wildness of this open hill slope; in particular the upper section in core wildness area and the point at which the track approaches the intake and the upper glen where there is intervisibility with Ben Dubcraig. Here the perception of wildness is more apparent and any extensive or adverse development will add to the cumulative impacts of the Glen Falloch schemes.
Officers used this argument to approve the track:
The track to intake 2 will enter core wild land, however due to the erosion from argo tracks already evident, it would be preferable to have one small well-designed and integrated stone track to service the intake, rather than increase the environmental damage more widely across the hillside.
This argument is shown to be false by the evidence on the ground.
The approval of the hill tracks have done nothing to reduce environmental damage across the hillside. If the National Park is serious about this it could introduce a byelaw to prohibit the use of four wheeled vehicles in areas of core wild land but the reality is it does whatever estates asks. While the Eas Eonan track is the only one to enter a designated area of core wild land, all the other tracks enter buffer areas – again this counts for nothing.
I argued in my first post on the Glen Falloch schemes (see here) that the Ben Glas scheme should never have been allowed because of its wild land qualities and later on that restoration is a myth (see here).
There was an existing track to the Ben Glas burn and the original proposal was that this would be used to access the dams.
At the end of 2015 however officers agreed that the temporary access track should become permanent. This has created a much bigger scar across the landscape.
A further effect of this decision is that there will be now be TWO tracks that cross the hillside to the Ben Glas burn. If the LLTNPA cared even an iota about the landscape they might have insisted the original track, which should now be redundant, was restored but they have said nothing.
So what can be done?
All the tracks in Glen Falloch were financed with public money through the extremely generous subsidies that existed till about a month ago for renewable energy developments. The Falloch Estate is making large sums of money from their hydro schemes (about which more in due course), enough money to employ more staff who could have occasionally walked up to the hydro intakes to clear them after storms or to hire the occasional helicopter. These hill tracks were not necessary, which is why the original planning permission required them to be temporary. LLTNPA staff, however, have simply accepted every argument the estate has made, another failure of National Parks to stand up to landowners.
What is worse though is the National Park appears to have extracted not a single improvement or planning gain from the estates in return for approving these tracks. I will address some of the poor construction and design of the Falloch Hydro tracks in a future post (there is plenty of evidence that the LLTNPA has failed to implement its own good practice guidance) but to me it seems the LLTNPA has lost a real opportunity. The impact of a number of these tracks – not all – would disappear if woodland regeneration was allowed to take place. The Upper Glen Falloch track starts just by the Glen Falloch native pinewood, the southernmost remnant in Scotland and long threatened by overgrazing. What an opportunity to allow this pinewood to extend – particularly when all the trackwork has created new mineral soils – but instead the LLTNPA is allowing the state to graze cattle as before which is destroying much of the restoration work. I despair at the lack of any vision.
Ultimate responsibility for the terrible decision-making on the Glen Falloch tracks lies not with the poor planner who drafted the reports but with the senior management who approved them and with the Board who have allowed this to happen. Perhaps they could now take a lead on this, not least to demonstrate that they will not simply roll-over when it comes to pressure from Flamingo Land.
Two weeks ago the Cairngorms National Park Authority added responses from their ecology adviser (see here) and landscape adviser (see here) to the retrospective planning application from Natural Retreats for the hill track at Cairngorm (see here). While welcoming the transparency of the CNPA in making these public at an early stage (which has given the public a chance to comment) I believe the content of these assessments are not worthy of a National Park.
The Landscape Adviser has no comments to make about most of the unlawful works undertaken by Natural Retreats, such as the reprofiling of banks or the dumping of boulders or the poor quality of the finishing.
The Landscape Adviser’s main comment concerns the track itself:
Within the ski area, on land previously integrated in the infrastructure of skiing, this track is acceptable as part of the landscape. The track in question consists of a short stretch, level with surrounding ground and vegetated with initial grass growth which will provide organic matter and
prevent erosion of the track. Addition of drainage channels will further prevent erosion.
This is factually wrong and the thinking dangerous. The track is not a short stretch, its several hundred metres long. The angle of the top half of the track is 12 degrees, compared to the maximum angle of 8 degrees recommended by Scottish Natural Heritage to prevent erosion (see Alan Mackay’s excellent critique of the retrospective planning application in which he went out and measured the angle of the track! Its essential reading for anyone concerned about this and should be read by all Board Members on the Park’s Planning Committee). The Landscape report contains no consideration of the implications of installing “access tracks” alongside all the ski tows in Scotland – the cumulative impact would be considerable. The tracks are also completely unnecessary. CNPA staff seem totally unaware of the publication “Environmental design and management of ski areas in Scotland: a practical handbook” which showed tracks were unnecessary back in 1987. Nothing has changed except our Public Authorities are no longer prepared, it seems, to enforce basic environmental standards.
The Ecology assessment is also wrong on several points. In commenting on the re-profiled bank below the tow the assessment claims:
Re-grading has taken place at the bottom end of the track which has reduced the steepness of the slope, reducing erosion in this area. This slope is revegetating well.
This is wrong, there was no erosion previously as this photo from Alan Mackay’s response shows:
The ecology assessment further states:
The restoration works associated with the ski tow construction appear to be going well, won heather turves have been replaced on disturbed ground and bare areas seeded
No mention here that Natural Retreats was supposed to store all vegetation on terram matting and then replace it so there should have been no need to “win” vegetation from anywhere else. The need for re-seeding should have been minimal but in fact has been required over large areas. The Ecological Assessment makes no mention or comment on this.
Its hard to see how converting a slope from heather to grass can have no ecological impact and the ecological assessment furthermore fails to refer to the extent of the unlawful works.
The assessment also wrongly claims “There is evidence of erosion on the new path which occurred during the late December 2015 storms.” The track – its not a path, another piece of misinformation – has eroded several times already. So, who told the ecology adviser this only happened once back in December? The hill track is too steep but the ecology adviser, like the landscape adviser, appears unaware of the SNH guidance on hill track construction.
The truth is that the CNPA’s ecological assessment of the hill track and associated works is nothing of the sort. A proper ecological assessment would have looked at the extent of the damage, the impact of the failure to restore vegetation (yes it will recover eventually but how long will this now take?), the impact of the hydrology of the area, including more rapid water run-off, and the impact on wildlife. The assessment does not even refer to the impact the works may have had on the water vole in the area, let alone other wildlife (see the response of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group for the potential impact of works on wildlife).
The one positive suggestion in the assessment is that “there is a good opportunity to plant Dwarf Willow, Birch and Scots Pine on the re-graded bank” but why only here? As I have argued previously, one way to compensate for the extensive destruction would be for the CNPA to require Natural Retreats to employ a properly qualified contractor to plant montane scrub across the area.
I suspect responsibility for the sub-standard quality of these assessments does not lie with the staff concerned but somewhere above them in the management chain. To put it bluntly, the staff concerned have been told to tick a box. The CNPA was first made aware of the unlawful works at Cairngorm on 4th September 2015 (I have seen the emails) and did nothing to intervene and stop Natural Retreats destroying vegetation and soils outwith the area granted planning permission. They subsequently failed to do anything substantive for over 10 months but, after being forced to admit a retrospective planning application was required, it appears that staff are doing everything they can to ensure this is approved. This behaviour is not worthy of a National Park. It provides further evidence that there must be other things going on which explain why the CNPA is allowing Natural Retreats to do what it likes at Cairngorm.
What needs to happen to ascertain the extent of the damage and its impact on Cairngorm
The argument that the CNPA should require Natural Retreats to pay for an independent ecological and landscape assessment is even stronger now that the National Park has shown it is incapable of doing this properly. Such an assessment should detail ALL the damage that has been caused at Cairngorm – not just the areas granted planning permission – and the options for restoration of the ground and vegetation.
Any proper assessment should be informed by the guidance contained in the following documents:
The past vegetation surveys that have taken place at Cairngorm (I asked Highlands and Islands Enterprise for copies of these under FOI but they have told me all surveys since the construction of the funicular are held by Cairngorm Mountain! Why didn’t the CNPA landscape adviser ask for a copy?)
SNH’s Guidance on the construction of hill tracks
“Environmental design and management of ski areas in Scotland: a practical handbook”
I walked over Morrone from Corriemulizie by Braemar last Monday on a showery day. What I saw got me thinking about what the draft Cairngorms Partnership Plan said about paths and tracks. The public consultation on this ended officially this weekend but people can continue to influence this.
The plan says nothing about the state of hill tracks in the mountains in the National Park, although we know this of concern to the Cairngorms National Park Authority because their planning committee has agreed some (limited) action to ensure new hill tracks meet minimum standards, most recently on the Dinnet Estate. There is nothing however in the Plan about the potential to reduce the visual impact of existing hill tracks. Whereas 20 years ago there was a recognition serious mistakes had been made in constructing tracks into our mountains, which led to the programme of track removal by the National Trust for Scotland on Mar Lodge, the issue now appears to have disappeared from the National Park’s agenda. The arguments for action are I believe as strong now as they were then.
Standards of construction continue to be very poor. Behind the now useless drainage pipe, on the col below Morrone, you can see where material from the tracks has washed out over the moor.
Descending Morrone to Braemar the top section of the hill path has turned into a broad erosion scar whose visual impact is as great as the hill track. Unlike hill tracks though at least there is a programme to improve the condition of hill paths in the National Park through the Mountains and People Project.
There are well tested techniques that can fix this type of erosion scar, which involve creating a better surface for walking, restoration of vegetation and designing the path so people do not walk across the vegetation in future. You can see the outcome of such techniques lower down the hill where path repair work has been undertaken.
Unfortunately, the CNPA draft Partnership Plan, while supportive the Mountains for People project, does not appear to accept that the state of our hills paths should be a core responsibility of the National Park. There is NO analysis of the state of the path network in the hills or of how much investment is needed to bring them up to and maintain them in an acceptable condition. Now, I am delighted that the Cairngorms Outdoor Access Trust has got funds to repair hill paths through the Mountains and People Project but, to take the Morrone example, its unclear if this is part of the programme (I could not find a list of the hills included on the COAT, Mountains for People or CNPA websites).
And that’s the point, the National Park should have an inventory of all the eroded paths in the National Park and a plan of how it will address these. This, along with its failure to have any plan to reduce the visual impact of hill tracks, is I believe a major omission from the draft Partnership Plan. Without such a plan, there is a real risk is that the people being trained up through the Mountains and People project will have no jobs to go to – there needs to be a long-term vision and programme to sustain jobs. Part of this could include estates being required to use the expertise of the Cairngorms Outdoor Access Trust and its small workforce to repair all the damage that has been caused through the bulldozing of hill tracks. There is a real opportunity here for our National Parks to take a lead and demonstrate best practice and I hope the CNPA take up this challenge in the final version of the Partnership Plan.
As part of its programme to upgrade the cabling at Cairngorm, funded by Highlands and Enterprise, Natural Retreats started work on the Coire na Ciste t-bar late August/September (see here for the earlier work on cabling of the car park tow). Now this work did not require planning permission because Highland Council had judged it, like the carpark t-bar upgrade, as ancillary to an existing development. HOWEVER, thanks to a Freedom of Information request from George Paton, we know what Murray Ferguson, Head of Conservation and Planning at the CNPA told Natural Retreats back in July.
You will notice Murray Ferguson told Natural Retreats they needed to set out their procedures for doing ground works which would involving marking out the site, storing turf and storing spoil on terram matting. While you can see some turves in Natural Retreats photo, their own evidence shows that they have completely ignored all the CNPA’s other recommendations.
What’s happening here is that because Natural Retreats – and by implication Highlands and Islands Enterprise who are funding all of this – know that planning permission is not required they believe the CNPA is absolutely helpless to do anything about this mismanagement.
However, even where planning permission is required, Natural Retreats still ignore the rules. The replacement of the top return station of the West Wall Poma did require planning permission but this was decided by Highland Council because the CNPA did not see any implications for the National Park. Back in June though Natural Retreats sent a detailed 13 page Trial Pit Report to the CNPA by a company called ADAC structures about the foundations for the new structure. The photograph below illustrates they appear to have done a good job.
Contrast this though with the photos that appeared on 9th September on Cairngorm Mountain website when the main work had started – no ground protection at all!
The photo on the left shows that the preventive measures taken by ADAC have simply been abandoned
The Highland Council, CNPA and HIE must have seen this, its on the Cairngorm website, so why no action? For the avoidance of doubt this is totally contrary to the Method Statement approved by Highlands council which again specified the use of terram matting (15_01000_ful-method_statement-791596-west-wall-tow). There was a CNPA planning committee meeting on Friday with an agenda item “update at Cairngorm” by Gavin Miles Head of Planning. I do hope he made the Committee aware of all of this and they agreed an action plan.
Meantime, the consultation on the retrospective planning application for a hill track in Coire Cas is still open and I was interested to see that two responses in support of the track have been submitted by people purporting to be members of the public (see here and here). Iain Cornfoot, works at Cairngorm and is second in command of outside operations in winter – he is therefore part of the Natural Retreats management team. His brother, Jim Cornfoot, is the land manager at Cairngorm Mountain, the person with first line management responsibility for all the destruction and failures to do works in accordance with planning requirements and good practice. While I can understand him coming to the defence of his brother he should not have portrayed himself as a member of the public. Iain Cornfoot’s response argues that tracks are needed for efficiency – the implication, if true, is Natural Retreats intend to create new tracks by every ski tow in the area – and says “some of their wacky ideas for alternatives to this track have amused me greatly”. Actually most of the arguments to planning have said that since Cairngorm Mountain has managed up to now without tracks it could do so in future. I can only assume by “wacky ideas” Iain Cornfoot is referring to the suggestions that the CNPA should require tree planting as compensation for all the destruction carried out under his brother’s upervision. Iain seems totally unaware that the CNPA has a montane scrub strategy – he presumably thinks that is wacky too.
The other member of staff’s response is factually what one might term a pile of mince. For example he claims:
Last summers weather was horrendous and condition extremely difficult to landscape in. I think
that the objectors should be mindful of this issue as many do not understand the difficulties of
landscaping in such conditions.
Thanks to some research from Alan Mackay the facts are:
Met Office north of Scotland climate area data shows August having just under average rainfall (98% – but drier towards North and East of Scotland). By mid August fairly limited ground works along the line of the old tow track had been carried out.
Met Office north of Scotland climate area data shows September and October as being unusually dry months. September having only 37% of the long term average rainfall and October 47%.
Moreover, Natural Retreats Method Statement, agreed with CNPA and HIE, did not allow work to take place in wet conditions
No credibility should be given to any statements and claims by staff from Natural Retreats without independent verification. I am afraid that the Management of Natural Retreats and their staff at Cairngorm are totally out of control and will claim anything to justify the destruction they are causing.
Meantime, the deafening silence from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which has responsibility for the site and lease and is funding this destruction continues. Its time our politicians and Board Members of the CNPA got a grip of the situation.
Thanks to Alan Mackay for this photo, taken on Monday 4th September, which shows the new hill track by the shieling rope tow. Its doesn’t look too bad does it unless you appreciate that the track has been spruced up to impress the planners – if you look carefully you can see the right line of the track is eroding, the third time this has happened since the track was put in.
I am delighted that a number of well reasoned objectives to the retrospective planning application have been submitted including from local people, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the North East Mountain Trust among others. Rather confusingly they are not included under the comments section of the planning application but under “documents” (see here) but are worth reading. I particularly liked this one, which happens to be from furth of Scotland, because the respondent does not mince her words:
A company who flagrantly ignores original planning laws should not be able to apply in retrospect when the damage has already been done. They need to be stopped (not just fined, as a fine is peanuts to a large company and acts as no deterrent to them or any other company/organisation in the future). The only way to stop such environmental damage is to ignore their planning application as being too late, insist that the damage is put right (by very harsh fines or even enforced closure of the company at a time that will hit their purse and profits). Finally this way some of the companies who flout planning laws and the environment will start to listen. If you fail to act, then expect the destruction of the very countryside which draws in money and tourism to the area (kill the golden goose and you will kill the golden eggs it lays for your economy).
As I have said elsewhere, the failure of the CNPA to use its planning enforcement powers is bringing the whole planning system in the Park into disrepute. The key long-term issue is that if the CNPA accept this planning application, rather than requiring the track to be removed, this sets a precedent for new tracks being created alongside every ski lift within the ski area. The CNPA will have no grounds then to refuse any further planning applications that follow, whether retrospective or not. I have asked Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the owners of the land, for all the information they hold about the need or plans to cover Cairngorm with more tracks. If they don’t hold information on the need for hill tracks, this will help demonstrate the current application is unjustifiable but if they do, this will indicate they have a secret agenda at Cairngorm.
The wider problem is there appears to be NO proper plan to manage the Cairngorm ski area from a recreational and environmental perspective. This is illustrated by both the evidence on the ground and paperwork.
The latest evidence on the ground
Cas Gantry 5th September Photo Credit Alan Mackay
While Natural Retreats has been busy sprucing up the shieling ski track for the planners, they have done nothing about the bullodozed stones and soil at the Cas Gantry which sits just above the top of this slope and been there for months. The reason why? Highland Council stated that this did not need planning permission because it was part of emergency works last year to make the gantry safe. The Cairngorms National Park Authority Planners appear to have accepted this BUT if so they have their head in the sand. The CNPA is also responsible for the conservation of the area, whether particular earthworks are deemed to require planning permission or not. And unless the CNPA can force Natural Retreats to abide by planning requirements its going to have NO ability to prevent any of the other destruction that is going on at Cairngorm.
The remains of the old gantry that Natural Retreats has simply cut off rather than removing properly – everywhere you look there is evidence to disprove Natural Retreats claims to be undertaking high quality re-instatement work. Photo Credit Alan Mackay 5th September
There are a number of mechanisms in place or being developed that in theory should have been able to prevent the destruction that is going on at Cairngorm. The problem is that all so far are deficient. This is a major problem for the National Park and a key reason why ownership of the land at Cairngorm needs to be transferred from Highlands and Islands Entrerprise to Forestry Commission Scotland.
Earlier this year the Cairngorms National Park Authority consulted on a plan for Cairngorm and Glenmore which said nothing meaningful about future plans for the Cairngorm ski area because Natural Retreats had not supplied them with the necessary information. There is still as far as I know NO plan for Cairngorm. This plan would be the right place to set out an overall vision for the ski area which included both upgrades to the ski infrastructure but also how the adverse landscape impacts from the past could be mitigated (from removal of all the abandoned rubbish to planting of montane scrub to screen some of the infrastructure and improve the recreational experience).
The other documentation which relates to the care of the natural environment at Cairngorm consists of the lease between HIE and Natural Retreats and Natural Retreats’ Environment Management System. The current lease includes the Visitor Management Plan which was developed to enable the funicular to go ahead but that is about the only environmental provision. While all the land in the Cairngorm ski area is included in the definition of the “Premises”, almost all the clauses about the premises are about buildings and infrastructure and how this will be paid for. There are no specific clauses about protecting or restoring ground vegetation or wildlife and while there are some very general clauses its hard to see how HIE might invoke them to stop the destruction at Cairngorm. To put it another way, HIE’s contractual relationship with Natural Retreats has allowed this destruction to happen and HIE bear responsibility for this. The fact they have done nothing to remedy this deficiency – their negligence – is evidence that they are not fit to manage Cairngorm.
Natural Retreats’ Environmental Management system is one of the those bits of paperwork that enables boxes to be ticked but avoids the main issue. There is nothing in it about how the land at Cairngorm will be managed. Nothing to indicate if their management of the ground and external environment was better or worse than what has gone before. Instead, like the lease, it is buildings focussed ( a necessary but minor part of the issue at Cairngorm).
Their Environment Policy demonstrates this clearly:
To minimise environmental impacts concerning our activities, products and services, we shall:
Comply with applicable legal requirements and other requirements to which the Company subscribes which relate to its environmental aspects
Prevent pollution, reduce waste and minimise the consumption of resources
Educate, train and motivate employees to carry out tasks in an environmentally responsible manner
Apply the principles of continuous improvement in respect of air, water, noise and light pollution from ourpremises and reduce any impacts from our operations on the environment and local community
Encourage environmental protection among suppliers and subcontractors
As far as possible purchase products and services that do the least damage to the environment and encourage others to do the same
Assess the environmental impact of any new processes or products we intend to introduce in advance.
About the only part of this they have breached in relation to all the destruction of the external environment is the requirement to educate employees to undertaken tasks in an environmentally responsible manner.
What needs to happen
I believe the evidence and paperwork shows neither HIE nor Natural Retreats are fit to manage Cairngorm. What needs to happen is the CNPA needs to use all the powers available to it to stop the destruction at Cairngorm and develop a proper plan but I doubt this can be effective until Scottish Ministers transfer the land from HIE to FCS and the lease with Natural Retreats is terminated. Instead I would like to see a community led business appointed to run the Cairngorm Ski Area.