Tag: Scottish Government

January 15, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Firkin Point camping Zone A March 2016 soon after the byelaws came into force – it was little better last week – hence the comment from Euan McIlraith “you would not camp there if you had the choice”

If you have not heard it, most of Saturday’s episode of BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme (see here) was devoted to Scotland’s access legislation as it approaches its fifteenth anniversary.    If you want to understand the amazing story of how our access rights were secured – and in this case “our” really does mean our, as anyone who ever steps foot in Scotland has those rights and they apply to everyone, from the homeless to the Queen – or the background to continued access problems and challenges, including those in our National Parks ((see here) or (here)) I commend the whole programme.   (And for those who don’t have the time to spend 1.5 hours listening I give the approx times of the various interviews and their content at the end of this post).

 

While most of the programme was a celebration of the successes of our access legislation, the programme gave significant coverage to the camping byelaws.  I was pleased to participate, balanced by a contribution from Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority staff and excellent commentary/questioning from the presenters Mark Stephens and Euan McIlwraith.   The interviews with staff were very revealing.   This post will take a critical look at what was said within the context that most of the people involved in securing our access rights, including many interviewed on the programme,  believe the camping byelaws and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority pose the biggest single threat to those rights.

 

The operation of the warning system

In their Review for Ministers of how the byelaws had operated in their first year, the LLTNPA reported that it had issued 828 warnings to campers.    It is not clear on what legal authority (see here) the LLTNPA has instigated this warning system –  I have now asked them to clarify this – but what the programme revealed is that the Park is keeping data on people it has warned for three whole years.

The interview took place at Milarrochy, on a long stretch of the east shore of Loch Lomond where camping is completely banned except in campsites which are often fully booked. So, the LLTNPA’s suggestion in the interview that they would ask people found camping here to move to a permit zone  – say exhausted backpackers on the West Highland Way – bears no resemblance to reality. Other areas, such as the west shore of Loch Lomond north of Inveruglas have even less provision.

The programme revealed what the LLTNPA has to date refused to reveal under Freedom of Information, how its enforcing the camping byelaws.    Simon Jones explained it as follows, stating that “we will do everything in our power to let you stay”  so long that is that either you move into a permit area and buy a permit or move out of the camping management zone – in other words there is NO power to let people camping responsibly stay!   While Simon Jones said the byelaws, the criminal offence, are only being applied to people who are “intractable” and won’t follow the directions of rangers, the Ranger clarified that they are taking the name and address of people found in breach of the byelaws.  Whether all of these people are then being issued official warnings is still not clear.

The LLTNPA has always said it does not want to criminalise campers, not I believe because it respects responsible campers – one thing that came across to me in the programme is that Park staff see any camper as a problem needing “management” and “education” –  but because this would be a public relations disaster.   So, what they have decided to do is to create a warning system and hope that the threat of having the camper’s name and address and the potential of a future referral to the Procurator Fiscal will be sufficient to deter a person from ever again camping without a permit.

Its within this context that the LLTNPA  are saying to the Minister in their Review Report that its too early to tell if the camping byelaws have worked.  The byelaws clearly aren’t working at present as intended as lots and lots of people are still camping where camping has been banned.  The LLTNPA is hoping however that as they add more and more names to their files fewer and fewer people will camp.   It would be interesting to know if any other criminal law in Scotland has ever been implemented in this way.

Its ironic that at the same time the Scottish Parliament has been cleaning up the behaviour of Police Scotland, which has reduced the number of stop and searches from over half a million to 20,000 or so, its allowed the LLTNPA to instigate a STOP AND PERMIT system for campers.  If you doubt that this what it is all about, listen to the Ranger who describes herself as “an enforcement officer”. Time that the Scottish Parliament, in celebrating our access legislation, started to scrutinise what is going on in the LLTNPA.

 

The position of caravans and campervans

Legally, the byelaws allow people to stay overnight in a vehicle on a “road”, which is defined to include both public roads and private roads over which there is a right of passage, in any camping management zone.   When asked about this Simon Jones, Director of Conservation,  replied:

“if you are in a car you have the opportunity to stay in a layby and rest where you want to on the public road [note he avoided mentioning people sleeping ovenight], off the public road is another matter………..”.  

This was a false statement and was picked up by Mark Stephen:

“with respect that is not what it says in the byelaws, the word public road is not in the byelaws………….”.

Simon Jones then acknowledged this but avoided clarifying the Park’s stance:

ok, the interpretation I think (pause) the important thing to remember is what we would do as an authority to try and help you [why would someone doing nothing wrong need help?], educate you………...and as a last resort enforce something we don’t want to have to do”

Oh dear!  So what is the Park’s approach to campervans and caravans?  We don’t know, apart from that the LLTNPA claim they are now following the advice of Police Scotland, whatever that is (they refuse to release it).  The problem for the LLTNPA, epitomised by Mr Jones convoluted response, is that if they publlcly accept the byelaws effectively no longer apply to campervans and caravans, half the justification for the byelaws collapses (the main reason local community councils supported the byelaws proposals was they were told this would address the problems of caravans parked up for the summer in laybys).   Then the manifest unfairness of applying the byelaws to campers and not to people in vehicles (nicely brought out by Mark Stephen in his question about why a cyclist should not be able to stop off for a rest like a car driver or campervan owner) becomes ever more apparent.

The LLTNPA need to make public the instructions they have issued to staff about how the byelaws apply to campervans and caravans, including the legality of their attempts to charge people for stopping on places that are part of the road network (e.g Inveruglas).     Because I doubt they will do this, I have submitted an FOI request asking the LLTNPA how many warnings have been issued to people stopping overnight in campervans and caravans.  When that eventually becomes public, as I am confident it will, it should help show if LLTNPA are abusing their powers or have effectively abandoned trying to enforce them against campervans.

Parkspeak

The LLTNPA provided a number of choice examples of parkspeak in their interviews (I don’t blame the Ranger for this, she was only doing what she was told).  These are important because these are about trying to change the way both staff and the public think about access rights.

The old east Loch Lomond no camping signs at Milarrochy have now been replaced but the message is the same

The LLTNPA interview took place at Milarrochy bay. Instead of openly acknowledging they want to ban campers from places such as this, the byelaws are now being presented as being part of a “toolkit”.  (This is a significant change since the Your Park consultation never asked people what they thought about toolkits and what should be in them).  What Mark Stephen’s exposed in his “role play” with the Ranger is just what a useless tool the byelaws are.   If you refuse to give your name and address and follow the directions of Park staff, whether you are camping according to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code or chopping down trees, LLTNPA staff still have to call the police – the same remedy that has always been available to address situations where people have been breaking the law.

Both Simon Jones and the Ranger also claimed that the byelaws are about protecting the National Park for “future generations to enjoy” .  This is complete and utter rubbish and very dangerous.  Rubbish because vegetation impacted on by people camping normally recovers within a season, and where it doesn’t does not need byelaws to make it happen.  Dangerous because if you accept the logic for campers, day visitors will be next (they also have impacts on vegetation, leave litter and sometimes chop down trees – which always was a criminal offence anyway).   The impacts of visitors are simply not comparable to issues like climate change, where pumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere does risk the ability of future generations, or land management in the National Park.  It will be interesting to see if the LLTNPA apply the future generations argument to the forthcoming Cononish gold mine planning application (which is in a wild land area) or whether this parkspeak about “future generations”  is only applicable to the impacts of campers.

Simon Jones also repeated the claim, which now appears the LLTNPA’s main justification for the byelaws, that they are needed because of the “sheer volume of campers”.  This is again nonsense and the LLTNPA is deliberately trying to hide the truth of what is going on.   Before meeting Mark Stephen and Euan McIlwraith I prepared an illustration of this from the data I have for Firkin Point (where I was interviewed) and west Loch Lomond.

Firkin permit area No Places Bookings Numbers feedback Percent positive
Motorhomes 6? 159 33 91%
Tents
Zone A (larger grass area) 3 51 4 75%
Zone B (small grass area) 2 30 1 100%
Zone C (beach) 1 27 4 75%
Zone D (south road) 9 24 2 0
132 11

Booking and feedback 1st March- 26th June 2017 from info released under Environmental Information Regulations in August (EIR 2017-055) (I am still waiting for useable data on bookings post 26th June).

Compare this data with Ranger Patrol records for Firkin for 2013 and 2014:

April – June 2013 Numbers of tents – 8 (Source Ranger patrol records supplied under FOI)

April – June 2014 Number of tents – 0  (Source Range patrol records supplied under FOI)

Zone D is mostly uncampable and that is reflected I believe in the permit feedback data provide by the Park – of the two people giving feedback both said they were highly unlikely to ever camp there again

Now, not every booking under the permit system will have resulted in someone camping and, while Ranger patrols took place most days, they rarely visited the south road (location of zone D).   Setting aside these qualifications,  there has been a huge increase in the number of people camping at Firkin Point (from 8 tents up to 132).  How does this fit with the LLTNPA’s claim the camping byelaws are about managing the volume of campers or it is just another lie?

I think two things are happening here.  The first is some people who never knew about Firkin Point are being attracted to stop off there, probably on their way to somewhere else, because it is now being advertised as somewhere to camp.   The availability of toilets (but not chemical disposal points) – even though these are closed when the byelaw season starts – adds to the attraction.  The second is that people who previously would have been spread out along the loch shores are being forced to camp in places like this.  As evidence of this, consider my analysis of camping on west Loch Lomond prior to the implementation of the byelaws West Loch Lomond Ranger Data analysis which shows that in the whole of 2013 Rangers recorded 130 tents along the whole of the west shore of Loch Lomond.   Yes, the total number of people issued permits to camp at Firkin Point in four months, exceeded the number of campers found on the west shore in a whole season.  Incredible!   The LLTNPA’s claim that the byelaws are about controlling the number of campers is therefore a lie, a lie which their staff need to stop repeating.  The byelaws are about controlling people, forcing people to camp where petty park bureaucrats and certain landowners are prepared to let people camp, rather than letting people to choose where it makes sense for them to camp..

 

 

Cost benefit analysis

Ranger Vans parked near Maid of the Loch 11/1/18 – plenty of resources here!

At the end of the interview,  Mark Stephen reported he had asked LLTNPA staff about the closed toilets at Firkin Point and they had said this was due to lack of resources.   This is the first time LLTNPA staff  have, to my knowledge, publicly acknowledged that their toilets should be open more – a step forward.  To attribute this to lack of resources, however, is garbage.  Here’s why.

The LLTNPA has far more to spend on visitor management to the countryside than any other public authority in Scotland.  The problem is that it has decided to devote almost all its resources to policing camping rather than using its resources to the benefit of ALL visitors.    As an illustration of this, I arrived at Firkin Point on Thurday to find a LLTNPA ranger van sitting there but the toilets locked.  If the LLTNPA can afford to pay Rangers to visit sites where toilets are located in the middle of winter, it could afford to can afford to keep them open, send someone in to check them occasionally and clean them if necessary.    I am not saying that it should necessarily be Rangers who should do this, but if the LLTNPA redeployed a small part of the resources used to employ seasonal rangers to cleaning toilets and emptying bins, they could keep toilets open year round and prevent much of the litter problem in the National Park happening in the first place.

What’s more, while I support the need for new campsites in the National Park, when their campsite at Loch Chon has only 20% occupancy (as predicted), its clear that the £345k and more of capital monies so far spent on developing that campsite would have been far better spent on installing new toilets and chemical disposal points throughout the National Park.   That would have benefitted not only campers, and far more of them, but the general public.

The LLTNPA never undertook a cost benefit analysis while developing its byelaw proposals and its review report to Ministers says nothing about the amount of scarce public funds which have been wasted to date.   Unless the LLTNPA starts acting more rationally and responsibly on this, the Minister Roseanna Cunningham should transfer both its capital and revenue resources to help those public authorities who do want to improve tourist infrastructure but really don’t have the resources to do so.  Skye and the North Coast 500 provide good examples and alternatives.

 

Where next?

I am happy to predict that on this showing, and as more information becomes available, during 2018 the camping byelaws along with the LLTNPA’s reputation as a National Park will continue to collapse.  The main question now is whether it will be the Scottish Government or the new Board which will see sense first.  This will mean re-affirming that camping by the loch shores can and should be managed within the framework set out under access rights and while resources need to be directed to where they will have most effect.

Interviews in programme (approx times into programme in brackets)

  • Roseanna Cunningham, Environment Minister “this is a right they cannot get around” (3.25)
  • Dave Morris on history leading up to final legislation and what issues are now(6.30)
  • Alison Riddell Scotways on continuing access issues (12.45)
  • Andrew Bachell (now Chief Exec JMT) on SNH role drafting legislation (23.45)
  • Discussion between reporters Euan McIlwriath and Mark Stephens on one of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s camping permit areas at Firkin Point:  “you would not camp there if you had the choice”
  • Cameron McNeish on politics around the legislation and since (37.01)
  • Jess Dolan Director Ramblers Scotland on making more people aware access rights (44.45)
  • Lauren MacCallum on Patagonia film on snow boarding and access (46.30)
  • Nick Kempe at Firkin Point (52.00)
  • Simon Jones, Director Conservation and Lea Hamilton, Ranger at Milarrochy Bay (1.02).
  • Dennis Canavan (1.13.30) on his amendment to include Balmoral in legislation
  • Bob Reid (past convener National Access Forum) on the legislation, planning and paths (1.20)
  • Andy Wightman on agenda outdoor recreation (1.24.30)
January 11, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The Drumochter, a fine landscape forming a gateway between north and south, marred by development – the line of the “restored” Beauly Denny construction track is marked by the scar behind the pylons

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

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

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

The North Drumochter Estate Beauly Denny track restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The restoration of the Beauly Denny by SSE

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

December 21, 2017 Bruce Biddulph 3 comments

By Bruce Biddulph

Photo accompanying petition

(This text was included in an update to a petition to the Scottish Government to stop the sale of the Riverside Site in Balloch to Flamingo Land)

Drumkinnon Bay, along with its Woods and the river bank along the Leven which flows from Loch Lomond, are steeped in history. This history was almost destroyed in less than 100 years, and in the past year, an attempt has been made to obliterate it completely.

The woods, the bay and the riverside are three sacred cows really. The woods have stood here since the early 1800s as managed plantations, and before that, they were a small wood naturally growing in the fields and drumlins of Drumkinnon, through which the burn gently led to the bay, a sandy expanse that was a jewel in itself, opening up to the grandest view of Loch Lomond possible at low level.

Through the 19th Century the railway encroached, but did not destroy Drumkinnon, it could be argued the pretty steamships enhanced it. And then came the 20th Century, and the previously small sand pits that had been dug at one end of the now extensive plantation, were ruthlessly exploited by a local and by the 1960s he had left behind spoil heaps and pools that nature quickly rushed in to claim. Meanwhile a factory was built further towards Balloch, behind the woods and then in the 1950s a pipeline was laid from Finnart to Grangemouth, resulting in a broad line of trees being hacked down.

By the 1980s the factory was gone, and quickly a housing estate followed. The railway line closed too. In the 1990s work then started on Lomond Shores and by the 2000s the shape is as you see it now.

In all that time, the woods still grew, the bay was still swam in, the riverside was even opened up as a walkway and the former railway was levelled and turned into grasslands where families have played and picnicked for years now. Industrial wasteland it is not.

The success of Lomond Shores was deemed in itself a problem, in that Balloch the village was not benefiting from the million pairs of feet going there. So it was determined that a plan needed up to join up the village with the Lomond Shores – it seemed that a tasteful pruning of the riverside, with perhaps some form of attraction all year might suit. The idea being to have people walk in a circular way from one end of Balloch to another, there was even talk of a bridge over the Leven’s mouth to connect Balloch Park.

At no time time did anyone stand and say, what a dump let’s sell it.

Except Scottish Enterprise. And so to balance their own books they fabricated a tale of post industrial decline, scrubland and contamination, requiring some great saviour to come in and clean it all up and convert it into something productive. Quite the opposite story that the village was telling or knew.

Over the past year their tale has clashed with the village’s. And their sale proceeded with barely a recognition until the signs went up and suddenly, it was a done deal. Or so we screamed!

We were told we were talking nonsense. That it was all very open and that the company Flamingoland were the only ones who had an idea and we should all be, in effect, grateful.

Fast forward to this week, and a Freedom of Information request was responded to, in mean and miserable spirit. No details of an Exclusivity Agreement -yet one was made. No details of the price. No details of the other bidders, however, admission there was that there HAD been other approaches, strangely!

But now, no details. The exclusivity agreement itself and the excuse of commercial sensitivity meant that they deemed it right that the public interest could not be served by releasing any information at all. The rights of the buyer far more important than the rights of the people to know just what has been going on.

And so it seems the woven tale (of Scottish Enterprises) has led us to a chapter we may not read, until they have closed the book forever and sold the rights on the back of a poorly thought and detail-lite development. One that will kill the three sacred cows. One that will open up the floodgates.

This is the tale you wont hear. So far ,the media are not too interested, believing this is about local NIMBYs protesting about viewing towers. (Another narrative well spun by local politicians, who, perhaps understandably, dont want to get their hands sullied in this). So no real input from, them either locally or nationally.

And nationally, its a story that does not feel comfortable either. It hurts a government quango. Therefore, government ministers would be hurt also. Party goes before politics. People mind their own backs. And the locals? Those who have seen this are ignored, patronised, even told the narratives of the SE, that run contrary to their own memories, their own knowledge, and tell them that the bay, the riverside and the woods are not anything to get emotional about.

Well, perhaps not. Perhaps this is the age of no emotions, no heritage, no care for anything except the bottom line. Perhaps when all is wiped away and no real history is left, no-one need care.

We believe, those of us who DO care, that the line of decency has been crossed, that this is a sale too far, and that the loch – and the locals – deserve better guardianship than this. And most certainly do not deserve contempt.

We also believe that land in public hands is our gift to ourselves and our nation. And that it’s better we, the people, decide its future, than a speculator landowner shooed in by a secretive and unaccountable quango.

This is the history and story you wont hear. I urge you to let others hear it too.

Keep Loch Lomond’s Public Lands in Public Hands.  Sign the petition here
Stop the Sale. Share the Tale.

December 7, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority will, at its Board Meeting on Monday, consider an “Update Report” for Scottish Ministers on the operation of the camping byelaws in their first year.  There is a cover paper (see here), the Report for Ministers (see here) and appendices (see here).  The basic line the Park has taken is they are only providing an “operational update” and its too early to evaluate the byelaws:

I disagree.  It is not too early to clearly state what has been really happening and the Board has a duty to ensure that Scottish Minister are properly informed and are fully aware of the major flaws in the camping byelaws.    This post considers the facts and issues which have been omitted from the report but starts with a critical look at some of the content, particularly that which casts new light on the people who have been affected.

The camping byelaws,  east Loch Lomond and the West Highland Way

The report to Board Members starts with a lie and an attempt to re-write history:

The lie is that the East Loch Lomond byelaws were introduced to tackle “over-use”:  there is not a single mention of overuse in the Review of the east Loch Lomond byelaws submitted to Ministers in 2014 Review ELL byelaws.   The reason is the ELL byelaws were introduced as part of a package of measures to tackle anti-social behaviour.  These included the creation of a clearway between Balmaha and Rowardennan, byelaws banning alcohol and targetted policing and the byelaws were intended to be temporary.  The LLTNPA has never produced any  evidence to prove that it was the camping byelaws, rather than the other measures, which stopped people going for drinking parties on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond but, as soon as the clearway between Balmaha and Rowardennan made parking impossible, the parties became a thing of the past.  The camping byelaws could have been safely revoked but instead the LLTNPA has redefined their purpose as being about controlling numbers who camp.

90% average occupancy for camping places, given wind, rain and midges is extraordinarily high and indicates that at many times demand exceeds capacity and there is nowhere lawful for people to camp

The Update Report shows that “occupancy” rates of the permit areas on east Loch Lomond are far far higher than elsewhere in the National Park.  This is due of course to the West Highland Way, which attracts many backpackers each year, who, when they get past Drymen suddenly find their legal options for camping are severely restricted.  WHW walkers never did any harm but, like other responsible campers, have been victimised by the byelaws and now have insufficient places to camp.  The Board report brushes all this under the carpet and contains no plans to address the deficit in camping capacity or to ask WHW walkers what they think.

 

The camping byelaws and tourism

Fuller analysis of the permit data would, I suspect, show that many WHW walkers come from abroad.  16% or c1000 of the 6,129 permit booking were made by visitors from abroad and 24% by visitors from the rest of the UK.

 

What the camping permit data provides evidence of for the first time is that a high proportion of people who want to camp on the loch shores are tourists.  This has wide implications both about the message from the Park – “there are far too many campers” – which is disastrous for tourism, and for the provision of facilities.   Instead of committing to Ministers to take a proper look at this, the Update Report does a body swerve and avoids the issues.

The camping byelaws and social exclusion

The most interesting data about permits, however, is about where people had come from in Scotland.  Unsurprisingly, it shows most people come from the Glasgow conurbation, but also that:

This provides evidence, in the form of data, of what everyone with an interest in camping in the National Park has long known, that the majority of people who camp by the loch shores have lower than average incomes or, to put it another way, are working class folk from the West of Scotland.  The implication is that when the LLTNPA claims the byelaws are needed to reduce the number of campers, it is in effect saying that too many working class people from the Clyde Conurbation have been coming out to the National Park to enjoy a night out under the stars.  The LLTNPA has never looked at alternative provision for poorer people and as a result the byelaws are deeply discriminatory and socially exclusive.  We should now be able to work out the extent of that adverse impact.

The inclusion of this data was at the suggestion of the stakeholder forum and while I am delighted the Park has done the analysis in this case, it should have been far more such work and reporting to the Scottish Government on the implications.  In my view, there is now sufficient evidence for Ministers to  consider an independent Equality Impact Assessment into the effect and operation of the camping byelaws.

 

Omissions from the Update Report to Ministers

The report contains the usual parkspin and speak (one of the co-authors is head of marketing) and glosses over all the difficulties of the first season of the camping byelaws.  This is best illustrated by what has been omitted from the Report.

1). Number of campers affected

There is no data provided or comparison made between numbers camping in the areas covered by the camping management zones before the byelaws came into effect and subsequently.  The LLTNPA has lots of data on this but has failed to provide it or to undertake any analysis despite its senior staff now consistently claiming that the purpose of the byelaws is to reduce the number of campers.   What is it that the LLTNPA senior staff do not want the Minister or the public to know about something it claims is so fundamental?

My suspicion is that in part this is because this data would show that the byelaws have impacted most on poorer people and their ability to enjoy the outdoors, with all the benefits that has for physical health and mental well-being, but I suspect it would open other cans of worms.

2) Numbers camping or campervanning with a permit

There has been no attempt to compare the number of people who have applied for permits, and thus are camping lawfully, with those who have not.  Anyone who has visited the management zones will know that considerable numbers of people have continued to camp outwith permit area and the enforcement statistics give some indication of the scale: The 828 people given warnings are likely to be mostly campers because the byelaws were never enforced against caravans and were found to be unenforceable against campervans.   This number excludes campers whose names were not taken by Rangers – one can assume the more sensible Rangers just asked people to move on without taking personal details – and those who were never caught.   We also know that despite the intensive Ranger Patrols less than half of people who camped with permits saw a Ranger:

 

 

Applying these considerations to the data, suggests that a reasonable estimate of the minimum number of  tents pitched without a permit would be over 2000 (compared to 4914 that had permits) and the total may have been very much more.   A clear estimate of the people unaware or ignoring the byelaws is fundamental to any evaluation of their effectiveness and a clear methodology for doing this should have been presented to the Board now: it cannot wait till three years time.

3) Cost Benefit Analysis

The Report fails to say anything about the costs of implementing and enforcing the byelaws despite some of this information being available in the financial reports which will also be presented to the Board on Monday.  The LLTNPA has never done a cost benefit analysis and more specifically whether instead of devoting resources to policing campers it might not be more effective to provide basic infrastructure and facilities.

4) The implications of holding personal data

The LLTNPA now holds personal data on the 828 people it warned for breaching the byelaws but has said nothing about what they are doing with this data (e.g are they sharing it with the police for enforcement processes) or the civil liberty implications (how long are personal details kept on the list and for what purposes).  The Board should have considered this – and I have previously criticised them for their failure to do so – when they were considering enforcement procedures for the camping bye-laws.

5) Enforcement and campervans

The only mention the Report makes of the effective collapse of the byelaws in respect of campervans is this:

Part of the justification for the camping byelaws was to control the numbers of campervans which the LLTNPA claimed were swamping the National Park and encampments of caravans which blocked laybys for months and were a major concern to local communities.  However, all this unravelled in part because Park staff, without approval from either Board or Minister, changed the wording of the byelaws so private roads were included in the exemption which allowed motor vehicles to stop off overnight.   This in effect allowed caravans and campervans to stop off overnight anywhere on the roadsides in camping management zones and totally undermined the byelaws.    The Update Report is silent on this fiasco and fails to discuss the implications which includes the fact it cannot legally charge campervans to stop on roads.  That is why its only commitment in respect of motorhomes is worded as follows:

6) Outcome of Enforcement

The report is silent about what has happened in the 10 cases referred to the Procurator Fiscal.  The outcome of those cases is likely to say something about the fairness and enforceability of the byelaws, which is again something which should be reported to Ministers.

7) Permit feedback and Complaints

Following my post (see here) questioning the positive feedback the LLTNPA had claimed to receive about the permit system, I requested the data behind that and also on complaints made about the byelaws.   Neither are included in the Update Report – I am due to receive that information this week, under FOI, too late to analyse before the Board Meeting.  Since my original post though two complaints, which the Park had failed to answer, have been featured on parkswatch (see here) and there is a question about how many more complaints have been made received but not recorded.

There is a wider issue about how the LLTNPA records other criticisms.  The feedback I have had is the November stakeholder meeting on the camping byelaws was poorly attended.  The reason I believe is that attending such events i pointless as long as staff continue to cover-up anything that contradicts their narrative that the byelaws have been well received.

8) Impact on organised groups

The Update Report says 12 exceptions were granted to groups to camp outwith permits areas (for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions etc) but no comparison is made with the numbers of organised groups previously camping in these areas.   If the LLTNPA asked the Scouts, DofE etc,I believe they would find that their bureaucracy has driven people away and hard-pressed teachers etc simply don’t have time to go through the process, which incidentally destroys any flexibility to change plans according to weather conditions etc.  These groups have been driven out of the National Park.

9) Camping provision

In order to allow the byelaws to go ahead, the LLTNPA committed to Ministers to provide 300 new camping places (although the 300 included the existing campsites at Sallochy and Loch Lubnaig).  The Update Report is written in a way to suggest that that commitment was met:

While I am still awaiting the data behind this claim, having 300 places available online is not the same as 300 places being available on the ground.  Regular readers will know that some of the camping permit areas are uncampable (and some since abandoned) and others have been unusable at times (for example when under water).   There are strong reasons to doubt therefore that the Park’s commitment has been met in practice.  There is evidence for this in the Report:

That additional places are being recommended because at times existing places have been unusable confirms there has been a shortfall, while:

confirms that some of the permit areas on Forest Drive were unusable.  The Update Paper avoids an open discussion of the implications of this and whether the LLTNPA really did meet its commitment.  I am pretty certain the answer is “no”.  More importantly, however, looking forward the LLTNPA promised to Ministers to increase the number of places it provided after the first year.  The Report contains NO evaluation of how many such places might be required or sustainable and the only commitment the LLTNPA has made to improved camping provision is the 15 place new campsite at Loch Achray.

There is no update on plans for other which might help reduce the impact of not just campers but all visitors whether this is provision of litter bins, toilets or chemical disposal points.   In effect the Update Report suggests the LLTNPA’s Camping Development Strategy has collapsed.

 

What needs to happen

Leading on from the first two bullets in para 7.3 quoted above, the Update Report lists the following further areas for “improvement”:

These areas clearly link to some of the issues raised in this post but which are not being properly reported to Ministers.    The lack of any firm commitments is not in my view accidental.

I would love to think the LLTNPA Board on Monday would send the Senior Management Team back to work on the issues raised here and come up with a concrete set of proposals for Ministers, but I suspect that won’t happen.  To do so would require the Board to admit to Ministers the flaws in the byelaws and that the previous Board might have got it badly wrong.

Part of what might be needed therefore is an alternative report to Ministers about the efficacy and implications of the byelaws.  This would be based on data and other evidence missing from the LLTNPA report and should  make recommendations as to what should happen.

More important than this however is that politicians, particularly in the west of Scotland, need to start speaking out for their constituents and to criticise the failure of the National Park to fulfil its statutory objective to promote public enjoyment of the outdoors.  The discriminatory impact of the camping byelaws on poorer people, with all the consequences that has for their physical health and mental well-being, should be a political issue.  Whlle the Scottish Government claims it is trying to reduce health and educational inequalities, it has allowed to LLTNPA to devote considerable resources to achieving the opposite.    That needs to stop and the National Park needs to change course and do what it was set up to do, which was to enable people to enjoy the great outdoors on their doorstep.

November 10, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

In order to ban camping and get the camping byelaws approved, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority misrepresented and grossly exaggerated the impacts campers were having on the loch shores.  They did this by promulgating multiple images of irresponsible campers while ignoring their own data and misusing police data which put the problems in perspective.  Among the things the data showed was was that littering was was a far more widespread problem than the LLTNPA suggested, i.e campers were far from the only cause of litter,  and that the proportion of irresponsible campers and campervanners to the total was very low.   What was needed to address problems associated with a few campers was a targetted response, not a blanket ban.

 

What the camping byelaws attempted to do, however,  was is to remove the rights of the many because of the actions of the few.  If we took the Park’s approach to people’s rights – that its ok to remove a public right if anyone abuses it – we would end up with no rights at all.   If you applied the Park’s approach to campers to littering along the A82, all drivers (most of the litter is chucked out of car windows) would be banned with permits then being issued to people who signed up to the Park’s terms and conditions for using the A82.  Totally absurd but that is what the Park has done to campers.  The LLTNPA has an opportunity to address that absurdity when it considers a report to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham at the next Board Meeting on 11th December.

 

Regular readers will know that Parkswatch has been trying to expose how the byelaws are really working ever since they came into operation in March.   In order to try and prevent the manipulation of data which took place in the Your Park consultation, after the camping “season” – as the Park now describes it – ended on 30th September, I therefore asked for data about the operation of the camping byelaws and ranger patrols to be made public before the Board meeting.   What I wanted to do was to try and inform the official review of the first year of the camping byelaws.

 

This week, after various correspondence, the LLTNPA EIR 2017-070 Update declined to provide the data they hold, claiming they needed more time to assemble it and that they would give this to me by 7th December.  This is just four days before the Board Meeting, or the day when under Standing Orders the Park need to make all Board Papers public anyway.   This stinks.

 

Earlier this year, I made a similar request for data up until the end of June.  The data request was submitted on 3rd July, a clarification made on 11th July and the Park provided me the information on 2nd August (albeit in a pretty unusable format).   In other words they were able to process the data in 4 weeks.  They are now claiming they need over 8 weeks to process the same data.    Its actually more than that because  my original data request was not on 11th October, as stated in their letter, but on 2nd October EIR 2017-055.  

 

All that is required to make the data public is for the LLTNPA to remove the columns with personal data (people’s names and contact details) from the spreadsheets they hold on the booking system.  Indeed they need to do this in order to provide the Board with any sort of proper analysis but are now saying this won’t be ready until after that Board Paper is published.  This is complete tosh and a fundamental failure in terms of being accountable to the public.  Clearly what senior staff are wanting to do is once again con Board Members into approving a report on how well the byelaws are going without providing them with the full picture.

 

Also this week, after a reminder, I did get a partial response to the last two questions in my information request (above):

 

“I refer to your email of 11th October 2017, in which you asked why the Loch Chon campsite was currently closed. The first season of the new camping management zones and byelaws is over, so the campsite has been closed to allow for any required maintenance to be undertaken over the winter season. The camp site will re-open next March.

 

Comment: I had asked for all information about the closure of the Loch Chon campsite but instead have been told the campsite is closed because the camping byelaw season is over.  I don’t recall any public decision that LLTNPA  campsites should only be open to the end of the byelaw season.  Moreover, both Sallochy and Loch Lubnaig campsites are open until the end of October.  All this says is its closed because its closed.   Whatever happened to the idea that what is important is the LLTNPA puts infrastructure in place to support people enjoying the countryside?  It appears that senior staff have no real interest in improving facilities for campers in the National Park.

 

You had also enquired about when the Police Scotland Operation Ironworks report is due.  We anticipate that we should receive this report from Police Scotland by the New Year.”

 

Comment: so the information that was seen as crucial to the justification of the camping byelaws, Police statistics on Anti-social behaviour – the Park wrongly claimed the camping byelaws were responsible for an 81% drop on anti-social behaviour on east Loch Lomond – is not even going to be available to the Board before its takes a decision on its review report to Ministers.  What that says is that senior staff are just not interested in data or any information which could potentially contradict and disprove that their propoganda that the byelaws have worked well – even they no longer claim the byelaws are an outstanding success.

 

What needs to happen

The Board’s review of the first year of the camping byelaws will be a farce unless this includes a proper consideration of all the relevant data.  By proper consideration I mean it should have been subject to public scrutiny  and engagement with stakeholders before any decision.  A fair and balanced report would include among other things the following:

 

  • A public explanation for the collapse of the byelaws in respect to campervans and the reasons for this (see here)
  • An analysis of the total number of people reported camping in 2017 compared to previous years and implications of this (eg ability to enjoy outdoors, displacement elsewhere)
  • Adherence to the byelaws, including the numbers of campervans ignoring the ban before it officially collapsed, the numbers of tents found outwith permit areas (and whether they were doing anything wrong), numbers camping or campervanning in permit areas without a permit and the extent to which landowners are breaching the byelaws (see here)
  • The resources the Park has devoted to trying to get the byelaws work, particularly numbers of Ranger patrols, how rangers were used to enforce the byelaws and how this changed during the year as well and the impact this has had on other areas of work and the workforce.
  • As part of this, the expenditure on signage and analysis of how effective this has been
  • Analysis of the number of exemptions applied for under the camping byelaws (very few) and the impact that the byelaws have had on DofE, Scout Groups etc which have now basically decided to avoid using the National Park.
  • A summary and analysis of all complaints received into the operation of the camping byelaws and how this relates to the alleged positive feedback on the permit system (see here) (senior staff failed to refer to the existence of such complaints in the report presented to the Board in September).
  • A comparison of the number of abandoned campsites compared to previously (the LLTNPA while presenting lots of photos to illustrate abandoned sites did not say how many campsites had been abandoned or what resources were needed to clear these up).
  • The number of permit places actually available day to day during the byelaws compared to the 300 places promised to the Scottish Government taking account of the overall fitness of each permit area for camping (many are unusable and some have now been abandoned) and factors such as flooding.
  • The work the LLTNPA has undertaken to make it possible to camp in certain permit areas and the extent to which this has been successful
  • The reason why certain permit areas have now been abandoned
  • The consequences of trying to force campers into a few places (see here)
  • The impact of campers within wider context (litter etc).
  • Total expenditure to date on the Loch Chon campsite compared to original budgets, evaluation of the problems caused by poor planning (stench from toilets due to inadequate water supply, unuseable pitches etc) and .
  • Progress – or rather lack of it – on infrastructure which would help reduce impact of campervans and campers (waste disposal points etc) as well as the Park’s commitment to create new campsites

 

I do not believe such a report can be produced without engagement and consultation.  The LLTNPA at its next Board Meeting therefore needs to agree to delay the submission of its report to Ministers on the operation on the byelaws until it has made public all the information it holds and allowed this to be subject to public scrutiny.

 

I will now submit a formal review of the LLTNPA’s decision not to make crucial information for the evaluation of the camping byelaws public at the present time.  There is a formal stakeholders meeting next week and I hope the stakeholders there will join the call for all this information to be made public so they also can analyse it and provide proper feedback to the LLTNPA.

November 6, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
An unexceptional scene? Not when you compare it to how it looked this time last year (see below). Turves and vegetation have been taken from the lower (right) side of track and used to restore the scar on the upper (left) side of the track.

Following my two posts last December about the destruction caused by the hydro scheme in Glen Bruar (see here) and (here), I took a jog up the glen on Saturday.  I was prompted to do so after planning staff at the Cairngorms National Park Authority were kind enough to inform me – unprompted – that significant restoration work had been undertaken over the summer.

The view in August 2016
Looking south at the worst section of pipeline scar 2016

Photo showing how turves and other vegetation has been “robbed” from below the track to cover up the scar above. Note the digger scoop mark centre.[/caption]

Its hard to tell how many boulders have been removed but given the failure to store and re-use vegetation, the only way the scar could be covered up was by robbing vegetation from elsewhere.   In Glen Bruar this has been taken from the areas either side of the pipeline.  While I am not an ecologist, it appears to have been done very well.   There is more bare ground evident in the photo above, which I have used as it shows the work was all done by digger, than is evident along most of the track.   Evidence of good practice is that the contractor has managed to remove vegetation without creating deep buckets  holes and left sufficient vegetation to prevent soil erosion.

A more typical view of how the ground below the track and pipeline which has been robbed for turves now appears

As a consequence the ground which has been “robbed” should recover quite quickly.

Restored boulder band scar showing how “robbed” turves and soil have been used.

The work on the restored area is also in my view of high quality, with the restored surface being similar to the land on either side (rather than being pockmarked with ankle busting holes) while the transplanted vegetation appears to have taken.  The result is that the ground is already blending with that to land around,  a complete contrast to a year ago.  In landscape terms this looks like an excellent example of disaster recovery.  Its interesting that the Reinstatement Note provided by the CNPA suggests that the contractor who did the restoration was different to that who constructed the pipeline.   I am tempted to suggest they deserve an award.

Evidence of plants colonising bare ground. This will help stabilise the soils but which plants will establish themselves in the medium term is uncertain

Its too early to say if the original poor restoration of the pipeline will have a permanent impact on the vegetation in the glen and, for example, allow new invasive species to move in.  Once the soils and vegetation had not been stored properly, areas of bare ground were inevitable.

 

There is also still one area where the landscape scar is prominent, where the pipeline cuts across a slope above an area of deep peat:

At present it looks like very little attempt has been made to restore this.

New drainage ditch showing depth of peat. The excavated material has been dumped on left.

There are however some obvious opportunities to do so.  The vegetation that has recently been removed to create this ditch could have been used to reinstate part of the boulder band.

The start of the section of unrestored pipeline marked by the boulder field. Note the large peat turves foreground far right which appear to date from original excavation and have never been used for restoration purposes.

My conclusion is the restoration of the pipeline still has a bit further to go but its an incredible improvement on how the glen appeared this time last year.  CNPA staff and the contractors deserve to be congratulated for what they have managed to do so far to mitigate what was a landscape disaster.   I will cover other aspects of the restoration work and impact of the hydro schemes in Glen Bruar in a further post.

 

Lessons from the Glen Bruar restoration

Here are a few lessons which I think should be learned from what happened in Glen Bruar:

  1. The Glen Bruar pipeline shows that contractors can cause incredible destruction to the landscape if not supervised properly.   Developers appointing their own Ecological Clerks of Works to ensure high standards clearly did not work in this case.  This creates a strong argument – which is relevant to the forthcoming planning bill – that instead of appointing their own Ecological Clerks of Works (who are dependent on them for their wages) Developers should pay higher planning fees.  This would enable planning authorities either to supervise work directly or employ truly independent people to do so.   Our National Parks need better means available to them to prevent disasters from happening in the first place.
  2. What Glen Bruar also shows that if restoration is non-existent or not to the required standard, its quite possible to rectify adverse landscape impacts if there is the will and a skilled contractor.   If this can be done in Glen Bruar, then there is absolutely no excuse for Scottish Southern Electric and the Scottish Government to sit on their hands at Drumochter (see here).

    If Glen Bruar can be restored so can Drumochter
  3. I hope the CNPA will now use what they have achieved in Glen Bruar to make the case for active landscape restoration in Drumochter.
  4. While the CNPA provided me with the re-instatement note, this was not published on the Park’s planning portal and there is no detailed documentation there (see here) about how the restoration works were to be undertaken.  Other aspects of the restoration, which I will cover in my next post, were dealt with as Non-Material Variations to the existing consent and were published on the planning portal this year.  This is extremely helpful to enable the public to understand what the CNPA has been doing.   On the biggest issue however nothing has been published.  I think it should,  both for transparency but also to enable others to learn.
November 3, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Extract from this week’s Strathy (in which I am quoted)

The financial position of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd

Following my post on the finances at Cairngorm (see here), a Natural Retreats spokeswoman claimed to the Strathy this week that “Overall despite an operating loss the company was cash flow positive requiring no group support or bank intervention”.  This is completely misleading, as the Cairngorm Mountain Ltd accounts show:

Extract from Note 1 to the CML Accounts to December 2016

So, both current and net liabilities increased significantly – by c30% –  in 2016 and while the spokesperson claimed no “group support” was required the accounts say the opposite!

Given that the 2017 ski season was terrible, it should be safe to conclude that CML is now, almost a year later, in an even worse financial position with all the consequences that could have to local businesses, including suppliers.  I say “should” because the loss in 2016 was  created by the large increase in administrative charges paid to Natural Retreats UK – which HIE needs to explain – and could, and should, be reduced.  I doubt that any bank would intervene to support this business, so why is HIE still supporting it?

CML and Natural Assets Investment Ltd

In this post however I wish to focus on CML’s relationship with its parent company Natural Assets Investment Ltd which published  consolidated accounts for the group, which includes CML, in October (see here).  Start with the bottom line:

 

NAIL’s loss increased by almost £1.5m compared to 2015 to £6,549,149.  This is reflected further down in the accounts in an increase in its net liabilities from £22,831,678 to £29,380,827.  Yes, NAIL is almost £30m in the red!

The key point however is that total turnover, i.e income, for the group was £6,536,413 which is less than the loss that was made.   The group is in an extremely parlous financial position and can only continue because of guarantees from its owner David Michael Gorton.  No bank would lend to a company in this position.

The reason for this deficit is not because the company is investing huge sums:

 

This table shows the group invested just £915,917 (second line) in the year across all their businesses of which we know £360,882 was at Cairngorm (from the CML accounts) .  Moreover, NAIL was apparently not planning to invest anything either:

This account fits with the evidence of lack of significant investment since Natural Retreats took over at Cairngorm, with almost any work that has been done funded by HIE.

The main reason for the losses has nothing to do with trading (the Group made an  operating profit of £1,800,619)  or investment, its down to other expenses.  Most notable among these is the amount of debt owed (£46,468,212) and interest paid (£3,633,498) to its owner, David Michael Gorton, who used anyway to be described as a hedge fund manager:

What this shows is that despite paying Mr Gorton more than in the previous financial year, the total amount owed to him has also gone up!   We can therefore expect that in 2017 payments to Mr Gorton will be even higher.  £3,633,498 is a pretty good return on fixed assets which are now valued at £3,596,789 and investment properties which have a net book value of £20,340,101 especially when some of the purchase price of the assets was paid for by a bank loan (c£4m) from HSBC.

The other important thing to note about NAIL’s consolidated accounts is that out of the total turnover of £6,536,413, £4,749,982  comes from Cairngorm (figure from CML accounts).  What this means is that the NAIL group is almost entirely dependent on operations at Cairngorm for income.  Its the only cash cow in the group.

While Natural Retreats UK and Natural Assets Investment Ltd are separate companies, they share many of the same Directors and what’s more NAIL has NO employees.  Its dependent on Natural Retreats UK to do work and this is reflected in the notes to the accounts:

Extract group accounts

 

It appears therefore that Cairngorm is being used to keep the whole NAIL group going and that most likely explains the huge increase in administrative costs charged by Natural Retreats UK to Cairngorm Mountain Ltd in 2016.

What needs to happen

Its a public scandal that HIE sold Cairngorm Mountain Ltd for a knockdown price to a company which had no track record and whose net liabilities have increased by about £5m each year since it was incorporated in 2011 and now total a staggering £29,380,827.     The risk now is that when Natural Assets Investment Ltd,  whose main income comes from Cairngorm, goes into administration – as it surely must do at some point – that will put both jobs and assets at Cairngorm at risk (at present, through a charging order the bank HSBC appears to have first call on all assets in the group).

HIE and the Cabinet Secretary responsible, Fergus Ewing, now needs to explain publicly what action it will take to protect the public interest at Cairngorm, including how it will safeguard assets purchased with the public purse and how it intends to prevent monies continuing to drain out of the local area.

Unfortunately, as Minister responsible, Fergus Ewing, appears to have his head in the sand:

Article from Strathy this week
  • No mention of the money being extracted from Cairngorm or the risks posed by Natural Retreats
  • No appreciation that Natural Retreats will invest nothing at Cairngorm – its HIE staff who have had to go and check out the snow making machines
  • Re-writing of history.  Since the installation of the funicular HIE has been obsessed with increasing numbers of summer visitor and has just paid for removal of the Coire na ciste infrastructure
  • No mention of the Save the Ciste Group or role it has played in making people understanding the importance of winter activities at Cairngorm
  • The failure to mention the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust and his preference for listening to selected people who he implies represent local opinion.

 

October 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

Highlands and Islands Enterprise are currently in serious trouble at Cairngorm.  Their Chief Executive may have ignored my email Charlotte Wright 170825  and other such representations from the public, but their actions and failures are now being given far more extensive coverage in the traditional media.  This is forcing them to respond and reveals that they are rather like a headless chicken.

 

Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Minister behind much of the disastrous management of Cairngorm, appears to have recognised the crisis and at the end of September convened a “closed” stakeholder meeting at Aviemore which HIE said was “to maximise the benefits of snowsports on Cairngorm Mountain, a shared aim of everyone present”.  While Mr Ewing claimed the meeting was with “HIE, Highland Council, snowsports community representatives and Natural Retreats” the community representation had been fixed.   There was no invitation to Save the Ciste or members of the Aviemore Business Association who have been behind the creation of the Cairngorm and Glenmore Trust which would like to takeover Cairngorm and have been advocating for snowsports there.

 

Instead, the Cairngorm Mountain Trust, which sold Cairngorm Mountain Ltd to HIE back in 2008, was asked to represent the community.  As an organisation its been fairly moribund since then but on  27th August 2017, according to information filed in companies house, two new Directors were appointed, Lesley McKenna (Manager Pipe and Park Team, British Ski and Board) and James Patrick Grant of Rothiemurchus (Financier).  This has clearly been deliberately engineered – the Cairngorm Mountain Trust is a self-appointing group of people with no democratic links to the community – and explains how HIE and the Scottish Government were able to invite Lesley McKenna to the meeting.  How Euan Baxter, who the Strathy said was present, got invited, I am not sure, but HIE has clearly included both in a desperate attempt to maintain some credibility with skiers.

 

HIE’s destruction of the ski infrastructure in Coire na Ciste

While Parkswatch has given some coverage to the Cairngorm “Cleanup” which has resulted in the removal of ski lifts from Coire na Ciste (see here), a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes by Save the Ciste activitists to reveal what has been going on.  This has been given excellent coverage in a series of articles by Roger Cox in the Scotsman, a fantastic example of investigative journalism.  The basis story is that  HIE has spent £267,000 of public money on the chairlift demolition with no option appraisal, and without looking at the alternatives.  This quote from the fifth article by  Roger Cox is, I believe, essential reading for anyone who skis or who is concerned about HIE’s mismanagement of Cairngorm:

 

“Thanks to an FOI request by the Save the Ciste group, I have a copy of the report prepared by ADAC Structures, dated October 2016. It concerns the state of the concrete bases to which the chairlift towers were secured, not the towers themselves, and it notes that 20 per cent of the bases were in a stable condition, a further 16 per cent were buried, so could not be assessed, and the remaining 64 per cent were in need of repair or replacement. I ask if HIE got an estimate for the cost of replacing the damaged bases.

“No,” says Bryers.

And did HIE get an estimate for the cost of repairing the lift towers?

“No, we didn’t, no,” says Bryers.”

Wright then brings up a piece of EU legislation called the Cableways Directive, which she says “increased the standards required” of chairlifts like the ones in the Ciste. Bryers says he thinks this directive made it “impossible for [those chairlifts] ever to run again.” But, I suggest, as we’ve already established there were no attempts made to find out how much it would have cost to restore the bases and towers to working order, we’re really only guessing here – aren’t we? “Yes,” says Bryers, “to some degree we’re guessing, but some of the [staff at CairnGorm Mountain] are very experienced at dealing with these sorts of things so they have a good idea of what things are likely to cost and how practical they are.”

During my conversation with Adam Gough, it transpired that there is soon to be a review of uplift across the ski area. Given the safety concerns about the lift towers in the Ciste, I ask, would it not have been possible to simply un-bolt the towers and store them somewhere temporarily rather than chopping them down and scrapping them? That way, if it was found during the course of the review that there was a case for putting lifts back in the Ciste, it might have proved cheaper to renovate the bases that needed fixing and bolt the towers back on than to construct new lifts from scratch. Was that ever considered as an option? “I can see why somebody might put that together as a realistic option,” says Wright, “but I think our experience would say that it was absolutely unlikely that that would give us a safe, modern system.”

Shortly after my conversation with Wright and Bryers, I receive an email from Calum Macfarlane, media relations manager at HIE. “On reflection,” he writes, “I felt there was a lack of explanation on why HIE did not explore the cost of renovation/redevelopment/replacement of the chairlifts on Coire na Ciste. I asked my colleagues about this after the call and they explained that any redeveloped facility would have needed a commercial operator and there was no interest from the current or previous operator in restoring and running the facilities [in] Coire na Ciste.”

 

You can read the report on the state of the ski lift structures here and the full set of articles via the following links:

Introduction

The Community Bid

Natural Retreats view

Disputed account of what is going on

HIE’s defence (which includes the quote above)

 

The local community versus HIE

Another piece of great coverage of Cairngorm was on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors the last two Saturdays. If you have not listened to the interviews on I would recommend you do so while they are still on iplayer.

 

The first programme (see here 35 – 45mins into programme)  features Mike Gale and Mike Dearman, two Directors of the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust (see here), about the community bid to take-over Cairngorm.  I found both pretty impressive but you can judge for yourselves.

 

The second programme (see here) features two interviews with HIE staff as well as an interview with Ray Sefton about the closed funicular system.

 

The first part of programme (from 45 secs to 6 mins) was an interview with Sandra Holmes, Head of Community Assets at HIE whose job is to help community buyouts.  She did not allow HIE’s ownership of Cairngorm get in the way with explaining how community asset transfers work and explained there are four requirements for this to happen, which are worth quoting:

  • First is support from the local community
  • Second is that the transfer can demonstrate community benefit and public interest
  • Third is that the community has the capacity to manage the asset
  • Fourth is that the community can raise the purchase trust.

Its worth turning these questions around.  How much support does HIE have from the local community?  With all the money at Cairngorm going to a company ultimately owned by a hedge fund manager, how much community benefit has Natural Retreats brought to Cairngorm and how is this arrangement in the public interest?  And as for capacity to manage Cairngorm, what do Charlotte Wright and Keith Bryer’s response to Roger Cox’ question say about HIE’s capacity to manage Cairngorm?

 

Later in the programme (from 22 mins 30 secs to 29 mins 30 secs) Susan Smith, Head of Business Development at HIE was interviewed.  This was full of excuses such as “natural retreats quite rightly had to take time”  and Natural Retreats are only 3 years into a 25 year lease. This gave the impression that Natural Retreats are about to invest something in the mountain but despite references to a defined business plan and investment plan for the next three years, Susan Smith did not actually say whether any of the investment would come from Natural Retreats (we know HIE has committed £4m).

 

Information from the latest accounts of Cairngorm Mountain’s parent company Natural Assets Investment Ltd (which I will come back to in a future post) shows net liabilities have increased from £22,831,678 to £29,380, 827, yes, they were a further £6.5m in the red by the end of December 2016.    As HIE has been waiting for Natural Retreats to invest, their parent company has been getting more and more into debt and only continues to operate because of assurances from its main shareholder and creditor, David Michael Gorton.  Its hard to see Natural Retreats investing any money at Cairngorm anytime soon.

 

The interview was full of further misleading responses:

  • Talk about stewardship of the mountain and ensuring it is managed properly but no mention of: the work that took place last year at the Shieling outwith planning permission; HIE’s abandonment of previous standards for managing Cairngorm; or Natural Retreats failure to produce a comprehensive plan for Cairngorm as agreed in the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy.
  • A repetition of the claim that the Ciste towers had to be demolished for Health and Safety reasons (disproved by Roger Cox above) when the Ciste building, which is far more dangerous, has still not to my knowledge been demolished.  Moreover, there was no mention of the state of the concrete lift bases in Coire Cas (some of which are little better than those in Coire na Ciste)
  • Reference to HIE agreeing Service Levels with Natural Retreats, as if everything is ok then,  but no explanation of whether these have been met.  Information on Natural Retreats performance need to be made public.
  • Claims that HIE is committed to work in partnership when they won’t even co-operate with the Cairngorms National Park Authority on the production of a plan and standards for Cairngorm (as the CNPA has requested).   The history of HIE’s failure to engage with community, recreational or conservation interests is now a long one and their latest stance, which is that they will engage with skiers once the snow making trial planned for this winter is complete, says it all.   They are only trialling the new snow making machines because of pressure from groups like Save the Ciste but won’t even discuss how this might best be done.
  • The claim that HIE is totally committed to winter sports.   This is simply not true.  HIE’s whole strategy since the funicular was constructed has been to try and increase summer use and it has lamentably failed.   It appointment of Natural Retreats, an operator which had no experience of snow sports, fitted with this strategy.  What has become clear though is that the only time Cairngorm Mountain makes money is when there is lots of snow.   There is clear evidence for this in a place you might not expect, the accounts of Natural Assets Investment Ltd (the company which owns Caingorm Mountain):
  • So, NAIL is acknowledging winter revenue is crucial and also that all the planned investment at Cairngorm is to reduce reliance on winter season revenues.

What the recent public interviews show is that HIE cannot be trusted to manage Cairngorm.  The Community Asset transfer request needs to be evaluated against that record.

 

It would not be difficult to manage Cairngorm better than HIE but it looks like the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust is assembling a very strong team.   The public can go and judge for themselves at an open day the Trust is holding on Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore, on Tuesday 7th November between 2-8pm. “Everyone is invited to drop in and see the Trust’s outline plans for the future and to give us your ideas and feedback”.

October 9, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
Digger 6th October 2017 just southwest of col between Geal Charn and A’Mharconaich, West Drumochter Hills. Note the hillwalkers in the foreground.  GR 592766 approx.  The track curls round into Fraoch Choire north east of Beinn Udlamain.

If you see a digger in the hills……………report it!

On Friday, I went for a run up Geal Charn and went just beyond the summit because the views then open up down Loch Ericht.  There was a digger a little way to the south on what used to be a stalkers path into the Fraoch Choire.  Over the last ten years or so new bulldozed tracks have proliferated on both sides of the Drumochter pass and had a massive impact on the scenery.

Track behind north Drumochter Lodge
Tracks leading into west Drumochter hills from Balsporran cottages. The track on the left, up the Allt Choire Fhar leads onto the col in the top photo with the digger.
Screenshot from the very helpful Cairngorms National Park estate boundaries map

Most of land on the north side of the Drumochter pass is part of the North Drumochter or Ralia Estate as it is sometimes known.   As far as I can see from the National Park and Highland Council planning portals only two of the North Drumochter tracks has had planning permission, a  short section south of the telephone mast in the Glen back in 2012 and a section of the Beauly Denny construction track running north from Drumochter Lodge.  The tracks on the open hillside appear not to have been subject to planning at all.

 

The problem has been that under the old planning rules agricultural and forestry tracks did not need planning permission except in National Scenic Areas.  Estates used the presence of a few sheep, as in the first photo above, to claim these were agricultural tracks when they have been primarily used for grouse moor management.       However, after coming under considerable pressure from environmental and recreational NGOs, in December 2014 the Scottish Government introduced the Prior Notification system where landowners are supposed to notify planning authorities of the creation of any new track and any works to existing tracks which effectively extend them (e.g broadening the width of the track).

 

Many estates, however, are not observing the new rules and its a considerable challenge for Planning Authorities to monitor what is going on on the ground.  (Its not possible for planning authorities to take enforcement action against works that are more than three years old).   The LINK hilltrack campaign has had considerable success encouraging hillwalkers to report new tracks but one of the challenges for both LINK and planning authorities is to determine when the track work was done .   The presence of diggers however provide evidence that work is being done.

 

What struck me on Geal Charn, a popular Munro, is just how many hillwalkers must pass track construction works on the hill  and assume that all is legitimate.    If you care about the landscape, report it!.  A good place to start is the Link Hill tracks group (see here).

 

Has the work on this track been granted planning permission or been properly notified?

You can also report direct to the Planning Authority.   Several planning authorities, including the Cairngorms National Park, are now placing all Prior Notifications on their planning portals and its quite easy to check if work has had planning permission if you know the council or National Park boundary.  In this case I went to Cairngorms National Park Authority planning applications and did a map search:

The OS Map is out of date and does not show recent tracks but the track in the top photo follows the line of an old stalkers path into the Fraoch Choire.

When you zoom in one level more than this you get to maps which depict all planning applications in red.   The situation in this case is a bit complicated since the yellow marks line marks the Cairngorms National Park boundary and the digger in the photo may have just been outwith the CNPA boundary (although of course it could have done works on either side of the boundary).  I therefore also checked the HIghland Council planning portal but as far as I can see no full planning application or Prior Notification has been submitted to either Planning Authority:

HIghland Council planning portal snapshot showing line of old footpath into Fraoch Choire. If the track had planning permission or been notified to the Planning Portal there should have been a red line by the line of the footpath.

Now of course its possible that North Drumochter Estate has notified Highland Council of the work and it has not appeared on the their planning portal or that works are of a very minor nature (routine maintenance of existing tracks) and therefore don’t need to be notified.   However, what the planning portals shows is that there is NO obvious explanation for the presence of the digger or that works have been agreed here.   I believe therefore there is every reason to report it.  So, I will!

 

If you find it difficult to access or the Planning Authorities on-line portals don’t let that put you off.  (The IDOX planning portal still does not allow you to see planning applications on maps if you use firefox as your web browser although I reported this glitch to the Scottish Government early this year)    You can email photos to the planning authority and ask if they know about this work (CNPA planning 01479 873535or planning@cairngorms.co.uk) and the LINK Hill tracks campaign (see here again) will always welcome information.

 

Hill tracks and protected areas

Where it can be hard for the planning authority to take enforcement action under planning law is if works are of a minor nature.   This however contributes to a new problem, track creep.   Tracks are gradually widened or extended or ATV tracks receive some maintenance work which over time then add up to a new track.    The photos I have – and unfortunately I did not have time to take a close look which would have been better – suggest this may be happening in this case.

 

There are other mechanisms however by which we could prevent this happening.   In protected nature sites many operations require consent from SNH and much of our National Parks are supposed to be protected in this way.  SNH has a very useful website, called sitelink which enables you to do map based searches of whether a site is protected (and it works with firefox!):

The big hatched block shows the boundary of the Drumochter Hills SSSI, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area (birds).

It appear that the digger, while it might have been just outwith the CNPA boundary was within the Drumochter Hills SSSI, SAC and SPA boundary.   Within that SSSI all work on vegetation, ditches, tracks and off road use of vehicles requires permission from SNH.   So, I will report the digger to  SNH too, although in an ideal world one would hope that our National Parks at least would automatically pass on this type of information to SNH!  Indeed, I believe one of the primary ways that the CNPA could prevent the further extension of hills tracks – a policy commitment set out in its new National Park Parternship Plan – would be to encourage and work with SNH to make the system of Operations Requiring Consent far more robust than it is at present.

What needs to be done

Besides using its planning powers and working more closely with SNH, it seems to me its time the CNPA (and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority) considered using the other powers it has to bring hill tracks and hill track work under control and protect the landscape.  I have previously advocated use of byelaws, which the National Park can create in order to protected nature conservation interests, to control grouse moor management.  Part of that should include extension of tracks and use of diggers on the hill.

 

It will help build the case for that if people out on the hill report what they see and, ideally, complain.

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

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

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

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

 

The restoration of the shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who paid for the pump house?

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

The landscaping of the area around the Shieling track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The area above the Shieling rope tow

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

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

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

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

The finishing of the culverts is very poor.

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

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

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

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

 

What needs to happen in Coire Cas?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

September 29, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking south along the first part of the unrestored Beauly Denny access track.  Its 4-5 metres wide, twice as wide as necessary even if it could be justified.  The Beauly Denny was bad enough but why this too?

At the end of August, after a stravaig over the east Drumochter hills, I looped back to Dalwhinnie through the Drumochter pass, the idea being to combine enjoyment with a look at the effectiveness of the restoration of the land along the Beauly Denny.   Just beyond Dalnaspidal and hidden behind the A9 shelterbelt,  I came across what can only be described as a track motorway on the Dalnacardoch Estate, an unrestored section of the  Beauly Denny construction track which appears to have been retained to facilitate intensive grouse moor management.

The track starts by the second pylon in the photo and is more or less hidden to people walking up A Bhuidheanach Bheag from opposite Dalnaspidal, although linked to the A9 there by an older and much narrower landrover track.  It extends about 3km north past the Sow of Atholl (left of A9) to the summit of the pass and boundary of the Dalnacardoch and North Drumochter Estates.

The start of the unrestored section of Beauly Denny access track heading north.  The first pylon is photo in numbered GMI 157.

Originally, the intention was almost all the Beauly Denny construction tracks were to be removed entirely once the power line had been erected and the land restored to its original condition.  The Scottish Government than agreed for several sections of track to remain permanently.

The pylons are numbered north to south

From the pylon numbers,  it appears that the section of track is 26b. If so, according to the “Monitoring Report for 2016” supplied to me by the Cairngorms National Park Authority under Freedom of Information, this is NOT one of the “temporary tracks to be retained”.

Moreover, unlike the tracks on the North Drumochter estate (see here), no application has been made to the Cairngorms National Park Authority to retain the track and they have confirmed they never approved it.     The first question that needs to be answered is whether the Scottish Government has approved the track  in secret and contrary to the policy position of the Cairngorms National Park Authority which has made its position very clear:

 

“I think we should make it very clear that the retention of sections of track associated with Beauly-Denny line will only happen in exceptional circumstances.”  (Eleanor Mackintosh, CNPA Convenor of Planning, statement to press after approval of retention of short section of construction track in forest at Kinlochlaggan).

 

If the Scottish Government has not approved it, the question is why have Scottish and Southern Energy failed to fully restore the land?

 

The failure of the track to meet approved standards

If the track has been approved, there are further questions as to whether the Scottish Government agreed to the retention of a motorway – a track which is twice as wide as necessary and which fails to meet other basic standards for good track construction as these photos illustrate.

Former laydown areas at the side of the track have not been restored
Track spoil dumped on moorland
Unused construction materials have been left on moorland – the moorland here is part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest
The temporary construction bridge illustrates there has been no attempt to narrow the track on either side
There are relatively few protruding culverts but more would appear if the track had been narrowed
The unrestored ground here is  over 10m wide

For a track like this to be approved in a National Park would be a national disgrace but if not, the question is how and why is it being allowed to slip through the net?

 

The purpose of the track

It was quite obvious, jogging along the track, why the estate wished to retain it – and, at the very least they must requested SSE not to restore it.

Crow trap

 

Upturned peat turves serving as dispensers for medicated grit could be seen on both sides of the track
Similarly stoat traps
Two more traps

Unfortunately my camera battery packed up just before the end of the track but this was marked by a line of grouse butts up the hillside.

 

Intensive grouse moor management is now under scrutiny as never before.   How has this track, which impacts both on the landscape (while hidden from the A9 it would be clearly visible from the west Drumochter Hills) and on wildlife been allowed to remain in the National Park?

September 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

Trees for Life announced this week a new project to use old isolated Scots Pine to restore areas which were formerly covered in Caledonian Pine Forest.

It brought to mind An Camas Mor……………

………..where the isolated old pines now sit among regenerating forest.

A great example of rewilding (see here) and of what Trees for Life want to achieve.

 

Instead of using public money to build town here,  the Cairngorms National Park Authority should be using An Camas Mor as the perfect example of what National Parks could achieve if they had more power over land-use and if they were left alone by the Scottish Government to do the job they were set up to do.

 

The designs for the new town, which appear excellent, could get used for somewhere outside the National Park  – how about Cambuslang rather than An Camas Mor? – and small elements could be used to meet the need for more social housing in Badenoch and Strathspey.

September 19, 2017 Nick Kempe 8 comments

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

THE ORIGINAL PARAGRAPH WHICH FOLLOWED HAS BEEN CORRECTED FOLLOWING CLARIFICATION

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Extract from CNPA committee report August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Camas Mor, rewilding and the Cairngorms National Park

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, the CNPA at present appears to give little priority to rewilding. Our National Parks, which could have offered a means to re-wild  parts of Scotland, have not had the drive or will to promote the potential of nature against the interests and wishes of landowners.  Meantime, apart from national nature reserves none of our other nature conservation designations – a major flaw – can be used to restore nature to places.   Our designation system is focussed on protecting what is there, not what could be.       We sorely need a means to promote re-wilding which is not entirely dependent on the goodwill of the landowner.
If Anders Povlsen, who is doing so much to re-wild Glen Feshie, or the RSPB rather than Johnnie Grant had owned this land,  I think it would be being quietly promoted as one of the jewels in the Cairngorms.   From a conservation perspective, the Scottish Government would have been far better giving Johnnie Grant £7.2m to buy up An Camas Mor than buying part of the Rothiemurchus Estate (see here), which was already fully protected.
While both the Scottish Government and the CNPA know that An Camas Mor sits at the centre of the main areas of woodland where Capercaillie now survive, they have seen the challenge as being to find ways to let the development go ahead without impacting too much on capercaillie.  Hence the detailed Habitats Regulations Assessment and mitigation proposals for An Camas Mor which, if enforced, will inevitably restrict access.   They could and should have looked at this from a completely different viewpoint.  What is the rewilding potential of An Camas Mor and what role could it play in saving the capercaillie (once again) from extinction in Scotland?
I have asked Gus Jones, convener of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group why there are not capercaillie in the woods?    The first reason he gave is recreational use, and by that he did not mean walkers (I did not see another walker in two hours on what was an English bank holiday)   but the use of the forest for quad biking.
The people quad biking were very nice, obviously enjoying themselves and I even heard the tour leader, who had stopped everyone at a particular point, explain the orange marks on some trees marked those to be felled and this was being done to improve ground flora in the woods. How this fitted with the proposed development I am not sure!
The second is that part of An Camas Mor is used for pheasant breeding.
While specific, let alone conclusive research, is lacking,  even the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here) admits that pheasant rearing can lead to competition for food and drive other game birds (in which they include capercaillie) from the most intensively used areas while also attracting predators.
Now I am not against either quad biking or pheasant rearing, in the right place.   However, given the current parlous state of capercaillie, surely what the CNPA should be doing is engaging with relevant interests to help capercaillie re-colonise this site (and other such woods)?   This should include, if necessary, helping the current businesses relocate (if An Camas Mor goes ahead they will be finished in any case).
In a previous post  (see here)  I argued  we need an alternative plan for An Camas Mor and this  could be funded by the money which the Scottish Government apparently intends to invest in the development.   Having had a good look at the site, I believe the core of an alternative plan for An Camas Mor should be about how we can allow it to continue to rewild.  That would not cost much in itself:  narrow a few tracks to footpaths, restore other damage, remove human artefacts and rubbish and then leave nature take over..    It would then leave plenty of money to develop social housing elsewhere.
The only problem?  Landownership and how to change who controls the land.
September 12, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Extract from paper on “Matters Arising” for Board Meeting 18th September, the decision as recorded in the minutes on the left

An extraordinary discussion took place at the end of the June Board meeting of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority in which Councillor James Robb, one of several councillors who will be leaving the Board this Autumn (see here),  proposed that the number of Board Members should be cut.  The reason for the proposal basically was that he felt there was very little for Board members to do, consequently the Board could operate with far fewer members  and cutting numbers would save money.

 

There followed a very open discussion – which would never have taken place in public under the aegis of the previous convener Linda McKay (all credit to new convener James Stuart) – in which basically Board numbers agreed with the proposal (it was clear during the discussion that Cllr Robb had discussed the proposal with some of the other councillors on the Board).   Hence the decision of the meeting, recorded in the minute, to approach the Minister and ask for a suspension of new appointments until numbers on the Board could be reviewed.

 

Unsurprisingly the proposal has been rejected by the Scottish Government. Our National Park legislation requires the Board to be composed of three types of members, those appointed by Ministers, those nominated by local authorities and directly elected members and the numbers of the three categories of Board Member to balance.   While reducing numbers of councillors and Ministerial nominees on the Board would be relatively simple, reducing the number of directly elected members would require electoral boundaries to be completely withdrawn, a complex business.  Also, I suspect the Scottish Government wants to avoid opening up the possibility of any debate in the Scottish Parliament about new or existing National Parks which would be created if the existing legislation was to be amended.

 

While I welcomed the open discussion and the honesty of Board Members – its not many people who voluntarily vote to make the posts they are leaving redundant – what was depressing was that not a single Board Member made a case for keeping Board Members, based not just on what they do at present but on what they could and should be doing.    It appeared from the discussion that Board Members feel they serve no useful purpose.

 

Now I can understand why that might have happened.  First, when Mike Cantlay was chair and Fiona Logan was Chief Executive, Board Members were  firmly told they were not to get involved in operational matters.   So Board Members who knew about footpaths, were told not to support staff on this and those that knew about conservation were told to keep clear of that while those simply with an interest in their area were also told to keep at arms length.    The reason for having Board Members with expertise or democratically elected and nominated Board Members disappeared.

 

Second, to keep Board Members occupied, Mike Cantlay and Fiona Logan then introduced the practice of monthly briefing sessions and seminars as a  way for Board Members to earn their £200 a day.  These meetings, rather than helping Board Members to speak freely, actually became a way of controlling them and under the next convener Linda McKay were turned into secret decision making forums which among other things developed the camping byelaws.   The National Park Board became increasingly autocratic and the result has been Board Members have been left unable to see a role for themselves.

 

What is very sad though is that Board Members have become so neutered that even under the new more open regime of James Stuart they cannot see a useful role for themselves.    I believe there are plenty of opportunities for the Board both to start showing leadership and also to start putting proper governance arrangements in place.  I think this should be based around a number of  areas of activity:

  1. Board Members should know what is happening on the ground and being done in their name.    This means them getting out to see everything from the hydro tracks that are destroying the National Park landscape to the inappropriate areas designated as “camping permit zones”.  This would enable them to make informed inputs into policy development and to scrutinise papers properly.   The current Board is totally failing to do this,  is  disconnected from what is happening on the ground and as a result cannot do its job properly.
  2. Elected Board Members, both councillors and those directly elected,  should be engaging with the local communities they serve and helping to articulate community concerns and aspirations.  That they are failing to do so I think was epitomised by the case of former Councillor Fergus Wood, who was resoundly defeated in the last election, in no small part because he had pressed ahead with a proposal for a campsite without consulting local people.  The same elected representatives for Strathard totally failed to listen to the concerns of the local community about the size of the Loch Chon campsite.  When push comes to shove, the democratically elected representatives have always listened to their Chief Executive before the communities they serve.   The large democratic deficit in the National Park needs to be closed and that will take time and effort.
  3. Board Members should be engaging with national recreational and conservation interests – the people with expertise in the Park’s statutory objectives to promote public enjoyment and conservation.  Had they been doing so I don’t think we would have ended up with  the camping byelaws or the land management practices which still dominate much of the National Park and are destroying its conservation value (whether intensive forestry with clearfell or overgrazing by sheep and deer).  Again, this will take time and effort.
  4. Board Members should be taking a leadership role to ensure effective partnership working with other public sector organisations.  I find it amazing that Councillor Members, having called a year ago for more effective working with local authorities to address litter (noted again in the minutes as an issue) do not appear to have done anything to assist with this process.   They appear to have no idea of how to do this and to have lost sight of the reason they form a third of the membership is to ensure effective joint work with their councils.  If the structures aren’t there, its their job to create them and they need to start doing so.   However, the issue of effective co-ordination goes far beyond local authorities.  The Board needs to have members meeting and networked with other public authorities such as the Forestry Commission, SNH  and SEPA and to have links with delivery organisations like Sustrans and Transport Scotland .   If they started doing so, the National Park might have a chance of delivering a partnership plan which made a real difference, instead of each sector just carrying on as it is managing what is left of ever decreasing public sector budgets.

 

It will be interesting to see if the Board Meeting next week has any discussion in public about creating a meaningful role for Board Members.  It appear from the fact that senior staff have marked this matter arising as “Closed” that they don’t want this to happen.

 

 

September 11, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Looking from the pole which marks the centre of the proposed new town at an An Camas Mor towards the Lairig Ghru

Anyone who tries to understand human affairs from a global perspective will have probably greeted  last week’s announcement that a poll of readers of the Rough Guides had found Scotland to be the most beautiful country in the world with a deep shrug.

 

It is of course just a piece of marketing based on a very selective sample of people who are able to travel and choose to visit certain countries.   That Scotland came out top beating Canada, New Zealand and South Africa says a lot.  This was a poll of people from the English speaking world with what appear to be anglo-saxon perspectives.   A month ago I was in the Dolomites, where its not hard to find marketing blurb claiming that the Dolomites are indeed the most beautiful place in the world.  I wonder how many Italians were included in this poll?       And what about he mass of humanity who live in the third world, often much closer to the natural environment than we do, but whose experience of beauty is being destroyed by logging companies, mines and agricultural plantations which also displace them from the land.

 

Polls like this are not just an indulgence which should be accepted with a shrug.  They feed a racist view of the world, where we rarely stop long enough to consider what people from elsewhere and who are not like us may think, and which is blind to what capitalism is doing in our name to other parts of the world.  They also feed a privileged view of Scotland, which treats a few unspoiled land and city scapes (from Skye to Edinburgh) as epitomising the country and is blind to the many far from beautiful places where people actually live, with all the impact that has for health and human happiness.   Social injustice, which is everywhere and growing, is never beautiful.

 

Even if we ignore, like the tourists, the ugly bits of Scotland, objectively, how can you compare the best bits, the beauty that lies in our hills, lochs and western seaboard with the high mountains of the Himalaya or the deserts of Australia or the savannah in Africa?   People can only answer questions about what they know about.   I love Scotland but then its the landscape of home.   If you polled everyone in the world about what was the most beautiful country I am pretty certain China, having the most people, would come out top and Scotland, being small, would come out way down the list.  That’s not much use to Visit Scotland though, in their mission to promote Scotland, so the hype and privileged world view that goes with it will continue.

 

Polls like this also ignore the reality that across the world humans are destroying the natural environment and natural beauty at ever increasing rates and although “peak” destruction in Scotland took place something like 200 years ago, it is continuing with the say-so, nay encouragement, of those in power.    The Herald in its coverage of the story  (see here) gave a wonderful illustration of the complacency of the current Scottish Government:

 

“A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its policies ensure developments are sited at appropriate locations”.  

 

Really?  It seems to me that only someone who had never visited An Camas Mor (photo above) or was blinded by business, greed and profit could ever say that.

 

And that is my greatest concerns about this poll, it lets those in power off the hook and will undermine our National Parks, which were set up to protect the landscape and find more sustainable ways for humans to relate to nature.  The thinking goes like this……..

 

….if Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world, then:

  • people cannot be really concerned about the proliferation of hydro tracks which has destroyed the landscape of Glen Falloch and Glen Dochart for example with the blessing of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority
  • surely, with so much beauty, we can easily afford to lose a few areas in our National Parks to development, whether to the An Camas Mor new town, Flamingo Land at Balloch or Natural Retreats at Cairngorm
  • people cannot be really concerned about how our landscapes are treated on a day to day basis, whether by Highlands and Islands Entrerprise at Cairngorm or grouse moor owners……….in fact, perhaps our landowners are right, its these land management practices which make the country beautiful
  • why on earth did parkswatch make a fuss about the beech trees on Inchtavannach being felled in the name of science?   This poll came after that felling and all the other destruction covered in the last 18 months and that doesn’t seem to have altered people’s perceptions of Scotland.
  • this just shows that people aren’t very concerned about the visual impact of blanket conifer afforestation and subsequent clearfelling by the Forestry Commission so we can just let these practices continue in the National Park

 

The point that our politicians and powers that be must not be allowed to forget is that, whatever Scotland’s position in the world, our National Parks have, since their creation, presided over a further degradation of the landscapes they were set up to protect.  What we need is not international opinion polls, which simply provide an excuse for our National Parks to continue as they are present, but a real change in direction which puts landscape and social justice first.

September 4, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

Like many people, I suspect, I have been waiting for  months for another case of raptor persecution to occur in the Cairngorms National Park.  For under the current grouse moor management regimes that dominate much of the National Park, its not a case of “if” but “when” another raptor will disappear.   While its taken longer than I expected, last week the RSPB announced  a young hen harrier, which had been satellite tagged on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, had disappeared just north of Ballater.  As Raptor Persecution Scotland reported (see here) its almost certain this was on either the Invercauld estate, held by a Trust on behalf of the Farquharson family or Dinnet estate, owned by former Cairngorms National Park Authority Board Member Marcus Humphrey.   Their article documents known cases of raptor persecution in the area.

 

The Cairngorms National Park Authority issued this news release in response to the incident:

Statement: Hen harrier disappearance

1st September 2017

From Grant Moir CEO, Cairngorms National Park Authority

“A hen harrier has once again disappeared in the Cairngorms National Park, with a satellite tracker ceasing to transmit. The Park Authority is determined to stop these recurring disappearances.

“Earlier this week the CNPA met with Police Scotland to discuss how increased use of special constables can help to tackle wildlife crime in the Cairngorms National Park. We also continue to work on other solutions to these issues.

“The CNPA look forward to the establishment by Scottish Government of the independently-led group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management and will feed in to that review.”

(see here for link)

However, while such a solution might work in a National Park where the Board was determined to tackle landowners, unfortunately the reality at present from the destruction at Cairngorm to the profileration of hill tracks is that the CNPA does not appear to have the will or resources to use its regulatory powers.   So, even if the CNPA introduced a licensing regime – and was allowed to act independently of its minders at the Scottish Government – this might not change anything.
Another solution is to nationalise the land.  In many National Parks across the world land is in public ownership.  National Parks were set up in Scotland on the assumption that it would be possible to persuade landowners to cooperate.   They have now had 15 years to do so and some still blatantly ignore all the conservation objectives of the National Park.  I think its time therefore for people to start demanding that where there is evidence of repeated raptor persecution (or a repeated failure to meet other conservation objectives) on particular estates in our National Parks the Scottish Government should compulsorily purchase the estate concerned.  Tney could then transfer the land to a new National Parks land-management service, as exists in other countries, to manage.
August 22, 2017 Nick Kempe 11 comments
Some of the protesters who attended the CNPA planning meeting on Friday.  Protests by local people, while already significant, are likely to increase greatly in future due to the implications of the proposed Recreation Management Plan.   Photo Credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

On Friday, to no-one’s surprise, the Cairngorms National Park Authority unanimously approved the revised planning application for An Camas Mor and in effect gave Johnnie Grant a further three years to meet planning requirements.   Paradoxically,  this new decision, I believe makes An Camas Mor  less likely than ever to go ahead.  This is mainly because of the measures proposed in the Habitats Regulations Assessment regarding access and the requirement for a Recreation Management Plan.

 

Its worth recalling here that the development of land for housing on the east side of the Spey in the area of ACM was first proposed by Aviemore Community Council  in 1987 and that every Scottish Government since the Scottish Parliament was created  have supported the development.  The original proposal from the old Highland Council development plan was transferred into the first Cairngorms National Park Authority Development plan and has been there ever since.   Despite this – and despite strong ongoing support from elements of the current Scottish Government,  support which the CNPA is not strong enough to challenge – so far the development lobby have achieved nothing. Not a single house built.    On balance, I don’t think that is going to change.  What follows explains why.

 

The flawed decision-making process

Despite the extensive implications of An Camas Mor for access, for both local residents and visitors, (see here) and (here) there was not a single objection to the application on the grounds that it would have an adverse impact on access and recreation.  The reason for this is no-one knew there would be implications until the CNPA published its secret Habitats Regulations Assessment last week, four days before the planning committee.   The Ramblers Association then issued a press release (see here) the day before the Committee Meeting raising serious issues about the proposals and Dave Morris, their former Director, wrote to every single Board Member on the day of the meeting (see here), but this was all too late. The CNPA denied the recreational community the opportunity to have any formal say in the planning decision.    This is fundamentally wrong and will, I believe, come back to haunt both the CNPA and the Scottish Government.

 

To make matters worse, it is clear the CNPA were aware of the recreational implications of ACM over a year ago.   Appendix 5 to Habitats Regulations Assessment is dated August 2016 and titled “Identification of woodlands with potential for significant recreational disturbance to capercaillie arising from An Camas Mor, and specification of the mitigation required to avoid such disturbance.  This document therefore had been finalised a month BEFORE the CNPA Board approved the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, yet the CNPA were quite happy for that strategy – which had been subject to consultation with recreational interests – to be approved without any indication that it was already out of day because of what they were planning to mitigate the impacts of An Camas Mor.   That should hardly inspire trust in the CNPA from outdoor recreation interests.

 

The implications of the proposed An Camas Mor Recreation Management Plan

While the Habitats Regulations Assessment was produced without consultation,  the new planning condition which sets out the requirement for a Recreation Management Plan is very strong in terms of what it requires the developer to do to ensure the protection of Natura sites, particularly in respect of capercaillie.  Condition 11 reads:

 

“No development shall commence on site (other than site investigation works) until a Recreational Management Plan (RMP) that delivers the outcomes within the Habitat Regulations Appraisal that accompanies this decision and demonstrates that there will be no adverse effect on site integrity of any Natura sites, has been submitted to and approved in writing by the CNPA acting as planning authority.”

 

This was is re-inforced by the CNPA Press Release announcing the decision which states the applicant will have “to prove there will be no significant adverse effects to capercaillie in Badenoch and Strathspey as a result of the proposals before any development can start.”  

 

Prove is a very strong word and proving that the creation of a further 1500 households, most of whom will have an interest in outdoor recreation, right in the heart of capercaillie country, will have no adverse impact on capercaillie will in my view provide an enormous challenge to the developer.   Moreover proving that the soft mitigation measures outlined in the Habitats Regulation Appraisal (such as revegetation of certain paths) will be sufficient to keep visitor numbers at current levels will be  impossible to demonstrate.  As a result, I believe the applicant will only be able to prove they can mitigate the impacts of the development for capercaillie, if they can show they have plans to put in place powers of last resort to limit visitor numbers.   And that requires byelaws.

 

Besides the political stushie that any proposal for byelaws will create, they also have serious resource implications.   The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Rangers Service is huge compared to that in the Cairngorms (over 50 staff who consume a large huge proportion of the National Park’s resources) and have responsibility for enforcing the camping management byelaws.  Yet visit any of the camping management zones where camping is banned and I can guarantee that on each occasion you will find people in breach of the byelaws.   At Rowardennan on Sunday there was a tent on the beach – people weren’t actually camping, they were using it to change in to go for a swim – but were nevertheless committing the criminal offence of pitching a tent in a management zone.  The CNPA, in order to protect Natura Sites, could not allow such breaches to take place.  It will therefore need a huge police/ranger force – unless of course people are banned from Glenmore completely, which would destroy Aviemore as a tourist destination – to ensure people to keep to the paths, the outcome it says the Recreation Management Plan must deliver.

 

How will this be paid for?   The developer is now proposing that the future residents of An Camus Mor will pay for visitor management measures through ground rent or as the CNPA puts it “long-term funding for recreation management through the annual household service charge”..    The financial implications for future residents are significant, could well make the 25% of ACM that the CNPA says will be reserved for social housing completely unaffordable and is likely to act as a deterrent to potential purchasers.  The proposed Recreation Management Plan therefore significantly increases the financial risks associated with the development.

 

Implementing the Recreation Management Plan

The proposed Recreation Management Plan will have to cover not just An Camus Mor itself and Johnnie Grant’s remaining land at Rothiemurchus, it will have to cover much of Badenoch and Strathspey from Creag Dubh to Boat of Garten. This includes land owned by other landowners, namely Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB and Seafield Estates.   The Habitats Regulations Assessment does not indicate what involvement those landowners had in drawing up the proposed mitigation measures or whether they have agreed to implement them – this information needs to be made public – but it would only take one landowner to refuse to implement the measures and the whole Recreation Management Plan,  and therefore the development, would fall apart.

 

What’s more, those landowners are entitled to ask for re-imbursement for all the costs of implementing the Recreation Management Plan.   RSPB have already indicated that they think the costs of this are considerable:

 

Based on their own assessment of mitigation needed in the Abernethy SPA to reduce
risks of disturbance to an acceptable level, they have estimated the capital costs of
mitigation across the network SPA and supporting woodland in Badenoch and
Strathspey to be in the region of £650k to £900k. They also estimate that a five to six
person ranger service would be required in perpetuity to support recreation
management.

 

I think that these projected costs are likely to go up significantly once all the landowners start thinking through the implications and costing what they need to do.

 

Moreover, while I am sceptical enough to believe that the landowners involved might only be too happy to limit access – there are those in Forestry Commission Scotland who have always resented the removal of their ability to make byelaws controlling access since the Land Reform Act – whether they would be prepared to sign up to permanent recreation management measures on their land in perpetuity which limit their right to take their own decisions is questionable.   This would mean landowners signing away some of their rights to manage land – it would almost certainly need expensive legal agreements –  which in planning terms normally requires compensation.   The other landowners are thus in financial terms now in a position to hold the developer to ransom and name their price.   This adds further significant risks to the financing of An Camas Mor.

 

It is also another reason why the only way that Johnnie Grant, as Developer, will be able to  guarantee delivery of the Recreation Management Plan on other landowners’ property is if he can show the CNPA has agreed to use its byelaw making powers, under either the Land Reform Act or the National Parks Act, to deliver the mitigation measures.  This is because even if Johnnie Grant agrees a suite of measures and a price with other landowners, he also needs to show what will happen if these don’t work.   Will he, for example, be able to increase management charges for ACM residents to pay for whatever measures are needed?       If there are any doubts about Johnnie Grant’s ability to pay for delivery of the mitigation measures, then the only way he can guarantee they are delivered is if the CNPA agrees to use its byelaw making powers.

 

Legally, this creates lots of issues.  It is highly questionable whether any public authority has the right to use its powers both to control how other land owners manage their land and to limit public rights of access when the only reason for this is to deliver a private development.  While I believe the CNPA will eventually have to consult on the proposed Recreation Management Plan and when it does I predict a huge public outcry which will shake the politicians, in terms of the current planning decision it appears that the CNPA have acted ultra vires.   As a result, there is a strong case that it could be legally challenged and called in by the Scottish Government.

The involvement of the Scottish Government and the financial risks associated with the development

I have had it reported on good authority that at the Planning Committee on Friday Johnnie Grant’s planning consultant  said words to the effect that  the Scottish Government has agreed to help fund the development if planning consent is given.   While this helps explain the CNPA decision it also opens the door to questions now being lodged under the Freedom of Information Act asking about the Scottish Government’s involvement in promoting and financing an inappropriate development in one of our National Parks.

 

In a post last week I drew attention to the high financial risks to the developer and in particular the need to meet costs up front.   While the revised planning conditions no longer require the developer to pay for health infrastructure (the CNPA now say sufficient facilities are in place to cope with the new demand) in other areas the development costs have increased, for example, “members agreed that a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists must be delivered before 200 homes are occupied.”   That means more money the banks will have lend up front without any guarantee they will get it back.

 

Meantime, due to the current crisis in our wider capitalist economy and the relentless downward pressure on wages, the number of people able to afford first or second homes at An Camas Mor are becoming thinner on the ground.   This I believe helps explains why the Developer has been having discussions with the Scottish Government about helping to finance the development (the latest information I have had is that the £7.2m Johnnie Grant received from the Scottish Government to buy part of Rothiemurchus has already been spent and is not available to contribute to the development).

 

The need to develop an alternative plan

The question then arises that if if the Scottish Government is prepared to finance Johnnie Grant, why not use Scottish Government finance- rumours suggest this could be £9m –  to fund an alternative plan?

This letter from 2014, tweeted by the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group summarises the reasons why people should be sceptical about whether An Camas Mor will deliver social housing

£9m could pump prime a significant development of social housing, which is what the National Park needs to meet the needs of the local workforce, who are according to National Park Plan paid significantly less than the national average.   If our Public Authorities had spent the last 30 years bringing empty houses into use and promoting new affordable housing, instead of endless luxury housing for use as second homes and waiting for An Camas Mor to go ahead, the housing problems in the National Park would have been solved by now.  The dualling of the A9 makes it is far less important that such housing be located in Aviemore as it opens the option of improved bus connections between settlements.

 

£9 could alternatively pay for the pedestrian/cycling bridge over the Spey and other recreational infrastructure, greatly extending opportunities for informal outdoor recreation for those living in Aviemore while reducing current impacts of residents on natura sites,  without any need for the new development to go ahead.  In other words the Scottish Government could pay to implement for the good ideas in the Habitats Regulations Assessment – and there are some – without any need for the development going ahead.

 

What needs to happen

The recreational implications of An Camas Mor going ahead are enormous and very complicated and legally provide extremely strong grounds  for the Scottish Government to call in the application, both because it appears that the CNPA has acted ultra vires and also because the proposed Recreation Management Plan is incapable of implementation.    I hope conservation and recreational organisations now join together and call on Ministers to do this.

 

Its time too I believe for local residents and the conservation and recreational NGOs to get together and develop an alternative plan.  Unfortunately I don’t think the CNPA would be allowed to do this even though its exactly the sort of initiative it should be leading.   An alternative plan should aim to deliver the housing that is needed by the local workforce, protect nature and promote outdoor recreation where this is appropriate.    People should be demanding that the Scottish Government agree in principle to finance the implementation of such a plan, which would deliver considerable public benefits, instead of financing private developers to the overall detriment of the National Park.

August 16, 2017 Nick Kempe 15 comments
An Camas Mor visualisation from 2008 re-submitted February 2017.  ACM is in the Cairngorm National Scenic Area.

On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee will consider a revised planning application for An Camus Mor (see here), the proposed new town across the Spey from Aviemore. (Click here for link to the Park’s planning portal and all 236 documents associated with the application). The main change proposed by the the application is to vary planning condition 1, which restricted the development to 630 houses (out of a potential 1500)  until the impact of this initial phase of the development on landscape and ecology had been completed.   Instead the applicants, An Camas Mor Limited Liability Partnership, the development vehicle of the landowner, Johnnie Grant of Rothiemurchus, are proposing a phased approach.

 

The abandonment of the precautionary approach

 

There is no explanation, from either the applicant or the Park about why the planning application needs to be varied.   The applicant’s letter 2017_0086_DET-SECTION_42_COVER_LETTER-100124269 claims that “The proposed change to condition 1 is essential to facilitate appropriate phasing of the development as the Design Team moves towards implementation of the development” without explaining why.  The Park’s Committee Report repeats this claim without explaining what it means.

 

The Committee report then fails to consider the proposed changes in relation to the precautionary principle or the National Park’s statutory objectives, which state that when their is a conflict between any of the Park’s statutory objectives, in this case sustainable economic development and conservation, conservation should come first.    That there is a conflict is clear from para 24 of the Committee Report:

 

SNH advise that the proposal is likely to have a significant effect on:
a) The Capercaillie qualifying interest of Cairngorms SPA (Special Protection Area for birds), Abernethy Forest SPA, Kinveachy Forest SPA, Anagach Woods SPA and Craigmore Wood SPA;
b) The acidic scree, alpine and subalpine heath, blanket bog, dry heath, wet heath, plants in crevices on acid rocks, and otter qualifying interests of Cairngorms SAC; and
c) The otter, Atlantic salmon, fresh water pearl mussel, and sea lamprey qualifying
interests of River Spey SAC.

 

Under the original condition,  if the development of this site had a larger impact than was being predicted or could be mitigated – and the whole site is basically surrounded by protected sites, including those important to the Capercaillie which once again is close to extinction in Scotland – it could be halted.   Johnnie Grant is now effectively asking for this limit on the development to be waived and the Park’s officers, in recommending the application is approved, are agreeing with him.  Its difficult to see any justification for this in conservation terms.

 

So why is this happening?  The most likely explanation is that the proposed change is being driven by financiers who will want guaranteed returns.  As a result of the infrastructure costs associated with developing the site (building new roads, relocating wildlife etc), it is likely that it will only be when house numbers reach a certain figure – probably over 630 – that the profit will really start rolling in.   Hence the reason for this application.    The financiers want to remove the risk that the development will not be highly profitable and the main risk of this happening in Planning Condition 1.   Money, it appears,  is more important than conservation in our National Parks.

 

Had the National Park officers been recommending that the development be reviewed and potentially halted at each phase of the development, that would have strengthened the precautionary approach, but unfortunately that is not what is being proposed.  Once the go-ahead is given for the whole development, and the block plan for the proposed housing has already been approved, it will become impossible to stop, whatever the evidence of impacts on the natural heritage.  In effect under a phased plan all the CNPA will be able to do is comment on matters of detail, not the wider impacts of the development.

The environmental impact of the proposed development and the implications for access rights

The main new document associated with the proposal is a 240 page Habitat Regulations Appraisal (HRA) dated 20th June, but which was only made public on Monday when it was uploaded to the CNPA planning portal, and which was drafted by CNPA staff with support from SNH (Appendix 4 of the Committee Report).

 

The HRA starts out by stating that the An Camus Mor Development will have a “likely significant effect” on no less than seven protected European sites:  Abernethy Forest Special Protection Area (SPAs protect  birds); Anagach Woods SPA; Cairngorms SPA; Craigmore Wood SPA; Kinveachy Forest SPA; Cairngorms SAC (Special Area of Conservation – protects things other than birds); River Spey SAC.       Basically the reason for this is 1500 new households at An Camus Mor will go out into the neighbouring countryside, which happens to be these protected areas, to do everything from walking dogs to mountain biking (and the people likely to be attracted to live at An Camas Mor, like Aviemore, are likely to be more active than most of the population).

 

The Habitats Regulations Appraisal however says that these impacts can be mitigated.  While there is a huge amount of detail (much of which is highly debateable in the report) In a nutshell what it is saying is that the CNPA and developer can compensate for additional recreational impacts from a larger resident population around Aviemore by reducing existing recreational impacts.  The outcomes required to mitigate for An Camus Mor and the measures that will be needed to make this happen are set out for each part of each protected area (hence the length of the document).   While the Habitat Regulations Appraisal at one place suggest these outcomes only apply to An Camus Mor residents there is no way of course of differentiating between local residents and visitors and, as phrased, most of the outcomes will affect everyone.  Here is the example for Inshriach, which is not exactly next door to An Camas Mor:

What this is saying is that in order to compensate for An Camas Mor, access rights will be restricted, so off path recreational facilties will stop and both residents and visitors will have to keep to “promoted existing routes”.   This is far more draconian than the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park byelaws and if implemented would in effect end access rights in large parts of the Cairngorms National Park.  Worryingly, the document even states that byelaws are a measure of last resort.   So, the CNPA is in effect proposing to sacrifice access rights to enable An Camas Mor to go ahead.   This is a national scandal and should not be being decided by the Planning Committee of the National Park.

 

There are all sorts of other implications for access to, as is clear from the measures proposed for Glenmore:

 

 

What this in effect says is that in order to enable the An Camas Mor development to go ahead existing car parks will be reduced in size or blocked off completely, certain access routes will be blocked off, particularly for mountain bikers etc etc.   Just how this fits with the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, which was agreed less than a year ago, in unclear.    And similar measures are proposed for much of the rest of Speyside.   The implications for recreation and tourism are huge and yet there has been no public consultation.   There needs to be and the Planning Committee should refuse to take a decision until there has been full public consultation on the CNPA’s Habitats Regulations Appraisal otherwise it will be digging a very very deep hole for itself.    I am confident that if consultation did take place on the proposed mitigation measures, the proposals will collapse.

 

So, what is the explanation for  what is going on?

 

In 2014 the Scottish Government paid Johnnie Grant £7.2m for part of the Rothiemurchus estate in a secret deal (see here).    The question as to why Johnnie Grant needed to sell this land, or why the Government needed to purchase it when it was not at any risk, has never been answered.  One possible explanation is that Johnnie Grant needed to raise funds to help finance the An Camas Mor development.  If even an element of this £7.2 has been or is going to be spent on An Camas Mor, the Scottish Government has already been effectively helping to finance the development.

 

Whatever the case, there is a statement in the applicant’s letter that since the original planning application it has had:

 

Discussions with the Scottish Government and its advisors around advancing the design
and planning process in order to get to a point where Infrastructure Loan Funding for exceptional external infrastructure can be released for this project.

 

This appears to indicate that the Scottish Government is fully behind this application.    It would take a very strong National Park Board to reject the Scottish Government’s wishes and the suspicion has to be that both senior staff and Board have not approached this according to matters of principle, but rather are doing what they have been told to do.  To repeat, because of the implications for access of their proposed mitigation measures, they are digging a very deep hole for themselves.

Osprey on post at centre ACM, June 2016 which it was still using in August 2016. Photo credit Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

The suspicion of a stitch-up is re-inforced by the failure of the Committee Report to consider more up to date information on the wildlife to be found on the An Camas Mor site.  The Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, who have been looking at the wildlife on the site for some time and discovered a number of species not reported in the original planning application (see here for brilliant photos of the wildlife), have been asking the Park for updated environmental surveys for some time.   Earlier this week, the CNPA at last added a survey on badgers to the planning portal but at the same time redacted most of the content.  Presumably someone doesn’t want the public to know how many badgers may be affected by the development because badgers are likely to arouse more public support than bugs.

 

More importantly, the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group had been asking for a copy of the Habitats Regulations Assessment for weeks.  The CNPA refused to provide this, on the grounds they planned to publish this,  which they eventually did this Monday – despite the massive implications for access rights.   The CNPA apparently expects the BSCG and Cairngorms Campaign, both of  have both asked to address the Committee on Friday, to be able to assimilate and respond to this 240 page document in four days.  That’s not right, although this situation has been partly mitigated – excuse me using that term – because SNH, to their credit, did agree to release the information.

 

Why the secrecy? I had expected better of the CNPA.  And what is the CNPA scared about?     I hope I have provided enough information here for some Board Members to start asking some searching questions.

 

The level of support for the proposals

 

Despite a sustained local campaign to raise support for the proposal – see the ACM leaflet May 2017  which was delivered to every house in the Aviemore area – there were only 12 general expressions of support for the revised An Camas Mor planning application. “Of those supporting, nine were from individuals (eight from Aviemore and one from Pitlochry) and the remainder werefrom Visit Scotland, Scottish Tourism Alliance and Aviemore Sports Centre”    This compares to 23 general objections of which “16 were from individuals (from Aviemore, Kingussie, Nethy Bridge, Aboyne, Bettyhill, Broughty Ferry, Comrie, Ellon, Dunblane, Glasgow, Inverness, Limekilns in Fife, East Molesey in Surrey, Kendal and Wirral in Merseyside). The remainder were from the North East Mountain Trust, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Campaign for National Parks, The Cairngorms Campaign, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group.”

 

This is hardly an indication of high levels of support for the proposals, a factor which usually influences the politicians.   Part of the reason why may be because people working in Aviemore who currently don’t have suitable housing are not convinced that An Camas Mor will meet their housing needs.  When they learn it may affect their access rights too – and there is a much higher proportion of people who mountain bike in Aviemore than the rest of the country – they might actually start to oppose the whole development.   I hate to say this, but it looks like someone in the CNPA has reached the same conclusion, which is why the Habitats Regulation Appraisal has only been published at the last minute (I am happy to give the Park a right of reply on parkswatch to explain their position).

 

The wider picture

 

The big question is why, having created National Parks to protect parts of Scotland which are particularly important for conservation and recreation, are they in a position where much of their time and resources is devoted to developing new towns, leisure developments like Flamingo Land and inappropriate developments up mountains?.  Surely our National Parks were created to do things differently?

 

I can understand our politicians wanting to create jobs and build better places for people to live – I think this is necessary too – but to do this in the same old ways, basically giving land over developers to produce yet more inappropriate developments, shows a complete lack of imaginative thinking or ideas of how to promote sustainable economic development.      Both our National Parks need an alternative economic strategy, and to pioneer new paths to sustainable economic development.

 

Added to the inappropriateness of developments such as An Camas Mor, is the fact that its located adjacent to Glenmore, the place most under pressure in the whole of the Cairngorms National Park.  Why then is the CNPA directing development to the very area that can least support it?   There are plenty of other places, such as Dalwhinnie and Laggan, which could sustain further development and if developed would help spread visitor load.    Instead, the implications for all those who currently enjoy visiting Glenmore is that in order to offset the impact of more people living locally (and cycling or walking their dog in Glenmore) new visitor management measures will be introduced which will have a drastic impact on access rights.   This means this development has implications for the whole recreation community, including people who go to Glenmore to enjoy wildlife.

 

The big test for the CNPA on Friday is whether it will put the needs of the developer and the wishes of politicians before  its duty to promote conservation and public enjoyment of the countryside.

July 11, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist

Following my post on the unlawful application of the camping byelaws to campervans (see here), Rob Edwards’ excellent article in the Sunday Herald (I have an interest!) prompted an interesting piece http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2017/07/10/wild-land/ from Mike Small which is well worth reading:

 

“Scotland’s divorce from nature is intimately connected to its divorce from land. But whilst we struggle to overcome the engrained iniquity of land ownership we can do something about access to land. From the country that gave the world John Muir the shambles of the national park is pretty depressing”

 

What has been happening in the National Park though is more than a shambles, its been a deliberate attempt to exclude people from an area which was made a National Park in order to enable people, primarily from the Glasgow conurbation and many of whom have little money, to enjoy the countryside.   That was an old socialist aspiration.  Its not a coincidence that the same post-war Labour Government that created the NHS also passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.     The camping byelaws, which are only part of a much wider attempt to make the National Park a socially exclusive zone, are now unravelling partly due to incompetence but also because, thankfully, other public authorities have respected people’s rights.  In this case the key right is that of people to sleep overnight in a vehicle on the road network.

 

The LLTNPA’s record on developing the byelaws and the right to stay overnight in vehicles

 

Rob Edwards obtained from the Park a very interesting explanation for its U-turn on campervans, which once again demonstrates the rotten governance that has been at the heart of how the byelaws have been developed.

 

“The park authority pointed out that caravaners staying weeks or months on two old stretches of road by Loch Earn had damaged the park’s unique environment.  “Our clear legal advice was that they weren’t part of the formal road network and that the issue could be addressed with bylaws” said the authority’s chief executive, Gordon Watson”.

 

I was surprised at this claim because if Gordon Watson or the Park’s lawyer had asked Transport Scotland – the body responsible for the trunk road network  –  they would have known that the laybys on the A85 along the north side of the Loch Earn were part of the formal road network and therefore under the byelaws as approved by the LLTNPA Board and Minister, people could sleep there in vehicles.     Transport Scotland provided me with a list of all trunk road laybys LL&T National Park Lay-Bys they were responsible for in December 2016.  Here is the extract for the A85 along the north shore of Long Earn:

While I have not converted the references from eastings and northings to grid references I am fairly confident they include all the laybys along Loch Earn where encampments used to take place

Maybe, however, the Park’s lawyer knew something Transport Scotland didn’t?   Its quite clear though that other LLTNPA staff did not know either because, as late as summer 2016, a year after the byelaws were approved by the Board in April 2015, staff were asking Transport Scotland which laybys were part of the formal road network:

(You can read the full correspondence – I am grateful to Transport Scotland for co-operating with my FOI request – here, here and here)

Note, how Carlo DEmidio, the senior manager appointed to improve the Park’s project management (and who has since left the Park) did not know either which laybys were official – perhaps he did not have access to the legal advice provided to his Chief Executive? – and his statement “We just need something that we can use to justify our position when it comes to enforcement and signage”.   That does not sound like a Park Authority following legal advice, that sounds more like a Park Authority hell bent on banning campervans whatever the legal advice.

 

Unfortunately, it may be very difficult to find out the truth on this because legal advice is privileged and exempt from Freedom of Information rules.  Whatever the legal advice the Board had prior to approving the byelaws, once Park staff found out that the laybys on North Loch Earn were part of the public roads network, they should have advised the Board.

 

Instead what appears to have happened is that Park staff, without reference to the Board or apparently the Scottish Government (see here), changed the wording of the camping byelaws.  Now under English Law, significant changes to byelaws would normally require further public consultation before going back to the Board for approval but in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park none of this happened.     In my view that leaves the legality of the entire byelaws open to question but they key point here is the changes, which were significant, made it even more difficult for the Park to ban people from staying overnight in vehicles.

 

This is because the original version of the byelaws only allowed people to sleep overnight in vehicles on public roads:

 

(7) No person shall sleep overnight in a stationary vehicle within a Management Zone unless:

(a) they have been authorised to do so by the Authority under byelaw 12; or

(b) the vehicle is on a public road and such activity is not prohibited by the relevant roads

authority.

 

The key term here is “public road” which was defined to mean:

 

“(i) a road or any part thereof which a roads authority has a duty to maintain; (ii) a layby bounded partly by the outer edge of any such road; or (iii) any public car park provided by or on behalf of a roads authority. “  

 

You can see from this why it was so important to work out which laybys on north Loch Earn among other places were part of the public roads network and which not.

 

In the version of the byelaws which was published in November 2016, however, just over three months before they were implemented, the terms “public road” and “roads authority” had been dropped and replaced by the term “road”.   This was defined to mean “a road for the purposes of the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984” and this inadvertently  changed the whole scope of the exemption in the byelaws which allowed people to sleep in vehicles.   This is because under the Roads Traffic Scotland Act  a road is defined to mean any road over which there is a right of passage, private or public.    It gave campervans a legal right under the byelaws to stay on anything that looked like a road (such as forest tracks), including its verge, in the camping management zones.  Hence why the Park has refunded people who bought permits not just on the public road network at Loch Earn, but also in permit areas created on what appears to be a private road at Tarbert.

 

What needs to be done

 

The Park in its response to Rob Edwards was trying to hide behind legal advice in order to defend its unlawful attempt to charge people in campervans for staying overnight on the road network but also to save face with local communities:  I am sure St Fillans Community Council will be dismayed.  Having been told the byelaws could prevent encampments in laybys, its now clear they did not know what they were talking about and that the whole justification for the byelaws has been a con.

 

Its worse than that though.   Perhaps Park staff could explain on what legal advice they had decided to allow caravans to stop off overnight in laybys in the camping management zones while still trying to ban campervans?  The definition of “vehicle” remained unchanged between the two versions of the camping byelaws and clearly included campervans: ” “vehicle” means a mechanically-propelled vehicle or a vehicle designed or adapted for towing by a mechanically-propelled vehicle”.  I doubt any lawyer would have made a distinction between campervans and caravans and my conclusion is the staff having been making up the implementation of the byelaws as they go along. Acting beyond their powers.  Dave Morris, for it was he, was right to call for Scottish Ministers to investigate.

 

The LLTNPA Board now needs to issue a clear statement of whether the camping byelaws still apply to people sleeping in vehicles and if so, in what circumstances people could be prosecuted.   My own view is that they should clearly state that no-one who is abiding by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, whether in a campervan or tent, will be prosecuted.  As importantly the Board also needs to  re-affirm that a primary purpose of the National Park is to enable people to enjoy the countryside and that overnight stays in tents and campervans are an essential part of this right.  It should then get on with providing the facilities that campervanners and caravanners need rather than wasting more resources enforcing the unenforceable.

July 10, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist

Following my posts on the Ledcharrie (see here), Coilessan  (see here) Glen Clova and Glen Prosen (see here) and (see here) hill tracks I contacted the heads of planning in both National Park Authorities to find out what they were doing about this.  The responses could not have been more different.   The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority treating my request under Freedom of Information, delaying their response and then refusing to divulge information.  The Cairngorms National Park Authority answering my questions and promising to make information on their planning portal.

 

The LLTNPA response to Ledcharrie

On 11th June (see here) I asked Stuart Mearns, Head of Planning (and copied in the Park’s Convener of Planning Petra Biberbach) for all the information required by the Park’s Decision Notice approving the Ledcharrie scheme in principle , the dates of monitoring visits and any correspondence/information about enforcement.  On Friday, I received  this unsigned refusal EIR 2017- 050 Response Ledcharrie from someone, they have not put their name to the letter, claiming to be a Governance Manager.

 

The  LLTNPA’s reason for refusing the information, would if accepted, represent a massive step back for the planning system:

 

The documentation submitted by the developer to comply with conditions set out in the planning decision has been withheld from release under R10(5)(b) of the EIR’s as the information relates to live operational activities which are currently being monitored by the Park Authority. Not all conditions have been discharged.

 

Section R10 (5) b of the Environmental Information Regulations reads:

 

(5) A Scottish public authority may refuse to make environmental information available to the extent that its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially–

(b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of any public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature;

 

The Park is in effect is claiming that to make public any information required by a Decision Notice could interfere with the course of justice – presumably a reference to potential enforcement action.   Leave aside the fact that the LLTNPA has almost never taken enforcement action, this is complete and utter rubbish.  The Decision Notice of 2015 required the Developer to provide lots of further information including construction methods for all aspects of the scheme, detailed landscape mitigation and restoration techniques, a turve protection plan, a peat protection plan, a raptor survey, etc before any work started.  A commendable list.   If these had all been supplied as required and approved by the Park Authority there is no reason at all why they should not be made public, as they form part of the approval, nothing to do with enforcement.  That is a separate matter which comes afterwards as is about whether the Developer kept to the conditions that had been agreed.   Indeed making such documents public would have enabled interested parties to judge for themselves whether the conditions had been adhered to and report potential breaches to the Park.

 

If the Developer had not provided all the information required – and the Park has refused even to say whether the Developer has or hasn’t done this –  the Park should not have allowed construction to go ahead.   What the Park appears to be saying is that none of the detailed specifications for developments should be made public until the file is closed (once monitoring is complete).   This makes the Park as Planning Authority almost totally unaccountable and would be a retrograde step for the planning system.

 

The Coilessan track

 

In response to my questions on the Coilessan track on 28th June (see here), and in particular whether Forestry Commission Scotland had told the Park about this under the Prior Notification System, I have had an email from Stuart Mearns saying I should get a response by 26th July.   That’s almost a month but at least Mr Mearns responded himself rather than passing straight on to the Park’s Secrecy Department.

 

The CNPA’s response to information requests on enforcement and hill tracks

 

The contrast to the CNPA’s response to my emails on the Glen Prosen and Glen Clova tracks could not be greater.  Here are some extracts from Gavin Miles, Head of Planning’s emails:

 

We are looking at the Glen Prosen Hydro tracks. The CMS [construction method statement] etc should be uploaded to our public access planning pages this week or next. If there’s anything that doesn’t get uploaded we’ll let you know and will send it to you in the formal FOI/Environmental Information Request response format.

 

If the CNPA can add Construction Method Statements to their planning portal so the public can see what has been agreed in cases where enforcement action is possible, so can the LLTNPA.  Well done the CNPA for being transparent!

 

Just to make things slightly easier for us to identify on the maps and aerial photography, it would be helpful if you could send an image of the map that shows the bits you walked or are concerned about if they don’t appear to you to be part of a consent or application.

 

It gives you confidence when the Planning Authority asks for further information about exact locations (I had sent them photos and a general description of where I had walked).   My mate who I was running with told me afterwards that if you use Strava, it not only plots your entire course, it can give the exact location for photos – a useful tip for anyone wanting to report on hill tracks.

 

The CMS we have for the Clova Hydro scheme will be uploaded to the public access planning pages. Just to be clear, we haven’t taken any enforcement action against the Clova track at this point. The Planning Contravention Notice (PCN) is a fact-finding notice.

 

Honesty about what the CNPA is doing.  Quite a contrast to the LLTNPA who want to keep everything secret.

 

A comparision between the two National Parks

 

The CNPA  is far from perfect and I have criticised its planning department in a number of posts, particularly the way they handled the Shieling Hill Track at Cairngorm and also their decision to stop recording planning meetings, which in my view was a retrograde step.   I believe that as a National Park Authority they could do better but at present they are a country mile ahead of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.    Their Partnership Plan includes a presumption against new hill tracks, the LLTNPA draft plan says nothing.  They are prepared to be open about what they are doing (at least some of the time), the LLTNPA reveals nothing unless its forced to.   They are trying to put more information on the planning portal, the LLTNPA has been removing information post-decision saying the law does not require such information to be published.

 

One might not always agree with the CNPA but it is possible to have a dialogue.  The LLTNPA does not do dialogue:  if you don’t agree with them, you get shut out of processes.

 

The explanation for this difference is not just about differences in staff (and who knows what pressure Stuart Mearns is under from his Chief Executive Gordon Watson), it is I believe about Board Members.   Petra Biberbach was on the Scottish Government’s independent review of the planning system which included these statements:

 

“Consistency and transparency of information are central to the reputation and smooth running of the development management system.”   

 

“The increasing use of social media and online portals is in our view a more resource efficient and effective way of communicating casework with the wider public.”

 

So, why has she apparently done nothing to make the LLTNPA as planning authority more transparent?

 

Contrast this with Cllr Bill Lobban who is on the CNPA Board and was Highland Council Convener of Planning;  he criticised the CNPA for not recording planning meetings as webcasts and argued that Councils were better placed to fulfil the planning function.  In other words there are people on the CNPA Board who keep staff on their toes.

 

What needs to happen

 

I hope the refusal of LLTNPA staff to provide information about the Ledcharrie Scheme does not have to go to the Information Commissioner for Decision and that Petra Biberbach as convener of the Planning Committee, insists the Park’s Chief Executive Gordon Watson instructs staff to make the information public as recommended in the independent review of planning report which she co-authored “Empowering planning to deliver great places”.

June 21, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
This afternoon, following the debate last week (see here), there is motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for an independent inquiry into the way the Scottish Parliament deals with Information Requests:

That the Parliament condemns the Scottish Government’s poor performance in responding to freedom of information requests; calls for an independent inquiry into the way that it deals with these, and agrees to undertake post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

 

This issue should transcend party politics (the motion is being proposed by Tory MSP Edward Mountain).  To me, the motion does not go far enough and the inquiry should include all public authorities.

 

There is an amendment to the motion from Joe Fitzpatrick (SNP) which I also think is also very welcomes:

 

“insert at end “, and welcomes commitments by the Scottish Government to adopt a policy of pro-actively publishing all material released under FOI to ensure that it is as widely available as possible.”

 

This provision too should be applied to ALL public authorities.   As evidence for this, so far this year the LLTNPA has published just two pieces of information it has supplied under Freedom of Information or the Environmental Information Regulations (see here).    The LLTNPA responds to most information requests under the EIRs and so far this year I know there have been at least 43 requests for information under the Environmental Information Regulations as each are numbered (see here for latest).    2 out of 43 means the LLTNPA publishes less than 5% of all information responses.  I have written to Joe Fitzpatrick suggesting that it should be obligatory on all public authorities to publish all responses.

 

The latest response from the LLTNPA, which followed my request for the Park to make public the management plans it had agreed with estate owners,  raises another issue about how public authorities are circumventing Freedom of Information – by refusing to release them on grounds of commercial sensitivity or confidentiality.

 

Central to the purpose of our National Parks is the way land is managed and it is right that our National Park Authorities work with landowners to improve this.  That a National Park Authority is, however, refusing to make public what it has agreed with individual landowners about how their land should be managed  is, I suggest, a matter for serious public concern.  Just why the National Park needs – or why private estates would supply the National Park with – commercial information I am not sure  but the simple answer is for the LLTNPA to remove the commercial information from the estate plans it has agreed and make them public.  The Cairngorms National Park Authority publishes estate management plans on its website http://cairngorms.co.uk/caring-future/land-management/estate-management/  so why can’t Scotland’s other National Park?

 

The LLTNPA has also recently refused to release monitoring data for the Cononish goldmine  on grounds of commercial confidentiality EIR 2017-041 Response cononish.   This raises equally serious issues.  What the LLTNPA appears to be saying is that it won’t make public information which would show the extent to which developers are abiding by planning conditions.

 

This is not just an issue with the National Park.  Its part of a much wider neo-liberal agenda to liberate private companies from the constraints of law and regulation.  Aditya Chakrabortty put this extremely well in a fine article in the Guardian yesterday https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/20/engels-britain-murders-poor-grenfell-tower:  

 

Accountability is tossed aside for “commercial confidentiality”, while profiteering is dressed up as economic dynamism“.

 

It would be hard to find a better description for how the LLTNPA is operating at present.

June 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

The official consultation on the draft Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Partnership Plan (NPPP) 2018-23 closes on Monday 3rd July.  The NPPP is the key document governing what the LLTNPA is supposed to do over the next five years so its important people respond.   In this post I will take an overview of the consultation documents and then, in three further posts, will consider the three themes in the consultation, Conservation and Land Management, Rural Development and Visitor Experience, which broadly mirror the National Park’s statutory objectives.     I hope people with an interest in our National Parks will respond to the consultation and that these posts may inform those responses.    Its easy to be cynical about consultations, and I believe the LLTNPA consultation  demonstrates just how hollowed out consultation processes have become, but public pressure does work.   A good example is the pledge which was added to the Cairngorms National Park Partnership Plan to eliminate raptor persecution over the next five years.  Pressure needs to be exerted on the LLTNPA to radically up its game.

 

Where is the review of the current NPPP?

 

A rational starting point for developing any new plan should be a review of existing plans, covering matters such as successes, failures and consideration as to what needs to change.    The current NPPP,  2012-17, was initially reviewed on an annual basis, at a meeting chaired by the Environment Minister.     The Reviews are available on the LLTNPA website NPPPlan but you will never come across these if you go straight to the consultation pages and  there is no mention of them in the consultation documents nor is there any explanation of why the last one was in 2014.  Had the reviews been undertaken as originally intended, the information from them could have been fed into the new planning process.   Instead, publicly at least, there is a huge hole.

 

What the last review in 2014 does show is that the LLTNPA was facing certain serious issues and was lacking data on critical issues.

Extract from NPPP Review

Note how the LLTNPA classed a drop in percentage of designated conservation sites in favourable conditions with an “equals” symbol, meaning there was nothing to worry about.  And, were the LLTNPA to have collected data on % of visitors satisfied with cleanliness of the countryside I suspect there would have been a massive drop from 86%.   This raises the question about whether the LLTNPA is now simply operating in a post-truth environment, that its not collecting and reporting data because it would not support its marketing hype.  Other measures from 2013-14 were even worse:  a drop in the percentage of new affordable housing from a baseline of 75% to 43% and a drop in new business start ups.

 

Where is the consultation on the issues the LLTNPA is facing?

 

The consultation documents do not ask people to consider the issues the National Park faces, quite a contrast to the Cairngorms National Park Authority consultation which was based around “The Big 9” issues they had identified.   The only place that there is any  consideration of the issues is in the Strategic Environment Assessment which most people won’t read as nowhere in the consultation does it suggest this might be worth reading.  I can see why, because the SEA  explains how the consultation should have been undertaken:

 

“the dynamic assessment of environmental objectives / targets with
trends data can help to identify emerging environmental issues that should ideally be
addressed early on.”

 

It then goes on to highlight “the most critical environmental issues (problems and opportunities) that should be considered in the development of the NPPP 2018-2023”.   Nowhere does the LLTNPA explain how these issues have informed the development of the NPPP, indeed its not clear they have been considered at all.
Its well worth looking at Appendix 3 to the SEA to see how the LLTNPA is actually doing.  Here is an example:
And here’s another:   “The Park has 27 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to grazing pressures.”
So we have a draft NPPP which makes almost no mention of the serious issues the NPPP faces.  This is a fundamental failing, nay a dereliction of duty – the plan has no foundations.

An outcomes based plan

 

Instead of considering the evidence and what issues it faces the draft NPPP starts and ends with a consideration of outcomes.   It appears that what is driving this is the Scottish Government’s National Outcome framework.

If our National Parks really have a “significant contribution” to “making our Education system world class”, why then is there no commitment to re-open outdoor education centres throughout the National Park?

While our National Parks can contribute to some national outcomes, actually that’s not their primary purpose, which is to meet their statutory objectives.  The Plan though, instead of considering how it can meet those statutory objectives, is full of meaningless claims to be contributing to certain outcomes.

Near the top of each section in the plan there is this graphic – a graphic illustration of priorities.  While the civil servants must be slavering all this does is make the LLTNPA look like a meaningless pawn controlled by central government.
The outcomes themselves,  are very worthy – it would be hard to object to any of them – but so broad as to be meaningless.
Conservation outcomes from the NPPP
If they were meaningful the LLTNPA should be able to explain the extent to which the outcomes are being met at present.    They have made no attempt to do so.   The problem is the first two  consultation questions are devoted to asking people if they agree with these very broad statements:
Its unlikely any people will disagree.   The Park has then identified a number of priorities for each outcome without any analysis of why that priority makes sense and again the priority is so broadly defined its rarely possible to tell what if anything the LLTNPA and its partners are planning to do:
Extract from conservation priorities. In this slide only under priority 4 does the LLTNPA give an indication of what might be going to happen.
The danger is that anyone who agrees with the priorities as proposed will be treated by the LLTNPA as agreeing to whatever actions they have or have not planned to do.  It is amazing that under the conservation of landscape priority the only two actions are actually about altering, one might say “destroying”,  the natural landscape.

The secret and biased consultation process

The draft plan does not explain how its been developed or how priorities might have been selected.  To know this you need to read the LLTNPA’s Annual Report approved by its Board this week:

“The close of the year saw the Board approve our new draft National Park Partnership Plan 2018-23  for consultation following a hugely positive workshop with a wide range of stakeholders to discuss important issues and potential priorities. This presented an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the current plan.

 

To this end, a comprehensive discussion paper was developed and a day-long event was held for partners that have a role to play in the delivery of the new Plan”

 

So why is the comprehensive discussion paper not public and why has the LLTNPA not told the public what it believes these achievements were?   (I have asked for these to be made public immediately).

 

What I do know is that the LLTNPA selected the invitees to the consultation meeting very carefully and the range of “stakeholders” was limited:   recreational and other organisations were not invited to the main workshop though there was a later briefing.    No wonder the NPPP gives no consideration to issues like the destruction of landscape and failures in conservation in the National Park.

 

Nowhere in the NPPP are the organisations which represent people who visit the National Park treated as partners or even key stakeholders.  A fundamental failing – although of course the glossy brochure is full of photos of the people such organisations represent.

How does the NPPP fit with other Strategies and Policies?

 

Unlike the Cairngorms NPPP, which attempted to describe how their NPPP fitted with out plans that had been agreed for the area,  the LLTNPA makes almost no mention of other local plans or targets and how they might feed into the NPPP.   There are references to national plans and strategies, but generally this is again at a very high level and so broad as to be meaningless.

 

Part of the issue is that the LLTNPA has far fewer plans and strategies than the CNPA and those that it does have tend to be focussed on developments (Callander and Balloch).   It does though have a biodiversity plan, Wild Park 2012 (see here) with lots of detailed actions and targets.  How this fits with the NPPP, how its informed priorities and whether the LLTNPA is committed to a new biodversity action plan is unclear.

 

The draft NPPP would have us believe it is joined up to everything when the reality is it appears joined up to almost nothing and practically empty of real commitments from either the LLTNPA or the organisations it has identified as its partners.

 

Not all of this is the fault of the LLTNPA, much comes down to austerity – our public authorities are no longer being allowed to plan to do things which could improve everyone’s lives.   But in my view our National Park Authorities out loud about resources,  not just for themselves but for other partners, if any of its statutory objectives are to be achieved.

 

What needs to happen

 

People and organisations need to put pressure on the LLTNPA and the Scottish Government.   A good start would be to respond to the NPPP objecting to the failure by the LLTNPA to review progress under the existing NPPP, consider the multitude of information about what is actually going on in the Park and the serious issues it faces.  People should then use that reality to inform what issues they  would like the LLTNPA to address in the new plan.

 

The LLTNPA needs to ensure that the new NPPP is based on a proper analysis of the evidence it holds and needs to take a critical look at how its being doing in relation to its statutory objectives.

 

I will cover the detail of this in posts over the next 10 days.

June 14, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
This entry on the Risk Register made me smile, because its an acknowledgement that CNPA is taking social media like Parkswatch into account, but illustrates concern about the wrong thing. The risk should be whether the CNPA is delivering the objectives for which it was set up. If it delivers these, it will earn a good reputation.

The agenda for the Cairngorms National Park Authority meeting last Friday (see here) was brief: Chief Exec’s Report, Corporate Performance, Risk and Mountain Hares.   While I was not at the meeting and cannot report what was decided, there were some positive signs in the  papers.

 

Mountain Hares

The paper on Mountain Hares appears to have been in response to to One Kind’s current campaign calling for a ban on hare culls in the National Park- the CNPA has received 450 postcards  –  and coverage by Raptor Persecution Scotland, the press and Parkswatch (see here) on hare persecution.  While the paper is brief and mostly factual – the CNPA has no idea of how many hares are slaughtered in the National Park – the final paragraphs at the end signal a welcome step in the right direction:

 

13. The cull of any species should be justified on sound environmental or economic reasons that are in the public interest.   In the case of deer, culls are justified on the grounds that they allow the restoration of depleted habitat and in the longer term lead to a healthier environment and consequently a healthier herd.   Hare culls similarly, may be necessary in some locations e.g. to allow woodland regeneration or  to prevent damage to planted trees.  The CNPA have concerns about the public interest justification and scale of culling for the primary purpose of tick control.
The clear message is CNPA staff do not think culls for tick control – hares are alleged to pass on ticks which carry the louping ill virus to grouse – are justified.    The paper contains no proposals to address this although the National Park could, if they wanted to, stop culls through the creation of byelaws for conservation purposes.  I hope they will propose they could pilot this as part of the Scottish Government’s Review of Grouse Moor management.
 
14. CNPA accept that culling of hares may be justified and necessary in some circumstances but we do not advocate large-scale culls unless there is clear evidence to demonstrate  extremely high densities which are causing significant problems.
Unfortunately there is no reference to why hare numbers may sometimes reach such high numbers – the answer is in good part because of an absence of predators, particularly golden eagles, in the National Park.
15. The CNPA want to see greater transparency on what level of culling is taking place in
the Cairngorms and the reasons for culling. Mountain hares are an important species
in the Cairngorms and we want to ensure healthy populations across their natural
range.

 

While no actions are proposed in the paper,  the logic in the report suggests that the CNPA will have to take action in the near future, not just on hares but to protect other species.  If the cull of any species needs to be justified on environmental or economic grounds – and remember the Sandford Principle means conservation comes before the CNPA’s other statutory objectives, including sustainable economic development –  then besides hare, the CNPA needs to look at all the other species that are killed in the National Park including corvids, raptors and mustelids.    Moreover, if there needs to be transparency on the number of hares being killed, but if hares, as the CNPA acknowledges, then why not other creatures?     The CNPA could deal with both of these issues by creating byelaws to replace the general license (which allows certain animals to be killed without permission) with specific licenses where culls could be justified on environmental grounds and required landowners to report on species populations as part of this..

 

Raptor tagging

 

Under the Chief Executive’s report there is a very brief paragraph which was given coverage by Raptor Persecution Scotland yesterday (see here):

 

Civtech – The CNPA & SNH have launched a Civtech challenge on raptor persecution. Details at   http://ow.ly/BR1V30c4bo5
The idea is is try and find a solution to the problem of satellite tags being destroyed when raptors have been unlawfully killed and data about their final whereabouts therefore being lost.  This initiative was not included in the Government’s recent announcement of a package of measures to address Raptor Persecution and I assume therefore its come from SNH and the CNPA.  If so, that is again welcome.  Our public authorities should be able to act independently of the Scottish Government.
Like Raptor Persecution Scotland I think the initiative is well-intentioned but I don’t think it will cause too much concern to the people who are unlawfully killing raptors.  Even if you could establish the exact position of a raptor before it died, and therefore the landowner who was likely responsible, it would not prove who did it.  To convict someone of a criminal offence, the evidence needs to be beyond reasonable doubt.  An estate has two gamekeepers, how do you prove which one did it?  Its because of this that I think the Scottish Government’s attempt to improve enforcement of the criminal law won’t make much difference.
While its worth trying to improve information about where and when raptors disappear, where new thinking is really required is on what other measures, apart from the criminal law, would deter raptor persecution.    I would suggest that the removal of the right to hunt, which could be done on the balance of probabilities (rather than requiring evidence to be beyond reasonable doubt as in the criminal law) would hit the people who allow this persecution to continue where it hurts.  It would remove both the enjoyment they get from hunting and the income this brings in.  Its likely to be a far more effective deterrent than the criminal law.     Unfortunately, I think it will take a lot more public pressure before that happens.

Resources

One of a number of risks in the CNPA risk register which relate to limited resources

It was good to see the Board Papers highlighting that limited resources, which result from the imposition of austerity,  pose serious constraints on the CNPA’s ability to deliver on their plan let alone undertake new initiatives.  Instead of our National Parks pretending like other public authorities they can make austerity work, we need organisations which are open about the impact of cuts and can articulate what they could do – and what differences this would make to visitors, residents and wildlife – if they had the money.    The CNPA appears to be more open about this than the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority which continues to present itself as perfect in every respect (but then maybe that’s because it has too much money, as demonstrated by the large resources wasted on trying to implement the camping byelaws).

 

Nature conservation targets

What the figures from the Corporate Performance report tell us is that the CNPA is failing in its nature conservation objectives.  The percentage of designated features has gone up from 79% to 81% but is way below the 90% target for next year.   If this had been due to dates of monitoring visits, I would have expected the report to clearly stated this.  Instead, the accompanying report says that this reflects “the national position”.  How shocking is that?    What it tells you is our National Parks appear to have been making no real difference to nature conservation.
That’s not entirely true of course, there is plenty of evidence to show from raptor persecution, that a significant number of landowners in the Cairngorms won’t co-operate with Nature Conservation so, while CNPA staff may have been trying very very hard, its made relatively little difference.   This is an argument for a different approach, which puts land reform at the heart of the vision for our National Parks and how they should operate.

An insight into the political challenge

 

“An MSP survey carried out in December shows 100% have heard of the Cairngorms National Park and a third say they know a fair amount or know it well. A little under half (43%) are favourable towards the Cairngorms National Park with 51% claiming to be neutral. Both national parks are held in strong regard at the Parliament, stronger than may be expected given the level of awareness compared to other organisations.”
I found this extract from the corporate performance report pretty shocking: only 43% of MSPs are favourable to the Cairngorms National Park (the target was 50%).    Since we know that the Labour, Lib Dems, Tories and Greens are in favour of more National Parks, its hard to avoid the conclusion that the majority of SNP MSPs (who avoided the debate in the Scottish Parliament on new National Parks (see here) don’t like the existing ones either.   If that is so, it goes a long way to explaining the lack of resources.
Our MSPs really do need to start seeing our National Parks as a means of doing things differently, particularly the way we manage the land.
June 13, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
The debate on the failure of our Freedom of Information laws in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon on a motion proposed by the Labour (Corbyn supporting) MSP Neil Findlay, following pressure from journalists and the recently retired Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew is very welcome (see last business of day).  Here’s the latest evidence from the Loch Lomond and National Park Authority of why its needed:
 
“Please provide me with any information the LLTNPA holds about the secret Board Briefing sessions held on the Cononish goldmine on 13/12/2010 and 20/06/2011”

The Park Authority does not hold secret Board Briefing sessions. Accordingly I have to advise under S10(4)(a) of the EIRs that this information is not held for sessions as you describe.   However, informal Board Business sessions are held in private which are for officers to have time with Board members to help develop strategy by providing opportunities for informal input before formal officer recommendations are presented for decision at our Board meetings, which are held in public. 
Its 1984 and this is parkspeak.  Secret Board meetings (they are not advertised and you can only find out what could have happened at them by Freedom of Information requests such as I made) are described as “private business sessions”  by public officials who won’t put their names to the letters send out.  What a load of tosh.  This public authority held 13 secret meetings to develop the camping byelaws compared to the two held in public.
The information extracts in the response to my information request provided as an appendix EIR 2017-041 Informal Board Meeting Agenda + Cononish Actions rather gives the game away.   Back in 2010 soon after the Park under Mike Cantlay – he has just been appointed chair of SNH, one of the few remaining public bodies which does appear committed to transparency  – introduced the practice of holding Board Meetings in secret, they were called “Informal Board Meetings”.  Besides Cononish, the agenda shows that the LLTNPA discussed Local Access Forum Membership, school closures, the A82 upgrade consultation.   These are all matters, like the camping byelaws, that should have been discussed in public – in fact there are dozens of such matters over the last 7 years FOI 2016-002 Appendix A list topics at Board Briefing session.
At least back in 2010 the LLTNPA kept a record of what it was deciding, although they have only provided me with the extract about Cononish.  At some point they stopped taking any record of what was discussed or decided, which is precisely one of the points of concern highlighted in the motion to the Scottish Parliament, that the Scottish Government is “not recording or taking minutes of meetings”.    

The role of the Scottish Government in National Park decision making

For over two years now I have been trying to understand the role of the Scottish Government in the development of the camping byelaws.  We know they had an important role because Linda McKay, the retired convener, in her letter to Aileen McLeod recommending the byelaws stated:
In 2013, our previous Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, while visiting East Loch Lomond to see the changes and meet residents, partners and local businesses, encouraged us to bring forward a comprehensive set of proposals for those other areas in the Park blighted by these problems.
What I haven’t been able to find out is whether Mr Wheelhouse was set up – in other words the Park deliberately misled him that it was the camping byelaws which had led to the improvement on east Loch Lomond (rather than a package of measures) – or whether it was Mr Wheelhouse who took the initiative.   What does seem clear though is that the go-ahead – and remember this was just soon after the Land Reform Review Group had concluded there was no need to change our access laws – the important decision, was made outside any formal decision-making structures.    This is no different to how Donald Trump takes decisions.
I won’t bore readers with an attempt to recount my attempts over two years to extract information from Scottish Government officials about the Scottish Government role in the process.   What I have learned is that they hold no information about how important decisions are made Mr Kempe FOI (November) Response February 2017.   A good example is east Loch Lomond where they confirmed (in response to my question 9) they hold no information about the Review of the east Loch Lomond byelaws apart from the document supplied by the LLTNPA.   In other words not one official has put in writing any comment or recorded any view or asked for information from any other body about the the alleged success of the byelaws on east Loch Lomond DESPITE the reported interest of the Minister at the time.  Or maybe that’s BECAUSE the Minister in effect took the decision on the hoof and if the Scottish Government had recorded any written information this would have exposed them to legal challenge.
A current example concerns the Scottish Government’s role in the repeal of the old east Loch Lomond byelaws in favour of the new byelaws  (see here)   The Scottish Government has told me FoI (6 Mar2017) repeal of byelaws response  they hold nothing in writing about this but, purely by chance apparently,  “a more general point on legal mechanisms for revoking byelaws emerged in discussion”.  The Scottish Government then want us to believe that, quite independently of the LLTNPA,  which just so happened to need to revoke the east Loch Lomond byelaws, they sought legal advice on how to revoke byelaws and needless to say, because legal advice is exempt from FOI, they won’t make anything public.  I have put in a review request asking for the reasons for that legal advice.   However, where it comes to questions about application and enforcement of laws that criminalise people, my own view is that such information should be made public.  The criminal law should be made by the people, not something done to the people.

These FOI examples are part of a much bigger problem about secrecy and lack of accountability, not just in our National Parks or the Scottish Government, but across public authorities.   The  Trump approach to decision making has been flourishing in Scotland for some time, its just that unlike Trump our public authorities have not wanted to advertise the fact.    I hope the debate in the Scottish Parliament leads to some actions to put this right.

 

I have appended the motion, which is worth reading:

 

Leading Journalists Criticise the Scottish Government over FOISA

That the Parliament notes with great concern the letter from whom it understands are 23 prominent Scottish journalists to the selection panel for the appointment of the Scottish Information Commissioner, which was published on 1 June 2017 by The Ferret and Common Space and details what they argue are the failures of the Scottish Government and its agencies in relation to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA); understands that it suggests that the application of FOISA by ministers and officials is questionable at best and, at worst, implies a culture and practice of secrecy and cover up, including, it believes, through routinely avoiding sharing information, often through not recording or taking minutes of meetings that are attended by ministers or senior civil servants; considers that this flies in the face of what it sees as the Scottish Government’s much-vaunted assessment of itself as open and transparent, including through the Open Government Partnership Scottish National Action Plan and its role as one of 15 pioneer members of the Open Government Partnership’s inaugural International Subnational Government Programme and legislation such as the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011; understands that the Scottish Government introduced its Record Management Plan to comply with the 2011 Act; notes the view that the journalists’ criticism of FOISA shows that it is time to have a review of whether the legislation remains robust or has been diminished, whether it should be extended and strengthened and whether elements of it are still appropriate, such as the level set for the cost exemption, whereby the Scottish Government may refuse to provide information if the cost of doing so exceeds £600, a figure that hasn’t been updated since FOISA came into force, and further notes the view that, by doing so, this would ensure that people in Lothian and across the country who use their freedom of information rights could be confident that FOISA would be improved and applied in a way that was consistent with the spirit intended when the law was established.