The Angry Corrie 9: Sep-Oct 1992

A tale of woe, or the smell of fudge: Cairngorm Working Party

Time was when your TAC editor roamed frequent and free among his favourite Scottish hills, the Cairngorms. Now those days have gone and he's permanently araldited in front of his VDU clattering out copy for the clamouring public. Nary a shaft of sunlight crosses his bearded countenance, never does the Lairig Ghru and its surrounding summits hove Into sight. But he still thinks fondly of them, and worries, and frets. As does Hugh Tooby...

TAC readers may be interested to learn a little of the exploits of the Cairngorm Working Party (CWP), set up by the Secretary of State for Scotland to consider the future of the Cairngorm area including its surrounding communities. It is not a particularly happy story. Few would quibble with the description of the Cairngorms as a unique, beautiful and valuable place. The higher tops and plateaux form the largest southern outpost of arctic-alpine habitat in Europe, and the remnants of native Caledonian pine forest are the most extensive in Britain. The whole area is one of the most important nature conservation areas in Europe. It is also one of the few flourishing and thriving parts of the Highlands with active and growing communities. This uniqueness led to the World Conservation Union including the Cairngorms in an indicative list of possible World Heritage Sites, and the Government have said they will formally nominate it for such once the CWP have reported. Truly an area of international importance. All this places a considerable burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the Working Party. How are they coping? They began in March 1991 with a series of twelve two-day meetings throughout the area covering relevant issues. They declared their aims as being 'to produce a Management Strategy for the long-term future of the Cairngorms which enhances, on a sustainable basis, the natural heritage and the social and economic well-being and the quality of life of the people'. They have consulted with interested individuals and organisations and also (rather late in the day) with local communities. All this has resulted in a Public Consultation Paper which is currently being considered and responses made by interested parties. These will all be put together in their final report and recommendations to the Secretary of State. So what have they said so far? They have identified the great importance of the area and the numerous threats to it. They have also identified four principles governing any management strategy:

i) Environmental Sustainability
ii) Ecological Health
iii) Social and Economic Wellbeing
iv) Responsible Recreation and Tourism

Finally, they have considered mechanisms for producing this, and have appeared to come down in favour of the newly fangled concept of a 'Natural Heritage Area'. This is a designation, probably administered by Scottish Natural Heritage, which would provide a 'facilitating mechanism for co-operation between the responsible, regulatory and grant-giving bodies, for the benefit of the area and the people who live in it and visit it' (their words, not mine).

This all sounds very fine (if a little jargon-heavy), but what do you find if you start to dig a little deeper? Let's start with the fundamentals. Number one: who gets the final say as to whether the CWP's proposals are implemented? Answer: it's all down to one man, the Secretary of State for Scotland. Such is the state of 'democracy' in the UK at present that this single individual (whose party has very little support in Scotland) gets to make this decision.

Number two: what is the basic principle on which the entire edifice is constructed? Answer: the so-called 'Voluntary Principle' which was imposed on the CWP from the outset (in a not very 'voluntary' manner) by the same Secretary of State. This principle means 'to implement the Strategy wherever possible on the basis of dialogue, incentive and co-operation rather than by imposition'. One does not have to be unduly cynical to have doubts about the likely success of such a voluntary code of conduct in controlling the activities of vested interests such as rich landowners and large corporations.

Number three: is any consideration given to the question of who should own the Cairngorms in the first place? Answer: none at all. This despite the fact that, in the UK, ownership gives a large measure of control over the land. A plan for ideal future land use should therefore certainly be concerned with determining who the best owners would be. Many people feel that the time has come for a loosening of the almost feudal grip large landowners (both individual and corporate) have on the Highlands, with a return of land and control to the people. The CWP (about one third of whom appear to represent landowning / big business interests) studiously ignore this issue.

So much for the fundamentals. What about the fine details of the proposals - is there any cause for hope there? We can consider just a couple. The first is the question of deer numbers. Having identified the major contribution of excessive deer to the degradation of the mountain environment and the consequent need to reduce them, the CWP then state 'we do not advocate a radical cull of deer'. Instead, there is a lot of woolly talk about 'experimental', 'monitored', 'subject to review' and the like. This smells of fudge to me. Logically one cannot identify a problem and then say more work needs to be done to identify it. Besides which, the work has already been done over the last few decades by the NCC in Rum. I wonder if the fact that a Highland estate is valued by the number of its stags has some bearing here? The second specific is over the use of the Cairngorm ski access (i.e. road and chairlift) in summer. There exists in conservation circles the concept of 'The long walk in' (whereby you relieve the pressure on an area not by restricting access but by making it physically harder to get to), and the CWP identify this as a good idea. The classic case of the erosion of this concept in the Highlands is the ready access to the Cairngorm mountain core afforded by the above-mentioned road and lift. It is therefore rather odd that the CWP state that they do not recommend the closure of either during the summer. Could it be that once again the economic concerns of a large vested interest are taking precedence? The chairlift company employs very few staff in summer, so the local employment impact would be low and any loss of revenue could be recouped by increasing the cost of a winter ticket: given the over-demand in winter I'm sure people would still come to ski. These may be details, but it is on the real impact on real details in the real world that proposals must be judged. Otherwise fine declarations are not worth the paper they are written on. This is all very depressing. The Government has identified the huge international importance of the Cairngorm area. The CWP have come up with some very good ideas (e.g. employing local farmworkers as part-time rangers and wardens). Nevertheless, one is left with the impression that, at the end of the day, the interests of the rich and powerful will prevail yet again. Is it any wonder we have to call this mag 'The Angry Corrie'?

Footnote: The official consultation process ended on 20/7/92. Nevertheless, in a democracy it's never too late to have a go at making your voice heard. If any of the above alarms you too, you could still write to your own MP, the secretary of State for Scotland and the CWP themselves via:

Colin Imrie Esq.,
Secretary to the CWP,
Scottish Office Environment Dept,
New St. Andrew's House,

The latter can also supply copies of the 'Public Consultation Paper: May 1992

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