TAC 46 Index
This year and next will prove crucial for the ecology of the Cairngorms. Just as national park status is being pushed through, so - paradoxically - the much-debated funicular railway up Cairn Gorm looks like finally being built. In the latter days of January, TAC's editor travelled to Birnam to talk with Bill Wright: writer, climber and spokesperson for the Cairngorms Campaign. The discussion took place on the day that the Rothiemurchus Concordat - a test run for the national park itself - was being launched in Strathspey. Despite years of involvement in Cairngorm conservation debates, and despite a wealth of knowledge and experience of this great range of hills, Bill had not been invited to the launch. The same applied to just about every other high-profile funicular refusnik
TAC: Let's talk about the history of the Cairngorms Campaign
BW: The Cairngorms Campaign was really the baby of the Save the Cairngorms Campaign. Back in the late 1980s, the Save the Cairngorms Campaign was set up by an amalgamation of 15 outdoor and conservation organisations. They decided they needed to have an independent campaigning body and they dropped the "Save" because it was felt there would always be a need for it - you're not just going to suddenly save the Cairngorms and everything's going to be wonderful.
The Cairngorms Campaign was really formally set up in 1994. The Worldwide Fund for Nature put some money in and we set out to recruit "founder members" - over 100 of them put in substantial amounts of money. Since then, over 1000 people have joined, largely because of their concerns about the proposed funicular railway and their opposition to it. So in many ways the campaign has benefited from the funicular, but that's a reflection of the extent of opposition to it.
TAC: When was the funicular first mooted?
BW: Oh, back in 1993.
TAC: The current situation - where there appears to be a policy of exclusion with regard to anyone who is anti-funicular - was that similarly the case in the days of the Lurcher's Gully controversy, or has it got worse?
BW: I think it's got worse. At one stage, theoretically, it should have been better because among the directors of the Cairngorms Partnership there were three people strongly identified with the non-govern-ment sector: Bob Aitken of the Scottish Countryside Activities Council, Helen Geddes who was the former convenor of the Cairngorms Campaign and Adam Watson who has strong links with all the non- governmental organisations and is widely respected by them. And also Roger Owen who is the chairman of the North-East Mountain Trust. Then the govern- ment in its wisdom decided to change the format of the Cairngorms Partnership and it was really all people from agencies. We were extremely alarmed at the time, about two years ago, when Gus Mac- Donald came in as chairman and decided to pick all these people. There was absolutely no mountaineer among them at that stage. We kicked up a stink and Alan Blackshaw was appointed - no disrespect to Alan - as something of an afterthought. So I think in many ways it has got very much worse, and if the launch of the Rothiemurchus Concordat is an illustration of the way forward for the area as a national park - as the environment minister Sarah Boyack suggests - then I think it's most alarming as there are no national non-government interests involved in the concordat at all.
TAC: At the launch of the Access Concordat [in 1996], based on the Letterewe Accord, although the place was full of men in suits there didn't seem to be any overall sense of exclusion
BW: I think that was quite an important step, because the original Letterewe Accord came about because the access bodies - Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the Ramblers' Association - went to Paul van Vlissingen and said "Look, we've got to sort this out" - and that was then used as a model for what happened at national level for the Access Concordat. Both the MCofS and the RA have played a central if not dominant role there, and that's what needs to happen for national parks.
TAC: How does the Rothiemurchus Concordat stand in terms of being seen a model for Cairngorms National Park?
BW: It's really quite alarming [if this is the way forward for national parks] because it means that anybody who doesn't happen to live within the Cairngorms area - whatever that means - is likely, as a member of the public, to be excluded. It's not inclusive, it's exclusive. And the key thing to remember about the Cairn- gorms is that they're world famous as an area of mountains. Surely the people who come to visit those mountains on a regular and frequent basis - and frankly are more often on the tops than are those people who live in the valleys - should be stake- holders. As stakeholders, they are being excluded.
TAC: So much of the whole funicular argument is geared around bringing money into the area where "the area" is perceived as nothing more than the surrounding villages...
BW: And it's a very limited area; it's being painted as jobs versus con- servation but it's much more complicated than that. The Cairngorms and the people who go walking in them bring in a huge amount of money - not only to the Aviemore and Strathspey but to the area right around the Cairngorms. The Cairngorms area is not being proposed as a potential World Heritage Site, and is not known worldwide, because of its skiing or its tourist developments in the valleys. The Cairngorms are known because they are largest area of high mountain ground in the British Isles.
One thing to bear in mind is that [the Rothiemurchus Concordat] is not the first of these accords to happen in the Cairngorms area. There's been another one across on Deeside, on woodlands. The Cairngorms Campaign was invited to sign up and decided not to because we thought it was too woolly, that at the end of the day it wasn't going to achieve anything. The wording was such that nobody could disagree with it. That was the Deeside Forest Accord - it had nothing in the accord itself about targets for removal of deer fencing, nothing about targets for the reduction of deer numbers to see real natural regeneration, and we felt that we were not going to put our name to anything that at the end of the day was not going to achieve anything.
TAC: There were various non-governmental signa-tories to that accord though, so is exclusion [from the Rothiemurchus Concordat] primarily because of the NGO stance towards the funicular?
BW: I don't know: you would have to ask the people who set the thing up. But there's a self-importance with which a lot of these people - these officials - regard themselves. How many of them have ever actually been on the Cairngorms? How many are familiar with the Cairngorms? There is a serious issue here about the business of exclusiveness in terms of the future of the proposed Cairngorms National Park. Who is actually going to be involved in making the decisions? If you want inclusive politics, then the people who have particular areas of knowledge and particular interests have to be engaged, and you have to be prepared to engage those interests and areas of expertise that disagree with your own. Otherwise you are not ultimately going to get a set-up that's going to mean anything or move forward in any way. There's a lot of talk about partnerships, but these tend to be of people who agree with each other rather than where you actually start to engage the voices that are likely to continue to campaign. They're not going to go away, those voices, they're likely to continue to draw attention to the shortcomings of the decisions made by the people in power. You can either have them outside the tent - and in a democracy if they are not being listened to directly across the table they will continue to go to the media and draw public attention to the mistakes being made - or you can get them inside and listen to them directly and start to address the problems.
TAC: Yet the language used in these various concordats is the language of inclusiveness...
BW: It's spin. It's officials talking to officials and they're talking to a landowner who is receiving a considerable amount of public money.
TAC: What's the Cairngorms Campaign's view on national parks?
BW: We would very much like to see a national park that has substantial powers, both in terms of management and planning, that is a proper national park where national interests are represented as well as local interests and that has boundaries sufficient to be able to protect a substantial core area. It also has to be a national park where there are national representatives who know the Cairngorms well, rather than like the current Cairngorms Partnership set-up which is stuffed full of officials who frankly do not have sufficient time to attend all the meetings. You look at the attendance list in the Cairngorms Partnership and while the actual representatives are supposed to be the chair or the convenor of each of the national bodies like the Forestry Commission, SNH, local authorities etc, you'll often find that these people don't have the time to attend, so you've got a lack of continuity and consistency in decision-making. It therefore becomes a rubber-stamping forum rather than a body looking to seriously debate and discuss issues.
TAC: The danger is that it becomes a local park, not a national one
BW: That's an important issue to be resolved - as to where the balance is achieved between local and national interests - and that is never more so than in the case of planning applications. On the key major planning issues, like the funicular, those are national issues that should be discussed in a nationwide forum with national concerns primarily in mind. Local people might argue that these matters should be decided by people who live locally. Well, the key thing about the funicular is: how much local money is going into that? None. Absolutely none. It is all money that has come from the exchequer or from Europe. And therefore there should surely be some national checks and balances on that.
We've seriously questioned whether there will be a long-term benefit. We've yet to see the evidence - any so-called evidence has always been kept secret by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Let's actually see the figures on the table, with projections, for how many jobs are going to be created and what the cost per job is. Also what the projections are for dis- placement, because my understanding is that HIE acknowledge that some businesses - competing tourist attractions - will suffer as a result of the funicular. People will come to the area with only so much money in their pocket. People from the south of England aren't going to say, "Hey, I'm going to go to the Cairngorms to travel on that funicular railway". And yet there's regional development money coming in from both the treasury and from Europe.
I think there's been a problem with the funicular all along in that careers were put on the line, certainly within HIE where it's been quite staggering the extent to which the chief executive has backed this project despite all the indications of its nature as a high-risk investment. Certainly from a personal point of view it's not something I would put my money into as a certain winner, and I think the fact that they could find no sources of private money to back this develop- ment other than the institution which has most to lose if the company goes bust - the Bank of Scotland - speaks volumes about what a good or bad investment it is. It's quite clear that if it was a good investment then there would be a queue of private backers to put their money in, yet no such queue exists.
TAC: Well, look at the Millennium Dome by way of comparison
BW: Exactly - the Dome has had a lot of private investment. The funicular did actually apply, three or four years ago, for millennium lottery money and it was decided at that stage that it was just not a sufficiently imaginative proposal.
TAC: So where does the Cairngorms Campaign go from here, assuming the funicular gets built? A rearguard action?
BW: Yes, we will continue to highlight the short- comings of the funicular railway. Just because it's being built doesn't mean that we think it's a good thing. Whenever you get a situation like that you don't suddenly think: Oh well, let's just recognise that the funicular's a wonderful development. It's not. So we will continue to highlight its short- comings, but from the Cairngorms Campaign's point of view our key concern and interest over the next year will be what's going to happen about national parks.
TAC: Have the politics of the whole funicular saga changed the position regarding national parks?
BW: I think you can look at it in two ways. I think the fact that the development lobby appears to have the upper hand in this case means that a national park may not be seen in quite the context it could have been. But on the other hand the fact that there's been such a controversy over the funicular might mean that there's recognition of the need not to repeat the same mistakes. I think it hangs in the balance and the nature of the eventual national park is dependent on the views of the politicians - and in particular Sarah Boyack.
Boyack, certainly from the point of view of the Cairngorms Campaign, has already failed one test on the funicular. I think any credibility that she has as a minister with potential for doing good things for the environment will be determined by what happens in respect of Cairngorms National Park. If it has sufficient powers, if it's a large area with wide bound-aries and if representatives from conservation interests and outdoor recreation interests are included in the body that ultimately evolves, then it will reflect well on her. If on the other hand a small area is covered, if there are no planning powers and if outdoors recreation and non-governmental conservation interests continue to be excluded, then she will have been seen to have failed.
TAC: Are you pessimistic generally - or, rather, are you becoming more pessimistic?
BW: I think there are some serious issues to be confronted and I don't necessarily hold the confidence that some might hold that we're ultimately going to get to a better position simply because of the experience we've had with the funicular. We were promised by Brian Wilson that the funicular would be the sort of issue that would be thoroughly debated in the Scottish parliament. It never was, and I reserve judgment on whether or not Sarah Boyack is going to have enough clout to change the scene sufficiently from the direction it's been going for the past three years. There always was a commitment by Labour to national parks. The question is, what sort of national parks are we going to have? I think this is going to be a very good test of that.
The situation in the Cairngorms - and on the northern side in particular - is changing all the while, and nothing is set in stone, or in concrete for that matter. But by way of an intermediate update, it should be noted that SNH and the Highland Council failed to deliver the visitor management plan promised for 18 May. This would have included "visitor arrangements" for hillwalkers in the proposed funicular area. So there's still no sign of the inclusive approach that the Cairngorms Campaign continues to hope for and work towards...
TAC 46 Index