The Angry Corrie 64: March-May 2005

The Cairngorms National Farce

by Adam Watson

image from The Angry Corrie

A real national park in the Cairngorms could have been an international showpiece. Instead, the Scottish Executive has given us one of the world's worst. A national park's main purpose is to provide better protection for nationally or internationally important landscape and wildlife. In glaring contrast, the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) acts like a rural development board.

Some of us have become so concerned that we formed a shadow board last September. We have subsequently attended CNPA meetings, inspected publications and made public statements. We aim to hold the CNPA better to public account, and to expose some of what is happening.

If enough people deplore how the Executive has made a laughing stock of Scotland over the Cairngorms park, and condemn the profligate waste of taxpayers' money, then the Executive might take heed and make the completely fresh start that is needed. If, however, the Executive carries on regardless, elections eventually loom, and citizens have the opportunity to restart with a clean slate.

Park personnel

The CNPA board and staff lack anyone with national credibility in conserving outstanding landscape and wildlife, or in the recreation that depends on these qualities and is the mainstay of the local economy. The Executive appointed Andrew Thin, who became convenor. He lacks international thinking on protected areas, and should not be in this post. When I told him this in May 2003, he agreed that he lacked expertise, but said: "I have the ear of government".

Jane Hope was appointed chief executive. In May 2004, I wrote: "The Scottish Executive should have advertised internationally to secure someone with recognised expertise in the conservation and management of outstanding protected areas. The Executive has failed to appoint someone with a credible reputation in these fields."

Some appointees, such as head of natural resources Fiona Newcombe, are insufficiently experienced. Nick Halfhide is head of strategic policy. As a Cairngorms Partnership officer in 1998 he joined chairman Gus Macdonald in threatening to evict five democratically elected councillors from the Partnership board. With taxpayers' money, they hired lawyers to arrange a private kangaroo court which formally evicted the councillors.

Dubious decisions

August 2003. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) objects to a proposed cycle route in Glen More because of legal protection of capercaillie in an adjacent Special Protection Area (SPA). Hope said: "We should challenge this legal position. The Executive should obtain a formal legal opinion." Is she a national park director, or a developer?

October 2003. Glenfeshie estate wishes to restructure plantations for woodland grouse. The estate had agreed with the Deer Commission for Scotland to reduce deer numbers and apply for a woodland grant, but the Forestry Commission cannot pay if plantations hold many deer or if fences are used. Everyone encourages the estate to reduce deer and not to fence, save Thin. "Why are we focusing on capercaillie and black grouse?", he said. "This will compromise the estate's ability to use the plantations for other objectives like deer shelter."

May 2004. The CNPA discusses an application for a horse-trekking centre at Nethy Bridge. The site is adjacent to Craigmore SPA, purchased by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) with 50% funding from European Union funds to manage the wood for capercaillie. Andrew Tait from the planning department recommends refusal on policy grounds re buildings in the countryside, but does not mention capercaillie - yet he knew about the capercaillie because the park's own natural resources group (NRG) had informed him. Immediately after this agenda item was raised, capercaillie expert and shadow board member Dr Robert Moss passed a note on the importance for capercaillie, but the planner chose not to mention it to the committee. Several members showed an inclination towards the development and impatience with policy grounds. This was an unsatisfactory way of considering an application likely to impinge on a wood with the biggest capercaillie lek and densest breeding population in Scotland.

Dr Moss complained about this to the European Commission (EC). On 22 December 2004, the EC sent a formal notice of infringement: "With regard to relevant habitat adjacent to SPAs in Strathspey, there is concern that the United Kingdom [...] is failing to ensure that sufficient account is being taken of the capercaillie with regard to planning proposals in the new Cairngorms National Park. It appears that a large number of development proposals are in the pipeline and are being zoned for woodland areas important to the capercaillie..."

July 2004. The CNPA agrees to spend £850,000 on 31 signs at entry roads. Thin deems it "impossible to quantify the value of good signage". February 2005: the figure is now £908,000.

In the same month, an application for luxury houses in Milton Wood at Aviemore is not called in, despite its value for scenery, wildlife and local amenity. In a letter to the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald (the Strathy), local resident John Grierson wrote: "Mr Thin is being economical with the truth when he says that there is nothing they can do with the local plan that is currently in force [...] The park authority can call in any application, including those under the present local plan, if the development raises a planning issue of general significance to the national park aims. There is absolutely no doubt at all that the proposed development at Milton Wood does not satisfy any of the four aims of the Cairngorms National Park."

Also in July 2004, the draft planning policy, radio-telecommunications, states that "proposals will be permitted where all of the following criteria are met", including "an established operational need to justify the location proposed". There is no assessment of what is meant by "need". Similarly, the draft planning policy, vehicle hill-tracks, notes: "It is in the very nature of sporting, agricultural and forest estates that vehicular access tracks will be required up hillsides [...] If a new track is absolutely necessary, and there are no existing tracks that can be utilised, then it must be designed and built to fit in, as far as possible, with the landscape." There is no assessment of "absolutely necessary". Sections on construction and restoration are technically incompetent, and would cause extra damage, more erosion, and poor reinstatement. Both drafts ignore zoning, an important principle in general and national park planning, and give no indication of areas where there should be no installations or tracks. The drafts reveal the CNPA's profoundly inadequate knowledge.

August 2004. Planners recommend approval of two ski tows on Cairn Gorm, though noting that they could kill ptarmigan and dotterel. Lowering of wires outside the ski season has been routine at Glenshee's Glas Maol tow since 1988, yet the applicant is recommended to monitor bird collisions for a year, then to lower or mark wires if there are collisions. The need for the company to take a bond to fund removal and reinstatement is ignored, even though Highland Council has made this a condition for facilities since 1988 at three ski centres including Cairn Gorm.

September 2004. The CNPA has spent almost all its 2003-04 funds on personnel and buildings, far more than estimated. Yet in November 2004 Lewis Macdonald, deputy minister for environment and rural development, declared the park "a real success [...] Already the national park authorities are making a difference, in managing, protecting and promoting." He more than doubles CNPA funding for 2005-06, to £4.3 million.

In the same month, planners recommend refusal of an application at Boat of Garten because it constitutes a new house in countryside. The CNPA board votes 13 to seven for approval. Thin is one of the 13, and goes against his chief planner. An application for a new house near Kingussie is discussed even though planners have not made a recommendation. Thin leads from the chair, saying that the applicants are local. This is improper for a chairman, and could be perceived as leading members towards support before seeing the planners' report.

September 2004, planners recommend approval of an application at Coire Cas for drystone dyking around gabions and above the car park, "opening up and naturalizing drainage courses" and using boulders to form "cascading burns". A "wind singing dry stone hut" would be "in the shape of an erratic boulder with a window to the north-west [...] Bronze bottles and tube flutes would be embedded in the structure at varying heights to create music from the wind." Stone would come from Alvie Quarry. Heather, juniper and blue berries (sic) would be planted, and dwarf birch, woolly willow and creeping juniper. The £350,000 scheme would be Disneyfication with incongruous alien suburban features. Well-known severe impacts on vegetation and infertile soils at Coire Cas are not heeded.

September 2004 also sees discussion of draft responses to Scottish Water's consultation reports on water services. The CNPA wishes new rural housing wherever people want it, subsidised and free from constraints of mains water and sewerage. CNPA member Professor Sue Walker criticises new houses away from public water and sewerage, because of poor water quality and pollution from septic tanks, but this warning from a Scottish Environmental Protection Agency board member goes unheeded. CNPA responses do not mention that unrestrained new housing is undesirable in a national park. In January 2005, Scottish Water objects to an application for a house in Newtonmore because the waste-water plant is at capacity. Councillor Gregor Rimell, a CNPA board member, says: "My view is to pass the consent and to hell with Scottish Water."

image from The Angry Corrie

October 2004. The CNPA announces 53 full-time staff.

November 2004. An application is approved for a synthetic ski slope, chairlift, buildings and car park in pine and larch woodland at Braemar. SNH objects because it is in a National Scenic Area, and the Executive orders a local public inquiry. Thin: "This development will actually contribute to the natural heritage of this area because of the woodland management agreement drawn up, providing positives for nature conservation and the general enhancement of the site." This is fatuous: the development is bound to damage the natural heritage. The planner (Neil Stewart): "The woodland management agreement will help to secure the long-term conservation management of the site [...] Without such an agreement the woodland could be legitimately felled resulting in the loss of habitat for species such as red squirrels and Scottish crossbill." This is misleading. It could not be felled without consent from SNH, Aberdeenshire Council and others, and the FC could not allow felling if SNH or the council objected.

December 2004. The CNPA agrees to spend £15,000 on six temporary metal signs at the main entry roads and £55,000 for consultants to design permanent signs for later erection.

Messy meetings

There is poor procedure, such as members' queries being ignored. At meetings attended by the shadow board, the convenor sat with his back to the public and the board faced each other. Halls have poor acoustics. Members and most staff use microphones badly, and members sometimes not at all. Almost all members mumble, including the convenor.

Excessive numbers of staff attend meetings, usually about seven. Even where attendance is required briefly, they remain throughout. This is costly and gives a poor impression. At several meetings, the chief executive sat throughout, said nothing, and took no notes. At an evening meeting in August 2004 the convenor and members mingled with local folk, but the chief executive did not.

Thin on the ground: the convenor in the media

April 2003. In a Scotsman article, Thin accuses the Cairngorms Campaign of "scaremongering" about the finances of the funicular. This is inappropriate for a new convenor.

April 2004. In the Strathy, Thin says the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association and Scottish Landowners' Federation (SLF) "are centrally important to delivering the aims of the national park, and are already contributing very positively to doing so". And speaking to the Highland AGM of the SLF, he says: "the vast majority of landowners here are already managing their properties in a manner broadly sympathetic to the aims of the park". This is absurdly rosy, given the destruction of naturally regenerating trees on moorland, illegal persecution of raptors including poisoning, indiscriminate snaring, excessive deer stocks, new fences, felling methods that destroy woodland habitat, building of luxury houses in pinewood, and bulldozing of vehicle tracks without planning permission.

July 2004. Thin notes "worrying recent news about the future of Glenshee". The CNPA could have used its influence to encourage assistance from state agencies, but did nothing of use. CairnGorm Mountain (the funicular) "needs our help", he writes, but he fails to offer help to Glenshee or the Lecht. This is disgraceful.

Also in July 2004: "We can all do our bit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." At two meetings in 2004, at Dinnet and Logie Coldstone, the public could not use the car parks because CNPA vehicles filled them. There is little sign of car-sharing, and a high proportion of big gas-guzzling 4x4s.

September 2004. At the Glenmore Lodge "Wild at Heart" conference, Thin tells delegates is it "vital to recognise that there are many legitimate perspectives on what is referred to as wild places - places of work, a playground, something to be tamed and somewhere to grow things. It is vital that this debate moves forward and that a small number of wild land enthusiasts do not seek to replace one kind of elitist approach with another. Wild places are there for all of us, and no one group has any kind of God-given right to dictate how they should best be managed and cared for." Further vacuous babbling.

Also in September 2004. "This is a National Park that is locally led. Almost all of the board are local people." Yet it is funded wholly by general taxpayers.

October 2004. In a Radio Scotland broadcast, Thin is asked what the CNPA has achieved. He says Kinveachy Estate is emphasising nature conservation, a moorland project has begun, and there is the John Muir Award. When asked whether these wouldn't have happened without the CNPA, Thin says "I have no doubt". In fact, Kinveachy has worked with SNH for years on conservation, the Cairngorms Partnership did the groundwork for the moorland project, and the John Muir Trust began its award years before.

December 2004. Thin suggests using crofting land for housing. Crofter George Grant writes in the Strathy that the CNPA should ask wealthy landowners for land "rather than ask crofters for grazing land already in short supply", and "instead of considering another attempt at the Highland Clearances of crofters".

Also in December 2004, of Glen Feshie, Thin says: "What we see now is as much cultural heritage as it is natural [...] The Cairngorms are a man-made landscape."

The shadow board will continue to monitor the situation. They don't as yet have a website, but Adam Watson is their spokesperson and can be contacted at Clachnaben, Crathes, Banchory, Kincardineshire AB31 5JE, by phone at 01330 844609, or by fax at 01330 844671.

CNPA website:

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