Friday, 29 March 2013

To celebrate 10 years of the CAIRNGORMS National Park - something from the archives.

Hello, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you for inviting me to be your guest speaker tonight (you can blame Bill Wright later).

I’d like to focus on three aspects of the Cairngorms which are dear to me. Firstly mountaineering, and the great value that exists therein.  Secondly, my involvement in the management of the Mar Lodge Estate with the National Trust for Scotland and thirdly a little about ‘economic development and planning’. Something dear to my back pocket.  But first, a little background and gossip.

Back in 1986/7, or thereabouts, the then President of the Mountaineering Council, one Graham Little, got pretty fed up of me pestering him about various conservation matters in the Scottish Mountains.  He duly co-opted me onto the Mountaineering Council.  I well remember the first meeting I attended….. very formal… some well kent climbers and even a fairly infamous General Secretary of the BMC, Dennis Gray.

Not long after I found myself on regular journeys back and forth from Glasgow to Perth as MCofS representative to the fledgling Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link, which of course had its 10th anniversary dinner in 1997.  Drennan was in the chair in those days and there was a formidable ‘organiser’, who you just didn’t say no to.  [Jennifer] I think this is where I first heard words like ‘sustainibility’, cross-compliance and precautionary principle.  All now standard fare in Government Policy. I remember feeling out of my depth.

I was soon to find a niche, however.  I became the informal planning consultant to LINK.  Unpaid, but always fulfilling.  In return I began to experience come of the rufty-tufty-argy-bargy of Scottish Conservation and the intrigue which went with it.  There’s a book waiting to be written.  Full of interesting characters. 

Over a decade later, I can be reflective and somewhat rueful.  You see, I think LINK always underestimated its clout.  It was far more important in influencing the agenda, than I think we realise even today.  Perhaps we were too well behaved.  Though recalling the amount of internal disagreement, it is hard to see ourselves as civilised.  With so many ‘windmills’ or ‘white elephants’ to charge at, how could the conservation bodies seem, at times, so disunited?

I’d instance LINK handing to the previous government on a plate the reason to reject National Parks at the end of the 80s.  “There is not enough agreement," said the minister, in the face of opinion polls that said over 80% of Scots supported National parks.  Who knows what might have happened had we said yes?  I know hindsight is easy and glib, but there was a small group of LINK members saying in 1988….. “Unite behind a simple YES to NATIONAL PARKS”.  Modern history begins when 30 years have past, so in 2020 maybe we’ll look back slightly differently about what has passed in this decade.  The course of events, which led to bulldozers beginning to scrape out a track bed on Caringorm, could perhaps have been different.  A lesson to learn.

It was in the aftermath of the failed CCS Popular Mountain review that Highland Regional Council set out its new structure plan [Highland Regional Council were of course arch opponents of National Parks].  Again with hindsight, I wonder whether HRC and the then HIDB, realised that the writing was on the wall and that we would have National Parks, if not imminently, then soon. “We'd better get the skiing sorted out before a National Park is designated”.

The upshot of all of this was the Save the Cairngorms Campaign.  We wondered at the time whether we should be the LINK Cairngorms group, or uplands group, but eventually decided on ‘Saving the Cairngorms’. And we would campaign.  Great name, great tactics. The media loved it.  The inference was save it from what?  My own inference was save it FOR WHAT.  Explaining why they should be saved, was always more important in my mind than the threats.  Convince people about what the Cairngorms should be for, and the threats would become clearer.

One of the tensions I have always had as a mountaineer and as a planner, is a continuing doubt about conservation for conservation sake.  I’m my own perspective comes from dealing with the built environment. The best way of conserving a building is for it to be used. 

I have travelled abroad to some pretty pristine wilderness areas; unaltered by man.  Indeed as a mountaineer, on two occasions I have stood where no other human being has ever stood.  I don’t want to delve too far into the psychological motivations of mountaineers at this point – and some may think it is better left enigmatic in any event.  However I have had numerous discussions over this last decade with ecologists, ornithologists, botanists, geomorphologists, and more beside….. who wonder and question man’s desire to go to wild places and do things (and by “do things” I mean other than botanise, observe birds, ecology or geomorphological features).

Like these observers of nature, who no doubt enjoy what they do, WE TOO GO TO THE MOUNTAINS TO ENJOY OURSELVES.  Call it escape if you like.  No matter.  We must recognise that wild land areas like the Cairngorms serve a wider societal need than as “conservation repositories”.  That is far too sterile.

In the day and age of “tranquillity mapping” [a delightful new planning tool] wild land areas become more and more important to society.  Our remote communities also rely evermore on visitors for their economic raison d'ĂȘtre, visitors who for the most part either want to see the scenery or, literally, get into it, become part of it even.

Our price to pay…… is that any such use must be SUSTAINABLE.  THERE CAN BE NO EXCEPTIONS FROM THIS.

So; ……. What are the Cairngorms for?
And if we can decide that, ……….how should they be managed?
And if we can decide how to manage them, …………is there room for development.

At Mar Lodge Estate much of this conundrum is being actively moved forward. The National Trust for Scotland acquired the Estate in 1995, after the failure of an earlier joint bid between JMT WWF and RSPB. At a stroke, the acquisition practically doubled the area of Mountain land holdings of the Trust.  There was considerable trepidation and feint hearts on Trust Council.  The NHLF was key to overcoming this with an award of approximately £10m to help with acquisition costs and an endowment. And SNH has come on board as well with a 25-year management grant.  And the mysterious Easter Trust appeared with the balance of funding required to secure the estate, with a generous donation (not without strings). 

By 1997 an agreed Management Plan had been put in place.

As a member of the Management Committee, I sometimes feel a little bewildered at the amalgam of objectives we are pursuing.  Both the Trust and SNH have their own stated public agendas and priorities.  7 management aims and principles were agreed by the Trust for the estate.  SNH set down a set of conditions for their management grant and the Easter Trust added 8 further principles of their own.  On top of all of this there is the Cairngorm Partnerships wider Cairngorms agenda, and the emerging national park legislative framework, and Percy Unna continues to lurk in the background.

The three key objectives, which emerge from this amalgam, are
1.    Conservation
2.    Access
3.    Highland sporting estate [NB not "traditional"…..]

This is beginning to resemble the environment/quiet enjoyment/economic well being objectives, which have emerged as the Scottish National Park aims. Sustainability? Perhaps.  However, we have also begun to talk of this as 'the wild land agenda'.  It is a recognition that remoteness offers the best protection, the best conservation and perhaps the highest quality experience for visitors.  This is an agenda which is so easily undermined by the need for convenience.  The confines of a 'working day', the dictats of a health and safety policy, and so on, all need to be looked at in a new light, and compromises avoided.

Since 1995 we have moved forward apace with a number of key projects. 
·          We have significantly reduced the deer numbers, without losing a single day's access, and the stalkers and ghillies now have Saturdays off. [from well over 3000 down to 1650] [less than 5% interruption of stalking, less than 1% abandoned]
·          We have converted the Lodge into self-catering holiday apartments, and they are proving very popular indeed.
·          We have begun an extensive and in depth monitoring programme.
·          We have begun an extensive path maintenance, repair and track restoration programme and over 20km of tracks have been closed to land rover use since 1995. 
·          We have continued with the archaeological conservation of the estate.
·          A Visitor Management Plan, as a detailed insert into the overall management plan is now being drafted.
·          On top of the sporting staff, there are Lodge staff, a works team and the ranger [2 + 2 seasonal, with seasonal ecologist and archaeologist].  We now have a specific Estate Manager and Smiths Gore continue to act as sporting Consultants.
·          consultative processes/open days/involvement

Busy, busy, busy.

However…….. pause for thought.  We are now, more than ever, having to face up to the rigour required to make sense of the three objectives.  In all honesty, I don't know if they have been pursued in this way anywhere else to date.  The MLEMC have always believed that the "conflicts" in the Scottish hills had more to do with a state of mind than what was actually happening on the ground.  We have wanted to prove this to be the case.

On the one hand we can have a clear and integrative agenda set down as the three key aims.  It is only once you begin to move forward with these three that the risks of inconsistency, unfairness, even hypocrisy begin to arise.  This is most easily exemplified by the contrast between the long walk in for visitors compared to the use of land rovers for management, for conservation, for mountain rescue, or for sport.

In an integrative management agenda, suddenly fairness and consistency come rocketing to the fore as key principles which hitherto we tended to simply ignore.

The one thing £10m of "everyman's" lottery money serves to emphasise most is a need to pursue this consistency vigorously.  We will have to apply this with rigour to our emerging areas of work, and emerging issues, including
·          mountain biking [national legislation]
·          Derry Lodge [positive use now agreed]
Our test of success will be the degree to which this can be replicated elsewhere in the Cairngorms by other land owners, and indeed, elsewhere in Scotland.

[Aside: Visit by JMT, Nigel and Dennis said  "This is an undertaking which would have been too big for us"]

Funicula, Funiculi, Funiculum………………….
Which brings me on to my final brief comment about the future planning of the Cairngorms.
And I cannot avoid the funicula.

I have a great deal of sympathy for many of my planning colleagues in Highland Council.  Also officials in SNH.  Off the record I speak to so many who all say, "this is madness".  I was at the Royal Fine Arts Commission last month, and Commissioners too were saying, "this is madness".  I now hear that the Chief Executive of the only private funder of this scheme is saying the same.  It isn't easy for people to stand up and speak their own mind on these issues sometimes.  Some may be afraid to breach a party line.  Especially in the circumstances which have emerged.

There has been far too much testosterone, both political and corporate driving this.  The system of "he who pays the piper calls the tune" has driven the whole matter, and done so ruthlessly.  Those doing so would do well to remember that it is Taxpayers' money, and voters don't forget. There is not a single project elsewhere in Scotland getting anything like this level of public funding.  Let's talk comparisons. What could you do with the £15m?
·          Schools: I met Peter Peacock last month to discuss the Education Bill, and discussed the appalling state of some of our schools…. especially the flat roofed monsters built in the 60s and 70s. 15 of these could be completely refurbished and overhauled.
·          Tourism: Much of the Cairngorms could have had its accommodation brought up to speed with en-suite and high quality from B&Bs to 3***Hotels.
·          Visitor facilities could have been revamped on all sides of the Cairngorms.  And it is these smaller, essentially historical, cultural or scenic attractions which the visitors come for.
·          All the paths in the Cairngorms could have been repaired, and put under suitable maintenance regimes, including community path networks for all the settlements around the Cairngorms. They could even link.
·          With some of these there would have been enough left over to still overhaul and renew the skiing facilities on Cairngorm.
I think, if funicula "madness" does go ahead, there needs to be a close examination of the planning system that can allow this to happen in the centre of a proposed national park/world heritage site.  There should be a requirement for such sensitive cases to have to undergo Public Inquiry.  Of course this could have happened if SNH maintained an objection [bit of an own goal this for the Government's conservation agency charged with promulgating sustainability.  Real doublethink here].  But even SNH had too much discretion here.  Comparisons to National Monuments/Listed Buildings come to mind.
The best I can advise is
·          It is not too late, there will be no loss of face, only credit;
·          There is much to be gained, especially wider political support;
·          There are better ways to skin this cat.  Moreover, ways that deliver more and wider benefits to all and especially to the wider Cairngorms.

To ministers and to managers alike, dealing with this issue, I would say you have to get back to the negotiating table, before you commit irretrievably to what will be an unpardonable folly.

FOOTNOTE from over ten years later.
Progress is often a process of two steps forward, one step back. Like climbing steep soft snow.  I am confident that having a National Park is a great step forward. Sometimes even organisations such as the Park Authority have matters inflicted upon them that means they are making the best of a ‘poor job’. Funicular, Beauly Denny, Allt  Duine & Stronelairg. I will continue to wonder how we arrived at An Camus Mor as well – but think that once it begins it can and will improve, especially in its linkage to Aviemore. Hey… but that is just me being a town planner.

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