Much is written on the future of the Cairngorm Mountains. Based partly on Mr David Hayes' report , this is a plea to the soon to be fledged Scottish Parliament to "Tak tent" to sort this one out...

Scottish Parliament - Please Sort This One Out!

This article summarises the issues underpinning the proposed Cairngorm National Park. The Scottish Parliament is to have autonomy to govern Scotland's sustainable development and therefore it is hoped it will take an holistic approach to address and balance the issues identified below.
  1. National Parks: The Labour Government has taken the decision to establish National parks in Scotland. This decision is based on the need to give greater protection to Scotland's unique and valuable environmental heritage. The beauty, grandeur and environmental sensitivities of the Cairngorm Mountains has resulted in their being nominated as one of two proposed National Parks.
  2. Cairngorm Partnership: This was initiated 8 years ago by the Scottish Secretary of State and since its inception they have been studying the management of the Cairngorms culminating in the Cairngorm Management Strategy in 1997. One of the stated objectives is "To draw people away from those parts of the high hills and other sites which are sensitive to, or which have already suffered, unacceptable environmental damage, and to provide suitable alternatives."
  3. History of Skiing in the Cairngorms: Prior to both the above, the Cairngorm Chairlift Co. (CCC) was operating, and is still operating, a ski-tow system which gives artificial access up to the edge of the Cairngorm Pleateau. CCC has recognised their lifts are reaching the end of their working life and must be replaced.
  4. Global Warming: Pollution is creating a warmer climate and Scottish winters are affected so that snow lie can no longer be guarateed. Whilst this season has given reasonable snowfalls, preceding winters resulted in loss of revenue for the skiing companies.
  5. Funicular: CCC's planning application is passed for a Funicular Railway to be built in place of the ski tows. The capital is £14.8 million and it is deemed viable provided 165,000 pay to use it from May to October in addition to the winter skiing season. As CCC's land is owned by the Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) they have been able to secure 80% of capital from public funding.
  6. The problems: It does not make sense to nominate maximum protection for what is recognised to be one of Scotland's two most valued natural environments and at the same time build a railway to take hundreds of thousands of visitors into the most sensitive core area all year round. Here is a closer look at the problems.
    1. Scottish Natural Heritage: Even prior to the National Parks initiative SNH had problems with the funicular as they recognised it was blasting a hole in the zoning principle which was to become one of the CMS objectives. SNH's eventual decision to waive their objection, based on a closed system, ie to prevent anyone getting out of the restaurant at the top during the summer, simply beggared belief. This is what happened however allowing CCC to get their planning application accepted
    2. The Funding: Hayes' Report: As noted 80% of capital comes from public funding. David Hayes is not the first to note the financial side of the Funicular does not stack up and he has provided me with the basic facts to illustrate this. Here goes:
      • Readers should know David Hayes owns and operates Scottish Visitor attractions which handle over 300,000 visitors per annum, including Landmark at Carrbridge, so he knows what he is talking about.
      • To show viability HIE got a London consultancy to assess projected numbers of paying summer visitors. They estimated 200,000 paying visitors from May to October. When you read Mr Hayes' critique of their report, the flaws cannot be denied. From double counting, to getting Mr Hayes' visitor numbers wrong to the tune of 130%, to illogical comparisons with the Nevis Range Gondola, HIE had to re-commission a revised report.
      • The problem now is that HIE are not allowing anyone to see the revised report. Where 80% public funding is involved it is not democratic to withold figures - what is it they want to hide?
      • It is fair to say that a development of this size will pull visitors from other attractions and so actually threaten other jobs.
      • The capital cost to the taxpayer is to be £162,000 per job. This money, if more evenly distributed, has the potential to make greater inroads towards promoting the rural economy across the board. If it means going back to the drawing board to work out how to get this sort of capital at least we will be setting off on the right foot with regards to sustainable development.
      • David Hayes commissioned his own report from a consultant who has worked in senior positions in the Scottish tourist market culminating in the position of Chief Executive of the Scottish Tourist Board. This time between 77,000 and 104,000 summer visitors are forecast, which would mean the funicular would not be viable.
      • With the threat of bankruptcy, the temptation to open the restaurant up at the top and allow visitors access to the mountain plateau would be enormous. However environmentally speaking this would be a travisty.
      • David Hayes makes a very reasonable comparison with other visitor attractions, eg Archaeolink and Highland Mystery World, where visitor numbers are a fraction of those predicted.

But the Answer is Staring us in the Face!

The Cairngorm mountains are to be a National Park, a nationally environmental treasure. Have we not the nous to see we must build of this treasure to safeguard the environment and support the local economy for generations to come? Refer back to David Attenborough's Open Letter to the Secretary of State, with supporting signatures from so many well-respected names such as Chris Brasher, David Bellamy and John Foster (Mountain Views 1996 no 2) to see the level of objection to the funicular. From day one I have thought yes, there is room to expand the skiing industry in Scotland despite reduced snow-lie - but let's develop it in the least environmentally valued areas, not the most.

A lot of good work has been completed to produce the CPB Management Strategy - let's build on this so that the social, economic and environmental aspects of our heritages are developed in a sensible and balanced manner. The Workshops held around the country to examine how to implement the Management Strategy are showing there are seed of ideas out there which if nurtured will grow to promote a thriving rural economy.

One final point - where more surveys need carried out - can we not make better use of our Universities? OK so this idea will not be popular with the consultants no matter where they are from - but there are a lot of good brains out there with resources and energy (and no vested interests!) who are looking for the sort of challenge this work presents. Let's use them!

Jennifer Cook, 31 March 1999

STOP PRESS: At the time of going to press the news broke that the application for the funicular was to be examined by the Central Government’s watchdog – the National Audit Office. This investigation into the potential mis-use of the taxpayers’ money is as a result of several bodies having written to them to bring the foregoing to their attention. We just have to hope that someone has explained the principles of “sustainable development” to the National Audit Office !!

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