Cairngorms National Park Debacle

Last December, the Scottish Parliament approved the Executive's Designation Order setting out the powers and extent of the long-awaited Cairngorms National Park. The National Park Authority comes into being on March 25, 2003 and the Park will be the largest in Britain, covering 1,486 square miles. Elections for the five community representatives, three from areas of the Park within Highland, one from Aberdeenshire/Moray and one from Aberdeenshire/Angus are scheduled for March 13th. The Scottish Executive will appoint ten members to the Authority and a further ten will be nominated by the local authorities - five by Highland Council, three by Aberdeenshire and one each by Moray and Angus. (Appointments) The Park Authority will take up its operational powers on 1 September 2003.

So much for housekeeping arrangements. The provisions on planning power and boundaries gave rise to widespread condemnation and anger. The decision to leave the local authorities as lead planning authorities, in contrast with arrangements for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Park and with National Parks in England and Wales, was not unexpected. Scottish Natural Heritage, as the Executive's adviser on natural heritage issues had recommended as much. This opinion was not widely shared by the individuals and agencies who responded to the Draft Designation Order. No satisfactory reason for this crucial distinction between Scotland's first two National Parks has ever been given. It is widely suspected that the recommendation was the product of a political compromise with Highland Council, who had previously opposed the concept of national parks because of the likely impact on their planning powers. Intensive lobbying by environmental and outdoor NGOs, including NEMT, regrettably failed to effect a change in the proposals. So Britain's biggest Park will come into being with the most limited powers. World Heritage status for the Cairngorms seems as far off as ever.

If the proposal on planning was no surprise, the same could hardly be said for the Executive's proposal on boundaries. SNH recommended boundaries which included all the acknowledged high tops and adjacent straths and glens. The area covered land in five local authorities -Highland, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Angus and Perthshire. With some minor differences, responses to the consultation took a similar line. General outrage ensued when the Executive proposed a much smaller Park, excluding areas in Angus and Perthshire and following political rather than topographic boundaries. Widespread opposition proved partially successful. Areas in Angus were restored but the Executive remained obdurate on Perthshire and forced the Designation Order through Parliament on the threat that rejection would delay the creation of the Park for up to a year. This would have meant the Executive failing to meet its pledge to deliver the first two National Parks in time for this May's elections to the Scottish Parliament. The current boundaries thus have the ludicrous effect of excluding Beinn a'Ghlo and the Perthshire areas of the Glenshee hills and so fail to protect the southern flanks of the Cairngorms. Boundaries which run along the tops in the core montane zone conflicts with the widely recognised planning principle of using zoning to protect the most vulnerable areas of a sensitive environment

In another surprising twist, the Park Authority will not be given the function of providing ranger services, although it will be able to employ or grant aid the employment of rangers to fill gaps in existing provision.

During the public debate on the failings of the Draft Designation Order, NEMT and others called on politicians to reject the Order (and hence the imminent creation of the Park) rather than approve such a flawed concept. Obviously that hasn't happened. The struggle continues, particularly in Perthshire where a new umbrella group of business and environmental groups and councillors are campaigning for the Perthshire areas to be included in the Park. The Perthshire Alliance for the Real Cairngorms (PARC) intends to make this an election issue. So should we.

Will Campbell, 12 March 2003

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