(Editorial Note: We welcome three items of local news brought eloquently and candidly to our attention by Ken Thomson. Ken also helps keep NEMT up to date with the Cairngorm Club activities, the latter being a long standing NEMT Club Member.)
The Upper Deeside Access Trust (UDAT) was established in 1998, and its work is now obvious in many parts of the area. In 2003, it was tasked with spending a substantial part of the £2.4 million of the 3-year EU/HL Eastern Cairngorms Access Project (ECAP) to improve paths in the glens of Aberdeenshire and Angus. This meant a great expansion in its work, and the need for completion before end-2006.
UDAT has always had Affiliate Members (AMs), i.e. individuals and organisations (including NEMT) who are interested in its activities, but until recently contact was limited to invitations to annual information meetings, and copies of Annual Reports and the occasional ECAP Newsletter. An exception was a prioritisation exercise in 1999/2000, when user perceptions of greatest need amongst hill paths were surveyed.
Given the inherently backward-looking nature of the meetings and reports, feeling grew amongst user AMs that closer contact was desirable, to reduce "surprises" as well-known paths were suddenly transformed with apparently little notice. Hence, in September 2005, I and Alistair Lawson of ScotWays were elected as AM representatives, entitled to attend the quarterly meetings of UDAT's Management Group. This consists of representatives of the main local funding organisations (Aberdeenshire Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, Cairngorms National Park Authority and Scottish Enterprise Grampian) meeting with UDAT officers (Andrew Coleman, Murray Swapp and Kevin Fairclough).
What did we AM reps learn, and do, over the year? Alistair and I took turns to convert the official minutes into a less formal Affiliates' Letter sent electronically to all AMs, and this should have accelerated the transfer of information. Even so, the pace of work, and the uncertainties of project management (specification, planning permission, costings, tender invitations, contracting, coordination, completion, ...) meant that not everything was reported, or took place as forecast. And of course AM organisations are only as good as their own communications!
We had little influence on the pattern of UDAT activities; that was largely fixed (especially in the hills) by ECAP, and the technical side of path and bridge construction etc. is esoteric and fast-developing. Perhaps we did ask the occasional question or mention the occasional issue from a user point of view, and we hope that some response was evoked.
UDAT strategy is in the hands of its Board, which consists of Pat Chalmers, Robbie Middleton, Peter Ord and Marcus Humphreys, who of course have depended on the professionalism of UDAT staff (primarily Andrew Coleman) in analysing longer-term possibilities, and on available funding. We AM reps have played no part in this debate; perhaps we should have asked more questions! The setting-up of the Cairngorms National Park has obviously changed the entire context, and at time of writing, UDAT awaits a decision of the Park Authority as to how it sees the future of path management in the whole Park area. (The much-trumpeted award of £100,000 on 8 September two days after the UDAT AGM was merely old news recycled). Furthermore, Andrew's move to Cumbria in early 2007, and his part-time substitution by Chris York until end-2006, will obviously alter the personal context.
During 2005/06, Alistair and I were always slightly troubled by our mutual similarity as out-of-area residents with primarily longer-distance walking interests at heart. For this and other reasons, Alistair decided in summer 2006 to stand down, and was replaced at the 2006 Annual Meeting by Robin Blyth of Ballater Community Council. Robin and I hope that together we can bring a more balanced and more active component to UDAT's proceedings.
On a personal note, I now wonder if pushing path restoration into the remoter areas has gone far enough. I am troubled by the possibilities that both the main Cairngorm Lairigs, (both of course mostly in NTS territory) will be "improved" beyond recognition, with implications for the use of mountain bikes (recently sighted halfway up the Sron Riach) and more wildlife disturbance higher up. That is perhaps for debate beyond - but including UDAT and NEMT. Now that most of the obvious hill paths have been attended to, the nature of UDAT-type work may have to change.
Since I last wrote on this topic in MV, each of the Local Outdoor Access Forums (LOAFs) for the Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire, and the National Access Forum, have been bedding down, with some issues becoming hardy perennials at most meetings. At national level, both the 'wild' camping and level-crossing issues stagger on without much apparent progress, but something may happen sometime .
More dynamically, perhaps, core path planning (CPP) under the Land Reform Act 2003 enters its crucial year in 2007, with most access (local and Park) authorities using 2006 to raise awareness, establish demand, define criteria, etc. With advice from their respective LOAFs (CLOAF and ALOAF), both Aberdeenshire Council and the Cairngorms National Park Authority have held community workshops throughout their areas, with questionnaires to match, and the CNPA is holding a user groups meeting in late November. Staff will then draw up Draft CPPs, for yet further consultation in 2007. These will be finalised in 2008 for Ministerial approval, and subsequent funding, signage and other forms of official preference should follow but again dont hold your breath! Issues for NEMT members include the desirability or otherwise of designating various mountain paths for CPP status: do we want this official status for the Lairigs and the major summit routes, or would they be loved to death? And what about mountain bikes ? And a complete coastal path would be nice, wouldnt it ?
CPP is having to go ahead within the above timetable rather separately from (at least) two other planning agendas, both with Forum involvement. One of these is the CNPAs plan jam, specifically their Outdoor Access Strategy which is currently in draft after an Environmental Impact Analysis and public consultation (to which NEMT responded). Aberdeenshire is reviewing their OAS, which dates from the 1990s. The other agenda is SEERADs Land Management Contract scheme, under which funding is directed to farmers and others for establishing and improving paths on their land. Currently, this is running at about £10 million, and rising, compared to a static £17 million for all access authorities, whose Access Officers are merely to be "informed" of the former. Who mentioned 'joined-up government' .?!
It has been suggested that erosion by climbers using the crags in this area is now getting so severe that measures to halt and restore the damage are becoming necessary. The Cairngorm Club is co-ordinating a proposal to appropriate organisations and would be glad to hear of any ideas, experiences and/or support (verbal, or possible funding) for this initiative.
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