Last November Robert Black, the auditor general for Scotland, announced that Audit Scotland would investigate the funding of the controversial mountain railway on Cairngorm. Large sums of public money have been spent by Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the project and, earlier in 2008, ownership of the funicular was transferred to HIE from its debt-ridden operator, Cairngorm Mountain Limited and some £3 million of loans to the company were written off by HIE and Highland Council.
"Due to the long-running difficulties with the operation of the funicular, culminating with HIE's decision to take Cairngorm Mountain Limited into public control, I have asked Audit Scotland to undertake a specific review of the project." Mr Black said, "The review will examine both HIE's plans for the future operation of the funicular and relevant historical events and activity. I intend to report to the parliament in 2009." Critics of the funicular have been calling for such an investigation for years.
Further light was shed last year on the murky finances of the funicular when the Sunday Herald, under the Freedom of Information Act, obtained a large number of documents from HIE and from the Forestry Commission, which was in negotiation with HIE in 2006 and 2007 with a view to the Commission taking over the ownership of the Cairngorm Estate, including the funicular, from HIE. The Commission accused HIE of hiding the massive extent of the mountain railway's financial problems. The documents reveal that Forestry Commission staff were concerned about the level of future costs and liabilities they would be taking on, given the poor state of maintenance of the facilities and the possibility that the funicular facility might have to be removed and the site reinstated to its original condition at some future date. HIE eventually withdrew from negotiations and retained control of the Cairngorm Estate. The documents also showed that the company running the funicular was almost bankrupt when HIE took it over in May 2008 and how this information was concealed from the public by HIE at the time. The estimated cost of site reinstatement, which HIE had told the Forestry Commission was £6 million, was now estimated at between £30 million and £50 million. The Sunday Herald articles, by Rob Edwards, appeared on 6 July and 7 September 2008.
Scottish Government last year proposed an extension of the Cairngorms National Park to include the adjoining mountain areas of Perthshire which many, including Scottish Natural Heritage, thought should have been included in the original Park. Ministers instructed SNH to carry out the legally-required consultation on the proposal and to report back to them by the end of 2008. The Report was submitted in December and can be seen on the SNH website. The proposed boundary includes within the National Park:
The statutory process now requires the Scottish Government to consult on the proposed amendment to the Cairngorms National Park Designation Order and then to submit the proposal to Parliament for approval.
The Cairngorms Park enlargement proposal forms part of a wider review of both of Scotland's National Parks which was announced by Environment Minister Mike Russell last March. The report of the Review Board is available on the Scottish Government website. The main recommendations are that existing management arrangements for a free-standing National Park Authority for each National Park should continue at least for the medium term, that National Park Authority Boards should be reduced in size while keeping a mix of directly elected Members, Council nominees, and direct Ministerial appointees and that the proportion of directly elected Members could be increased.
The review process has been criticised for focusing on the structural aspects of the parks' governing bodies, for failing to address issues relating to planning and for over-emphasis on the importance of local communities in decision-making. Involvement of local and national communities of interest has been shown internationally to be crucial to successful management of national parks and these communities arecurrently under-represented in the Scottish model. The Cairngorms Campaign has pointed out in its current newsletter that the remit of the Scottish parks does not meet IUCN guidelines that the foremost purpose of such parks should be conservation of their special qualities and that they should be managed primarily for ecosystem protection, for landscape / seascape protection and for recreation. The Campaign believes that the Scottish parks, as currently constituted, run the risk of becoming merely another development tool.
Editors Note: The Cairngorms National Park - What's the Plan article in this issue provide examples where NEMT supports this concern.
Last November, the Scottish Government approved Donald Trump's controversial plan to build the world's "greatest golf course" on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire. His plan includes proposals for two golf courses, a 450-bedroom hotel and housing, as well as holiday apartments and golf villas. It was opposed by environmentalists and some local people as it proposed building the back nine holes of the main championship course within the shifting sand dunes in the Foveran Links Site of Special Scientific Interest. However, a public inquiry concluded that the scheme's projected economic benefits outweighed the environmental concerns and Scottish ministers endorsed that view. Councillor Martin Ford, the former convener of Aberdeenshire Councils planning authority, claimed Mr Swinneys decision meant that a "billionaire's vanity project had been put ahead of the protection of Scotland's natural heritage". After the decision, Mr Trump said "We will stabilise the dunes. They will be there for ever. This will be environmentally better after it [the course] is built than it is before."
Editors Note: Councillor Martin Ford's removal from office is widely recognised as being based on his casting vote to oppose the development when it first appeared before Council. Furthermore a letter from Mr Trump to Councillor Deborah Storr, personally lambasted her for her performance which he claims was a "national embarrassment" and overlooked the fact that it split the Council clean in half on its initial consideration and gives a measure of his true colours in business.
In our last issue, we printed a letter from NEMT to the Forestry Commission expressing concern about recent maintenance work on Bennachie footpaths. The Trust's view was that the paths, surfaced in a very light coloured material, detracted from the 'wild ambience' of the area. The Commission responded that they expected the paths to weather quickly and so blend in better with the surrounding area.
They also advised that the material used was sourced locally. NEMT then submitted a further response, reiterating our concern that hills and wilder land should not be further "urbanised" to the detriment of visitors' quality of experience.
NEMT's view was that it would be detrimental to create new paths or undertake
major upgrading of existing paths in the less visited area of Bennachie to the
west of Oxen Craig. We also asked the Commission to bear our concerns in mind
in all future path maintenance and building work.
In February, the people of Harris voted, by more than two to one, in favour of the island becoming Scotlands third national park. 71.6% of those entitled to vote did so. The vote resulted from a feasibility assessment which suggested that a national park could create jobs, increase tourism, give access to new funding and help to conserve the Gaelic culture without imposing restrictions on crofting. The issue is now in the hands of Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham.
Will Campbell, April 2009
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