(Submission from NEMT to the LINK working group on hill tracks)
This note has been prepared on behalf of the North East Mountain Trust, which is an umbrella body representing the environmental interests of individuals and hill walking and climbing clubs in the north east of Scotland.
The note gives summary details of three hill tracks constructed illegally in Aberdeenshire and the subsequent steps taken by the local authority to achieve compliance with the planning regulations. In all three cases, the outcome was unsatisfactory with the tracks remaining despite significant quantities of public money having been spent. There are many more similar examples. Adam Watson (see ref. below) lists over a hundred tracks also constructed in debatable circumstances. There will be many more, not known to us, scattered over other parts of Scotland. The current system is simply not working and the proposed change to the GPDO on hill tracks would have gone some way to rectifying this. Leaving hill tracks out of the proposed changes to the GPDO was a mistake.
NEMT has no problem with hill tracks for genuine agricultural purposes. However, the current trend of grouse shooting parties having to be driven to the shooting butts is cause for significant concern. In this case, the excuse of agricultural purposes to justify new hill tracks is simply "cheating". New hill tracks are rarely a problem with deer stalking where the clients appear to accept that some walking is both necessary and part of a wider, more enjoyable, experience.
The existing track up this glen ended at NO 135946 beyond which a narrow old cart track led to the ruined Slugain Lodge. Without seeking planning permission, in autumn 1997, Invercauld Estate constructed a materially wider track up to NO 123950 along the line of the narrow cart track. The standard of work was extremely poor with no attempt to save vegetation or topsoil and leaving unstable slopes, which lead to widening scars and silt pollution in streams due to run-off. It was some time before the work was notified to Aberdeenshire Council because members of the public often do not realise that the works are without planning permission and are also of an unacceptable standard. The Council agreed that the work was an unauthorised engineering operation but by then it was too late to demand a retrospective planning application.
Later, the estate made a new vehicle track, at about NO 140945, running for 1.5 kilometres northward off Gleann an t-Slugain , between Meall an t-Slugain and Meall Glasail Mor. This was reported by NEMT in February 2002 to Aberdeenshire Council, which decided that the estate should submit a retrospective planning application. In December 2005, this retrospective application was considered by the Council's Marr Area Committee. Despite "objections" from SNH, council officials had "recommended it for approval subject to a number of conditions". Fortunately, following representation from NEMT, the committee unanimously decided to reject the application. At the end of July 2006, the estate appealed. This was decided on the basis of a site visit in October 2006 and written submissions. In November 2006, the inspector found in favour of the estate, but did impose some conditions to mitigate some of the worst damage, e.g. replacement of topsoil and a small amount of reseeding.
Inspection of the work two years later by NEMT members found that these conditions had never been implemented. At this time, the enforcement role in the Council was subject to flux and it wasn't able to follow this up. A clear unambiguous requirement for planning permission at the outset would have avoided this and probably would have either decided that a new track wasn't appropriate or resulted in a better and less obtrusive track, benefiting both sides to the dispute.
In spring 2005, the shooting tenant, on behalf of Invercauld Estate, widened
an existing track running from Balmore NO 216944 to Auchtavan NO 204954. The
existing track had been well-constructed, providing good access that, over the
years, had mellowed into the surroundings. The new work was carried out insensitively
using a large excavator. Aberdeenshire Council agreed that the work should be
stopped and served an enforcement notice to that effect. The tenant then chose
to appeal rather than to apply for retrospective planning permission. In September
2005, the Reporter found in favour of the tenant and quashed the enforcement
notice, provided that reseeding was carried out to the satisfaction of the Council.
However, the Cairngorms National Park Authority was concerned about the quashing of the enforcement notice, effectively ignoring the Park and its aims as material consideration, and decided to appeal against the Reporter's decision. The case was heard at the Court of Session in November 2005 and the CNPA's challenge was upheld. The case went back to the Reporter's Unit for re-determination.
A different Reporter was assigned to the case and, in May 2008, found generally in favour of the Council. This involved expert submissions from SNH, CNPA and Aberdeenshire Council. The tenant/estate was ordered to carry out significant reinstatement works. A detailed survey has shown that so far, however, little reinstatement work has been done.
In summary, a large amount of public money was spent to achieve very little. A clear requirement to seek planning permission before starting such work would have avoided a lot of wasted effort.
Work began in December 2007 to build a new track for 7km up the south side of the Water of Aven, without a planning application. The new track started at NO 625890 from an existing track, went via 627899 and 625900 and then westwards along the south side of the Water of Aven. By the time that the track reached 583878, Aberdeenshire Council issued a stop notice to determine whether planning permission was required.
As the work involved silt run-off into the Water of Aven, a tributary of the River Dee, thus causing pollution in the River Dee Special Area of Conservation, both SEPA and SNH should have been consulted beforehand. The estate ignored both public bodies.
The work continued near an occupied nest of a pair of golden eagles and, as eagle experts expected, the female deserted her nest.
The estate claimed that planning permission wasn't required as the new track was for agricultural purposes. A cursory inspection of the site revealed a grouse moor for shooting. A few sheep are put there, at times, to help remove ticks, but such use is hardly agricultural. Aberdeenshire Council decided not to proceed with enforcement action due to the uncertainty created by the estate's assertion about agricultural purposes. Subsequently, the estate has carried out remedial work to the satisfaction of SEPA.
Despite the stop notice, in April 2010, the estate extended the track for a further 0.5km causing more silt run-off pollution into the Water of Aven and hence inevitably into the River Dee.
NEMT learned that there had been discussion of a reduction in subsidy via the cross-compliance unit in the Scottish Government's Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate, but the outcome is unknown. As before, this is another example of a situation where sound guidance on planning requirements could have saved a lot of wasted effort, as well as prevented pollution and unlawful disturbance of a highly protected bird of prey.
This note makes frequent reference to Adam Watson's book:-
Watson, A. (2011), Vehicle hill tracks in northern Scotland, Paragon Publishing, Northants.
The photographs come from the above work, but particular acknowledgment is due to Kenny Freeman and Kenny Ferguson for photos of the Balmore and Slugain tracks and to Alastair Pout for the photos of the Water of Aven track on Glendye Estate.
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