PERMITS, bans and byelaws, the words that will forever taint the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, and indeed an SNP Government that many people, including myself, thought would take an intense pride in the access provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, legislation that has become the envy of the world.
In an attempt to curb the activities of a minority who engage in anti-social behaviour on the loch-sides of our first National Park, it has been decided that a seasonal blanket ban on camping is the way forward, a ban on camping besides roads and lochsides in the finest areas of the Park.
A total of 30 camping places near Loch Chon (where, you may ask?) have been earmarked and the other promised 270 camping places are not places at all – they are permits. You can be well assured those permits will be snapped up overnight by fishermen.
The result of course is that innocent backpackers, cycle campers and canoe campers will now be criminalised if they camp within any of these ‘zones’, even if they are behaving perfectly and following the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
Apart from anything else there seems to me to be to be a basic injustice in that. It’s like banning everyone from driving because a few people insist on driving while under the influence of alcohol, or banning everyone from walking along Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night because there are a few neds misbehaving.
But outdoor folk are considered unimportant. If that wasn’t the case we would see some representation of outdoor recreation interests on the boards of our National Parks. On the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Park board there is absolutely no representational interest in outdoor activities other than one gentleman from the Royal Yacht Club!
Before I go into some of the background of our opposition can I pay tribute to the work done by two people on behalf of outdoor folk? Dave Morris is the retired director of Ramblers Scotland and Nick Kempe is a past president of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and a former board member of Scottish Natural Heritage.
These two men have worked tirelessly on this issue, pushing a very reluctant National Park administration for answers to Freedom of Information requests. What they have uncovered in quite shocking. Some of the issues have been made public, like the Park board member who bought shares in the Cononish gold mine after planning permission was granted by the Park (that member, who was chair of the planning committee, has since resigned from the board), manipulation of police statistics, ranger reports and consultation responses. Other issues have not yet been made public but the clock is ticking.
Armed with all this information I had a long meeting with the First Minister before Christmas but rather than hit her with a long list of complaints I offered her solutions to the existing antisocial behavior in the park. Amongst the positive suggestions was a system of camping provision based on Scandinavian lines. I won’t go into the details of that at the moment, but needless to say the First Minister appeared to be engaged and interested. I also left her with a 15 page briefing document put together by Dave Morris, Nick Kempe, Denis Canavan and myself. She promised to read through it all.
I was later informed that all this material had been fed in to the office of Dr Aileen McLeod, the Environment Minister. The problem was now getting a meeting with her. I had written to her and her boss, Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead, and Nick Kempe had kept her fully briefed regarding his FOI revelations. He had also requested meetings. We had no response to any of our letters.
Fortunately, through the intervention of one of the Government’s advisers I eventually got a date for a meeting in Edinburgh, but it was cancelled less than 24 hours before it was due to take place. I had already travelled south from my home in the Highlands. Apparently the Minister had to go and visit flood areas. Fair enough, we tried to arrange another meeting and eventually settled on a telephone meeting.
At the start of the meeting I was told that the Minister was minded to approve the byelaws proposals and that she would make an announcement later that day. For the next hour I made it clear that the Park Board concerned was not fit for purpose; I offered potential solutions to the problems without having to create new bylaws; and I reinforced the fact that the access provisions we had in Scotland were the envy of the world and that acceptance of byelaws and bans would seriously affect the reputation of Scotland being a progressive and fair society.
I then urged the Minister to contact Kevin Findlater, the retired Chief Inspector of police in the Trossachs area, talk to him and hear at first hand what the problems really were, and how he solved them through Operation Ironworks.
Contrary to the ‘myth’ perpetuated by the National Park it wasn’t bylaws that ‘fixed’ east Loch Lomondside’s problems. According to the policeman who knows the situation better than anyone else it was “a combination of changes to the infrastructure on the loch side, far better joined up working with the pertinent agencies, excellent community buy in and support alongside intelligence led patrols of police and NP Rangers using existing police powers that made the difference.
“The bylaw was only intended to protect the significant financial investment in new camping/toilets etc during the build phase. When this temporary bylaw was granted a review was built in and, unfortunately, to justify the continuance of the bylaw all of the other truly successful measures were played down.”
Despite his obvious knowledge and expertise the Minister failed to consult Mr Findlater.
As a last resort I suggested to the Minister that she shelves the byelaw proposals for three years rather than one year and use that time to sort out the Park Board and put decent camping provision in place, something the Park has singularly failed to do.
Eventually she said she would postpone her decision and talk to some more people. I suspected she had already decided and was playing me off. I was right. She slept on it and announced approval of the byelaw proposals next morning, totally ignoring the expert advice that had been given to her by those with detailed knowledge of the camping issues in this national park and their relationship to Scotland’s access rights, as well as the opposition of sportscotland and a huge range of outdoor organisations representing land and water users And this is a politician who hopes that the thousands of people who support these organisations will vote for the SNP in a few months time!
It just happens that the Convenor of the Park Board, Linda McKay, lives in a luxury house on the shores of one of the lochs, adjacent to an area which is owned by the National Park and where overnight camping and use of campervans has been popular for very many years. Is it not a coincidence that these activities are now being restricted? The Minister appears to be more interested in looking after the interests of local residents than having proper regard for her obligations to the public as a whole. It is a shameful time for all those who have been looking to the SNP to continue the excellent work done by other politicians in the early years of the Scottish Parliament.
So where do we go from here? At least we can now look forward to the forthcoming parliamentary elections and an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that as many of those elected to serve us are determined to reverse this camping byelaws decision. I hope nobody is elected who still supports the Minister’s decision by the time that we arrive at election day in May. More immediately we have to press for changes to the land reform legislation currently going through parliament. We need amendments made to this legislation which modify the powers available to national park authorities so that their ability to make byelaws is curtailed.
SNP politicians need to get out more, to learn what is really going on in the countryside and to talk with those who have the knowledge and expertise to help them solve problems. For a government supposedly committed to equality of opportunity the Loch Lomond byelaws decision casts a very dark cloud over their land reform programme. Replacing a statutory right with a regulation system based on permits and criminal offences is a backward step, more in tune with Victorian Britain than modern Scotland.
If an SNP government can take us in this direction with camping byelaws, what next? Byelaws to control mountain biking, walking, canoeing and swimming, for example? Many landowners would like all outdoor users to stick to the path and leave the deer, grouse and pheasants to roam everywhere else. No doubt they will soon be bending a ministerial ear to get more byelaws. How long before it becomes a criminal offence to step off the path? This is the direction of travel that our present Environment Minister is taking us. She needs to come to her senses, as quickly as possible.