Political Priorities

viewpointVERY few folk would have been surprised if the SNP had not been the dominant party in the recent Scottish election but what should the new Scottish Government’s priorities be for the next five years?

The SNP manifesto was fairly light in terms of the Scottish outdoors, although I have been heartened by the party’s stance on the Scottish National Trail, which they see as a link to promoting and strengthening our Great Trails network of long distance trails. The whole idea of the SNT was to link up existing trails and footpaths into one continuous route through Scotland from Kirk Yetholm to Cape Wrath, so any strengthening and promotion of that route will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the footpath network in Scotland, offering greater opportunities to the small communities the trails pass through.

The SNP manifesto also contained a commitment to balance the benefits of green energy, including windfarms, with the need to protect our most scenic and wild areas. The party has already introduced a ban on wind farms in Scotland’s National Parks and National Scenic Areas and increased protection for our wild land areas. This will continue in the next Parliament. While the SNP Government has, so far, been as good as its word regarding the Wild Land Map (all developments within the Wild Land map areas have been so far refused) I will personally be lobbying the First Minster to extend a complete ban of renewable energy developments to all areas that lie within the Wild Land Map.

Some outdoor commentators were surprised that the SNP didn’t have anything in their election manifesto about National Parks, but I believe this is purely down to economic grounds. There just isn’t the cash available to create more National Parks at the moment and I don’t personally believe that’s a bad thing.

I would suggest we have to take a long and hard look at the kind of National Parks we currently have in Scotland, decide if they are working as effectively as they could, especially in conservation and recreational use terms, and perhaps take a much more radical approach to what kind of National Parks we create in the future.

Amongst the mountains of Torridon

Amongst the mountains of Torridon

National Parks don’t have to be massive entities like the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond Parks. I would much prefer to see more smaller Parks in areas like North Harris, Torridon and perhaps a Marine National Park somewhere on the west coast. Ideally, National Parks should also be publicly-owned land rather than the homogeneous mass of privately owned estates that make up much of our existing Parks, with all the difficulties private interests impose.

While on the subject of National Parks I will be campaigning for more transparent management of the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, much more in line with the Cairngorms Park, and I will also be lobbying the First Minister to overturn the wild camping bylaws that were approved earlier this year by the Environment Minister Aileen McLeod, one of the few SNP MSP’s who didn’t make it back into Holyrood.

Indeed, I’ve also been lobbying the FM to appoint someone to the role of Environment Minister who clearly has better knowledge and awareness of the importance of our excellent access arrangements. McLeod’s role in approving the wild camping bylaws, risking the erosion of our access legislation will not be forgiven lightly. Indeed, she may have already paid the price.

But what else can a new Scottish Government do to strengthen and promote the outdoor recreation side of things? Well, I for one am not particularly impressed by Scottish Natural Heritage’s role in outdoor recreation. I would suggest they have enough to do with looking after the natural history side of things. [Ed: Since Cameron wrote, Roseanna Cunningham has been appointed as Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform].

Let’s not forget that SNH was brought together from two separate agencies – the Nature Conservancy Council (Scotland), which looked after the ‘natural’ side of the outdoors and the Countryside Commission for Scotland, which looked after the outdoor recreational element.

Over the years, it seems to me, that outdoor recreation element has diminished in importance under SNH’s regime. I believe it’s time for a re-alignment of all the agencies that have an interest in Scotland natural assets.

Over the past year I’ve had discussions with several outdoor NGO’s and individuals and there appears to be a consensus that things need to change. One of my colleagues, Dave Morris, the former director of Ramblers Scotland, has come up with a solution that I think many would support.

A priority should be the break-up up of Forestry Commission Scotland so that its land ownership and management functions, as carried out by Forest Enterprise, are clearly separated from the regulatory and grant aid functions of FCS.

Indeed, why not combine these functions with the regulatory and grant aid functions of Scottish Natural Heritage – the two bodies are doing much the same job! But let’s go further. Why not combine all these functions plus SNH’s habitat protection roles with similar functions for the water environment carried out by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency?

Coire Loch, Glen Affric - waymarked by the Forestry Commission

Coire Loch, Glen Affric – waymarked by the Forestry Commission

This would create a single body far better equipped to deal with the challenges of wildlife and habitat management, including woodland and peatland development, in a world where the impacts of changing climates and the needs of outdoor recreation require a much more integrated approach by rural agencies.

At the same time it will be crucial to strengthen understanding and provision for outdoor recreation so that, at the highest levels of government, there is clear recognition of the role of outdoor recreation in delivering health, environmental and economic benefits.

At the moment we have a ludicrous situation where SNH is responsible for access and our Great Trails network, while membership organisations like the Mountaineering Council of Scotland are funded from sportscotland, who also run the National Mountaineering Centre at Glenmore Lodge.

Forest Enterprise is involved in creating footpaths and trails within our forest areas while VisitScotland is supposed to encourage us all to ski, hike, mountain bike, ride horses and generally make use of the fantastic outdoor opportunities we have in Scotland.

Surely it would be far more beneficial to everyone to bring all the outdoor recreational functions together into a new government quango that concentrated solely on outdoor recreation and sport. This would give outdoor recreation the profile and resource priority that it needs in order to play an enhanced role in the lives of every one of our citizens as well as visitors to Scotland and would give the new SNP Government a better footing to carry out it’s environmental promises.

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