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Some lessons from Glen Etive

“Fruitful glen of pools and fishes, Glen of hawks, blue eyed, crying” – Gleann Measach Iasgach Linneach – Deirdre of the Sorrows

According to Irish mythology, Deirdre and her love Naoise founded Glen Etive after fleeing Ulster. What was a place of refuge has become a place of conflict, where environmental priorities are weighed against each other and land justice issues play out. David Lintern looks at the context and wonders what can be learnt.

First, a recap. Last year, developer Dickens Hydro Resources put in planning applications for seven run of river hydro schemes, off every main tributary feeding the main River Etive. In February this year, all were approved by Highland Council, with a last-minute amendment suggested by a local Councillor who, noting the levels of public support and measured objections by both Mountaineering Scotland and the John Muir Trust, asked for a full Council hearing to review the 3 most fragile sites on the east side of the glen – Allt a’ Chaorainn, Allt Ceitlein and Allt Mheuran.

The stalkers’ path by Allt Mheuran, soon to become a road

At this point I should come clean and tell you I was one of around half a dozen people who found themselves administering a campaign group called ‘Save Glen Etive’. This was completely organic and set up in response to a public groundswell of opinion in opposition to the plans. Some of us had written emails to councilors which caused a bit of a stooshie online; others quickly set up a facebook group, built a website, organised a petition or found themselves speaking to the press. We were just a handful of the 650 regular citizens who had objected originally, and a few of the 13,000 who signed the petition afterward. It all happened really quickly and collectively involved hundreds of hours of voluntary work.

The campaign group focused their attentions on the same three sites, ‘campaigning for compromise’. The full council hearing was heard on the 20th March, when the final three were approved for the second time.

Out in the wider world – in the same week that the decision was made – two important reports were published and a further one announced: The Land Commission report, the Natural Capital report, and a UN funded Biodiversity report.

Allt a Chaorrain, burn of the Rowan. An average of 70% of the water will be removed

The Land Commission report evidenced a widespread use of power by large estates to control community access to housing and other developments. It proposed strong measures to deal with this; the introduction of a Public Interest Test for big land transfers and acquisitions; requiring estates over a certain scale to consult on and publish management plans; and legislating for a new Land Rights and Responsibilities review process. It’s being seen by land reformers as a serious challenge to large-scale private ownership.

The Natural Capital report demonstrated the financial benefits of Scotland’s ‘nature-based industries’ – renewables, fisheries and oil. Putting monetary value on nature has its critics but for a pro-independence government looking beyond Brexit, as well as for some NGO’s, there’s clearly political advantage in showcasing what Scotland produces from its land and marine assets.

Lastly, the UN backed report (full report out in May) proves that biodiversity loss is every bit as serious as our carbon fuelled climate emergency. In some ways this might be seen as a challenge to Natural Capital – it looks at the environmental costs of resource extraction not just the economic benefits. It outlines thousands of species at risk of extinction and land use far outstripping nature’s ability to renew itself.

The best steep creek in Scotland_ Kayaking on Allt a’ Choarrain

So within just a day or so of the decision on Glen Etive, we were all in a very different landscape, with a new – or at least newly acknowledged – context for the decisions. How did the verdict on the Etive three fit with this bigger picture?

The land reform and communities’ issue was perhaps the most immediately difficult for everyone – both those resident in the glen, and objectors to the new developments. Quite quickly, the debate polarised into a case of locals versus outsiders – ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – despite the fact that many of those objecting to the three schemes were Highland based, some in the immediate area. Some historical antipathy towards Central Belters in the Highlands is perhaps understandable but also easy to weaponise, and this serves various parties – some looking for change, others wanting to preserve the status quo. The local residents in this case seemed to think of the general public as their enemies not as their allies, a situation definitely not helped by the growing litter and infrastructure impacts through overtourism, now affecting many places across the Highlands but with Glen Etive as one of the hotspots. Neither Highland Council nor the residents seemed willing or able to address the irony of an absentee laird and a Perthshire based developer – neither local or resident.

Put aside for a minute the fact that some of those key residents in the glen who approved of the new hydros are in tenanted housing, or work directly for the estate doing the work and reaping the subsidies. How would the Public Interest Test called for by Land Commission Scotland decide in this case? Does the subsidy paid to developer and landlord prop up feudal land relationships, or does a community chest of £34,000 pa (about 1% of profits) provide enough equity? It’s a political hot potato.

And of course, another community had expressed an interest. Hill walkers and mountaineers were joined by kayakers, wild swimmers, campervanners, photographers and a wide-ranging mix of locals, Scots, Brits and internationals who may only have parked in a layby or camped on the valley floor but felt a sense of connection to the place and to a wider Scotland as a result. This time, a campaign didn’t originate with the NGO’s – it came straight from the general public, and there were a lot of them.

All Mhueran, the site for new roads, bridges, powerhouses and pipes

Mountaineering Scotland and others put forward the case that protection of the three eastern glens was in the National Interest. In this instance, the general public clearly felt the same… but the Highland Council verdict might suggest we need to look again at how we communicate natural heritage to decision makers. How can we better showcase the benefits the country accrues from retaining areas of high scenic value? There is plenty of good data on what our natural heritage is worth in terms of visitor spend nationally, but it failed to convince because it couldn’t be shown to have a local benefit. And at the moment, the natural capital of our scenery is not formally on the ledger in planning decisions in the way that other, ‘material conditions’ are.

Lastly, and related to that bigger biodiversity picture, the implications for wildlife of seven hydro schemes working on the river as a whole were underplayed. This, despite the campaign group, the River’s Trust and others pointing out potential fisheries and Golden Eagle impacts, and some councillors asking some fair and informed questions at the final hearing in March. The prime reason for that seems to have been that Scottish Natural Heritage declined to object to any of the seven schemes.

SNH are everyone’s favourite whipping boy. I’ve met some of the staff individually and to a man and woman they all care passionately about their country and its natural heritage, but as an organisation they are under pressure and seem often to make political, rather than environmentally based decisions. In the case of Glen Etive, without leadership from the statutory environmental body it was left to the general public, the NGOs, and an overworked and budget restricted Highland Council to take the lead… with some messy consequences.

Granite bedrock to be blasted

Again – what is in the best public interest, in this case? Is it addressing climate change with a relatively small 6.5MW contribution to the national grid, or does national identity, the visitor economy and protecting local biodiversity outweigh this?

This cocktail is strong enough already, but a planning context is also crucial in beginning to understand the issues. While planning decisions are devolved to local councils, energy is not, and yet there is no overall national energy strategy. In the absence of clear leadership, venture capitalists can and do take advantage of Scotland’s natural energy potential.

In addition, local planning departments are over worked and under resourced just like SNH, and struggle to visit sites to check on whether a development has progressed according to agreed controls. This is why we’ve seen dozens of poorly implemented Hydro schemes – often with little or no attempt to restore the landscape or habitat after – springing up in the Highlands. Even basic processes aren’t fit for purpose: In the days following the final decision in Glen Etive, a scheme in Torridon was resubmitted as a completely new application. Anyone who had expressed an interest in the old one with an objection wasn’t notified. We are failing to plan and planning to fail.

Looking back down the Allt Mheuran

Stepping back for a second, we hear a regular criticism from folk who are quite rightly concerned about climate change. The charge is that lovers of wild places are only interested in ‘the views’, to the exclusion of everything else. It shuts debate down – after all, what kind of monster would be selfish enough to choose climate catastrophe over romantic notions about rocks and lochs? I might try a different take on it:

Landscape is not ‘scenery’. Landscape is culture, the home of community. We all live in landscapes, and we share it with wildlife. Landscape is a mix of how things look, feel and are… all of which become Place as we get to know it over time. We use Place to benchmark our own internal journey, and we populate those landscapes with our stories. Landscape is both real and material, and a repository of memory. This is how landscape becomes both natural and cultural heritage.

OK, so my fancy talk is great in theory, as long as there’s a consensus… but what happens if others who have at least equal claim to a place don’t feel like I do. What happens then? That’s when we need our decision makers to apply that public interest test – not for any particular lobby group, but genuinely looking at what serves the general public best – both for the immediate resident community and for wider communities of interest, and with an equal eye to climate change and our species extinction problem.

These are difficult decisions. We live in difficult times. Were all these factors given due consideration by The Highland Council? Did SNH perform their duties effectively in this instance?

I can’t pretend I didn’t take the Glen Etive decision to heart, but let’s be positive. How might the outdoors community help? We aren’t going to stop loving landscape – landscape is our culture and our community. But we could consider how we might help some in the resident community to envisage another future.

Let’s begin to talk really seriously about a tourist tax – it’s almost invisible as a surcharge in many countries in Europe. Many of these taxes are being designed to incentivise lower impact visits; in Spain, off peak agrotourism costs the visitor less than a 5-star hotel-based summer break. We’d need to make sure this revenue couldn’t be spent on corporate vanity projects and stayed in the community (and in Scotland), but it could work here to spread wealth to areas feeling the most visitor impact.

In places like Glen Etive, why not have a bunk house, made from local timber and built and run by local people? And why not have a campsite, toilets and a car park, paid for with crowdfunding or by that tourist tax and run by the community as a social enterprise, with all profits going back in to that community?

Why not make it a legal condition of landownership over a certain scale to improve access and interpretation, providing toilets, litter bins and better education for visitors who might need some handholding when it comes to how to behave outside of the city? The landowner could easily afford a community Ranger or two, and the campsite or bunkhouse could provide accommodation for schoolkids doing John Muir and Duke of Edinburgh Awards, plus the old-hand NTS volunteers to help them remove the rhododendron and replant some native species.

The glen at dusk from Allt Mheuran

How about a local store, a café and even a new pier to bring in produce? I don’t know of a kayaker, walker or climber that wouldn’t happily support these… let alone the Skyfall tourists. With all that activity, there might even be enough young locals around in time to start the school again.

These ideas don’t have to be superficial sticking plasters, they can genuinely improve the lives of people in small settlements. Sustainable tourism is becoming big business all over Europe – the Julian Alps being just one example that’s been highlighted to me recently. We outdoor recreators can and should be advocating for these things too… but we’re so often forced into fast, reactive and exhausting fights against developments which sell off our family silver for the short-term gain of a select few.

Or, if these ideas seem too much like wishful thinking, here’s another; all of them could have been paid for with some of the profits from just the four schemes on the west side of the glen, as part of a compromise solution.

Sadly, the lairds and their developers are still the elephant in this room. In my view, they make it impossible for any of us – hill folk or local folk – to be proactive, to get ahead of the curve. The subsidies on run-of-river Hydro schemes expired at the end of March 2019, but that magic money tree may well be replaced by another in time. Nothing really changes until we shake their hold over us and the land; heritage which is our children’s inheritance, not ours and not theirs.

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