SNP leader “coming round” to support £30 million park plan for Balloch
Balloch – focal point for the Flamingo Land planning application which has caused deep concern amongst residents and Bonnie Banks lovers worldwide.
Special report by Bill Heaney
“People are passionate about it,” he said. “It’s good to see the community caring about something as much as this. The worst thing in a community is apathy.”
This was Councillor Jonathan McColl, SNP leader of West Dunbartonshire Council, speaking to The National, the SNP supporting national newspaper, last week.
And no, these warm words were not in response to a question about the future of St Martin’s Primary School in Renton, which the SNP administration are poised to close in the next two years.
They were made in what many take to be encouragement and support to proceed with the controversial planning application for the 44 acres of land at Drumkinnon Bay at Balloch in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
That plan has caused fury amongst local residents and lovers of the Bonnie Banks the world over to the extent that 18,000-plus people have signed a petition against it being permitted to go ahead.
Proposals for a £30 million hotel and leisure development at lochside land in Balloch, home of the park authority’s headquarters, split public opinion when they first emerged two years ago.
Iconic Leisure Developments, the company behind Yorkshire theme park Flamingo Land, want to build in this environmentally sensitive lochside zone after winning preferred bidder status from Scottish Enterprise, the publicly-owned economic development agency, which is selling the land.
The site borders Loch Lomond and the River Leven as well as a prestigious housing development in Balloch and sits alongside Loch Lomond Shores, home to a House of Fraser store, shops and restaurants and an aquarium run by leisure giant Merlin.
Blueprints of the development plans have now been submitted to the national park authority in what constitutes the first stage in a lengthy process, the cost of dealing with which will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money.
A monorail, brewery and up to 105 self-catering lodges are included in the plans which are for planning permission in principle.
Agreement would allow Scottish Enterprise and Flamingo Land to proceed to the next stage of submitting an application for planning permission in detail, which usually means the application will be approved.
The proposed Loch Lomond development at this stage includes: A refurbished tourist information building; 60-bedroom Apart-hotel; 32-bedspace budget accommodation; up to 105 self-catering lodges; 20 houses; a brewery; a leisure/pool/water park area up to approximately 2,500m; restaurants/café and retail areas up to 1,100m in total; visitor reception areas and hub building up to approximately 2,000m; external activity areas including tree top walk, events/performance areas, children’s play areas, monorail, forest adventure rides, picnic/play areas; staff and service area of up to approximately 900m, and landscaping and development works.
“Targeted tree removal” is proposed to create “small development clusters within established woodland setting,” it says.
Vehicle access points would be via Ben Lomond Way and Pier Road – the latter of which will be used for access to a newly proposed car park to the west of Pier Road.
Around 109 parking spaces at a newly configured car park on Pier Road are proposed, with 221 new parking spaces at the Pier head – “the effects of the development on the surrounding local and strategic road network are not anticipated to result in substantial adverse effects”.
Drumkinnon Bay – woods there were recently vandalised but the area retains its stunning beauty.
Also included is a proposal to retain the façade of the Woodbank House, which is now owned by Flamingo Land, and has been at the centre of one planning controversy after another for the past 50 years.
Right now, 52 comments expressing opposition to all of this, including protection of wildlife including squirrels, have been submitted to the park authority, compared with just two intimations of support.
Those against the project have listed congestion, litter, noise and the environmental impact as reasons for refusal.
Darryl Ramage summed up the feelings of many of these objectors on social media: “I keep saying it, since the inception of the National Park, the area has been commercialised to breaking point. This new development will turn the area into a blasted eyesore and the infrastructure will continue to struggle. You just need to travel on the A82, especially during bank holidays, to witness how the area can’t cope.”.
According to Bruce Biddulph, a 54-year-old hotel night porter whose online petition against the bid has generated more than 18,000 signatures from home and abroad, these are all valid concerns.
Another, he says, is the potential loss of green space in Drumkinnon Woods, which is a focus of efforts to stop the Flamingo Land plan in its tracks.
A public protest demonstration is planned there on Tuesday and Biddulph, a member of the Friends of Drumkinnon Woods group, said that area is a haven at times when Balloch is “frighteningly busy”.
“It’s another world in there”, he said. “It’s the kind of place people take to their hearts. There’s a carpet of bluebells, and you listen to the birds sing and realise this shouldn’t be built on.”
He added: “I know all the arguments against refusal and I’m sick of hearing them. Some of the businesses here, they get by. You add a big player like that and they own 44 acres of land in Balloch and control access to the riverbed and the loch, what happens to the rest of the businesses that have been here for years, sometimes decades? Change isn’t always good.”
Andrew Miller, director of sales for Iconic Leisure Developments, disagrees. He is the son of Bonhill Christian minister the Rev Ian Miller and, like his father, knows the area well.
He has drawn criticism for detailing defects and neglect in the local area at present, failings which should have been dealt with by the Park Authority.
Mr Miller told The National: “There are areas of Drumkinnon Woods where it’s beautiful, but a crude oil pipeline runs below it.
“I read the comments on the petition and I just struggle with how you can comment on something when you don’t know anything about it, you have not taken the time to read the documents.
“A lot of them still think it’s going to be exactly like Flamingo Land in Yorkshire – it was never going to be a theme park from day one, at least know what you are objecting about. Look at it with an open mind.”
Balloch Conservative Councillor Sally Page says there is “enormous concern” in her ward and has cautioned that the decision should be taken “in the best interests of the people of Balloch … not influenced by external agendas”.
In contrast, fellow Lomond ward councillor, SNP group leader Jonathan McColl (pictured right) says he has “come round to the plan,” – he likes it.
He said: “People are passionate about it. It’s good to see the community caring about something as much as this. The worst thing in a community is apathy.”
People who share his view include Fiona McEachern, who stands to benefit through a new purpose-built production facility and taproom for her Loch Lomond Brewery.
She says approval would mean quadrupling her workforce and serving growing markets at home and abroad.
Ms McEachern added: “It seems like such a lost opportunity not to use that area. We’re bursting at the seams. We’re very keen to keep our brewery in the Loch Lomond area – it just wouldn’t make sense to move away. We want the locals to embrace this.”
Balloch and Haldane Community Council has not yet come to a decision on whether to support the £30 million plan.
Campaign group parkswatchscotland have said there are problems with our National Parks.
Their spokesperson said: “Visitors are being treated as a problem, instead of the Parks’ most important customers.
“Great swathes of land continue to be degraded by unsustainable land management practices with all the implications that has for wildlife.
“People who want to live in the Parks face multiple challenges, including access to housing and well-paid jobs.
“We live in a world where the powerful, and the bureaucracies that serve them, are increasingly unaccountable and serve their own interests.
“National Parks are no exception to this and increasingly operate like the worst Local Authorities with small cabals taking decisions in secret.
“If our National Parks are to live up to their ideals, to enhance the land, enable people to enjoy it and promote sustainable development they need to be democratically accountable.
“This will only happen if there is pressure from below, from those who at present may be consulted but then ignored, and new mechanisms are created to enable debate and resolve conflicts where they exist at present.”
A spokesperson for Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park explained: “The application will be assessed against the planning policies and guidance set out in our Local Development Plan and other relevant issues before a report of recommendation is submitted to our Board members for them to consider.”