PARKSWATCH: Cameron House – the dark side of the tourist industry in our National Parks

Special report by Nick Kempe of PARKSWATCH

After my post in Parkswatch Scotland about the Cairngorm Hotel’s failure to pay the minimum wage to all their staff  (see here), the court case about the fire at Cameron House provides further evidence that we need to take a far more critical approach to the tourist industry.

Elements of it are far from benign and, in the case of Cameron House fire, resulted in the deaths of two people.

Simon Midgley and Richard Dyson, both from London, died in the fire at Cameron House Hotel, Loch Lomond. A sentencing hearing will take place at Dumbarton Sheriff Court tomorrow.

The Court Hearings at Dumbarton Sheriff Court before Christmas and this week have revealed a catalogue of management failures:

While newspapers have revealed the name of the porter who put the hot ashes in a cupboard which caused the fire, they have not named the owners of the hotel who were responsible for the fire safety failures that led to this.

The issue at stake is that all of us are capable of doing things which in retrospect or from an outside perspective are stupid – like putting ashes in a cupboard.

That is why the Scottish Parliament has passed a law, not yet implemented, requiring fire detectors to be installed in every home.

It is why health and safety systems and fire training is so important.

We need, as far as possible, to weed out human error.  Yet, according to his defence counsel, the porter whose actions led to the fire, Christopher O’Malley, had received no such training.

No-one had prepared him to think through the potential consequences of disposing of ash from fires or how to do so safely:

While not mentioned in the court coverage, I think it is also relevant here to ask questions about Mr O’Malley’s pay and conditions of employment.

Why is it that someone who is almost certainly poorly paid and working long hours is named,  when the company’s owners are not?

Cameron House is operated by a company called Cameron House Resort (Loch Lomond) Ltd.

 According to Companies House (see here) two men, James Coley Brenan and Richard Weissman, who is reported as being a resident of USA, have been Directors since Cameron House was bought by CMH Investment II Ltd in 2015.

They are likely  be the two unnamed “owners” referred to in the coverage of the case.  The Accounts reveal that the Directors were involved in day to day management of the company and that it is ultimately owned by Monroe Offshore Holdings in the notorious tax haven, the Cayman Islands:

The accounts state that the Directors received fees through KSL Capital Partners, but how much does not appear to be publicly available.

Wrecked by fire – Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomondside will cost £25 million to repair.

In the year to December 2019 CMH investments, which owns CMH Investments (II) Ltd, the owners of Cameron House paid £720,000 to VUR Swindon Ltd, of which Mr Brenan is a Director, for management services.

More money funnelled out of Scotland.  Again, VUR’s company accounts don’t reveal what Mr Brenan was paid, only noting that this was through another company and the structures of the companies he is involved in are so complex it is impractical to attribute what he earns from each.

The  two people named as having ultimate control of the companies through which Cameron House is owned both live in the USA.

Cameron House therefore appears to be another company designed to extract money out of the system – all quite legal of course – whose owners are allowed to put profits (reflected in the absence of fire training and failure to respond to recommendations from the fire service) before people.

It will be interesting to see if the Sheriff Court makes any reference to the role that this company structure and business model played in causing the fire when sentencing takes place next week.

But in my view accidents are the almost inevitable consequence and there has clearly been no learning from the sorry history of fires at Cameron House (2010 and 2012 under previous ownership).

What sticks in the craw, and must be most upsetting to the families of the two men who lost their lives as well as to all the people who lost their jobs, is that it has taken three years since the fire for there to be a hint of any consequences for the owners.

That is not the fault of the police or the fire service – these investigations take time – and the fire service clearly doesn’t even have sufficient powers to force owners of buildings to respond to its recommendations.

But one has to question why our current system has allowed the owners of the Cameron House tourist business have been allowed to carry on and indeed use the fire as an opportunity to expand?

While it was in the public interest to rebuild Cameron House, the planning application (see here) for an expanded operation left a bad taste in the mouth.

In a better world, these issues might have been avoided and the companies that own Cameron House and their Directors forced to transfer the operation into a more responsible form of ownership.

Under its glitzy exterior, Cameron House appears to have been a rotten operation.

A transfer of the business could still happen if the Insurance companies involved reconsider the vast bailout they handed to the company directors, not just to reinstate the building but to reimburse lost profits:

Whether the insurance companies actually re-consider may depend  on how much responsibility the  courts attribute on Friday to the directors of the company or whether they rather than the humble  porter takes the main rap.

Whatever the court decides, we need to start considering the tourism industry in our National Parks from a social justice perspective (the Air BnBs in Edinburgh are a good example of the need for this from elsewhere).

It would be a good start if both our National Park Authorities started putting certain checks and conditions in place before uncritically promoting certain elements of the tourism industry.

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