By Bill Heaney
The Scottish Government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals Division has rejected a request from the local community at Gartocharn that the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority (LLTNPA) should have required the Hunter Foundation to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before approving their planning application at Ross Priory.
The reasons for the decision are not yet public on the Department of Planning and Environment Appeals website (see here) but the decision letter is circulating in the local community.
Sir Tom Hunter, who has received planning permission for a leadership centre and wedding venue at Ross Priory on a sensitive part of Loch Lomondside.
The decision means that Sir Tom Hunter has effectively been given the all-clear for a development that is on the last undeveloped section of shoreline at the south end of Loch Lomond, in the most prominent position possible.
Planning and Development, however, found that the LLTNPA decision to classify the development at Ross Priory as an ‘Urban Development Project’, which circumvented the need for an EIA, was “not unreasonable”.
Parkswatch campaigner Nick Kempe said: “So, now we know! According to the planners the Bonnie Banks and presumably all the other scenic places in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park can be classified as just another bit of urban sprawl.
“Any word, it seems, can be manipulated to mean its opposite. In the world of planning, our finest natural landscapes have no value.”
Mr Kempe added: “I sent my opinion about the LLTNPA’s failure to conduct an EIA (see here) to the local MSP for Gartocharn, Jackie Baillie.
“She asked both the Scottish Government and the LLTNPA about why the local community, having raised concerns about the lack of an EIA, were not advised of their right to seek a screening from Scottish Ministers.
“She has received answers from the very top, for which I am very grateful. I have not discussed either response with Ms Baillie and the commentary is mine alone.
Campaigner Nick Kempe, Jackie Baillie MSP, Parkswatch campaigner Nick Kempe,and SNP government minister Kevin Stewart.
“A response from the SNP government Minister, Kevin Stewart claimed the LLTNPA “was not obliged to highlight the possibility that a request could be make to Scottish Ministers to issue a screening opinion”. This ducks the point.
“The issue is not about whether the LLTNPA was legally obliged to inform people in the local community of their rights, its whether morally they should have done so. The Minister is completely silent about that. It shouldn’t have been difficult.
“The LLTNPA knew people in the local community were concerned about the lack of an EIA, but rather than say ‘you know you always have the option of seeking an opinion from Scottish Ministers’, they kept silent and pushed ahead with the planning meeting.
“The Minister’s response provides more evidence that the screeds of Scottish Government policy documents about the importance of involving local communities in the planning process are not worth the paper they are written on.
“The response from the Chief Executive of the LLTNPA, Gordon Watson (see here for full email), is even more revealing. It shows that the planning system in the Park is systematically biased in favour of developers. It starts with the usual parkspeak, for example:
“At this [i.e the planning] meeting the Committee heard from some of those who were opposed to the application and from the applicant. The Committee received a comprehensive Officer’s report. Committee Members asked questions of Officers and those for and against in coming to their decision. This was a carefully considered application.”
Mr Kempe commented further: “Note the opinion presented as fact, the ‘Comprehensive Officer’s report’, which made no mention of the nesting ospreys, and the “carefully considered” application which treated Hunter’s proposals as ‘an urban development’.
“After a whole lot more ‘considered conclusions’ and ‘robust assessments’, Mr Watson gets to the point: ‘The relevant EIA regulations provide the ability for requests to be made to Scottish Ministers for a Screening Opinion in certain circumstances, which I presume is what Mr Kempe is referring to’.
“Note the ‘presume’. If you check the letter, Jackie Baillie couldn’t have been clearer, but a favoured tactic of the LLTNPA is to try and undermine critics by implying they don’t know what they are talking about.
“And then, after some more explanation about the process: ‘It is not appropriate for a planning authority to proactively advise either applicants, those in objection or in support of an application on all legal rights or recourse. We must remain impartial and independent in our determination and handling of applications. We will always assist all interested parties where we can and as appropriate. For example, we received a number of queries in respect of this case and Officer’s made time to help answer these queries and questions as they always do. This included individuals from the local community.’
Outspoken and rightly angry, Mr Kempe, a retired local government official, said: “This is garbage. The Planning System encourages developers to seek advice from the Planning Authority before making any planning application and we know from the Ross Priory email correspondence obtained through FOI that the LLTNPA spent months advising the Hunter Foundation not just on the planning rules, but how to get its development through the system.
“This shows that Stuart Mearns, the Head of Planning no less, advised the consultants acting on behalf of the Hunter Foundation of how to progress the application. But the same Mr Mearns, according to Mr Watson, would NOT have been acting impartially had he had responded to community concerns about the lack of an EIA by advising them of their rights. Instead of apologising for this failure, Mr Watson then ties himself in knots claiming “we will always help all interested parties”. So which is it?
“Then, In response to Jackie Baillie’s letter he states “Mr Kempe is extremely concerned that the National Park do not advise local communities of their rights and the neutrality of the planning process.
“It is disappointing to read of these concerns. It must be recognised that the Park Authority in undertaking its statutory planning functions must remain impartial and independent of all interested parties when determining planning applications. It cannot advise or advocate on a particular course of action.”
Again, states Mr Kempe, this misrepresents the facts. No-one is claiming the LLTNPA should have “advocated” the local community should seek a screening opinion from Scottish Ministers, only that they should have advised them of their right to do so.
The controversial leadership and wedding venue which has been given the green light.
The bias towards developers that drives the planning system in the National Park
A wedding on lovely Loch Lomondside at Ross Priory near Gartocharn. Picture by Bill Heaney
Just after New Year the LLTNPA, under pressure as a result of adverse media publicity, issued a news statement on the Flamingo Land and Ross Priory planning applications.
These quote Mr Watson and start with the spin that the LLTNPA “takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously undertaking a wide range of work to tackle both the nature and climate emergencies”. Such as allowing the Ross Priory development in close proximity to the Nature Nature Reserve while wilfully ignoring the carbon implications (an estimated 1000-1500 tonnes of CO2 created by the construction and the lack of any public transport)?
Mr Watson then proceeded to repeat this which dates back to 2017: “The decision to appoint Flamingoland as preferred bidder for the West Riverside site was made by Scottish Enterprise alone.
Loch Lomond National Park Authority and Flamingoland plans for Balloch.
“While a former member of the National Park Authority’s tourism team did provide informal tourism advice to Scottish Enterprise before their decision, no member of the planning team or any member of the National Park Board was involved in their selection and there was no conflict of interest”
Almost four years ago (see here) LLTNPA was on the interview panel for Flamingo Land, involved in designing the scoring process and, according to Scottish Enterprise, “All the proposals were scored by a panel comprising of representatives from SE, LLTNPA and SE’s Property Advisors (Bilfinger GVA)”.
Parkswatch campaigner Nick Kempe said: “I have since been informed that Fiona Logan, former Chief Executive of the LLTNPA, may have visited Flamingo Land at their base in Yorkshire prior to them submitting a formal bid for the site. Yet Mr Watson, who almost certainly gave his consent for the member of staff to be on the interview panel, claims the LLTNPA was not involved.
“In the context of the Ross Priory Planning Application, however, it is important to appreciate that the LLTNPA does not favour all developers equally. Developers are required to play the game that keeps the planners and the planning consultants in their jobs, an expensive business. 18 months ago the LLTNPA rejected a significant development at Ward’s Farm (see here), 1.5 km from Ross Priory but in a far less prominent location:
“The Visitor Experience Policies as set out in the Local Development Plan, and associated Planning Guidance, provides for areas within the National Park where larger scale development can be supported. This is not such a location. It is a more sensitive location – particularly given its proximity to a comprehensive range of sites designated for their natural heritage and landscape significance.”
“On first reading a completely different approach to the Hunter Foundation application but the LLTNPA added some weasel words at the end: ‘Sufficient justification has not been provided to enable an exception to these policies to be supported in this location.The proposed development would not integrate well with its surroundings.'”
Mr Kempe is one of many people living on the Lochside who feel strongly about the Park Authjority and the way it is being run, particularly in regard to planning.
He said: “If you are rich enough to play the game, as the Hunter Foundation unquestionably is, there is almost nothing to stop you developing almost anywhere in the National Park, as long as you can ‘integrate’ your proposal “with its surroundings”.
“And, if you are famous and well-connected to boot, the LLTNPA will fall over itself to oblige you whatever local communities think.”
NOTHING DISCREET ABOUT CENTRE PLANS
I WISH to challenge some of the assertions made by Gordon Watson, CEO of Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, in his letter to the Glasgow Herald (February 16) responding to Kevin McKenna’s excellent article (“Why have we hung a large For Sale sign round Loch Lomond?”, The Herald, February 15).
Mr Watson must either have a short-term memory, or use a very different dictionary to the rest of us.
There is nothing discreet about the proposed leadership centre at Ross Priory. In fact, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland described it as “aggressively brutalistic” in its objection letter. The proposed building sits on quite possibly the most exposed and prominent part of the loch’s southern shoreline.
The flaws in the application are gargantuan. I don’t believe there are any objections to the principle of a leadership centre, all of the objections lie with its environmental impact and the lack of due process. The national park authority is to blame for this.
Why has it been so rushed? A similar proposal at Wards Estate only two miles away, and in a much less prominent position, was subject to a two-year environmental study before any decision was made.
Sir Tom Hunter mentioned that this has been consulted on for “years”, yet even the pre- application advice only dates back to late 2018, and it reads more like the Hunter Foundation’s wish list being accommodated by the national park. The plans presented to the community were fait accompli; no wonder the community council objected.
If this proposal is to be sensitive and sustainable, then surely the thing to do would have been to apply an Environmental Impact Assessment. If the national park authority is so confident of its people and work, it should have nothing to fear.