NATIONAL PARK: Minimalist approach to its core path network will come back to haunt them this summer.

The relaxation of travel restrictions on outdoor recreation and the Lomond & Trossachs National Park has caught many people by surprise, according to Parkswatch campaigner Nick Kempe.

Nick said on Tuesday: “The legal restrictions on travel which were first introduced on 27th November remain in place, meaning that you still can only travel outside your local authority area to go indoors in certain specified circumstances.

“But the list of reasonable excuses for travelling now includes meeting up with others outdoors and to undertaken exercise or outdoor recreation, so long as it is only for the day.”

Parkswatch supporters were quick to criticise those restrictions which have not been lifted or relaxed.

One man, James McGrellis, said: “The park authority seem to me to be acting like a power hungry elite.

“What they’re doing is discouraging visitors, including me.

“They should just put up signs at the park borders saying visitors not welcome.”

And another person said: “LTNPA are still keeping the public slipway [at Balloch] with no lighting, locked and stopping boat owners from using it, despite the fact that many owners are charged an annual fee for using the slipway.”

The regulation dealing with outdoor recreation and exercise, which required people to start and finish from the same place (within five miles of their local authority area), has now been repealed.

Nick Kempe said: “Generally this greatly expands the options for people to enjoy outdoor recreation; drivers can effectively go as far as they want for the day;  it’s no longer illegal to take public transport out of your area for outdoor recreation purposes; and its now clearly legal to do one way journeys. For example, get the train out of a town and then cycle back.

“The regulation which requires people need to return to their own local authority area overnight, is new.

“Arguably this could, until 26th April, make it harder to go camping outside your local authority area as part of a backpacking or cycle tour.

“Previously, as a result of the way the legislation had been drafted, multi-day tours for exercise or outdoor recreation purposes were probably lawful so long as you started and finished at the same place.”

What’s the rationale behind the change?

Nick told Parkswatch Journal readers: “Nicola Sturgeon placed far more emphasis in her announcement (see here) on the Scottish Government relaxing the travel restrictions to allow people to  meet up with others outdoors, than she did on outdoor recreation.

“Possibly that was because the risks of spreading Covid-19 through meeting up with others is so much greater than for outdoor recreation.  But that prompts the question, why couldn’t the restrictions on travel for outdoor recreation have been lifted earlier?

“The First Minister’s explanation for bringing forward the changes from 26th April was that Covid cases had dropped by 40% in the last couple of weeks  and that the “figures we are seeing now represent the lowest level since late September last year”. 

The second part of the explanation appears to be not true.  According to the Scottish Government’s own data (see here) there were 793 new cases on 30th September (the highest number recorded up till then though between the March and May peak far fewer people were tested).

“Cases had reduced to that level again on 22nd February, i.e seven weeks before Nicola Sturgeon’s “surprise” announcement.”

He added: “Scottish Government advice on restricting travel for exercise/outdoor recreation in response to the second wave of Covid-19 was only re-introduced at the end of October, when rates had reached over 1,300 new cases a day, and legal restrictions were introduced for the first time a month later.  The number of Covid cases had dropped back to October levels by the end of January.

“The Scottish Government has, therefore, chosen to wait to lift travel restrictions until Covid levels were far lower than when it originally imposed them.  In the course of her announcement the First Minister stated that ‘we are legally obliged not to keep any restrictions in place for longer than they are needed’.

So, what was the Scottish Government’s justification for imposing legal restrictions on travel for outdoor recreation and why have they been kept in place so long?

“By the time the Scottish Government imposed travel restrictions at the end of November, the scientific evidence was very clear that the risks of spreading Covid-19 through outdoor recreation was very low.

“Based on this evidence, the Scottish Government should have continued to allow travel for the day for exercise or outdoor recreation so long as transport was not shared.

“The fact that they have now amended the Coronavirus Restrictions Regulations to allow this, shows that this would have been quite possible to do.

“When the more transmittable Kent variant of Covid-19 started to emerge in mid-December, a more restrictive approach might have been justified for a short time until the risks of transmission outdoors became clearer.

“But as cases started to drop despite the thousands of people enjoying city parks during the cold spell (see here), it should have been obvious that there was no justification for continuing to limit the distance people could travel for outdoor recreation.”

Walking and climbing in the Loch Lomond Hills can be a healthy and happy pursuit for advertising and marketing executive Karen Hood..

He maintains: “There is therefore a very strong argument that the Scottish Government’s justification for limiting travel for outdoor recreation should form part of the public inquiry into their handling of the Covid crisis which the First Minister has promised for later in the year (see here).

“Alongside the evidence of the risks of spreading Covid-19 through outdoor recreational activity, the inquiry should also look at the serious impacts on people’s physical and mental health that has resulted from the restrictions.

“This week a very interesting piece of research was published from America showing that reduced physical activity by students, including in places like gyms, during the Covid crisis has resulted in large increases in depressive illnesses  (see here).  

“As Parkswatch has been arguing for the last year, with gyms and other indoor facilities necessarily closed the Scottish Government should have been encouraging people to get out into the countryside, not fining them.”

Gordon Watson, Chief Executive of the National Park at Loch Lomond.

Ongoing anomalies in the law

Had the restrictions on travel for outdoor recreation or exercise been lifted earlier, the Scottish Government might have been able to resolve some further anomalies in the law:

  • If you live near the border, it is still potentially unlawful to step over it to go for a walk or a paddle in the sea, as the border restrictions are not being lifted until 26th April.  People who live on either side of the border are still being affected in ways that the rest of the population aren’t.
  • The unfairness of people living in rural areas like Highland or Perthshire being able to stay away from home overnight in tents or campervans when those living in built up areas or small local authorities are banned from doing so continues.
  • The lifting of restrictions on staying out overnight (where there is almost no risk) on the same day, 26th April, that self-catering is opening up (where there is some risk) and on the same day that ‘pubs, cafes and restaurants will be also able to fully open outdoors……… – and indoors on a more restricted basis’ is certainly not based on any science.
  • “While keeping quiet about camping and self-catering, the First Minister commented: “It is worth noting that the restricted indoor opening of hospitality on 26 April, will be actually three weeks ahead of the indoor opening of hospitality in England.”   
  • Maybe that is justified for indoor hospitality, but if so people should have been allowed out to camp weeks ago and could have been allowed to book self-catering over the Easter holidays.

The response of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority

While the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority did, apparently, manage to deploy some mobile toilets before last weekend, its website today  shows it was not properly prepared for the influx of visitors to the National Park last weekend.

It was as follows:  With lockdown restrictions beginning to ease, we are looking forward to welcoming you back to the National Park. However, it’s still important that we all continue to take action to stop the spread of Covid-19/Coronavirus and understand how this may impact on your visit.

Loch Lomondside loo – but where do people go after they close at 4pm?

Is now the right time to visit?

Before any visit please think carefully about whether the time is right and if your visit is in keeping with the Scottish Government’s guidance.

Please familiarise yourself with the latest national guidance. 

Overnight stays outside your local authority are not yet permitted.

Wherever you are, to prevent spread of the virus we should all follow the FACTS guidance.

If you are able to get out into the National Park within the guidelines, please play your part by preparing in advance and avoiding popular areas which are more likely to get busy.

What is open where?

While lockdown may be beginning to ease, many facilities and businesses will not yet be open or operating as usual. This goes for those managed by the National Park Authority as well as by other public bodies and local businesses.

Please check the most up to date information on the location and status of car parks and toilets, and other visitor facilities, before you come. We provide live updates on the status of car parks around the National Park at weekends between 8am-4pm.

We intend to open our camping permit areas and campsites on Monday 26th April. You can now book your camping trip on our website up to four weeks in advance.

Please remember Seasonal Camping Management Byelaws are in still operation between 1st March and 30th September, and the byelaws continue to be enforced by National Park Rangers and Police Scotland.

The Duncan Mills Memorial Slipway will open on Friday 23rd April.

These dates are subject to confirmation of the national restrictions easing as planned.

What do I need to do?

Having considered the national guidelines and checked whether there are facilities you might need to use, remember to:

‘Go’ before you go  – Toilet facilities may be closed or open at reduced hours/capacity. Make sure you ‘go’ before you go and only use public toilets if you really need to.

Bring everything you need with you – Please remember many businesses may be closed and local shops are providing essential supplies for our rural communities. You can help them by bringing your own food, drinks and kit with you.

Think of alternative options – As some popular places can get busy on nice days, we also suggest you think of alternative options for places to visit within the National Park (whilst remembering to stick to the national guidance on travel).

Loch Lomond, Ben Lomond and Ben Vorlich make it a great day for a sail on the loch.

When you get here

Finally if you are out and about in the National Park always:

Be kind and show respect for others –  We all enjoy getting out into nature and this can be especially beneficial in difficult times. It’s also important to remember that many people live and work in the National Park.

Whatever you bring with you, take it home – This one is easy! Respect your Park and be a responsible visitor. Don’t leave your waste behind, including next to bins. Pack two extra bags so you can take your litter away safely and leave some space in your car or bag to carry it home. We hope you enjoy your visit and thank you for your patience. Some of this information is well out of date. The position of the the toilets at Tarbet has not been updated since the end of March, while the Cabin’s website states its due to re-open 26th April.

So where does the LLTNPA believe people should go? The National Park was set up in large part because the area is so important to people living in the Glasgow conurbation.  The LLTNPA, however, would clearly prefer it if people stayed away and have been backing up this message with a whole lot of actions that make it harder for people to visit (see here).

The contrast with the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)’s response to the change in travel restrictions, which while careful is very different in both tone and content, is striking (see here).

While the CNPA is encouraging people to plan ahead, there is nothing on the LLTNPA website that might encourage people to try anywhere except the usual honeypots.  One suspect that the reason for that is if the LLTNPA recommended other places they might be forced to provide basic infrastructure like car parks and litter bins elsewhere.

The LLTNPA’s lack of ambition over the last few years in trying to improve opportunities for outdoor recreation, for example its minimalist approach to its core path network (see here), will I believe come back to haunt them this summer.

And, despite it now being perfectly legal to go camping in your local authority area, the LLTNPA has still not opened up its camping permit areas to residents of Perth and Kinross, Stirling and Argyll and Bute and continues to use the camping byelaws for purposes that were never intended.

So where does the LLTNPA believe people should go? The National Park was set up in large part because the area is so important to people living in the Glasgow conurbation.  The LLTNPA, however, would clearly prefer it if people stayed away and have been backing up this message with a whole lot of actions that make it harder for people to visit (see here).

The contrast with the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)’s response to the change in travel restrictions, which while careful is very different in both tone and content, is striking (see here).

While the CNPA is encouraging people to plan ahead, there is nothing on the LLTNPA website that might encourage people to try anywhere except the usual honeypots.  One suspect that the reason for that is if the LLTNPA recommended other places they might be forced to provide basic infrastructure like car parks and litter bins elsewhere.  The LLTNPA’s lack of ambition over the last few years in trying to improve opportunities for outdoor recreation, for example its minimalist approach to its core path network (see here), will I believe come back to haunt them this summer.  And, despite it now being perfectly legal to go camping in your local authority area, the LLTNPA has still not opened up its camping permit areas to residents of Perth and Kinross, Stirling and Argyll and Bute and continues to use the camping byelaws for purposes that were never intended.

This special report was compiled by Bill Heaney, The Democrat editor, and by courtesy of Nick Kempe (left) of Parkswatch Scotland. Pictures are by Bill Heaney

Leave a Reply