Image: Track constructed on Ledgowan Estate – a track for which Highland Council observed that “no real evidence has been provided which demonstrates that the tracks are reasonably required for the purposes of agriculture” See previous Ledgowan posts here.

Nine of Scotland’s leading environmental charities are calling on the Scottish Government to put an end to the unregulated system for hill track construction which allows landowners to build tracks without any public oversight. Instead, they want hill track construction brought within the planning system.

Working under the umbrella of Scottish Environment LINK, the organisations today published ‘Track Changes’. This report shows evidence of the huge damage caused to landscapes, wildlife and habitats across Scotland by some of these tracks, carved across the landscape for motor vehicles. The aim is to persuade the Scottish Government to remove ‘permitted development rights’ (PDRs) for building such tracks, thus enabling public scrutiny of all proposed track construction.

Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland and co-convener of the campaign group said:
“We asked Scottish hill walkers to send us photos of tracks which have damaged our countryside. The report gives compelling photographic evidence of the degradation being caused by this planning-free-for-all. In some cases it amounts to nothing short of environmental vandalism.

“Our organisations have been concerned about the unrestrained development of hill tracks over many decades, but the situation has become much more serious in recent years with the increasing use of diggers, bulldozers and other vehicles that can better cope with Scotland’s mountainous terrain. We are seeing tracks going into areas of wild land, gouging large trenches out of landforms which were laid down in the last Ice Age. Tracks are dug deep into peat, destroying fragile and sensitive habitats and disturbing wildlife – and they are proliferating across our hills, seriously scarring the landscape.”

Beryl Leatherland of Scottish Wild Land Group and co-convenor of the campaign group said: “We are not trying to stop the development of all tracks, but the current system is unfair to the public interest. It does not allow for any public consultation or proper consideration of the value of landscapes and wildlife. In our report we show evidence of tracks being bulldozed across some of the country’s most iconic landscapes, even parts of our national parks, without any care for their design or impact.

“It is hard to believe that if you want to build a conservatory on a house in any street in Scotland you have to go through a rigorous planning process and yet a track can be bulldozed through even a designated nature conservation site without any scrutiny at all. We think that regulation is essential and should be welcomed by all concerned.”

In December 2012 the Scottish Government dropped its proposal to bring tracks with purported ‘agricultural or forestry purposes’ into the planning system, but said that it would keep the situation under review. It is hoped that the evidence gathered by the LINK campaign will persuade Ministers to reconsider this decision. The Planning Minister, Derek Mackay MSP, visited the site of one of the tracks highlighted in the report with members of LINK and has been sent a copy of the report.

Scottish Environment Link Parliamentary Briefing on Hill tracks

Full Report ‘Track Changes

Campaign website

The story so far…….

Dr Kenneth Brown wrote a guest blog (here) discussing the harassment he faced going about his lawful business at Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen, Ross-shire. This led to quite a few comments and emails recounting similar such incidents at Ledgowan over the past few year since Andrew Simpson took over ownership of the estate.

This in turn led to the revelation (to me) of the 18 km track that has been crudely bulldozed across the hills under Class 18 Permitted Development Rights whereby developments for agricultural use are exempted from the need for planning consent. Despite recommendations from Scottish Government officials in 2012 that such tracks be subject to normal planning rules, Derek Mackay (Minister for Local Government & Planning) under pressure from farming, landowning and forestry interests, refused.

Since publishing these blogs, more information and insight has come to light and I thank all those who have been in touch.

Agricultural Use

It is now confirmed that the road was built for agricultural activities. A number of hill farmers have been in touch with me. None can see any conceivable use for a road of this length, routing, construction or quality in this particular place. So what is it for? Simpson’s own website implies it is for trout and salmon fishing and wildlife safaris.

A previous application for a windfarm was refused on landscape grounds. A second application for a smaller development of two turbines was submitted and then withdrawn. Andrew Simpson currently has a live application for one 50kw turbine (Ref 12/03182/FUL). How convenient it is that there is already a road built to service it. How convenient also that any opposition to an application for a bigger scheme on landscape grounds is now much weakened by the fact that the road has now inflicted significant damage to the landscape.

Interestingly, SNH concede this fact in their comments in the current application where they point out that “the proposed turbine is located on terrace 2 within the SSSI. We agree that a turbine located here, with no need for additional tracks minimises damage to the main features of the site.” This  remember is a track that has smashed right through Terrace 1 and 2.

Pollution

The unauthorised construction of this track raises questions about pollution. A prominent expert in such matters has highlighted to me the possible issues with drainage, run-off and sediment loading. The road has been hastily constructed in an inexpert manner across numerous watercourses. It is clear that substantial works have been carried out on the loch shore. Have these works ever been approved by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)?

UPDATE 25 OCTOBER 2013

I wrote to SEPA on 14 October 2013 and asked them,

Could you provide me please with any information that SEPA holds in relation to activities on Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen.In particular I am interested in the road that has been constructed and, for example, whether the estate has a CAR licence under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) Regulations 2011 for the water crossings and works by Loch a Chroisg.”

SEPA replied today and told me that they held no information in relation to the track, pointing out that if the watercourse crossings had been “done in accordance with General Binding Rule 6, then SEPA would not need to be involved”. We do not know, of course, whether such rules were followed.

More interestingly, in relation to the works on the shore of Loch a Chroisg, SEPA refused to release the relevant information.

Please note that SEPA is aware of engineering activities in Loch a Chroisg undertaken by Ledgowan Estate in June 2011 which resulted in the alteration of the watercourse. The work was carried out without a licence. SEPA holds information relating to this however the information has been withheld from release at this time under Regulation 10(5)(b) of EIR which states:

’10(5) A Scottish public authority may refuse to make environmental information available to the extent that its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially … (b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of any public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature.’

The Public Interest Test was carried out in relation to the information to be withheld under regulation 10(5)(b). To disclose evidence in a case prior to it being considered by the Procurator Fiscal, thus putting it in the public domain means the accused may not receive a fair trial.”

It therefore seems clear than an alleged offence has been committed under Section 44 of the Regulations and that criminal proceedings may follow.

The full reply from SEPA is here.

I have written to SEPA inviting them to investigate whether or not the 2011 Regulations have been followed in the construction of the new track.

UPDATE 29 OCTOBER 2013
SEPA has responded:-

SEPA will arrange to visit the site and look into your complaint. Once we have done so, we will get back to you and let you know the outcome of our findings.

 

It appears that the new landowner takes quite a hostile approach to the local community as is evident from this Community Council minute of February 2012 regarding a dispute over pedestrian access along a now disused public road.

The Chairman read out a letter from Helen Christie raising issues about access to Ledgowan Estate, threatening behaviour, construction of hill roads and the access across the bridge. Dave Mackenzie (an employee of Ledgowan Estate) stated he hadn’t stopped anyone and that the estate will abide by the law.”

Highland Council has now issued a Traffic Regulation Order permitting pedestrian and cycle traffic to continue to use this short stretch of the former A890 (council paper and minute).

During 2011, there was considerable disquiet among residents of Achnasheen about the construction of the new track and numerous complaints were made to Highland Council. On 5 August 2011, Dave MacKenzie submitted a Freedom of Information request to Highland Council asking for details of complaints that the Council had received. The Council complied with the request but redacted the personal details of those who had made the complaints. Mr MacKenzie asked for a review of the decision and subsequently appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner who, in her decision, stated that,

Mr MacKenzie is an employee of the owner of the Ledgowan Estate. He has explained that his request was motivated by the harassment and disruption to the progress of work that he was feeling as a result of the Council’s response to complaints, which he considered to be made by individuals or organisations that appeared to be either ill-informed or motivated by malice. He explained that he wanted to know the identities of those making complaints in order to inform them of the reason why work was being carried out.”

Creepy.

As is clear from Mr MacKenzie’s attendance at the Community Council meeting, he had (and continues to have) ample opportunity to “inform” people of “the reason why work was being carried out“. As for the harassment, disruption and malice which he refers to, let’s note one incident that took place just before Christmas 2011.

A number of residents noticed that their oil-fired heating systems stopped working. Upon inspection, an engineer found that holes had been drilled in their oil tanks, with the the contents seeping into the ground all over their gardens. The police investigated these criminal acts but found insufficient evidence to take further action.

In another incident, a person closely connected with the estate was caught digging a badger sett. Again the police were called but insufficient evidence was available and the perpetrators claimed that they had been looking for foxes.

Earlier this year a black-throated diver was found dead having been “shot by a high velocity projectile”.

The above incidents may have nothing to do with the estate. They may (although it appears unlikely) have entirely innocent explanations.

What’s going on?

In the previous Guest Blog, I published a piece by Dr Kenneth Brown about the hostile reception he received when walking on Ledgowan Estate. I now know one of the reasons why this might have happened – the unbelievable vandalism that has been perpetrated by the owner, Andrew Simpson. Zoom in on the map above (or preferably open it in a larger window) and see for yourself the incredible bulldozed track that has been ripped across the face of the hills for over eleven miles.
It is awesome.
There are two other photographs in the previous blog post.
Here is what Eoghain Maclean said in a comment under the piece.
He has taken advantage of his right to construct a track on his land for agricultural reasons. Laughable as it eventually arrives at a hill loch where you can catch arctic charr. I was brought up on the neighbouring estate but I like others would rather walk to a hill loch instead of being transported by an ATV (all terrain vehicle).
I am informed that there was a planning application for a wind farm but it was refused. Another one was submitted but withdrawn. There is a live planning application for one 50kw turbine just behind the Ledgowan Hotel. So has the owner of this estate built an incredible road without planning consent simply so that he (and one presumes others) don’t have to exert themselves to catch some arctic char? What is clear beyond any reasonable doubt is this is NOT an agricultural track.
Why on earth is someone allowed to build such a road for recreational purposes?
A number of environmental bodies are campaigning for such roads to be subject to planning permission. Sarah Boyack MPS and Peter Peacock MSP tried (and failed) to secure this in in 2010 (here is their campaign website). Earlier this summer, Scottish Environment Link re-launched the campaign. There is more info on the Ramblers’ Scotland website including the Scottish Link press release.
Maybe it’s time we asked Mr Simpson what exactly the point of all of this is. He can be contacted here.
UPDATE 2214 10 October
An informant has told me that the track was built under Permitted Development Rights. In other words the track does not need planning permission because it is for “agricultural purposes”. Highland Council found no evidence to the contrary (which is next to impossible to do) and thus had no grounds for refusal. Note that sport fishing is NOT an agricultural purpose. What makes the case even more astonishing is that the track runs through a geomorphological SSSI – the Achnashee Terraces SSSI – map here.
UPDATE 2323 10 October
A bit off topic, but some insight into the attitude of the current owner can be gleaned from his opposition to allow cyclists and walkers to use the old public road. Highland Council over-rode his objection. Committee paper here. Minutes here (Item 20)
UPDATE 1030 11 October Edits to paragraph about the wind-turbine development and link to the current application.
UPDATE 1433 11 October Interesting comment by Colin L in comments. On Mr Simpson’s own website it states that,
The includes 18 kilometres of track so that you can explore the local wildlife and area with a local safari company (cost on request). There is also trout fishing on the estate and salmon fishing may be available by arrangement.”
And on the Sporting Lets website run by CKDFinlayson Hughes (under sport tab),
there is now 18km of track on the estate, providing excellent access for sporting parties, sightseeing or an estate safari.”
As far as I can tell from the legislation (Class 18 exemption) this is not a track for agricultural purposes at all. Will Highland Council now demand reinstatement?