When Will Politicians Get a Grip on Hill Tracks?

10 Jul 2019

In June, the Scottish Government once again failed to take the opportunity to stop the unregulated construction of hilltracks, which is damaging some of Scotland’s most well-loved upland landscapes, when Ministers refused to support amendments to the Planning (Scotland) Bill which were put forward by Andy Wightman MSP of the Scottish Green Party.

There was immediate condemnation of the decision on social media, with outdoors writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish branding it “absolutely bloody shameful”.  Muriel Gray agreed the decision was “baffling”, with Chris Townsend commenting it was “disgraceful”.  Snow specialist Iain Cameron asked, “Can someone explain to me why bringing hill tracks under proper planning regulations has been voted down in the Scottish Parliament? Can anyone give even one good reason why monstrosities like these are allowed to be constructed without any oversight or scrutiny? I’m speechless.” Climber Dave MacLeod commented it was “shortsighted and disappointing.”

So what is the issue with hilltracks?
Partly it’s because tracks are often one cause of the environmental and landscape damage found on intensively managed grouse moors, though many tracks are also built for deer stalking purposes.  The other issue, however, is that they symbolise the abuse of privilege by many landowners.  While ordinary people need to apply for planning permission to build modest extensions to their houses, tracks are being bulldozed up mountainsides causing permanent scars and yet have no requirement for planning permission.  A full planning application would enable local communities and representative bodies to make comments or even object, and for the public interest to be properly represented.

The underlying issue is that tracks built for agricultural or forestry purposes benefit from permitted development rights (PDRs), a situation dating from the post-war period when the priority of the government at that time was to boost productivity after years of privation.  Over the next decades, many landowners took advantage of this planning loophole to construct tracks, even though it’s clear that often their main purpose was not agricultural, but instead to enable shooting and stalking clients to get up a hill more easily.  Given that tracks are used for many purposes, including recreation, landowners were able to claim agricultural use for the tracks as it was impossible for the planning authority to prove otherwise, even when the track led to a row of grouse butts.  Without the public scrutiny that the planning system brings, too many tracks were poorly constructed leading to landscape scars and environmental damage, often in areas much valued for their beauty and as a setting for outdoor recreation.

Concerns were first raised in the 1960s when Lord Dulverton bulldozed a track from Glen Feshie right to the top of the Cairngorm plateau.  The late Adam Watson documented the proliferation of tracks in the Cairngorms over the following years, and many outdoor and environmental bodies have attempted to get PDRs removed from tracks.

In 2012, a government review of PDRs stated that there was “compelling evidence” of the problem and therefore proposed to change the law.  However, the then Planning Minister, Derek Mackay MSP, then announced that he had changed his mind.  This turnaround led to the forming of the Scottish Environment LINK hilltracks campaign in 2013 which started to build evidence of the problem, with its Track Changes report illustrated by case studies based on photos submitted by hillgoers.   Problem tracks were identified from the Borders to Sutherland, including particularly horrendous examples in the Pentland Hills and within the Cairngorms National Park.

This effort led to a legal requirement for landowners to give prior notification of their intention to build a track, but not the full planning application sought by campaigners.  LINK set out to monitor the new system and a further report, Changing Tracks, in 2018 made it clear that the adjustment had not made any meaningful improvements in practice.

The Planning Bill going through the Scottish Parliament then became a target to get the necessary change in the law and Andy Wightman MSP made great efforts to explain the reason for his amendments, both at the Committee stage and then in the full parliamentary debate in June.  In this he was supported by Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat colleagues.  However, SNP and Conservative MSPs joined forces to vote against these amendments and their greater numbers ultimately won the day.  It was particularly galling to those campaigning for change, and many SNP supporters, that the SNP seemed to be siding with landowners to let this damage to the countryside continue.  Climber Ed Douglas tweeted that it was “Bizarre, given the immense reputation the Scottish landscape enjoys around the world, that you would trash it so a few people too lazy to walk can shoot birds.”

The LINK campaign will continue, as the Minister has committed to considering the issue again during a forthcoming review of permitted development rights.  Of course we’ve been here before in 2012, but we’re confident that the strength of public concern over this issue has been made clear to MSPs.  Let’s hope that this issue will finally be resolved by next year.

by Helen Todd, Campaigns and Policy Manager with Ramblers Scotland and co-convener of the LINK Hilltracks Subgroup.

A version of this blog appeared on UK Hillwalking: https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/opinions/when_will_politicians_get_a_grip_on_hill_tracks-12077

Members of the LINK Hilltracks Subgroup are: Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Badenoch & Strathspey Conservation Group, Cairngorms Campaign, John Muir Trust, National Trust for Scotland, North East Mountain Trust, Ramblers Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Campaign for National Parks and Scottish Wild Land Group. Mountaineering Scotland, while not a member of LINK, also supports this campaign.

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