09 June 2010

S3M-6227 Hill Tracks (Scottish Uplands)

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 9 June 2010

[The Presiding Officer opened the meeting at 14:00]
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Hill Tracks (Scottish Uplands)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-6227, in the name of Peter Peacock, on hill tracks in the Scottish uplands. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the number of engineered hill tracks appearing in the Scottish uplands, particularly in the Highlands; notes that such tracks can be constructed without planning consent when justified as being for agricultural, forestry or repair purposes; further notes the growing number of concerns from hill walkers, ramblers and mountaineers and members of the wider public about the intrusion of these tracks into the natural landscape and the impact on otherwise wild land; considers that, given the importance of the Scottish uplands for current and future generations, this warrants greater scrutiny of proposals for such tracks within the planning system; recognises the legitimate rights of farmers and crofters to continue to construct tracks for their purposes on what will generally be lower-lying land than considered to be a problem in this context; notes that Heriot-Watt University reported on these issues in March 2007, and would welcome the urgent mapping of tracks by reviewing current knowledge of track location and control provisions and consideration of future possibilities for greater control of developing hill tracks and the criteria under which any greater controls might operate.

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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I join other members in thanking Peter Peacock for bringing the important issue of hill tracks in the Scottish uplands to Parliament. Several members have said that the issue has been around for a few years. It may be worth making the point that, as long ago as 1984, a study by Watson demonstrated that there were 1,151km of new vehicle tracks in the Grampians alone between 1960 and 1982.

The achievement of the appropriate balance between aesthetics, environmental impacts and the economic needs of those who live and work in our remote and upland areas has run through the debate. It is right that those things should be focused on. Sarah Boyack in particular rightly left open the option of dealing with the issue in a range of ways. Some of us thought that Arthur's Seat lies in her constituency, although we are open to correction if we have not properly understood where the boundaries are. The topic can be relevant even in areas in the centres of our cities. We should not think that we are talking simply about the top of the Cairngorms, west Sutherland or our remote areas.

Peter Peacock rightly referred to the substantial alliance of interests—the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the John Muir Trust, Ramblers Scotland and others—that value our open country. Of course, a balance must be struck even there. The proportion of Scotland that is now within reach of vehicular transport is much greater than it used to be. That is a benefit for those who exercise access rights in our countryside, but it potentially comes at a cost, of course.

Peter Peacock said that there is ambiguity in the current arrangements. That is absolutely correct. The issue is not simply a planning and permitted development rights issue. It is not particularly well known that, by law, most hill tracks should be subject to environmental impact assessments.

One thing that the Government is seeking to do is to engage with the owners of land where such tracks have been constructed to ensure that they have a better understanding of the legal requirements. Confusingly, depending on the use to which land is put, two separate regimes apply—the effect is similar, but the regimes are different. In essence, any track of over 1km requires an environmental impact assessment. It is fair to say that that is neither as widely known about nor as widely implemented as it should be. That is why we are looking for that engagement.

Jamie McGrigor suggested that nature heals scars. As Maureen Watt said—the point was acknowledged by Sarah Boyack—the higher up into the hills we go, the harder the healing process. We are talking about land that is essentially sub-arctic territory, which is fragile indeed. The scars of many years back will remain for a long time into the future. We need to ensure that we protect that landscape.

Like other members, Alison McInnes spoke about national park powers. It is fair to say that no direct reference is made in the national parks legislation to the subject of debate, but that does not exclude in any sense whatever the designation of land in our national parks as scenic areas. Designation gives us the ability to achieve the protection that we seek by bringing land back inside the planning system. In the short term, designation is an option for national park areas. I am not promoting that approach as a substitute for a more systematic look at the issue, but it means that things can be done in the short term.

As ever, Christopher Harvie—well, truly eccentric. I suspect that the stone that he found on top of the hill was, in geological terms, precisely that—an eccentric brought from one place to another by the actions of the last ice age. Of course, I was not there; I did not see his stone.

Murdo Fraser made the point that hill roads are obtrusive. I find it passing strange that he continues to have concerns about a project that will reduce the number of pylons between Beauly and Denny and replace the existing pylons with those that are designed to be more unobtrusive—

Murdo Fraser: They will be higher.

Stewart Stevenson: —albeit that they will, of course, be higher. Colour, placing and design are important in the process. That opens up the general point about the need to achieve balance.

Sarah Boyack suggested that a voluntary code of conduct could be of some interest. It is one of a range of ways in which we might seek to improve the situation.

I turn to what the Government is going to do. We are working on permitted development rights. In light of the considerable correspondence and discussion that Ms Boyack and I have had on extending them to microgeneration, I know that she is in principle in favour of them. They are intrinsically a good intervention in the planning system. We are looking at a range of ways in which to regularise, systematise and simplify the operation of permitted development rights in relation to hill tracks. We also want to ensure a wider understanding of the need for environmental impact assessments and a consistent way of applying them to sites of special scientific interest, Natura sites and our remote areas in general. There are also issues in relation to scheduled ancient monuments on our hills, in which Historic Scotland would be involved. Finally, Scottish Natural Heritage is about to make further efforts to promote guidance to land managers and contractors. We expect to bring forward our next thoughts on the subject immediately after the summer recess. We are working on that.

Again, I thank Peter Peacock for giving the chamber the opportunity to debate in a quite consensual and informed way a very important subject for people right across Scotland.

Meeting closed at 17:44.

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