Environmental groups have expressed disappointment and condemned the Scottish Government as "feeble" for its failure to stop hill tracks being bulldozed through unspoilt landscapes, after the planning minister announced following a recent consultation (reported here on UKH) that stricter controls would not be introduced.
More and more vehicle tracks are being built in the country's upland areas as landowners quietly beaver away on their private road networks, free from scrutiny or control thanks to a planning loophole.
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) and other groups have been campaigning for some time for all tracks in wild land to require planning permission. This would prevent estates from claiming that tracks are for agricultural purposes when they are really just for use by shooting parties, they say.
'Scotland's natural environment is the real loser'
In June 2010 the Scottish Parliament debated the issue of hilltracks following a petition put forward by Peter Peacock MSP and Sarah Boyack MSP with the support of the MCofS and members of Scottish Environment LINK, the network for Scotland's voluntary sector environmental organizations. Following this debate, in July 2011, the Scottish Government held a consultation on a review of General Permitted Development Orders which included the use of 'Permitted Development Rights' for the construction of hilltracks for agricultural or forestry purposes.
At the end of this the government acknowledged 'compelling evidence' of the damage that uncontrolled development of hill tracks has caused, and stated that it was convinced of the need to amend legislation to bring their construction into the planning system.
But in something of a volte-face, planning minister Derek Mackay has now announced that he is allowing existing permitted development rights for agricultural and forestry tracks to continue unchanged. Despite strong evidence that the status quo is causing a lot of damage to wild landscapes, the government now seems to agree with the powerful landowner's lobby that nothing needs to be done.
David Gibson, MCofS Chief Officer, was scathing in his criticism.
'We're just days away from the 2013 Year of Natural Scotland and the Scottish Government has once again proved feeble in the protection of our countryside' he said.
'We have a crazy situation where some tracks need permission and others don't. This is easily abused by landowners who claim a track is agricultural when its only purpose is to get 4x4s to places which most people could walk to. Even worse, the tracks are often badly built, ugly and do real damage to plant and wildlife.'
'Derek Mackay could have solved the problem easily and fairly by saying that all tracks need planning permission. But he has let Scotland down in exactly the same way that his government has over its failure to stop wind farms being built in unsuitable places.'
Scottish Environment LINK also expressed their surprise and serious disappointment at the decision.
Deborah Long, Chair of Scottish Environment LINK said:
'It is extremely disappointing that the Scottish Government is backtracking on its previous intention to finally bring this unrestrained development into the planning system, a position supported by research from Heriot Watt University. Our fragile upland habitats are now opened up to ever greater proliferation of these tracks and potential long-term damage.'
'This relentless attrition of our precious wild land areas from bulldozed hilltracks has been an issue of great concern to LINK members for many years, and has contributed to the shrinking of the extent of land unaffected by visual intrusion in Scotland from 41% to 28% between 2002 and 2009.'
'While new hilltracks in National Scenic Areas already require planning permission, the majority of land in our National Parks and elsewhere continues as fair game for landowners. The proposed amendment to planning legislation would have brought some measure of protection to these areas. Some of these tracks are simply bulldozed through fragile habitats with erosion scars spreading across the landscape, but even well-constructed tracks could be in the wrong place. If these tracks are for legitimate land management purposes then landowners have nothing to fear from bringing them under proper public scrutiny through the planning system.'
'While we are disappointed to lose out on this decision, it is Scotland's natural environment which is the real loser. Responsible landowners should not be using the tired excuse of "an extra bureaucratic burden being added". They should be acting as custodians of Scotland's world-famous landscapes for all our benefits.'
What, from the 'feeble' Scottish Government?
'We will keep this issue under review' a spokesperson said.
'It is important that we strike the correct balance between the development of hill tracks and protecting our environment and we will continue to work with stakeholders to promote good practice and design.'
Critics might suggest that this is officialese for continuing to do nothing. It looks as if the current development free-for-all is being allowed to continue, so we can expect to see a lot more damage to hitherto-unspoilt landscapes as a result.