In a report published today nine of Scotland’s leading environmental charities call on the Scottish Government to put an end to the unregulated system for hill track construction, which allows landowners to build tracks willy nilly without any public oversight or control. They want the 'environmental vandalism' of hill tracks to be curbed by bringing them within the planning system.
At present bulldozed vehicle tracks for 'agricultural or forestry' purposes fall under Permitted Development Rights. This means tracks can be built without need for planning permission, the satisfaction of minimum standards, or any obligation to inform local authorities, statutory bodies, or the general public. Since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, thousands of kilometres of tracks have been built across Scotland under Permitted Development Rights - many of them completely under the radar.
However campaigners say that the legislation granting Permitted Development Rights is flawed, effectively allowing nominal agricultural or forestry rights to be extended to cover tracks built for other purposes entirely - notably to give easy vehicle access to remote areas for field sports enthusiasts too lazy to walk. There has, they say, been a rapid increase in the number and size of tracks constructed in recent years, and indeed anyone regularly out in the Scottish hills cannot fail to have noticed the new unsurfaced roads that have sprung up like a rash in all sorts of remote and hitherto road-less areas.
"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"
Working under the umbrella of Scottish Environment LINK, the organisations today published ‘Track Changes’. This report shows evidence of the significant damage caused to landscapes, wildlife and habitats across Scotland by unregulated vehicle tracks. LINK's aim is to persuade the Scottish Government to remove ‘permitted development rights’ (PDRs) for building such tracks, bringing public scrutiny to bear on all future proposed construction.
To help gather evidence for the report LINK asked members of the public to send in photos of new tracks (as reported here on UKH). This they did in spades - or perhaps more aptly, by the digger-load.
Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland and co-convener of the campaign group explained:
'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 added:
'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.'
Needless to say, it won't be welcomed by all. The landowning lobby will inevitably object, and on present showing the Scottish Government looks unlikely to budge.
After all, it was only in December 2012 that the SNP administration dropped a proposal to bring tracks with purported ‘agricultural or forestry purposes’ into the planning system. It did however say that it would keep the situation 'under review', and in an admirable display of optimism members of the LINK campaign now hope that the evidence they've gathered 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.
Track Changes can be downloaded here.
The organisations behind the report include Ramblers Scotland, RSPB, the John Muir Trust, the National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Campaign for National Parks, the Cairngorms Campaign and the Scottish Wild Land Group. While it's not a member of LINK the Mountaineering Council of Scotland also backs the hill tracks drive and has campaigned on the issue itself.