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April 24, 2013

Should we trust our national agencies?

Scotland has an abundance of historic treasures and Historic Scotland is the public agency charged with safeguarding our historic environment so that we can enjoy and understand it better. But that doesn’t mean we should abdicate all responsibility for the stewardship of what’s on our doorstep. As the communities living near to the spectacular Falls of Clyde and the World Heritage Site of New Lanark have discovered, Historic Scotland’s view can be wildly at odds with local opinion.


Should we trust our national agencies?

Third Force News, Robert Armour. 11/4/13

Lanark might be described as a sleepy backwater but thousands of locals have risen to fight off a planned open cast mine threatening their landscape.

EASTER weekend and the Falls of Clyde near Lanark is teaming with locals. It is a natural vantage point where tourists take snaps in front of the spectacular Falls of Clyde, a backdrop so stunning it was immortalised by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Walter Scott back in the early 19th century.

Not much has changed since then. The falls still attract tourists the world over, especially since the area borders the World Heritage Site of New Lanark, the historic Utopian workers’ town of international renown conceived and built by David Owen.

Yet locals now fear the area’s reputation could come undone as the result of an audacious planning application that could see an open cast mine – the most environmentally damaging form of mining – being created right on its doorstep.

By Easter weekend a petition by a local campaign group had gained its 3,000th signature on top of  7,000 letters sent to South Lanarkshire Council in January opposing the development.

It’s not the first open cast mine in the area. Lanarkshire has one of the proudest and richest mining histories in the UK, with coal and slate being minded for centuries. But Cemex, the Mexican multinational cement company, is seeking planning permission to extend its Hyndford Quarry in Lanark to open-cast mine some 3,600,000 tonnes of rock from the landscape over a six year period.

The move would be devastating say locals and would scar the landscape for years to come, putting off tourists from visiting and affect the local economy.

While, South Lanarkshire Council is currently considering the plans, it is Historic Scotland, the organisation protecting the country’s national heritage, that has been the target of most of the campaigners’ ire.

It maintains, in its official response to the plans, the impact of the quarry would be insufficiently severe to merit an objection, a stance  Dr Mark Stephens, who chairs the group set-up to counter the quarry, Save Our Landscapes, calls ludicrous.

As the Scottish Government’s agency for heritage, Historic Scotland persuaded the UNESCO World Heritage Committee that the landscape setting of New Lanark is essential to its value as a World Heritage Site and accordingly pledged that it would be protected from quarrying, he said.

“Merely a decade later, it was telling a multinational cement company that it had no problem with the area being subject to precisely the threat it had identified a decade earlier,” says Stephens. “Historic Scotland’s position lacks any credibility. Yet its unfounded views might well determine the outcome of this application. This is why we are calling for Ministerial intervention.”

Stephens’ wish might just come true. What  was originally a local bone of contention has now become a national issue with MSPs joining in an attempt at political point scoring.

Joan McAlpine, a member of the SNP, recently won all-party support for a motion criticising the failure of Historic Scotland to oppose the Cemex application. She said: “I sincerely hope that South Lanarkshire Council rejects this proposal. We are proud of New Lanark’s world heritage designation and there is no doubt in my mind that a further six years of extensive opencast quarrying in the area puts this at risk.”

For locals, it’s both a scandal and a tragedy. Marilyn Grey, a teacher, who has lived in Lanark all her life, says locals feel betrayed by the very people who should be protecting their environment.

“They are meant to be custodians of the landscape but instead they appear clueless and ignorant,” she told TFN. “So it will be down to us to protect the landscape which is a frankly perverse situation.”

Backing also comes from a host of heritage and conservation bodies. The New Lanark Trust, which owns the historic mills made famous by Robert Owen, has lodged an objection saying the area was “a key part of the Buffer Zone”, having significant heritage value in its own right in relation to the history of the Royal Burgh of Lanark.

And the Garden History Society, which is the only voluntary membership-based organisation dedicated solely to the conservation of Scotland’s gardens, parks and designed landscapes, objected stating “the future management of the area should be to protect and enhance the setting of the World Heritage Site and demand for aggregate should not be allowed to override the protection of the area.”

This leaves Historic Scotland – which nominated New Lanark for World Heritage Status in 2000 and entered the threatened area into its Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in 2006 – isolated among heritage groups.

SoL’s legal advisor John Campbell QC said Historic Scotland response to the consultation, declining to object to the application, is of astonishingly poor quality.

“For such a document to come from the Government’s principal adviser on Cultural Heritage matters is, to be frank, an embarrassment to the nation,” he said.

However, SoL  fears that Historic Scotland’s status as the government agency responsible for heritage will lead to the objections from other heritage groups being set aside by South Lanarkshire Council.

“It is important for MSPs to signal that, where you have an area that enjoys nationally and internationally important designations, those designations should be upheld,” said Stephens.

Cemex however said that throughout any planning procedure it had consulted with all stakeholders. “We await the outcome of our planning application and will abide by its findings,” said a spokesperson.