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February 16, 2021

Where does the power lie

As a country we’re as guilty as the next in being dazzled by wealth and power – even though it can often be illusory and a source of regret further down the line. Think Trump and his golf courses. But in theory, our systems of planning, regulation and environmental protection are generally thought to be transparent, fair and democratically accountable to the will of the people. However, it seems that around the shores of Loch Lomond different rules apply. The interests of big business and powerful individuals hold sway in the face of massive and sustained local opposition.


Kevin McKenna, The Herald

LATER this year Glasgow will pull on its wellies and fasten up its rucksack as it prepares to host the annual UN Climate Change Conference, the most anointed gathering of green acolytes on the planet. It’s a sort of G7 summit with bicycle clips and I sincerely hope my city rises to the occasion with its customary brio. I’d hope that by then our collective carbon footprint will have reduced to a dinky size five at the very least.

On the conference website an assortment of shiny claims are made about how sustainable and green the UK is. Here’s one of them. “Our 25 Year Environment Plan includes direct action to address the biggest environmental priorities of our age: air quality, nature recovery and resource efficiency.”

This is a noble aim and something we can all get our teeth into; just maybe don’t labour the point with the Scottish Government and one of our leading environmental protection agencies, the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Between them, this pair are currently hanging a very large For Sale sign over Yon Bonnie Banks.

Along with another government agency, Scottish Enterprise, they have conceived a rather unique interpretation of what “air quality, nature recovery and resource efficiency” means in the area around Loch Lomond. All of them are currently assisting a Yorkshire-based leisure outfit called Flamingo Land finesse an application to build a sprawling holiday complex on the shores of the loch at Balloch.

The reason they’re all having to re-assess the parameters of this development is because nearly 60,000 people objected to the potential environmental damage to the loch-side. They were more than slightly alarmed at the prospect of 125 woodland lodges, a water park, a hotel and a host of similar accoutrements associated with the global tourism sector. Among their concerns are potential impact on protected wildlife and woodland; the catastrophic impact on traffic congestion and the annexation of public land by a private developer.

In response, the National Parks authority has constructed a prime model of managerialist double-speak to justify cheering on the development from the side-lines. Environmental assessments have been made and besides there will be jobs and with them the opportunity to stimulate the local economy. Such statements are replete with moonbeams and unicorns but not so much on actual detail. Will the jobs be sustainable and properly paid? How will they measure future growth? What do they class as acceptable in terms of the impact to native species of flora and fauna?

A suite of similar justifications have been offered in giving Sir Tom Hunter, one of the UK’s richest businessmen, the go-ahead for his proposed “International Leadership Centre” on the southern shore of Loch Lomond at the site of the Ross Priory. This had previously been called-in by the Scottish Government at the request of local communities concerned at the absence of an Environmental Impact Assessment.

No problem for the Government and its agencies; they’ve simply moved the goalposts. Sir Tom’s development doesn’t need an EIA because it’s now been classed as an “urban development project” and thus circumvents the requirement for an EIA. If this continues to proceed unchallenged then every stretch of unspoilt beauty in Scotland must now be considered a development opportunity. Sir Tom’s leadership centre can now be built on the last undeveloped stretch of shoreline of Loch Lomond’s southern end and on its most outstanding site.

Not much blame can be attached to the billionaire philanthropist in all of this and nor is there any hint of a profit motive. Sir Tom seems to be passionate about the quality of leadership in the modern age. “Our vision,” he said, “is to create an iconic, world class leadership centre where the future of Scotland will be discussed, debated and ultimately decided.” Some might think this is the reason we spent half a billion quid building the Holyrood Parliament, but let’s not quibble; it all sounds peachy.

Nevertheless, many in the local communities do want to quibble. They are deeply concerned about the impact on the natural environment, including the fate of a family of ospreys and protected rock formations and are resentful at the absence of anything approaching meaningful public consultation. I’ve spoken to several in the local community, all of whom lamented the absence of any serious public engagement.

An Environmental Impact Assessment requires the planning authority to make comparative studies of alternative available sites. There are several of these, including the old youth hostel at Auchendennan and the vacant Balloch Castle. Indeed Auchendennan is in virtually walk-in condition and is on the market at £3.75 million. Is there any compelling reason why this was dismissed, particularly as Sir Tom has stated the project is separate from Ross Priory as a centre?

There were more than 70 objectors and the community of Aber around Ross Priory only has around 30-40 of a population. Thus, the objection was more widespread than in the immediate area. Does Sir Tom, even at this stage, plan to hold any consultation with the local communities?

When I asked the Hunter Foundation some questions about these I was directed to a letter by Sir Tom which appeared in The Herald six weeks ago. In this, he said: “After detailed consultation, including with the local community and significant and multiple studies – from wildlife habitats to the environment to light pollution – [we] amended our plans significantly to address concerns raised. The proposals have the support of Friends of Loch Lomond and received unilateral approval from the planning authority committee.”

So, if there are any other multi-millionaires out there who fancy a tidy slice of Scotland’s natural heritage for a project that bears their name the Scottish Government has just issued you all with a road-map through those pesky regulations. It’s all about low-hanging fruit and shifting paradigms.