Plans for major new housing schemes in Britain’s biggest national park are in breach of the law and amount to a “shocking betrayal” of what the park is meant to stand for, say environmental groups.
A new local development plan agreed by the Cairngorms National Park Authority on Friday will destroy precious wildlife, forests and heaths, they allege. The plan rejects many of the key recommendations made by a government public inquiry.
The Cairngorms park authority has endorsed the building of over 1,700 new houses in four areas: An Camas Mor, Boat of Garten, Carrbridge and Nethy Bridge. According to conservationists, these will damage native Caledonian pine forests and the abundant wildlife they contain.
Red squirrels, wildcats, otters, badgers and capercaillie will all be threatened, they claim. Rare plants such as twinflower and one-flowered wintergreen are at risk, as well as the willows, ferns and flowers found on alpine boreal heaths.
“It opens the way to destroying landscapes and habitats for sensitive species that are of national and international importance. It has set damaging precedents and already generated a new wave of conflict.”
Jones, a veteran defender of Cairngorms wildlife, argued that the park authority had breached its founding statutes. “It is deeply unsustainable and a shocking betrayal of the natural and cultural heritage of this outstanding area,” he added.
The 16 environmental groups wrote to the Scottish government saying that the Cairngorms local plan breached the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000. The developments allowed by the plan “would have an adverse impact on irreplaceable environmental capital, with lasting costs for present and future generations”, they said.
But their call for ministers to intervene to protect the park was turned down. In a letter the planning minister, Stewart Stevenson, pointed out that the park authority had accepted some of the recommendations from the public inquiry, but rejected others.
“I am content that these are matters for the park authority, not for Scottish ministers,” he said. The suggestion that the plan broke the law was a matter for the courts, he argued.
But Dr Deborah Long from the conservation group, Plantlife Scotland, maintained that social and economic considerations shouldn’t overrule environmental protection in a national park. The Cairngorms was one of the most important areas for plants in the UK, she said.
“We do not believe this local plan offers appropriate protection to the plant communities and the biodiversity that make the Cairngorms what they are,” she added. “The plan sets a dangerous precedent and one that goes against the aims of the national park act.”
The park authority, however, insisted that it had to strike a balance between social needs and the protection of the environment. Its plan had been through five consultations in an open and transparent process, according to a park spokeswoman.
“By its very nature it will not please everyone and we have been keen to ensure that everyone has their say and all comments are taken into account when decisions are taken,” she said.
“The biggest issue which came through during the process is the need to address the lack of housing in the park, particularly affordable housing. A local plan must demonstrate that future housing needs can be met.”
The park authority had tried to achieve a consensus between the need for housing, recreation, economic development and the special environment of the park, the spokeswoman continued. “We believe this local plan does that,” she said.