Interview: HIE CEO Charlotte Wright on why the CairnGorm ski lifts had to go

The remains of one of the Coire na Ciste chairlifts, August 2017 PIC: Courtesy of Save the Ciste
The remains of one of the Coire na Ciste chairlifts, August 2017 PIC: Courtesy of Save the Ciste
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It’s now a little over a month since the chairlift towers came crashing down in Coire na Ciste in the Cairngorm Mountain ski area, and in that time we’ve heard from various people involved in the ensuing debate. Some, including representatives of the Aviemore Business Association and skiing pressure group Save the Ciste, have argued that the lifts should have been renovated rather than destroyed, helping improve the skier experience on the hill and, by extension, providing a boost to the local economy. In an interview in this slot two weeks ago, however, Adam Gough, a representative for the resort operators, Natural Retreats, claimed that the business case for restoring the lifts had never been made by those who wanted to see them brought back into service. He also said that the decision to remove the lifts was ultimately made by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), owners of the estate in which the ski area is situated. So last week I spoke to Charlotte Wright, the organisation’s CEO, and Keith Bryers, HIE’s head of property and infrastructure. I began by asking if the decision to remove the lifts really did rest with HIE.

“Ultimately yes,” says Wright, “because we’re the owners and therefore ultimately it was our responsibility.”

So if somebody from Natural Retreats had phoned up at the 11th hour and said “stop, please don’t tear down the lifts, we’ve realised there’s a good case for re-using them,” would HIE have got rid of them anyway?

“The prime reason for our actions was related to health and safety,” says Wright. “We’ve undertaken an engineer’s report and it was quite clear from that that there was a danger there, and that’s a primary cause for our actions – to remove a health and safety issue from the mountain.”

“In relation to [the question of] is there a case for uplift in the Ciste area, we are talking about that [with Natural Retreats] and we’d be delighted to take that further. In relation to could we use the equipment that had been lying unused for well over a decade, we’ve got an independent engineer’s report that says it’s a health and safety risk, [so] that would be too big a risk for us.”

Thanks to an FOI request by the Save the Ciste group, I have a copy of the report prepared by ADAC Structures, dated October 2016. It concerns the state of the concrete bases to which the chairlift towers were secured, not the towers themselves, and it notes that 20 per cent of the bases were in a stable condition, a further 16 per cent were buried, so could not be assessed, and the remaining 64 per cent were in need of repair or replacement. I ask if HIE got an estimate for the cost of replacing the damaged bases.

“No,” says Bryers.

And did HIE get an estimate for the cost of repairing the lift towers?

“No, we didn’t, no,” says Bryers.”

Wright then brings up a piece of EU legislation called the Cableways Directive, which she says “increased the standards required” of chairlifts like the ones in the Ciste. Bryers says he thinks this directive made it “impossible for [those chairlifts] ever to run again.”

But, I suggest, as we’ve already established there were no attempts made to find out how much it would have cost to restore the bases and towers to working order, we’re really only guessing here – aren’t we?

“Yes,” says Bryers, “to some degree we’re guessing, but some of the [staff at CairnGorm Mountain] are very experienced at dealing with these sorts of things so they have a good idea of what things are likely to cost and how practical they are.”

During my conversation with Adam Gough, it transpired that there is soon to be a review of uplift across the ski area. Given the safety concerns about the lift towers in the Ciste, I ask, would it not have been possible to simply un-bolt the towers and store them somewhere temporarily rather than chopping them down and scrapping them? That way, if it was found during the course of the review that there was a case for putting lifts back in the Ciste, it might have proved cheaper to renovate the bases that needed fixing and bolt the towers back on than to construct new lifts from scratch. Was that ever considered as an option?

“I can see why somebody might put that together as a realistic option,” says Wright, “but I think our experience would say that it was absolutely unlikely that that would give us a safe, modern system.”

Shortly after my conversation with Wright and Bryers, I receive an email from Calum Macfarlane, media relations manager at HIE.

“On reflection,” he writes, “I felt there was a lack of explanation on why HIE did not explore the cost of renovation/redevelopment/replacement of the chairlifts on Coire na Ciste. I asked my colleagues about this after the call and they explained that any redeveloped facility would have needed a commercial operator and there was no interest from the current or previous operator in restoring and running the facilities [in] Coire na Ciste.”

So, had Natural Retreats expressed a desire to renovate the lifts in Coire na Ciste, would the economic viability of doing so have been investigated? And had such a scheme looked workable, might the renovation have gone ahead? Now, of course, we can only speculate.