National Park status for Harris rejected but locals vow to fight on

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ISLANDERS have vowed to continue their fight to establish Harris as Scotland's third national park despite being turned down by the Scottish Government.

A ballot in 2009 showed locals voted 732 to 311 for the designation which they felt would boost tourism, create jobs and help reverse population decline on the island.

But Roseanna Cunningham, the environment minister, has now told a study group pursuing the proposal she is not backing it due to the economic climate and a lack of support from Western Isles Council.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said yesterday: "Ministers have stated that they would not wish to consider a case for national park status for Harris without the full support of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

"Unfortunately, the council considers that, at this stage, a convincing case has not been identified for a formal designation.

"In the absence of council support and within the context of the tight financial pressures facing Scotland, proceeding with the formal statutory process would be premature, create unwarranted expectations and cause confusion."

However, the study group has said it will continue its campaign. Calum Mackay, chairman of the study group, said: "The feasibility study commissioned to investigate the proposal indicated clearly that national park status would be beneficial not only to Harris but also to the whole of the Outer Hebrides.

"It also notes that there is no requirement in the legislation that requires full local authority support at this stage."

The feasibility study predicted a national park would create up to 90 jobs, significantly increase tourism, provide new opportunities to conserve and celebrate the island's Gaelic culture while not restricting crofting on the island.

It said it would also help reverse a chronic loss of people from the island. The population of Harris fell by 24 per cent between 1981 and 2001 and 35 per cent of Harris and Scalpay's population in 2001 was aged 60 or over.

The report continued: "In stark terms, if current population trends continue, Harris will be unable to sustain its present contribution to the natural and cultural heritage of Scotland.

"Economically and socially, the area is fragile. Without park status tourism may at best grow at a slow rate, but with park status tourism could take advantage of the internationally recognised national park 'brand'."

At present Scotland has two national parks - Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

A park authority in Harris could share planning powers with the local authority. Its annual budget would be about 800,000 and would employ the equivalent of about 15-20 people full time, but with potential for another 70 to be employed in tourism and construction.