Gavin McCrone: Scottish heritage in peril

Gavin McCrone is mystified as to why Historic Scotland has not blocked quarry extension plans

The Falls of Clyde has been a major tourist attraction since the 18th century. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Scotland has five sites classified by Unesco as world heritage sites for their unique and outstanding quality: the archipelago of St Kilda, Neolithic Orkney, the Antonine Wall, the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh and New Lanark. There are ambitions to have three more: one in Shetland, which would include Jarlshof and the Mousa broch, the Flow Country of Caithness and the Forth Railway Bridge. Why then is New Lanark being threatened by development that renders meaningless the assurances given when Donald Dewar, as first minister, put it forward to Unesco for listing?

New Lanark was developed by David Dale and social reformer Robert Owen as a model village where the people employed in the cotton mills were well housed and their families cared for and properly educated. This was in contrast to the deplorable conditions with which most of Scotland’s workforce had to contend in the early days of the industrial revolution.

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It was seen as an outstanding example of early social reform. The buildings remain, including the housing and the cotton mills which, remarkable as it may now seem, did not actually cease production until the 1960s. They are well cared for and are a major international attraction for visitors.

But the village is not the only attraction. The adjacent Falls of Clyde, from which the water powered the mills, have brought visitors to the area since the 18th century. They were painted by Turner and attracted famous visitors, such as the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge and, of course, Sir Walter Scott. They are still a much-frequented beauty spot, attracting more than 70,000 visitors a year.

The river, including the falls, is classified as a site of special scientific interest and together with the adjacent parkland of the former Bonnington House have protected status as a “designed landscape”.

The world heritage site and the river are surrounded by a buffer zone, which includes the parkland. This is to provide protection with the strong presumption that development there would not be allowed, except in truly exceptional circumstances.

Immediately to the east of the buffer zone, however, is a huge quarry for sand and gravel operated by Cemex, a company based in Mexico. This quarry covers an extensive area but does not at present impinge either on the world heritage site, the river gorge or the buffer zone. Cemex, however, has lodged a planning application to extend its quarry in two directions: to the immediate south of the current site, which does not present a problem, and to the west. This western extension would be a major encroachment into the buffer zone and would bring the quarry unacceptably close to the part of the river designated for its outstanding scenic quality.

While it would not be seen either from the village or the low path in the river gorge, it would be visible from the upper path at the gorge and other parts of the world heritage site, and it is likely that those visiting the falls would hear noise from machinery working the quarry.

It is hard to understand why the company was not told at the outset by Historic Scotland, the government agency with prime responsibility for the area, that this westward extension of the quarry would be unacceptable, as it would destroy part of the “designed landscape” and intrude into the buffer zone for which firm assurances of protection had been given to Unesco.

Instead, it appears that Historic Scotland has said it will raise no objection when the planning application comes before South Lanarkshire Council. Consideration has been subject to a lot of delay, but it is thought a decision by the local authority will be made by the end of the year.

South Lanarkshire is not a prosperous area. It is understandable, therefore, that the local authority will be anxious to encourage any development that promises employment. But the economic case for this development is weak. It is understood that plentiful supplies of sand and gravel are available in the existing quarry, enough to last for at least nine years, and this would be significantly increased if the southern extension were approved.

It is far from clear, therefore, why the westward extension into the buffer zone of the world heritage site is necessary. Indeed, the effect on local employment could well be negative if it, or the adverse publicity it could engender, deterred visitors from coming to the area.

In part justification for its non-intervention, Historic Scotland has said that the landscape of the parkland is “denuded”. This is because trees have been cut down and not replaced. It welcomes an assurance from the company that it would restore the area. But while trees can be replaced, the contours of the land would be destroyed by the quarry, the level of the land being lowered by some 30 metres, even if the company did eventually undertake some sort of restoration.

When I visited the area, I was struck by the need for proper care and maintenance. Funds are apparently available for restoration of the parkland, which could involve replacement of the trees that have been cut down. But I also felt that more could be done to enable visitors to enjoy the quite outstanding beauty of the river gorge and falls. The paths are reasonably well maintained, but some trees in the gorge are beginning to affect the view of the falls and will soon obscure it even more.

There is an asset here of enormous value to attract visitors and perhaps more could be done to build on that. The buildings of New Lanark are well known and they have good facilities for visitors, including a hotel in one of the former mills. But visitors need to be made aware not just of the village but also of how highly the whole area was valued by earlier generations for its outstanding beauty.

Historic Scotland’s primary concern is with the care of our built heritage. It has done outstanding preservation work and the buildings and monuments in its care are greatly appreciated by the public. The restoration of the Great Hall and Palace at Stirling Castle is a prime example.

Perhaps, as buildings are its main focus, this has led to a more relaxed view of landscape issues. This does not excuse, but may partly explain, the position it has taken at New Lanark. There, the village, the river gorge, the falls and the surrounding landscape are all essential parts of an outstanding asset that requires protection for the future enjoyment of all visitors, whether from Scotland or elsewhere.

I find it surprising that Historic Scotland did not consult Unesco about the effect on the world heritage site and surrounding area when the development was first mooted. The international committee that advises Unesco is, however, now aware of what is proposed and has formally written objecting strongly to the development.

There has also been a huge amount of opposition from the public. A petition run by the local group Save Our Landscapes attracted 7,000 signatures, with support from abroad as well as from within the UK. There are now a further 10,000 letters of objection. If the Scottish Government is anxious to have more sites accorded world heritage status by Unesco, failure to adhere to commitments given when the application for New Lanark was submitted, will not help.

What is likely to happen now? When the local authority considers the matter, there need be no problem with the southern extension of the quarry, but I hope that the westward extension into the buffer zone will be refused. Failure to do this would make a nonsense of the zone’s designation and the assurances given about its protection.

If the local authority is not so minded, the concern expressed through national and international objections provides a strong case for the application being called in by the Scottish Government for a public inquiry before a decision is taken.

• Professor Gavin McCrone is a former chief economic adviser to the Scottish Office