Martyn McLaughlin: National park idea has fallen from favour

It's 14 years since the second national park was created, and it's likely to be the last, writes Martyn McLaughlin

From Iona to the Mull of Kintyre, Argyll and Bute has many of the attributes which would make it an ideal national park, but lack of money and political indifference means it is unlikely ever to happen. Picture: REX/Shutterstock
From Iona to the Mull of Kintyre, Argyll and Bute has many of the attributes which would make it an ideal national park, but lack of money and political indifference means it is unlikely ever to happen. Picture: REX/Shutterstock

For a nation spoilt with an abundance of breathtaking landscapes, it is perhaps surprising that Scotland had to rely on a Welshman to alert the wider world to its natural wonders.

When Thomas Pennant, a naturalist and antiquarian, set out on his travels in the summer of 1769, he was ploughing a lonely furrow. Few people wished to venture to Scotland’s hinterlands. Those who did so conflated politics with place, perpetuating the image of a dangerous and uninviting place cast in the Jacobites’ long, bloody shadow.

Edward Burt, an English Army captain who kept an epistolary journal of his travels in the first half of the 18th century, described the mountains around Inverness as a “dismal, gloomy brown”, with the surrounding glens an ugly and sinister vision.

It took a few decades before Pennant helped changed such longstanding perceptions by faithfully chronicling his journey up the east coast and down through Fort William, Loch Etive, Inverary and into the Central Belt.

His subsequent account, A Tour in Scotland, published in 1771, painted a vivid picture of “glens and cascades of surprising beauty”. It inspired Boswell and Johnson to make their own trips north, in doing so popularising the Scotland all of us know and cherish.

Nearly a quarter of a millennia on, that pride continues to manifest itself, especially in swathes of the nation that are less well trodden than others. This week brought news of efforts to designate Argyll and Bute as our third national park. Such is the scale of the rural expanse, which spans around 2,650 square miles, it would become not only the biggest national park in Scotland, but anywhere in Britain.

The idea, put forward by Argyll & Bute Council, has many merits. The region may be home to jewels like Mull, Islay, and Jura, but there are vast blankets of glorious forests, mountain ranges, and sea lochs which exist on maps and in the public consciousness as spaces between; there to be passed through rather than visited.

The council believes bringing such splendours under the banner of national park status would provide international recognition and the promise of tourists, jobs, and investment. It is easy to sympathise with such ambitions given the area’s challenges. It is both the second largest area of any local authority in Scotland and home to the third sparsest population.

But Argyll & Bute’s biggest problem is around the corner: the national park plan is all but doomed to failure, the latest victim of a conservation drive which appears to have become an anachronism.

Only 17 years have passed since the introduction of the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000, legislation which sparked a flurry of activity. The Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park Authority was established in 2002, with Cairngorms National Park Authority set up 12 months later.

Despite a slew of campaigns for a new national park authority (NPA) to be created in the Borders, Galloway, Harris, and around Ben Nevis, there has been nothing since. In its 2011 manifesto, the SNP stated it would “work with communities to explore the creation of new national parks”. The promise was not kept, and the idea is now anathema to the Scottish Government.

There are numerous reasons for this change in attitude, but money is chief among them. For all that NPAs may be perceived as branding exercises, they involve the costly formation of a new executive non-departmental public body.

Getting it off the ground requires around £7m. For that reason, it is telling that Argyll & Bute Council has said it “has no ability to deliver such a park”, pointing to “the costly creation of another regulatory body and the bureaucracy that entails”. It is not alone in having misgivings; the respective proposals for the Borders and Harris failed to secure the support of Scottish Borders Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

That is to say nothing of the ongoing costs. At Loch Lomond, the NPA receives a tranche of funding from Edinburgh known as the Departmental Expenditure Limit to cover capital and operating expenditure. Last year, the allocation stood at a whopping £7.4m. There is also disquiet about the amount being spent on handsomely remunerated executives who have fewer obligations than their local authority counterparts. At Loch Lomond, the chief executive, three directors, and two heads of service drew £430,000 in salaries and pension benefits last year – ammunition aplenty for those who regard NPAs as overindulged quangos.

That risks discounting the good they do, and both Loch Lomond and Cairngorms have carried out commendable, often unheralded work, such as safeguarding peatlands, developing pathways and putting in place habitat management plans. Perhaps their greatest achievement has been getting others to buy into the NPA vision; last year, Loch Lomond benefited from more than 14,000 hours in volunteering time.

And yet, the idea persists that the NPA, only 17 years old, has had its time. Sustainability, once a buzzword, is now at the heart of local and central government initiatives. There is a feeling that there is no longer the need for a vehicle such as the NPA to drive change. Is this to the detriment of somewhere like Argyll and Bute? Quite possibly, especially with European funding about to dry up, but that is all the more reason to consider other ways of promoting the area instead of pursuing a unachievable goal.