Campaigners back right to buy as best way to realise potential of CairnGorm ski area

Welcome to the second in a series of articles looking at the controversial removal of chairlift infrastructure from the CairnGorm Mountain ski resort near Aviemore. As outlined in last week's scene-setter, during the second half of August workmen employed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), which owns the land on which the ski centre is situated, with the support of current resort operator Natural Retreats, removed the steel towers that used to carry the Ciste and West Wall chairlifts up the Coire na Ciste side of the mountain. According to Natural Retreats, this was simply a clean-up operation to get rid of 'historical and redundant infrastructure.' However, although the lifts had been closed since 2005, there has been a long-running campaign '“ dubbed 'Save the Ciste' '“ to have them renovated and brought back into use, and many of the 3,000-plus skiers who had signed the Save the Ciste petition have reacted angrily to the loss of the lifts.

Snowboarders compete in a big air contest at CairnGorm Mountain PIC: Paul Campbell
Snowboarders compete in a big air contest at CairnGorm Mountain PIC: Paul Campbell

In recent weeks, even the most innocuous posts on the CairnGorm Mountain Facebook page seem to have been met with a flurry of criticism regarding the fate of the chairlifts. A post about the freshly prepared pizzas available at the resort’s Storehouse Restaurant began “Who doesn’t love pizza?” The first comment in response was from a disgruntled skier: “I like chairlifts more than I like pizza. You could serve me microwave pizza for £10 a slice and I would be happy if it paid for the Ciste to have a chairlift.”

There are strong feelings in the local business community too. How strong? Well, when I spoke to Alan Brattey, secretary of the Aviemore Business Association (ABA), which represents almost 80 businesses in the area, he told me that a Community Right to Buy application was now on the cards, which could eventually see a community trust purchase the estate in which the ski centre is situated from HIE.

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According to Brattey, ABA members are concerned that by failing to invest in the Ciste side of the ski resort, where most of the advanced terrain is to be found, HIE and Natural Retreats will put off many strong intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders – a significant part of their customer base.

“People come here in the winter to ski,” he says, “and if there isn’t a good product they will come in fewer numbers. That’s really been the main catalyst for businesses and individuals coming together here and investigating what we can do.”

While the ABA has provided a forum for people to discuss the situation at CairnGorm, Brattey says it can’t buy the estate because it doesn’t represent the community in the way the right to buy legislation requires. So, he says, later this month local people are going to set up what will be called the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust Limited. “The legislation requires you to have a community body like that,” he says, “so everybody that’s in the community can join free of charge. That community body then has to prove to the government that there’s enough support in the area to take forward a bid to buy the estate from HIE.”

Even if the new community trust can drum up enough support, however, there’s still a long way to go before it’s granted the right to buy. “Our bid has to go to the government department responsible,” says Brattey, “who then have to make a judgement if it’s a competent expression of interest in buying the estate. They then have to ask HIE if they are prepared to sell or not. There’s no more I can say about that, as it’s really down to HIE as to whether they agree. We’re going to appeal if they don’t agree, though, because we think the legislation’s on our side. HIE’s own remit actually says that they’re not there to own land, they’re there to support businesses.”

I ask Brattey how much he thinks it would cost to buy the land on which the ski centre is situated.

“We can’t determine that until there’s an agreement to sell the estate,” he says, “at which point the government will instruct a valuation. There’s a lot of arguments that could be made there. HIE got the land for a pound, so they might want to give it to us for a pound. Yeah, a likely story! But this is publicly owned land that HIE effectively owns on behalf of the public. Why are they going to then charge the public a lot of money for the public’s own land? We know it’s not really going to work that way, but you can see the argument.”

If all goes according to plan, and the newly-formed Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust manages to buy the CairnGorm Mountain ski area, it will still have a sitting tenant in the shape of Natural Retreats, currently a little over three years into a 25 year lease. Brattey admits that the trust wouldn’t be able to tell Natural Retreats what to do. “But what the trust can do,” he says, “the same as HIE can do, is to steer the operating company in the direction you want them to go, because we’ll be in a position to look for funding that they can’t access because they’re a for-profit business.”

And what would be the community trust’s number one priority in such a scenario? “The only game in town,” says Brattey, “is to rebuild and redevelop Coire na Ciste.”