It’s a setback for campaigners who have been fighting for tougher controls on hill tracks in the Scottish Highlands.

By Alex Roddie

On the 31st of October 2018, Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman put forward an amendment to the Planning Bill at Holyrood’s Local Government and Communities Committee. The amendment, backed up by the recent ‘Changing Tracks’ report by the Scottish Environment LINK’s Hilltracks sub-group, sought to make it a legal requirement for landowners to apply for planning permission before constructing access tracks on land used for stalking and shooting – not to mention National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Scenic Areas. The amendment was voted down by MSPs.

Landowners often claim that a track is being constructed for ‘agricultural purposes’ – exempt from planning permission – even if they are primarily being used for stalking and shooting. Partly this is due to the difficulty in identifying the main purpose for a track, as most land is used for many things, one of which may be agriculture. However, the LINK group’s report found evidence that most tracks currently being built are mainly there to support field sports.

In the debate, Andy Wightman called out the “lack of effective planning control”, and highlighted the “widespread damage being caused by poorly constructed tracks”. However, after other speakers quibbled over minor details of Mr Wightman’s wording, the proposed amendment was voted down.

“Our hills should be managed for nature and for the common good, not the bloodthirsty pursuits of a privileged few”

In a statement, Andy Wightman said:

“The campaign against bulldozed hill tracks has been long-running, and I want to thank the numerous membership groups who helped build huge public support for my amendment, including Ramblers Scotland, RSPB, the National Trust and Mountaineering Scotland. It’s disappointing that SNP and Tory MSPs have bowed to vested interests in blocking this move. They should be ashamed.

“The current system whereby landowners notify planners of a bulldozed track rather than seek detailed permission is clearly a sham. Hillsides both Highland and Lowland are visibly scarred, often ruining environmentally sensitive habitats, and usually in the interests of stalking and shooting, which the public have little sympathy for.

“I have no doubt that the huge numbers of Scots who enjoy the outdoors and value our hills as a natural landscape will judge the SNP and Tories harshly at the next opportunity. Our hills should be managed for nature and for the common good, not the bloodthirsty pursuits of a privileged few.”

The ‘Changing Tracks’ report, published in September 2018, found that tracks are rapidly proliferating in the Scottish Highlands, and that many of them are badly sited and designed, built using poor construction techniques, causing a range of adverse environmental impacts.

“A lack of democracy in the way our land is managed”

The Great Outdoors contacted Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland’s Campaigns & Policy Manager and co-convener of LINK’s Hilltracks group. She said:

“Outdoors and environmental groups have been calling for stronger controls over vehicle tracks in our valued landscapes for many years, and LINK’s Hilltracks group will continue to campaign until these damaging developments are fully regulated through the planning system. We’re grateful to Andy Wightman MSP for acting on the findings of our Changing Tracks report and making the case to bring these tracks into the planning system in his amendment to the Planning Bill. The heartfelt public response on social media following the government’s rejection of the amendment shows just how many people in Scotland care about the need for responsible management of our uplands.”

Beryl Leatherland of Scottish Wild Land Group and co-convener of the LINK Hilltracks group added:

“The lack of regulation of tracks isn’t just causing environmental and landscape damage, but it also demonstrates a lack of democracy in the way our land is managed and undermines confidence in the planning system. It’s disappointing that the government rejected this amendment, rather than taking the opportunity to close the loophole that is allowing landowners to claim agricultural use for tracks which are primarily for sporting purposes and therefore wrongly benefiting from permitted development rights.”

As Helen Todd points out, the reaction on social media was immediate and vocal.

“Latest addition to @SNP’s abysmal record on landscape protection,” commented former TGO editor Cameron McNeish in a tweet. Scottish snow expert Iain Cameron said, also on Twitter, “I cannot think of one good reason why any sensible person would not have voted for @andywightman’s amendment. Bulldozed tracks are an eyesore across the Highlands and need to be brought under an effective planning process. I’m gobsmacked.”

Header image courtesy of Ramblers Scotland