National Parks: Unfinished Business

Yesterday in Parliament I held a debate on National Parks in Scotland following a joint report by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland. The report, titled Unfinished Business: a National Parks Strategy for Scotland, rightly highlights that our landscapes in Scotland rank among the best in the world and that there should be a national strategy and a Scotland-wide debate on the way forward for national parks.

The establishment of national parks in Scotland was one of the early achievements of the Scottish Parliament and the Labour led Government with the legislation being steered through by my colleague Sarah Boyack. Our experience of existing national parks shows that they can bring a wide range of environmental, social and economic benefits.

I have copied my motion which was debated below along with a video of the whole debate. I have also supplied a link to a written copy of the debate along with one to the original report. A summary of my speech is contained in the below blog posting.

With Loch Lomond and the Trossachs only being established in 2002 and the Cairngorms in 2003, national parks in Scotland are relatively young, however the path to establish them was long. The idea of a national park in the Cairngorms area was first proposed in the Addison report in 1931 but it took until devolution for Scotland to join the other 3,500 national parks established worldwide.

National park designation recognises and protects areas that are considered to be of outstanding natural beauty, they also enhance international reputation and demonstrate a long-term commitment to the natural environment. The Scottish model of national parks shows that by working in partnership real change can be delivered and can benefit both the visitor experience and rural development.

We do, however, face certain challenges in protecting and enhancing our biodiversity, getting the right balance between different interests so that the environment is not compromised, and using land, one of Scotland’s strongest resources, in a way that works in harmony with communities and supports sustainable development.

I introduced the debate to help concentrate minds on where we go next. Two parks is surely not the end of the process, and the Unfinished Business report gives a strong case for further designation. Scotland has much to offer—wild mountains, pristine rivers and lochs, ancient forests, stunning coastlines and islands that are rich with wildlife and history – and it’s important to have the debate on how best to enhance and promote that.

The four aims of national parks, which are established in the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000, are:

  • to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area
  • to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area
  • to promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public
  • to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities

We can see how national parks can respond positively to some of the key challenges for our rural areas, such as the economy, employment and sustainability. They are a driver for growth: the Cairngorms area has survived the recession well; it has low unemployment, a growing population and good growth. Cairngorms National Park recently launched the make it yours campaign with Cairngorms business partnership, through which businesses will come together to work on an innovative and interesting approach to promote the national park brand.

There is no dispute that the establishment of the parks is a good thing. The question, after 10 years, is what is next. In 2009, the Scottish Government carried out a review of the two existing parks, but the remit was fairly narrow, with a focus on the existing roles and composition. Stage 2 of the review was dropped and the opportunity to have a broader discussion was lost. In addition, although the review proposed the establishment of a national strategy group chaired by ministers, that has not materialised.

We know that we are in a time of financial constraint and the national parks authorities face a significant cut in next year’s and the following year’s budget. It therefore might seem unreasonable to call for further national parks, but a strategy group would allow opportunity for future planning, to set the forward path and to be clear on Scotland’s aspirations for national parks.

The unfinished business report recommended a list of areas that are believed to be suitable for designation and set out the criteria used to identify the areas. We are some way off reaching an agreement on whether more parks are needed, never mind determining where those parks might be, but some interesting examples are included in the report.

Next year, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of John Muir, the central figure in the worldwide national parks movement. Although the debate may move on to what should or could be designated, designation is complex and community consent and support is vital in going forward. The establishment of the boundaries is also complex and, while effective governance and management are essential, they can be tricky to get right. However, this debate is not about the detail; it is, I hope, the start of a debate on how we go forward and positively progress national parks for the future of Scotland.

Motion debated:

That the Parliament welcomes the recent report by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Unfinished Business: A National Parks Strategy for Scotland; notes that the report states that “Scotland’s landscapes rank amongst the best in the world”; further notes its claim that “there are further areas of outstanding importance for landscape and recreation in Scotland worthy of National Park designation, and that this would best be done in the context of an overall agreed national strategy”; understands that the report identifies seven areas that should be considered for designation as a national park: the Ben Nevis/Glen Coe/Black Mount area, the Cheviot Hills, an area based around Mull, Coll and Tiree, Galloway, Glen Affric, Harris and Wester Ross; believes that, by protecting the environment, attracting tourists and providing social and economic benefits to the communities that they serve and the rest of the country, the national parks at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and the Cairngorms have proved to be successful in meeting the aims set out by the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000, and notes calls for a Scotland-wide debate on the way forward for national parks.

National Park debate 

Unfinished business report