'Battleground' fears over new national park 'Confused' plans for National Park attacked

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The Independent Online

The proposed creation of the biggest National Park in Britain, which would be twice the size of the Lake District and include some of the country's most spectacular mountain terrain, was the unlikely subject of environmentalists' wrath.

Ambitious plans to create a national park in the Cairngorms have been forwarded to the Scottish Executive by Scottish National Heritage (SNH). Environmental campaigners are concerned, however, at proposed limitations on the planning powers of the park, which would be unlike those in any of Britain's 11 existing parks.

In an attempt to pacify five local authorities within the proposed park, the SNH has proposed that planning controls – the fundamental responsibility of all parks – should be divided between the park board and the local authorities. The Cairngorms Campaign lobby group, which has been trying to win National Park status for the area, said that structure threatened to create a planning "battleground" between the park board and the authorities.

After a consultation process lasting almost a year, the SNH has recommended that an area stretching from Grantown-on-Spey in the north to Blair Atholl in the south and Laggan in the west to Ballater in the east should form the basis for a blueprint to be considered by the Scottish Executive.

In addition to offering protection to Britain's highest mountains the area of the park, which covers 4,500 sq km of land, will have to consider the social and economic welfare of an estimated 16,500 residents. The park is expected to provide work for 84 people by its third year of operation and cost up to £5.5m a year to run.

If accepted by ministers and members of the Scottish Parliament, creation of the park could be completed by early 2003 – almost a year after the formal creation of Scotland's first national park covering Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, due to be officially designated next April.

Scotland was left out of the original legislation 50 years ago allowing for the creation of national parks because of pressure from landowners. However, the Scottish Executive has made the issue a priority and in September last year ministers asked the SNH to gauge public opinion on the creation of the park.

Dr John Markland, its chairman, said: "This consultation was the largest and most comprehensive exercise of its kind ever undertaken by SNH. There is now a clear and increasing majority of local and national opinion behind the park."

Bill Wright, of the Cairngorms Campaign, said: "This is by far the biggest National Park in Britain, almost double the size of the Lake District. The recommendations as they stand are extremely odd and confused. This is probably the most important area of high mountain ground in Britain, and the woodlands and surrounding straths are completely exceptional. We are talking about the last remnants of the Scottish Caledonian Forest, which used to cover the whole of the Highlands.

"While there are cheers and celebrations that we are now considering the formation of Britain's biggest National Park those cheers are muted because the proposals that Scottish Natural Heritage have come up with in respect of town and country planning. SNH have admitted they expect more planning applications may end up on the desks of government ministers rather than fewer – that means more problems, not less."

Dr Markland said the proposals had been designed to address the environmental, social and economic issues that would be raised by the formation of a national park. "It is important that the communities that surround the mountains are included in the national park area, not just the mountains themselves," he said.

"We have taken the view that there needs to be a genuine partnership approach to planning with the national park authority being an equal partner with local authorities. Although local authorities will remain as the planning authorities the national park will have a right of objection and reference to Scottish ministers."