Magnus Magnusson, the thinking person's quizmaster, has brokered a deal to allow walkers to roam the Scottish hills without upsetting the proprietorial interests of the lairds. But even as Mr Magnusson launches his "Concordat on Access" this week in his role as founding chairman of Scottish National Heritage (SNH), there is a suspicion that landowners have gone along with his consensus approach in the hope of staving off the right to roam promised by Labour.
Outdoor groups will sign up to the Magnusson document - which enshrines tolerance by both sides - because, in the words of the Ramblers' Association's Dave Morris, "It's the only show in town".
But as Mr Magnusson basks in the plaudits of such traditional adversaries as the Scottish Landowners' Federation and the Ramblers' Association, offstage there are mutterings of "betrayal" and "weakness" over a proposal to scale down SNH's work elsewhere. A study report slipped out just before Christmas suggests that to meet its statutory conservation duties, SNH could drop discretionary spending on things such as footpath schemes, country parks and ranger services.
SNH insists the narrower remit is only an option, with the final decision up to ministers. But as it struggles to meet not just the cost of new European directives but a 10 per cent cut in its budget to pounds 36m for 1996- 97 some scaling down seems inevitable. The principal recommendation of the study, carried out by Scottish Office officials, Mr Magnusson and his chief executive at SNH, Roger Crofts, is that SNH should be given new objectives by the end of March.
Mr Magnusson's term as SNH's first chairman ends that month, but it is likely that the Scottish secretary, Michael Forsyth, will offer him a second stint in the pounds 53,000-a year post.
The 66-year old broadcaster regards it as "the best job in Scotland". But critics have accused him of bowing to ministers and to landowners who resent interference in their estates. Dropping SNH's landscape and access work would be regarded as the final straw.
The Labour MP Sam Galbraith, once an enthusiastic supporter of SNH, said it would be a "betrayal" of the organisation's founding principles. He believes it may be necessary to undo the 1992 merger of the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission. At pounds 25.9m, spending on his year is almost double the pounds 13.3m for countryside enjoyment and education. This year, SNH is spending pounds 3.3m introducing the European Birds and Habitats Directives.
The study emphasises that if SNH did not carry out conservation tasks, no one would. "In contrast, some of the 'countryside' functions such as promoting public access and enjoyment . . . are not the sole province of SNH," it says. Local authorities, the Sports Council, and tourist offices, are also involved. "While SNH's work is valuable, much similar work, albeit at a reduced level, would continue if it disengaged."
SNH's establishment followed a fierce backlash by landowners after the conservation body acted against the planting of conifers and the commission argued for national parks in areas like the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond.Reuse content