Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:25 pm on 8th June 1999.
I thank Sylvia Jackson for initiating this debate. Every speech earlier this afternoon was prefaced by the phrase, "I wish we could have been talking about something else." Well, here is an important subject with practical significance for the future of Scotland.
There is widespread agreement about the need for a national park, but I will respond to some of the specific questions that have been raised. This is not a new issue; it has been with us for a long time. It is not a mark of haste to suggest that it should be one of the priorities for an incoming Scottish Parliament.
For centuries, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs have been celebrated for their outstanding scenic qualities. The area supports a rich mix of water, wild land, forest, woodland, farmland and people. It is an exceptional landscape throughout the year and is of the highest importance, both nationally and internationally, in terms of natural heritage.
To those who suggest that a national park would create pressures, I say that there are already pressures. The real question that we must address is how to manage existing problems in an integrated and effective way. Somewhere in the region of 5 million people visit Loch Lomond and the Trossachs each summer. Many of them are stopping locally, but many are staying for a longer period. Many of them arrive by car: about 93 per cent of visitors travel privately, the vast majority by car. Mr Monteith's comments about parking and infrastructure are absolutely critical and must be addressed.
The west Highland way, which was mentioned by Fergus Ewing, attracts more than 50,000 walkers per year. There are already problems in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Robin Harper was absolutely correct with his comments on managing the critical and carrying capacities of the area, but we need a mechanism to do that. Although we do not currently have such a mechanism, the national park may provide us with one.
I offer one last snapshot of the issue's importance. Around 70 per cent of Scotland's population can travel to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in less than an hour. That is an awful lot of us for a day trip, and does not include visitors from abroad.
Since the election of the Labour Government in 1997, we have made substantial progress. Scottish Natural Heritage has carried out a huge amount of research, in two phases. Initially, people were asked to give their views; those consulted included local authorities, community councils, public agencies and everyone in the area who was interested. Reviews of national park structures elsewhere were commissioned, and the experience-which Mr Raffan mentioned-both nationally within the UK and internationally, was considered. A huge number of meetings were also held. In the second phase of the consultation, more than 10,000 copies of Scottish Natural Heritage's proposals and consultation paper were issued.
A great deal of consultation has been carried out. That does not mean that everybody is happy, but in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs area there is substantial support for our moving ahead with this measure.
There is less support overall for such a measure in the Cairngorms, as was mentioned by other members. I acknowledge that there is less enthusiasm in the Cairngorms, but we need to consider bringing people together to discuss the issues. The national park legislation must contain enabling legislation that is appropriate to different areas.