The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-19581, in the name of Ross Greer, on save Loch Lomond.
That the Parliament welcomes the recent withdrawal of a planning application by Flamingo Land and Scottish Enterprise for a large tourist development on the shores of Loch Lomond at Balloch; understands that this application had a Scottish record of over 57,000 objections, had been opposed by West Dunbartonshire Council, the Woodland Trust, Ramblers Scotland and many other organisations, and had been recommended for refusal by Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park planning officers; congratulates the community’s Save Loch Lomond campaign on its success; considers that, while it understands that the developers are considering resubmitting an application and have an exclusivity agreement until December 2020, there is a clear appetite locally for a community buyout and to explore alternative visions for the area, and further considers that the future of the site would be best determined by the local community.
I thank members from across the Parliament for supporting my motion and helping to secure the debate. This planning application has attracted more discussion and interest than any other local issue in the west of Scotland in the three years for which I have been an MSP. It is clear to me that it is so deeply emotive to people because of the importance of Loch Lomond to Scotland, and because Balloch is the gateway to Loch Lomond for so many of us.
Back in September 2016, Scottish Enterprise announced that it had struck an exclusivity agreement with Flamingo Land, giving the company first refusal to purchase the sections of the site that it owns. At that time, Flamingo Land’s chief executive, Gordon Gibb, told the press that he was
“excited by the prospect of creating a resort in the national park that recognises the importance and sensitivity of the site.”
As his plans emerged, however, it became increasingly clear that the
“importance and sensitivity of the site” was not being recognised; it was being seriously undermined. A hundred and twenty-five woodland lodges were to be squeezed in, with most of them in the protected ancient woodland at Drumkinnon woods; iconic views were to be interrupted by a water park and hotel on the shoreline; and space used freely for leisure by locals and visitors alike would become part of a branded, gated development, meaning that non-paying visitors would become second-class citizens behind those who could afford the premium to rent a lodge.
The majority of the site would be handed over from public ownership under the control of Scottish Enterprise to the ownership of a private company based hundreds of miles away.
For many people, it was the details in the developer’s own environmental impact assessment that drove home just how unacceptable the plans were. The assessment warned of damage to ancient woodland, pollution of standing and running water, red squirrel and otter fatalities and a host of other environmental concerns.
Although Flamingo Land initially promised 300 new jobs for the area, that number plummeted as time went on. The eventual impact assessment stated that the equivalent of just 28 net jobs would be created in the region, in comparison with the situation if Flamingo Land did not go ahead. Many of the promised jobs were seasonal, and the developers seemed to drop their initial promise to rule out the use of zero-hours contracts.
We can add to that a list of concerns over a range of issues, such as the preservation of the listed Woodbank house and uncertainty over the riverside leased by boat clubs on the west bank of the Leven, and it becomes clear why the application drew massive and unprecedented opposition. We lodged more than 57,000 objections, making Flamingo Land’s the most unpopular planning application in Scottish history. I wish to thank every one of those who objected for making their views known.
I also thank organisations including the Woodland Trust and Ramblers Scotland for their opposition to the plans, as well as West Dunbartonshire Council, which unanimously backed a motion from council leader Jonathan McColl calling on the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority to refuse the application.
I particularly applaud those in the local community who led the campaign so well, especially Sam, Alannah, Rory and the save Loch Lomond campaign team represented in the public gallery tonight. The campaign was run in the face of hostility and bullying behaviour by the developer. At least three local elected representatives, including me, have been threatened with defamation. In response to that threat, I pointed out that I was reading from Flamingo Land’s own impact assessment, so best of luck to Flamingo Land in taking an action based on its own documents. Flamingo Land’s lawyer has made particularly patronising remarks about Jackie Baillie, who I am sure will this evening share her thoughts about the company’s conduct.
Flamingo Land’s chief executive, Gordon Gibb, said at the start that the company would withdraw if it did not have the public’s support. When it became clear that that was not the case, I wrote to Mr Gibb, reminding him of what he had said. His response was nothing short of a tantrum in written form, so let me quote a few highlights. He said:
“I won’t be lectured by a very inexperienced politician.”
He went on to say:
“Now I come to think of it Ross, how can you advise anyone of anything that is important in the adult world?”
That gives members an idea of the tone of the rest of the letter. Does that sound like someone whom we want owning such an important part of our world-famous national park?
When we started this campaign a few years ago, even we did not think that success was likely, but success is exactly what we have achieved. First, the national park’s officers recommended rejection of the plans, and then, just a week before the public hearing, Flamingo Land and Scottish Enterprise withdrew their application. All I can say to Gordon Gibb, who I know will be watching, is that this inexperienced politician and the community campaign that I stand with have beaten him at every turn so far. Why does he not just cut his losses and jog on?
Unfortunately, Flamingo Land is considering whether to resubmit its application. We have won everything so far, but the battle to save Loch Lomond is not over. The exclusivity agreement is in place for another year, which means that Flamingo Land, and not the community, is still in control. When the application was withdrawn, I launched a campaign asking Scottish Enterprise to cancel the agreement and allow the community the opportunity to take on the land and decide its future. We are still unclear about the nature of the exclusivity agreement and the potential for it to be terminated early. I would welcome clarification from the minister on that point, if possible.
Local residents came together at a meeting two weeks ago to consider what Balloch and the wider area needs. The list of ideas suggested by residents included a municipal water sports centre, camping and motorhome facilities, a backpacker hostel, a forest school, a heritage centre, a museum and much more. There was significant interest in developments around ecotourism, which is growing year on year. Affordability, educational benefit and recognising Balloch as an accessible base for exploring both sides of the loch were also identified as priorities. The need for significant improvements in public transport across the loch was identified. A truly co-ordinated and easily accessible public transport and active travel plan is needed for all of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park. Now that the imminent threat has been lifted, that travel strategy will be one of my top priorities, and I would welcome interest from the Government in a co-ordinated approach, with the national park and local councils, in developing it.
Residents are clear that they do not want a scar on the protected woodland, the river bank and the loch shore. They do not want 125 lodges providing holidays that many would struggle to afford, attracting thousands more cars and sending profits to a corporation based far from the area. Flamingo Land has repeatedly told locals, often in a patronising manner, that there is no alternative, and that its plan is the only way to prevent misery and unemployment in the Vale of Leven—that the only choice is its resort, or Balloch will forever be a neglected, derelict wasteland. The community, however, has other ideas—dozens of them. Those alternative proposals could provide sustainable and quality jobs, educational benefits and far more, while preserving the stunning natural beauty that makes Loch Lomond a global destination.
In contrast, Flamingo Land and Scottish Enterprise’s plan was, frankly, boring, generic and expensive. It would not have enhanced Balloch’s position as a gateway to a national park. It is not what we need to support the economy and it is certainly not what we need to tackle the climate emergency. It raises the question of what exactly Scottish Enterprise thinks that it is for. I would appreciate the minister’s views on that. It seems that the only interest of Scottish Enterprise, as a Government agency, is to get shot of the land as quickly as possible, while adding a few more job figures to its annual report. No real consideration has been given to the local community or the environment. Surely Scottish Enterprise’s considerations should not be so narrow.
The idea of a community buy-out to progress some of the ideas that we have been exploring in the local community is drawing wide support, but what is happening at Balloch is not isolated. I have been notified of a similar application at Tarbet, and I recently visited Portincaple, just outside the national park, where residents showed me the impact that a wildly out-of-scale proposed development would have on their small community. Whether it is rural or urban communities, in or outside national park boundaries, these aggressive applications raise fundamental questions about who owns Scotland, who our land is for and what collective rights we have to decide our land’s future. Exploring those questions would fill weeks of debate. For now, I close by once again thanking members and the local community and renewing my commitment to stand with the local community to save Loch Lomond.
I congratulate Ross Greer on securing time for the debate and was pleased to contribute to the cross-party support for his motion so that we could discuss what is an important local issue in my constituency. I, too, welcome members of save Loch Lomond to the Parliament.
I say at the outset that I am not opposed to development in general, but it is fair to say that any development needs to be considered in context. The proposal that we are discussing, which was brought forward by Iconic Leisure, which has now been renamed as Lomond Banks and is more commonly known as Flamingo Land, was for development at the Balloch end of the national park. I say as an aside that if a company needs to change its name three times in the course of one application, its public relations is not going terribly well.
Ross Greer was right to mention maturity. I hesitate to do so, but Flamingo Land’s letters are not designed to win friends and influence people; it is Flamingo Land that has lacked maturity in this debate. I have been insulted by far better people.
First, there is the question of who owns the land. In this case, it is Scottish Enterprise and, by extension, the Scottish ministers—the Scottish Government. I welcome the fact that Mairi Gougeon will respond to the debate on behalf of the Government, but the issue in question is of direct interest to Derek Mackay, so I hope that she will forgive me if I ask her to convey to him in the strongest possible terms the messages that I am about to outline.
The land was purchased some 20 years ago at a cost of more than £2 million. We might have expected it to have appreciated in value, but it is now valued at £200,000. The truth is that, whatever sum of money eventually changes hands, if that is what happens, I am clear that Scottish Enterprise has already spent at least £200,000 on commissioning reports and plans to assist Flamingo Land. Scottish Enterprise is, of course, a partner of Flamingo Land in this venture. I am in no doubt that Flamingo Land will benefit from grants and loans from Scottish Enterprise, too. The fact that it is all public money means that, in effect, we are paying for Flamingo Land to come to Scotland. It strikes me as faintly ridiculous that the public are paying for something that the majority of the public do not really want.
I will set aside planning, environmental and infrastructure considerations for a moment. I have talked about the impact on ancient woodland and the lack of capacity on the A82, among other things, in my submission. Instead, I want to focus exclusively on economic benefit and the role of Scottish Enterprise in the process.
It is the job of Scottish Enterprise to seek out economic opportunities, but I expect those opportunities to be good-quality opportunities; it should not be a case of any old thing will do. In my view, the site that is to be developed is of strategic importance to the national park and to tourism, so careful thought needs to be given to any development.
How many jobs would be generated? In this case, the number went from 300 to 200, with half being seasonal and most being likely to be lower paid. Would the employer guarantee to pay the Scottish living wage? It took a little time before Flamingo Land understood that we did not mean David Cameron’s so-called living wage, which is just the national minimum wage renamed. It took a while for Flamingo Land to understand what we meant by the Scottish living wage.
What about the economic impact of all the additional visitors that it was claimed would come? The interesting thing is that Flamingo Land’s business model is predicated on keeping people within its development, spending their money there and not in the wider community. Therefore, businesses in the local area would be unlikely to benefit. Even Scottish Enterprise account managed companies in the area that would be in direct competition with Flamingo Land were not told about the development. Is that any way for our national enterprise agency to behave? Would we get sufficient economic bang for our buck? I think that the answer is no.
Scottish Enterprise has extended its exclusivity agreement with Flamingo Land. There are conditions attached to it, but what those are is a state secret. We do not know what the conditions are or whether they have been breached, because Scottish Enterprise will not tell us. There is no transparency. I hope that the minister will commit to publishing the conditions in the exclusivity agreement.
There is a different way of doing this. Scottish Enterprise could engage in a community buy-out—after all, it is Scottish Government policy to encourage community buy-outs. I think that that would be a better way of securing long-term sustainability and that it would provide a better tourism offer for the national park and for Balloch.
I urge the Scottish Government to get a grip on this project and to end the absurdity of public money being used to pay Flamingo Land to come and take the land from us, which no one appears to want. After all, the community is prepared to do it for free—surely that would be a better return for our money.
I thank Ross Greer for raising this very important issue in the chamber, as it is one that hits particularly close to home for me—quite literally. Being just a 30-minute drive from my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park has been a jewel in Scotland’s beautiful countryside for generations of families, including my own.
Whether as a destination for a family day out, walks with the dogs along the shoreline, or indeed a trip simply to embrace and observe the beautiful surroundings and nature that many of us are so lucky to have on our doorstep, it is safe to say that Loch Lomond is revered and treasured and—crucially—it must be protected. That is why I was shocked to see these proposals to essentially commercialise and privatise a large chunk of one of our nation’s greatest landmarks.
I commend Ross Greer for his work to oppose that and for getting an incredible number of signatories to his petition—57,000 within two months—and I thank the national park planning officers and West Dunbartonshire Council, among others, for their recommendation to refuse permission.
I understand that it is often the case that large-scale developments are met with an initial backlash. However, the objections of 57,000 people cannot be ignored and they serve as a testament to the fact that there is no appetite for these proposals. I believe that this sentiment is shared by the majority of people who have been able to experience the wonder of Loch Lomond.
Like Jackie Baillie, I am not someone who believes that Scotland should be preserved in aspic and that no development should ever take place. I want people to come to Scotland and to enjoy our wonderful lochs and tourist attractions with the tasteful facilities that we have all come to expect. However, there is no world where hotels, restaurants and craft breweries serve as an adequate substitute for Scottish nature, wildlife and history.
Furthermore, it is my understanding—and Ross Greer has confirmed this—that Flamingo Land’s own environmental impact assessment states that there will be damage to ancient woodland, pollution of standing and running water, red squirrel and otter fatalities and more. Is all that worth sacrificing for more tourist pounds? Surely the natural attraction of the area is worth far more than a rollercoaster or two.
It is imperative that this treasured public space remains just that—public space that is to be used and enjoyed by families for generations to come, as it has been enjoyed by the many generations that came before. Loch Lomond is one of Scotland’s greatest landmarks and maintaining its integrity must be of paramount importance. A community buy-out that would allow that seems eminently sensible to me.
Furthermore, our environmental heritage should not be sullied by big business intent on making a profit. I echo the points made by Ross Greer and Jackie Baillie regarding Scottish Enterprise and ownership. Rejecting these proposals—and any further proposals—sends a clear message to developers: leave our bonnie banks alone and let nature be the attraction.
I, too, thank Ross Greer for this timely members’ business debate.
It is a privilege to represent the expansive West Scotland region. Much of its natural beauty can be found in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park, which boasts the attractions of wildlife and scenic views. I was born and brought up in Helensburgh in the Loch Lomond area, and have enjoyed the area many times, whether climbing Ben Lomond, swimming in the loch along with the swimming adders—as members probably know, it is the only place in the world where we have swimming adders, down by Arden—or skating on the loch at Balmaha in a couple of years when there was very heavy frost, so I know the area well.
Beside the loch, we have the most wonderful Balloch park—I do not know if members know it, but they should take a walk through it. It is fantastic; we should be looking at things there as well.
Any proposed development within such an area should, understandably, be examined carefully, and the views of the surrounding community should be considered. I have said before in the chamber that without a foundation of support, such proposals cannot progress. That is what we have seen in the case of the Lomond Banks proposals. Clearly, the developer’s proposals were met with strong concern from the local area and wider Scotland.
We have already heard from Ross Greer details of the tourism plans, with features including a treetop walk, a monorail, a craft brewery, a leisure centre, an aparthotel and restaurants. Such planning applications—in this case, a joint application by Lomond Banks and Scottish Enterprise—need to address and reflect the concerns of local residents. Those concerns can be shown no more strongly than by the 57,000 signatures on the petition.
The Lomond Banks proposal promised to protect wildlife, but the plans to build a monorail and a hotel suggested otherwise. It was indicated that the development would create employment opportunities for locals. Of course, job openings are positive, but they were not enough to justify such a controversial development. Assurance that there would be long-lasting and reliable work for local residents, rather than just part-time and seasonal work, is needed.
It would be unrealistic not to recognise the benefits that tourism can bring to an area. When it is done well and, above all, considerately, tourism can be used to promote an area’s natural beauty and to channel much-needed resources into communities. Opening the doors to international visitors can effectively put an area and wider Scotland on the map.
The planning for Loch Lomond Shores identified an area within a drive time of one and a half hours from the site to capture weekend local and national tourism, and the forecast was that 9 million visitors would pass or come into the area. That gives members an idea of the quantity that we are dealing with.
West Dunbartonshire Council should carry out an infrastructure review, as should Transport Scotland, at Government level. The issue needs to be looked at seriously, not just for the local area around Balloch, but along the A82 including the Vale of Leven, Alexandria, Renton and right back to Dumbarton. That infrastructure has needed to be looked at for as long as I can remember. We need to put the matter into perspective: it is one of the big crunch issues. Only this morning, I had a meeting with representatives of a business in Balloch, and one issue that they raised was the need to get the infrastructure right so that we can look at things properly.
As I have suggested in the chamber previously, tourism plans such as the one that has been withdrawn should not be implemented at the expense of local residents. Their opinions must be protected and listened to. As I said, local authorities and other public bodies need to be certain that there will be no irredeemable negative impact on what we should feel privileged to have already. We have an abundance of beauty on our doorstep—Rona Mackay rightly talked about the bonnie banks—and how it is treated is a top concern for many of my constituents, for me and for other regional members.
The exploration of the alternatives to make best use of the space needs to be done with sensitivity and understanding, and it needs to include consideration of community buy-outs. Although I believe that it is important for communities to benefit from the investment that new developments can bring, the national park undoubtedly has a character and a feel that need to be kept in mind, whatever the next step is.
We must also bear in mind the knock-on effect of traffic, to which I have referred, which will only worsen with another tourist development in the area, unless an infrastructure review is carried out. Perhaps for now, maintaining better what we already have is the solution on which we need to focus.
Any future development must be done openly and must reflect local residents’ input. When I put a question to the minister previously on the issue in the chamber, she commented on the need to accept that. Whatever option is chosen, its viability, expense and impact on the surrounding environment and local residents must be given serious consideration.
I thank Ross Greer for securing the debate and I thank the “Save Loch Lomond” campaign for its work in securing a record-breaking level of objections to the Flamingo Land development. The number of people who have objected is nearly the same as a capacity crowd at Murrayfield. That national roar of disapproval has sent a clear message on behalf of all the communities in the national park that the integrity of our local environment must be at the heart of all development. It has also sent a clear message that publicly owned land must be managed in the democratic public interest.
At any community council meeting across Scotland, the local environment is always the top agenda item. Sometimes, the arguments around development are genuinely balanced—for example, at Balmaha, there is a balance between the need for affordable housing and the need for woodland protection
More often than not, however, developers attempt to bulldoze agreed local development plans, bypass planning policies and dazzle decision makers with glittering economic prizes, which then unravel under closer examination. The long-game tactics of developers are well understood. The tactics are to grind down the community, to lobby politicians ahead of submission of an application and then, if the application takes a battering with objections, to withdraw and resubmit again and again until the right batch of decision makers comes into office.
However, I believe that in this case the Flamingo Land people have pecked off far more than they can chew.
It is also lamentable that Scottish Enterprise appears to be acting in the interests of one enterprise rather than in the wider interests of the community and Scotland. Parts of the site clearly have the potential for development, but that should be steered by the community. A fine balance will be required in order to maintain the loch’s iconic sense of place while growing genuinely accessible and sustainable tourism.
I heard that there was, at a recent public meeting on alternative plans, a lot of support for Balloch to be a hub for ecotourism, with an easy-to-use network of buses and boats to get people around. From my perspective, a shuttle bus service out to Rowardennan, with space for bikes—a little bit like the old Trossachs trundler service—would make that road safer, cut congestion and improve the environment of the west Highland way.
We need to improve the visitor experience while showcasing a pristine environment, through sensitive yet accessible gateways to the park. That is why decreasing car usage while increasing public transport and active travel is a key objective in the national park plan. It must be the objective for the other park gateways, too—especially Callander, which still desperately needs to be linked to the national cycle network through Doune to the east.
There are so many great ways in which ecotourism could integrate well with the land, but they do not include gated villages. I am sure that if the minister has not already visited Comrie Croft, it will at some point be in her tour of places to see. It has been an economic marvel for Strathearn, through hosting glamping experiences that are, largely, hidden in the woods. Walks, bike trails and facilities on the site have grown organically over the past decade. New businesses have sprung up on the back of its success, as demand for weddings, catering and bike services has grown along with visitor numbers.
Now other communities, including Clackmannan, are looking to emulate the Comrie Croft model, which shows what can be done from the bottom up in creating world-class facilities with integrity that reflects the wild and iconic nature of Scotland. For me and many thousands of people who treasure Scotland’s wild environment, that is what we search for when we visit Loch Lomond.
I thank Ross Greer for bringing the motion to the chamber. I understand the passion behind the issue, which I have felt from all members who have spoken in the debate.
One of the many benefits of my job as the minister with responsibility for national parks is that I now get to spend a lot more of my time in such places and to appreciate them. That feeling has also been expressed by members from across the chamber—such as Rona Mackay and Maurice Corry—who have spoken about Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park as one of our finest and most valued assets. We can see that through the numbers of people who visit the park: each year, it welcomes around 4 million visitors, which is testament to its appeal and importance to the people of Scotland and those from further afield
Members will appreciate that it is not appropriate for me to comment on an individual application, but I recognise that there has been significant local and national interest in the West Riverside development, about which a number of issues have been raised in the debate. I realise that some of those issues might fall within my colleagues’ remits, but I will commit to raising such issues with them and ensure that the relevant members get from them the responses that they need. I would also be happy to meet any member who is present in the chamber and who might wish to discuss such issues further if they feel that they still have questions after I have spoken.
First, and foremost, I would like to reflect on the important contribution that Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park and its local communities make to the area. Balancing its different statutory aims lies at the heart of the park authority’s work. Those aims are: conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the area; promoting the sustainable use of the area’s natural resources; promoting understanding and recreation; and promoting the area’s sustainable and economic development.
The park authority delivers those aims in a number of ways. As planning authority, it develops the local development plan for the area, in consultation with stakeholders and communities, ensuring that it is produced in an open and transparent way. The authority received recognition for its approach to community involvement in the then-current local development plan for the park in 2015 when it received the overall award at the Scottish awards for quality in planning.
The plan is the blueprint for the area, setting out policies and priorities for how land is used, and is the basis on which all applications—including West Riverside—are considered. However, the plan is only one part of the jigsaw. The park authority works hard to make sure that there is on-going, meaningful and innovative dialogue with communities about planning. For example, the charrette in Balloch identified opportunities and priorities to support the Strathard community, which is now driving action to regenerate Aberfoyle—the area’s biggest village. That is a great example of the dual role that the park authority undertakes in providing support and enabling positive action to deliver on the local development plan and the park’s aims.
When it comes to tourism, the park is always looking to try new ideas and deliver improvements. Just last year, it hosted the open water swimming event as part of the successful 2018 European championships. The local development plan also identifies opportunities to develop tourism in the area. I was interested to hear what Mark Ruskell said about the potential to grow and ecotourism, as well as what Maurice Corry said about what that means in relation to transport.
Looking ahead, I am pleased that, at a national level, the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 will bring about better, more meaningful and earlier engagement with local people across Scotland. That reflects the approach that the park authority has taken.
On community engagement, the park’s 2017 partnership plan was developed with and for the local community and stakeholders. It sets out the vision and priorities for how communities and partners can work together for the park. The park authority is committed to building the skills and confidence of its communities, and that has delivered a strong network of community development trusts and community action plans. Those community-led plans are well established and they have supported a range of aspirations from new village halls to community hydro schemes and path improvements.
On the specific application, members will know—it was raised in the debate—that an exclusivity agreement is in place. I understand that the agreement will be in place until December next year unless it is terminated by mutual agreement before then. If members have further questions about that or they would like to know more, I ask them to contact me, but that is the information that I have with me.
Jackie Baillie asked about the conditions. I do not know exactly what it is possible to disclose as part of the agreements but, again, I would be happy to look into that and try to establish it.
More widely, I note that encouraging community ownership is a priority for the Scottish Government. Jackie Baillie raised that, and she was absolutely right. There are now a number of routes for communities across the country to take advantage of the opportunities that ownership can bring. There are various community rights to buy, some of which are compulsory purchase routes, and there is asset transfer, which allows communities to take control of assets that are currently owned by public bodies. The Scottish land fund, which has an annual budget of £10 million, provides communities with the financial opportunity to take ownership, no matter which of those routes they choose to take. Along with the guidance on engaging communities in decisions relating to land and the land rights and responsibilities statement, communities have more opportunities than they have ever had to take control of their futures.
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park is a great example of how a national park can work with its communities to deliver on their aspirations. From its role as planning authority to the delivery of projects on the ground, the park authority works tirelessly for natural heritage, cultural heritage, inclusive economic growth and the communities of the area. I encourage the park authority to continue putting its energy into that in order to deliver a first-class place for all of its communities.
Meeting closed at 17:08.