Chairman’s Report to SCNP AGM
Our AGM took place by video conference on Friday 30 April, and this is the report our Chairman John Thomson gave to SCNP members on our work during 2020:
Since it is less than 8 months since our last AGM, and given the limitations imposed by the need to meet over the ether, I shall keep this update quite short. The written report already circulated describes in some detail how SCNP and the National Park cause more generally fared through the strange year that was 2020. I shall therefore concentrate more on events since the turn of the year and particularly on how things now stand on the eve of a Holyrood election that could prove momentous in many ways – not least in its implications for the future of Scotland’s National Park network.
So far as policy is concerned there continues to be a stark contrast in the Scottish Government’s stance between its attitude to the two existing National Parks and to any notion that more should be established. Not only do they continue to laud the performance and achievements of the established Parks but they have shown themselves willing to reflect this appreciation by assigning them additional responsibilities and resources in fields of some political prominence and topicality. These include visitor management, where the Parks are playing a leading role in devising and implementing moves to enhance visitor management in the face of the expanded domestic outdoor leisure market triggered by the Covid epidemic, and climate change and future rural support policy, where they have been charged with running two of the five proposed pilot Regional Land Use Partnerships.
These initiatives have been hailed as trail-blazing in the green recovery and transition to net zero. On the face of it, and whatever reservations we may have about the Parks’ performance to date in these and other fields, they would appear to represent a resounding vote of confidence in their potential role in tackling some of Scotland’s most pressing problems. Yet at the same time Ministers continue to resist all pressure to create more Parks. They reiterated this stubborn opposition once again in their response to the Parliamentary debate about a possible Galloway National Park triggered by one of their own MSPs in February this year. On that occasion they maintained it despite cross-party support for the proposition and the additional spur to action provided by their declared commitment to protecting at least 30% of Scotland’s land for nature by 2030.
There is no obvious logic to this position, especially at a time when substantial extra public spending is being pledged in many other arenas. There has to be a suspicion that it stems in substantial measure from the current unfortunate separation of the environment and agriculture and rural affairs briefs and the contrasting outlooks of the two key Ministers involved. Fortunately, and not least due to sustained lobbying by John Mayhew on behalf of SCNP’s and APRS’s joint campaign, all the other major political parties seem to have recognised this. All have re-stated in their manifestos a commitment to create more National Parks. In some cases, notably the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, they have done so in more explicit terms than previously. In others, with the Greens and Labour leading the way, they have also highlighted the need to cater better for countryside management and outdoor recreation needs more widely, including through more and better Regional Parks. The question now surely has to be how much longer the Scottish Government, whatever its political complexion, can continue to defy this broader tide of political opinion.
At the same time, there are obviously questions as to how far the current National Park model – and indeed current models of environmental care more generally – meet present day requirements and are capable of playing their full part in tackling the climate and nature emergencies that are increasingly recognised to be upon us. These are issues that have long been debated within SCNP and which are likely to assume ever greater prominence in the run-up to CoP26 and as attention focuses more sharply on the interpretation of the 30 by 30 commitment. How exactly National Parks will feature within that wider discussion and reassessment will no doubt depend in part on the outcome of the election. But SCNP must undoubtedly play a leading role in contributing to the thinking and attempting to shape the outcome.
Similarly we have a continuing part to play in supporting the vigorous campaigns for new National Parks that have developed locally in places such as Galloway and the Borders. These local initiatives have undoubtedly been highly instrumental in keeping the political pot on the boil. Interestingly, there have recently been signs of interest tentatively emerging in other parts of the country, at least one of them quite unexpected. Together with the much greater interest now being expressed in the possibility of marine parks, these are perhaps also tremors signalling that the tectonic plates of Scotland’s long-standing National Park stand-off are about to shift again.
Hard though it sometimes is to maintain optimism in the face of seemingly everlasting recalcitrance, these developments provide at least some grounds for believing that all is not lost and that we may indeed even be on the point of breakthrough. Maybe we shall be clearer on this when the dust settles on next week’s election. In the meantime I would like to thank all in SCNP who have done so much to sustain our momentum in the challenging climate of the past year. And thanks, finally, to all the members who continue to support us financially and in other ways and to those of you on the Committee who have declared yourselves willing to continue putting your shoulders to the wheel. I, as Chair, greatly appreciate your efforts. Onwards and upwards!