Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Wednesday, March 8, 2023
Official Report 1086KB pdf
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, International Women’s Day 2023, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Save Loch Lomond
- Portfolio Question Time
- International Women’s Day 2023
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Save Loch Lomond
Save Loch Lomond
I ask members who are leaving the chamber to do so as quickly and quietly as possible.
The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-08046, in the name of Ross Greer, on save Loch Lomond. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I encourage members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible.
That the Parliament recognises what it sees as the popularity of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park as a result of the area’s world famous natural landscape and wildlife; considers that, while this popularity brings economic benefits to local communities, it also results in challenges such as traffic and parking congestion, antisocial behaviour and disruption for residents; believes that Flamingo Land’s recently revised plans for a massive tourist development at Balloch, including 104 lodges, two hotels, a water park and 372 parking spaces, would significantly worsen these problems, while providing insufficient benefit to the local economy; notes the work undertaken by Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, VisitScotland and other stakeholders to encourage green tourism; considers that there is still much more to be done to achieve the collective aspiration for a more sustainable and respectful use of the park by visitors, and notes the calls on Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park to recognise what it sees as the overwhelming view of the local community, shared by the National Trust, Woodland Trust, Ramblers Scotland and others, and reject what it considers Flamingo Land’s latest unwelcome application.17:36
At the outset, I apologise to the local residents in Balloch, who I know are watching on Scottish Parliament TV, for how long this has taken. I hope that it is worth the wait for them.
I also thank Green and Scottish National Party colleagues who supported the motion and enabled this evening’s debate. I am particularly grateful for that, given that I last raised the issue via a members’ business debate just nine months ago. However, there have been some major developments in the saga since that point, most notably a major revision to Flamingo Land’s application, which I will come to in a moment.
First, though, I hope that colleagues will indulge me in providing a brief history of how the past seven years have led us to this point. It has, indeed, been a seven-year process, and I highlight that number to emphasise just how exhausting it has been for the local community, which has now had this threat hanging over it for the best part of a decade.
Flamingo Land’s first formal application was lodged and dealt with four years ago. The application was for a tourist resort on a massive scale, sitting on the banks of Loch Lomond at Balloch, on what is currently largely publicly owned land. The plans included 125 woodland lodges, to be situated largely in the ancient woodland at Drumkinnon wood, as well as a hotel, a water park, a monorail and more. Iconic lochside views were to be interrupted by buildings that local residents quite fairly described as “garish”, and publicly owned land was to be used to generate profits for a private company that is based hundreds of miles away, in Yorkshire, which certainly would not be reinvesting them in the local community and economy.
Flamingo Land’s own environmental impact assessment made for particularly grim reading. It spoke of, among other things, damage to ancient woodland, pollution of standing and running water, red squirrel and otter fatalities and a host of other environmental concerns. That was from Flamingo Land’s own documentation.
As members might recall, local residents and I formed the save Loch Lomond campaign, through which we lodged more than 60,000 objections. That made the Flamingo Land application the most unpopular planning application in Scottish history. We were joined in objecting by the Woodland Trust, Ramblers Scotland and West Dunbartonshire Council.
The application was so clearly contrary to local and national planning policy that the national park’s own planning officers recommended that their board reject it. Rather than face that loss, Flamingo Land withdrew its application with just days to go before the hearing. That was in 2019.
We knew that it would come back, so it was no surprise that a fresh application was lodged last year. That application was for 127 lodges, two hotels, a water park, a monorail, up to 21 apartments, a brewery, a pub, a restaurant and a boathouse, all to be served by 393 parking spaces. Flamingo Land tried to squeeze almost as much in as it did the first time, but into a smaller space. The company told us that the ancient woodland at Drumkinnon wood had been taken out of the application and lodges moved elsewhere on the site. However, any suspicions that Flamingo Land had turned into tree huggers thanks to our influence were short lived.
The details of the plans still show that an area of Drumkinnon wood, marked in the application as area 10, is earmarked for destruction, as are sections of ancient woodland alongside Woodbank house and the proposed boathouse. Moreover, even the supposedly saved bulk of Drumkinnon wood might be endangered by the plans. The wood is currently under the ownership of Scottish Enterprise—a public body—but, should planning permission be granted for the site, Flamingo Land would get the wood, too. When Flamingo Land was still speaking to me—that was some time ago—it told me that the economic viability of the site rested on being able to develop in the ancient woodland. Should Flamingo Land take ownership of the woods or even have a long-term lease, it is hard to believe that it would not seek, at some point, to exploit them for financial benefit.
Last year’s plans were seriously flawed, left many questions unanswered and included a number of contradictory claims. Therefore, on my behalf, the planning and environmental law expert Ian Cowan submitted a detailed letter of objection, flagging every one of the issues to the national park. In response, the park’s planning department, in essence, put the process on hold—for which I am grateful—and demanded that the developer resubmit a number of documents and respond to 16 requests on everything from clarification on contradictory statements on parking provision and ancient woodland loss to how the proposals could possibly meet the high bar that is set by national planning framework 4.
Just two weeks ago, Flamingo Land responded, so this is a timely debate. It has reduced the number of lodges planned to 104 and the number of parking spaces planned to 372 in order to allow the staff and service area to be relocated from area 10—the bit of ancient woodland. That is welcome, and I congratulate the local residents who worked hard to protect that part of Drumkinnon wood. However, the ancient woodland is not safe from a sell-off, and, as is described in the Woodland Trust’s briefing, which was circulated to MSPs, other sections of ancient woodland are still under threat.
There are so many flaws in the third attempt at a proposal. The development would still be much bigger than the visitor experience space that is zoned in the national park’s planning policy, and it would be a scar on a world-famous landscape. The landscape and visual impact assessment admits that there would be adverse effects.
Flamingo Land keeps telling us that there would be no negative impact on access, but that would be simply impossible to achieve. A popular public space for informal recreation cannot be turned into a densely packed, branded and privately owned holiday lodge park without a loss of freedom to roam.
A busy attraction with 372 parking spaces certainly is not compatible with the park’s net zero objectives or the Scottish Government’s policy of reducing car use. We are all too well aware that Loch Lomond and its communities are overwhelmed by visitors travelling by car through peak tourist season. We can speak to any resident of Luss, Balmaha or Balloch about the stress of dealing with everything from inconsiderate parking to genuinely dangerous driving and antisocial behaviour.
We want people to enjoy Loch Lomond, but we must acknowledge that some of its communities are simply at breaking point. The last thing that any of us want is the kind of oversaturation of tourism, leading to deep-seated hostility from residents, that destinations such as Barcelona have experienced.
The park is doing excellent work to make visiting the area more sustainable and to support local residents who are struggling with the impact of high visitor numbers. I know that the minister will not be able to say much about a live planning application, and I recognise that this issue is not under his portfolio, but I would appreciate it if he could speak a little more about the good work that the park is doing to encourage sustainable use.
There is one other issue relating to the park authority that I encourage the minister and his colleague Lorna Slater to look into. When there is a controversial planning application, objectors are normally able to contact their councillors directly and make their views heard. Even though councillors on the relevant committee—the planning committee—would not be allowed to express an opinion on the plans, feedback from residents is an important part of the process, so it is unfortunate that Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is the exception. Unlike any of the more than 500 other councils and national parks in the United Kingdom, that park does not publicise direct contact details for its board members. I know that many of my constituents want to address board members directly, and the fact that they have no means of doing so leaves an unacceptable democratic deficit.
The views of the community in this case are certainly beyond doubt. There have now been two local surveys, which have shown that there is opposition by a margin of about three to one. Flamingo Land’s chief executive said that, if the community did not support the plan, it would walk away. It is very clear that the community does not support the plan, but here we are again.
Residents certainly do not trust Flamingo Land’s grand claims. Not only would the substantial increase in traffic on already busy local roads clearly be to the detriment of the community, there is very little belief that the claimed economic benefits would actually materialise. Flamingo Land initially promised that there would be 300 new jobs for the area, but that number has plummeted as the years have gone on. The eventual impact assessment for the 2019 application stated that the equivalent of just 28 net jobs would be created in the region in comparison with what would happen if Flamingo Land’s plan did not go ahead, and many of those jobs would, of course, be seasonal.
The community is not hostile to development. I would certainly welcome the redevelopment of Woodbank house, for example. However, Flamingo Land’s plans are too big and destructive and come from a developer whose behaviour should, frankly, disqualify it from playing a role in the life of our national park.
The community is not short of alternative ideas for some of the sites, but those cannot be taken forward as long as Flamingo Land’s exclusivity agreement is in place. Were that to be dropped, Scottish Enterprise would get a lot out of speaking to residents about what they want. In some cases, such as in Drumkinnon wood, that would be for no development to take place. Much-loved, well-used community green spaces are worth protecting, especially when they are also the gateway to our world-famous national park.
Some 43,000 objections have been lodged to the latest application. The Woodland Trust and Ramblers Scotland have joined us in opposing it once again, and the National Trust for Scotland has now also come out against the plans. We are all motivated by a deep love for Loch Lomond and a passionate desire to protect it. We have beaten Flamingo Land at every turn for seven years now, and we are ready to do so one last time. We are going to save Loch Lomond.17:45
I thank Ross Greer for once again bringing this issue to the attention of the Parliament. As the MSP who is lucky enough to have Loch Leven on my doorstep, I know only too well the strength of feeling that I and many of my constituents have for these iconic beauty spots. There, my work involves supporting those who are attempting to deliver long-term solutions to the local community so that they can continue to enjoy the loch and see the ecology restored.
However, today’s topic concentrates on Loch Lomond, one of Scotland’s two national parks. It is a place that has an emotional meaning for generations of Scots and visitors to our country. Its bonnie, bonnie banks mark it as a place of worldwide wonder.
It is 20 years since Scotland’s first national parks were established—in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and in the Cairngorms. In that time, the parks have responsibly faced up to biodiversity and climate crisis issues, managing facilities for visitors, promoting responsible access to the land and assisting in developing sustainable communities. So, it is clear that those who are entrusted with protecting our national treasures know what they are doing.
All those who have been to Loch Lomond and have witnessed its charms could easily understand why a big business or developer would want to take advantage of the site and capitalise on the popularity of this national treasure, which welcomes millions of visitors each year. It is right that we sit in this Parliament to debate this topic, given that it is a site of huge significance to so many people. Ultimately, however, we are also correct to accept that this is a decision that is best taken locally by those whose lives will be impacted more than those of Government ministers or MSPs, who would visit the loch and its surrounding beauty spots. The decision will be taken by the park authority board, which includes elected community representatives and local community councillors, and it is those people we should trust to fully understand and appreciate the issue.
In order to maintain its prestige, the national park does impressive work each year, working closely with communities, land managers, local businesses, the third sector and individuals who aim to support biodiversity and improve the health and wellbeing of the local community. The current Lomond Banks plan is in the planning process, and I fully agree that the park authority will closely assess whether the development would have an impact on the environment and the local community. Furthermore, those making the decision will consider whether it complies with the Scottish planning policy, national planning framework 4, which Scotland adopted in February and which has become a statutory part of the national park development plan. NPF4 will guide Scotland’s net zero spatial planning journey over the next decade, with the aim of delivering sustainable, liveable and productive places. It is clear that, if the proposers are to be successful, their application must meet the spirit of NPF4 and the needs of the national park and its local communities.
The previous Flamingo Land application was withdrawn as a result of dialogue between the developer, the park authority and the local community in Balloch and south of Loch Lomond. I hope that today’s debate in the Scottish Parliament will reassure the public and all those with an interest in, or a bond with, the park that any development will occur only after serious consideration by the rightful decision makers on the ground that it strictly complies with NPF4 and the park authority’s serious considerations. I, for one, will follow the project with interest.17:48
As a West of Scotland MSP, I am honoured to have part of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park in my region. Last year, Ross Greer secured debating time to explore the live planning application for the Lomond Banks development. I felt then that it was important to remain neutral. He has now brought the issue to the Parliament yet again while the planning application is still live. I therefore hope that all contributions to the debate are respectful of the fact that due process is still to be played out.
When I spoke in last year’s debate on Lomond Banks, I made the point that such developments can often have a positive outcome for the local community, but only when the local community is allowed their full say on the project. With that in mind, I am pleased that the Lomond Banks team has been working constructively to address the residents’ concerns. That work is reflected clearly in the revised application that was recently submitted to the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority. Important revisions include those relating to the environment and local infrastructure, which Ross Greer has drawn attention to in his motion.
In my contribution last year, I also outlined concerns about antisocial behaviour and littering. I welcome the fact that, in its legally binding Lomond promise document, the developer has committed to deploying monitoring systems and to employing suitably qualified staff to manage any antisocial behaviour within the development and its immediate surroundings. However, further clarity on littering and waste management would be welcome.
Another outstanding issue is that of the natural environment. I welcome the significant reduction in accommodation density in the revised plans, as well as the move to ensure that there is no reduction in the area’s input to biodiversity value. However, as the Woodland Trust has highlighted, certain areas of ancient woodland remain at risk even under the revised plans.
I also welcome the promises to work with local businesses and community councils to ensure that the local community sees the potential economic and social benefits of the project. The social value portal that Lomond Banks has proposed would be a key part of measuring any potential benefits, but, despite further assurances from the developer, concerns around local infrastructure such as roads remain a pressing issue for residents. The staggered check-in and check-out times that Lomond Banks has proposed as a solution to that is promising, but we will not know how effective that system is until the development goes ahead.
As I remarked in the previous debate on the subject, I am not opposed to such developments by default, but it is vital that the concerns of communities are fully heard. Efforts to liaise with stakeholders are welcome, but they cannot be one-off actions. There will have to be a continued process of going back and forth to create a balance, and it is likely that further concessions will have to be made. Although much work is still to be done, I remain hopeful that, through constructive engagement, a system can be developed whereby any development complements the local area, rather than detracting from it.17:53
I congratulate Ross Greer on securing the debate, as it gives me an opportunity to speak about the constituency that I am proud to represent. Loch Lomond is a most beautiful place, with some of the most breathtaking views in all of Scotland. It is because it is so special to my local community and to visitors from across Scotland, the UK and the world that any development must be carefully considered and properly scrutinised.
Members will be aware that Lomond Banks, otherwise known as Flamingo Land, wants to develop a tourism project at Loch Lomond. It will be a multisite development centred at West Riverside in Balloch. Incidentally, the land is owned by Scottish Enterprise, so the Government has an interest. The development will include self-catering lodges, hotels and other accommodation. As Ross Greer outlined, Lomond Banks’s first planning application was withdrawn. The second application, which has recently been revised again, has taken on board some of the feedback that was given clearly by the local community.
I will reflect on some of that feedback. I conducted a survey of Balloch and the surrounding area. There was a 12 per cent return rate from the several thousand survey forms that were issued. Thirty-one per cent of respondents were in favour of the development and 68 per cent were against; in 1 per cent of responses, it was unclear whether or not the respondents were in favour. A further survey was conducted by the local community council in which the number of respondents who were against was even greater than I identified.
However, of most interest to me, having analysed the responses, was the point that people in my area had similar concerns and made similar observations whether they agreed or disagreed with the development. They did not want development at Drumkinnon wood. The briefing from the Woodland Trust, which has already been quoted, notes that the resubmitted documents are an improvement in terms of the impact on ancient woodland but, as Ross Greer pointed out, concerns remain and need to be addressed.
People in my community also wanted to be sure that the impact on the economy would be positive: there should be good jobs that pay at least the Scottish living wage, there should not be casual contracts, and local businesses should benefit as part of the supply chain. There has been positive work by Lomond Banks to address those concerns. I recognise the pledges that the company has made to the local community—I would expect nothing less—but my local community also wanted better infrastructure and the roads to be dealt with, and I have to say that there has been little movement on that point.
In the summer—indeed, at any point when the sun comes out—there is regularly gridlock on the A82 at Stoneymollan roundabout. As people head to Loch Lomond, that becomes worse past the roundabout. Traffic on the A811 is also affected. It does not take much traffic for the road to grind to a halt. Adding extra vehicle movements and visitors from a development of the size proposed will have an impact.
The developers say that the impact will be minimal. They say that they will encourage active travel and will provide incentives to use the local rail services. That all sounds really good, but if I go on a self-catering holiday, I will take my car filled with what I need for the week or the weekend. The reality is that that encouragement might be helpful when people get on site, but their movements on and off site will have an impact. Local knowledge matters at times such as this—people need to be clear about that.
I will be very clear, for the avoidance of doubt. If the application is to pass, the roads infrastructure needs to be addressed. Otherwise, to be frank, the application should not proceed. That is an absolute red line for me, because the local community has borne enough with the existing roads infrastructure.
Given the controversy generated by the application, it is likely to end up with ministers, whatever the national park authority’s decision. I am conscious that Lorna Slater is the minister with responsibility for national parks, but I believe that the application would be a matter for the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth. Will the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise confirm that my understanding is correct?
I am not sure whether the Bute house agreement will still be in place by the point at which the application ends up with ministers—who knows?—but it is clear that local people cannot be expected just to put up with more traffic on already difficult roads. The developer needs to work with Transport Scotland and West Dunbartonshire Council to prevent further traffic misery from being piled on to local people. If that does not happen, the application should not succeed.17:58
I am happy to have the opportunity to close this debate on Ross Greer’s motion. I thank him for bringing the motion to the chamber, and I thank all the members who have taken the opportunity to make their valid points on the record.
Members will recognise, as the Minister for Parliamentary Business did when the subject was last debated, in June last year, that it will be difficult for me to comment much because the planning application for Lomond Banks is still live and the Scottish ministerial code rightly restricts ministers from commenting publicly on live planning applications, as doing so could prejudice the final decision. Therefore, unfortunately, I will be unable to take interventions.
Applications for planning permission are dealt with by the relevant planning authority in the first instance. In this case, that is the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority. Planning decisions within the national park are required to have regard to the national park plan and must be in accordance with the national planning framework 4, along with the national park’s local development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. That recognition of and respect for the important role played by the planning authorities in making decisions on future developments in their area mean that it is rare for ministers to intervene in a live planning application, and they will do so only where matters of national interest are at stake. In response to Jackie Baillie’s point, I confirm that, as I understand it, the planning minister would be the relevant minister in such cases.
I acknowledge members’ interest in the project and in the wider running of our national parks. The Scottish Government, too, is a strong supporter of the work that our national parks do, from conserving and protecting Scotland’s nature and biodiversity to making the parks a great place to visit and to live and work in. Both the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park and the Cairngorms national park continue to go from strength to strength in preserving Scotland’s unique nature while also supporting local communities, businesses and visitors. Indeed, in recognition of their value in that respect and their potential to help to address the twin climate and biodiversity crises that Scotland faces, the Scottish Government has committed to the designation of a new national park by the end of this parliamentary session.
I am sure that members are aware that our national parks have a number of duties and driving objectives, including supporting their tourism economy. However, their underpinning aim, which takes precedence in any decision making, is to conserve and enhance Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage. I am confident that the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park will apply that aim to its assessment of the Lomond Banks project. Indeed, having that kind of rigorous scrutiny process is one of the reasons why these decisions can take so long.
I should also point out that that process is transparent, with information on the application published on the park’s website. The opportunity is there for anyone to submit formal comments on the application. Ultimately, any decisions are transparent and will be made in line with the park’s four aims of conserving and enhancing natural cultural heritage; promoting the sustainable use of natural resources in the area; promoting understanding and enjoyment of the area’s special qualities to the public; and promoting sustainable social and economic development of the area’s communities. As I have said, where there are potential conflicts, the first of those aims will be considered above all others.
Listening to the views that have been expressed, I can tell that there is a lot of passion around this project. The park has indicated that updated information has been received at the request of the authority and there is currently an opportunity for further comment to be made. The most appropriate and impactful way in which members can make their views known is to feed in to the process formally by submitting formal comments directly to the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority through the official planning portal on its website, by emailing it directly or by sending a written letter to its headquarters. As the process is transparent, any correspondence is published on the portal, alongside the application.
I take on board Ross Greer’s comment about the issue of contacting board members, and I can inform him that board members can be contacted through the board’s email address. As for his other point on this matter, my understanding is that, with regard to email addresses, board members are not subject to the same provisions as exist in local government legislation.
Comments in the form of formal representations can be submitted until 30 March, although public comments can continue to be submitted after that date until a short time before the park authority’s members meet to determine the application. However, it is advisable that comments be submitted by that date to ensure that feedback is submitted within the statutory timeframe. That will help to ensure that the park authority is able to consider all information and representations as quickly as possible and in advance of its meeting to determine the application.
Once again, I thank members for their thoughts on the project, and I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Government.Meeting closed at 18:03.