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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Agenda: Business Motions, Portfolio Question Time, Deaths in Custody, Retained European Union Law, Cost of Living Support, Social Care Charges, Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Loch Lomond (Proposed Development)


Contents


Loch Lomond (Proposed Development)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-04060, in the name of Ross Greer, on save Loch Lomond. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I ask members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the reported application lodged by the Yorkshire-based theme park operator, Flamingo Land, for the development of a so-called “luxury resort” on the banks of Loch Lomond at Balloch; understands that this is Flamingo Land’s second application for a development on the site, with the first application reportedly having been withdrawn following a record 60,000 objections being lodged with the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park authority; congratulates local residents and the Save Loch Lomond campaign for, it believes, having protected the ancient woodland at Drumkinnon Woods, which it understands is no longer the proposed location for dozens of guest lodges, but remains concerned about a number of reported issues with the current application, including its overall scale, public access to Drumkinnon Woods and the wider site, pressure on local roads and the principle of selling public land at one of Scotland’s most famous locations to a private developer.

18:58  

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I thank members from across the Parliament for supporting my motion and helping to secure the debate.

It is not the first debate on the issue that I have brought to the chamber. Three years ago, a planning application was submitted that attracted more discussion and interest than any other local issue in the west of Scotland in the six years for which I have been an MSP. It is clear to me that the issue is so deeply emotive to people because of the importance of Loch Lomond to the communities that live there, to people across Scotland and to those from further afield who have been fortunate enough to visit our world-famous national park.

It is particularly important to many of my constituents and to others across the central belt who may not live in Balloch themselves but are able to access everything that Loch Lomond has to offer through the gateway that Balloch represents. Just 40 minutes on the train from Glasgow, and you will be in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

Flamingo Land’s first application, which was submitted back in 2018-19, was riddled with problems. The company’s own environmental impact assessment made for particularly grim reading, speaking 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.”

Iconic views were to be interrupted by a water park and hotel on the shoreline, and 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, whose profits certainly would not be reinvested in the local economy. There were 60,000 objections lodged, making Flamingo Land’s application the most unpopular planning application in Scottish history. West Dunbartonshire Council formally opposed the plans, as did Ramblers Scotland, the Woodland Trust and a number of local groups.

When national park planning officers recommended refusal of the plans, Flamingo Land saw the writing on the wall and pulled its application. We won—once again, I thank everyone who contributed to that victory, including members who are in the chamber for the debate this evening.

During the campaign, local residents came together at a meeting to consider what Balloch and the wider area needed, and what a positive alternative development would look like. The list of ideas that were suggested by residents included a municipal water sports centre, camping and motor home facilities, a backpacker hostel, a forest school, a heritage centre, a museum and many more. There was significant interest in developments around ecotourism, and things such as affordability, educational benefit and recognising Balloch as an accessible base for exploring both sides of the loch were also identified as priorities. However, the exclusivity agreement between Flamingo Land and Scottish Enterprise made it impossible to progress any of those alternatives.

Despite the comprehensive rejection of that proposed development, Flamingo Land is now back with another application. It sounds eerily familiar, with 127 self-catering lodges, a hotel, a water park, a monorail, a brewery and more.

Our campaign has, however, secured one important concession already. Most of the ancient woodland at Drumkinnon woods has been removed entirely from the development, although it would still form part of the site and would be sold to Flamingo Land, which would put it at risk of future development. Flamingo Land previously told me directly that its plans were not financially viable without development in that ancient woodland, so it is easy to see why the community simply does not trust the company as custodian of that very special location.

In addition, just under half a hectare of ancient woodland is still at direct risk in the current application, which is one of the reasons why the Woodland Trust has joined us once again in objecting to Flamingo Land’s plans. The environmental impact assessment says that that area of ancient woodland, which is about two thirds of the size of the pitch at Hampden, will be removed in the construction phase of the development. Loss of ancient woodland means permanent damage and is totally unacceptable when we are facing such a stark biodiversity and climate crisis, as the Scottish Government acknowledged earlier this week.

The new team overseeing the application have made a number of other small improvements, such as reducing the height of the hotel and water park complex. They have also taken a more professional approach this time. Admittedly, the bar was set pretty low last time, but this time around I have not had any petulant insults from the chief executive about my age and my apparent achievements, and the company has not threatened me with a defamation action for quoting from its own environmental impact assessment. The company’s last attempt truly was the definition of a cowboy operation.

We should not be under any illusions about the apparent improvements, however: the new application is still utterly inappropriate and the grounds for objection still stand. The scale of development is huge. It would have a drastic impact on a well-visited national park location right on the loch shore. Space that is used freely for leisure by locals and visitors alike would become part of a branded development, which would mean that non-paying visitors would feel like second-class citizens, behind those who could afford the premium to rent a lodge.

In response to my raising those access concerns with the First Minister, the developers issued a press release with an access pledge. However, that pledge simply reiterates the company’s basic legal obligations and does not address the unavoidable restrictions that come when open space becomes a private holiday park.

The whole development would be focused on Flamingo Land’s paying customers, to the detriment of those local residents and other visitors who just want to enjoy the accessible lochside location. Why else would the monorail link the restaurant with the upper floor of the water park? There is potential to link the shore with the railway station, restoring a public transport link to the loch for people with lower mobility in particular. In practice, however, the proposed monorail will simply link two parts of an exclusive resort with each other, without wider community benefit.

In addition, most of the site would be handed over from public ownership into the hands of a private theme park operator that is based hundreds of miles away. The local community has stood firm against the idea of land that is owned and looked after on its behalf being passed to a company that exists only to profit from it.

As I mentioned, residents’ alternative ideas, which could not be progressed due to the exclusivity agreement, included a community development trust or community interest company model so that any profits that were made by something like a local arts venue, for example, would be kept in the community.

As we face a climate emergency, major new developments, especially in national parks, have a responsibility to play their part in tackling the crisis. That is clearly not the case with this development, which will bring in substantial additional traffic on local roads. The A82, which runs up the west side of the loch, is infamous for congestion during tourist season as it is. That concern was key to West Dunbartonshire Council’s objection to the first application, and I urge the council to bear that in mind as it prepares a position on the new proposal, given that the scale of development and the expected traffic levels remain the same.

Balloch and the wider national park need significant improvements in public transport, not a doubling down on car-centric developments. A truly co-ordinated and easily accessible public transport and active travel plan is needed for all of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park. I have been discussing a travel strategy with the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority and others for a while now, and some progress has been made. There is now a national park journey planner app; plans for shuttle buses are being actively worked on; and a sustainable travel and modal shift report is in progress, which would present a clearer picture of the barriers to, and opportunities for, a reduction in car use in the park.

I would welcome interest from the Government in working with the national park authority and local councils to deliver a comprehensive transport master plan for the park. However, it is not good enough for Flamingo Land simply to stand by and expect public bodies to solve the traffic problems that it would be creating. A development such as the one that is proposed is incompatible with the park’s own plans to contribute to meeting Scotland’s climate targets.

The Vale of Leven hospital watch campaign has also raised concerns with me about the pressure that the development could put on local services at that hospital, where there are long-standing capacity issues that will be familiar to many members. That is a serious concern, and I expect both the council and the park to take it into account.

An overwhelming majority of my constituents have made it clear that they do not want a scar on the protected woodland, the riverbank and the loch shore. They do not object in principle to redeveloping Woodbank house—as we made clear last time—but they certainly do not want 127 lodges providing holidays that many local residents would struggle to afford, attracting thousands more cars and sending profits to a corporation that is based far from the local area.

People are sick of Flamingo Land’s patronising and incorrect message 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 that resort, or Balloch will forever be a neglected and derelict wasteland.

We have more ambition for Balloch than the company does. The community has other ideas—dozens of them. Those alternative proposals could provide sustainable and high-quality jobs, educational benefits and far more while preserving the stunning natural beauty that makes Loch Lomond a global destination. In contrast, Flamingo Land’s plan is, to be frank, boring, generic and expensive. It does nothing to enhance Balloch’s position as a gateway to the national park; it is not what we need to support the local economy; and it is certainly not what we need to tackle the climate emergency. No real consideration has been given to the local community or the local environment.

I encourage members across all parties, as well as members of the public who may be watching, to join me in lodging strong objections to the plans.

I realise that, as the planning application is live, the Minister for Parliamentary Business is severely constrained in what he is able to say, so I will not take offence if his contribution is shorter than a Government response to a members’ business debate would normally be.

Nonetheless, the Government knows the strength of feeling, both locally and nationally, about the development. People care deeply about Loch Lomond—they are proud of it and they want to see it enhanced, not cheapened. Our campaign’s commitment to save Loch Lomond is unwavering, and I ask everyone who feels the same to join us and help us to win this fight once again.

Thank you, Mr Greer. You appear to have used some of the minister’s allocated time, but I am sure that he will not be too disappointed.

19:08  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the debate, and I thank my colleague Ross Greer for raising this very important issue in the chamber.

As Ross Greer has explained, this is the second application that has been lodged by the developer; the first application was reportedly withdrawn following a record 60,000 objections after a robust campaign from the local residents and the save Loch Lomond campaign.

I am proud to say that I love Loch Lomond. I have been going there for as long as I can remember for family days out, celebrations, dog walks and just generally to soak up the peace and beauty of this jewel in Scotland’s countryside. Nowadays, as it is just a 30-minute drive from my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, I try to get there as often as time allows.

The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park is home to 21 Munros, 19 Corbetts—none of them climbed by me, I hasten to add—and 21 large lochs. That is pretty phenomenal by anyone’s standards.

It is clear that the Flamingo Land developers have made a concession in order to progress their plans, which is to move the proposed lodges in Drumkinnon woods to another part of the development. The lodges will still be there, of course—just not on that site. That seems to prove the fact that the developers had no real thought for the aesthetic beauty of the area in the first place when they submitted their original proposals.

To be clear, I am not anti-development, and I do not want to keep Scotland in aspic. However, I do not believe that the level of this development is appropriate for an area of such natural beauty. The developers may argue that it will attract tourism and money to the area, but I would argue that a more modest proposal would do that, as Ross Greer has outlined very well.

In my experience, tourists flock to the national park whenever the sun shines, and it is doing very nicely without a fairground attraction. After lockdown restrictions ended in 2020 and 2021, there was a 200 per cent surge in traffic heading for Loch Lomond and, on several occasions, cars were turned back from approaching Luss due to the sheer volume.

Loch Lomond will always attract tourists and the generations of families who regularly flock there to experience the wonder of the area. I want people from all over the world to come to Scotland to enjoy our wonderful lochs and tourist attractions with the tasteful facilities that we have all come to expect.

All that is crucial, and that is before we even mention the inevitable environmental damage to the area, the disruption to wildlife, the pressure on local roads and the restriction of public access to Drumkinnon woods, as Ross Greer mentioned. It is also about the principle of selling off precious public land to a private developer for profit. Is that a good thing? I do not think so. Do we want to sacrifice a significant part of our Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park for big business? I certainly do not.

Loch Lomond is one of Scotland’s greatest landmarks, and maintaining its integrity must be of paramount importance. Furthermore, our environmental heritage should not be sullied by big business that is intent on making a profit. Rejecting the submitted proposals will send a clear message to developers: leave our bonnie banks alone and let nature be the attraction.

19:11  

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

As a West Scotland MSP, I am honoured to have places of outstanding natural beauty in my region, including Loch Lomond and the surrounding Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park.

With there being only two national parks in Scotland, I am proud to have a significant part of one of them in my region. Members will agree that such areas are what makes Scotland a truly special place in which to live, and protecting those areas, and the communities in them, should always be a priority. Therefore, I am clear that such proposals should only go ahead when the concerns of local communities have been addressed.

Many objections have been raised against the proposals since Lomond Banks first submitted plans in 2018. More than 60,000 objections were submitted, and the proposals were unanimously rejected by the elected members of West Dunbartonshire Council in its role as a statutory consultee. However, it is positive to see that Lomond Banks has tried in its new proposals to address some of the concerns that were raised and that it is engaging with the communities that the plans will affect to ensure that the development is able to deliver its potential benefits to the local economy.

Although I acknowledge the £40 million investment from Lomond Banks and its economic benefits, I still have concerns over six particular areas. The first is antisocial behaviour and problems with littering in and around Balloch, which are already serious problems during the summer months, and residents are rightly concerned about that becoming even worse if the development goes ahead.

Secondly, there needs to be more safeguarding of the natural environment surrounding the proposed site. There should be further assurances that there will be no pollution to Loch Lomond.

Thirdly, despite Lomond Banks stating that Drumkinnon woods will be protected from development, the Woodland Trust has warned that ancient woodland might still be damaged by the proposals.

Fourthly, developments such as the one proposed should also come with an economic development plan that truly works in the interests of the local economy. It is possible to create a system that complements existing local businesses instead of simply competing with them, but it remains to be seen whether the new proposals will achieve that balance.

Fifthly, we need to see a well-thought-out workforce plan for the site that works alongside the existing skills pool and takes account of existing shortages of local labour.

Last, but not least, those issues are in addition to the many concerns that have been raised about the already stretched local infrastructure, including the local road network.

When done properly, such developments can be a great benefit to all parties, but that can happen only when the projects are inclusive and include local residents and businesses. I urge Lomond Banks to continue to work constructively with local communities to address the concerns, and I encourage concerned residents or businesses to ensure that their views are known.

I am not against such developments by default; in fact, I try to support them where possible, but each development has to be the right one for local communities and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. I am no stranger to working with developments that have a positive overall outcome, and I hope that Lomond Banks will work around the points that I have raised today in taking forward its plans.

19:15  

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I congratulate Ross Greer on securing debating time to explore the current planning application by Lomond Banks, which is most commonly known as Flamingo Land, to develop West Riverside at Balloch. Before I come on to the application, I note that the land belongs to Scottish Enterprise, which is a public agency that is answerable to the Scottish ministers. Although I was happy to sign Ross Greer’s motion, as a matter of principle I am not opposed to the sale of public land for the right development. Of course, the question is whether this is the right development for the gateway to Scotland’s first national park, which in my view is the most beautiful national park in Scotland.

If the Scottish Government believes that it is not the right development, one wonders why it is agreeing to sell the land that it owns. Now that Ross Greer’s colleagues form part of the Government, I am hopeful that we can pursue that point and that a community buyout will be considered. I have no doubt that Lomond Banks will receive grants from Scottish Enterprise, perhaps in the form of the replacement for regional selective assistance. I cannot help but wonder whether that will exceed the capital receipt from the sale of the land so that, in effect, we are paying the company to go there. In the interests of transparency, I would be grateful if the minister will publish the anticipated figures in due course.

I opposed the application the first time round, and it is fair to say that opinion in the community is divided. Will it bring jobs and help local businesses? Does that outweigh environmental concerns? Will our local roads cope? Those are just some of the questions in people’s minds. That is why I am engaging in a local community consultation to get people’s views, and I am happy to share the results of that on a cross-party basis.

The application is not substantially different from the previous application three years ago. The key difference is the removal of 32 self-catering lodges that were previously planned for Drumkinnon woods. Nevertheless, concerns remain about Drumkinnon woods, which are captured in the briefing from the Woodland Trust and in correspondence that I have had from local residents about the impact of the development on a popular local area of important ancient woodland. That significant concern needs to be addressed.

Jobs have always been a key consideration for me. Apparently, the project will create 80 full-time jobs and 120 part-time jobs, and the company has agreed to pay the real living wage, which is an improvement on its previous position, but I would want much more robust pledges to be developed about local jobs and fair work in the coming weeks. I would also want to see guarantees on the use of local supply chains and partnerships with other local tourism businesses. Although that may not be part of the planning process, it is a critical consideration for the community, and we should not accept anything less from any developer.

For me, there is a question about density. We are talking about two hotels and 127 self-catering lodges and apartments. That is a lot of visitors, not just at the height of the season but, as is common with such projects, all year round. The local roads infrastructure is poor. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been stuck on the A82 in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I am therefore concerned about any additional volume of traffic. I know that there is a railway station at Balloch, and I like the plans for a monorail but, realistically, if any of us was going for a self-catering holiday, we would take our cars. Therefore, the development will have a negative impact on infrastructure.

I will weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the application, but I will be influenced by the views of local people. The application falls to the national park authority to be considered, but it would be helpful to clarify what role Lorna Slater will have, as she is the minister responsible for national parks, or whether Tom Arthur, who is responsible for planning, will have a role. I am not interested in commenting on the substance with them, but I think that the process is important, particularly given the interest of the Green Party and its position in Government.

In the meantime, it is right to carefully consider what local people tell us that they want to happen because, after all, it is their home.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Ms Baillie. You took a leaf out of Ross Greer’s book.

I invite the minister to respond to the debate. You have around seven minutes, Mr Adam.

19:20  

The Minister for Parliamentary Business (George Adam)

Good luck with my response being seven minutes long, Presiding Officer.

I am grateful for the opportunity to close this debate on Ross Greer’s motion. Ironically, it is the first members’ business debate that I will close as a minister, and—as with everything during my career in the chamber—it is fraught with challenges.

I will be unable to take interventions from colleagues, which is mainly due to the fact that, as Mr Greer has mentioned, a live planning application is in progress. I welcome members’ continued interest in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park and the consideration that has gone into the concerns that have been raised during the debate.

The Scottish Government is committed to our national parks and, as members know, we intend to designate at least one new national park by the end of this parliamentary session.

It is, of course, for members to raise any motion that they consider appropriate for consideration during members’ business debates. In this case, the motion is focused on a live planning application, so it raises procedural difficulties for me and Parliament. As required by the Scottish ministerial code, ministers are restricted from commenting publicly on live planning applications as doing so could potentially prejudice the final decision.

The challenge of such debates was the subject of correspondence, in 2014, between Joe FitzPatrick, my predecessor as Minister for Parliamentary Business, and Stewart Stevenson, in his capacity as the then convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. The strict limitations on the Scottish Government on commenting on live applications was noted, but the committee was unable to identify changes to procedures to address the issue without restricting the topics that members can raise at members’ business debates.

Applications for planning permission are dealt with, in the first instance, by the relevant planning authority. 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 in accordance with the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park’s local development plan unless material consideration indicates otherwise. Recognising and respecting the important role of the planning authorities in making decisions on future developments in their area means 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.

Members will be aware that the Scottish Government is currently working towards a finalised national planning framework—NPF4—which is to be laid before Parliament for approval before adoption by the Scottish ministers. The draft NPF4 explains how we will work together to build sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places. Addressing climate change and nature recovery are key priorities and, once finalised, NPF4 will help to provide a clear policy framework for decision makers.

Members will appreciate that I cannot comment on the merits of this live application. Once again, I thank everyone for giving me the opportunity to take part in today’s debate.

Meeting closed at 19:24.