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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 24 May 2017

Agenda: Cycle Capacity (Railways), Business Motion, Security, Portfolio Question Time, Cyber-resilience, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, National Parks


Contents


National Parks

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-03832, in the name of Finlay Carson, on the establishment of new national parks. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the value of Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty, which creates jobs, contributes to the economy and attracts millions of tourists from Galloway and West Dumfries, the rest of Scotland and the world; notes what it sees as the success of the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs national parks in conserving and enhancing the natural heritage of these areas, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to conduct a review of national parks and consider the establishment of new ones.

17:04  

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I thank the members who supported my motion, allowing this debate to take place. Many of my colleagues will know that I have campaigned enthusiastically on this issue for many years, first as a councillor in Dumfries and Galloway and now as the MSP for Galloway and West Dumfries. I believe passionately that Galloway should have the recognition that it deserves, with its very own national park.

John of the mountains petitioned the US Congress for the national park bill that was passed in 1890, establishing the Yosemite national park. John of the mountains, better known as John Muir, profoundly shaped how people now understand and envision their relationship with the natural world. With a Scotsman as the original promoter of national parks and our world-renowned natural beauty, it is incredible that we have only two national parks in the whole of Scotland. That is something that I believe we need to change.

To set the scene, we currently have two national parks—the Cairngorms, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs—and there are 10 in England. National parks are protected areas, which are designated because of their beautiful countryside, wildlife and cultural heritage. People live and work in the national parks, and the farms, villages and towns are protected along with the landscape and wildlife. National parks welcome many visitors and provide opportunities for everyone to experience, enjoy and learn about the park’s special natural qualities.

Specifically, the Scottish national parks have four aims, as laid out in the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000:

“(a) to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area,

(b) to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area,

(c) to promote understanding and enjoyment ... of the special qualities of the area by the public, and”—

crucially—

“(d) to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.”

Too often, national parks are seen as planning controls max. However, the current legislation enables the Scottish Government to propose areas for designation, and allows considerable flexibility in the design of national parks so that they can be tailored to local circumstances and local needs.

In Galloway we have one of the most man-made or man-shaped landscapes in Scotland and it is constantly changing. Perhaps, unlike the Cairngorms, we do not want to mothball our area—it is not about restrictions. The 2000 act requires national parks to pursue sustainable economic and social development alongside conservation and recreation.

Importantly, national parks in Scotland are governed by boards that are made up of directly elected local people, local councillors and national experts. Having local people engaged and working towards the sustainable development and management of an area can bring limitless benefits to that area and the local communities within it. I do not believe that anybody can make better decisions about how to manage an area than the people who live and work there.

The Scottish Campaign for National Parks and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland have highlighted seven areas of the country that could be designated national parks, from Harris right down to Galloway. A Galloway national park would inevitably be very different from the two that we currently have. We are not looking to replicate what is there in the Cairngorms or Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

We already have many components of what is expected of a national park: the United Kingdom’s largest forest park, three national scenic areas, the Galloway and southern Ayrshire biosphere and Europe’s first dark-sky park; we could also incorporate an additional marine component in the Solway Firth. There is a rich variety of dynamic coastal scenery and, together with the forest park, visitors can see a gradual transition from the coastline through a well-wooded farming landscape to the upland hills. There is a huge diversity of landscapes, making Galloway an outstanding example of the type of fine landscape that Scotland has to offer beyond its classic and best-known Highland scenery. In Galloway we tick all the boxes—we just need that world-renowned and recognised designation.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

I ask this in all seriousness as a member of the Scottish Parliament who represents the Cairngorms, which is a fantastic national park. Mr Carson talked about the four different aims. One of the real challenges is the difficulty in meeting those four aims—they can sometimes come into conflict. Has he considered how that would work in other national parks?

Finlay Carson

Absolutely—Kate Forbes has raised a good point. It is vital that there is flexibility, and that is in the legislation. We often describe the national park that we would like to see in Galloway as national park lite, to ensure that it addresses a lot of those potential issues.

Dumfries and Galloway Council, which has agreed to be actively involved in any proposals that are being developed for a Galloway national park, has endorsed the approach that has been taken to date by the community-based group leading the proposals. It is clear that there needs to be a wide-ranging and inclusive engagement process that seeks to build consensus among communities. It is crucial that the park is demanded by the community and not seen as being imposed on it.

Council officers have actively promoted the need to consider the Solway coast as part of the emerging proposal, recognising the environmental, social and economic attributes that the coastal area could bring to a national park proposition. A study that was commissioned by Dumfries and Galloway Council into the feasibility of a national park noted that there is a significant economic opportunity waiting to be developed in the area. The study went on to suggest that the costs of running the national park could be more than offset by the economic benefits.

Why now? The Scottish Government has told me previously that the designation of new national parks is not a priority. As a Conservative, I understand the importance of prudent public spending, but the arguments for more national parks in Scotland are compelling. National parks help to boost employment in rural communities through sustainable development. Permanent staff would be employed directly by the national park authority and jobs would be created through increased tourism and visitor numbers in the area.

Scotland has world-class scenery and people come from all over the world to experience it. Our economy relies heavily on tourism, much of which is focused on the incredible beauty of our countryside. In 2015, well over 200,000 people were employed in the tourism sector in Scotland, which was 9 per cent of total employment. Spending by tourists in Scotland generates around £12 billion of economic activity in the wider Scottish supply chain. A report by VisitScotland found that 17 per cent of all visitors to Scotland went to the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park and that 12 per cent went to the Cairngorms national park, which demonstrates the huge pull that national park status can have.

It is not only tourism that benefits. Small lifestyle businesses that are based on the sustainable use of natural resources such as timber, fish, wildlife or geology can thrive in a national park environment.

The south of Scotland would benefit hugely from the proper recognition that Galloway deserves, and that is national park status. The Scottish Government says that it takes climate change and enhancing biodiversity seriously. If that is the case, it must look at designating more national parks in Scotland. That would inspire pride and passion from local people and visitors alike, boosting Scotland’s image worldwide. Let us give Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty the recognition that it deserves by using the powers that we have in the Parliament to designate more national parks.

17:12  

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the debate and I congratulate Finlay Carson on securing it. Mr Carson’s motion asks for a review of national parks across Scotland. I represent the South Scotland region, so I will focus on that area. Finlay Carson and I are both privileged to represent areas of outstanding natural beauty in Scotland. The landscape and surroundings in the south of Scotland and the south-west of Scotland are integral not just to our natural heritage but to the economy, as Finlay Carson said.

The south-west of Scotland is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We are fortunate to have the Galloway and southern Ayrshire biosphere and within that the dark-sky park and the Galloway forest park. Last month, I was pleased to host the team behind the Galloway and southern Ayrshire biosphere in the Scottish Parliament to highlight their work to members. That was the first event in Parliament supporting the biosphere programme.

Biosphere reserves are places with world-class environments that are designated to promote and demonstrate a balanced relationship between people and nature. They are places that value and protect the biological and cultural diversity of a region while promoting environmentally sustainable economic development. The 5,268km2 of the Galloway and southern Ayrshire biosphere holds a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designation. I was particularly struck by the words of Dr Beth Taylor, chair of the United Kingdom national commission for UNESCO, when she spoke at my event in Parliament. Dr Taylor described UNESCO’s global networks as a

“powerful mechanism for collaborating with colleagues across borders, and helping friends around the world”.

That sentiment neatly sums up the reason why I was first attracted to the idea of the biosphere. For me, it is outward looking and international and it promotes ecological diversity and sustainable development.

The Ramsay report in 1945 identified the area around Merrick and Glen Trool as “eminently suitable” for a national park, but a proposal for a Galloway national park will need to work for the whole region. Feedback from local people who I have spoken to so far has been mixed. If a new park is to proceed in Galloway, it is vital that support is garnered from as wide a range of stakeholders as possible, as Finlay Carson noted.

There are advantages and disadvantages to having more national parks, but certainly there is potential in the idea. I was pleased to attend Finlay Carson’s parliamentary event in January to hear the case being made by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks. The event was well attended and supporters spoke eloquently and passionately about why they believe that establishing the national park would be good for Scotland.

In meetings and surgeries over the past year, I have heard a variety of people voice different and sometimes opposing views on having a national park for the south-west or for Galloway. It is important that any proposals come directly from the people of the south of Scotland and are for something that people who live and work there are happy to support and live with for the long term.

National parks are not a silver bullet and they carry considerable costs. It is important not to lose sight of the many positive examples already in place in the south-west, and the benefits that they are delivering. I read with interest a document produced by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks that details various governance models, and I am attracted to the idea of a governance model consisting of a park committee that is overseen by the local authority. That would solve one of the problems that I described, by avoiding the relatively complex and costly arrangements that are in place at Scotland’s two existing national parks.

I thank Finlay Carson for bringing the issue to the chamber. It is important to have this debate and to seriously consider whether the creation of a national park would make the situation easier or more difficult for the wider rural economy. If we create a national park, the best way to go about it will be to encourage all stakeholders to be involved.

17:16  

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I congratulate my colleague Finlay Carson on securing the debate.

As I come from the west of Scotland and live very near the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park, I understand the benefits that having a national park can bring to rural communities. We are lucky enough to have the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park protecting the natural beauty of our area and encouraging thousands of tourists to come to our part of Scotland every year, bringing with them massive economic benefit to local business and those who live in our communities. In our 2016 election manifesto, the Scottish Conservatives supported the creation of further national parks so that those benefits can be rolled out across Scotland.

Our countryside’s natural beauty is undoubtedly one of our greatest assets. Scotland’s countryside is world renowned and is one of the major reasons why people decide to visit here. Research has shown that more than 60 per cent of visitors are interested in visiting our countryside and that it was high up on the list of their potential activities. Further research by VisitScotland showed that 58 per cent of visitors stated that their motivator for visiting Scotland was the scenery and landscape. The second most popular motivator on that list, with 31 per cent, was to learn more about Scottish history and culture, both of which national parks protect and enhance.

Those figures prove that a large number of our international tourists want to take advantage of our countryside when they are here, and figures show that national parks attract large numbers of overseas visitors. We should be seeking to take advantage of that by spreading the benefits to more areas across Scotland. Opening more national parks would help to do that.

Kate Forbes

Will the member give way?

Maurice Corry

Yes.

Kate Forbes

On Loch Lomond and the Trossachs—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Kate Forbes.

Kate Forbes

Sorry.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Enthusiasm is no bad thing, Ms Forbes.

Kate Forbes

I am generally in favour of national parks, but one of the challenges is that, when a national park is established, house prices start to rise, which makes it harder for local people to buy houses and stay in the area. It is also far harder to build houses in national parks. Has that been the case in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs?

Maurice Corry

Yes, it has been. There is an anachronism in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park, which is that, in order to build in the national park, one has to work in it. That is being addressed by the council that I was previously a councillor on—I must declare an interest: I was a councillor on Argyll and Bute Council prior to 4 May. That was an issue in my ward of Lomond North, and a constant battle is going on there. That is being addressed, but Kate Forbes is right, and the effect has been to put up the value of the small number of houses there. Another reason why they are going up in value is the expansion of Faslane, but that is another issue altogether.

It is worth noting that many countries have a larger number of national parks than we do, and that they often play a significant role in the advertising of the country. For example, Kenya actively advertises the fact that it has more than 45 national parks and reserves. That is the same in South Africa, which I visited. The “national park” label is probably the best-known countryside protection designation in the world. Although national parks are run slightly differently in each country, people recognise that term as referring to somewhere of outstanding natural beauty and interest and somewhere that they should go and see.

Although it is important and right that we have more national parks, we need to ensure that we use them effectively and that we market them abroad effectively, as we are marketing rural Scotland and its many attractions. If we could improve our national park system and the advertising and marketing of it, the benefits that it would bring to rural communities would be numerous and varied. Tourists in rural areas bring substantial assistance in sustaining local services that might otherwise not be commercially viable. The increased levels of expenditure in local shops, on rural public transport and in restaurants and cafes can help to sustain those services for local people while creating jobs for people in rural areas. I know that many communities in Scotland would benefit from that.

I firmly believe that rural Scotland would benefit from making national parks a central theme of how we encourage people to come and visit Scotland. Therefore, we need to increase the number of national parks that we have in Scotland.

17:21  

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Like other members, I am grateful to Finlay Carson for the opportunity that the motion gives us to celebrate the success story that is Scotland’s existing national parks, and also to make what is a powerful case for the establishment of new national parks in Scotland.

It is now 17 years since the Parliament passed the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000, which paved the way for the Labour-led Scottish Executive to create the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park in 2002 and the Cairngorms national park in 2003. Those parks have helped to deliver a major economic boost to those areas, supporting local businesses, generating jobs for young people, providing affordable homes, promoting investment in sustainable rural development and growing the tourism sector. They have also delivered an environmental boost, restoring paths and peatlands, conserving native woodlands and assisting with species recovery.

However, that is, to coin a phrase, “unfinished business”. Despite our outstanding natural beauty and the acknowledgment that national park status is an internationally recognised successful brand, Scotland has just two of the United Kingdom’s 15 national parks, with 10 in England and three in Wales. When it comes to national parks, we are a poor relation not just to the rest of the UK but to topographically similar countries such as New Zealand, which has 14 national parks, and Norway, which has 37.

The Parliament and the Government have never said that only two areas in Scotland are worthy of national park status, so the time is right to seriously debate the case for and merits of building on our success and developing new national parks. That case is compelling, given our world-class scenery, the protection and management that national park status gives to that scenery, and the positive impact on tourism and rural development of the national park brand.

The Scottish Campaign for National Parks report, “Unfinished Business”, sets out that compelling case in detail. That report was of course targeted at the time to provide a framework to support the 2011 Scottish National Party manifesto commitment that pledged to

“work with communities to explore the creation of new National Parks”.

Although that commitment was missing from the SNP’s 2016 manifesto, there is support from the other four main parties, including my party, which made a commitment to consider options for a new national park. Importantly, that means that there is a parliamentary majority in favour of at least considering new national parks.

The SCNP document “Unfinished Business” not only makes the case for new national parks; it goes on to propose seven possible areas that could be designated and could benefit from such status. That includes two areas in my South Scotland region, namely the Cheviots in the Scottish Borders, where the very active campaign for a Borders national park will shortly publish a feasibility study for its proposed park, and Galloway, where the Galloway national park sssociation has been set up and is developing a strong case for a national park covering parts of Galloway and South Ayrshire.

Until I stepped down as a councillor last month, I had the privilege of chairing Dumfries and Galloway Council’s economy committee. We commissioned the Southern Uplands Partnership to consider whether such a proposal would be beneficial for our region. The work was undertaken in partnership with the Galloway and southern Ayrshire biosphere, which had been highlighted as being part of the geographical area covered by such a proposal.

Finally, the report “A Galloway National Park...?”, to which Finlay Carson referred, addressed areas of concern around the administrative and legislative framework of any national park, making it clear that there is no one-size-fits-all model for a national park, and that they can be developed to suit the needs of the local community. That report also outlined the considerable benefits and economic opportunities associated with the establishment of a Galloway national park—and there are many. It would recognise the world-class scenery of the south-west of Scotland, it would protect and manage that scenery, it would act as a stimulus for tourism and rural development, and it would reinforce Scotland’s national identity.

Not surprisingly, the report was supported by the biosphere partnership board and endorsed unanimously across by councillors from all parties in Dumfries and Galloway Council in November 2016, when we agreed to support the campaign for a Galloway national park. I was also pleased to see that that commitment will continue in the partnership agreement that was signed this week by the new Labour and Scottish National Party administration on Dumfries and Galloway Council.

Galloway national park association believes that a new park could attract between 250,000 and 500,000 new visits each year and £30 million to £60 million per annum of additional spending in the short term for the local economy, as well as helping support or create between 700 and 1,400 additional jobs. The association argues that a Galloway national park authority could provide direct employment for between 40 and 80 rangers. In short, it says that a Galloway national park would be a social and economic game changer for the region, which the Government knows has massive economic challenges.

I hope, therefore, that the Scottish Government will recognise that is there not only a parliamentary majority in support of considering new national parks but a compelling case and growing public support for that case.

17:25  

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

I begin, as is customary, by congratulating Finlay Carson on bringing the debate to the chamber. He, like Emma Harper and Claudia Beamish and me, serves on the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, which has oversight of national parks. Additionally, a small part of my constituency falls within the boundary of the Cairngorms national park. I look forward to the publication of the final version of its partnership plan for 2017 to 2022 shortly.

The establishment of the Cairngorms national park has been a good thing but, as Scottish Land & Estates has acknowledged, being able to see the benefits of national park status does not necessarily translate into automatic support for the creation of more national parks, as that is a more complicated issue. Conflicts will always arise around how national parks operate. In Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, we have seen the controversy over the approach to tackling wild camping issues, and in the Cairngorms, we have seen the park authority oppose wind farm applications from sites outwith its boundaries. Access to housing for local people has also been a problem.

By and large, from the environmental perspective, national parks are a vehicle for good, so I get the desire on the part of some for more parks. I also have some sympathy with the call for a marine national park. However, to paraphrase what the UK Prime Minister said on another matter, I wonder whether now is the time.

Although I entirely respect Finlay Carson for speaking up for his area, I will play devil’s advocate from a Scotland-wide perspective. Committee colleagues know that I quite enjoy playing that role, and I hope that my remarks will be accepted in that spirit.

The motion refers to calls for a review of national parks and the consideration of establishing new ones. What form would such a review take and what resource would it tie up? At a time when the relevant area of the Scottish Government has, for example, action on deer management, biodiversity, and wildlife crime issues to consider and implement, and a Scottish Natural Heritage report on the future vision for Scotland’s uplands to digest and act on, is it realistic to increase that workload, especially as it is set to be added to greatly by the consequences of Brexit? We should recognise that deer management, wildlife crime, land use in the uplands and biodiversity are, to varying degrees, issues of direct relevance to the existing parks and they would therefore be caught up in any such review.

My understanding is that the creation of a new national park would then take anything between two and four years, depending on the level of support, functions and governance structures, and the number of parks involved. As we have heard acknowledged, the level of support is critical. We would need to be clear that there was, if not a clamour, then certainly majority support for such a structure to be introduced among the local authorities and the affected communities.

How many new parks, whether all-singing or lite versions, would there be? Seven possibilities have been advanced.

Then there is the cost that will be involved. The financial memorandum that accompanied the 2000 act estimated the annual running costs for the two parks that we now have to be £6 million each when adjusted for inflation.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

Is it not the case that a light-touch national park, as other members have said, would be of value and—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Ms Beamish, where is your microphone? [Interruption.]

Claudia Beamish

At this time of night, I hope that I can remember what I just said.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

And you an experienced MSP.

Claudia Beamish

The light-touch issue that has been highlighted by other members is important—I will leave it at that or Mr Dey will not have any of his time left.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will give you your time back, Mr Dey.

Graeme Dey

Thank you.

I get exactly where Claudia Beamish is coming from, but I point out to her that, whether it is light touch or whatever, the communities still have to go along with it and there are still associated costs. As I said, in making my comments, I am playing devil’s advocate rather than trying to shoot down the idea. Without considering the impact of Brexit, where would the money to fund new national parks come from at a time of constrained and, indeed, shrinking budgets? Would the expectation be that we would cut the funding for the existing parks? Can members imagine the reaction to that?

As I have indicated, I make my comments in the role of devil’s advocate because we need to explore certain issues. In principle, I support the idea of having more national parks. I get the desire to have more national parks but, as I noted earlier, there are questions to be asked and answered about prioritisation, justification and the scale of the demand.

17:30  

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I, too, thank my colleague Finlay Carson for securing a debate in the chamber on the important subject of establishing new national parks.

As we know, Scotland has only two national parks: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and the Cairngorms. Together, they cover only about 8 per cent of Scotland’s land area, which seems far too small an area for a country as beautiful as Scotland. When the Cairngorms national park was formed, I was actively involved in land management in the Cairngorms. In the run-up to the formation of the national park, I attended numerous meetings and discussions about the proposal. The idea of the national park was, in principle, welcomed by all, and it was certainly not imposed, which is important.

The creation of the Cairngorms national park was not without problems—the biggest two were probably the boundaries and the governance. The discussions over the boundaries could have gone either way, and the decisions were somewhat arbitrary—or they seemed to be, at the time. The issue of governance has rumbled on and has yet to be fully resolved by the Cairngorms National Park Authority. The park board has elected representatives not only from areas within the park but from councils whose areas form part of the park. Thus, Moray, Highland, Angus, Aberdeenshire and Perth and Kinross councils all have representatives on the park board, which can cause confusion.

As we heard from Kate Forbes, planning decisions can be slow, especially if they are called in by the Cairngorms National Park Authority. New housing developments in the park have been frustratingly slow and the result, as we have heard, is that house prices have risen, which is taking houses outwith the purchasing power of many local people. That is something that we need to learn from and avoid.

However, those two negatives do not mean that having a national park is a bad idea. Indeed, the national parks are an asset and provide a much-needed designation that can protect our beautiful landscapes and fragile areas. That is why I find it strange that the Scottish Government finds “no compelling business case” for establishing new parks.

If we could take just the best from the two existing parks and ditch the aspects that stifle good and effective management, we could have a winning combination that could streamline the management process and take it to a new local level, promote local and sustainable development, assist species recovery—as we heard from Graeme Dey—conserve native woodlands, and support local businesses. National parks can also attract external investment and encourage sustainable rural development. In addition, as we have heard, the existing national parks have developed the tourism industry, and will continue to grow it.

For those reasons, I struggle to understand the Government’s reluctance to establish new national parks. Perhaps the Government fears more control being given to the local level. However, it seems to me that the proposed Galloway park, which would potentially stretch across two council areas, is an ideal candidate for a national park. It could keep costs low, promote environmental protection and allow economic growth to happen faster in that area.

As has been mentioned by my colleagues, there is an appetite for the establishment of new national parks: I believe that four out of the five political parties in the Scottish Parliament, including my own, support the call for more national parks.

Emma Harper

Will the member take an intervention?

Edward Mountain

I will, if I have time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will give you the time back.

Edward Mountain

In that case, I will take the intervention.

Emma Harper

Graeme Dey has just made a compelling argument about the money that is involved. The Government has not made a decision yet, and the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform will speak later in the debate. However, for now, is not the compelling argument against having new national parks that there is currently a financial constraint?

Edward Mountain

When we look at business cases—as I did during my business career—we have to look at the opportunity cost and the potential net gain to the environment and the local economy. Sometimes the opportunity costs are worth it and sometimes one has to take difficult decisions in order to grow the business as a whole. I therefore refute what Emma Harper said. Delaying the decision just delays the chance to gain the benefits.

I had very nearly reached the end of my speech when Emma Harper intervened. I call on the Government to conduct a review of establishing national parks, and to consider whether Galloway and West Dumfries is a potential site for a national park.

I accept that the Government did not mention the formation of national parks in its manifesto, but that should not stop it reacting to the calls from other parties in Parliament. It should accept the surge in support for national parks, listen to the voice of local communities, campaigners and other political parties and then make the best decision for the rural areas of Scotland.

17:36  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I am very pleased to speak in today’s debate and to reaffirm my support for having more national parks in Scotland. We have two wonderful national parks, but Scotland has many areas of outstanding natural beauty that merit that internationally recognised designation, and which are often overlooked.

As we have heard, the Scottish Campaign for National Parks identified seven possible sites. Creating new national parks would bring a range of environmental, social and economic benefits to those areas. There is very strong support for creating more national parks among most of the parties, and there are well-developed local campaigns for new national parks in Dumfries and Galloway and in the Borders. There is an extremely compelling case for a marine national park to conserve coastal habitats and our dynamic marine ecology. Indeed, there are convincing reasons to award national park status to any of the seven sites that the Scottish Campaign for National Parks has identified.

I would welcome a broad national conversation and consultation that would take account of local demand for new parks, would seek to protect a range of natural habitats, scenery and cultural heritage, and would fully involve the bodies that are already up and running and which are having such conversations across Scotland.

I hope that the Scottish Government is prepared to listen to the Galloway national park association, which presented a robust case for the local economic benefits that a new national park would bring, as it would attract an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 new visits every year and support between 700 and 1,400 jobs.

The Borders national park campaign points out that the Cheviot hills north of the border are every bit as beautiful and worthy of national park status as the Northumberland national park, which receives 1.7 million recreational visits each year, bringing in around £190 million in visitor spending. It is no surprise that the visitnorway.com website boasts of 44 national parks. Norway is four times the size of Scotland, so that is fair enough, but I repeat that it has 44 national parks. The Northumberland national park brought in that spending in 2013-14 with a budget of less than £2.8 million. I understand that the Government’s hesitance to support new national parks is cost related, so I ask that it take a long-term view, and that we have a discussion and look at the role that national parks play in rural development and the contribution that they make to our tourism sector.

A study for National Parks England outlined that in 2012 England’s national parks generated between £4.1 billion and £6.3 billion gross value added, which is comparable to the GVA of a small city such as Coventry.

The Scottish Campaign for National Parks also points out that it would not be as costly to establish and run future national parks as it was to establish and run our first two, because they would cover smaller areas and encompass areas of only one or two local authorities. Its report on future governance models estimated that their running costs may be as little as £1.5 million to £3 million. That would be an important investment in our rural economy and it would provide vital protection for our natural landscape.

Our national parks can have an even stronger role to play in protecting Scotland’s iconic species. As species champion for the hare, I have asked the cabinet secretary to consider using her powers to introduce a nature conservation order that would prohibit culls of the mountain hare in our national parks. The mountain hare is found only in Scotland but, sadly, they are routinely culled in many of our upland sporting estates, even in the Cairngorms national park. I look forward to any comment that the cabinet secretary might have on that.

Finally, there can be no doubt that, as well as delivering economic benefits and environmental protection, national parks benefit our wellbeing. As John Muir, one of the earliest advocates of national parks, once wrote, national parks allow thousands of people

“to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wildness is a necessity”

and that our natural landscapes are useful not only

“as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life”.

17:40  

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

A lot has been said in this debate about the success of our national parks, and I endorse those remarks. Part of my constituency falls within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park and, in my role as a constituency MSP, I have seen at first hand the good work that is done by the park authority. The work of the two parks in protecting species and habitats, promoting tourism and providing social and economic benefits to the communities that they serve is fully recognised and valued by the Scottish Government.

Of course, we have debated this issue in the chamber before. In November 2013—I appreciate that some members who are here today were not members of the Parliament at that time—there was a debate that was similar to this one. It followed the publication of the report “Unfinished Business” by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland. That report called on the Scottish Government to develop a long-term strategy for more national parks. Today’s motion calls for a review of national parks with a view to considering new ones.

I am, of course, aware of Mr Carson’s specific interest in the designation of a national park in south-west Scotland but, as a number of members have noted, that is just one of the seven locations that is contained in “Unfinished Business”.

Dumfries and Galloway currently benefits from a range of landscape designations that are aimed at increasing tourism, boosting jobs and bringing investment to the area, including the Galloway forest park, the Galloway and southern Ayrshire biosphere, which was spoken to passionately by Emma Harper earlier, and a number of national scenic areas. National park status is, therefore, by no means the only positive landscape designation that can stimulate an area’s potential economic growth.

The case for more national parks is understandably expressed most strongly by those who have dedicated a lifetime to the cause, but there are challenges and requirements that go with national park designation. There are a number of key considerations that still lead the Scottish Government to believe that it would be wrong to raise expectations over any near-future designation of new national parks.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Is Graham Dey right when he suggests that SNH does not have the budget to run a national consultation, or even a conversation, about where future national parks could be?

Roseanna Cunningham

I am about to come on to the issue of costs, because it is central to this issue.

The Scottish Government has real concerns over the costs that would be associated with the designation of new national parks in Scotland. I appreciate that that is a little bit further down the line from the situation that Mark Ruskell is raising, and I will come back to that point. However, I am afraid that we do not share the optimism that new parks could be set up at minimal cost. What has changed since that debate in 2013? The answer is that very little has, in terms of substance, with one huge exception: Governments have less money now than they did then. The reality of the financial situation in Scotland, driven by Westminster cuts, is that funding for new parks would have to be found from elsewhere. Where would that elsewhere be? I note that no one—not one member—had any suggestions in that regard. That silence is telling.

Colin Smyth

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the point that I made about the potential for a Galloway national park to bring something in the region of £30 million to £60 million into the local economy as a result of its success. Given the concerns about the cost that the cabinet secretary has outlined, what assessment has the Government made about the cost of setting up a Galloway national park?

Roseanna Cunningham

Colin Smyth raises one new national park. However, the fact is that the report that has triggered the debate talks about seven. Our two current national parks have a combined annual budget of about £12 million that comes out of the portfolio budget. We simply do not have tens of millions of pounds of spare cash to divert towards new national parks at this time. The cost of even one of the seven national parks that are being called for would run into millions of pounds and the costs associated with all seven would run into tens of millions of pounds.

I heard the point that Mark Ruskell was making about asking SNH to do yet another review. I have constant conversations with SNH about the number of things that we refer to it. It is not unreasonable for me to take a view that, if we are to burden SNH with yet more requests, we should think carefully about what long-term outcomes we expect there to be from the work that it does. We are talking about asking it to do something that is premature, not because we are opposed to national parks—anything but—but because, in the current circumstances, we can see no likelihood of being able to assign the finances that are necessary to set one up.

Edward Mountain rose—

Roseanna Cunningham

I need to get on just a little.

The National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 clearly sets out the process for the designation of new national parks and the statutory aims that they would be expected to deliver. The estimated timescale for completion is around two years—although I note that Graeme Dey seemed to have a briefing that suggested that it could take longer—assuming that there was a strong case and unquestioned support. I am not sure that we can always just assume that.

The intention behind the act is clear: although national park status can deliver clear benefits to an area, detailed consideration and scrutiny need to be undertaken before decisions are taken to apply the designation to new areas. I applaud the desire to protect Scotland’s iconic landscapes, but the national park model envisaged by the Parliament is somewhat different from the model in other countries, particularly in relation to the act’s fourth aim of promoting sustainable economic and social development. A number of members noted that, but I think that they will also accept that there are many people outside the Parliament who think that the national park designation is about conservation, not socioeconomic development.

Scotland’s national parks are much more than just landscape designations. They are living, breathing places. They are generators for growth that attract business, innovation and, where appropriate, sustainable development. The challenge has been and continues to be balancing the conservation needs of special areas while maximising their potential economic benefits locally and nationally. That is not always easy. Therefore, before applying national park status to new areas, careful consideration must be given to the impact on those areas—not just the conservation benefits but wider opportunities that may be gained or lost. In that regard, I note the exchange about increasing house prices between Maurice Corry and Kate Forbes.

To date, we have seen no convincing evidence on how proposals for the creation of seven new national parks will satisfy the statutory requirements set out in the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 and the vision agreed by the Parliament on the role of our national parks.

Edward Mountain

The argument that the cabinet secretary is advancing is that we create all seven at once. That is not a legitimate way of doing it. She will remember, as I do, that, in 2003, the Cairngorms national park grew from the Cairngorms Partnership, which was already in place. Will she consider promoting local areas working towards getting national park status if she is not in a position to fund new national parks yet?

Roseanna Cunningham

There is nothing to stop local campaigning and consideration. The point that I am making is that it is not right for me to lead people to expect that that will automatically result in designation. Let us not forget that there will be a huge competition about designation. I am suggesting not that all seven be designated at once—that would be an absolute impossibility—but that there would be a vigorous conversation about which should be first. That in itself would take time to resolve.

There are major issues about affordability that have been glossed over. I listened to Colin Smyth and I take on board the fact that the two national parks were put in place under the previous Administration. However, that Administration was in the glorious position of having so much money that it could return money to Westminster because it could not think of things to spend it on. We are not in that position right now, and we are not likely to be in the near future.

Finlay Carson

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary is almost concluding.

Roseanna Cunningham

Although community support is important, unequivocal local authority support would be essential and would have to address and secure agreement on important issues relating to development planning.

I fully recognise the enthusiasm and desire to build on the success of our existing national parks, but I do not believe that we can divert resources from other priority areas for the creation of new national parks at present. National park status is just one of many landscape designations that can help to boost the economic opportunities of an area. I hope that more attention can be paid to some of those other designations.

Meeting closed at 17:50.