The SNP /Green Government have pledged to create a new National Park in Scotland by 2026. Yet are they planning to afford the people who actually live within its boundaries a real say in this decision ?

As Eliza Doolittle famously said: “Not bloody likely.”

Our two existing parks, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and Cairngorms, were created following a law passed in 2000. As a young (ish) MSP I then moved an amendment, unsuccessfully, that no park be established without support demonstrated by a referendum of the local people - the people who, after all, would be most impacted by its decisions.

What has happened in the two decades since? In Cairngorms, there are real concerns and indeed anger about the Park Authority, as I well know, having represented people there ever since it was set up in 2003.

The Herald: SNP MSP Fergus Ewing.  Photo PA.

Indeed, in Aviemore and Spey Valley community forum, in a vote they held just last month, a massive 92% (444 votes), said the park “was not working well.” Only a pitiful 3% (10 votes) said the park was working well.

Many local farmers in my constituency are concerned at the failure to advance their interests as they had hoped from the Park in the early days. 

Beavers are introduced without their consent with the risk of major damage to farm land and injury of livestock. Regulations are stricter within its boundaries than elsewhere. No real effort has been made to promote local produce. 

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Instead, millions of pounds have been thrown on projects such as that to “save” the capercaillie - whose population has reportedly fallen by about half in the last five years. 

They have refused the essential control of predators which regard Caper eggs as breakfast, lunch and tea. Local housing projects have all too often been snarled up in bureaucracy and a proposed new town, An Camus Mor, was strangled at birth.

When the Park was first created, locals were assured their “cultural heritage” and “way of life” would be preserved. Now it’s no longer a priority. Most folk then believed that visitors’ facilities - for example for littering and toilets would improve. Instead they have become worse.

Believe me, the Cairngorms Park is just not popular amongst large swathes of the local population in my constituency. The few truly local representatives on the Park Board over the years have all too often been spurned , side-lined or ignored.

Surely, before any more such Parks are created there should first have been an independent review of how the two existing parks have performed? 

But no - no such analysis has been commissioned by the SNP/Green Government. And let’s not forget the pledge was in the Bute House Agreement not in the SNP 2021 manifesto - so there is no national mandate for the policy.

So, will the Scottish Government now allow the people a proper say in a local referendum in whichever of the nominated areas is chosen by them as the new Park.

The five remaining on the shortlist are: Lochaber, Tay Forest, Loch Awe, Galloway and the Borders.

Already, several parts of Scotland have opted out of the process namely, Skye and Raasay, Affric and Loch Ness, Ben Wyvis and Glen Affric, in each case because of local concerns amongst those communities .

Furthermore, taking a leaf out of their French counterparts book, our farmers have recently held demonstrations in many parts of rural Scotland against a new park. Expect much more of the same.

Has the minister in charge, Lorna Slater, recognised any of this? Not in the slightest. She adopts a modern day Marie Antoinette -‘let them eat cake’- approach. Why ask people what they want when you already know what they need. And have decided what they are to get.

This despite the fact that Bute House agreement, between the SNP and the Greens, where the pledge to create a park was born, assures us that no new park will be created without local consent. 

My question is: “How on earth can you have sufficient evidence of such local consent unless you ask all of the people who live there? Not just random groups of activists.

Indeed, in their recent ‘Depopulation Action Plan’, aiming to stem even further loss of people from rural Scotland, the Scottish Government promises their new approach will be exemplified by the maxim: “Local by default, national by agreement. “. Are these just to be words on a page? Is this commitment to local democracy mere lip service? 

The Scottish Government will I am sure say that the law does not require a local referendum.  What they won’t say is that they can hold one if they wish.

Will the Park simply be imposed upon an unsuspecting part of rural Scotland? That‘s what they’re planning. The Scottish Government say that each nominated area must show evidence of local support. 

But how can that be done without asking the people who live there? And here is me thinking the SNP and the Greens were in favour of holding a referendum? Of asking the people? Do they privately fear people will say “No”- especially when public money should be used for so very many more pressing purposes.

In a democracy, everyone counts or nobody counts. This issue will be a litmus test of whether our Scottish Government truly believes in local democracy where local people determine their own future, or that their fate will be sealed by a centralising and indeed authoritarian power. 

Fergus Ewing is the SNP MSP for Inverness and Nairn