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With everyone diverted and distracted by the foot and mouth hoo-ha, another significant land-related issue has slipped quietly through the news net this past while. The idea of Scottish walkers and climbers being required - or at least requested - to pay for out-in-the-sticks parking is not an entirely new one: the honeypot of upper Glen Clova has been managed this way for some years. But the new £2 fee at the Spittal of Glen Muick is a radical enough departure to raise concerns about thin ends of large wedges and an eventual "Lakedistrictisation" of the Highlands - especially with Scotland's first two national parks lumbering slowly over the horizon. There was considerable consultation about the Glen Muick plan - which came into operation at Easter - in the east of the country, but many hillgoers in the west and elsewhere will have heard little or nothing about it. So TAC went in search of the organisation behind the charging, the Upper Deeside Access Trust, and this is what their project manager, Andrew Coleman, has to say:
READERS WILL BE only too familiar with the impact of large numbers of users on the mountain environment, particularly at a busy honeypot such as Glen Muick on Deeside which acts as a magnet to the very popular hills of Lochnagar and the eastern Grampians. With severe path erosion growing throughout the Highlands and entirely inadequate resources to deal with the scale of the problem, how should we fund, organise and manage the complex and expensive task of path repair and ongoing maintenance?
As with any imposition, no one really wants to volunteer their hard-earned cash to park in mountain areas, no matter to what good purpose the funds might be put. Somehow it jars against the spirit. However, hill users have acquiesced over the years, as car park charging has been steadily (stealthily?) introduced throughout the English national parks as well as closer to home in the adjacent glens of Glen Tanar and Glen Doll. With the numbers of hillgoers on popular Munros matching those south of the border, is it time for a rethink? Clearly the issue has both a cultural and political dimension, and raises wide questions about whether conservation and access work should be entirely funded through central taxation or be "assisted" at the point of use by those directly benefiting. I will, however, avoid falling into that hole and will leave it for others to debate in the letters column.
First, a little background. For those of you who remem-ber, the way in to Lochnagar used to be the long trudge from Easter Balmoral and over the Gelder Shiel. The introduction of the Spittal car park in Glen Muick transformed the situation in the 1970s, enabling visitors to get much closer by car and considerably shortening the walk in (which particularly helped climbers in winter). Like many narrow mountain gateways, the Glen Muick approach quickly became a victim of its own success: 40,000 cars per annum, the main car park overflowing every weekend from Easter to September and up to 160 cars parked down the road at any one time. In good weather - and in holiday periods at any time of year - a long trail of cars, minibuses and coaches will park down the road. The ensuing congestion, visual impact and measurable knock-on effects on the hill have caused concern for many years, but with no obvious solutions.
This provided the spur some three years ago for the creation of the Upper Deeside Access Trust (UDAT), a non-profit-making charity formed from an amalgam of public partners and European funding. UDAT tries to address the kind of problems already mentioned by looking at the strategic needs of access to the area in a balanced way and improving matters where possible. Its work includes repairing mountain paths, developing low-level path networks and providing better information for visitors.
Unusually for a Highland glen, a rich supply of data had been accrued over a ten-year period on the volume of traffic in Glen Muick and parking at the Spittal. Together with a major recreation survey of visitors, this has given a valuable and fascinating picture about long-term use and recreation in the glen, as well as providing the views of climbers, walkers and casual visitors on a range of mountain issues. On this foundation, UDAT consulted widely with all the main user, conservation, land management and local community interests on a number of traffic management options. An open workshop was held to review the findings and debate the various developed options on how this might be translated into a workable and reasonable solution.
The options looked at were many, and included closing the road, introducing a shuttle bus and prohibiting parking on the verge. Traffic management schemes in other mountain areas were also looked at to see whether any lessons could be learnt. Some options had to be rejected because they genuinely discriminated against users (such as banning coaches), some were too costly or impractical to implement (the shuttle bus idea), whilst others (such as doubling the size of the car park) might solve the immediate problem but would simply create a further surge of demand in the future. For all these reasons and more, finding an answer was going to be tricky.
Having worked through the problem with such a wide range of interests, a formula began to emerge which was overwhelmingly supported by those involved. This included moderately expanding the existing car park (to absorb most of the day-to-day overspill), providing a screened parking area for three coaches only (to separate coaches and reduce competition for spaces), preventing verge parking within the immediate environs of the car park (to reduce visual intrusion) and introducing flat-rate charging at £2 per car and £10 per coach, together with a £10 (twelve-month) season ticket for regular users.
All these measures have now been introduced. UDAT leases the car park, ticket machines have been installed and an attendant is employed to ensure payment. UDAT will use all the proceeds for path repairs and other access work in the area and will be openly accountable. It is esti-mated that the car park might raise up to £20,000 per annum - a sum which would help UDAT to lever other public funds into its programme of access work which currently costs some £200,000 per year. Wider landscaping proposals are being looked at for the longer term to enhance the appearance of the Spittal area.
This set of measures will not of course solve all the problems all of the time and will not please everyone. Faced with such sustained use and impact, however, UDAT believes it offers the most practical long-term management of access to the glen. Hard-liners still have the option to park further down the road away from the car park if they are intent on avoiding payment - or they can still take "the long walk in", which everyone endorses but nobody seems to do. For good or ill, UDAT hopes that the majority of visitors and hill users will come to accept the new arrangements, recognising the benefits that this approach will bring.
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