The campaign for a Scottish Borders National Park seems to be gaining momentum but the recently published Local Development Plan (LDP2) offers little guidance on the position of the Scottish Borders Council as planning authority on this issue. Paragraph 8.15 of LDP2 points out that the designation of a National Park is ultimately a matter for Scottish Ministers following an assessment and recommendation by Scottish Natural Heritage [rebranded as NatureScot on 24 August 2020]. LDP2 also offers the opinion that, whilst the support of the council for such a proposal would be a material consideration for Scottish Ministers, it is unlikely to be the key determining factor in their final decision. LDP2 goes on to say that the council will consider this matter further in due course and that this will involve investigating what would be involved in establishing a designation and considering site options [presumably this means the area to be designated]. It is unclear what this commitment means; is the Council intending to consider this matter outwith the local development plan process or is it now going to introduce it into the LDP at this late stage in the process? Some clarification is perhaps needed from our elected members.
History tells us that since the idea of National Parks in the UK was first mooted back in the 1930s, there has been a long running tension about what the purpose of National Park designation should be. Even the title ‘National Park’ can be misleading and easily misinterpreted. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949 led to the designation of 10 national parks in England & Wales; with the twin purposes ‘for the preservation and enhancement of the natural beauty’ and ‘for encouraging the provision or improvement of facilities for the enjoyment of the opportunities for open air recreation and the study of nature’. The balance to be struck between conserving the natural beauty of national parks and encouraging tourism developments within their boundaries has long been a cause of friction. Even today, debate rages in the Lake District, for instance, over zip wires and other tourist developments aimed at encouraging more tourists at the expense of the environment.
In Scotland, a report on national parks prepared by a committee under the chairmanship of Sir J. Douglas Ramsay, published in 1945, included a recommendation for the creation of five national parks in Scotland, all in the Highlands. Three areas were put on the reserve list for consideration at a later date, including an area centred on St. Mary’s Loch in the Scottish Borders. However, although the designation of national parks proceeded in England &Wales, there was no such enthusiasm in Scotland; this has been put down to the fact that access to the countryside was open to all and ‘free’ in Scotland [not the case in England & Wales in the immediate post-war period]. There was also opposition amongst landowners in Scotland to what was seen as a move to increase public ownership of the countryside.
Following the creation of the Countryside Commission for Scotland (CCS) under the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967, powers became available to create Country Parks, relatively small areas, for open air recreation. In a 1975 report entitled A Park System for Scotland, the CCS carefully considered the question of developing national parks in Scotland but concluded that the same objectives of improving recreational opportunities for the enjoyment of the countryside, whilst conserving its scenic attributes could be achieved in other ways. Instead, more emphasis was placed on the creation of Country Parks, conveniently situated close to the built up areas, and Regional Parks, which would cover larger areas where the joint management of existing land uses and recreational use was required. There are no Country Parks in the Scottish Borders, the nearest are Vogrie Country Park, near Pathhead and Dalkeith Country Park, but Bowhill Estate, Floors Castle Estate and Harestanes, near Jedburgh provide similar types of recreational facilities. The Pentland Hills was proposed as a regional park in 1978 and was eventually designated a Regional Park in 1984. The initial proposals for the Regional Park included part of Peeblesshire [the area north-west of the A702 including the headwaters of the Lyne Water and Baddinsgill and West Water reservoirs] but this area was omitted from the area designated in 1984. Both the Borders Region Structure Plan 1980 and the Scottish Borders Structure Plan 1993 supported the inclusion of this area in the Regional Park. However, although this area is an integral part of the Pentland Hills, geologically and topographically, there was little political enthusiasm for including it within the Regional Park.
Although the CCS did not support the need for national parks in Scotland, in a report entitled Scotland’s Scenic Heritage published in 1981, the CCS identified areas of Scotland called National Scenic Areas, described as “areas of unsurpassed attractiveness which must be conserved as part of Scotland’s natural heritage”. The designation was based on the richness and diversity of the landscape elements and the spectacular or visually dramatic landscapes. There are forty NSAs in Scotland, two in the Scottish Borders; Eildon and Leaderfoot NSA and Upper Tweeddale NSA. The St. Mary’s Loch area, on the reserve list for designation as a national park in 1945, did not merit inclusion, much to the bewilderment of the Borders Regional Council.
A further CCS report into the protection of the landscape of Scotland, The Mountain Areas of Scotland – Conservation and Management, was published in 1990. It recommended that four areas under such pressure should be designated as national parks, in order to retain their heritage value. The four areas identified were similar to those proposed by the Ramsay Committee of 1945: Loch Lomond & the Trossachs, the Cairngorms, Glen Coe-Ben Nevis-Black Mount and Wester Ross. Nevertheless, no action was taken until the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999; the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and Cairngorms national parks were established in 2002 and 2003 respectively under the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000. Pressure continues to be exerted on the Scottish Government, by various campaign groups, for the designation of other areas in Scotland as national parks. In 2013, the Scottish Campaign for National Parks proposed seven areas as suitable for national park status; five in the Highlands and Islands, Galloway in the south-west of Scotland and the Cheviot Hills in the Scottish Borders.
In the Scottish Borders, there is an array of landscape/natural heritage designations designed to protect the landscape from inappropriate development: National Scenic Areas, Special Landscape Areas (formerly ‘Areas of Great Landscape Value’), Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The Pentland Hills, Upper Tweed/Tweedsmuir Hills, Cheviot foothills and the Lammermuirs, together with the Tweed Valley above and below the Eildon Hills NSA and the Berwickshire Coast are designated as Special Landscape Areas. Together the National Scenic Area and Special Landscape Area designations cover around a third of the Scottish Borders. Do we need another countryside conservation label? What controls on development would be imposed? What tourism developments would be considered suitable? Would additional finance be available for countryside recreation facilities? No doubt, these questions will be amongst the questions that the council will consider when it investigates what is involved in the designation of a national park in the Scottish Borders.