Dear Mr Wishart,
Proposed Halkshill and Blair Park Forestry Project, Largs
You will be aware that the above proposal has generated considerable debate in and beyond Largs.
Reforestation is a goal which I believe has overwhelming public support. It is good for the environment, from helping to reduce atmospheric CO2 and erosion to providing a crop that helps provide employment from seeding to harvesting to utilisation in our paper mills.
I am therefore supportive of this project in principle. However, along with many of my constituents I have some concerns in relation to the existing proposal which should be addressed before this project is approved, subject to conditions.
‘Saving the Gretas’
By far and away the greatest concern expressed to me is the potential destruction of the beautiful and tranquil Gogo Glen on the approach to the ‘Gretas’ at Greeto Bridge.
The Gogo Glen is a much loved local beauty spot. Locals and occasionally visitors walk along the track beside the Gogo Water leading to the waterfalls at the Greeto Bridge, taking in the views and enjoying the bridge area itself for recreation and as a picnic spot.
Many local people are already understandably upset at the possible adverse changes to this area, fears having already been raised by the damaging of what the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) designates as the 'Core Path' road alongside Gogo Glen towards the Greeto Bridge. Worryingly, even before the forestry project was considered, this well-loved track was excavated as part of the accompanying hydro-electric scheme to create a road, which the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) pointed out is “in excess of what would be required to develop such a scheme.”
The proposal to plant Sitka Spruce on the mid to lower slopes of the Gogo Glen will fundamentally alter the entire glen and not for the better. Whilst the EIA points out that the new road will connect to Blair Park and continue towards the Windfarm, it says nothing about the adverse impact on the public enjoyment of the glen, which will lose its natural unspoiled wildness and become part of an obviously managed commercial forestry.
Sitka as it grows will soon remove the lovely views for walkers making their way towards the Greeto Bridge, removing any sight of the Gogo. The track will have been transformed into a forestry service road, not only during the initial construction phase but when the Sitka is ready to harvest.
There are some other concerns about the viability of Sitka in the glen. The Detailed Aspect Method of Scoring (DAMS) scores shown in the EIA which help evaluate the potential damage caused by wind at this end of the glen show scores to be well above 16. It is therefore not a suitable area in which to grow such a crop.
In terms of this entire proposal, ‘saving the Gretas’ is the most important aspect for many hundreds of my constituents. A decision to approve the proposal which restricts planting to the east of the Greeto Water and keeps the south face of the Gogo Glen free of planting below the 'meeting of the waters', i.e. of the Gogo and Greeto Waters would be warmly welcomed. It is a view with which I strongly concur.
The Cauld Rocks
New planting is envisaged down over the ridge of the hill behind Largs, i.e. over the Cauld Rocks, adjacent to a new galvanised steel deer fence. The suggested woodland would be a mix of broadleaf and conifer species, with significant Sitka Spruce and Scots Pine planted at the entrance to the Gogo Glen and onto the hillside in full view of Largs.
Such a prospect would mean a significant blight on the current landscape. Locals will look onto a scarred landscape at the project's implementation. In the longer term, when the commercial trees are harvested, the view will be worse, with the decimated area taking many years to recover, following the planting of a subsequent crop, only for the cycle to be repeated. The commercial plantation should be over the ridge of the hill.
It appears that no impact on tourism and therefore the local economy has been considered in this regard.
In March I attended a meeting at Vikingar at which this issue was discussed.
The applicant seemed more than willing to discuss significant benefits, from establishing a ‘community woodland’ and visitor centre, with free public access to the new forest to possibly - though not definitively - cash support for local charities, festivals etc;
In fact, the suggested community benefits to Largs now appended to the application are pretty woeful, despite the dramatic changes being proposed to the local landscape, hinterland and amenities thereof.
As yet, no community benefits have been identified from the current hydro-scheme Stakis’ contractors are constructing in the Gogo Glen, for which planning permission has already been granted.
The location of a possible 'community woodland' is not detailed in the EIA. Nor are details provided on its size, permanence, management or usage. Indeed, at a public meeting at Largs Academy on Wednesday July 2016 which I attended, the applicant stated that at any time such a woodland could be withdrawn from community use, should Stakis wish to sell the land, for example. This does not instil confidence as to the owner's long-term commitment to the project or community.
If it proceeds, the Halkshill and Blair Park Forestry Project undoubtedly receive public funds to help with planting etc, including for any community woodland. It should surely be incumbent upon the applicant to deliver concrete benefits to the people of Largs, including a permanent community woodland that cannot subsequently be removed by the owner on a whim. Without this, the establishment of walking trails for visitors etc; support for the project locally will be grudging at best.
Financial support for local charities, festivals and good causes are provided by local wind farm developments. Kelburn Windfarm Trust makes annual cash awards locally of around £43,000. There seems no reason why such support should not be provided by this applicant, given the impact on their local amenity.
I fully appreciate, as do my constituents, that this is a commercial enterprise, with the applicant keen to maximise Sitka planting on his land. However, for environmental and aesthetic reasons, planting of native woodland should be optimised, benefiting other plant species as well as bird and animal. Paths and trails should have native woodland planting adjacent to them wherever possible.
The impact on fishing habitats has not been taken into account, particularly the possible effect on brown trout and their breeding up stream; a concern of local anglers. Any adverse effect on local fishing habitats should be minimised.
Potential Conflict of Interest
It has been reported that Forest Commissioner for Scotland, Mr. George McRobbie, is also the Managing Director of Tilhill, which will implement the project should permission be granted. This apparent conflict of interest does not instil confidence in the impartiality of the application process and I ask what steps are being taken to ensure there is none.
I trust that the above matters will be considered during your deliberations.
Kenneth J Gibson MSP