Cash concerns on estate takeover
Published: 14 February, 2007
SERIOUS concern has been expressed over whether Forestry Commission Scotland has enough financial muscle to take ownership of one of Scotland's most famous estates.
The fears of a number of organisations came to light yesterday (Tuesday) when the contents of the consultation on the proposed transfer of the Cairngorm Estate from Highlands and Islands Enterprise to the commission were made public.
CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, who operate the ski area on the estate, including the £19 million funicular railway, are worried that they could suffer from a lack of investment if the transfer takes place.
The company has said that it is not objecting to the transfer – contrary to what is stated in the commission's 33-page analysis – but admitted to having financial concerns.
As well as funding, there is also anxiety among many of the national ski bodies as well as individuals responding over the commission's long-term objectives if they take over, with fears that skiing could be run-down and eventually end.
This has partly been prompted by a recommendation within the consultation paper produced by the commission and HIE to remove some of the uplift from the Cairngorm ski area as part of what are termed "environmental improvements" on the 1,418-hectare estate.
The suggestion received the most responses and criticisms, especially over the plans to take away uplift in the Coire na Ciste area used by more experienced skiers.
The consultation report states that there were 59 respondents in favour of the transfer of the estate and nine against, but only four of these provided details.
They are listed as Cairngorm Mountain, two individuals "who expressed a general distrust of Forestry Commission Scotland or of politicians" and CairnGorm Mountain Ltd.
Bob Kinnaird, Chief Executive of CairnGorm Mountain, said: "Any suggestion that CairnGorm Mountain Ltd. is opposed in principle to the proposed transfer of the ownership of the estate to Forestry Commission Scotland is quite wrong and misleading.
"What we are sounding, in common with many respondents, is the cautionary note that certain financial and other guarantees on the long-term sustainability of recreation in the Cairngorms should be in place prior to any agreement to transfer."
Their response stated that their landlord would need to provide long-term investment, especially in light of global warming and the changes they would have to make as a result.
Mr Kinnaird said that all indications were that Forestry Commission Scotland would have no additional budget for such work and other new developments.
CairnGorm Mountain Ltd wants assurances that there will be a new source of funds for them for development plans which were recently unveiled which could turn the attraction in the "Eden Project of the North".
Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber MSP Fergus Ewing has also expressed his doubts whether Forestry Commission Scotland could carry out the job properly. He wants a detailed financial plan to be produced for the Cairngorm Estate with funding commitments before any transfer.
He said: "There is no doubt that the commission has the experience and the expertise to run the estate, but I share reservations that they have an insufficient budget, for example, to invest new ski uplift and general maintenance to improve the facilities.
Concern was expressed on downgrading of ski facilities
"The plan to transfer the financial responsibility from HIE to the commission always seemed to me to be motivated more by a desire on the part of HIE to reduce or eliminate its financial responsibilities than to find the best solution for the estate.
"I am now urging Environment Minister Ross Finnie to say exactly what financial planning is there for Forestry Commission Scotland to invest in the estate should they become the owners."
Sportscotland, which has invested in ski uplift in the Cairngorms since the 1970s, including £105,000 for upgrading the M1 ski tow and £44,000 for improving the Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts, have also expressed their concern over possible financial shortcomings.
They also pointed out that if any of the lifts they have helped fund were to be removed as part of "environment improvements" then there could be requirements for their grants to be repaid.
Similar concerns over skiing and in some cases future finances of the estate if the estate was transferred were echoed by the Scottish Ski Club, The British Downhill Association, the Snowsport Industries of Great Britain and a host of individuals.
The three-month consultation launched in August last year attracted 79 responses from 25 organisations and 54 individuals.
Mike Shepherd, of The Ski School and The Snowboard School, which teaches around 3,000 customers to ski each winter at Cairngorm and employs over 80 instructors, was critical that they and other ski bodies had not been consulted directly over the plans.
The report revealed concern from respondents (76%) was that proposed "environmental improvements" would lead to downgrading of ski uplift facilities and limit wintersport opportunities on the mountain.
Proposed for removal in the consultation were the Coire-na-Ciste chairlift, West Wall chair, Fiacaill T-bar and Aonach Poma, as well as the demolition of the former ticket office and toilets at the Coire-na-Ciste car park.
Future decisions regarding ski infrastructure, the two agencies have stated this week, will remain the responsibility of the ski operator and "will be dependent on the climatic conditions and the business case for retaining them".
The ski area attracts 220,000 paying visitors per year and is an important attraction for the area, but the Cairngorm Estate is also highly valued for its wildlife, hosting mountain plants and sub-arctic birds such as dotterel and ptarmigan.
David Jardine, Forestry Commission Scotland, Inverness Forest District, said: "Forestry Commission Scotland and Highlands and Islands Enterprise welcome the positive response to the consultation process. Valuable information and balanced opinion has been collected through this consultation process.
"Cairngorm is an important, yet complex estate. Reaching the best possible solution for the future of this area of land is a lengthy process, but it is imperative that every possibility is given due consideration and that the decision reached is the best one."
HIE have said they want to transfer the estate because it is no longer their policy to own such tracts of land.