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Back to Scottish Outdoor Access HOMEPAGE

Does SNH conduct itself as an honest broker, or as a political manipulator?

James Irvine

Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Perthshire and Edinburgh
Editor LandCare Scotland and www.land-care.org.uk

Filed 25 Oct 2003
© www.land-care.org.uk

The question needs to be asked whether or not Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has been operating (and if it continues to operate) with integrity in relation to its role in advising Government concerning what is now the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, and what is currently the draft SNH Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) (1) upon which the Royal Assent for the Act depends.

Major concerns arose from the conference SNH held in September 2000 at Strathclyde University on the subject of Access to the Countryside (2), and from a press conference SNH gave at the Royal Highland Show in June 2000 (3). These same concerns continue and need to be recognised, as Scotland through its Government and Government Agencies (such as SNH) persist in contributing to the decline of its natural heritage while claiming to do the reverse. But then it all depends on what one chooses to call “the natural heritage”.

SNH Conference September 2000

The spin for the SNH conference held in September 2000 “Enjoyment and Understanding of the Natural Heritage: Finding the new balance between rights and responsibilities” (2) was that:

“... the conference will seek to stimulate debate about the definition of responsible behaviour, the methods available to assist in promoting enjoyment while minimising impacts, and about the roles of landmanagers and public bodies to promote access ..”

“...the conference will provide an ideal opportunity to share research and experience and contribute directly to the development and promotion of a new Scottish Outdoor Access Code.”

In reality this conference, with its inferred academic approval by holding it in a University building, was an appalling sham. Neither the word “farming” or the word “agriculture” appeared anywhere in the two day programme including 21 items of presentation. The words “land management” and “landmanagers” appeared twice. The selection of speakers for the conference was unacceptably biased. The conference was held midweek in September during the harvest and the registration fee was £145. They did not get many farmers attending, but lots of SNH and local government staff, plus plenty folk from numerous access for recreation lobby groups. While pretending to be otherwise the conference was a blatant misrepresentation of the core issues. Hence the questioning of the integrity of SNH in relation to the methods it used - and continues to use - to achieve its political aims.

What this conference was supposed to be about was trying to find a balance between access takers and access providers. Farmers of one sort or another are the main access providers in terms of area of land within Scotland. Some 85% of the land in Scotland is involved in agriculture. Most farmers in Scotland manage their land highly efficiently and to good environmental standards (4) simply because it is very much in their interest to do so. Great play has been made on the fact that farmers receive high levels of subsidy, but little mention is made that these subsidies were created through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to produce cheap food and to maintain a rural population that can actively care for the land. Now the Macauley Land Use Research Institue (MLURI), that receives some 68% of its funding from SEERAD, would have us believe that land use should change from production of food to the recreational enjoyment of the urban majority - to become the urban dwellers playground (5).

Scotland has to compete with other countries within the UK. It also has to compete with other members of the EU in terms of agricultural production, or it will find itself not only paying out obligatory contributions to the EU agricultural fund but buying in the food from the EU (and elsewhere in the world) where environmental, animal welfare and food standards may not be as high. The economics of Scotland, and of the UK as a whole, can hardly afford to knock its balance of payments any further.

It is selfish to take the view that other countries can bear the supposed environmental damage of farming, while we buy their food and look after our own environment as dictated by an army of ecologists and strong lobby groups with a monofocal approach to some particular aspect of the environment.

It is misleading for the environmental lobby to continually infer that Scotland's rural enviornment is not good, and that the self-styled environmentalists are the only ones capable of looking after it. In fact there is little wrong with Scotland's rural environment and Scotland's farmers continue to be eager to improve it. They do not need to be told how to do it by those who have little training or experience in land management, and through lack of knowledge or interest do not have a sufficiently broad and integrated approach.

So why could SNH not manage to put together a semblance of a balanced programme for their two and a half day conference on access to the countryside?


the organisers were being frankly devious,


their ignorance of how the land of Scotland is actually managed - and by whom - is even more profound than meets the eye (6).

In my view both factors were probably operating.

What we had - and continue to have - is a power struggle for control of the management of Scotland’s land. A whole industry of officials paid directly or indirectly by Government - be they within SNH, government funded research agencies (such as the Macauley Land Use Research Institute and the Scottish Agricultural College), universities and colleges running mushrooming courses on environmental management without any significant agricultural input, or within local government that is required to comply (in the absence of adequate funding) with the pronouncements of this menagerie of opportunistic officialdom.

The greatest farce of all in relation to this prestigiously-billed SNH Conference was the workshop entitled “Countryside around Towns”. This was on offer on the afternoon before the conference proper began (2). Now this should have been important as the main impact of increased access to Scotland’s land by the public will be next urban settlements: and that means farms, because that is where for reasons of geography the better agricultural land is located.

But this workshop turned out to be nothing less than a visit to a Glasgow City park and bore no relation to farming next urban settlements, except in so far that the farming had all but disappeared. The vestiges of a small dairy farm on the horizon was given the sop of a contract to cut the grass - indeed a sign of things to come.

This official workshop had the full backing of the SNH hierarchy and indeed was attended by the secretary of the Access Forum, Dr Richard Davison. A few pertinent questions to the workshop leader - who was employed by Glasgow City Council and who it was claimed had some previous but ill-defined connection with farming - revealed the absurdity of the situation. Yet this is what SNH was officially promoting to other members of the environmental industry as to how the countryside around towns should be managed.

The next hour and a half was spent in direct discussion with the secretary of the Access Forum as we had to wait for the bus to take us back to the City, although we had never actually left it. The substance of that discussion is available on this website (2).

With regard to the main conference programme the situation turned out to be even worse than simply just the obvious imbalance of speakers relating to access taking and access providing. There was an obvious problem with regard to who had been chosen by the organisers to put forward the views of access providers. For example, Richard Williamson, Strategy and Communication manager of Buccleuch Estates, had been selected as speaker at the conference proper on the subject of “The Land Manager’s Perspective - removing the blinkers”.

According to Richard Williamson there were no real problems for land managers with regard to access to the countryside as proposed by SNH (i.e. to all land and inland water - with few exceptions - day and night), but only perceived problems that constituted a “mind-set” that need to be changed. In his facile, playing-to-the-gallery type of presentation to a largely urban-based but potentially influential audience - including those salaried by urban rate payers -the problems of dogs, vandalism, and litter were not access problems but ones of “social behaviour” and were not relevant to the debate.

The Duke of Buccleuch is one of the richest landowners in Scotland with a massive estate with tourism as an important part of its many faceted commercial enterprises. It bears very little relationship to the average Scottish farming landowner. Richard Williamson would appear to be the promotions man (the spin doctor) for the Buccleuch Estates, is not involved in practical farm management, and as far as I am aware has little or no practical farming experience.

But my concerns went even deeper than that. Some members of the Scottish Landowners Federation (SLF), myself included, were having difficulty in getting the powers that be within that organisation to listen to our concerns over what SNH had proposed in their advice to the Scottish Executive (7). At the time the SLF appeared to be virtually wholly involving itself in matters concerning property rather than the proposed radical review of access rights that were shaping up to become open access for virtually all land and inland waters for everybody at all times without any credible control. How was one going to be able to manage a livestock farm next an urban community on that basis?

At the time Richard Williamson was a member of the SLF Access and Tourism Committee. At least for the years 1987-1988 (and presumably for several more years) he was also a West Region Board member of SNH 1987-1988 (8) . As a member of the SLF Access and Tourism committee was he following the code of collective responsibility that might be expected of that organsiation? He made no mention in his presentation that as a member of the SLF Access and Tourism committee that the committee may have had a different view from the one he presented. Or may be the SLF committee on Access and Tourism agreed with him. As a member of the SLF myself - and indeed as an elected member of its Central Region Committee - its was difficult to know (9).

Was the SLF trading off concerns about access to the countryside in the hope of getting a better deal with regard to property? (10). Was that why some members of the SLF at that time were having such difficulty in getting their concerns heard within that organisation? One well remembers the accusations addressed to those who had been for years providing far more public access to their land per acre than most and had done far more for conservation than most, being accused by the SLF executive “So you are against access!” and “You cannot make your farm a fortress”.

These accusations were unreasonable and they hurt, as all we wanted to do was to be able to run viable farming enterprises without further serious and unnecessary impediments being put in the way which would clearly undermine competent farm management. In the event these same concerns are very clearly expressed in the responses from land managers - the biggest section of all the responses - to the SNH draft Scottish Outdoor Access Code consultation paper (11).

As though presenting “Countryside around Towns” as nothing other than a Glasgow City park, and dismissing concerns about open access to virtually all farmland as “an attitude problem”, SNH continued with their severely biased conference by including a presentation from a so-call independent organisation (System Three) that SNH had commissioned to conduct a telephone survey of “The attitudes of the public and land managers”.

Such a survey would have no more credibility that any other Mori-type poll, especially one where the views of those who were paying for it were all too well known. Yet this was the only other “representation” that the farming community were allowed in this incredibly biased and manipulated conference.

However, even worse was yet to come. I attended a workshop that was to do with “Access with Responsibility to River Banks etc”. Unbelievably the leader of this workshop was a graphic designer. He was there to advice the delegates what signs might be used to implement the Access Code - that in the year 2000. There was no intention whatsoever to discuss access with responsibility with a view to achieving a balance.

Yet even worse again . On presenting my views in person to SNH chief scientist who I understand had been in no small part responsible for organising the conference, he resented criticism and thought the conference was fine. Whatever had happened to his academic credentials, holding the title of Professor at Stirling University? Had he forgotten that SNH is funded out of the public purse, and that members of the public have every right to question what SNH and the executive within it are doing?

Apparently such was their arrogance that SNH had assumed that the Access Code would have been established in law by the time of their conference. In other words their arrogance was such that they assumed the opinion of the public through the consultation process that occurred in 1999 could be ignored. The trouble is that SNH may be following a similar line in relation to the consultation on the same subject in 2003.

SNH Press Conference Royal Highland Show 2000

The misrepresentation by SNH of the problems relating to such extensive open access to the countryside in Scotland was all too apparent in the press conference given by SNH at the Royal Highland Show, Ingliston in June 2000. A full account of that press conference was been previously published in LandCare Scotland (3) and can be view by CLICKING HERE.

In brief the deliberations of the Access Forum that was set up by SNH were seriously misrepresented. For example no mention was made of the concerns of the access providers that had been made by the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS). This tactic was justified by SNH as representing the consensus view of the Access Forum. But as the Access Forum consisted of an excess of access takers over access providers this was a seriously devious tactic - a convenient and “clever” trick that is amongst the oldest in the acknowledged repertoire of devious behaviour the world over - you fix the committee for starters then spend the rest of the time pretending that you are listening.

Local Workshops organised through SNH

Subsequent to the conferences described above, SNH arranged for local meetings to take place to ask the local folk where they would like to walk and take recreation on adjacent farmland, using so-called independent contractors to run such meetings. In my area no report of the outcome of such meetings was ever received in spite of much asking. If local farmers had not read the public notice for such meetings they had little opportunity to attend - another SNH trick.

The objective seemed to be to raise expectations among the public and to undermine the trust that had previously existed. between access takers and those who managed the land as legitimate business enterprises. It is my understanding that similar meetings were held in Fife with similar disregard for the interests of those who had the financial responsibility for managing the land and who had done so much over the years in terms of public access and conservation.

SNH Access Forum agrees by “consensus”

As already mentioned above, the Access Forum consisted of an excess number of access takers over access providers. This allowed the chairman Professor Jeremy Rowan Robinson to write a report claiming consensus, where the main concerns of the access providers were ignored.

This lead to the NFUS justifiably leaving the negotiating table, while the SLF stayed - presumably working to some other agenda whilst claiming that it is better to be at the negotiating table than away from it. But what in my view the SLF was in fact doing was condoning the grossly unfair conduct of the Access Forum. As a lawyer the chairman was no doubt behaving within the legal boundaries, but as a chairman of a forum that was trying to obtain consensus between access takers and access providers his actions were questionable, especially as it is alleged that he did not pass on the concerns of the access providers up the executive line.

Essential to the condition of democracy is that the interests of minorities are not brushed aside simply for the convenience of the majority. To acquire the use of the assets of businesses that have been built up by the efforts of individuals and their families over many years just because it is ‘the will of the people’ is not democracy and never will be. It is certainly not social justice.How are the responses to the draft SOAC consultation to be assessed?

And so the SNH draft SOAC was born and put out to consultation with a closing date of 30th June 2003. It ignored most of the main concerns of land managers: the same concerns that had been expressed in response to a previous consultation document put out by the Scottish Office in 1999.

The 1386 responses to this consultation that SNH received are secreted away in SNH offices at Battleby, Redgorton some miles outside Perth and in one of their offices in Edinburgh. An appointment is required to view them during normal urban office hours. If you insist SNH will send you by internet the excel spreadsheet listing the responses in order they were received, but the search facility will make looking for specific responses from organisations, groups or individuals possible. Not surprisingly very few persons to date have been to view these responses, leaving SNH itself to assess them, modify the draft Code and submit the final version to Scottish Ministers and then let the public know what they have done after the event. Land-Care was informed by SNH that they will appoint a single “independent” person to scrutinise their procedures. But is SNH to be trusted in view of their past record?

There is a consultation paper as to how the Access Forum might be reconstructed before the final version of the Access Code was drafted and agreed by the Access Forum. To Land-Care’s knowledge the re-structuring of the Access Forum has still not yet happened more than 3 months after the closing date for responses to be received. Is there to be a new chairman?

Again, as in the year 2000, SNH is going ahead as though acceptance by Scottish Ministers of the next version of the Access Code (written by the Access Forum) was a foregone conclusion.

Financial Assistance offered by SNH to organisations willing to employ additional staff to sell the Access Code to their members and to others.

SNH are already offering financial assistance to organisations for the employment of staff to explain (i.e. sell) the SNH Access Code to their members, all supposedly with no interference from SNH.

The SLF has already appointed a new access officer under such a scheme, the new officer having no experience or training in farming/agriculture but has a good basic training in environmental management, people management and communication (12). But what is she supposed to be communicating, and does she understand the issues as seen by access providers as well as access takers?

So what is all this charade of consultation? Do we really believe that SNH funding for staff for other organisations comes without strings attached, albeit informal ones? (12).

The Land Reform Act was passed before the Code was decided - whose idea was that?

The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill and subsequently the Act was drafted, consulted upon and then passed by the Scottish Parliament before the realism of the practicalities of the Access Code had been properly identified. Yet the nature of the Act determines the parameters of what the Access Code can say. Thus Scottish law is made in a big political hurry without due cognisance being taken as to what is practical and realistic, or what damage it would inflict on the farming industry that has been the main and excellent custodians of the Scottish environment and biodiversity for centuries. Whether SNH had any hand in this is not known to the author, but it is a strange way to make new laws. Here we have a partially devolved Scottish Parliament with much say about how the land of Scotland is to be managed busy making bad laws in haste. A truly disappointing spectacle.


Thus the Scottish Executive commissioned its agency SNH - despite its minimal expertise in land management - to:

produce the Access Code,
put it out to consultation
judge the responses themselves,
redraft the Code themselves,
and then submit it to Scottish Ministers for their approval or rejection although few of these ministers have any substantive understanding of rural affairs.

SNH's analysis of the 1386 responses they have received from the public will be made known to the public until after SNH have submitted their report to Ministers. The difficulty the public has in getting efficient access to these responses leaves the way open for SNH to possibly be economic with the truth as to what they report to MInisters. Indeed SNH may analyse the responses with a highly biased mind-set. That is why it is so important to assess if SNH can be trusted to act as an honest broker, and not as a political manipulator.

© www.land-care.org.uk


1. Scottish Natural Heritage (2003), SNH draft Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

2. Irvine, James (2001). SNH Conference September 2000, Enjoyment and Understanding of the Natural Heritage: Finding the new balance between rights and responsibilities. A review of the proceedings.
LandCare Scotland. Vol 1: pp 25 - 32.
This paper has been reproduced with permission on Land-Care and updated
See Scottish Outdoor Access HOMEPAGE, filed 22 January 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW

3 Irvine, James (2001). Scottish Natural Heritage’s policy on Access: Is it being mis--sold in relation to enclosed farmland next urban communities?
LandCare Scotland. vol 1: pp 19 - 23.
This paper has been reproduced with permission on Land-Care
See Scottish Outdoor Access HOMEPAGE, filed 7 January 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW.

4. Scottish Countryside Alliance (2003). SCA response to the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Bill.
See Environment HOMEPAGE, filed 24 Oct 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VEIW

5. Birnie, Dick (2003). In "The Arrogance of Academics pontificating about Rural Affairs
Are they letting us down? ECRR Conference: Scotland’s Landscape - a Fixed Asset?
Battleby, Perthshire, 8th May 2003". James Irvine.
See Social/Economic/Political HOMEPAGE, filed 14 May 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW

6. Editorial (2003). Who runs Scottish Natural Heritage?
See Social/Economic/Political HOMEPAGE, filed 17 Oct 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW

7. Mylius, Andrew (2001). Access: the reality for farmers, landowners, foresters and all rural residents.
LandCare Scotland. Vol 1: pp 3 - 18.
This paper has been reproduced with permission on Land-Care
See Scottish Outdoor Access HOMEPAGE, filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW

8 Scottish Natural Heritage website, www.snh.org.uk

9. Irvine, James (2003). Why I resigned from the Scottish Landowners Federation and thereby from its Central Region Committee.
In preparation

10. Linklater, Magnus (2003). Land law with head in the clouds. Scotland on Sunday, 26 January 2003
Reproduced on Land-Care with permission
See Land Reform HOMEPAGE, filed 28 Jan 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW

11. Editorial (2003). Draft Scottish Outdoor Access Code: Lack of adequate public access to the responses to consultation.
See SOAC HOMEPAGE, filed 3 October 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW

12. Editorial (2003). SNH appoints new access officer with no training or experience in farming/agriculture.
See SOAC HOMEPAGE, filed 4 October 03, www.land-care.org.uk, CLICK HERE TO VIEW