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Protect and survive

In 1927, some eminent Scots decided that action was needed to protect the nation’s world-renowned landscape. Today, as the body they founded celebrates its 80th birthday, the challenges it faces are as great as ever, as Mike Lowson discovers

The high-profile conservation charity the National Trust for Scotland is famous. Conservation charity the APRS – the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland – is somewhat less well known.

That’s ironic, as it was the APRS that founded the National Trust for Scotland. As the APRS celebrates its 80th birthday, many of the challenges it faced then still remain.

That does not worry its director, Bill Wright, however. His focus is on the next 80 years, not the past 80.

He said: “We are facing very different circumstances now from then, including climate change and an unprecedented ability for people to travel. We are in uncharted territory.”

To say the APRS is lean and spread thinly is an understatement. Its staff consists only of Bill and administrator Walter Simpson. They rely on volunteers, such as office-based Betty, Eleanor and Sandra, “without whom the organisation would very quickly draw to a halt,” said Bill.

It punches above its weight, though. One MSP recently said that he learned more in a 20-minute chat with the APRS than in two full evidence sessions on a parliamentary committee.

It has been influential in discussions over landscape provisions, National Scenic Areas, the new National Landscape Forum and the planning system. It has also been involved in issues from telecom masts to green belts, road signs and common land, not to mention renewable energy projects.

Bill gets exercised about housing, too, and he can see the issues at first hand in Birnam, where he lives with his wife, Rosemary, a social worker.

“Many young people in villages like this contribute to the community but cannot get a property. That is an issue for landowners and planners.

“After the renewable energy debate, housing is probably the biggest challenge facing the rural landscape.”

But for whom is rural Scotland being protected?

“That’s an easy question to answer – it is for the population of Scotland at large,” said Bill.

“It is primarily for the people who live and work there, but also for those who live in cities who want to get out into the country at the weekend.”

Residents of Glasgow, for example, can be in some very remote places within an hour.

Tourism is vital in rural Scotland, especially with the explosion of interest in outdoor pursuits as people rediscover their relationship with the land.

But landscape is about a lot more than tourism, he says.

“It affects house prices, inward investment and many other aspects of commercial life.

“Inverness is booming because people want to go there due to its good environment.”

The APRS is fighting for Scotland’s distinctive landscape. There are few places in Europe where 70% of the country is upland but where everything is within 50 miles from the sea.

Scotland is a highly urbanised country compared with the rest of Europe and that presents big challenges for politicians in understanding how rural Scotland operates, says Bill.

He is a fan of the Scottish Parliament, but does not pull his punches when they get it wrong. He believes one of its biggest failures has been the lack of a third-party right of appeal in the new planning bill.

“This issue is not going to go away. A developer can employ planning consultants and others who want to get a job done quickly, but communities operate at a different pace.”

Without a third-party right of appeal, developers can proceed with approved plans even although communities feel their concerns have been ignored.

But don’t dare call Bill and his colleagues “nimbys”. He positively bristles at any hint of a not-in-my-backyard attitude.

“I strongly dislike the use of the term nimby,” he said. “People who are getting involved with what is happening on their doorsteps are actually doing their civic duty by taking an interest in their surroundings.

“That cannot be a bad thing.”

Bill, who joined the APRS two years ago, has been involved in the countryside all his life. He was raised in a farming background at New Abbey, Galloway, then discovered hillwalking as a teenager.

He later took a planning degree, much to his regret, he said, laughing. Life as a council planner was not for him so he joined Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, spending six years gaining industry experience.

In 1987, by then a keen climber and hillwalker, he took up a post as access and conservation officer with the British Mountaineering Council, based in Manchester. He and Rosemary moved to Cheshire.

“I had a ball and loved the job, climbing everywhere from Cornwall to north Scotland.”

In 1993, he become a freelance writer and broadcaster, heading north again in 1995 to head a Cairngorms campaign group tackling issues such as the controversial mountain railway and the wider problem of blanket forestation created by the investments of wealthy celebrities such as Terry Wogan.

He said: “I wrote to Chancellor Nigel Lawson to lobby him about tax breaks being offered to plant swaths of alien tree species such as Lodgepole Pine and Sitka Spruce.”

It was a timely intervention. The chancellor changed the tax system and the alteration of the landscape changed, too.

But a similar situation exists now with windfarms, he says.

“APRS has no problem with local wind turbines for a local supply, but a huge scheme such as that proposed on Lewis is a major industrial complex. Make no mistake, that’s what it is.

“These applications are highly divisive to communities, especially as some see them just as a financial opportunity.”

A critical decision on future windfarm development rests on the proposed Beauly-Denny power line, a 137-mile pylon route down Scotland’s spine.

“If that goes ahead, it effectively opens up an electricity highway for shipping electricity from the edge of Europe potentially all the way to its middle. Something does not make a lot of sense about that.”

He also does not see much sense in the planned Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, although he commiserates with drivers on badly-congested city roads.

“I sympathise with people commuting in Aberdeen, but much of the problem is down to the planning system. What are we actually doing to relieve the amount of traffic instead?

“There is a lot of industrial development in the airport area to which people want to commute, so we have to ask what the planning system is doing about that?

“The Trump International development, if it happens, will just add to the traffic that needs to get from south of the city to the north, so I fear all that will happen is Anderson Drive jams will move to the bypass instead.

“Take the Edinburgh bypass as an example. It gets jammed regularly now.”

He added: “On the one hand, we face the issue of climate change in Scotland, but, on the other, we have issues such as the M74 extension, airport expansion, a new Forth crossing and the Aberdeen bypass.

“We have to ask if we are really interested in climate change at all?”

But all is not doom and gloom for Bill. In fact, he is pretty optimistic about most issues in the long term.

He said: “It is more a matter of when and how much damage is done meantime. But there is a new momentum for the way we address our landscape. Eventually, sense will prevail.”

Founding fathers

In early 1927, the president of the Edinburgh Architectural Association, Frank Mears, later to become Sir Frank, invited interested parties to join him in forming a group similar to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, but with Scottish interests in mind.

That first meeting 80 years ago laid the foundations of the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland.

Issues it faced then involved planning, roads, hydro-electric schemes, tree planting and unsightly advertising hoardings. Other issues included river pollution, litter, squatters, petrol stations and proposals for a National Park in Scotland.

In 1930, the APRS was gifted land in Galloway in the hope that it would be maintained as a place of beauty and interest. Fearing a conflict of interest over future planning matters, it decided to found another group to care for such property. In 1931, it set up the National Trust for Scotland.

Today, the APRS is involved in a range of issues, working with the public, agencies and with MSPs to ensure landscape matters are fully considered during decision-making processes.

As a charity, securing long-term funding and support remains one of its biggest headaches, however.

The APRS can be contacted on 0131 225 7012. Further information is also available on the ruralscotland.org website.

5 February 2007