A hotel developer backed by the rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing, has been forced to restore an ancient pinewood illegally felled in the Cairngorms national park.

Legal action by the Scottish Government’s forestry agency has required a property company to replant an area near Carrbridge Hotel where trees were cut down without permission to make way for a planned car park.

The company, Halle Enterprises, withdrew an appeal against an enforcement notice served by Scottish Forestry. The company has now complied with the notice by planting 300 pine and birch saplings where trees were felled in January 2018.

The Ferret reported on 7 March 2019 that Ewing publicly intervened in support of plans by Carrbridge Hotel’s owner to build a car park on the pinewood despite being warned off by forestry officials.

Leaked emails showed that Scottish Forestry’s predecessor body had cautioned the minister about “engaging” with the hotel owner because of the enforcement action for illegal felling. The felled native woodland included a Scots pine that was 140 years old.

Fergus Ewing under fire for ‘conflict of interest’ over felled pinewood

Scottish Forestry explained that it had issued two enforcement notices, one to Halle Enterprises and the other to the company’s directors, Colin and Teresa Watt, who run Carrbridge Hotel.

“The company controlling the site, Halle Enterprises, lodged an appeal but this was subsequently withdrawn, therefore the enforcement notice against Halle Enterprises stands,” said a Scottish Forestry spokesperson.

“The replanting specified in the enforcement notice has been done but the enforcement notice also requires that these trees are protected and maintained for a period of 10 years until established. Scottish Forestry will ensure compliance with the enforcement action set out for the 10 year period of the notice.”

Scottish Forestry also pointed out that the Watts had separately appealed against the enforcement notice served on them. “The reporter has made a recommendation to Scottish ministers,” said its spokesperson. “A decision is expected soon.”

A planning application for a car park with spaces for 39 cars and four coaches near Carrbridge Hotel was refused by the Cairngorms National Park Authority in April 2019. An appeal against the refusal has been withdrawn after a Scottish Government reporter concluded that an environmental impact assessment was required.

“There is no live planning application on this site,” said a spokeswoman for the park authority.

Campaigners, however, are worried that another application for a car park may be made. “We are encouraged that in this case Forestry Scotland has required remedial action,” said Gus Jones, convenor of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group.

“We hope that rigorous enforcement will serve as a deterrent. However we are concerned that the future of this site remains at risk from development.”

The mountain campaigner and parkswatchscotland blogger, Nick Kempe, called for the role of Fergus Ewing to be re-examined. The Ferret reported in March that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had rejected claims that Ewing had breached the ministerial code by blurring the distinction between his roles as a minister and as a constituency MSP.

“Great credit is due to the forestry and other staff who have pursued this case and also to the Cairngorms National Park Authority for refusing to condone the illegal felling of trees by granting planning permission for a car park as Mr Ewing demanded last year,” said Kempe.

“There can hardly be a more serious example of unethical conduct in public life than a Scottish minister intervening to support a business who had broken the law for which they are ultimately responsible. Nicola Sturgeon needs to re-open the case”.

Sturgeon backs Ewing over felled pinewood

The Scottish Government reiterated that Ewing’s contact with Colin Watt was in his role as the constituency MSP, not as a minister. The two men were pictured together in the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald on 5 July 2018 under the headline ‘Minister backs hotel boss in call for more village parking’.

“The ministerial code provides that a minister may represent the views of their constituents, as long as it is clear that he or she is doing so as the constituency MSP,” said a government spokesperson.

“The current enforcement notice appeal is being considered by the reporter appointed independently of ministers by the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division of the Scottish Government.”

According to the government, Ewing as rural economy minister had “no role” to play in deciding the outcome of the appeal. “Mr Ewing has maintained the proper separation of his constituency and ministerial responsibilities,” the spokesperson added.

“There are no grounds to suggest that he has breached the ministerial code.”

Colin Watt did not respond to requests to comment.

Photos of replanting at the Carrbridge site thanks to Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group.

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