The rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing, intervened to support a hotel developer accused of illegally destroying an ancient pinewood in the Cairngorms national park despite being warned off by government officials.
Emails leaked to The Ferret reveal that Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) advised Ewing in June 2018 against “engaging” with Carrbridge Hotel owner and SNP supporter, Colin Watt, because of a potential conflict of interest.
The FCS told Ewing that enforcement action being taken against Watt for the alleged felling of protected trees to make way for a car park near his hotel could be appealed to Scottish ministers. A report had also been sent to the Procurator Fiscal.
But two weeks later the minister was pictured in a local paper alongside Watt backing his proposed development. Ewing was quoted saying that he was “concerned and disappointed” about moves to block the car park.
Opposition politicians and environmental campaigners have accused Ewing of a conflict of interest that could prejudice the planning process and his neutrality as a minister.
They also alleged that he has breached the ministerial code of conduct by blurring his roles as a constituency MSP and as a minister, and are calling for a statement to parliament and an investigation.
Ewing, however, insisted that he had abided by the ministerial code, which allows ministers to represent the views of constituents as the local MSP. He has maintained the “proper separation of his constituency and ministerial responsibilities,” said his spokesperson.
Another email released under freedom of information law shows that Ewing’s intervention in support of Watt also upset the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA). It would have been “courteous” of the minister to have contacted the authority first, CNPA said.
The leaked emails disclose that Watt wrote to Ewing as his constituency MSP four times over six days in June 2018 complaining about opposition to his proposed car park from the Cairngorm park authority. “Our expansion plans for the Carrbridge Hotel business are in mortal danger of having to be withdrawn because of CNPA constraints,” he said.
Watt told Ewing that he had received a legal letter from FCS which had “added another tier of complexity on our current situation”. His emails also made plain that he backed the SNP, with one saying “the sooner Scotland has independence the better”.
In response Ewing’s assistant private secretary wrote to FCS on behalf of the minister on 19 June 2018 asking for “urgent advice” on Watt’s emails. This elicited a detailed reply the following day from FCS’s head of delivery and regions, Brendan Callaghan.
Callaghan advised Ewing that FCS had recently taken legal action against Watt over an area of ancient woodland that had been felled without a licence at Carrbridge. Native semi-natural woodland, including a 140-year-old Scots pine, had been cut down on a Sunday in January 2018, he said.
“The case has been reported to the procurator fiscal as an illegal felling under the Forestry Act (1967) and is awaiting consideration by them. FCS has also issued an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) enforcement notice on Mr and Mrs Watt, the owners of Carrbridge Hotel, requiring the replanting of the site.”
The enforcement notice was issued because the site was threatened with “complete deforestation”, wrote Callaghan. The notice could be appealed to Scottish ministers, he pointed out.
He urged Ewing to note that this was an active case with the procurator fiscal and was subject to an enforcement notice that could be appealed to ministers. His formal “recommendation” was “to advise that in these circumstances ministers should take into account the live enforcement actions before engaging with Mr Watt at this time.”
Then on 5 July 2018 a story appeared in the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, known as the Strathy, under the headline ‘Minister backs hotel boss in call for more village parking’. Ewing and Watt were pictured together seeing “eye to eye” on the proposed car park.
“I am concerned and disappointed that the reasonable requirements of the Carrbridge Hotel have not found favour with the CNPA,” Ewing was quoted saying.
“The hotel has practical needs for parking space and with a bit of common sense, goodwill and positive, proactive effort surely these can be accommodated.”
The paper reported CNPA saying that FCS was investigating the felling of trees at a site connected to the Carrbridge Hotel. FCS confirmed it was investigating “an alleged illegal felling”.
On the day the article appeared, CNPA chief executive, Grant Moir, emailed Ewing expressing disquiet at the minister’s behaviour. A heavily redacted version of the message has been released by CNPA in response to a freedom of information request by The Ferret.
“I have seen a quote from you in the Strathy about the Carrbridge Hotel proposal. I do not intend to respond to you and Mr Watt through the press but thought I would write to you,” Moir wrote.
“I should finally say that rather than find out through the press and the statements that you have made about the board and myself it would have been courteous to contact me directly.”
The procurator fiscal has since decided not to pursue a prosecution on the felled trees. But the enforcement action to replant trees has been appealed to the Scottish Government and is currently under consideration by its Planning and Environmental Appeals Division – and will come to ministers for a decision.
Scottish Labour’s rural economy spokesperson, Rhoda Grant MSP, accused Ewing of a “clear conflict of interest” in backing Watt. “These are extremely serious allegations and must be thoroughly investigated,” she told The Ferret.
“Fergus Ewing as constituency MSP is supporting a constituent in a matter likely to come before him in his capacity as cabinet secretary responsible for the Forestry Commission.”
Grant highlighted section 8.7 (c) of the Scottish Government’s code of conduct governing behaviour by all ministers. “They should make no comment of their own where the determination of a planning application will lead to, or will implicitly involve, other decisions in which the minister making representations on behalf of a particular constituency or region is involved in his or her own ministerial capacity,” it says.
She added: “Therefore, Fergus Ewing must be investigated under the code. He must also come to the parliament and provide full transparency on his role in this process and the degree of his intervention.”
The Highlands and Islands Green MSP, John Finnie, pointed out that the ministerial guidelines were “very clear” and were there for a purpose. “All MSPs must be vigilant to not only avoid conflicts of interest but also anything which might reasonably be perceived as giving rise to a conflict of interest,” he said.
“I’d be astonished if, particularly on such an emotive issue as the felling of ancient pines, any minister failed to slavishly follow the advice of forestry officials, not least as this has implications for planning and enforcement where ministerial neutrality is fundamental.”
Mountain campaigner and parkswatchscotland blogger, Nick Kempe, questioned Ewing’s commitment as forestry minister to protecting native woodlands. “Fergus Ewing has ignored the advice of his own officials and in doing so prejudiced the entire enforcement process for the illegal felling of these trees – a process for which he is ultimately responsible,” he said.
“It appears therefore that Ewing’s intervention at Carrbridge constitutes serious breaches of the ministerial code of conduct. Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister now needs to refer Ewing for an independent investigation without delay.”
The Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group commended Forestry Commission Scotland for pursuing action to restore the pinewood. “This valuable site for native pinewood habitat and wildlife in Carrbridge provided a particularly natural and inspiring landscape and it should never have been degraded in this way,” said the group’s convenor, Gus Jones.
“Regrettably Fergus Ewing, like Trump, does have a tendency to disregard advice from responsible authorities and to support environmentally damaging developments whilst denigrating conservationists’ concerns.”
Jones argued that Ewing should not have taken sides. “He may have compromised his ministerial position and we believe a parliamentary inquiry into his actions is required.”
The Scottish Government stressed that Ewing’s contact with Watt was “in his role as the constituency MSP, not as a minister.” It pointed out that the article in the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald had quoted him as “Strathspey MSP”.
“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,” a government spokesperson told The Ferret.
“The enforcement notice appeal by Mr Watt is being currently being considered by the reporter appointed independently of ministers by the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division of the Scottish Government. Mr Ewing, as rural economy minister, will play no part in deciding the outcome of the appeal.”
The spokesperson added: “Mr Ewing has maintained the proper separation of his constituency and ministerial responsibilities. There are no grounds to suggest that he has breached the ministerial code.”
CNPA is currently considering a planning application by Watt to build a car park near Carrbridge Hotel. “A decision will be taken in due course by members of our planning committee,” said the park’s chief executive, Grant Moir.
“While the site in question is not allocated in the local development plan for this type of use, Mr Watt’s application – which we are currently processing – will be assessed on its merits and against our planning policies.”
Forestry Commission Scotland confirmed that the enforcement action against Watt had been appealed to the Scottish Government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals Division, which will make a recommendation to ministers.
The Crown Office confirmed that it had dropped a prosecution against Colin Watt. “After full and careful consideration of the facts and circumstances, including the available admissible evidence, the procurator fiscal instructed there should be no further proceedings,” said a spokesman.
Watt did not respond to requests to comment.
Leaked emails between Fergus Ewing, Forestry Commission Scotland and Carrbridge Hotel owner
Redacted email from Cairngorm National Park Authority to Fergus Ewing
Photos of felled trees at Carrbridge thanks to Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group. Photo of newspaper article thanks to Nick Kempe, and photo of Fergus Ewing thanks to the Scottish Government.