A Scottish Government agency is still considering “permanent closure” of the Radical Road on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, according to a confidential report obtained by The Ferret.
An option put by officials to the board of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) in November 2023 was “to permanently prohibit all access” by reinforcing the existing wire mesh fencing.
Other HES files released under freedom of information law revealed that a planned reassessment of options for the Radical Road was not expected to start until April 2024 because the agency was “struggling with staff resource” and facing “a significant financial challenge”.
Campaigners condemned permanent closure as “unacceptable” and “unthinkable”. The released files were “embarrassing” and revealed “a shocking level of dithering and buck-passing,” they said.
The popular and famous footpath runs for three-quarters of a mile from near the Scottish Parliament, under Salisbury Crags towards the top of Arthur’s Seat. Giving panoramic views over Edinburgh, it used to be one of the main attractions in Holyrood Park, which is visited by more than two million people every year.
But the road was shut by HES after a rock fall in September 2018. Public access has since been barred by high wire mesh fences lining the hillside, prompting over 3,600 people to sign a petition in December 2023 demanding the road be reopened.
HES said it appreciated the “frustration” caused by the five-year “temporary closure”, but defended its actions as “necessary and appropriate”. It wanted to see improved access to the Radical Road and was “working towards that goal”.
The Ferret revealed in 2022 that an internal HES study favoured making the closure permanent as the cheapest and safest course of action. We reported in December that the closure had been damned as “nonsensical” and “disgraceful” by leading safety experts.
Now nine files released by HES in response to a freedom of information request have disclosed the arguments, delays and secrecy that have plagued recent internal discussions about the Radical Road. Some key sections have been redacted.
A ten-page briefing to the HES board on 9 November 2023 said: “HES can decide to permanently prohibit all access around this area of possible rockfall with additional and more robust measures, or HES can decide to provide some access.”
Preventing exposure to rockfall hazards implied “a permanent closure of the footpath with HES actions to ensure no staff or visitors are able to access below the Salisbury Crags by other less formal routes,” the briefing added.
“There is no corporate appetite to take risks with the welfare of staff and visitors or knowingly commit an offence. It is important to remain focussed on our statutory obligations and that the risk of rockfall with serious or possibly fatal consequences is very real.”
The briefing, marked “restricted” on every page, reported that “open communications have been hampered by ongoing investigations”. In an email about the briefing prior to the board meeting, the then chief executive, Alex Paterson, instructed officials to “put confidential on it.”
An invitation from campaign groups to take part in a public meeting about the Radical Road in December 2023, prompted a flurry of internal HES emails. On 10 November one official, whose name is blacked out, suggested to Paterson that a proposed reassessment of the options was not expected to start until April 2024.
This was because HES was “struggling with staff resource” and facing “a significant financial challenge”, the official said. The following nine lines of text are redacted, and the official then suggested further discussion at an internal meeting, adding “happy to wear a flak jacket in anticipation”.
Paterson responded on 14 November, saying that a flak jacket was not required. “Our blockage to proceed is resource at this stage,” he said. “I would maybe caw canny on flagging cost as an issue just yet but it’s not wrong.”
Another official added: “I am adamant that we do not leap into action before we are ready.”
On 29 November Paterson announced his resignation as HES chief executive. After more than seven years in post, he had decided to “move on to new things”, according to HES.
The released emails also show HES staff debating which departments should take responsibility for the Radical Road project. On 30 October, one unnamed official offered to “take the lead on operational aspects” as long as there were resources and a policy in place.
But the official added: “I am not comfortable with facing the music at the December gathering as neither of these things will have happened by then.” No-one from HES attended the public meeting, which was chaired by The Ferret.
From September to December 2023, HES conducted a public consultation on a “strategic plan” for Holyrood Park. But internal emails from April 2023 revealed that options for the Radical Road were deliberately excluded from the consultation, which one HES official described as “very disappointing”.
Ramblers Scotland, which helped organise the public meeting and petition to reopen the Radical Road, said that residents, businesses and visitors would be “shocked” to learn that permanent closure was still on the agenda. “Quite simply, this would be unacceptable,” said the campaign group’s director, Brendan Paddy.
“These embarrassing emails reveal a shocking level of dithering and buck-passing between Historic Environment Scotland leaders. It’s remarkable to see HES staff privately admitting that they were uncomfortable about facing the music at our public meeting in December.”
He added: “We urge HES leaders to start properly engaging with its stakeholders and urgently come up with a plan to reopen the 200-year-old route.”
Another campaigner, Angus Miller from the Edinburgh Geological Society, pointed out that access had also been prevented to a historic rock outcrop known as Hutton’s section, near the Radical Road. “HES have been moving incredibly slowly on this, and communication has been extremely poor,” he said.
“It looks like 2024 will be another year of frustration, and no change.”
Miller was concerned that in 2026, the tercentenary of the birth of the renowned Scottish geologist James Hutton, international visitors will still have to peer at his section of rock “through an ugly fence”. This was “unthinkable, but increasingly likely”, he warned.
HES wants to see ‘access improved’ at Radical Road
HES said its rock risk management approach had been reviewed at the request of the City of Edinburgh Council. Its approach had been developed after a member of the public was seriously injured by a rockfall from Edinburgh Castle in 2018.
“This took longer than anticipated,” HES director of cultural assets, David Mitchell, told The Ferret. “This has meant our temporary closure has been in place longer than we would have liked, but unfortunately necessary.”
He added: “Our specialist geotechnical engineers are due to commence a re-assessment of risk and potential mitigating measures in relation to the Radical Road to update the earlier options appraisal.
“In the meantime, following a recent pilot, we aim to deliver ranger-led access to Hutton’s Section as part of our guided walks and learning group programmes.
“We appreciate the frustration caused by the length of time this process has taken to date, however our actions to mitigate the risk were necessary and appropriate.”
Mitchell stressed that HES was committed to facilitating public access but had to prioritise staff and financial resources. “In 2021 we identified a risk with high-level masonry that restricted access at 70 of our sites and this has been a priority project for the organisation,” he said.
“We now have restored or enhanced access at 53 of those sites, with all priority sites scheduled to be inspected by the end of March and more sites opening at the start of season. HES wants to see access improved on the Radical Road and is working towards that goal.”