Outdoor groups have urged the Scottish Government to allow public and parliamentary scrutiny of plans for the Cairngorm funicular railway before deciding to invest up to £15 million in repairs, as proposed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
The Cairngorms Campaign, North East Mountain Trust (NEMT), Ramblers Scotland and the Scottish Wild Land Group, all co-signed a ‘vision for the future’ of Cairngorm without the railway last year, raising concerns over the financial viability of HIE’s proposals.
Now, these organisations are calling for transparency over HIE’s business case for an estimated £15m of repairs to a railway it owns.
Earlier this month, HIE concluded a public consultation on its draft “masterplan” for the ski resort, which struggled financially before and since the funicular closed in 2018, due to structural issues.
HIE said that the consultation was “a completely open exercise” which gathered over 1,500 responses in its first phase and 300 in the second.
However, the above outdoor groups are concerned by the masterplan’s assertion that the process was “undertaken assuming and acknowledging … the funicular will be operational”.
NEMT trustee, George Allan, told The Ferret that, while his organisation opposes the repairs, the primary concern is that decision making is taking place “behind closed doors”, with the business case yet to be published.
“The situation on Cairngorm involves serious risks. That’s why we are calling for the Scottish Government to give MSPs the opportunity to debate the business case before a decision is made,” he said.
Last week, Scottish Greens Highlands and Islands MSP, John Finnie, submitted parliamentary questions asking whether the business case would be published to allow MSPs and the public to scrutinise the plans.
In reply, the rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, confirmed the business case had been received. He said it would be published “shortly” and that a decision was “expected shortly”.
Allan added: “The process for MSPs to scrutinise it would take a bit of time. That’s not likely to happen if the decision and the report are both published ‘shortly’.”
Finnie told The Ferret the process “must be transparent” and consider the resort’s “social and environmental impact”.
“It is essential that the local community are part of decision making and given the opportunity to take ownership of the place. For that to happen the process cannot take place behind their backs,” he said.
In 2009, the Auditor General for Scotland (AGS) published a report on the funicular, first installed in 2001, which criticised HIE for failing to review its business plan despite “significant changes in the early stages of the project”.
The report noted it had cost “much more than originally anticipated”, at a total of £19.5m.
In 2008, and again in 2018, HIE had to step in after the private operators faced financial difficulties.
A report by AGS this June estimated repairs would cost up to £15m.
Organisations opposing the plan say the community need to be made fully aware of the costs and benefits of different options, including removal of the funicular.
Ramblers Scotland policy and campaigns manager, Helen Todd, explained: “We’ve been concerned about the issues on Cairngorm for decades. Sadly, recent HIE actions don’t suggest that enough lessons have been learned from the mistakes of the past.
“We hope the Scottish Government will take the necessary steps to ensure robust and transparent decisions are made this time around.”
Chair of Scottish Wild Land Group, Beryl Leatherland, said that HIE should be expected to “justify” its recommendations as a public body.
“The facts, including the costing of the cases for and against repair, should be made available to parliamentarians for scrutiny and discussion on behalf of the public interest,” Leatherland said.
HIE confirmed the business case is “close” to being finalised and that “as much detail we can” would then be published, including costs.
A spokesperson for the business agency said: “This is a thorough technical exercise that includes examining in detail the full range of options for dealing with the funicular, namely removal, replacement, or reinstatement.
“We recognise and share the strong desire expressed by many different groups to achieve an outcome at Cairngorm that is both environmentally and economically sustainable and will generate significant benefits for the area.”
HIE commissioned “a major study of lift infrastructure” in 2018 which found “unequivocally that the funicular is a unique asset at Cairngorm”, the spokesperson said.
However, critics suggest this study was constrained by the fact that, as the addendum states, its “recommendations acknowledge HIE’s intention to reopen the funicular” and, as such, “options for investment in alternative infrastructure have not been widely considered”.
A Scottish Government spokesperson confirmed a decision on the preferred option is “expected in the coming weeks” adding that “thereafter, HIE will publish the key elements of the business case”.
The spokesperson continued: “HIE has developed a business case that fully considers a range of options for dealing with the funicular railway at Cairngorm, including not only reinstatement, but also its potential removal and/or replacement with an alternative means of transport.
“HIE has taken on board the findings of a 2018 study of lift infrastructure, informed by wide consultation with local and national stakeholders. HIE also held several meetings to engage with individual groups of stakeholders while the business case was being developed, listening to a range of views.”
Photo thanks to Walter Baxter, CC BY-SA 2.0