The Report of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints has been published and can be downloaded here.

PREAMBLE

In early December 2019, I joined the Committee as a substitute when my colleague, Alison Johnstone MSP had to leave the Committee for health reasons. Later in December I resigned from the Scottish Green Party and have sat as an Independent MSP.

I have undertaken my Committee work with impartiality and have worked hard to discharge the duties placed upon the Committee by Parliament, namely to conduct an Inquiry with a remit:-

to consider and report on the actions of the First Minister, Scottish Government officials and special advisers in dealing with complaints about Alex Salmond, former First Minister, considered under the Scottish Government’s “Handling of harassment complaints involving current or former ministers” procedure and actions in relation to the Scottish Ministerial Code

The Inquiry was in four phases – development of the harassment complaints procedure, handling of complaints, the Judicial Review and actions of the First Minister in relation to the Ministerial Code.

This has been a difficult inquiry into a series of high profile and sensitive issues of sexual harassment in the workplace and involving Scotland’s two most recent First Ministers.

The Inquiry has been carried out in an increasingly fractious and toxic political environment where claim and counter-claim have become weaponised in an ugly debate on social media and more widely.

The Committee has, in the circumstances, in the face of serious impediments to its work and in a very tight final timescale managed to produce a report which will, I hope, lead to a far better response to the serious mater of sexual harassment in the workplace.

FINDINGS

This whole sorry tale arises because the former First Minister, Mr Salmond behaved inappropriately towards female civil servants.

There was an organisational culture of inappropriate behaviour by Mr Salmond and complicity across a number of fronts in terms of people not challenging that behaviour.

The Scottish Government failed in its duty of care towards civil servants, in particular, some female civil servants during the period when Mr Salmond was First Minister. Safeguarding appears to have been wholly absent.

Very senior civil servants and Special Advisers knew about this and did nothing. Instead, they were complicit in covering up such behaviour.

The First Minister instructed a review of sexual harassment complaints in October 2017 and is to be commended for doing so. The new procedure included provision for retrospective complaints against former Ministers and it was right to do so.

Two complainers came forward with formal complaints and were right to do so. They trusted the procedure to deliver a just outcome for their complaints.

The procedure was developed in a short space of time with insufficient stress testing. The Permanent Secretary led the work and went on to have the key decision making role in the procedure as well as a number of contacts with the complainers.

The Scottish Government failed to identify the issue of prior contact by the Investigating Officer as a potential procedural failing never mind the subject of a potential legal challenge.

The Scottish Government breached their duty of care to the complainers by not ensuring the confidentiality of the final decision report which was leaked to the Daily Record newspaper in a shocking violation of the complainers rights to privacy. No-one has been held accountable.

In response to the Judicial Review, the Scottish Government failed in its duty of candour to the court in not identifying and disclosing key evidence from the Investigation Officer until so late in the process that the case become unstateable and had to be conceded.

At an early stage the Scottish Government was responsible for a serious, substantial and entirely avoidable situation that should never have arisen in a well run organisation.

In responding to this inquiry, the Scottish Government frustrated the inquiry by its failure to provide timeous documentary evidence and refusing to disclose legal advice and waive legal privilege until 6pm on the day before the appearance of there First Minister.

As the First Minister recused herself from Scottish Government dealings with the Committee, this failing is the responsibility of the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney.

In relation to the First Ministers actions in relation to the Ministerial Code, she has been cleared of any breaches by James Hamilton QC and the Committee never sought to make any determinations as to such breaches.

The Committee, however finds it hard to believe that the First Minister knew of no concerns about inappropriate behaviour by Mr Salmond prior to November 2017. Awareness of his behaviour was an open secret in Government and was known about at the highest levels of the civil service. The First Minister did not hear of any concerns because the truth was being intentionally concealed from her.

All senior members of Government including the then deputy First Minister have a duty to ensure the welfare of staff and to ensure no-one is allowed to behave with impunity. That means asking discrete but awkward questions at the right time.

Fundamental errors were made by a number of parties throughout the whole process from October 2017.

The First Minister misled the Committee by stating in her written evidence that she would not seek to intervene in the process. On the contrary she did offer to intervene. In the event, of course, she did not in fact intervene and that was the right decision.

The First Minister bears some responsibility for failing two women and many others who did not come forward. Mr Salmond and Mr Salmond alone, however, is responsible for his inappropriate behaviour.

As Head of Government, the First Minister responded appropriately in the wake of #metoo albeit long after senior members of ScotGov knew of Mr Salmond’s harassment of civil servants.

The First Minister should be perfectly capable of accepting the conclusions of the Committee’s report and committing to work with others to develop a robust and fair system for dealing with complaints that can be trusted by staff in the workplace.

Some MSPs and their parties should reflect on the extent to which they weaponised for political advantage an inquiry into how two women were failed over serious complaints.

Some MSPs and other in party machines should reflect on their role in breaching the MSP Code of Conduct, leaking confidential material and betraying the trust of the two women whose testimony to the Committee in private was meant to stay private.

It is time to work together to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual violence against women and men.

09. March 2021 · 9 comments · Categories: Politics

aw_20170921

I will be a regional list candidate for the Highlands and Islands in the Scottish Parliamentary election in May 2021.

To be elected, I will need around 15,000 votes. I have launched a Crowdfunder to raise £10,000 to pay for the development of a digital campaigning platform, newsletters and media and communications support. PLEASE do consider making a donation. https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/andy-wightman-for-highlands-and-islands

As an Independent Candidate permanently based in Lochaber (from 26 March 2021), I am offering you the opportunity to vote for experience, integrity, independent thinking, a commitment to strengthening local democracy and a track record of success.

My background is as a land rights campaigner, author, and researcher. Since the early 1990s, I have worked with communities across the Highlands and Islands supporting them to achieve more local control of land and resources. For the past 5 years, I have been an MSP for Lothian Region.

Holyrood needs more independent voices. Over the past 5 years, I have campaigned successfully on a range of issues.

As an MSP (2016-21), I led the successful legal challenge in the European Court of Justice that ruled that Article 50 could be unilaterally revoked.

I launched the Homes First campaign to better regulate short-term lets and successfully led opposition to the latest regulations that adversely affect Bed and Breakfast businesses.

I introduced a Bill to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government to strengthen local democracy. It will be voted on at its final stage in Parliament within the next few weeks.

I have championed tenants’ rights and the need for more affordable housing including the desperate need to make land available at affordable prices reflecting its existing use value.

As a long-standing land campaigner (author of Who Owns Scotland 1996 & The Poor Had No Lawyers 2010), a focus of my election campaign will be a Land for the People Bill to reform Scotland’s antiquated land laws and democratise the ownership and use of land and property.

Standing for election as an Independent is extremely challenging. I have no party machine, no corporate donors, and no party members to support me.

I will be relying on a digital, grassroots campaign to win support and spread the word of my candidacy to others. I will need 15,000 votes to be in with a chance of winning a seat.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

Donations will be made to Andy Wightman.

For the purposes of complying with electoral law, I need to collect information on donors.

Anyone donating over £50 is deemed to have made a regulated donation and will be subject to permissibility checks.

All such regulated donations will have to be reported to the Electoral Commission in my election return.

I will be putting my name forward as an Independent candidate in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election for the Highlands and Islands Region. From the end of March, my home will be in Lochaber.

Holyrood needs more independent voices. Over the past 5 years, I have campaigned successfully on a range of issues.

As an MSP (2016-21), I led the successful legal challenge in the European Court of Justice that ruled that Article 50 could be unilaterally revoked.

I launched the Homes First campaign to better regulate short-term lets and led opposition to the latest regulations that affect Bed and Breakfast businesses.

I introduced a Bill to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government to strengthen local democracy. It will be voted on at its final stage in Parliament within the next few weeks.

I have championed tenants’ rights and the need for more affordable housing.

As a long-standing land campaigner (author of Who Owns Scotland 1996 & The Poor Had No Lawyers 2010), a focus of my election campaign will be a Land for the People Bill to reform Scotland’s antiquated land laws and democratise the ownership and use of land and property.

In the coming days I will launch a crowdfunder and later in March I will formally launch my campaign.

It is very hard to be elected as an Independent candidate. I will need 12-15,000 votes across the Highlands and Islands.

I will be relying on a grassroots campaign of supporters who are able to mobilise voters by word of mouth and social media.

If you support my candidacy, please tell your friends and family. Very soon I will be offering you ways to get involved in the campaign.

Meanwhile, thank you for your support.

people walking beside telephone booth during daytime

STOP PRESS:- THURSDAY 18 FEB 2021 1330hrs
The Minister has withdrawn the Licensing Regulation

I launched the Homes First campaign in 2017 to highlight problems with the legislative and regulatory regime around short-term lets (STLs). Throughout my time as an MSP, constituents in the Lothian region have contacted me to express their concern at the impact STLs have on their communities. I have published a range of papers on different aspects of the topic, including taxation, key safe deposit boxes and planning, and have proposed various solutions.

I support two key regulatory changes.

The first is to clarify and tighten up the planning system so that there is better and more effective oversight on the change of use from residential dwellings to commercial short-term lets – when a home stops being a home and becomes a commercial STL.

The second is to give local authorities the powers to licence STLs to ensure that they comply with basic fire, electric and gas safety; have appropriate public liability insurance in place; and that the operators are fit and proper persons.

These two regulatory changes have been the focus of my campaigning. They allow local authorities to regulate STLs in their area as they see fit, reflecting local conditions. Planning and licensing reform are NOT about imposing a uniform solution across Scotland but giving councils the powers that they need to do what they think is appropriate in consultation with the people they represent.

That, in short, is the job of Parliament – to pass regulations that deliver on the above.

The regulations

However, we have instead, two regulations that are in their own ways flawed.

The Town and Country Planning (Short-term Let Control Areas) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 provides for planning authorities to create Short Term Let Control Areas. Within these Control Areas, all STLs must seek planning consent for a change of use from residential to commercial short-term letting.

The Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (Licensing of Short-term Lets) Order 2021 grants powers to councils to establish a licensing regime for STLs.

It is worth bearing in mind that such regulations (or Scottish Statutory Instruments) are secondary legislation. That is to say, there is primary legislation (Acts) that give explicit powers to Ministers to introduce secondary legislation. In the case of the planning regulations, this is 26B(5) and 275 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997. The licensing order is introduced using sections 3A(1), 44(1)(b) and (2)(a) and (b) and 136(2) of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982.

The primary legislation from which the powers to introduce these regulations derive stipulates that the regulations must be subject to the affirmative procedure. That means that the statutory instruments become law only if Parliament approves it.

Importantly, however, there is no opportunity for Parliament to amend such legislation.

Parliamentary scrutiny

The regulations were debated at a meeting of the local Government and Communities Committee on Wednesday 3rd February. The Official Report of proceedings can be read here and the Committee’s report to Parliament is available here.

I opposed both regulations and urged the Minister to withdraw them and come back having considered the objections.

I object to the Planning Regulation because it requires Scottish Ministers to approve Short Term Let Control Areas before they can be designated. It’s a power of veto over a matter that should be wholly and exclusively within the competence of local authorities. In the Scottish Government’s consultation on this question, it was claimed that this is similar to the process of designating Conservation Areas. Section 61 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997, however, only requires Councils to notify Ministers and when I challenged the Minister on this at Committee, he was forced to write to the Committee and apologise for the error.

I object to the licensing regulation because bed and breakfast businesses are within its scope despite it never having been intended that they would be. The Scottish Government denies this and says that they have always been included, pointing to a rather ambiguous sentence in the 2020 consultation paper.

There is a way round both of these objections if the Minister was prepared to withdraw the regulations and reconsider, but so far he has refused to do so. [see STOP PRESS above- the Licensing Regulation has been withdrawn]

I believe that legislation should be based on informed consultation with those who it affects and that powers for local government should not be subject to central government vetoes.

Thus, despite having campaigned hard for these measures, I find myself in the odd position of voting against the regulations. I would prefer not to be in this position, but without action from the government to improve the legislation, I have little choice.

Below is a statement from the Scottish Parliament in response to the votes this morning in the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints on the publication of written evidence from Alex Salmond on the Ministerial Code.

I agree with this statement.

BEGINS
The default position for the Committee has always been that it would publish as much information as possible. However, the work of this Committee must respect relevant legal obligations, including court orders made in relation to a judicial review and a criminal trial, which are aimed at protecting the anonymity of complainers. Whilst the issue of publication is ultimately a matter for the SPCB, the majority of the Committee is in agreement that it cannot publish given the legal constraints on it.

The Committee’s statement on the handling of information and evidence has been made clear to all witnesses giving evidence to the Committee, and this was highlighted to Mr Salmond when the Committee first wrote asking him to contribute to its inquiry on 7 July 2020 and again in October and November 2020.

The Committee would have been able to publish Mr Salmond’s submission, in line with the Committee’s statement, as it has his other submissions to the Committee. However, publication of the full submission in a manner that is readily accessible has made it impossible for the Committee to make the redactions needed to meet its legal obligations. This is clearly regrettable and something outwith the Committee’s control, but the Committee will not breach its data protection obligations or the court orders. This reasoning has been made clear to Mr Salmond on numerous occasions.

The Committee has corresponded extensively with Mr Salmond and his legal representatives since July (when he was first asked to make this submission by early August).  In addition to the issues around Mr Salmond’s submission, there are a number of conditions to his appearance that the Committee simply could never meet, including waiving threat of all legal prosecution. It is simply not within the Committee’s gift to make such a commitment.

The Committee will use the detailed submissions he had already made to the Committee, all of which have been published by Parliament in line with the Committee’s statement on written evidence, as well as the over 130 pages of documentation from his solicitor, to help complete its vital work. All of this can be used to question the First Minister and can be published in the Committee’s report.

 

Extract of decisions

Murdo Fraser proposed that the Committee agrees to publish Mr Salmond’s submission on the Ministerial Code phase of the inquiry with appropriate redactions.

The proposal was disagreed to by division: For 4 (Jackie Baillie, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Murdo Fraser, Margaret Mitchell), Against 5 (Alasdair Allan, Tom Arthur, Linda Fabiani, Maureen Watt, Andy Wightman),   Abstentions 0.

Maureen Watt proposed that the Committee agrees that, given the legal constraints on it, it is not able to publish any version of Mr Salmond’s 31 December 2020 submission on the Ministerial Code.

The proposal was agreed to by division: For 5 (Alasdair Allan, Tom Arthur, Linda Fabiani, Maureen Watt, Andy Wightman), Against 4 (Jackie Baillie, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Murdo Fraser, Margaret Mitchell),   Abstentions 0.

Margaret Mitchell proposed that given the committee cannot reach a unanimous position on the publication of Mr Salmond’s submission it should now go to the SPCB for decision.

The proposal was disagreed to by division: For 4 (Jackie Baillie, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Murdo Fraser, Margaret Mitchell), Against 5 (Alasdair Allan, Tom Arthur, Linda Fabiani, Maureen Watt, Andy Wightman),   Abstentions 0.

Andy Wightman asked to record in voting that he is a member of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body.
ENDS

three silver keys

In July 2019, the First Tier Tribunal issued an eviction order for a tenant living in a small studio flat in Edinburgh. The ground for eviction was that the landlord – along with his wife and daughter – wished to move from their 3 bedroom house into the studio flat.

Schedule 3 (4) of the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 states that a landlord wishing to recover a property to live in is a mandatory ground for eviction – in other words, the Tribunal must issue an eviction order.

Relations between the landlord and tenant had been strained for some time. It was the tenant’s belief that the landlord wished to evict the tenant and was using eviction ground 4 – an intention to live in the property – as an excuse. The Tribunal found, as they had to, that the test of establishing ground 4 had been met and issued an eviction order.

The tenant left in January 2020. In February, a new tenant moved into the property. The landlord remained in his three bedroom house.

The evicted tenant applied for leave to appeal the Tribunal decision. This was rejected. With the support of the Community Help and Advice Initiative, the tenant then applied for a Wrongful Termination Order. This in itself is an unusual step.

Even more unusually, in November 2020, the Tribunal granted it.

Wrongful Termination Orders were introduced by sections 57 to 60 of the 2016 Act. A tenant who has been evicted but believes that the landlord misled them can apply to the Tribunal for a Wrongful Termination Order. A tenant can apply whether they were issued an eviction order by the Tribunal or if they simply left the property when asked to.

(And most tenants do simply leave – because they have found another home, or it suits them to do so, or they do not want to kick up a fuss, or they are wary of entanglement in the court system.)

There have been previous applications for Wrongful Termination Orders. Although Scottish Housing News reported that the November 2020 decision was the first successful application for a Wrongful Termination Order, an earlier decision in December 2019 saw the Tribunal award £1,200 to a tenant it judged to have been wrongfully evicted. In that case, the landlord evicted the tenant on the ground that they wished to live in the property – but then took Airbnb bookings instead of moving in.

The vast majority of eviction cases lead to a successful eviction order for the landlord. This has been true even during the pandemic, although it is not yet clear what effect the Scottish Government’s temporary transformation of mandatory grounds to discretionary grounds will have. Applications for Wrongful Termination Orders are rare, and success is rarer still.

How many tenants have access to the help and support needed to apply? How many tenants are even aware that this is an option? The vast majority of tenants do not even attend Tribunal hearings when summoned. Organisations like CHAI and Living Rent do phenomenal work, but their resources are stretched. There is a chronic lack of awareness among tenants about their rights.

There is also a fundamental flaw in the legislation. As the Tribunal pointed out in the decision notice, the bar set by the Scottish Government for proof of the landlord’s intention to live in the property is very low indeed. Coronavirus changes aside, you can legally evict your tenant by providing an affidavit stating that you intend to live there.

The reforms of the last few years have strengthened the rights of tenants in Scotland. Yet it remains the case that a landlord who wishes to be rid of a tenant can evict them on the strength of a promise that they are telling the truth. There is no follow-up. Nobody checks that they were telling the truth. It takes a tenant who has both the willpower to push ahead and the support of a charity to uncover a wrongful eviction. It goes without saying that most tenants do not have these resources.

The maximum penalty that can be imposed by the Tribunal in the case of a wrongful termination is six months’ rent. In the November 2020 case, £1,350 was awarded to the tenant – three months’ rent. The Tribunal took both the landlord’s continued dishonesty and the tenant being in rent arrears into consideration.

When a Wrongful Termination Order is issued, the Tribunal sends it onto any local authorities who have the landlord on their landlord register. This is significant because of the fit and proper person test that local authorities should conduct on prospective landlords. Clearly, a landlord who has deliberately misled the Tribunal is not a fit and proper person to hold a landlord registration. It is worth noting in this context that the landlord who was the subject of the 2019 WTO referred to above (who let the property as AirBnB despite claiming that they intended to live there) remains on the Landlord Register.

The rarity of successful Wrongful Termination Orders reveals the flaws in the 2016 act. A priority for the next government should be fixing this legislation so that the rights of landlords and tenants are properly balanced. The private rented sector is crying out for reform. The starting position of any reform should be that housing is a human right, that a tenant’s home is in fact their home and that they should only be evicted in the most exceptional circumstances.

In response to reports of Marine Scotland challenging Irish fishing boats in the 12-mile territorial seas around Rockall, I have lodged the following motion in Parliament. For more information on the legal backgound, see this blog by Richard Collins of University College Dublin and this guest SPICe blog by Richard Harrison. Further background is contained in Chapter 9 of The Poor Had No Lawyers.

Motion Number: S5M-23827
Lodged By: Andy Wightman
Date Lodged: 06/01/2021

Title: Rockall

Motion Text: That the Parliament notes reports of the recent actions by the Marine Scotland patrol boat, the Jura, in boarding the Irish fishing vessel, the Northern Celt, and asserting authority over fishing in the 12-mile zone around the island of Rockall; understands that Rockall was annexed by the British Crown following advice from the Colonial Office and exercise of a royal warrant by Captain Connell of HMS Vidal on 18 September 1955, and that this was the last annexation of territory in the British Empire; further understands that the Island of Rockall Act 1972 incorporates Rockall as part of Her Majesty’s Dominions into that part of the UK known as Scotland as part of the District of Harris in the County of Inverness; considers that colonial annexation by the British Crown is not an internationally recognised means of establishing sovereignty over any territory, and calls on the Scottish Government to formally disclaim sovereignty over Rockall and invite the UK Government to initiate international dialogue under the auspices of the UN to establish the status of Rockall in international law.

 

I have resigned from the Scottish Green Party. My resignation letter can be read here and is outlined below.

Lorna Slater & Patrick Harvie MSP
Co-Leaders
Scottish Green Party
19b Graham Street
EDINBURGH
EH6 5QN

cc. Membership Secretary 18 December 2020

Dear Patrick and Lorna,

I am writing to tender my resignation from the Scottish Green Party with effect from Friday 18 December 2020.

For some time now, since I was admonished for attending a public meeting at Edinburgh University in June 2019, I have been saddened by the intolerance shown by some party members to an open and mature dialogue about the tensions and conflicts around questions of sex and gender in the context of transgender rights and women’s rights.

On Thursday last week it was made clear to me that if (as I was minded to), I voted for amendment 28 to the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill, I would face complaints and disciplinary action leading to possible suspension, deselection or expulsion. On the evidence of the reaction to my attendance at the June 2019 public meeting, I took this prospect seriously.

I understand that the Scottish Green Party has a strong commitment to equalities and trans rights. However, some of the language, approaches and postures of the party and its spokespeople have been provocative, alienating and confrontational for many women and men.

It has become evident to me that the sort of open-minded public engagement I would like to see take place on this topic is incompatible with a party that has become very censorious of any deviation from an agreed line.

Put simply, I cannot operate in this kind of environment and Thursday’s vote and the discussions that took place around it were the final confirmation of that.

I remain committed to Green politics and will endeavour to work constructively with the Green Group in Parliament until dissolution. I also have important work to do on tenants’ rights, the climate crisis, land reform, local democracy and taking forward my European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill.

I wish you well in the May 2021 Elections.

Best wishes

Andy

Photo Credit: Patrick_Down Flickr via Compfight cc

Rising private rents across Scotland reveal the failure of the SNP’s flagship rent pressure zones policy and the need for proper rent controls, Scottish Greens housing spokesperson Andy Wightman has said.

New stats published by the Scottish Government  show that over the last year, struggling tenants have seen average rents rise above inflation in 11 out of 18 areas.

In 2016, Scottish councils were given the power to ask Scottish Ministers to designate a Rent Pressure Zone (RPZ) to give them limited powers over rent rises. Despite rising rents and a global pandemic, councils have been unable to use that power.

A new paper by Lothian MSP Andy Wightman exposes the difficulty councils have had in gathering evidence to support a RPZ. It also evaluates what actions councils have taken to collect data and protect tenants from rent rises.

In response to an FOI, 18 councils did not provide any information on work on rental data or RPZs. Ten councils held basic information on private rents and 4 councils had gone further by commissioning their own research or initiating work on establishing a RPZ.

Commenting, Andy Wightman said: “Rents have outstripped inflation over the past decade. Councils have been unable to act to protect private tenants, even during a global pandemic.

“Clearly, giving councils the power to establish a RPZ without having to seek permission from Ministers would be a start, but Scotland needs a comprehensive system of rent control in order to protect private tenants from eye-watering rent rises.”

Read the Rent Pressure Zones research paper here.

Edinburgh from the Pentland Hills
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Jim Barton – geograph.org.uk/p/3343260

In September 2020, the Scottish Parliament held a debate on ‘dirty camping’. Many MSPs spoke out against the poor behaviour their constituents had witnessed over the summer. This behaviour was caused not only by a lack of understanding about how to interact with the land, but also by a lack of outdoor facilities. In a blog at the time, I commented on Scotland’s woeful outdoor infrastructure. Our public outdoor spaces often lack public toilets, basic camping facilities, access for disabled people and safe active travel routes.

Our country parks, regional parks and national parks are vitally important landscapes.

The Pentlands is just one of three regional parks in Scotland (the others being Lomond Hills and Clyde Muirshiel) set up under the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1981. Scotland has established no new regional parks since 1990, despite the powers still being in place to do so. Setting up a regional park signals an intention to manage the land for public recreation as well as conservation.

Christine Grahame MSP introduced a Member’s Bill in 2015 proposing to extend the boundaries of the Pentland Hills Regional Park, to include 100% of the range instead of 45%. The Scottish Parliament disagreed to the general principles of the bill and it fell – largely on the grounds of cost, a perceived lack of demand and a feeling that it was inappropriate for central government to concern itself with the operation of regional parks given that this responsibility rests with local authorities.

The City of Edinburgh Council manages the park on behalf of the three local authorities whose boundaries cross the park area. The Council is currently asking the public for views on access and camping in the Pentland Hills Regional Park.

The premise of this engagement exercise is that there has been “a rise in irresponsible wild camping, antisocial behaviour and a significant rise in car park usage” in recent months and years. Quite rightly, the Council have identified the provision of proper infrastructure as the solution. They are proposing:

  • Enhanced parking facilities at the four main car parks
  • Development of active-travel alternatives
  • Creation of Warden position with formalised camping area and toilets at Harlaw
  • Provision of improved toilet facilities
  • Introduction of parking charges

Unfortunately, the touted development of active travel alternatives appears to be little more than minor upgrades to the footpaths around the car parks and scenic areas. It is not clear whether the City of Edinburgh Council – which is the managing authority for the park – also has plans to create the kind of joined-up active travel network that would truly encourage people to choose walking or cycling over driving. The planned expansion of the car parks at Harlaw, Flotterstone and Threipmuir only underline the extent to which those wanting to access the Pentlands are encouraged to depend on their cars.

Prioritising active travel routes to the Pentlands would not only reduce congestion on access roads, but also benefit local businesses – the research is clear that people spend more when they leave their cars at home.

The council says that there has been an increased number of cases of anti-social camping at the reservoirs. It proposes a twofold solution. First, a warden to prevent camping around Harlaw Reservoir between March and October. Second, the establishment of a basic camping area for 8 – 10 groups on the north-east side of the reservoir. Those wishing to camp there would need to pay a “small charge”. Toilets and bins would be provided. The revenue from this would pay for the employment of the warden.

If we are to have camping permit zones at all in Scotland, they should be a last resort once all other methods of addressing poor public behaviours have been tried. Basic facilities such as toilets and waste disposal, funding rangers, investing in outdoor education – these are all ways to enhance how people use and relate to land. Drawing a line between which land can and cannot be accessed by the public undermines our statutory rights.

The provision of toilets is vital in enabling access to outdoor recreation opportunities – as well as preventing the obvious problem of mess. Proper toilet provision is even more important for marginalised groups in society – particularly women or people with gastrointestinal disorders. So of course I welcome the 10 additional toilets the council is proposing for the Pentlands.

However, I find it astonishing that these toilets will come with a charge. Years of cuts to council budgets have left us in a situation where even the most basic of facilities must be paid for at point of use. Proper financing of Scotland’s outdoor public spaces is essential – now more than ever.

Public parks in other parts of Europe provide better facilities; better habitats for wildlife; better cycle routes; and better access by foot or bike. Proper outdoor infrastructure opens up the countryside for everyone. Our impoverished and underpowered local authorities are simply unable to meet demand. Without action and fair funding from the Scottish Government, local authorities like the City of Edinburgh Council will simply have to do what they can with what they have.

The survey closes on 4 December 2020 and I encourage anyone who is interested to share their views:

https://consultationhub.edinburgh.gov.uk/sfc/pentland_hills_regional_park/