Committees

Minute of Inaugural Meeting of the Sutherland Local Access Forum held in The Meadows, Dornoch on 6 December 2005 at 10.30 am.

 

Present

 

D Allan, Highland Councillor
W Beattie, Forestry Commission
H B Field, Sutherland Walkers Group and Sports Council
J Gall, Landowner/Crofter
F Keith, Highland Councillor
M Macpherson, Assynt Mountain Rescue Team
I Mitchell, Scottish Natural Heritage
S Pocock, Forestry Commission
J Ross, East Sutherland Canoe Club
W Sutherland, Crofter
C Whealing, Estate Manager, Sutherland Estates
A Wood, Scourie Community Council

 

In Attendance

 

G Robson, Head of Environment, Highland Council
L O’Neill, Area Administrator, Highland Council
M Dent, Access Officer, Highland Council
A Streeter-Smith, Paths for All Partnership
A Macrae, Administrator, Highland Council

 

1.  Apologies for Absence

 

An apology for absence was intimated from Dr R Graham Park, Edderton Community Council.

 

2. Appointment of Chairman and Vice Chairman

 

Following discussion it was agreed that as this was the Forum’s inaugural meeting, to defer the appointment of a Chairman and Vice Chairman to the next meeting.  In the meantime it was agreed that Liam O’Neill, Area Administrator act as Interim Chairman.

 

3. Standing Orders

 

L O’Neill referred to the Highland Council’s Standing Orders appended to the Agenda and sought their formal adoption for the conduct of meetings.  Councillor F Keith suggested that the Standing Orders were overly formal for the purposes of the Forum.  G Robson reported that the a pan Highland conference involving all the Local Access Forums would be held annually and that this would provide an opportunity for the procedure for the conduct of meetings to be reviewed in light of experience. 

 

It was agreed to adopt the Standing Orders approved by the Highland Council on 16 November 2005.

 

4. Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003

 

G Robson gave a presentation detailing the provisions, duties and powers contained within the Land Reform Act in terms of asserting and protecting access rights, and keeping access routes open.  Duties under the Act include the preparation of core path plans for the Highlands within a period of three years, and provision for their subsequent review and amendment.  Provision also exists for the amendment of byelaws to take account of land access rights.

 

Turning to resources, G Robson indicated that the Scottish Executive had allocated £8.1m in 2005/06 as a whole for the implementation of the Act, of which the Highland Council would receive £368k, the indication being that this sum will not change over the next three years.  Representations are being made to have the level of funding enhanced by seeking to have the funding formula changed so it recognises the on the number of paths in an area, proportionately high in the Highlands.

 

Mr Robson also reported on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, prepared by Scottish Natural Heritage, and implemented in February 2005.  He explained that the Code sets out access rights in terms of recreational, educational and commercial activities, and similarly what access rights do not cover such as criminal conduct, being on land when responsible for a dog or other animal which is not under proper control, being in or with a motorised vehicle or vessel (other than a vehicle specially adapted for a disabled person). Management problems also arise as a result of access rights such as litter, wild camping and there are also issues with signage, with the National Access Forum and SNH developing a suite of signs aimed at providing consistent signage across Scotland.

 

During discussion the following points were raised;

 

Councillor D Allan queried whether the review of byelaws would include management rules.  G Robson confirmed this would be the case.

 

Referring to the core path network, Mr J Ross asked whether this would include access to water.  G Robson advised that this would form part of the network

 

M Macpherson queried whether the Ministry of Defence had powers to restrict access over land.   L O’Neill indicated that the MoD possessed such powers and Councillor F Keith reported that he had a meeting with MoD representatives the previous day to discuss a route from Cape Wrath. He suggested that the Forum should seek a meeting with the MoD at a future date to discuss access issues.  Following on from this M Dent also noted that there is no access over railway lines and that the National Access Forum is to investigate this issue.

 

Responding to a query, G Robson clarified that paths and routes would both be identified by a purple line on ordinance survey maps, although a distinction would be drawn on the Council’s mapping system.

 

C Whealing sought clarification on whether resources will be available to upgrade paths and if not, whether it will become the responsibility of landowners. G Robson reported that representations had been made to the Scottish Executive for the allocation of funding to be calculated on the number of paths in terms of kilometres, to provide a more equitable allocation for the Highlands.  Other potential sources of public funding were also discussed.

 

Following on from this I Mitchell summarised SNH’s existing grants scheme for paths and routes, cautioning that the budget would remain static for the next financial year and thereafter be reduced, on the basis that central funding will take over.

 

C Whealing queried the Forum’s role in relation to the allocation of funding. G Robson clarified that while the Forum can bring forward recommendations, it is an advisory body, and as such does not have executive powers.

 

Reference was made to the advice and assistance available to community groups wishing to develop and improve paths.  A Streeter-Smith reported on sources of funding available for communities e.g. landfill tax, lottery, Forestry Commission and emphasised that his organisation, the Paths for All Partnership, had been expanding its work with community groups, including community councils.  W Beattie reported that grants were available for routes in forested areas.

 

J Ross advised that community groups often experienced difficulties in completing application forms, stating that this can affect the outcome of the application. 

 

I Mitchell indicated that he would provide assistance with form filling, at the same time reminding the Forum that SNH grants covered improvements or replacements and not maintenance.

 

Councillor F Keith raised the issue of public liability and the difficulties this causes for communities. G Robson stated that SNH had issued guidance on this and that the Scottish Executive had indicated there would be no increase in liability

 

Responding to C Whealing on the question of approved signs, it was reported that while templates had been produced, these had not yet been ratified by the National Access Forum.  M Dent confirmed he would provide Mr Whealing with copies of the templates.

 

M Macpherson documented problems associated with the Mountain Rescue Team gaining vehicular access over land as a result of locked gates, and suggested that a coordinated approach to reach agreement with landowners on emergency access would be helpful.  Following discussion, C Whealing agreed to take this forward with the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association.

 

J Ross raised the issue of disabled access to water over land using vehicles.  G Robson reported that only motorised buggies are permitted, unless the landowner otherwise gives permission.  S Pocock asked whether the landowner would be required to provide this type of buggy.  A Streeter-Smith stated this would depend on the test of ‘reasonableness’.  Councillor Keith stated that are considerable grant opportunities available for disabled access of this nature.

 

5. Role of Access Forums

 

Mr Adam Streeter-Smith the Outdoor Access Development Officer (North) of the Paths For All Partnership gave a presentation of the role of the local access forums. He explained that the Paths For All Partnership is a Company Limited by Guarantee with charitable status and has seventeen members of staff based in Inverness and in its Head Office in Alloa representing amongst other activities walking, horse riding, cycling and activities close to settlements. Turning to the role of the Forum he pointed to the document ‘Local Access Forums – A Guide to Good Practice’, produced in conjunction with SNH, as a good practical reference, and encouraged members of the Forum to think about access in the wider context. As part of this listed five actions for the individual Forum Members to consider as follows;

 

Members should make themselves aware of local access issues through self-education, awareness and forethought to anticipate access problems.

 

Members should seek to raise their profile, using an effective communication strategy and by being diplomatic, playing the part of an honest broker.

 

Members should give advice on access strategies, core path planning, other path planning issues and generally on rights of access.

 

Members should be pro-active in promoting and supporting community action.

 

Members should enjoy their role and pursue practical action which will bring both consensus and enthusiasm. The Forum should aspire to be a new kind of land institution which is independent, expert, effective, respected and trusted.

 

C Whealing queried the Forum’s role in decision making given that it is an advisory body and ultimately requires the Council’s sanction.  A Streeter-Smith stated that the decisions taken by Forum will form the action on the ground in terms of what is desired in Sutherland.  L O’Neill opined that it would be foolish of the Council not to take cognisance of the Forum, given its function to provide the relevant expertise.  Councillor F Keith advised that he could not envisage a situation where the Sutherland Councillors would overturn a recommendation coming from the Forum.

 

Mr D Allan referred to the need for management rules in areas close to settlements, where there can be a variety of interests, often conflicting, citing the Dornoch Common Good Lands as an example.  L O’Neill reported on the difficulties associated with enforcing management rules. A Streeter-Smith advised that other Forums had decided to include a Police representative, as part of their remit to encourage responsible behaviour.

 

The Forum thanked Mr Streeter-Smith for his presentation.

 

6. Good Practice

 

G Robson reported on need to develop good practice amongst the six Forums in the Highlands and the need to work to similar principles.  A code of guidance for the conduct of meetings is currently being prepared, and there will be a pan Highland conference held either on a six monthly or annual basis.  He emphasised the importance of developing a communications strategy in terms of publicising the Forum, circulation of agenda and minutes, the location of meetings, potential for undertaking site visits. Other Forums have agreed to invite particular interests to address their meetings to broaden the expertise and knowledge of members.  While such issues were for individual Forums to consider, he reiterated the need to develop a model of good practice without being unnecessarily restrictive.

 

I Mitchell asked whether it was envisaged the Forum would have to meet in private.  G Robson cautioned while the facility to do so exists, the Forum is also covered by the Freedom of Information.  Agendas and minutes will also be published on the website.  On this point and after discussion it agreed that all Members receive a copy of the draft minute prior to it being published on the Web.

 

F Keith queried whether the Forum could use the format of the planning hearing system to deal with access problems.  L O’Neill advised that the Forum has no powers to require a landowner to attend a hearing.  G Robson explained that the Act allows for a Section 14 Notice to be served on a landowner but that this is used as a last resort after all efforts to resolve the problem have been exhausted, citing a case in Ross & Cromarty as an example.

 

D Allan then queried the Forums powers to deal with ‘misusers’ of access rights.  G Robson stated that the Forum has no powers in this regard, but that byelaws and management rules could be one approach, albeit that enforcement can be difficult. 

 

7. Schedule of Meetings

 

The Forum agreed to meet on a two monthly basis on the basis that meetings will be held on a weekday afternoons, with arrangements being made for a site visit in the morning (optional) followed by lunch, prior to the meeting.  Accordingly it was agreed that the next meeting be held on Tuesday 7 February 2005 at 2pm the Shin Falls, Invershin, with a site visit and lunch being arranged to precede the meeting.

 

8. Public Access to Strathy Point

 

The Forum considered a report prepared by A Sutherland, Access Officer detailing an access problem that exists at Strathy Point whereby the crofting tenants had erected a sign at the end of the public road prohibiting any access takers from being accompanied by dogs to safeguard the sheep that graze in this area, in contravention of Section 14 of the Land Reform Act.   The report sought the views of the Forum prior to the matter being submitted to the Sutherland County Committee.

 

The Forum heard in particular from M Dent and I Mitchell concerning the difficulties relating to this case, the status of the land in relation to whether it is ‘enclosed’ in terms of the Act, and the position regarding the right of way. Discussion also centred on the Council’s liability should it erect a sign and the possibility of the Scottish Executive Environmental and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) providing funding to erect a sign or for additional fencing.

 

Thereafter the Forum agreed to recommend that the existing sign be removed and an amended sign erected requesting that dogs be kept on a lead, on the basis that SEERAD, as landowner, be approached with a view to funding the cost of the new sign.  Additionally it was agreed that G Robson and M Dent prepare the draft text of the sign for approval.

 

9. AOCB

 

G Robson reported that the Planning, Development, Europe and Tourism Committee had recently approve the draft Highland Council Access Strategy and agreed it be issued for consultation.  He confirmed that each member of the Forum would receive a copy of the Strategy, and that the consultation period extends to 24 February 2006.