Councillors approve controversial Kinlochleven zip wire application

An artist's impression of the zip wire. NO F50 zipwire attraction
An artist's impression of the zip wire. NO F50 zipwire attraction

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A proposed zip wire attraction designed to boost local tourism on land owned by Jahama Highland Estates at Kinlochleven was granted planning was approval by the Highland Council’s South Planning Applications Committee.

The plans, which include two pairs of zip wires over Loch Leven, were put forward by local resident Stephen Connelly in conjunction with Jahama Highland Estates, part of the GFG Alliance that owns the Lochaber smelter at Fort William and hydro plant.

One of the zip wires at 1,470m in length will be the longest in Scotland, while the shorter zip wire, which will measure 1,050m, will be the steepest in the UK.

‘We feel the zip wire attraction is a carefully-balanced proposition that will give local tourism a valuable boost while preserving the integrity of the surrounding natural landscape,’ said Jahama Highland Estates, manager, Dimitri Harrison.

‘We anticipate the attraction will employ 35 people on a full-time basis and 15 people in seasonal roles, which would be significant for Kinlochleven and the surrounding area.

‘With a monthly footfall of nearly 6,000 forecast during peak months in the summer, the positive economic impact of the attraction would undoubtedly spread into the wider community.’

In addition to the zip wires and platforms, the plans also comprise a container-style reception building, two floating jetties and a proposal to use part of the former smelter site as a car park for visitors.

The aim is to launch the zip wire next summer. However the project has not been without controversy and caused a serious rift in the local community between those in favour and those opposed – a fact acknowledged by local councillor Andrew Baxter.

Councillor Andrew Baxter No F07 Andrew-Baxter
Councillor Andrew Baxter.

He told the committee: ‘Members will be aware this is a proposal that has sparked strong opinions both in favour and vehemently against the development.

‘Unfortunately that has led to comments on both sides of the argument that I feel are unacceptable – things like “incomers are not entitled to have an opinion”.

‘In my opinion it doesn’t matter if you have lived in the village one day, 10 years or 70 years, you are entitled to your opinion. Just as those who don’t live in the village who have objected or have signed the petition which is over 1,600 strong now, they have valid arguments that must be considered as part of the planning process and by this committee.

‘The flip side is that I’ve heard those who are supportive as being labelled as too old for their views to count, that they are automatically anti-nature or anti-environment and don’t care about the future and, worst of all, that they can only be providing support because they are going to financially benefit.

‘I believe that sort of debate has debased the discussion on both sides of the argument.’

Mr Baxter went on to say that as a local resident as well as local council member he realised that whatever he decided it was going to upset someone, and he said if he had chosen to find a way to avoid taking part or being absent that would have been a ‘cowardly’ course of action.

Mr Baxter said the issue revolved round a number of distinct matters – including traffic, the environment and visual amenity.

On the issue of increased traffic, Mr Baxter said there were many activities that could result in significant increase in traffic from other developments or from the village promoted as being on a national scenic route which it already is. Key to dealing with this, he said, would be the traffic management plan.

On the environment, he commented: ‘Personally I would rather see a return to the period before man created a largely sterile landscape around Kinlochleven, but I take a pragamatic approach.

‘I very carefully read the ecological reports and note there is no concern expressed by Scottish Natural Heritage [SNH]. I can think of other uses of the loch – maybe power boats steaming up and down, where we would have very great difficulty in regulating or preventing that – could have an even greater impact on the natural environment,’ he said.

On the impact on amenity from the amount of noise generated by zip wire users, councillors commented that the hours should not be as restricted as proposed by environmental health officers and these were eventually amended to allow longer operating times.

Mr Baxter was of the view that if there is a noise management plan to mitigate any noise issues, he did not see the need to restrict operating hours as proposed.

And lastly, the potential impact on visual amenity, Mr Baxter said SNH had decided not to comment because it felt the project would not result in significant visual intrusion.

And he concluded: ‘Therefore I am drawn to the assessment of planners and the lack of objection from SNH and I do support approval.’

Fellow local councillor Nial MacLean said: ‘On the whole, this scheme is bringing something to Kinlochleven, which potentially will bring more business, jobs and is keeping Kinlochleven on the map.’

 

Reaction from Debbie O’Hara, local resident and a member of the Kinlochleven Zip Wire Opposition Group:

‘I was wrong to trust that officials would listen to the significant number of voices objecting to these non-essential, artificial installations proposing to operate daily, all year, over Loch Leven, around Kinlochleven and much of the area.

Eighty-four people formally objected, on material grounds, and 1,633 (presently) have petitioned, opposing with valid reasons and wanting to protect the area from inappropriate development. Residents, diaspora and concerned tourists cannot believe that this is happening here.

So troubling that business speculation on our heritage should trump this imposed risk to drivers, pedestrians, utilities and wildlife; increased traffic and Co2, landscape damage, protected species, ancient woodland, privacy of residents and tourists, impact on mental health and disability access, noise and visibility, waste management, infrastructure, unsubstantiated job promises etc.

The numerous stringent conditions that planning has imposed on both applications are welcome but why not just have the courage to say no?

Unbelievably the committee chose to reject Environmental Health Officers recommendations for reduced operational hours, showing an unprecedented disregard for the community and our visitors.

Opposers requested a site visit to emphasise the enormity to the decision makers; this did not happen.

Years ago, our community was properly consulted on development options, following the closure of the factory.

We have always supported a balance of developments and feel that by now arts, crafts, heritage, education on conservation, the restoration or development of Mamore Lodge are things that need to be considered rather than more pseudo-sport activity.

We have the iconic environment itself and resources such as the Ice Factor, visiting events and activities to provide ample options for real and pseudo sports enthusiasts.

Why not be creative and democratic and do no harm to what makes this area a magnet for tourists from around the world?

Traditional tourists state that this will end their return here. As an opposer the most damaging aspect of this personally is the unwelcome division it has created in our community.

Whether you have lived here for generations, decades or a day, if
you oppose you will individually or collectively be ridiculed and undermined by a small aggressive group of people in favour.

Developers and officials should listen to the many voices of opposition now; to progress such development shows how out of step you are with so many on this matter.

Setting this shameful planning precedent will encourage iconic landscapes be targeted for corporate exploitation across Scotland.’