A new regime of voluntary car park charges will be introduced at Cairngorm Mountain's Coire Cas car park later this month. There is a possibility that after a two-year trial period the charges will be made compulsory.
Approval for this scheme was granted by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) in July, and the donation boxes will be in place by the end of August. Cairngorm Mountain (CM) will be asking visitors to donate £2 per car - the same, they point out, as the charge at Forestry Commission car parks within Glenmore. Initially this will be a two-year trial scheme, as required under the terms of CM's Visitor Management Plan.
As the highest entry point into the northern Cairngorms, and probably the largest car park at this level in the UK, the Coire Cas car park is popular year round with sightseers, hillwalkers, skiers and climbers. In peak winter conditions the car park can be extremely busy, and currently it is a facility that visitors enjoy for free. It seems that CM are no longer willing to be the sole providers for its upkeep.
'The principle of voluntary car park charging schemes is generally well-established nationally' CM spokesman Colin Kirkwood has told us. 'Within the Cairngorms National Park a number of popular recreational destinations request car park charges with the income being used for environmental improvements such as path maintenance. Charging directly linked to environmental improvement is supported in the Cairngorms National Park Outdoor Access Strategy.'
Regarding car park charges, the main principles of the National Park's strategy include:
There is a precedent for paying to park at the site.
'CairnGorm Mountain have operated a Carbon Donation Scheme for the past six years at Coire Cas car park' says Colin Kirkwood. 'Previously Coire Cas car park had a manned booth which charged on exit, [which] operated until the early 1980's. We are [now] looking to ask visitors to put something towards a reinvestment in footpaths, environmental projects, car parks and facilities. The two year trial will guide us towards a car park charge or a continuation of a donation scheme.'
It is hoped that the trial's two years will be enough time to assess the scheme's success. But CM admit that they currently have no indication of how much will be raised through donations alone, and it's not clear what criteria they will use at the end of the trial period for judging the merits of a voluntary charge. In terms of revenue generation, how much would be deemed enough?
'Success will be measured by the scheme's ability to raise money that can be reinvested in the path networks, Car Parks and infrastructure, which will lead to continual improvement in the environment and facilities available for all visitors' says Colin Kirkwood.
'However maintaining car parks and paths requires substantial amounts of money and it is unlikely that contributions via car park donations will be sufficient to cover these costs entirely. Snow clearing operations during the winter are also costly in both man hours and machinery, with many different user groups benefitting from the access this provides.'
This slightly open-ended answer will perhaps inevitably invite speculation in some quarters regarding the likelihood of compulsory charges in the longer term. Aside from this suspicion a more immediate question has also been raised concerning what exactly revenue generated through the donation scheme will be put towards.
'We have no objection to the voluntary donation scheme if it is to go towards path and environmental management' says Hebe Carus, Access and Conservation Officer at the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS).
'If this is what it is going to be spent on it [would give] the opportunity for people to contribute, [fitting with] the work we do on encouraging minimal impact mountaineering. Of course this all hinges on what the money will actually be spent on. The CM statement says takings will be used for "reinvestment in footpaths, environmental projects, car parks and facilities." We have concerns that "facilities" is a catch-all and this would need to be broken down for the required transparency ...with a full audit. This is essential as the trial is to be the basis of decisions about potential compulsory charging.'
'The MCofS has concerns about what will happen after the two year trial. The perception of a compulsory charge may be a difficult "sell" to users, especially as often there is no viable alternative. The public bus service is infrequent outside of funicular running times; this is exactly the time when people might be returning after a long hard day tired, wet and cold and waiting outside for a bus that might not be due for an hour would be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. There are also reports of the bus service being unreliable even when it is scheduled. Car park users, only some of whom are mountaineers, are used to not paying and there are liable to be a lot who would ask why a charge has been introduced if there are no new facilities. It would be up to CM to justify this.'
'Currently our agreed Position Statement, consulted on with membership two years ago, is that an introduction of compulsory charges for nothing new is not something we would likely find acceptable. At the end of the trial period we would look very closely at the audit of where the money was spent and listen to the views of mountaineers.'