An absurd and dangerous project threatens Britain’s most important mountain habitat
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 7th November 1998.
There can scarcely be a more dismal sight, on a bright day in midsummer, than the Santa Claus Land theme park at Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. Above the rusty barbed wire surrounding a trailer park, a vast inflatable Father Christmas nods and sways in the breeze. Three pounds fifty will admit you to a miserable municipal world of creosote and bark chippings, where you will find Snow White and seven crudely-renovated garden gnomes lurking beneath a bush, a giant garden shed containing a Christmas tree, a plastic dinosaur, a few yards of model railway and a wire for children to slide up and down on. It’s hard to think of anything more depressing than an invitation to celebrate Christmas every day of the year.
Santa Claus Land is one of several desperate attempts to salvage the patently unsustainable economy of Aviemore. Until the 1960s, this was a quiet, unremarkable Highlands village. Then the corrupt architect John Poulson and the civil servants he had bought set to work. They built a series of staggeringly expensive concrete monstrosities in the middle of nowhere, called the Aviemore Centre. Hundreds of people flocked to the village to find work in what, they were promised, would be the Highlands’ central attraction.
The Aviemore Centre soon began to fall apart. Cracks appeared in the concrete and public enthusiasm for its cinema, disco, ice rink and crazy golf rapidly waned. For a time, abandonment looked like the only sensible option for a development which should never have been built in the first place. But failure is a valuable commodity in the Scottish Highlands, and some of Scotland’s cleverest political fixers began to see the tremendous potential the Centre offered for pouring good money after bad. Arguing that the jobs of the inhabitants were at stake, Aviemore’s champions recently managed to secure £4.5 million of European money to build wooden signs and drystone walls. Still, however, Aviemore remains for most of the year little more than a ghost town.
Last month, the latest plan to rescue its artificial economy was approved. It’s even dafter than the earlier ones. Ten miles from Aviemore is the only place in western Europe in which arctic and alpine habitats are found together: the great stony plateau of the Cairngorm massif. It’s an extraordinary place. The lower slopes, the haunt of eagles, merlin, pine marten and wild cat, are covered in naturally regenerating Caledonian Pine. Above the trees breed some of Britain’s rarest birds: dotterel, ptarmigan and, uniquely, snow bunting.
As a result, much of the plateau has been designated a Special Area of Conservation – it is, in other words, among the most strictly protected places in Europe. So the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds were horrified when they found out that the Cairn Gorm Mountain is to become yet another sacrifice on the altar of Aviemore.
The mountain is already used by skiers, on the few days of the year on which the warming climate allows snow to fall. They get to the top by means of a chairlift. It’s ugly, but otherwise it does Cairn Gorm little harm. Now the chairlift operators have persuaded the government and the European Union to pour £12 million of taxpayers’ money into replacing the lift with a funicular railway. It will devastate the mountainside, but at the end of last month, Edinburgh’s court of session threw out the WWF and RSPB challenge to the scheme and decreed that it should go ahead.
Even the Cairngorm Chairlift Company’s figures appear to suggest that the scheme can only make an enormous loss. The 112 new jobs it says the railway will generate will cost the taxpayer £108,000 each: ten times the average price of job creation in the Highlands. Most of them, it now turns out, are illusory. The company’s estimate of 200,000 skier days a year is wildly optimistic; even so, these still wouldn’t generate enough money even to pay for the lease of the railway. Moreover, the damage to the mountain is likely massively to discourage both walking and mountaineering, which contribute between three and five times as much to the local economy as skiing. The rest of the Scottish Highlands will be starved of funds to allow this demented scheme to go ahead.
Local people won’t benefit, tourists won’t benefit, the environment won’t benefit and the taxpayer will be fleeced. But for some of Aviemore’s developers, Christmas comes every day.