Travellers have won their fight to stay on a site built without permission beside an internationally-renowned Aberdeenshire nature reserve.
North Esk Park at St Cyrus has been at the centre of a planning battle since springing up virtually overnight without approval in September 2013.
The development was twice retrospectively approved by Aberdeenshire councillors before being called in by Holyrood over objections from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.
Sepa said lives could be put at risk by flooding from the River North Esk, which passes just a few hundred yards away from the site on the border of Aberdeenshire and Angus.
But a new appeal ruling has given North Esk Park families a ten-year temporary approval for the near 20-stance development.
Scottish Ministers said the site’s flood risk and failure to comply with the local plan did not outweigh the impact families would suffer if they were thrown off a site in an area where there is no other Gypsy/Traveller provision.
Those living there have said the decision ends the uncertainty which has hung over families for the past eight years.
However, one local councillor has said the ruling has simply “kicked the can down the road”.
In newly-issued judgements, permissions were granted for the nine-stance touring site and 10-stance permanent site.
Coronavirus appeal delay
A physical hearing to consider the appeal arguments was scuppered by the pandemic and reporter Michael Shiel considered the online submissions of the parties.
Ministers said his recommendation that the developments should be given a 15-year permission was too long and have put a ten-year condition in place.
The main issues in the appeal were striking the balance between the need for additional Gypsy/Traveller provision in Aberdeenshire against the environment effects of the development and the flood risk to the site.
North Esk Park sits beside the St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, which is part of the St Cyrus and Kinnaber Links Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The findings said: “The reporter considers that Aberdeenshire Council has failed to provide suitable sites in South Aberdeenshire and as a result, the Gypsy/Travelling people community has made its own provision at this location.
“There is a need for provision of facilities such as this in the Kincardine and Mearns area of Aberdeenshire, and that granting planning permission helps meet that need.”
Mr Shiel was of the view that the development would have no adverse effects on natural heritage, including the adjacent SSSI.
The previous appeal had brought a warning the development’s location gave rise to “substantial risk to life and property” in the event of a major flood incident.
The latest findings add: “There is no dispute between the parties that the site is predicted to be flooded by water from the North Esk by a 1-in-200-year event.
In a worst case scenario that could mean flooding to a depth of just under half a metre.
Sepa aims to give a three-hour warning if the site is likely to flood, and the reporter said the water velocity at the site would be reduced from that of the river.
The findings add: “There is no wholly satisfactory solution to the issues raised in these cases.
“Scottish Ministers accept the reporter’s conclusion that non-compliance with the development plan and the flood risk to the site is outweighed by the hardship that would be caused to the families currently living on the site that would result from the refusal of planning permission due to lack of available sites for the Gypsy/Travelling people community in South Aberdeenshire.”
The approvals include a requirement for a flood emergency evacuation plan to be drawn up within three months.
John Docherty, the owner of the halting site, said the decision ended the worry for families who had lived with the threat of eviction.
He also paid tribute to planning agent Alan Seath, who fought the North Esk Park residents’ case but passed away before being able to see the appeal outcome.
“Sadly, Alan did not live to see the success of his efforts,” said Mr Docherty.
“He believed very strongly in the case he made for approval and despite a number of setbacks along the way he never lost his sense of optimism.
“All of those involved with both the halting site and the permanent site owe him a debt of gratitude.
“The Scottish Ministers’ decision ends a period of uncertainty and worry for all the families on the site.”
Mearns councillor George Carr branded the appeal outcome an “abdication of responsibility.”
He said: “This has caused a lot of consternation over many years and we were looking at Ministers to take a firm decision a bit quicker.
“I think to delay it for ten years is inappropriate.
“It doesn’t bring any closure to this issue, which is what local residents have been looking for all this time.
“It is just kicking the can down the road.”
He added: “We have other situations where the Travellers run their sites and I think that is the best option.
“But they must be in the right place,” he said.
Aberdeenshire Provost, Councillor Bill Howatson, said: “When these applications for a nine-stance touring site and ten-stance permanent site near St Cyrus were discussed and approved at full council in June 2019, Aberdeenshire Council heard many compelling arguments and, on balance, it was felt this application should be supported.
“While it has indeed been a very complex matter, it was only right that it was subject to a thorough investigation.
“The decision by Scottish Ministers to grant consent for 10 years enables it to be aligned to our future Local Development Plan period and at that time the council can review circumstances and any ongoing need.”
An Aberdeenshire Council spokesperson said: “We note the decision of Scottish Ministers on these called-in planning applications and will consider the findings and any actions going forward.”
North Esk Park timeline.
September 2013: More than 10 caravans and construction equipment arrive at the site and work begins. An interim interdict against the works is granted but building continues. A retrospective planning application for the site is made but withdrawn.
November 2013:Aberdeenshire Council starts breach of interdict proceedings. Another retrospective planning application is made.
March 2014: A retrospective planning application for the site, due to be considered by Kincardine and Mearns area committee, is withdrawn.
August 2014: Aberdeen Sheriff Court rules Aberdeenshire Council failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Traveller James McCallum had allowed the scheme to go ahead.
September 2014:Another two retrospective planning permission applications are made.
April 2015: Aberdeenshire Council refuses retrospective permission.
November 2015: Further bid for retrospective permission made.
April 2016: Retrospective planning permission granted.
August 2016: Application called in by Scottish Ministers.
December 2016: Reporter Rob Huntley visits the site.
September 2017: Reporter’s recommendation that permission be refused is accepted. Residents are given until July 2018 to clear the site.
June 2018: Councillors extend the deadline to clear the site.
October 2018: Council goes to court to stop further work at North Esk Park.
December 2018: Retrospective applications lodged.
January 2019:The council’s education and housing departments give their support to the applications.
February 2019:Watchdog Sepa maintains opposition to the proposals.
May 2019: The applications are recommended for refusal by Aberdeenshire Council.
June 2019: Aberdeenshire councillors grant retrospective approval for the site.
September 2019: The applications are called in again by Scottish Ministers.
March 2021: Appeal ruling grants ten-year temporary permission.