By John Knox
What is landscape? I ask the question because a flock of environmental and heritage organisations have written to the Scottish Government calling on it to reaffirm its commitment to the European Landscape Convention.
I must admit I’d never heard of this grand convention. But apparently the UK signed up to it in 2006 and all central and devolved governments are supposed to be looking after our “landscape”. Landscape is defined, in the curious language of Eurospeak, as “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”.
Clearly this gobbledygook was drawn up by a committee and then hanged, drawn and quartered by the translators. But I think we all know what they are getting at. Landscape is the view. It’s the view from our window or our car or from the top of a hill and that scene can be either natural or man-made, mountains or fields.
The challenge being laid down by the environmental organisations – such as the National Trust for Scotland, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the National Parks, the Rambers Association, the John Muir Trust – is, can we agree on what constitutes “good landscape” and can we protect or even create it ? Or must we stand and watch our rural areas randomly despoiled like our towns and cities?
The letter to the Scottish Government specifically calls for “a system of monitoring and proofing of all new relevant legislation, policy and guidance to ensure its compliance with the Landscape Convention”.
Stuart Brooks from the John Muir Trust says: “Scotland has a wide and varied range of natural landscapes, featuring around 300 distinct landscape types. But landscape is more than scenery. It is interaction between people and place and is the bedrock on which our society is built.”
Quite a claim. He goes on to argue that landscape affects our quality of life and our sense of identity. He points out that in tourism terms alone, Scotland’s wild countryside is worth £750m to the economy and supports 20,600 jobs. All those visitors must be coming for something.
The environmental organisations concede that the Scottish Government has moved to protect the landscape. It has established a Landscape Forum which has come up with a Landscape Charter. It urges land manages to “take pride in your work in maintaining the distinctive character and regional identity of rural Scotland.” And it encourages individuals to “celebrate the identity of your local area and become involved in making it a better place”.
It gives examples of good practice. Glencaple village in Dumfriesshire, it says, has successfully blended modern housing with historic buildings. The Atholl Estate in Perthshire is given an example of a well managed and diverse landscape of farms, forests and hillsides. On the island of Gigha, business premises have been successfully incorporated in traditional farm buildings. And the Minsca wind farm near Lockerbie has been built without damaging the landscape after consultation with the local people.
Now all of this can be dismissed as glossy brochure environmentalism, or at best official wishful thinking. It also ignores the difficult choices that sometimes have to be made – like wind farms on Lewis, or golf courses on the Aberdeenshire sand dunes, or motorways through Glasgow, or bridges over the Firth of Forth.
But the environmentalists are trying to push beauty and landscape further up the political agenda by making them a quality of life issue ahead of the elections in May. And here they may be running with the tide.
The earthquakes, floods and snowstorms of the last year have hightened our concern about the state of the planet. You can hardly turn on the television without seeing a programme about the natural world – Coast, Men of Rock, the Wonders of the Solar System.
Landscape won’t replace the economy as the main issue of the election but it may change the nature of the debate, moving it on to: “What is the economy for ?”–>