A report for Sustaining Dunbar – prepared by Philip Immirzi – GET THE POINT LTD – March 2021 FINAL
“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another”John Muir
A positive start has been made in identifying a range of visitor impacts across a number of sites in Ward 6, an area covering around 20,000ha with roughly 27km of coastline. A number of recurrent issues, broad themes and opportunities have surfaced and a number of areas for action are suggested.
Initially just over 60 potential locations were identified in the area of search – Ward 6. Criteria for selection included designations such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Designed Gardens and Landscapes, Local Nature Conservation sites, and Special Landscape Areas. Remote sites and any with restricted accessibility were not examined further, leaving 42 sites comprising: areas of community and open space; East Lothian Council’s Countryside Sites; the main country house estates; heritage, leisure and hospitality establishments; industrial sites; and a number of small wildlife reserves. Sites were scored for sensitivity (the number of designations and presence of sensitive habitats), resilience and an assessment of visitor pressure. While reports indicated that visitor numbers had increased dramatically across the area, good estimates were only available for a limited number of sites, namely those under ELC management, which is where we also found most of the problems and issues were concentrated.
We estimate that prior to the pandemic there were at least 1.2m visits to coastal sites in Ward 6 alone, around 44% of all visits to all coastal sites in the county. Between July and September 2020 coastal sites experienced an average 37% increase in visits. In Ward 6 the rise was on average 42%, peaking in July 2020 at 48%. However, such estimates are uncertain and fail to differentiate between local users and visitors from outside the county and do not capture non-motorised visits and those who parked outside an ELC facility.
Given the central importance of visits to the coast and countryside even before the pandemic, it is noted that the East Lothian Council Plan 2017-2022 makes only scant mention of it, despite the first objective reading: “To be Scotland’s leading coastal, leisure and food & drink destination”. The East Lothian Tourism Action Plan leans heavily on the natural assets of the county but sees them more as an opportunity for marketing the county, arguably overestimating the ability of the sector to continue to support a high-quality experience with ever increasing numbers. With this in mind, future strategies should place “green and blue spaces” front and centre, as these are clearly one of the major motivators for visitors. More resources need to be re-directed towards developing facilities and infrastructure around “free at the point of delivery” blue and green spaces, along with more coherent support for sustainable nature-based enterprise. A wider/strategic environmental impact assessment of current tourism strategies seems overdue.
Agility, flexibility and good co-ordination were the main ingredients of ELC’s arguably very successful multi-agency approach to managing unprecedented tourist demand in 2020. All the feedback we received included unqualified praise for the efforts made by the local rangers and community police. ELC has recently reviewed its overall response and appears to be preparing itself well for 2021 but may have understated the resource requirements should e.g., visitor numbers exceed predictions.
Additional ranger capacity on the ground would indisputably boost ELC’s ability to constructively engage with visitors, which was the single-most important ingredient to success, and in particular will help to communicate and reinforce new land management codes that are adopted. Rangering could take a number of different forms, with volunteers / wardens helping with certain aspects, e.g., “eyes and ears” monitoring, as local guides or administering simple visitor surveys to improve understanding of visitors needs and expectations.
Better management of motorised visitors is without doubt the most prominent management concern, but historically this rising trend has proved difficult to resolve. While the combined number of parking spaces available for sites as a whole may be technically adequate, this simply doesn’t account for visitor preferences and behaviours particularly during warm weather peaks. Constrained car parking capacity at the more desirable locations is one of the main issues highlighted. Constraints exist at most locations, which in combination with the limitations of the road network itself, land ownership and other site sensitivities, obviate overly simplistic solutions. To create additional parking capacity in the wrong places would have predictable negative consequences and probably create additional problems, though most of the car parks could be better designed and assimilated into their setting.
It would be preferable to manage demand by a combination of policies that aim to redirect users to alternative locations, to sites which have greater resilience and capacity to accommodate motorised visitors, using ELC’s “whole coast approach”. This is already part of their emerging plan. Encouraging as many visitors as possible to get on their bikes or walk will need to complement such a policy, but this may be difficult to communicate and implement. Such a policy may well be more appealing and effective if targeted initially at local residents, especially if they can see that additional efforts are being redirected towards creating new local path networks or making improvements to existing ones. Such networks clearly need to be well-designed, attractive and safe, and must be supplemented with additional measures to calm traffic. In some rural settings this could be redesignation of roads as “quiet roads”, where car volumes are effectively low or speeds slow. Measures that discourage car use may need to be used alongside. Using a blend of ‘carrots and sticks’ would support intentions set out in East Lothian’s Local Transport Strategy, the Active Travel Strategy and the Climate Change Strategy.
Proposals are mapped out for a number of priority areas including most of John Muir Country Park down to Barns Ness SSSI. Considerable co-operation between stakeholders and residents will be necessary, but bilateral agreements with a small number of private landowning interests are going to be key. Rather few “green blue spaces” are in community ownership and although the Open Spaces strategy suggests otherwise, in our view accessibility to green and blue space is often constrained and may be a factor that encourages more motorised visits than is desirable.
Project reference group: Belhaven Surf Centre, Dunbar Community Council, Dunbar Community Woodland Group, East Lothian Council, East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists’ Society, Foxlake Adventures, Friends of Winterfield, Green Action Trust, John Muir Country Park Advisory Group, National Trust for Scotland, The Wave Project Scotland.
A great many people contributed views and opinions and provided information. In particular, the author would like to thank all the landowners and facilities owners and managers who gave their time generously, the ELC Countryside Ranger Service and ELC Transport staff, and community-based organisations. Time prevented us from speaking to all those who expressed an interest.
Base maps contain either: OS data © Crown copyright and database rights 2021. Ordnance Survey 100023381 (use of this data is subject to terms and conditions) OR Open Street Map (© OpenStreetMap contributors). Satellite images are: Bing Maps Platform. Independently Sourced Data Declaration: All other mapping aspects such as boundaries, routes and point locations are from original survey data, and are not derived. Maps are illustrative only and are not drawn to scale and are provided on an as is basis.
Nature Scot Funded this project under the Better Places Green Recovery Fund
 These data although imperfect and not available in real time, give a good longitudinal perspective.