A COMMERCIAL car park set up at a popular beauty spot in order to tackle "drug use, drug moving and sexual activity" has been given permission to remain, despite dozens of complaints.

The owners of the Hopes Estate at Hopes Reservoir said that increased visits to the area during Covid restrictions had left them having to clean up human faeces and deal with anti-social behaviour and parking problems.

However, their attempts to resolve the problem by creating a gated car park, which required a monthly £5 permit to use, sparked a wave of protests amid claims that "menacing and intimidating" signs were put up and obstacles installed on the public road to stop people parking on the verge.

Protesters also claimed that an informal car park, which people were allowed to park in free of charge by Scottish Water for decades, suddenly had signs installed banning vehicles, which Scottish Water knew nothing about.

And it was claimed that when the public utility firm agreed to fund a sign which confirmed people could park on their land, it was torn down.

READ MORERamblers Scotland hit out at 'obstruction' to Hopes Estate access

Moorfoot Capital Management Ltd, which was listed as the applicant, applied for retrospective planning permission for the car park and its 1.1-metre-high fence and gates after planning officers investigated the new facility.

At the time, the applicant said that they did not know permission was needed for the car park.

A meeting of East Lothian Council’s planning committee on Tuesday heard that 20 permits a month were available for users to buy from Gifford Post Office at a cost of £5, with money going to the village church.

Representing the applicant, John Wright told the committee that a "hands-off" approach to the area by Scottish Water had led to the new car park being created.

He said: “It is unfortunate that Scottish Water take a hands-off approach so the applicant has had to deal with drug taking, drug moving, sexual activities and picking up human faeces.

“It is not the considerate users of the area but the inconsiderate users who have brought about this situation.”

'Intimidating and misleading'

The new car park received 39 letters of objection from residents, who claimed that signage associated with it was “intimidating and misleading”, with claims that private road signs had been erected on a public road, a gate had been placed across public access, and the car park opening times were restrictive, with it open from 9am to 6pm four days a week.

Mr Wright told the committee that the car park needed to be closed sometimes as it was used as a sheep gathering point before the animals were taken for treatment following a “tick explosion” on the hills.

Objector Alastair Shepherd told the committee that he had visited the Hopes Reservoir for 26 years and said there had been no evidence of the anti-social behaviour which the applicant claimed had sparked the new car park being built.

He told the committee that in recent weeks he had received reports of people visiting the reservoir and being told they could not park at the Scottish Water site, despite it being free, and having to use the new gated facility.

He said: “On a walk a few weeks ago, I met the Rev Neil Gardner, former chaplain to the Queen, and he had been told he could not park in Scottish Water’s car park.”

The committee heard that roads officers were investigating claims about illegal signage and obstacles being placed on the public road accessing the site.

Councillors unanimously agreed to grant permission for the new car park but added a condition that it would be open from 8am to 8pm and be closed only on agreement with the local authority, with the days it will open to be agreed between the council and the landowner.

'Permits not inclusive'

Councillor John McMillan, who called in the application to the committee, said that he had visited the reservoir for 65 years.

He said: “The system of permits is not inclusive and we need to move out of Covid reaction and Covid recovery and into personal well-being.

“I will approve this application but want to encourage the applicant to accept the increased opening hours.

“If we carry on with the current system, we are in danger of discouraging people to visit the Hopes, which is a part of our heritage.”

Councillors were unhappy with the permit system but were told that they did not have the power to demand it be removed.

Councillor Colin McGinn asked: "Is it legal that you can just create a permit car park within the county or is there a legal process you have to go through to start a money-making exercise like that?"

Legal adviser Carlo Grilli replied: "There is no licensing requirement or any requirement at all for people to charge for parking on private land."

Mr McGinn then asked: "So if you wanted to restrict anyone accessing a car park on private land, could you set the permit at £200 for an hour's visit?"

Mr Grilli said: "Commercially, people may not park on it if that was the limit but there would be no restriction on fees or amounts."

Councillor Shona McIntosh asked if councillors could approve the car park but not the gates, which were included in the retrospective planning application.

She said: "Given there is already ample parking at the Scottish Water car park and this other one will only really be needed if it was busy, the presence of the gates might impede the circulation of the traffic in the car park and public road, and I wondered if it might be possible to add a condition which granted permission for the car park but not the gates and removed the gates."

However, she was told by Julie McClair, from planning: "You would need to have a planning reason why the gates were to be refused.

"The other thing to consider is that at the moment they require permission because they are 1.1 metres in height. Should the applicant choose to put a gate in which is just one metre in height, they could do that through permitted development rights. So you would have to remove permitted development rights but would need a planning reason to do that as well."