ARGYLL and Bute Council is set to ditch its role in leading the management of a popular woodland in Helensburgh after 20 years due to budget pressures.

Members of the authority’s Helensburgh and Lomond area committee say they want to encourage an alternative way of the Duchess Wood being managed in future – specifically, one which doesn’t require the council to make any financial commitment.

The wood’s current management agreement runs out in August 2020 – and the committee decided last week that it will not be renewed at that point.

Council officers will be asked to work with the volunteers from the Friends of Duchess Wood on two alternative options for the future management of the land.

The first would see a third party sign up to a management agreement with the wood’s landowner, the Luss Estates Company, and take on the responsibilities, and costs, involved in managing the area.

And the second option would see a third party buy the land directly from Luss Estates under community buy-out legislation.

The management of the wood is currently overseen by the Duchess Wood Local Nature Reserve Committee, under the auspices of the council and chaired by Helensburgh councillor Lorna Douglas, but with representation from the Friends, Luss Estates, Lomond School and the Argyll and Bute Third Sector Interface (TSI).

A report considered by the area committee last week estimated that a new agreement would cost the council around £6,300 a year for 10 years.

Lomond North councillor George Freeman said: “I cannot support option A [a new agreement on the same terms as the current one] because of the financial position of the council at a time when we are having to cut essential services.”

“I don’t see a need for any council representation on the group at all.”

Helensburgh councillor Gary Mulvaney, who is also the local authority’s policy lead for strategic finance, responded: “It’s not often I find myself in agreement with Cllr Freeman but he makes a fair point.

“When the current arrangement was agreed in 1998 we were living in very different times and with very different financial resources, and you can’t help but look at the precarious position we are in as a council, with a potential £9m budget gap this year.”

But Cllr Douglas said: “I would like to see the agreement continue, but I can understand there are financial restraints.

“I think everybody can understand that, even the Friends, but I think it’s important that the whole thing is not just dropped by the council.”

Area chair Cllr Ellen Morton added: “I think we all recognise that the Friends have done a tremendous job over many years, and so have councillors and council officers, but apart from the money, there are heavy resources required from the council in governance and legal terms.

“None of us are in a good place with this, but I think other things are more urgent.”

Following the committee’s decision, Matt Offord, the new chair of the Friends of Duchess Wood, said: “The Friends are saddened and concerned about the council’s decision to walk away from the Duchess Wood Management Agreement in August 2020.

“We appreciate the financial pressures that the council faces and also the genuine reluctance expressed by some of the councillors in ending what has been a beneficial arrangement for the wood, and for Helensburgh, over the past 20 years.

“We do, however, believe the decision to be short-sighted given that most of the work in the wood is conducted by the Friends.

"In these financially difficult times, collaborations such the current arrangement offer excellent value for money and an opportunity to make a little funding go a long way.

“The council has also failed to acknowledge the effect of social green spaces on public health, a factor which is repeatedly emphasised by research. Duchess Wood is far more than a ‘nice to have’ or an ‘extra’.

"We would, however, like to thank the councillors and council officers for all of their help in managing the woods over the last two decades.”