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Rural-Proofing the Planning Process

Another stimulating Rural Housing Scotland conference last week threw up countless options for blogging.

Evidence shows ’rural’ affordable housing investment is tending to end up largely in urban settlements. Are homes built in Inverness, or Ayr, or Dumfries truly rural?

There was much talk of rural housing ‘enablers’. We need more and better support for the Small Communities Housing Trusts and Rural Housing Scotland as catalytic agents, driving the complex process of converting aspiration into buildings on the ground. This often missing link is critical to the evolution of a more rapid delivery of new rural homes.

Could hutting begin to reduce holiday home ownership by providing a cheaper, more fulfilling and sustainable alternative? One Council planner didn’t think so, saying “we don’t support hutting”. That sits uncomfortably with the Scottish Government’s Scottish Planning Policy, which DOES support huts (not to mention their rewriting of the Building regulations to the same end).

We heard that the land reform agenda is offering more rural-focused opportunities for communities, as well as driving more active land management and sustainable development by current landowners.

Meantime, the Islands (Scotland) Bill is steaming ahead, bringing ‘island-proofing’ to the table. Is ‘rural-proofing’ next in line?

My own input was driven by the Planning (Scotland) Bill, which is currently working its way through the system.

Planning CAN be catalytic, transforming the mediocre to the magnificent. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for many using the system. A quick show of hands suggested perhaps two thirds of the delegates had first hand experience of the planning system. Of these, just one person found the process satisfactory. Why are many potentially beneficial rural development proposals considered guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the planning system?

The upfront financial risks, complexity and challenges of the planning process are constraining rural and community-led development. Not long ago, planners in one Council told me they rarely refuse planning applications for business development in the countryside. Businesses in the same area told us their enterprising ideas often don’t even make it to the planning application stage because the strict local planning policies put them off.

New housing in the countryside can face an equally troublesome path, particularly in those Council areas where excessively restrictive policy is applied. Bizarrely, the remnants of London’s Green Belt policy, dating back to the 1947 Planning Act, cast a shadow over Scotland’s landscape. An aspiration to avoid coalescence of larger settlements and maintain access to the countryside for recreation, has morphed into a determination to keep the landscape free of development.

Much of the landscape our planning policies strive to protect is deforested and barren, or man-made and managed at industrial scale for agricultural, sheep, deer or grouse. We’re told homes built here might ruin what is too often misunderstood to be natural wilderness. Reliance on car trips will apparently single-handedly render these homes unsustainable.

If urban development had been given the same scrutiny, our towns would never have expanded. For decades, planning policy has sought to contain towns and cities, avoid sprawl, support town centres, reduce private car use and make good places. It has failed. Much of what has been built in the last 40 years has been suburban, low density, car-dependent, out of town-focused and dismissive of community and place-making. In other words, wholly and self-evidently unsustainable.

Too often, the tab for failures arising from this market-led beano has been picked up by the public sector, through town centre regeneration projects, heavily-subsidised public transport starved of passengers, road repairs and the wider social, health and wellbeing impacts described so eloquently by Dr Harry Burns.

We’ve had forty years of development approved in the hope that the private sector might deliver public benefit. Thatcherism began stripping back the public sector and that process continues unabated in the UK. The devolved settlement currently provides only a limited buffer.

The public sector barely builds anything anymore. If it did, I think we’d soon see systems being simplified, as public sector users began to understand more fully the difficulties in getting anything built.

Talk of simplicity resonated at the conference. The Planning Bill opens the door to extended use of Simplified Development Zones, where an approved zoning and land use approach can be taken. This streamlining is targeted at larger scale urban development but it might be shaped to suit rural areas and communities.

On the subject of communities, the Bill introduces the notion of Local Place Plans. The community action plans some places have already adopted could be expanded and embedded in the Council’s statutory Local Development Plan.

As things stand with the emerging Bill, it would theoretically be possible for a community landowner to adopt a Local Place Plan with Simplified Development Zone status. That sounds a lot like devolved democracy. It’s the kind of visionary change many planners say they seek. It’s just a shame that the Bill doesn’t set out to deliver that vision, it’s just a potentially cosmic consequence of other stars aligning.

In reality, planning is generally conservative, lacks influence and has lost the skills it once had in the delivery of development. I began my career working at Livingston, where the public sector was building a new town. I didn’t care much for the results on the ground but the process worked in many ways. Land was purchased at agricultural value, access and services were provided, social housing and other buildings were constructed and serviced land was sold to the private sector at profit. Most of our European neighbours still seem to succeed doing things this way and they are building better places than we are.

We need a new era of public interest-led planning and development. People should play a key role through Local Place Plans, community development trusts and community land and asset ownership. That doesn’t mean we forget about private sector development and asset or land ownership. It just means that public interest needs to be closer to the heart of planning and development.

Where does this leave rural housing? In too many rural areas, we’ve been left with an abundance of poor quality, low-value housing, or large, high-value prime housing and second homes. This two-rung ladder has no chance of spanning the rural housing gulf.

We need a combination of baby steps and giant leaps to deliver change. The Planning Bill will offer numerous opportunities to engage with the emerging legislation. The rural sector needs to take its chance. Don’t wait for a dedicated ‘rural-proofing’ Bill – start influencing now.

Fundamental Questions From Freiburg

100_3287Last night’s 2015 RTPI Scotland Sir Patrick Geddes Commemorative Lecture was presented by Wulf Daseking, Professor at the University of Freiburg’s Institute of Sociology. It was an inspiring talk but also a frustrating one.

Freiburg is an excellent example of a town which has sought to create the best possible urban living conditions for its people. Along with Copenhagen, it’s as good a benchmark as any to be found in Europe.

It’s success in delivering sustainable urban living is built on a clear vision, a focus on delivery and an ambition to put people before private cars. Average car ownership in both Germany and the UK ranges from 550-700 cars per 1000 people. The latest Freiburg neighbourhood development has brought this down to 85 cars per 1000 people by offering easy access to homes, work and leisure on foot, bike and by public transport.

The real key to success has been a willingness to wrestle with fundamental questions, embrace honest answers and face the often challenging consequences. For example, promoting renewable energy solutions as an alternative to Germany’s nuclear power plans during the early-1970s oil crisis was a controversial and prophetic step. To a large extent it set Freiburg on its unique path towards a sustainable future.

Many people present at the talk would have been asking themselves why we haven’t already followed this path ourselves and how we might now do so. Without wishing to put a damper on the positive message, there are a number of factors which make it difficult to follow Freiburg’s example.

For one thing, energy policy is fundamental to sustainability. It’s reserved to Westminster, so beyond Scottish Government control. Recent policy changes undermine renewable energy and turn us back towards an over-subsidised reliance on nuclear power. Energy provision is a fundamental question we are unable to answer. Too many other questions relating to welfare, poverty and inequality are also unanswerable at present.

At the local authority level we are challenged by scale, with our administrative boundaries covering diverse areas far larger than our European neighbours. Smaller, locally-focused administrations could be transformational in terms of place quality. It can’t be done? Well, the rest of the continent seems to manage it just fine. Having said that, some of our urban-centred local authorities ought to be able to deliver a stronger vision: Edinburgh could do much better; Dundee is probably as good as we have.

For any of this to succeed, we’ll need to rebalance public and private delivery. We rely too heavily on the private sector to deliver social benefit, hoping (without much of an evidence base) that commercial considerations will be tempered, as egalitarian developers build a utopia. It’s not happening and no amount of s75 legal agreements can change that. Don’t blame the private sector – it’s only doing its job.

In response, Freiburg has reasserted delivery by public agency. Controls on land values (and by implication land supply) have made it possible for public authorities to service land and provide high quality public realm, open space and facilities which meet the needs and aspirations of its population. The cost of providing land for development with physical and social infrastructure already in place is reflected in the price developers pay for sites. The size of land parcels sold is restricted to ensure variety in design – and it enables a large number of often locally-owned companies to survive in the market, rather than just a handful of huge shareholder-owned companies.

We already have the powers to do this in Scotland. We’ve been talking about doing it for years. Yet the housing crisis continues to grow and place quality remains as another unanswered question.

With the exception of Dundee Waterfront, there are few examples of this kind of action in Scotland. A lack of knowledge, skills and experience may be partly to blame. If so, let’s roll out the Dundee model elsewhere. Let’s not wait another 5, 10 or 20 years.

One final point to note is that we shouldn’t simply blame planners and local authorities for a lack of progress. There’s undoubtedly a need for leadership and vision and both have a key role in providing this. However, the fundamental change we need can’t simply be enacted on behalf of society with its implied support. We need a fully engaged population which raises its sights and quickly turns baby steps into giant strides. That brings us back to fundamental questions, honest answers and the need to confront challenges. A few exemplary planning projects isn’t going to be enough.