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Planning Perceptions and Rural Scotland

At the packed Hutter’s Rally in Dundee yesterday, Lesley Riddoch was quick to introduce delegates to the elephant in the room: land reform is perhaps the most pressing requirement for a more rapid growth of hutting in Scotland. Our near neighbour Norway, with it’s similar population but diverse land ownership pattern, has one hut for every 10 people. We have one for every 8500 people.

There was a second elephant in the room few could miss. This one would happily have been outdoors enjoying some peaceful recreation in Scotland’s vast rural expanse but unfortunately it couldn’t get planning permission. It was stuck indoors with the rest of us, circling the room.

An impromptu survey of hands showed perhaps 80-90% of the 250 delegates had suffered a negative and painful experience with the planning system. One or two people had a positive experience.

This entirely reflects previous experience at the Rural Housing Scotland conference. An equally packed room full of people doing everything they can to address Scotland’s rural housing crisis gave us the same response.

We did work in East Lothian a few years back with Nick Wright and Ogilvy Chalmers, where we captured the ‘Rural Voice’. Opinion again firmly suggested a negative experience of the planning process, to the point that land owners, rural businesses, communities and individuals had given up trying to bring forward development projects.

There is no evidence to suggest that this is a single group of malcontents covertly attending random rallies and conferences just to disrespect the planning system. I’m sure we’d be recognising faces by now.

We’re in the delivery stages of a Scottish Government planning review. There will be changes to process. Many of us remember the last review over the 2000s. There were some changes to process then. Some things improved. There was to be a ’culture change’ in planning, whereby attitudes to regulation, public service and development would be transformed. That, largely, has not been successful, as the show of hands confirms.

Will the new system bring that culture change?

There was much talk amongst delegates at both events over attitudes to Scotland’s countryside. There’s an unmistakable perception that some planning authorities and planning officers do not want to see any development in the countryside. 

Some feel, rightly or wrongly, that planners see Scotland’s landscape as pristine wilderness, untouched and unpopulated by mankind: nature in it’s raw and overwhelming beauty. Who knew grouse moors, sheep slopes, commercial forestry crops and industrial-scale agriculture could be described (and misunderstood) so poetically?

Many people feel that apparently reasonable proposals are effectively put in the dock when they enter the planning system. These may be proposals, such as rural housing or hutting, which would support stated Scottish Government and local authority policies and ambitions. The case for the proposal may be misunderstood or completely ignored. There is no opportunity for meaningful dialogue. We coined the phrase ‘guilty until proven innocent’ at a previous Rural Housing Scotland conference. At its worst, it’s Kafkaesque – and that is no exaggeration. 

The Scottish Government publication ‘Rural Scotland : Key Facts’ notes that rural land amounts to 89% of Scotland’s land mass. Scottish Government policy increasingly supports rural repopulation, housing, economic development, tourism and countryside recreation. Many feel this support is not translating to the local level.

It must be acknowledged that Scotland’s planning authorities are under severe resource pressures. This does not help. Planning permission is a key factor in delivering projects that address poverty, support climate change, enhance wellbeing and drive economic growth. The resourcing of the system needs to be addressed, alongside a refocusing of its purpose.

Planning decisions do need to protect important landscapes and resources. They need to achieve a balance serving both the rights of the developer and the public interest. We need to look again at how Scotland’s rural resource is best used, in the public interest, by encouraging the right kind of development in the right kind of places.

There’s an opportunity to influence the Scottish Government’s forthcoming National Planning Framework 4 by submitting comments by 31 March 2020, using the link below. NPF4 will elevate Scottish Planning Policy from a material consideration to statutory status in planning decisions. This is a rare opportunity to help secure the firmest possible support for both hutting and rural housing at national and local level.

https://blogs.gov.scot/planning-architecture/2020/02/03/npf4-early-engagement-feb-2020-2/

Disclaimer: The planning system does also achieve good decisions and there are many positively minded planning officers out there! 

Hutting Made Easy?

It’s a simple concept: a little hut in the woods; a place to spend some time outdoors; reconnect with the real world. There are hytte all over Scandinavia and northern Europe, so why not here?
It’s a simple building: made from local timber; maybe self-built; easily removed at the end of its life.
And it’s one simple step to create the policy framework: add a concise definition of a hut to Scottish Planning Policy and watch the verbose hutting movement take physical form.
Off we go then. We recently submitted a planning application for a pilot project by Reforesting Scotland, the group that’s done more than anyone to promote hutting in Scotland, through its 1000 Huts Campaign. Working with Forestry Commission Scotland on a site at Carnock Wood by Saline in Fife, Reforesting Scotland plans 13 huts, one of which is intended for educational use.
We’ve tried to keep it simple. We helped Reforesting Scotland set out information for this kind of development in their guidance for “New Hutting Developments”, published in 2016. We’ve now sought to create a template through this planning application to make it easier for others to follow. The application documents can be viewed here.
A quick look at the application file online and you’ll realise that simplicity only goes so far. The planning system hasn’t handled many hutting applications in recent years, as there are so few huts in Scotland and barely any have been built in recent times. Planning authorities need to be confident that they aren’t opening the door to inappropriate development. They want to know what the huts will look like. They want to know about any potential impacts on ancient woodland, habitat and protected species, road safety and landscape setting, flooding and core paths. They want to know how people will travel to the huts, how they will use them, how the site will be managed.
Sometime soon, a simpler planning application process may be possible. Once a body of hutting evidence has emerged, we can all campaign for a lighter-touch approach to the planning process, for this lighter-touch form of development. If Simplified Planning Zones are acceptable for housing and employment, then why not huts?
For now, this seems like a big step forward. There’s more work to be done but the planning  application takes us closer to making huts available for people who want them. And we know lots of people want them….