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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.


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

Planning and rural economic development: Does Planning hear the rural voice?

Rural-Blog(Presentation to the Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on Rural Policy, 19 February 2014)
All rural development contributes to the rural economy – including housing, which is often controversial. In fact, rural areas need people in order to thrive and they have capacity to spare. Islay is home to 3500 people. Once there were almost 20,000 Ileachs.

Address the demographic mix, provide affordable and market housing, and we’ll have growing capacity for local products, improved services and enhanced tourism, better access to education and real responses to rural poverty – all in an attractive landscape managed to high standards. Who wouldn’t want that?

So what’s stopping us? Some people blame planning. Experience suggests that CAN be true but not always. Do we have a tendency to see rural areas as no go zones for development? An obsession with driving development to larger towns – a mid-20c response unsuited to many rural areas? Or defensive policy preventing poor quality development, but also stopping everything else?

Happily, NPF3 and SPP are highlighting the rural opportunity. There’s expanded rural content in both draft documents, telling a positive story. But we need to translate this story into action, into delivery on the ground, into local planning which creates the conditions to allow rural enterprise – including housing – to flourish.

We’ve been addressing proactive planning in East Lothian recently, working with Nick Wright Planning (NWP) on the East Lothian Rural Voice report. To inform the Main Issues Report, the Council undertook public engagement in their main towns. Local surveyors Chalmers & Co felt East Lothian’s rural voice should be heard directly, so approached the Council to organise a dedicated workshop. An unusual co-funded event ensued, attended by 40 people – residents, community groups, businesses, farmers, landowners. The conclusion? Planning needs to change.

Alongside this, we’re working (again with NWP) on a pilot project at Winton Estate in East Lothian, where an engagement-led estate wide (1000 acres) Vision is promoting a range of proposals for mineral extraction, visitor accommodation, social enterprise and other uses.

The East Lothian Rural Voice said planning policy is too strict and discourages development. East Lothian Council disagreed at that time. But if people PERCEIVE that planning is too restrictive they won’t even try to develop. That’s a problem. The Council is reviewing the report findings, monitoring the Winton pilot and will test new rural policy options in the Main Issues Report.

There’s no doubt that NPF3 and SPP take a positive stance, articulating the SG National Outcomes. Our LDPs need to do the same, tailoring solutions to suit different needs – some areas need multiple rural solutions. No single size fits all.

Pilot projects, new approaches – rural enterprise zones? – area specific ideas with clear objectives should be trialled. West Lothian’s Lowland Crofting is an well-known, if only partly successful example.

There’s an opportunity for the NPF to express spatial direction on a wider range of rural issues – including demographics and population – joining up thinking and breaking down silos.

And LDPs should integrate economic development and tourism strategies, Single Outcome Agreements and Community Plans. Planning is best placed to bring agencies, strategies and ambitions together, given its cross cutting nature.

We need to foster a positive attitude to rural development, promoting population growth, rural enterprise, local energy solutions. That includes a new attitude on landscape protection and management – North Harris Trust is a good example of a community working hand in hand with SNH.

Policy on development in the countryside needs a finer grain with objective-driven decisions. Weight and balance are needed. Planning is about value judgement and the public interest but that’s obscured by black and white thinking (and political shenanigans sometimes play a part).

Where pressure for housing in the countryside isn’t meeting a local need, some development might be permitted where it can also deliver affordable housing or workspace. Enabling development of this type is not a new concept.

Where rural schools are short of pupils, let’s direct housing and investment to their catchments. Argyll & Bute Council missed an opportunity to address this issue head on recently.

It’s important always to remember that rural residents and communities need to play a central role in driving sustainable place, enterprise and economic success. Recent Cairngorms National Park experience at Tomintoul & Glenlivet is an inspirational example. Increasingly, communities are taking a lead themselves.

Our experience with the East Lothian Rural Voice – and elsewhere – suggests that people don’t fear development or change where it is of a suitable scale and quality and proceeds at an appropriate pace – and where the planning process engages effectively with them.

“Poverty, to be picturesque, should be rural. Suburban misery is as hideous as it it pitiable.” Anthony Trollope, Author, 1815-1882

Richard Heggie

March 2013