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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! 

More Freiburg Views

If you’re looking for an enlightened place to be, they say you need look no further than Freiburg. Having heard all about the place at an RTPI Scotland annual Geddes lecture and blogged glowingly about it, it seemed only right to finally make a visit.
dscf5176Freiburg has a well-earned reputation for environmentalism, people-friendly streets and welcoming spaces. It’s known as a town that cares about design, sustainability and renewable energy. It’s a place where decision makers have taken decisions and got things done, rather than fudged and fumbled and left future administrations to deal with the consequences. We’ve been talking for decades about the possibilities of public sector-led advance infrastructure. They’ve been doing it for decades, including social facilities like schools and nurseries.
It sounds so different to our typical experience at home. The strange thing is, at face value it doesn’t look that different – it’s just a town, albeit an attractive and highly functional one. It has streets and spaces, parks and shops, historic buildings and new ones. People go about their business. At first glance you might think it’s a lot like your own town.
Pretty soon, the differences dawn. A main street with a fully shared surface, filled by cyclists, pedestrians and what we would think of as deadly trams. There are few cars but to spice things up there are open water channels a foot wide and a foot deep weaving along the streets. The local population (and visitors) seem to avoid falling down these bächle – historic water supply and fire fighting features. Instead, kids sail boats in them, pull strings of colourful plastic ducks or paddle in them in summer. The trams and cyclists and pedestrians continue on their way. It’s a traffic engineer’s hell. A health and safety officer’s hell. A car driver’s hell.
dscf5188Elsewhere, a back lane of recycling workshops, themselves built from recycled huts, trailers, camper vans and buses is a hive of activity, employment and social exchange. It looks like a Jane Jacobs dream come true. A tax inspector’s hell. A building inspector’s hell. A planner’s hell. It works. You wouldn’t get away with it here….
The housing neighbourhood we stayed in had a communal space – a simple courtyard with some seats, a few trees and loads of bicycle stands. It functions as a multipurpose local square for kids play, mini-markets, music events, local festivals, bike repair workshops, whatever, whenever. We have plenty similar spaces here, although many of them are a sop to open space standards. It takes more than the space to make this activity happen. It’s a state of mind.
That state of mind may come from confidence amongst those who live in and visit Freiburg that this is a town where quality of life matters. It’s a place where many people seem to feel like they have a share in the vision and a personal responsibility to deliver. It’s what the drive for community empowerment in Scotland is all about.
Then again, many people we met seemed happy just to get on with their lives, as if this really was just another town. And like any other place, there’s still dissatisfaction with politicians, public servants and private interests. Some things are the same everywhere.
But still, some things are different.