Mass housing developments are the scourge of the countryside. They’re often built without any infrastructure and there has typically been no obligation for developers to consider the wider context of “placemaking”. NPF4’s emphasis on placemaking could change this, but will the framework turn out to be another well-intentioned policy that doesn’t really filter down?
Building Futures, the SEDA Land Conversation held on 18th April which I organised, aimed to explore how we might ensure the policy doesn’t fall flat on its face. A panel of experts and practitioners discussed ways of making NPF4 work in practice using existing examples of sustainable placemaking.
To make a sustainable place, you first need to consider all aspects of living, including home, work, energy, transport, intergenerational living (including the related care needed for the young and elderly) and community. Although there has been a move to home-working post-Covid, people still need communities and face-to-face interaction. Places to work, whether in large enterprise hubs, communal workshops or even a digitally-connected room in a pub, are an essential ingredient of sustainable placemaking.
All panellists agreed that the existing planning system is incapable of implementing the changes that are required. The Royal Town Planning Institute’s Scotland director Craig McLaren argued that with more investment, including 700 additional planners across Scotland and more ecological training, this might be achieved within the existing planning system. He advocated a longer-term approach measured by outcomes and including all stakeholders in the community.
Ariane Burgess, Scottish Green MSP and convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s local government, housing and planning committee, called for independent facilitators with ecological skills to help communities with the procurement process. This would help pool resources and speed up the challenging building process. North West 2045 is a good example of people working together to build sustainable places – a collaboration of community trusts, private landowners, community landowners and statutory authorities.
Balcaskie estate manager Sam Parsons pointed out that the projects being considered are all small-scale, and therefore likely to be handled by junior planning officers with insufficient experience to deal with their complexity. To deal with multiple small-scale developments, he said a a more sophisticated and supple system is going to be rewquired. “Simplification and streamlining” won’t help, said Sam.
There was also a proposal that the planning system ought to positively discriminate in favour of sustainable placemaking, fast-tracking small- scale ecological developments ahead of repetitive, unsustainable housing schemes without any sense of place.
There was a discussion of possible innovative funding models for the construction of large numbers of high-quality homes. [NPF in Ireland is accompanied by a significant capital investment programme]. To get these off the ground we need partnerships between the public and private sectors, landowners, developers and investors, along the lines of public interest-led developments – in which local authorities buy land and provide services before selling on to communities or self-builders, as happens in Germany.
Local authorities, regional development agencies and the Scottish Government definitely need to do more to support alternative housing models such as co-working, co-living and self-build. Last month Perth and Kinross Council launched the first self-build register in Scotland and will provide serviced self-build plots on smaller rural sites.
As always, the fact VAT is applied to renovation, conversions and extensions but not to new builds was raised, as was the Scottish government’s powerlessness over this inequitable situation.
For people to move back to or remain in rural areas and set up businesses there, the existence of reliable and fast broadband connections is paramount. If Scotland was to invest at the same scale amount as Ireland has with its National Hub Network, high-speed broadband would have been rolled out right across rural Scotland by now. Rural people are used to balancing several jobs and, given enhanced digital connectivity, they could spend half the week working on a croft and the other for an Edinburgh-based financial institution.
The UK still imports 80 per cent of its timber even though Scotland is well placed to produce all our timber needs and to plug gaps in the existing supply chain. Neil Sutherland, speaking as a director of Makar Ltd, called for investment in advanced timber products, a more digital and biogenic approach to new buildings and a more locally-focused supply chain. (At present advanced timber products are almost all manufactured in mainland Europe).
If the Scottish Government were to make a long-term commitment to Scotland’s timber sector, it would act as a catalyst for third-party investment in it, permitting the establishment of a “roadmap” for the production of local natural materials. [The French government has stipulated that 50% insulation must be natural, galvanising investment in the sector]. We need alternative funding strands for the production of engineered products, insulation, and high-quality timber components from the Scottish Government, Scottish National Investment Bank, businesses, foundations, trusts and institutions – banks, insurance companies and endowment funds. We also need to piggyback the trend towards divestment from damaging industries such as fossil fuels towards investment in natural capital.
As chair, Debbie Mackay, director both Savills and of Rural Housing Scotland, managed to steer this very lively discussion admirably, weaving in the musician and the three poets representing youth, middle age and old age to reflect the intergenerational living espoused at the event. Each one beautifully described what it means to live in a thriving rural community.
- Balcaskie, Fife – a 2,000-hectare single ownership estate in the East Neuk of Fife – Sam Parsons, estate manager.
- Beldorney, Aberdeenshire – a 349-hectare estate owned by Highlands Rewilding – a mass-ownership company using crowdfunding, – Neil Sutherland, director.
- Assynt Glebe Land – 22-hectare estate owned by Assynt Development Trust near Lochinver – Ewen McLachlan, Development Officer, ADT.
All three of these models for delivering affordable homes of varying sizes alongside enterprise hubs are at different stages of development.. But what they have in common is they are all using, or intend to use, locally- sourced renewable energy, local natural materials, a local workforce, and to promote local food production as well as to improve biodiversity.
Balcaskie Estate has been developing its model (although Sam admitted there was no plan at the start) since 2008 and has managed to achieve at least some of its ambitions more quickly than the other two. The idea is to renovate the estate’s existing building stock, much of which is semi- derelict, first, extending later to building some new homes and work facilities. The 17 mainly Georgian farm-steadings are gradually being converted into sustainable homes and micro enterprise zones. The work units are clustered together and share facilities including a garden where tenants can grow their own food. There are no second homes or holiday homes on the estate, which is near St Monans in Fife. Accommodation is not advertised but relies on word-of-mouth to prioritise local interest.
At Baldorney, near Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Highlands Rewilding aims to build a larger number of homes more quickly than at Balcaskie, and there will be more new buildings including zero-carbon affordable and premium homes in a mixed-use development, which will include workshops, studios and glasshouses. The ruins of previous crofting sites will be resurrected for contemporary regenerative land management with new purpose-built “crofts”. The 16th century Beldorney Castle has already been fully restored in order to be rented out.
Assynt Glebe Land is predominantly looking at new-builds on 55 acres of former Glebe land bought from Church of Scotland, with support from the Scottish Land Fund in April 2021. The plan, being co-developed by the Communities Housing Trust, is for a smart township – a rural area that uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to digitally transform its operational efficiency alongside good public transport, environmental initiatives and progressive planning – adjacent to Lochinver in Sutherland. There are plans for woodland crofts and an outdoor centre that connects with a path network that extends to Lochinver primary school across Loch Culag. Getting the basic infrastructure in place – including fast digital connectivity – is paramount.