Ardfern village and the Craignish peninsula in mid Argyll in which it sits, is a part of the world that has all of the elements of a rural idyll.
In the characteristic Argyll mode dictated by topography, Craignish is a world of its own. Access is slow, by a long single track road down the north shore of Loch Craignish, in spectacular landscape and with a potent coastal waterway bounded by exposed rock and looking to some of Argyll’s celebrated islands, accessed by tidal features that fuel the stories of sailors, like the Corryvreckan, the Dorus Mhor and the Grey Dogs.
This is sailing territory and it is an open secret that the well resourced Ardfern Yacht Centre hosts the only British royal yacht currently in service.
Houses old and new nest along the strung out lochside, punctuated by the generously proportioned and gloriously waterside located Craignish Village Hall, whose facilities and entertainments programme is a matter of open hearted envy. And artists abound.
Then there is the little village of Ardfern and the lovely Galley of Lorne Inn.
What does this place not have?
The answer, as in so much of Argyll, is affordable housing.
The majority of the incoming residents of this part of the world are the mature well heeled. Their fundraising acumen, with the dedication and commitment of the Village Hall Committee came together in the successful project that was the building of Craignish Village Hall.
This required the demolition of the previous hall, with the Hall Committee carrying on running events and activities there until the very last minute, to earn as much as possible – about £80,000 – towards the new building.
Property prices in the Craignish peninsula, which includes Craobh Haven, almost opposite Ardfern on the north shore of the peninsula, are predictably high. Many of those who want and need to live there cannot ever hope to afford to do so – hence the need for affordable housing to provide for the young and to secure the elderly.
The first move to secure affordable housing
About 14 years ago, the Kirk Session of Craignish Parish Church made a suggestion to the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland.
The agricultural tenancy of The Glebe, the 14 acre field that had traditionally been used to contribute to the upkeep of the parish minister, had been given up. The General Trustees were thinking of putting the field on the market when the Kirk Session suggested that it might be kept in the tradition of service to the parish by having at least some of the land used to build some affordable homes.
The General Trustees supported the proposition. The Kirk Session went on to make contact first with a Scottish community housing charity, the Rural Housing Association, whose director, Derek Logie, became and remains helpful and supportive in the fulfillment of this project; and then with the Housing Association operating in the area and now known as Fyne Homes.
To develop Fyne Homes’ initial interest, the Kirk Session researched the scale of housing needs in Craignish. This led to Argyll and Bute Council realising that they needed to know a lot more about the housing situation in the area and commissioning consultants to carry out a housing needs survey for Craignish.
Both surveys showed a strong need for affordable rented housing in the community; and by the hitherto unconsidered young single people who had little hope of accessing suitable accommodation.
Ardfern was put on the list for Housing Association homes, in the hope that these might be built in 2008/09. But the former Lochgilphead High School site came up, whose purchase would enable Fyne Homes to build around 100 houses. The decision was foregone and Ardfern was dropped from the list with vague hopes of funding at a later stage.
An independent solution to the housing shortage
Very near Ardfern there proved to be, for a time, another – a hidden and secret – way of living.
Local landowner Colin Linday MacDougall permitted some people with an interest in alternative lifestyles to settle informally on his Lunga Estate, in a sort of hidden glen in the centre of the peninsula, between Ardfern and Craobh Haven on the north shoreline on Loch Melfort.
The residents of what became a collection of around 25 homes, wrapped external structures around the frames of static caravans, giving a thin legitimacy to their moveable status. They became quite a little community. They paid their council tax, which was accepted without anyone at the council realising where they actually lived. Many had real skills to make available to the wider peninsular community – they were electricians, plumbers, joiners, artists … active participants in local life.
Then, after many years and according to what sounds like local myth but is factually accurate, chance brought a senior member of staff from the council’s planning department to sail with a friend on Loch Melfort one Saturday.
As his eyes drifted over the landscape, they stopped at a single roof his expert knowledge could not quite account for. He made a mental note to check and that was end of the idyll. This later addition to the community we call ‘The Lunga Hutters’, was a little further up the hill than others – but not visible anywhere from the land. The longer view from the water turned out to be the Achilles heel.
Regardless of the fact that many of the residents of this inoffensive if informal community had been there beyond the statutory period within which they can legally be required to pull their homes down and regardless of the fact that they had for years been paying their council tax [which proved the duration of their residency], Argyll and Bute Council served most of them with enforcement orders.
This community – eccentric, individualist, affordable and invisible – nevertheless offended the suburban sensibility of the planners, who decided that the only way to clear the site was to use enforcement orders against them. There was no interest whatsoever in even considering the issue of where those people would then live.
Several of them had no interest in traditional accommodation, much preferring the personality of the place they had created for themselves in tranquil natural surroundings. Some of these managed – eventually – to have the length of their residency accepted as qualifying them to remain where they were.
But for the others, their sudden and questionable dehoming brought the increased need for affordable housing in Craignish back into sharp relief.
In the picture again: The Glebe
With Fyne Homes engaged at the major Lochgilphead site, the recently formed Craignish Community Company, known as C3, suggested that they might help raise funds from the private sector to build the much-needed affordable housing. They and the General Trustees and agreed that C3 might research and prepare a proposal for The Glebe – on conditions stipulated by the General Trustees.
These were that none of the housing should either be offered on a shared equity basis or for outright sale.
These conditions were designed to ensure that the General Trustees did not make available land for housing at a discount price which could then be sold on the open market.
During the period that C3 worked, unsuccessfully, to produce a plan the General Trustees could accept, Fyne Homes came back into the picture with a new funding allocation.
This time there seemed no route to 100% funded housing but, by this stage, Argyll and Bute Council had served their enforcement orders on the Lunga hutters and were then aware of their responsiblities in helping to create an answer to the housing shortage in the peninsula.
What emerged was a partnership between Fyne Homes, the General Trustees and Argyll and Bute Council, focused on creating 6 units of rented housing and 5 private house sites for eventual sale by the General Trustees.
In return, the General Trustees agreed to accept only £10,000 for the land required by Fyne Homes and also to pay all the planning development and application costs for the entire project.
Argyll and Bute Council had identified Ardfern as one of 26 ‘renaissance settlements’ – communities reckoned to have the capacity for sustainable regeneration. This classification made Ardfern eligible to apply for a special grant, funded from the second homes council tax levy to assist with solving housing problems.
Fyne Homes’ plan for the Glebe was accepted as one of three valid applications to this fund. Its available total was £750,000 – but the three applications came to £1,200,000.
To his credit, the Council’s Executive Director for Community Services, Cleland Sneddon, then recommended to elected members that the balance be found from reserves and that each of the three applications should be funded in full. This saw £320,000 allocated to Fyne Homes for the Glebe project.
This looked like success at last but, as is the way in these things, there were processes to be gone through, at the end of which – and without warning – the Community Council, of all bodies, has gone to extraordinary lengths to get the build relocated to another part of the village, described grandly as ‘more suitable for affordable housing’.
This has sunk a rift valley in the community, with demonstrably misleading claims of failure to inform submitted to the council by the Community Council, alongside all sorts of manoeuvres to block the housing at The Glebe.
Working up the proposal with community involvement
At the stage of the funding agreement to take The Glebe project forwards, a meeting of all interested parties was held in Council offices in Lochgilphead on or around 19th January 2012, chaired by Fergus Murray of the planning department.
Its purpose was to make the plan known and to explain the reasons behind the need to incorporate a mixture of private sites and social housing.
Present at this meeting were:
- representatives of Fyne Homes with their advisors
- the General Trustees with their planning consultant
- Argyll and Bute Council roads and planning departments
- the Minister and Kirk Session of Craignish Parish Church
- a representative from Craignish Community Council
- a representative of Craignish Community Company [C3].
The last two were invited to ensure that the community was kept informed.
In summer 2012, Fergus Murray attended a scheduled meeting of Craignish Community Council and repeated the details of what was proposed.
In November 2012, a meeting was held in the Glasgow offices of T C Young, Fyne Homes’ solicitors, at which final details of the plan were agreed. [Update 16th January: Mid Argyll Councillor, Dougie Philand and Highlands and Islands MSP, Mike Mackenzie were also present. Mr Philand had also supported the Lunga hutters in the matter of the enforcement prders.]
Because Craignish Community Council, which had been invited, was unable to send a representative, they were given a full briefing a few days later.
On 5th December 2012, at the Community Council meeting, the planning consultant and architect for the plan gave a presentation, confirming what had previously been communicated, with the addition of some slides showing basic house plans and views.
The planning application was duly lodged with Argyll and Bute Council.
On 13th December, the Technical Services Director of Fyne Homes received a long letter from the Secretary of Craignish Community Council.
It is no impetuous document. Focused reading and some clues that escaped the filter reveal a carefully crafted communication designed to do three things:
- present the appearance of a constructive attitude;
- hijack the agenda – and the funding for The Glebe project, which the Community Council played no part in raising;
- get the affordable housing moved to what some key movers clearly regard as a less offensive site.
This last is clearly the core objective.
The letter starts by setting out its stall, saying that the planning application is likely to meet objection from the Community Council, although it will be subject to a vote when it comes forward to it for formal consideration.
It attempts to establish a historically constructive stance in citing the Community Company, C3′s, involvement in the earlier plan for The Glebe – yet that involvement was targeted on limiting the plan and when their offer was accepted to present a proposal themselves for the General Trustees of the Kirk, C3 had been unable to produce anything viable.
The letter talks of the General Trustees and the local Kirk Session having previously been opposed to any private housing on the Glebe and uses this to defend a declaration of the ‘sense of local betrayal felt when the plans were revealed on Wednesday’.
The emphasis on ‘revealed’ is ours and ‘Wednesday’ refers to the Community Council meeting – on 5th December where the planning consultant and the architect repeated to the audience the details of the proposal in which the Community Council had been kept fully informed since it became an achievable project at the start of 2012.
In the light of the serial inclusion of the Community Council and its representatives in the developing proposal – as detailed in the section above - it is wholly disingenuous to talk of shock and a sense of betrayal, conjuring the picture of a being confronted by a rodent whipped from a hat.
This manoeuvre – so good they try it twice , as the ads say – is repeated at the end of the letter: ‘It is a pity that you have progressed so far with the Glebe development without local consultation.’
The facts of inclusion, as outlined, speak for themselves – and of a very different picture.
The letter puts forward an attempt at a procedural obstruction in describing the proposal as ‘a departure from the Adopted Local Plan, the Community Council has recently completed the Craignish Community Plan, which has been adopted by Argyll and Bute Council as supplementary planning guidance’.
It admits that development at The Glebe is supported in this plan, ‘but only if it is for 100% affordable rented housing and public open space’.
It focuses on the Community Council’s opposition to what it describes as ‘the suburbanisation of the village’ and to ‘ribbon development’, giving the real game away in saying: ‘the current proposals for the Glebe would involve unimaginative housing [Ed: our emphasis], close to the road and loch edge, in a highly prominent situation, affecting the character of the village and loch side’; and in connection with this, talks of ‘changing the character of the Craignish Lagoon’.
This refers to the fact that when a boat comes into the long narrows between the islands and the mainland, south west of The Glebe, the proposed cluster of ‘unimaginative housing’ would be visible.
At this point in the communication, the hijack ploy appears.
The Community Council, ‘With the prospect of a long and drawn out planning process’, suggests an alternative.
This is to move the housing planned for The Glebe to a piece of land at Soroba on the edge of the village centre.
The notion is designed to be attractive to the local landlord in enabling his development of the site, for which he has planning permission for 27 houses, 25% of which must be affordable. The letter admits that, while some infrastructural work has been done, the landlord is unable to progress his development because of ‘the cost burdens of provision of the low-cost element, combined with up-front infrastructure costs’.
This proposition has several attractions for the objectors. It would:
- move the affordable housing out of refined sight – the communication says that this plan ‘would be unlikely to cause the issues associated with visual impacts or impact on the character of the village and its setting that are inevitable with the Glebe’;
- do the landlord a favour in accelerating his private development to reality;
- and – grossly – do so by hijacking for his benefit the funding for The Glebe – which neither the Community Council nor the landlord have had any part in raising – to support the affordable housing quotient the landlord is unwilling or unable to finance at the Soroba site.
In this last respect the letter is explicit: ‘The Community Council, and I believe Fergus Murray of ABC, would be prepared to facilitate negotiations between Fyne Homes and Mr Lindsay-MacDougall, to come to agreement whereby the affordable element required on this HAL could be delivered by Fyne Homes.’ [Ed: our emphasis.]
The move to try to close an interventionist deal, ends the letter, with the proposal that this alternative be pursued alongside the plan lodged for planning consent. The long grass is propelled into the frame.
We understand that those who have worked for so long to create affordable housing in this area which is in serious need of it, have been told that there is no foreseeable prospect of the diversion of the funding package put in place for The Glebe to an alternative scheme.
But this is a community increasingly divided by the issue and divided with the economic power largely on one side – but not exclusively.
The nationally significant entrepreneur, Sir Tom Farmer, who has property on the peninsula, has, we understand, written to the council, in support of the project.
The cost of the Community Council’s plan to oppose the project
The Community Council’s decision to throw a counter proposal on the table at the eleventh hour, risks the loss of all the General Trustee’s investment, along with the £320,000 grant and can only be viewed as vexatious.
It is quite likely that the General Trustees, if the current application is refused, will walk away from any further efforts to provide affordable housing on the Glebe.
From the earliest stages of the project, it has always been suggested that the provision of affordable housing on the Lower Glebe was only the first step in what could be longer term efforts to provide other community benefits on other parts of this land.
Where will this end?
The reality is that there is plenty of ‘unimaginative housing’, old and new, some of it expensive, on the peninsula already – as there is anywhere. The peninsula, in its long narrow shape with a hilly core, has bred what can only be described as progressive ‘ribbon development’ along the shoreline, albeit a ribbon of largely expensive elements.
Communities evolve over time, unless – unusually – they are planned formally from the outset. Any new structure of any kind is literally raw – until time, weather and planting embed it in its place. But the character and interest of any place is its variety.
The notion that the less well off – which would apply also and relatively to the eventual purchasers of the modest 5 houses for sale alongside the 6 affordable rentals at The Glebe - should be tucked away out of sight, their very existence socially masked or ghettoised, is offensive.
People have to live. Why should they not live in a pleasant place?
The tight niceties of the exclusive and the defensive have created the physical metaphor of ‘gated’ communities. Is Craignish destined for eventual gates slung across the entrance to the B8002 on the south of the peninsula to Ardfern and across the little road on the north side leading to Craobh Haven and the Lunga estate?
If Argyll and Bute Council is not firm and clear in its support for The Glebe plan – which has developed to this stage of application for planning consent – Ardfern will see no affordable housing for the foreseeable future.
Yet the one thing Argyll must do if it to have a hope of creating an economically sustainable future, is to increase the percentage of its younger and working age population – as a matter of urgency. Are they to be confined to hostel accommodation in a disused quarry somewhere?
Note 1: The planning application for the Glebe has been validated with a reference number 12/02766/PP. The last date for comments to be lodged is 8th February 2013.
Note 2: The photograph at the top is of the Eilean Mor anchorage in the MacCormaig islands at the entrance to Loch Craignish. It is in Wikipedia, is reproduced here under the Creative Commons licence and was taken by ‘Donald MacDonald’. Since the MacCormaig’s were gifted to the SNP, we assume that the photograph was by the late SNP Councillor Donald MacDonald; that, as a keen sailor, the yacht at anchor was his; and that he will have had a special pride and pleasure in sailing in there.