Ardfern affordable housing planning application hearing on 17th June

This Monday – 17th June at 10.30am in Craignish Village Hall – sees the holding of the Discretionary Hearing on the planning application for six affordable housing units and 5 sites at The Glebe in Ardfern.

It is to be hoped that this will be an occasion for calm reason in a situation where the issue is the urgent need for the area to be able to offer affordable housing to its own people. No affordable housing has been built here for 50years, a situation which created the celebrated and inspirationally resourceful secret community we refer to as ‘the Lunga Hutters’ who, when eventually discovered, were served by legally questionable eviction orders by Argyll and Bute Council.

The history of the disputed application is complex. The protagonists are the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland,with the local Kirk Session in association; Craignish Community Council; C3, Craignish Community Company; Fyne Homes, an Argyll housing association; and the Argyll and Bute Council planning officers.

The need for affordable local housing in undeniable – and previous private sector attempts to provide it have been subverted by the fact that Ardfern is a physically and socially desirable – and expensive – place to live.

Some years ago, local builders L&A Mackay built a terrace of four homes on the hill above the yacht marina, intending them to be affordable for local people. All four were bought at inflated prices by people with fat wallets, some if not all, for commercial ventures in letting. This outcome not only lost those houses to the needy local market but added to the driving up of prices for modest property in the area.

The General Trustees of the Church of Scotland own land beside the Ardfern Manse, known as The Glebe, originally given during their tenure to ministers of the parish to augment their traditionally low salaries. It allowed them to keep a cow and grow some vegetables.

Clerical salaries in rural parishes have not changed much but ministers for some years have not made use of The Glebe for its intended purpose.

Knowing from the Ardfern Kirk Session that the lack of local affordable housing was a social problem, the General Trustees offered to sell part of The Glebe at a very substantial discount to enable such housing to be built.

The plan was for 12 units of such accommodation.

The first thing to understand is that the General Trustees are responsible for a charity which exists to protect the assets of  a church which, like pretty well all churches, is in progressive decline. Its duty is not to give those assets away but to use them in the interests of the church.

Being a church, ‘the interests of the church’ include a care for the interests of the communities in which it is located – hence the offer of a discounted sale of land for the badly needed affordable housing in Ardfern.

Representatives of the community company, C3, travelled to Edinburgh at the end of 2009 to introduce themselves to the General Trustees. At the end of the session, focusing on their offer of a discounted sale of land at The Glebe, the Trustees said that they would also pay for a feasibility study on the possibility of building affordable housing there.

C3 responded in saying that there was no need for the Trustees to do this since they would themselves be raising money which would include a feasibility study.

They later came back to the Trustees and asked them to vary the terms and conditions attached to the offered sale of land at The Glebe.

The matters they wished to have varied were:

  • the requirement to include in the plan a road linking the lower part of the Glebe to the upper part of it.
  • the proscription of the inclusion in the plan of any houses for private sale. under shared equity arrangements.

The issue of including the road in the plan was his was designed to save the General Trustees from any difficulty in any later application to build such a road, should they decide to develop anything in the upper Glebe. There was no obligation whatsoever on C3 to build the road as part of the delivery of the affordable housing units, simply to include in the plans.

The proscription of the including of any houses for private sale under shared equity schemes  – C3 wished to add two such properties under its preferred plan – was there to protect the General Trustees from any accusation from within their constituency of negligence in their stewardship of church assets. They were selling the land at a heavy discount to enable affordable housing to be built. Had a third party then benefited from the sale of shared equity housing built on that land because the land costs were so low, the Trustees could have been considered in breach of their duty of care.

The terms and conditions of sale therefore enshrined in perpetuity the permanent status of the affordable housing units.

Scrutiny of the constitution of Fyne Homes – the elected builder – had shown a loophole affecting shared equity housing.

While the owner of a shared equity home who eventually wished to sell it was constitutionally obliged to sell it to Fyne Homes, there was apparently a provision allowing for an occasion where Fyne Homes might not be in a position to buy back the property. In this instance, the owner was entitled to put the house on the open market.

In Ardfern, this scenario would certainly result in such a property selling at the inflated price that causes the problem in the first place.

So the answer of the General Trustees, on both counts, to C3′s requests, was ‘No’.

That initiative to see affordable housing on The Glebe then came to nothing.

The General Trustees, with the local Kirk Session, later returned to the issue of the lack of affordable local housing and, out of liaison with Fyne Homes and Argyll and Bute  Council planning officers, came up with the present  – and disputed – plan.

This sees the General Trustees remain faithful to their original offer of a discounted sale of the land for the given purpose of creating affordable housing – at a valuation price of £10,000.

The plan is for 6 units of affordable housing and 5 sites for sale for private housing. This mix allows the Trustees to fulfill their responsibilities to the charity they manage while enabling affordable housing to be built.

A meeting in this initiative in January 2012 included representative from the Craignish Community Council and C3, the community company, who were then fully informed of the detail of the proposal, for which funding was to be made available to support the affordable housing element.

Neither the Community Council nor C3 raised any objections to the initiative then or until ten months later.

At that stage, objections were put forward focusing on the lack of design interest in the proposed housing and with other unpleasant motives in the soup, relating to opposition to ‘people with low incomes’ being supported into living in the area.

The situation has become divisive and embittered with unsustainable allegations being hurled around in public and in writing that the General Trustees must have connived with the local Kirk Session to set terms and conditions for the sale of the land to C3 that they knew would be rejected so that they could come back themselves with a plan that would cash in for  a greedy church.

There have also been complaints that C3 was led into spending money on a the fees for the feasibility study – despite the fact that they themselves had dismissed the General Trustees wish to pay for that.

The hearing on Monday can go one of two ways.

It can become a shouting match picking over the minutiae of who did what to whom way back when and now – and get nowhere, probably kicking the matter long into the future with the anodyne outcome of allowing ‘more time for discussion. There have been years for discussion and the area still has young people with nowhere permanent to live.

It can address the serious and urgent issue of getting affordable housing built in the immediate future to answer the living needs of real people for decent and assured local accommodation.

Small communities are equally famous for mutual supportiveness and for factionalism. The impact of this issue locally, in the very specific circumstances of the generally well heeled Ardfern, has driven the situation to an entrenched factionalism which is unhelpful to the very real human need.

It will reflect nothing but discredit on those responsible should a loss of priorities see Monday’s hearing unable to progress this initiative.

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