Today , 17th June, saw the hearing in Craignish Village Hall, of the application by the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland for a development project on its land at The Glebe, west of Craignish Parish Church on the B8002 in Ardfern.
The proposal was to build six affordable housing units on its land; and to sell five plots on the same ground for private houses, to be built to an approved external design.
The difficulty faced by the panel of councillors who take the decision can be summed up in two compressed remarks.
One of these was from the floor, from the local parish Minister, the Reverend Dr Ken Ross, who presented the most compelling and best delivered argument of the day, from either side of a divisive local dispute. [Mid Argyll Councillor, Dougie Philand, who spoke as a supporter of the application and local campaigner, Chris Thornhill, were right on the Reverend Dr Ross's heels.]
The second remark was from Chair of the panel itself, from Councillor Sandy Taylor. The predicament could not be better understood than in these two remarks and in the space between them.
The Reverend Dr Ross, in pressing the case for the panel to approve the application rather than waste more time – it has been 50 years since any affordable housing was built in Ardfern and no one denies the real local need for it – said:
‘We may never get an opportunity like this again.
- We have a site.
- We have a willing seller.
- We have a willing buyer.
- We have funding.
- We have no objections – from the Roads Department, from Scottish Water or from SEPA.
‘Could we responsibly fail to approve this application in these circumstances on the grounds that there is not quite enough open space, or quite enough design detail?’
Councillor Taylor, in the session where panel members may ask questions of any of the earlier presenters, asked Peter Bain, representing the council’s Planning Department and the consultant for the applicant, Paul Houghton, to correct him if his sense of the situation was in error. He said:
‘So, the way I’m seeing this is that:
- We’re here today to discuss plans the applicant knows will not be approved.
- The applicant has already prepared revised plans which have been shown to the planners.
- The planning department is broadly satisfied that the revised plans meet their concerns.
- The planners have advised the applicant to submit a new application.
- The applicant has refused to do so.
- The applicant instead wishes us to make a determination today on the plans in front of us.’
Together these positions – both correct - illustrate the nub of the matter.
For information, in accepting that this was an accurate summation, the consultant for the General Trustees explained that they had hoped that the committee might find the changes to the current plans ‘not material’, therefore making the project quicker and cheaper to implement than if they had to make a new application.
Fyne Homes made it clear that although the revised plans would mean additional costs, these were not overly heavy. Fyne Homes would look at savings that might be made within the scheme and were confident that they could deliver the social housing element in its upgraded form.
A motion put by Councillor Rory Colville carried the day by a 9-2 vote. This was to continue the matter until the August meeting of the Planning Committee, to give the General Trustees a chance to submit the amended plans.
This will then come down to a decision as to whether or not the amendments constitute a material change to the original plans considered today. If they are considered not to do so, a decision on consent could be taken at that meeting. If they are deemed to be a material change – and the Head of Planning, Richard Kerr, has ruled that, on present information, as the revised plans stand, they do constitute such a change and will require a new application – that process would have to be engaged.
The major positive for everyone from this, is that when the revised plans come back to the committee – in whatever capacity that takes place – the meeting today has identified the two conditions [adding open space and softening design detail] that must be satisfied and that, provided these conditions are satisfied, there is no reason for consent to be withheld. It was clear that the panel had accepted the position adopted by the great majority of both supporters and objectors to the present plan – that local young people are priced out of living in Ardfern and that something, belatedly, must be done about this.
For information, the ‘willing buyer’ referred to by the Reverend Dr Ross above is Fyne Homes, with funding ring-fenced for this site from Argyll and Bute Council’s Rural Housing Development Fund [RHDF]. The total cost of the project as it is currently specified is, according to Fyne Homes, £700,000, with £300,000 of this from the RHDF; and the remaining £400,000 from private finance.
The consultant, Paul Houghton employed – at what cost? – by the General Trustees to represent them as applicant, provided in his performance the most cogent argument for not using consultants. The representatives from Fyne Homes were visibly strained during Mr Houghton’s erratic contributions.
He failed his clients on three counts and in major degree.
His opening address paid no attention whatsoever to the audience behind him. He remained sitting and directed himself completely to the panel in front of him. He was one of only two speakers to do this. The other was Professor Colin Davidson, a leading objector to the proposal, representing the position and the objections of Craignish Community Council, of which he is Chair. Every other presenter, including Peter Bain, the planner, stood sideways-on to both panel and audience so that engagement with both was achievable.
Mr Houghton was far from on top of his brief. He read from his script without fluency, with little apparent attention, in a low monotone, seeming bored with his own material and failing to infuse his presentation in any way with energy, conviction or persuasion.
The obvious extent of his failure to master his brief provoked a tart remark from Councillor Robin Currie: ‘I’m not sure if the applicant realised the importance of this hearing’.
In the part of the proceedings where the panel questioned presenters, the consultant scored so many own goals on behalf of bis client, we lost touch with the score. He got the facts wrong on the funding package for the project – but fortunately the Fyne Homes team, who were in attendance in the body of the hall, were asked for some information and took the opportunity to set the record straight.
He offered a fat hostage to fortune in saying that what the meeting was looking at was not necessarily an accurate representation of what would actually be built. Councillor Gordon Blair was quick to ask planner, Peter Bain: ‘Is it normal not to be discussing real plans?’ The answer was: ‘Normally we would hope for pre-application discussions’ – and it emerged that the applicant had not engaged in such discussions.
Mr Houghton’s last own goal was another lulu.
The Church of Scotland had been coming under constant fire from a series of objectors through the morning, for alleged profiteering in varying its plans from an adamant 100% affordable housing for rental only, to six social housing units with five sites to sell into the private sector and with planning permission.
The story has always been that the two elements of the application, the public and the private sector housing, were intertwined, with the private housing necessary to subsidise the social housing project.
Indeed a woman representative of the General Trustees at one point told the audience, in tones veering from frustration to condescension: ‘We are bringing you this. We are doing what we can to make it work.’
Mr Houghton, in answer to a question from the panel on the relationship between the two elements then said: ‘There is no specific connection between the private and the public. They’re just being done in the one plan.’
It was, however, made plain in the paperwork distributed in advance of the meeting this morning and verbally during proceedings, that all profits from the sale of these five sites would be transferred to a trust to support Craignish parish and its church.
Insights: community alienation
There are occasional undertones of self-satisfied snobbery in some of the written objections, expressing concerns about anticipated anti-social behaviour in the potential occupants of the affordable houses and declaring that all the application will do is bring in ‘people of low income’. There was the odd swivel-eyed moment in the spoken addresses this morning – with talk of ‘anyone might come in from anywhere’ and ‘immigrants’.
There is also an irony with a large number of a community, very few of whom [on either side] are indigenenous, expressing concerns about the consequences for the community of people from outside the area coming in to live there.
However, in general, it was clear that the majority of the community support the provision of the much needed social housing but have been alienated by the General Trustees’ changing attitudes to the use of the site at The Glebe.
Earlier the Trustees had flatly refused a request from C3, the Craignish Community Company, to change the earlier plan from 12 affordable housing units to 9 units with three shared equity houses, to make the finances manageable. They insisted then that any development at The Glebe must be 100% social rented housing. The understandable thinking here was that the C3 proposed three shared equity homes might, via a loophole in Fyne Homes constitution end up on the open market, driving local house prices for modest enough homes even further beyond the reach of local people
Then the Trustees went on to produce their own revised plan – for 6 affordable homes alongside 5 sites for sale with planning permission.
While the Reverend Dr Ross’s account of this change of stance was immediately credible: ‘That was then‘ – referring to the very changed economic circumstances since the fall of the financial institutions in 2008, so dramatic a change of position will, understandably, have been confusing for many.
Insights: councillors at work
Watching the councillors on the committee at work was interesting. Together their questions to contributors homed in on the essential issues – and were often very practically focused, pushing for routes to take things forward.
An example to add to those noted above is Councillor Mary Jean Devon’s series of questions to planner Peter Bain, to the applicant and to the lead objector, Professor Davidson – teasing out answers which clear the road ahead.
- Q1: ‘Are there utilitarian buildings in Ardfern?’ Mr Bain’s Answer: ‘Some’.
- Q2: ‘On the opposition to ribbon development, if Plot One was removed, would that create an acceptable solution?’ Mr Bain’s answer: ‘Yes’.
- Q3: ‘The same question to the applicant?’ Mr Houghton’s answer for the General Trustees: ‘Yes’.
- Q4: ‘Is there desperation for affordable housing?’ Professor Davidon’s answer: ‘Yes’.
Insights: planners at work
The advance report on the application, which had been produced by Peter Bain from the Council’s planning department, was first class – thorough, careful, balanced and fair, as was his verbal presentation of it [although, as with council meetings, we would question the value of the officer reading aloud almost the entire text of a report.]
However, with the recommendations of the planners – to refuse consent – given first in the document, the body of Mr Bain’s report seemed to lead somewhere else altogether.
In his speech to the committee, the Reverend Dr Ross nailed this by praising the calibre of the report and adding that the only thing that was wrong was that it led to the opposite conclusion.
Our intuition here is that the planners will have been intimidated by the professional dismissals of the design quality of the proposals from competent community objectors.
The kitsch solutions that appear to be what the community wishes to see and that seem to content the planners actually raise a different set of aesthetic and functional questions.
How can it be ‘sensitive’ to encumber a building with tricksy little dormer windows, Hansel and Gretel porches and window bands, producing a bland universal pastiche that puts money into the cosmetics?
Why not put the money into bigger spaces for people to live in?
There is a report in today’s papers of an academic study by Glasgow University and Warwick University, where fourteen Central Belt families were surveyed on the play habits of their 3-5 year olds.
Contemporary houses are getting so small [average 818 sq ft] that children literally have no room to play, with bedrooms too small for a toybox and, with little cupboard space, parents having to restrict access to toys. The consequences of this cramping of young people will be mental and spiritual as well as as physical.
Scotland is not short of room in any dimension. Yet the plans for The Glebe were criticised for being two storeys high rather then the mean little one and a halfers of which Scotland is so strangely fond.
New UK homes are said to have shrunk in size by 10% in 30 years, with our houses now the smallest in Western Europe. We are the only EU member with no minimum standards for space. This is not a road Scotland has any need to travel.
The last word
This has to go to 17-year local resident, Norman McNiven.
Mr McNiven asked first, ‘Where did the people in the Lunga caravans go when they were served with eviction orders? There is no housing.
‘People need houses to call home.’