Paving Paradise

Coming as she does from Southern California, Joni knows a thing or two about untrammeled development in a culture that believes endless space to build is its rightful inheritance. Here in Scotland, despite the echoing emptiness of glen after glen and with the exception of enthusiastic Victorian paving-over of Lanarkshire, there has been a consciousness of limited arable land and the rather tight confines in which most population centres operate. But not any more.

Scots planning law has always been a bit of a cowboy’s charter, presuming development should be permitted unless substantive reasons under said planning law could be found to prevent it. This lies at the heart of a thousand local lost causes since the eighties boom.  From C.R.Smith conservatories to 1,000-home Miller estates, local protesters who see their view, local custom, building aesthetics and social cohesion as reasons to protest have often been left hurt and bewildered that their arguments were ignored.

Unfortunately, development always was one-sided, with slick QCs backing up extensive experience on the part of the developer and inexperienced locals bamboozled by re-submissions, alterations and minor chicanery, even where they managed to put up a fight. All through the building boom that skidded to an awkward halt in 2008, house builders in particular had a field day, shoehorning estate after estate into peripheral fields and providing minimum in infrastructure beyond the odd play park in exchange.

Councils were rather complicit in this. Having been fragmented in 1996 so that none had much of a strategic view, they were happy to receive £thousands per house for adoption of the roads pavements and lighting in an estate; those shrewd enough manipulating their school rolls could extract rather more to provide required education facilities. But nobody had either vision or capital to build the bypasses or hospitals or context of jobs and/or retail that knitted the tract homes into their local community.

The good news was that lots of people moved into new homes and, with growing affluence, could afford the cars that made commuting from them possible. Despite some howlers in town planning and backsliding on green principles, everyone affluent enough to participate was happy. The real problem was that, because of right-to-buy legislation, no-one saw much point in building affordable homes to rent; councils typically had sold half of their rental stock by the time 2008 rolled around but had built virtually no replacements for those losses.

Unbalanced as this was, nobody is happy with the balance achieved post-2008 when the banks took all the public money they could and sat on it. Few could get a mortgage, councils were strapped for capital and house builders could find no finance. The next five years saw the fewest houses built in Scotland since council house building went out of style in the early eighties. Rightly concerned with this, the Scottish Government rattled their sabres and declared that house must be built—and that they would ensure the more traditional considerations of local plans/protest/circumstances would not stand in the way.

In places like Fife and or Renfrew—let alone around Glasgow—developers with healthy land banks could be coaxed out of their shells to build new, usually 2/3-bedroom family homes to replace the stock of industrial age housing that had outlived its usefulness and often been condemned as sub-standard. But this developers free-for-all did not restrict options to such community priorities. In North Berwick, this has led to some of the most egregious money-spinning violation of community welfare and common sense yet to find its way to a planning department.

North Berwick is a blimp-shaped community, rather less than 1 km from sea to southern fringe but already stretching 3km from East to West. All the land between that western edge, where the A198 carries 90% of car traffic into town, and the pretty village of Dirleton is farmed by the Millers of Ferrygate. Wherever new houses have gone, residents of both communities have been adamant that they should not start to join them up as a strip development further west along the A198 (i.e. in this area). For at least a quarter century, it has been obvious that the Millers are intent on doing just that.

In the early nineties, a strange belt of saplings was planted, sweeping from road to horizon to the South, enclosing over 50 acres next to the edge of town. These have no earthly agricultural use but are now becoming tall enough to obscure any development east of them. Such foresight effectively removes any objection that might by lodged about a development behond them changing the ‘gateway’ to NB.

Then in 2004, as part of the consultation for East Lothian’s 2008 Local Plan, a submission was made for 150 houses in this enclosed area—but with a sweetener that an entirely new road would be provided that would link with Gilsland on the south side of the railway and thus provide the beginnings of a NB bypass that might drain much of the 90% of road traffic mentioned above. Along with proposals for 1000-house ‘villages’ at Drem and Fenton Barns, it was given short shrift by both  local communities and  planners; none were included in the final 2008 Local Plan.

What was allocated were 100 houses at Gilsland and a further 400 on land between there and the High School, a remnant of the old Mains Farm and owned by the North Berwick Trust. Formed in the dying days of the old NBTC in 1976, the Trust’s ~100 acres are its only asset and this was the first chance it would have to fulfill its charter of benefiting the residents of NB. But there was a snag. The Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003 had given tenant farmers the right to buy at rural prices. And who had farmed those 100 acres under a ‘gentlemens’ handshake’ agreement for the last three decades? Why—small world—Millers of Ferrygate.

The Trust would have to remove their tenant in order to exploit their asset. Since the tenant had already pulled the wool over their eyes (by a change of partners to the agreement of which they failed to inform the Trust until it was too late), this was not likely to happen through good will, a smile and a tap dance. Actually this would lead to years of negotiation at much cost. Indeed, the tying-up of the Trust’s potential 400 house played right into the Millers’ hands: even though the Ferrygate land was not in the Local Plan, if only 100 houses were left to be built, this was in sufficient to meet demand in North Berwick. It would be imperative to provide alternatives…say, at Ferrygate.

Clever stuff.

So a proposal for 140 houses was duly submitted, properly processed by East Lothian Council—and unanimously refused by their Planning Committee in late April. Having no doubt anticipated this setback, within a month an appeal was lodged with the Scottish Government that this decision must be overturned in order to deliver on the SG’s urgent requirements to build housing. This is also clever because the type of housing is not yet specified. When Cala submitted their outline plans for Gilsland, they talked of ‘family homes’ of the sort that NB really does need—2/3-bedroom starters for young families. Their final plans contained no such thing but 5-bedroom mansions, starting at over £1m.

To raise the profile of this looming land-grab, NB Community Council called a public meeting last night, which 80 or so locals attended, most of whom were not aware of the detailed story set out above. But they were unanimous in not wanting this development to stretch the town out towards Dirleton where 3-car garages would carry their residents away from using town facilities and create another isolated clump of statement homes like Archerfield or Craigielaw. In their view, the allocations at Gilsland and the NB Trust property more than supplies NB’s share of homes required, especially when the 1,000+ already built in the last twenty years are considered.

As a reporter has yet to be allocated to this case (a decision is expected by 10th September), those wishing to make comments have until Friday 19th and should be submit them to:

  • Ref: PPA-210-2036
  • Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals
  •  4 The Courtyard
  •   Callendar Business Park
  •   Callendar Road
  •   Falkirk
  •   FK1 1XR
  • E-mail:  dpea@scotland.gsi.gov.uk

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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