This blog isn’t about to break out into Oklahoma-inspired song about how “one of ’em milks a cow with ease; the other steals his planning fees” but, as in the original musical, “that’s no reason why they can’t be friends”.
This insight came to me in the midst of a most instructive tour of the Winton Estate, kindly laid on by the estate owner, Francis Ogilvy, in an attempt to set up a dialogue with planning officials and relevant national bodies about the best way to develop business opportunities on the estate. He invited representatives of East Lothian Council, SNH, Scottish Enterprise, etc to spend a morning visiting the estate to see what had already been done and informally discuss what might be done.
In 14 years on ELC, I had never seen such a pro-active approach and it set me thinking. Most of ELC’s involvement with such large-scale, ‘blue sky’ thinking has been extremely limited. Leaving aside the myriad applications for window replacement or conservatory additions, their Planning department has been largely engaged with, on the one hand, receiving strategic allocations from the city region how many houses to provide and, on the other, fitting them into a local plan that wasn’t just a turkey shoot for developers.
A pivotal bulwark of their defence against the latter was a remains Policy DC1, which covers the bulk of the countryside and basically forbids any housing there that is not the conversion of existing buildings with minimal external alterations. In avoiding wholesale urbanisation and strip development, DC1 has been a success. But, as a tool of intelligent development of the countryside (as opposed to spreading houses all over it), it is blunt: “The answer is ‘NO’; now, what was the question?”
Francis was basically challenging the planning system to think more creatively than that about an estate with 1,000 years of history. Phillip de Sayton was granted the lands of Seton, Winton and Winchburgh around 1150 but were caught up in Henry VIII’s ‘rough wooing’ and Winton was burnt by the English Army in 1544. The 6th Lord Seton was made 1st Earl of Winton in 1600 and set about making a home out of the ruin.
Support for the Jacobite uprising of 1715 saw the capture of George 5th Earl of Winton whose land was confiscated by the crown and leased to the York Buildings Company. When they went bankrupt in 1779, the house was sold to Mrs Mary Hamilton Nisbet of Pencaitland. Mary was followed by Constance, her granddaughter who married Henry Ogilvy in 1888. Francis followed his father Sir David to become 14th Baronet. The whole estate was made over into a Trust a century later, with the house as its jewel.
The 1st Earl had engaged William Wallace, the King’s Master Mason as his architect who embodied his skills in the then-new Jacobean style in the restored house. His carved, pale stone twisted-chimney exterior in the style of the Scottish Renaissance still herald the palace within. His ornate plaster ceilings are the most elaborate in Scotland—so much so that casts were made to restore those in Edinburgh Castle to their proper magnificence.
So much for background.
The tour started in the house itself. As Winton House was designed for entertaining, it is a marvellous venue for bespoke dinners, conferences, meetings, activity days, team building events and special private events, such as weddings. Walls crammed with ancestral portraits and roaring log fires provide an atmosphere even 5-star hotels struggle to match. This activity started new business development on the estate, which has been augmented by self-catering and outdoor activities over the last couple of decades.
These have been financed so far by internal resources, which includes consolidating the three active and profitable farms and investing in key infrastructure such as a grain dryer and a district heating system, both run on local wood chips. While draft plans have been made for other activities, the whole purpose of the tour was to gain feedback and start dialogues that could help steer these without too much effort being expended on what would be dead-ends. Among the ideas floated were:
- Conversion of Wintonhill Steading into housing (fine views towards the Moorfoots)
- Sand/Gravel extraction at Loanfoot, providing a large aquatic park and water sports
- Addition of business (and perhaps some retail) space to New Winton village
- Possible bakery/shop/restaurant social enterprise at Broomrigg Farm
Despite it being a chill day, there was a good bit of chat in the winter sunshine how business goals might be made compatible with both green and conservation objectives, especially as the economic driver of Edinburgh was so close. What was clear was that, because of a strong desire to resist rural over-development, no adequate forum was available to plan coherently for any development in the East Lothian countryside—desirable or not.
Virtually all agencies represented accepted that the present black/white approach which gave carte blanche to agricultural structures and banned virtually all else might be revisited, provided the defence against widespread tract housing was not weakened. Given that the City Region plan was close to completion and that the next Local Plan would then be formulated, the time seemed right for more in-depth discussion how a place like Winton could explore a profitable future while still preserving the highly valued unspoiled nature of rural East Lothian that makes it so attractive in the first place.
It would appear that a viable operation with deep local and historic roots like Winton offers the opportunity to explore how a such a multi-channel rural business could be sensibly developed in a sustainable manner for the 21st century. Rather than a blanket ban on all but (usually ugly and intrusive) agricultural buildings, this may be the opportunity for council planners to become more sophisticated in ‘enabling development’ so that the partial successes of Archerfield and Whitekirk can be improved on.
Large agricultural estates were instrumental in leading the revolution in agriculture over 200 years ago. They bequeathed us gems we now treasure including planned villages like Athelstaneford and Tyninghame and the magnificent country houses that now decorate our countryside. Perhaps somewhere like Winton is already part-way down the road to making our countryside an attraction in its own right without despoiling it in the process.