Martyn McLaughlin: eco village numbers don’t add up

The concept behind the eco-village of Knockroon reveals a gulf between ambition and reality
The concept behind the eco-village of Knockroon reveals a gulf between ambition and reality
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The dual challenge of bolstering growth in the housing market while rehabilitating some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas is not one that should be envied, but the Scottish Government’s proposed solution to this dilemma is worth keeping an eye on.

An independent review published this summer called for a “fundamental rethink” of Scotland’s planning system, setting out some 48 recommendations designing to improve its rigor and “enable sustainable development.”

The government intends to consult on a planning white paper come this winter, which will allow legislation to be brought forward next year. If, in the interim, that leaves a vacuum at the heart of the government’s thinking on the aesthetics and values of community, it should come as no surprise that influential actors will be looking to shape decision-making.

A fledgling development in Ayrshire endorsed by the government ought to provide a cautionary example. At the weekend, I ran a series of articles exploring the finances at a troubled eco-village called Knockroon and the ties its creators have to government officials.

The scheme is the brainchild of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community (PFBC), an organisation which combines its charitable status with extensive real-estate developments.

Knockroon, near Cumnock, is one of more than 30 PFBC projects across the UK, 11 of which are in Scotland. From reconfiguring existing communities to building new centres of population, its reach is considerable.

The PFBC’s research and recommendations have been assimilated into the local development plans and planning guidance of several councils across the country. With local government budgets slashed and expertise increasingly thin on the ground, the resources and knowledge brought to the table by the organisation are no doubt welcome. But at what cost?

As I found out, even a cursory examination of Knockroon reveals a gulf between its ambition and reality. The PFBC told the Scottish Government it intended to build 330 homes by 2017, part of a vision which convinced it to grant Knockroon Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative (SSCI) status and, with it, tens of thousands of pounds in grants.

The warning signs were there at the beginning. No affordable housing was identified in Knockroon’s first phase. In its masterplan for the environmentally-friendly village, the PFBC said a “consultation with community representatives” indicated the need for “better quality private market housing,” with “indications” that the provision of rented social housing was “adequate.”

Beyond the consultation cited, the details of which are unclear, the basis for that claim jars with statistics from Shelter Scotland. According to the charity, right to buy led to the loss of 3,158 affordable homes in East Ayrshire between 2003 and 2013, at a time when 409 households were assessed as homeless. Its research also shows that as of 2014, there were 3,213 people on the local authority housing waiting list.

Privately, council staff I spoke to in the course of researching the stories about Knockroon expressed frustration at the scheme’s insistence on pursuing high-end private homes. But then, it would be naive to assume the bedrock of such developments is regeneration. Rather, it is market-led aspiration. Why else construct a village where three-bedroom houses are put on sale for £190,000 in an area where properties of a similar size are currently on the market for £35,000?

Knockroon, like all PFBC’s work, subscribes to the tenets of New Urbanism, a neo-traditional architectural philosophy advocating walkable neighbourhoods and a strong sense of localism. The movement’s figurehead, US architect Andrés Duany, has been feted by the Scottish Government and has in turn been fulsome in his praise, indicating the planning culture reflected post-devolution Scotland. “When we arrived I could tell they had an attitude that they were becoming their own country,” Mr Duany remarked back in 2013. His firm, DPZ, and PFBC have a strong foothold, with developments such as Knockroon, Tornagrain, Chapelton brought forward not through routine planning procedures, but processes known as charrettes or Enquiry by Design. Critics argue that they bypass ordinary planning concerns and suppress public opposition, yet the government supports them with hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding every year.

The Scottish Government and PFBC have colloborated on numerous workshops and events over the past decade. Civil servants from its planning and architecture division have been seconded to PFBC, while Scotland’s former chief planner, Jim Mackinon, is now a director and trustee of the prince’s organisation.

The black spider memos showed the PFBC waited no longer than 24 hours after Gordon Brown entered Downing Street before writing to Hazel Blears, secretary of state for communities, seeking to capitalise on the then UK Government’s desire to create carbon-neutral ecotowns; PFBC proposed the prince’s Poundbury development as a blueprint.

Such lobbying is worrying, but in Scotland, it is not even necessary. The PFBC, Duany and the Scottish Government have long enjoyed a close relationship. But if Scottish New Urbanism’s most high profile development is in trouble, will an arrangement that has been viewed as mutually beneficial now come under scrutiny?