Comment: fight back call after Culloden housing defeat

After defeat over a housing development near Culloden, the conservation lobby needs to fight back, argues Terry Levinthal

Places such as Culloden have an importance that cant be measured in cash alone. Picture: Contributed
Places such as Culloden have an importance that cant be measured in cash alone. Picture: Contributed

IT IS a situation where no-one did anything wrong and yet we have ended up with the wrong answer. I am referring to the recent decision of the Scottish Reporter to overturn Highland Council’s refusal of planning permission for a housing development on the edge of Culloden battlefield. As the owners of the core part of the site, we at the National Trust for Scotland were as equally disappointed as the many people here and abroad who felt that this special place should have received better consideration.

Our chairman, Sir Ken Calman, previously pointed out that this one development on its own does not fatally compromise one of the most historically meaningful landscapes we have, but it sets a precedent for more development that could prove to be its ruin.

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Having been in the business of conservation for 83 years, and having pioneered many principles, such as public right of access, that we now take for granted, we at the trust are accustomed to the charge that we value heritage too much above the economic needs of the here and now. In the context of Culloden, and countless other important natural and historic places, the need to meet targets, be they for housing or energy generation, and to inject profit into the economy has to be balanced against significance and we know that is no easy task.

We do feel, though, that the balance is perhaps out of kilter now. Developers and other interests are well-organised in terms of their lobbying and publicity efforts; it is now time that those of us involved in conservation of Scotland’s heritage did some shouting of our own.

The notion that heritage is somehow a barrier to economic prosperity is completely wrong, as is the old maxim that “you can’t eat scenery”. A study conducted in 2007 found that the historic environment alone contributed in excess of £2.3 billion (2.6 per cent) to Scotland’s national gross value added, and accounted for 2.5 per cent of total employment.

Using 2012 figures, we can compare this to a £758 million contribution from agriculture and £255m from fisheries. We also know from VisitScotland that domestic and international tourism generated £4.3bn in direct spending – and VisitBritain’s figures show that the bait for tourism spend in Scotland was twice as much because of our outstanding historic and natural landscapes as compared with the rest of the UK.

What we are arguing for is that policymakers and the public should take a greater interest in Scotland’s heritage and its wellbeing; it is not just important to us all in terms of our story as a nation and as communities, but economically too. We would do well to pay it much greater attention and respect.

Coming back to the aftermath of the Culloden decision, one thing we would hope to encourage is greater recognition of the importance of heritage across the different arms of government. The fact that the First Minister recognised that there “are lessons we can learn from this” is hugely encouraging.

Everyone followed the rules as they currently exist. The problem was that within the system there was no joined-up appreciation of the holistic integrity and long-term value of the site and its setting.

If we tailor planning processes to ensure that there is much better accommodation for heritage and its significance, then we can hope for effective protection of special places from over-development. It is our fervent hope that the Scottish Government’s new historic environment strategy provides the scope to achieve this.

On 15 May, we are convening a conference which will focus on finding ways forward for the heritage sector against a continuing backdrop of financial challenges.

One option being discussed is the concept of a “National Heritage Collection” for Scotland.

The limited resources that Scotland’s guardians can muster might best be allocated against the most important treasures – a national collection which could be made up of places and artefacts owned and managed by lots of different organisations but recognised as a coherent whole needing special status.

It would mean that, if the different agencies could work together to manage Scotland’s heritage, it would be possible to take a co-ordinated approach to international marketing and fundraising, without – and this is key – the individual partners losing their independence or compromising responsibility to members or taxpayers.

It might also mean that the heritage sector would be able to speak with one voice, do more to explain how it benefits Scotland and command public attention that is at least equal to that achieved by other interests.

• Terry Levinthal is the director of conservation services and projects for the National Trust for Scotland