Lesley Riddoch: Box-ticking breeds home mediocrity

HERITAGE must be saved, but over-cautious planners are stymying creativity in house building, writes Lesley Riddoch

Stuart Crawford, trustee of Hometown Foundation and Dr Jim Arnold, chairman of Owenstown trustees. Picture: PA

Are Scotland’s planners proactively designing a new Scotland, or stuck in a passive, compliant, box-ticking culture prompted by decades of dealing with volume house builders and relatively bland housing design?

I ask because today the Saltire Housing Awards will be presented at the Lighthouse in Glasgow to excellent housing projects, the majority of which have battled for months, even years to avoid rejection by Scottish planners. As guest chair of this year’s Saltire judging panel, I was astonished to find such a consistent mismatch. Buildings, designs and ideas deemed outstanding by architects and tenants have been simultaneously dismissed as problematic and undesirable by a wide range of Scottish planners. How come?

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Of course, planning is always controversial. One person’s carbuncle is another’s jewel in the crown. Overconfident modern design can produce monumental mistakes – like the over-reflective Walkie Talkie skyscraper in London. Planners point with some justification to a nervous conservatism amongst the public – the inevitable outcome of a democratically disempowered community domain in which the power of veto is often the only way to express an opinion.

But is the Scottish public happy that planners appear to be rejecting energy-saving, old-building-rescuing and even basic home-improving measures out of hand – simply because they “push the envelope” with contemporary design?

Naturally, architects are anxious not to antagonise planners. And yet many Saltire applicants have been willing to describe their epic planning struggles.

The architect and client team behind one small-town energy-saving “passive house” was “completely gobsmacked” when their bid to align a new house gable-end on to the street for maximum solar gain was rejected with the comment; “Sustainability issues might be something other councils are willing to take into account, but not this one.”

The street had a mixture of architectural styles from different eras – indeed a house two along from the proposed site was also gable end on to the road. A passive house must find as much direct sunlight as possible and a gable end orientation would have let south-east daylight as well as south-west sun into the house. Despite overcoming early concerns about “overlooking” neighbouring houses this sustainable design was heading for refusal. Faced with more expense, delay and an uncertain outcome, the house was redesigned to meet the council’s preferred layout. The architects conclusion – “The Scottish Government is highly supportive of sustainability in design, but this doesn’t seem to have filtered down to the grass root level in individual planning departments.” Quite.

A proposal to extend an old mill beyond the four metres square permitted in the county plan almost kyboshed another excellent housing conversion. After overcoming some objections from the community, the plan was still heading for rejection because it was technically “against policy”. Yet how a modern family home could be built inside a windowless mill building is hard to see. And anyway why? If Scotland is to depart from the weary pattern of box-like bungalows beside derelict but untouchable old buildings, we must surely think differently. Once again the project was finally saved by bringing a well-constructed model in front of the planning committee. The architect commented: “On several other occasions the council have both recommended refusal of our plans and later given us design awards.”

Another urban project was recommended for refusal simply on the grounds of its contemporary design. Once again there were no public objections and the proposal was supported by national and local conservation groups. The recommendation was overturned by councillors at the final planning meeting. But months of work, cost, doubt and stress almost prompted the clients to buckle and settle for a dreary but compliant second best.

Elsewhere, a family wanted to install large dormer windows in their suburban home to increase usable bedroom space and avoid a pointless and difficult house move. The case officer recommended refusal though no neighbours objected. But after a year’s extra expense, stress and cost the original application was approved.

Perhaps in the great scheme of things these problems are small beer and unrepresentative of wider experience.

But great places are composed of vibrant, loved buildings that make life better not just tolerable. And the rigid adherence to outdated plans may be stymying more than just individual house-building.

The Development Trust in my own Fife village has just lost £150k in lottery funding because a proposal to refurbish old piers into the River Tay was “timed out” by bureaucratic Fife Council planning procedures. A relatively straightforward piece of building work required consents from almost 20 quangos including the Lighthouse Board (the nearest lighthouse is 20 miles away) and the completed application sat for months in planning without action. So it’s back to square one for a bunch of volunteers who now have less cash, time, belief, energy and internal cohesion – all as a result of unremarkable planning delays.

Meanwhile, South Lanarkshire Council looks set to reject plans for a new cooperatively owned and run town called Owenstown because it’s not in the development plan.

The £500m investment – based on Robert Owen’s New Lanark – was made possible by smart thinking some years ago when a charity bought 2,000 acres of cheap farmland. Their aim was to transfer the rise in land values to 8,000 new residents (not commercial developers) and create affordable, high-quality housing with the social facilities of a real town not a giant, faceless housing estate.

Remarkably 3,200 new homes, new jobs and two new schools are being offered at no cost to the public purse while the Scottish housing waiting list stands at 160,000. And yet, after four frustrating years, local planners look set to reject the plan – nor will they have to explain why.

Doubtless there are mitigating factors. And yet there also seems to be a general pattern of “tick box planning” and turgidly bureaucratic processes that stymy vitality, delay development and reinforce mediocre design.

Is this what Scotland really needs?