Strategic Planning and the Importance of Regional Agency

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For a small country, Scotland is regionally diverse, and it has a strong tradition of planning at the regional level dating back to the 1940s.  Under Tom Johnston, Scotland’s wartime administration initiated the preparation of three major regional plans covering the most populous parts of the country to guide post-war reconstruction. The regional planning tradition established at that time has persisted through successive reforms of local government under Governments of different political complexions, with a particularly strong strand of continuity in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley.  From the 1970s, and for a period of more than 30 years, the statutory vehicle for strategic planning at the regional level was the structure plan.  Since 2006 it has been the strategic development plan.

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The first generation of regional plans

The Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system, Places, People and Planning proposes that strategic development plans should be removed from the system, with regional planning priorities henceforward set out in the National Planning Framework (NPF).  The current review of the planning system was initiated in 2015 by the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice and Communities, Alex Neil.  The initial questions posed by the review reflected the familiar neoliberal narrative of creative and dynamic private enterprise held back by the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the public sector and suspicion remains that it was initially driven by a desire to ease the regulatory burden on volume housebuilders.

The abolition of regional development plans is something a number of major housebuilders have called for, perhaps in the belief that they will get a more
sympathetic ear from Ministers than from local politicians.  There is little evidence from the submissions made to the independent Review Panel that their removal has wider support and no very clear rationale has been offered for it.  The argument deployed by the independent Review Panel points to the need to strengthen delivery mechanisms, not remove regional development plans.

The reason the Scottish Government gives for proposing the removal of strategic development plans is that the effort put into the procedures for preparing them leaves little time to work actively on delivering them.  If that is the concern, then a more obvious solution would be to adopt the approach proposed for local development plans and review them every 10 instead of 5 years.  The main reason that strategic development plans have tended to lose momentum in recent years is that the regional strategies which had been worked out on their first or second iteration remained substantially valid, but the planners who created them have found themselves locked into a statutory process of review when their time would have been better spent on delivery.

The Government’s consultation paper recognises the importance of co-ordinating development and infrastructure at the regional level and proposes that planners should continue to work together at the regional scale to help shape spatial priorities and develop strategies and delivery programmes.  However, it is unsatisfactorily vague about how strategic priorities are to be determined at regional level and how spatial strategies for the regions are to be prepared and agreed.  The consultation paper refers to strategic planners “helping to shape” regional spatial priorities (para. 1.11) and local authorities “helping to develop” regional strategies (para.1.13).  The use of the word “helping” seems to hint that regional priorities and the content of regional strategies might ultimately be decided elsewhere, particularly as they are to be articulated in the National Planning Framework.  Is the Government hinting that regional priorities and strategies are ultimately to be determined by Ministers at national level, with the role of regional planners being no more than delivering on the strategies set out in the NPF?

It needs to be acknowledged that the one-size-fits-all approach of the city region model of strategic planning ushered in by the 2006 Act failed to reflect Scotland’s geographical diversity.  Not all of Scotland’s diverse regions are focused on cities.  The consultation paper’s proposals for partnerships which reflect regional geographies could offer opportunities for Ayrshire, the Highlands and Islands and the South of Scotland in particular.  The opportunity to rationalise boundaries for spatial, transport and land use planning should certainly be taken.  However, if this is not to be another exercise in centralisation, the Government needs to think more carefully about how policy-making capacity and agency are to be retained and strengthened at the regional level.

The National Planning Framework has been a valuable innovation, setting out a long-term vision and identifying developments of national importance.  However, we should be wary of the assumption that we will make it more effective by loading more and more onto it.  There is a danger that charging it with responsibility for setting not just national but also regional priorities could have rather the opposite effect, making the NPF unwieldy and top-heavy, and at risk of collapsing under its own weight.  The fate of the regional tier of government in England should be instructive.  Its association with what was seen as a remote and bureaucratic approach to strategic housing land allocation played an important part in its demise.  A top-heavy and over-bearing NPF would quickly fall out of favour.

Scotland has an important regional dimension which needs to be reflected properly in our planning system and strategic housing land allocation is one of the key functions which needs to be discharged at regional level. Central government lacks the knowledge and capacity to undertake that task successfully and the political tensions which would be created by pursuing that course could seriously undermine delivery.  Disowning the implications strategic decisions on housing taken centrally would prove an attractive way for politicians to gain local popularity.

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Tayplan 2011

Instead of centralising strategic capacity at national level, we should be celebrating Scotland’s regional diversity and ensuring that our regions have the agency to play to their strengths.  That the Scottish Government recognises the sense of that is at least implied by the policy initiatives it is pursuing in relation to greater autonomy the island authorities and a new enterprise and skills agency for the South of Scotland.  It needs to apply the same thinking to the reform of the planning system.  In the more populous parts of the country, we need to nurture the role of our cities as the economic and cultural capitals of their respective regions.  We need to make closer links between strategic planning and cities policy, with strategic development plans accorded a key role in the delivery of city deals.  We should be very wary of turning our backs on a tradition of regional agency in strategic planning which has served Scotland well for over seventy years.

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A version of this article was published in Bella Caledonia on 19 March 2017.

Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes

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Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes: Garden City Influences on the Development of Scottish Working Class Housing 1900 to 1939 by Lou Rosenburg (2016), The Word Bank

Lou Rosenburg’s book makes a very valuable contribution to our understanding of the evolution of working class housing provision in Scotland in the early part of the 20th Century.  It is meticulously researched, well written, attractively laid out and generously illustrated with photographs, plans and period artwork.

The book explores the form and design influences on the 240,000 houses built by Scottish local authorities between 1919 and 1939, with a particular focus on those built under the Town Planning (Scotland) Act 1919, the Coalition Government’s response to the wartime demand for ‘Homes fit for Heroes’.  The new housing schemes were strongly influenced by the English arts and crafts forms of the garden cities movement.  Cottages became the preferred form of provision as traditional tenements fell out of favour because of their association with overcrowding and insanitary conditions.  However, habit and budgetary constraints often led to compromise and a native form of garden suburb development emerged, incorporating distinctively Scottish elements such as pavilion-style tenements and four-in-a-block cottage flats.

Before the First World War, a number of cottage developments influenced by garden suburb principles had been pioneered by local authorities and public utility societies.  During the War, the need to accommodate civilian defence workers led to significant new developments at a number of strategically important locations, including Rosyth, Gretna, Greenock, Glengarnock and Invergordon.

By 1925, 25,000 houses had been completed under the 1919 Act, only a fraction of the 120,000 units which the Ballantyne Commission had estimated to be required in 1917.  Shortages of labour and materials meant that local authorities and public utility companies were unable to achieve the construction levels required.  Despite the generous subsidies made available by central government, high construction costs meant that rents were generally set at levels which were beyond the means of poorer households.  In the mind of officialdom, the ability to pay rent quickly became a more important consideration than war service.

Rosenburg’s painstaking scrutiny of valuation rolls has identified some 300 schemes developed under the 1919 Act.  These are very widely distributed throughout Scotland, with a remarkable 30% outside burghs. Many are of outstanding quality. Some of the most charming examples were built in small settlements in rural areas, often by county councils.  While the contribution of public utility societies was modest, a significant garden cottage scheme was developed by the Kinlochleven Village Improvement Society to provide accommodation for employees of the British Aluminium Company, and the Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association built nearly 200 houses in small developments across Scotland.

A welcome aspect of Rosenburg’s book is the information he provides on the work of officials such as William E. Whyte, politicians such as John Wheatley and Jean Mann and architects such as Joseph Weekes and John A.W. Grant. The personal contributions to the improvement of housing conditions of figures such as these deserves to be more widely recognised.

With the Scottish Government consulting on the reform of the planning system, Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes provides a timely reminder of a period when Government felt confident enough to drive forward improvements in the form and quality of new housing.

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This review first appeared as a blog on the Built Environment Forum Scotland website on 11 January 2017.

The Trouble with Wilderness

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The ‘The Artist Traveller’ exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy includes a series of pen and ink and digital pigment prints by artist Murray Robertson on the theme of wild land and wilderness.  The centre-piece is a digital pigment print map of Scotland showing the Core Areas of Wild Land identified by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), with a legend and annotations in Gaelic.  The work is titled Priomh Sgìrean na Talmhainn Fiadhaich II in Gaelic.

Robertson’s works were originally developed during a visual arts residency at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye in 2015 and invite questions about the perceptions and values we bring to debates about Scotland’s land and landscapes and concepts such as “wild land” and “wilderness”.

SNH published a new map of ‘Core Areas of Wild Land‘ in June 2014. It has been given an important status as a basis for decision-making on development by being referenced in Scottish Planning Policy (para. 200).  This incorporation into policy was primarily a response to concerns about the potential impacts of large commercial wind farms on sensitive rural landscapes, but there are fears that the broadly restrictive terms of the policy (para. 215) could inhibit almost any development activity over large parts of the Highlands, effectively preventing economic diversification and community renewal.  Critics like Rob Gibson, the former MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and Convener of the Rural Affairs Committee in the last Parliament, have pointed out that many of the areas now described as core wild land were previously populated and believes that what has been mapped is “Clearances country”.

In December 2016, Scottish National Heritage published a common statement on Landscape and the Historic Environment prepared for the Scottish Historic Environment Forum by a working group comprising Historic Environment Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland and SNH.  The document seeks to offer a ‘shared vision’ of the historic dimension of Scotland’s landscapes.  This latest exhibition of Murray Robertson’s work reminds us that Scotland’s land and landscapes remain contested territory.

The ‘The Artist Traveller’ exhibition runs at the Royal Scottish Academy until Sunday 29 January 2017.

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A version of this article was published by Bella Caledonia on 16 January 2017.

Proposals for Expansion and Redevelopment of the University of Glasgow

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glasgow-universityIn 1951, Frank Mears submitted proposals for a major expansion of the University of Glasgow northwards into Hillhead.  In the eighty years since the construction of Gilbert Scott’s monumental Gothic edifice, the University had outgrown its Gilmorehill site and much of the original accommodation had proved to be ill-suited to the requirements of modern academic disciplines.

With a view to maintaining a sense of unity in the expanded university precinct, Mears proposed the progressive transformation of the space between the existing Reading Room and the Scott Building into a “Great Central Court”.  This would involve moving the main entrance of the Scott Building from its south to its north side, the grouping and design of new buildings on both sides of University Avenue in careful relation to the old, and the closing of the Avenue to through traffic to reduce noise and promote safety.

As with his earlier schemes for Jerusalem and Edinburgh, he sought to “combine the maximum of adaptability in construction of buildings with adherence to planning principles which will promote an environment of academic dignity” and he suggested that this could best be achieved by the development of a system of courts and quadrangles linked by tree-lined footpaths.  As at Jerusalem, he recommended that, wherever possible, internal partition walls should be erected independently of the main structure in order to facilitate the rearrangement of accommodation as needs changed.

Perhaps with an eye to developments in Edinburgh, The Glasgow Herald commented in an editorial that: “The mistake will not be made at Glasgow that has been made at universities elsewhere of dispersing activities that ought to be part of the central framework of academic and corporate life.”

Sikunder Burnes

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‘Sikunder Burnes: Master of The Great Game’ by Craig Murray (2016), Birlinn, Edinburgh

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Craig Murray tells the story of Alexander Burnes, a lad from Montrose who secured a commission with the British India Company at the age of 16 and played a prominent role in The Great Game, the struggle between the British and Russian empires for domination of Central Asia.

Burnes won fame with his published account of the commercial mission he led to Bhukara in what is now Uzbekistan in 1832, as a cover for the gathering of intelligence on the region.  In 1837, against the background of mounting concern that a Russian-backed Persian army threatened Herat, the Governor General of India, Lord Aukland, put Burnes in charge of a second mission into Afghanistan.  He was cordially welcomed at Kabul by Dost Mohamed Khan, the reigning Emir, and treated with him with a view to securing his alliance with the British.  However, Burnes’ efforts were fatally undermined when the Governor General back in Simla concluded that removing Dost Mohammed and restoring Shah Shuja ul-Mulk to the throne in Kabul would suit British interests better.  Against his better judgement, Burnes accompanied the British Army of the Indus which invaded Afghanistan for this purpose in 1839.  He was murdered by a mob in Kabul shortly before the disastrous British retreat from the city in January 1842.

Murray shines a brutal light on the haughty incompetence of those in charge of British Imperial policy at the time.  Lord Palmerson, Aukland, and his adviser, Sir William McNaghten, fare particularly badly under his withering scrutiny.  Understandably, given his experiences as British Ambassador in Uzbekistan, Murray is tempted into comparisons with events in our own time.  Chapter headings include ‘Regime Change’ and ‘The Dodgy Dossier’.

There are a few typographical errors which could have been eliminated by more careful proof reading.  For example, Lieutenant Robert Leech, one of Burnes’ close colleagues and companions on his later missions, disconcertingly intrudes himself on his first trip up the Indus in 1831 (p.71), presumably standing in for Ensign John Leckie.

Greenock Plans Ahead

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Council flats on the Vennel, Greenock, by Frank C. Mears

Frank Mears was appointed planning consultant to the Corporation of Greenock in 1940.  It was the only consultancy in which he directly confronted the problems of the industrial west of Scotland.  The plan he prepared, entitled Greenock: Portal of the Clyde, was published in 1947.  It outlined a programme for the long-term development of the part of Renfrewshire lying to the north of a line between Kilmacolm and Wemyss Bay.  Besides Greenock, it encompassed the burghs of Port Glasgow and Gourock and the villages of  Inverkip and Wemyss Bay.

During the Depression, the slump in shipbuilding had resulted in high levels of unemployment in Greenock and Port Glasgow.  As in Scotland’s mining areas, reliance on a single heavy industry had resulted in a particular vulnerability to recession.  Mears argued that future security depended on diversification of the area’s industrial base, with particular emphasis on the creation of employment for women.

On the basis of an analysis which traced Greenock’s history to its 18th century origins, Mears concluded that the town should should seek to build on its long-standing local industries based on tobacco, sugar, distilling and marine engineering, and that priority should be given to industries geared to export.

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Clyde Valley Regional Plan, 1949

Patrick Abercrombie’s Clyde Valley planning team had identified a serious deficiency of open spaces in the lower part of the town.  In Greenock: Portal of the Clyde (1947) Mears proposed redevelopment at lower densities, the creation of new industrial areas, and accommodation of the displaced population in a constellation of new neighbourhoods laid out in the Kip Valley on American Parkway lines to create a “federal Garden City”.

Mears also prepared layouts and designs for council housing in Greenock and a scheme for the redevelopment of part of the town centre which had been badly damaged by wartime bombing.

Mears’ proposals for Greenock received considerable publicity.  The work of the documentary film-maker John Grierson had stimulated an interest in film-making in Scotland.  The Scottish Office had been quick to appreciate the usefulness of film as a means of informing and influencing the public and had sponsored a number of documentaries on aspects of social and economic reconstruction.  Inspired by these precedents, in 1948 Greenock Corporation commissioned a documentary film on Frank Mears’ planning work in the burgh to complement an exhibition in the Town Hall. Greenock Plans Ahead was directed by Hamilton Tait and narrated by Frank Phillips.

A Garden for Granton’s Renaissance!

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Proposals by the Friends of Granton Castle Walled Garden

The EDI Group has appointed architects to prepare a new masterplan for the Granton Waterfront and on 15 August the Friends of Granton Castle Walled Garden met with them to share their ideas on the restoration of the Renaissance garden as a focus for community renewal.

Afterwards, landscape architect Ellie Clarke facilitated workshops at which the Friends agreed the features of their proposal for a community garden.  These will be presented to the EDI Group Management Team at a meeting on 5 October.

On 8 September, the Petitions Committee of the City of Edinburgh Council considered a petition organised by the Friends calling on the Council to support them in opening the garden for sustainable uses which promote community well-being.  The Committee decided to refer the matter to the Council’s Economy Committee, which will consider it at its meeting on 22 November.

Meanwhile, Granton Castle Walled Garden features as the focus for a local walk in More North Edinburgh’s Hidden Gems, a guide to six short walks in Pilton, Muirhouse, Granton and Drylaw produced by the Pilton Community Health Project.

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Image courtesy of Peter Stubbs, EdinPhoto

An illustrated article on How Granton Lost its Castle was published in the May/June issue of Edinburgh Life. A more detailed article by Gillean Paterson entitled Echoes in the Garden: the last days of Granton Castle features in the Autumn 2016 issue of Scottish Local History.

What will happen to the England-Scotland border following Brexit?

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This piece by Professor Keith Shaw of Northumbria University provides a valuable perspective on the prospects for collaboration across the Scotland – England border following the EU referendum result. The point he makes about collaborative opportunities in areas such as rural development, farming, tourism and renewable energies being dependent on EU investment and support is very important. But overall, I think his conclusions are too gloomy. Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and progressive forces in England share a common interest in maintaining open borders and building effective mechanisms for cross-border collaboration within these islands. These are the objectives on which we must make common cause in shaping the ultimate outcome of the Brexit vote.

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Between 2013 and 2015, the ESRC funded a seminar series examining the changing relationship between Scotland and the North East of England. While the series highlighted the many challenges facing the North East’s economic fortunes in the context of an even more powerful neighbour north of the border, it also explored the opportunities provided by the Scottish independence campaign – and the aftermath of the 2014 referendum – to forge new, creative, cross-border collaborations between two ‘close friends’ united by common bonds and shared traditions.

Keith ShawHere Professor Keith Shaw, of Northumbria University, who led the seminar series, speaks about the effect on the relationship between Scotland and the North East of England and forthcoming potential outcomes following Brexit.

One of the collaborative opportunities identified – and subsequently taken up – in the ESRC seminar series Close Friends’? Assessing the impact of greater Scottish autonomy on the North…

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A Farm Scene

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Farm Scene

What is almost certainly my oldest surviving artwork has been discovered in a shoe box in West Edinburgh. What say you, Fiona Bruce?

Thought to date from around 1962, the painting provides evidence of an early interest in rural themes and the striking topography of the scene suggests connections with the Borders. The fact that the black bull is in a separate field on the extreme right of the picture indicates some knowledge of the practical challenges of animal husbandry, possibly acquired from a grandfather.

A Man with a Plan

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Frank Tindall

‘Memoirs and Confessions of a County Planning Officer’ by Frank Tindall (1998), The Pantile Press

This book provides a fascinating account of the professional career of Frank Tindall, who was Planning Officer for the County of East Lothian between 1950 and 1975.

Tindall acknowledges his debt to the holistic planning philosophy of Patrick Geddes and his son-in-law Frank Mears. Indeed, he followed directly in the footsteps of Mears, who was planning consultant for East Lothian from 1937 until 1950. Between them, Mears and Tindall established a tradition of sensitive conservation and renewal from which the area has greatly benefited.

Like Mears, Tindall promoted policies designed to check rural depopulation. Considerable effort was put into the improvement of infrastructure and the environment, safeguarding rural schools and consolidating villages through the provision of new housing, small workshops and community facilities.

The book contains numerous references to Tindall’s efforts to safeguard and extend woodland cover. Notable achievements included the saving of a number of the County’s remaining fragents of ancient oakwood, securing public access to Pressmennan Wood and the transformation of Woodhall Bing at Pencaitland into a popular recreational woodland. He made a particular point of encouraging tree planting in development schemes and concern over the potential impact of commercial afforestation of the Lammermuir Hills led him to advocate that planning control be extended to cover forestry schemes.

For the last ten years of his working life Tindall was Director of Physical Planning for Lothian Region. During that time he was instrumental in creating the Regional Council’s Land Reclamation Unit. He was also responsible for the establishment of the Central Scotland Woodlands Project, which had its origins in Mears’ Central and South-East Scotland Plan of 1949.

Survey work for the County Development Plan revealed the extent of neglected and degraded woodland in East Lothian. Tindall and his staff sought to promote positive woodland management and were ground-breaking in encouraging the planting of upland catchments to tackle problems of flooding and erosion. There remains considerable scope for extending tree cover in East Lothian and a renewal of effort in that area would be a fitting tribute to Frank Tindall’s memory.

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This review first appeared in Reforesting Scotland 20, Spring 1999.