Can Scotland’s Parliament be persuaded to champion Regional Agency?


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Clyde Gateway

New housing in the Clyde Gateway – identified as a flagship area for urban renewal in the Glasgow and the Clyde Valley Structure Plan 2000

When the Scottish Parliament begins Stage 2 of the consideration of the Planning (Scotland) Bill in mid-September, one of the issues for debate will be the future of strategic planning.  The Scottish Government intends that the Bill should remove the statutory requirement to prepare strategic development plans for the four city regions of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee/Perth.  Green MSP Andy Wightman has tabled an amendment to the Bill which would have the effect of retaining that provision.

In its evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee in March, Clydeplan, the strategic development planning authority for the Glasgow city region, made a robust and persuasive case that the statutory provision for strategic planning at the regional level should be retained.  It pointed out that strategic planning had been central to the regeneration of Glasgow and the Clyde Valley through periods of significant structural change over a period of 70 years.  Strategic development plans for the area had been an effective component of the planning system, guiding local plans and decision-making, demonstrating the value of joint working and the commitment of constituent local authorities and wider stakeholders over an extended timescale.

Clydeplan pointed out that in England a statutory duty to co-operate had not proved to be a sufficiently effective tool for addressing cross-boundary regional issues, while in 2015 the Planning (Wales) Act had introduced strategic development plans for Cardiff, Swansea and the A55 Corridor, based on the model which currently exists in Scotland.  To remove strategic development plans in Scotland would run counter to prevailing best practice in planning internationally, particularly in Europe, where there has been a move towards planning at the scale of integrated functional regions reflecting housing markets, travel-to-work and economic catchment areas as part of the drive to deliver sustainable development.

Like others who gave evidence to the Committee, Clydeplan expressed concern that the Scottish Government’s intention that the role of local authorities in strategic planning should be reduced to assisting with the preparation on the National Planning Framework would lead to an undesirable level of centralisation, undermining the collaborative partnerships which have been working successfully at the regional level up until now.

Clydeplan argued that rather than removing an important mechanism of regional agency, the Scottish Government should be enhancing and building upon existing strategic development plan processes and their established governance and joint-working structures in rolling out a regional partnership model across the country.

In its Stage 1 report on the Bill in May, the Local Government and Communities Committee noted significant concerns about the future of regional spatial planning, which it noted had “a long history in Scotland and has attracted interest and commendation from elsewhere.”  It concluded that it was not clear from the evidence heard that removing the current provisions for strategic development plans would lead to simplification, to streamlining, to cost savings or to more effective planning at a regional scale.  It recommended that the current statutory framework for regional planning should not be repealed unless a more robust mechanism is provided to that currently proposed in the Bill.

In its response to the Local Government and Communities Committee, the Scottish Government doubled down on its determination to remove the statutory underpinning of strategic planning at the regional scale.  Rather than setting out its case for centralising strategic planning at the national level, the Government fell back on the argument that what it proposes is in line with the recommendations of the independent review panel established in 2015, and reiterated its assertion that the change is required to simplify and streamline the system.  Little was offered in terms of the more robust mechanism the Committee was looking for.  The Government simply undertook to amend the Bill at Stage 2 to introduce a clearer duty for local authorities to work together in strategic planning, something which, as Clydeplan has already pointed out, has not worked particularly well in England.

Slamannan Plateau

 The Central Scotland Green Network and the Central Scotland Forest have their origins in the proposals for strategic environmental improvement and reforestation contained in the Clyde Valley Plan (1946) and the Regional Plan for Central and South-East Scotland (1948).

In an article published in Bella Caledonia in March 2017, I outlined the regional planning tradition established under the wartime administration of Tom Johnston and how it had evolved over the subsequent 70 years.  The Scottish Government states that it respects the long history of regional spatial planning in Scotland, but argues that the context has changed dramatically since regional plans emerged in the post-war period and even in the period since the 2006 Act.  It neither explains in what way the context has changed, nor why that change renders strategic development plans obsolete.

As recently as 2014, the Scottish Government accepted the findings of a review of the strategic development plan system by Kevin Murray Associates which concluded that “the system is still bedding in, it is not broken, nor is its potential yet fully optimised.”  It is not clear what has caused it to have such a dramatic change of mind.  A number of developers called for the abolition of strategic planning in their submissions to the independent review panel, but the sector was not unanimous on the matter and there was no broad groundswell of support for the change.

The case which the independent review panel made for the abolition of regional development plans was scant and far from persuasive.  It acknowledged that the city-region remains a critical scale for planning, but argued that the role of planners at the regional level should be confined to the co-ordination of development with infrastructure delivery in accordance with the strategy set out in the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework.  No rationale was offered for the incorporation of regional strategy into a document with a national focus prepared under the direction of Scottish Ministers.  The centralisation and loss of regional agency involved were simply not addressed.

There is a suspicion that the Scottish Government’s desire to do away with strategic development plans stems from its preference for mediating its relationships with local authorities on development matters through City Region Deals, untrammelled by the discipline of strategy. The process of preparing strategic development plans is subject to statutory requirements in relation to public consultation, environmental assessment and examination.  The process of City Region deal-making is much less transparent and less open to scrutiny.  SNP politicians appear only recently to have become concerned about the opportunities it might afford for pork-barrelling.

A range of civic and professional organisations have expressed concern about the Scottish Government’s intention to remove the statutory requirement to prepare strategic development plans and the Government seems disinclined to provide the robust alternative which the Local Government and Communities Committee is looking for.  It is to be hoped that safeguarding the regional agency which has contributed so positively to Scotland’s development over the last 70 years is a cause which can command a majority in our Parliament.


This article was published in Bella Caledonia on 15 August 2018

Cool Scots and Banal Unionism


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Margaret Macdonald

Artist and Designer, Margaret Macdonald (1864 – 1933), from Greg Moodie’s ‘Cool Scots’, Luath Press 2018

As another Edinburgh Festival season draws to an end (despite the best efforts of the City of Edinburgh Council’s Marketing Team and the Ross Development Trust), it is worth pausing to take stock of the place of Scottish culture within this gaudy jamboree. For those prepared to push through the serried ranks of stand-up comedians, resist the syrupy blandishments of Gyles Brandreth & Son and look beyond the tacky funfair attractions being offered by pop-up bar barons and public school hucksters, there were some real native gems to be found.

Edinburgh International Festival Director Fergus Linehan is of a different stripe to his predecessor.  The Light on the Shore programme has featured and celebrated the best of contemporary Scottish musical talent and helped to re-establish Leith Theatre as a live music venue.  The Le Vent du Nord and Julie Fowlis concert made a welcome link between Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and Edinburgh’s Festival.  In the first half, Fowlis was supported by a strong line-up of musicians, including Duncan Chisholm and Patsy Reid.  Her poise, vocal accomplishment, facility in several languages and easy rapport with the audience were really impressive.  In the second half, the Quebecois band, Le Vent du Nord, delivered a much more masculine performance.  Indeed, the testosterone levels on-stage were in danger of detracting from their considerable abilities as singers and musicians.  At times, it felt uncomfortably like being trapped in a lift with a team of lumberjacks.

Later in the week, Karine Polwart had an international audience in the palm of her hand with her Scottish Songbook concert.  Since her award-winning stage show and album, Wind Resistance, Polwart has been at the top of her game.  Ably supported by Inge Thomson, her brother Steven and Louis Abbot, she delivered a well-chosen set of Scottish pop favourites from the last fifty years.  Most were from the 1980s and ‘90s, the work of bands and artists such as Deacon Blue, Big Country, the Proclaimers, Gerry Rafferty, Jimmy Somerville and Annie Lennox.  The concert complemented the Rip it up exhibition currently running at the National Museum of Scotland.  At the concert and in an article she wrote for The Guardian, Polwart emphasised the significance of place and drew attention to the post-industrial sensibility of many of the songs originating in the Central Belt of her youth.  Readers who are unlikely to have balked at the concept of ‘Brit-Pop’ commented sniffily that pop music is international and knows no borders.

Meanwhile in Charlotte Square, Neal Ascherson opened the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a spell-binding account of wartime Greenock, the setting of his novel The Death of the Fronsac.  He stressed the cosmopolitanism of the time, with the streets suddenly filled with servicemen in the uniforms of many countries, and notably the Poles.  The subsequent discussion focused on the impact of the Poles on Scottish society.  A member of the audience behind me referred to meeting a man in Poland who had happy memories of the time he had spent in Galashiels.  My grandfather was a grocer in Galashiels.  He was an air raid Observer during the Second World War and regularly played cards with some of the Polish soldiers stationed in the town.  They called my aunt Muriel, who was a teenager at the time, “the gypsy” – and they were right!  Her grandmother (my great-grandmother) was one of the Yetholm gypsies.

Another tour-de-force at the Book Festival was art historian Roger Billcliffe’s perfectly judged and beautifully illustrated presentation on ‘The Four’ – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald and Herbert MacNair – artists at the centre of the Glasgow Style of the late 19th Century.  Although Billcliffe’s book is titled Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of the Four, he was keen to stress that Mackintosh should not be seen as the leader of the group.  MacNair was the first to exhibit and Frances Macdonald often took the initiative, with the others falling in behind.

The provocation by Professors Colin Kidd and Gerard Carruthers drawing on their book Literature and Union was an altogether more idiosyncratic affair.  The danger of the event taking on the character of a meeting of the Better Together Reading Group was acknowledged by Kidd himself.  The two professors are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that the dominant narrative in Scottish literary studies is a nationalist one.  Hugh MacDiarmid (dismissed as essentially a vanity publisher), Neil M. Gunn, Murray Pittock and that dangerous firebrand David Daiches are variously to blame, apparently. Carruthers and Kidd see themselves as bold revisionists out to recapture Scottish literature for the Union.  Kidd has coined the term ‘Banal Unionism’ to describe the “inarticulate acceptance of Union” and on that basis he is keen to claim James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as the great novel of the Union.  For Carruthers, the clinching argument demonstrating Scotland’s essential Britishness is that he used to enjoy watching British war films with his dad.  So did I!  But isn’t it remarkable how heavily British identity relies on referencing the Second World War these days?

Up at the Quaker Meeting House Gavin MacDougall had put together another excellent programme of discussions based on Luath Press’s current catalogue under the ScotlandsFest 2018 banner.  At the event entitled Capturing the Image, the painter Sandy Moffatt and satirical cartoonist Greg Moodie ranged over the revival of Scottish portraiture, the drinking habits of art college staff, graphic techniques, Muriel Spark as a sitter, the banned J.K. Rowling comic strip, the Milne’s Bar poets and the Dundee arts scene.  In this year’s Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture round at the Lighthouse bookshop on West Nicholson Street, Gerda Stevenson drew on Quines, her recent collection of poems celebrating the achievements of Scottish women.  Music composed for the event was provided by Ewen Maclean and Phil Alexander in partnership with acclaimed traditional singer Fiona Hunter, who also appeared with the Grit Orchestra at the Playhouse Theatre.  Back at the Book Festival, James Robertson, Sheena Wellington, Calum Colvin and Gordon Maclean celebrated the life of singer, songwriter and musician, Michael Marra.

The evidence from this Festival season is that Scotland’s cultural scene is as healthy as it has ever been, invigorated by the debate over our constitutional future, confident in the celebration of its diversity and fully engaged with social and political developments at home and abroad.  The prospect of Scotland slipping back into Banal Unionism seems remote.


A version of this article was published in Bella Caledonia on 27 August 2018.



Septimius Severus in Scotland


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Septimius Severus in Scotland

Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots, by Simon Elliott (2018), Greenhill Books, Barnsley

This book is chiefly of value for the improved account of the campaigns of Septimius Severus in Scotland which Simon Elliott is able to provide by drawing on recent archaeological evidence and his own knowledge of Roman warfare. However, he doesn’t get there until Chapter 7. The rest of the book is filled out with a description of the Roman military machine at the time of Septimius Severus, an account of the earlier life of the Emperor, and details of his aggrandisement of York as an Imperial Capital in advance of the campaigns.

The justification Elliott provides for the anachronistic use of the term ‘Scots’ in the title is half-hearted and unconvincing, leading to the suspicion that it may have been imposed on him by his publisher. In the text, he identifies the tribes which the Severan campaigns were intended to subdue as the Maeatae and the Caledonians.

Simon Elliott is of the ‘It’s Grim Up North’ school of British historians. Northern Britain is described as ‘that dimmest of Roman Border territories’ and ‘a Conradian heart of darkness’. It is even suggested that the blame for the failure of Rome to incorporate Northern Britain into the Empire can be laid at the door of the natives themselves, as they simply lacked ‘an elite sophisticated enough’ to buy into Rome’s imperial project.

Elliott argues, with some evidence, that the campaign of genocide which Septimius Severus sought to unleash in Scotland was sufficiently thorough to remove the threat of attack from the North for 80 years. However, one is left wondering how consistent that idea is with the fact that, following his death, the northern border of the Empire reverted to the line of Hadrian’s Wall. Adam Ardrey, in his book Finding Arthur (2013), suggests that Caracalla deliberately frustrated his ailing father’s genocidal intentions with the aim of concluding a speedy peace with the Maeatae and Caledonians on his death.

Retreat ti ‘The Hertland’?


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Bothy Nichts

On 26th March 2018, Bella Caledonia reported the launch of the North East Scots Language Board, a new organisation dedicated to promoting the Scots language.  The Board is based at the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen, but its executive includes representatives of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeenshire Council and a member of the media.  Its purpose is to champion the Scots spoken in the North-East of Scotland, but not, apparently, to the exclusion of the Scots spoken in other areas.

In the publicity surrounding the launch of the Board, the concept of a Scots ‘Hertland’ has been invoked, on the basis that the greatest concentration of Scots speakers are to be found between the River Tay and Moray Firth.  Bella’s Scots Editor, Alistair Heather, has highlighted similarities to the Gaeltacht in the West.  The comparison is revealing.  This should not be seen as an advance for the Scots language movement, but rather a retreat.  It is the last circling of the wagons around some notional defensible dialect ‘Hertland’ or ‘stronghold’.  However did we get to this sad place?

In December 1921, Christopher Murray Grieve wrote a letter to the Aberdeen Free Press in response to a lecture by Dr. J.M. Bulloch to the Vernacular Circle of the London Robert Burns Club entitled The Delight of the Doric in the Diminutive.  He dismissed it in the following suitably pithy terms:

Dr. Bulloch’s plea for Doric infantilism is not worthy of the critical consideration of nursery governesses.  A critic capable of referring to ‘Mr. John Mitchell’s delightful crack with his grandson’ is capable of anything – and nothing.  Most contemporary grandchildren would take steps to have us examined in lunacy if we afflicted them with such talks in Doric.

Grieve continued his scathing critique of the movement for a Doric revival in the columns of the Aberdeen Free Press and the Dunfermline Press during 1922.  Yet, in the first issue of his The Scottish Chapbook, published in October 1922, we find him introducing us to the work in Scots of the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid.  MacDiarmid is interesting, Grieve believes, because:

“He is, I think, the first Scottish writer to address himself to the question of the extendability (without physical violence) of the Vernacular to embrace the whole range of modern culture – or, in other words, tried to make up the leeway of the language.  It is an exceedingly difficult task and I envy him his enthusiasm.  What he has to do is to adapt an essentially rustic tongue to the very much more complex requirements of our urban civilisation – to give it all the almost illimitable suggestionability it lacks (compared to say English or French).”

Grieve’s initial scepticism about the potential for a revival of the dialects of Scots was based on their limitations as media for the full range of modern cultural expression.  He believed that if Scots was to have a future it needed to move beyond the humble and couthie virtues of the cottar’ fireside, to which he believed it had been confined by the Burns cult.  It was this belief which led him, in the persona of Hugh MacDiarmid, to embark on the creation of ‘Synthetic Scots’.

In 1951, in his essay A Short Introduction to Scottish Literature, Sydney Goodsir Smith wrote:

“When MacDiarmid spoke of ‘Synthetic Scots,’ he merely referred to another aspect of this necessary revolution; that we should forget the whole poverty-stricken ‘dialect’ tradition that Burns and his predecessors had unconsciously been responsible for, and use again all the rich resources of the language as Dunbar and the Makars had used it, as had Burns and Fergusson, Scott, Galt, Stevenson, and George Douglas Brown.  In fact to make a synthesis where for too long there had been “disintegration”.

In 1951, Goodsir Smith was able to reflect with satisfaction that while “in the early days there were only a few adherents to the cause.  Today there are a host of them.”  Sadly, in the decades since, the Scots language movement has regressed intellectually, and now seems intent on geographical retrenchment.  Balking at the creation a standard Scots orthography as being ower dreary a darg, it has, in recent years turned its back on MacDiarmid’s Modernist manifesto, retreating once again into nostalgia-driven dialectism.  Thus, in response to the article on the North-East Scots Language Board, Alistair Heather can write:

Stannart spellin.  This ane’s tricky.  Basically Scots screivers warkin the noo (masel includit) hae spend years pittin thegither an orthography that seems tae them best tae express their thochts in Scots. It can be idiosyncratic. Stannarts dae exist, sic as the fine ane  Gin ye want a stannart tae follae, follae that ane.  But dinnae expect ilka screiver tae ging oot an re-learn hou tae spell owrenicht.

There ye hae it!  Learnin hou ti spell is ower muckle a fash, tho oo expect it o oorsels wi English, French, German or Italian.  In Scotland it’s ti be each til their ain private Pitsligo.

Sae, tak awa Aiberdeen an twal mile roon, an faur are oo?  The Barnyards o Delgaty a wheen afore lowsin time in April 1922, A’m thinkin.  It’ll be a blythe day oo leave the ferm – at lang an last.


St. Cuthbert’s Way – Bordering on the Ridiculous


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On Being Ardent

At my first guest house in Melrose, mein host breenged into the dining room while I was enjoying the full Scottish breakfast.  He apologised for not greeting me the night before, explaining that he and his wife had been at a wedding in Edinburgh which had turned out to be really awful.  I acknowledged that funerals were often more enjoyable.  The worst part, he continued, was finding himself seated next to an SNP supporter during the dinner.  “The thing about these SNP people is that they are so ardent.” he confided.

I couldn’t help glancing at the Union Jack cushions on his sofa.

Union Jack Cushions

Wainwright Ale

Wooler was sacked twice by the Scots in the 14th Century, but on this warm Tuesday afternoon in June it showed every sign of having recovered its drowsy composure.  Having just walked 17 miles from Kirk Yetholm over the foothills of the Cheviots, I felt in need of some refreshment.  I repaired to a pub on the High Street.

“The Wainwright Ale is very popular with walkers.” offered the teenage barmaid helpfully.

“It looks as if it’s off.” I observed skeptically.

“Aye.” she conceded.

“Will it be on again later?” I ventured.

“No.  We’ve run out.” she admitted.

“I’ll have a pint of Kronenberg.” I said glumly.

Wainright Ale


Fenham Hill Crossing

The final approach to Lindisfarne involves crossing the East Coast main line.  I picked up the phone at the crossing and said to the signalman: “There are three of us here at the St. Cuthbert’s Way crossing.  Is it safe for us to cross?”

“I need the name of the crossing.” said the signalman.  “Crivens!” I thought. “It’s the ONLY crossing, but I’ve no idea what it’s called.”  This was becoming a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.

“It’s where the St. Cuthbert’s Way crosses the line.” I said lamely.

“I need the name of the crossing.” repeated the signalman.  “It’s on the notice on the phone.”

Frantically scanning the small print, I spotted a place name and read it to the signalman. “No. That’s where I am.” he said in the tone of someone beginning to lose patience with a half-wit.

Reading on, I came upon the name ‘Fenham Hill’ and tried that.

“That’s it.” he said. “Do you see a train coming?”

Repeating the question to the Swedish couple with me, I was beginning to wonder whether we might have the advantage on him.  They craned their necks in both directions and then shook their heads.

“No.” I said.

“There should be a train coming from the south.” said the signalman, with what sounded like less than absolute conviction.

My companions became animated and started pointing southwards.

“Oh yes. Here it comes!” I conceded.

Fenham Hill

“You can cross once it’s passed.” said the signalman.

On the other side if the tracks, I picked up the phone to report that we had crossed safely. The signalman said that the warning tone he was hearing suggested that I had not returned the other phone to its cradle properly.  I was pretty sure that I had.

“OK.  Is it safe to go back?” I asked testily.

“Aye, go on.” was the laconic reply.

I scuttled hastily back over the tracks to find the other phone nestling comfortably on its cradle.  I gave it a grumpy shoogle to make sure and dashed back across the line.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.