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23.10.2014
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Cliff Hague's Blog

Listen to the “Rural Voice”

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“The planning system has a significant role in supporting sustainable economic growth in rural areas.” This statement is from the Scottish Government’s Planning Policy. However, planning decisions in rural Scotland can often be very controversial, as Cliff Hague explains in his new blog post.

There are a range of development pressures on the Scottish countryside. A pioneering attempt has been made in one area to listen to the “rural voice” and feed it into the process of making the development plan for the area.

East Lothian – rural areas under development pressure
IC veterans from the days of the NoordXXI INTERREG project at the end of the 1990s will remember East Lothian. This council area lies just to the east of Edinburgh. In the west, close to the city, there are a number of fishing villages and small towns, some of them once homes to coal miners. These places have grown to accommodate commuters into Edinburgh, where house prices are high and family accommodation in short supply. Further east the character of East Lothian is more rural, and development constraints are stronger. The identities of East Lothian were analysed in the book “Place Identity, Participation and Planning” which came out of the NoordXXI project and which I co-edited.

Reviewing the Development Plan
In Scotland we do not have kommunes or municipalities of the type that are normal in IC members’ home countries. The lowest level of local government covers a much larger area than commune. The Development Plan therefore also covers a large area. When East Lothian’s council decided to review and update their plan, with the help of
Planning Aid for Scotland, they held meetings in several towns to get the views of the public. However, a local firm of architects and surveyors (Chalmers and Co.) raised the question “what about those who live and work in the rural area?” With the support of the Council and the local press they organised an on-line survey and then brought in a planning consultant (Nick Wright) and a firm of facilitators called Urban Animation to help run a workshop.

The results from the survey and workshop have now been analysed and set out in a report. They represent part of a wider change in Scottish planning in rural situations. This has been described by Nick Wright as “fresh and low”. He calls for “a new paradigm for rural development, based on encouraging local creativity and entrepreneurship, communities where people can afford to live, where it’s easy to set up a business, where new community-based development is genuinely welcomed, and where sustainable rural businesses are as likely to be about IT, tourism or renewable energy as about livestock and crops. In other words, a new paradigm which acknowledges the need for the countryside to be attractive and ‘biodiverse’, but which sees those objectives as part of a much bigger picture – a picture which is about developing long term sustainable rural communities and land management.”

The on-line Survey
The survey posed 9 questions. It was sent to 200 local farmers, businesses, professionals, politicians and residents. There were 36 replies. One question concerned renewable energy generation in the countryside. Wind turbines are a controversial issue across much of rural Scotland because of their impact on the landscape. Not surprisingly, respondents expressed concerns about tall wind turbine developments, especially on the skyline of hills. However, there was acceptance of smaller developments and other forms of renewable energy.

Another controversial issue is housing development. In the UK new private housing is mainly provided by large, national house building companies who tend to build large estates and use standardised house types. As noted above, planning policy in East Lothian has steered new housing to the existing towns, and sought to restrict it elsewhere. The questionnaire survey revealed that there was acceptance of the case for new housing to be allowed in villages, but subject to some conditions. Respondents wanted the housing to be better designed and affordable, with some plots for self-build. Above all local residents wanted a say in the development.

A vibrant rural community?
A further question asked what makes a vibrant rural community? The list of responses was: a balanced community; employment; public transport; broadband; school; places to meet; shop; church; mix of housing, including affordable housing; opportunities to build new houses and businesses; good public spaces; sense of belonging / willingness to get involved; and leadership with vision and momentum.

What should - or should not - change?
The workshop asked participants what should or should not change? It was attended by 40 people from a wide range of backgrounds. They spent most of their time working interactively in groups. The groups considered: renewable energy, quarrying and minerals; rural life and communities; tourism, recreation and crafts; and farming and forestry. Participants were given factsheets about East Lothian to help them focus their discussions around a factual base.

The workshop discussion began by asking participants to draw on their own experiences so as to reflect on how the countryside had changed over the past 10-15 years. Among the changes highlighted were:
• Changing work patterns – more homeworking, more commuting and more use of information technology;
• More energy generation from renewables;
• Concerns about the scale and design of new development;
• Shortage of employment-related development, especially since the economic crisis began;
• Changes in agriculture, including more arable and less livestock, and bigger buildings.

The authors of the report note that these changes are in line with those observed in a wider UK study of rural areas. The overall message from “the rural voice” as expressed through this exercise is to question the value of traditional restrictions on development in the countryside, during this period of economic crisis.

So what was new?
The process undertaken in East Lothian was the first time in Scotland that an exercise in involving the public in the early stages of a Development Plan has gone so far to reach out to the “rural voice”. It also made more contact with local businesses than more traditional exercises tend to do. This was possible because of the active involvement of the local firm of architects and surveyors in the process. The interactive techniques used also broke new ground.

The issues facing rural areas in Scotland are similar to those in the Baltic Sea Region, though the institutional arrangements have important differences. However, the exercise in East Lothian is one that councils and partners in the IC network could usefully consider, though it is important to remember that this is an area that has seen strong development pressures, rather than loss of opoulation on the scale of rural areas in the Baltic States. More particularly, the kind of “new paradigm” that Nick Wright talks about and has tried to put into practice in this work in East Lothian is worth adopting.

Links: Report and Nick Wright on the background to the approach

Copyright text and photo Cliff Hague - ICN 2013