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Terrible National Planning Precedent
Craighouse will be used as a precedent across Scotland, as has already been made clear by the Director of the Scottish Property Federation. Enabling development, a concept conceived for turning derelict, uneconomically viable sites into viable sites, will now be used to turn economically viable sites into derelict ones in order to overturn planning regulations. Craighouse already had enabling development in the early 90s, to fund Napier’s conversion of the site for university use. They got a greenfield housing development (Meadowspot), a new building and a car-park, all on protected green space. They ran a weddings business in the buildings that Napier’s own figures showed fully funded the maintenance of the buildings. And they even got millions of grant funding from Historic Scotland and other public funders. But, given the opportunity to sell up for £10m plus a £3m bonus) by teaming up with an offshore property speculator on the Isle of Man, they took the money and ran. It’s easy to see why listed buildings owners and property developers across Scotland are excited about the new opportunities that the Craighouse planning decision has unlocked.
The precedent set by Craighouse is:
- You don’t need to save an abandoned building to get an enabling development: you can take an occupied set of buildings, request they are put on the buildings at risk register and then demand development against the rules to take them off again.
- You can do an enabling development, take the money, then sell the site and demand another enabling development again.
- You don’t need to prove there is no alternative future for the buildings.
- You don’t need to sign any agreement that ensures the listed buildings are converted after you have done your new-build.
- You can use a financial argument where the figures don’t have to make sense, be correct, transparent or available for anyone else to check. You don’t even need to prove your figures are checked against or accord with enabling development rules.
- You can overturn any set of policies you like, including those protecting Areas of Great Landscape Value, protected wildlife habitats in a Nature Conservation Site, nationally protected setting of A listed buildings, as well as other policies such as those on affordable housing. You can even bypass the Scottish Enabling Development Policy itself that requires that you “enhance or preserve the special character” of the setting.
- You don’t even need to make sure your plan is sustainable by submitting a long-term maintenance plan for the buildings.
This long list of undesirable precedents turns the careful concept of Enabling Development on its head. A concept designed for very particular cases will now be used to allow owners of listed buildings to ignore rafts of planning regulations and protections on protected land without having to prove either that this is the only means of preserving the buildings or being properly financially transparent.
Community empowerment in tatters
But it’s even worse than that. For this decision leaves community empowerment in tatters, too. After overwhelming objections from thousands of members of the public, 7 community councils and 9 elected representatives (6 local Cllrs, 2 MSPs and the local MP), a press release was issued by the local community council questioning whether there is now any point in the public commenting on planning applications at all. If the planning policy and protections are disregarded in the face of simple dereliction threats, then what is the point of planning at all? This terrible decision – against policy, against the public and without proper transparency – demonstrates that planning is no longer trying to protect the long-term public interest, but instead is about protecting the interests of wealthy property owners.
Enabling development as a planning decision
The planning committee struggled with the concept of enabling development. The argument by officials was that there was no alternative to save the site. However, the Convenor of the planning committee – Ian Perry (who pushed through the grant decision) said at the hearing “no-one is saying for one minute that there is no alternative” while interrupting the presentation of the community buyout plan just when the evidence of financial viability was being presented. Another committee member, Joanna Mowat, (who also pushed to grant the Craighouse Partnership’s proposals said it was impossible to prove a negative (that there is no alternative). Yet did not ask where the long-term maintenance plan was. It was clear that the committee were out of their depth.
Even the financial experts brought in to advice the planners admitted they were out of their depth when investigating alternatives, saying in their section of the planning report that they “are not qualified to pass comment on the accuracy of these figures” in a section the Craighouse Partnership had added to their application after the rest of the application was submitted – in the middle of the 28 days for the public to write in. These figures tried to show that only £20,000 profit could be made from a professional weddings and events business running in New Craig, when Napier’s own internal reports showed a £128,000 profit from a business they were running as a sideline. The Council’s financial appraisal said it did not have the professional expertise to evaluate the figures put in by the Craighouse Partnership on weddings – but proceeded to quote these figures and take them at face value anyway.
Given this confusion, how can any planning authority make any decision about whether there are alternatives or not? There is no guidance simple enough to fit into even a 7-hour planning hearing, let alone a normal planning meeting. The English Heritage guidelines are so complex they are far outside the scope of any local authority planning department to follow. The experts looking at the Craighouse financial case even admitted: “Officers have not looked at the appraisals in terms of the guidelines issued by English Heritage.”
Scottish planning policy asks planning authorities to work out whether there are alternative ways of preserving a site, but gives them no advice on how to do that. Scottish authorities are referred to the English Heritage advice, but it’s so complex and vague, that the only people who could really work out how to apply it are English Heritage and they don’t have any role in Scotland. So Scottish authorities are left to be bamboozled by figures they can’t begin to process.
Preserving the future of listed buildings
In the planning meeting, the example of Quartermile came up. The reason that the Quartermile development has (so far) failed to save the most difficult and beautiful parts of the site: the surgical block, was said to be that it wasn’t an enabling development. Whatever you think of this argument, what is clear is that small mistakes by planning officials can lead to a total failure of enabling developments to save listed buildings. Examples of this are too numerous to list, but include Sundial Properties’ only previous enabling development. If Craighouse is nodded through with so little scrutiny, it is almost certain to be another enabling development failure.
The reason given for the failure of Napier’s first Craighouse enabling development is that the maintenance costs of the listed buildings were too high. Therefore, it seems reasonable to ask how long-term maintenance for Napier’s second Craighouse enabling development will be funded. The answer from officials was never delivered in writing, only verbally: that people generally pay to maintain their own properties. This is a strange answer to give and does not accord with what was previously said by The Craighouse Partnership nor by the English Heritage Guidelines. The maintenance issue needs more scrutiny.
The official planning report estimates the annual maintenance of New Craig and its surroundings as £287,500. New Craig is being divided into 44 flats with an average value of £453,000 each, but some are smaller and with values as low as £230,000. That means that the annual maintenance charges for these flats would be an average of £6,534. This is a phenomenally high annual maintenance figure for family properties of these claimed sales prices. Paying over £500 a month forever is a phenomenally high cost.
Why are the maintenance charges so high? Developers often like to build developments which require high maintenance charges, because they get two incomes: the sale value of the properties as well as a long-term maintenance income. The Craighouse proposals are very clearly designed with long-term management in mind: the common spaces, shared services and manicured gardens. For the new-build, this is quite normal, but for the old buildings this creates a huge extra strain on owners.
The largest component of the annual maintenance proposed is not the maintenance itself, but the management fees. A site designed the way Mountgrange and Napier’s proposals are requires full-time management and that’s expensive. A more co-operative model where owners share responsibility for maintenance would be much lower cost, but you would have to design your site and your business model to match a co-operative management structure. A community-buyout plan could achieve this, but it’s not something a private equity opportunity fund could create.
The impact of the Craighouse Decision on Enabling Development
The planning committee, faced with a complex, difficult case were out of their depth and did not consider all the issues properly or even consider the policies they should have. The planning report was so damning that planning experts were shocked to see a recommendation to grant. This is surely an invitation to unscrupulous owners of listed buildings to threaten dereliction in the hope that they, too, will be able to bend all the rules.
An application this complex can only be properly decided by a public inquiry. A national precedent this harmful should not be set by a planning authority that freely admitted it was out of its depth.