Friday, October 21, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate - Part 3

Before carrying on from Part 2, I've discovered another historical nugget in the meantime. Until 1952, MacBraynes ran a cargo steamer to Loch Sunart every 10 days from Glasgow. Called the MV Lochshiel, she called at Glencripesdale amongst a number of other places along the way:-

Scan from "MacBrayne Steamers" by Alistair Deayton which you can buy here
With no pier at Glencripesdale, it was a ferry call involving the Lochshiel lying off and being tendered to by the estate launch. It's an interesting reflection on how small remote settlements used to be served by sea and that the mere fact there wasn't a road to your front door wasn't an insuperable barrier. 

Anyway, back in the 21st century, we'd got to the point where, in 2003, the new owner of Glencripesdale, Hugh Whittle, had developed a plan to restore the estate from the Forestry Commission's 1950s mono-culture forestry plantation back to farming cattle among native broadleaves rather as it had been operated by the Newton family in its Victorian and Edwardian hey-day. Changes to forestry and farming management don't require planning permission (p/p) but Mr Whittle also envisaged a new lodge, an estate worker's house and improvements to the "beached barge" pier, all of which do require p/p.

The three planning applications were lodged with Highland Council in spring 2003 but first, a general word about planning. Applications for p/p are decided by reference to the prescriptions of local plans. A feature of the Lochaber Local Plan 1999, the ruling document for the Sunart area in 2003, was "a strong presumption against" new houses in spots as remote as Glencripesdale with exceptions only being permitted where ESSENTIAL (yes, in capitals in the Plan!) for the management of the land. So there was going to be a heavy burden on Mr Whittle to convince the Council that his plans for the estate justified two houses.

As it happened, the planning officials recommended the estate worker's house and the pier upgrade for approval but not the lodge. Presumably intending to keep his powder dry for a future battle on that, Mr Whittle withdrew the lodge application so that only the estate worker's house and pier went before the Lochaber Planning Committee for the first time on 23 June 2003. On that date, the applications were deferred to a site visit and hearing to be held on 1 September 2003.

Looking west down Glen Cripesdale to Loch Sunart and Ardnamurchan

Come the day, only three of the eight members of the planning committee (including the Chairman and the local councillor, Dr Michael Foxley) turned up for the site visit. But they were accompanied by an impressive array of officials and local worthies for the hearing held in Ardnamurchan High School at Strontian afterwards. Along with delegates from both of Morvern and Sunart Community Councils, these included the prime objector to Hugh Whittle's proposals, Adam Besterman, the owner (but not resident) of Glencripesdale Farmhouse who was doubtless very concerned at the prospect of the idyll of his remote holiday home being spoilt by more houses being built nearby.

Oban local historian Iain Thornber was appointed to speak for the majority of the objectors and the NIMBY-ist humbug advanced against the proposals (including the canard that development prejudices tourism) seemed to do the trick - by a majority of two to one (Cllr. Foxley in the majority, the Chairman in the minority) the committee overturned the advice of its officials and rejected both applications. To judge from the obscurely worded minutes of the meeting (you can access the minutes of all the meetings in this saga here), it would seem that, as regards the proposed estate worker's house, the majority were swayed by:-

inappropriate siting with reference to the cumulative impact on adjacent archaeology, or wildlife conservation issues, the amenity of the potential occupier and the visual impact, particularly from Glencripesdale House. 

That seems to suggest that one new house at Glencripesdale was acceptable in principle but not on the exact site applied for. The refusal to allow upgrading of the "barge pier" is more mystifying:-

due to the adverse impact on existing private access road, as a right of way and the conflict of existing users 

Surely the whole point of the pier was to remove impacts on the private access road to Glencripesdale along the shore of Loch Sunart through the nature reserve and its existing users?   

Looking up Glen Cripesdale from the north west.
Hugh Whittle responded with a two-pronged counter attack: he appealed against rejection of the pier and estate worker's house applications and also, the following year, lodged two new applications for both houses. This time, the planning officials had changed their tune and were now prepared to recommend both houses - i.e. the "estate owner's house" (the lodge) as well as "the estate worker's house". But, crucially, this was provided Mr Whittle agreed to a condition that they only ever be occupied by the owner of or a worker on Glencripesdale and that the estate could never be split up - in other words, so that the houses could never be opportunistically sold off as holiday houses separate from management of the estate.

These new applications came before a hearing of the planning committee on 26 April 2004. Once again, the NIMBYs were out in force: the Area Convenor expressed her concern at the number of letters and phone calls she'd received from objectors;  Adam Besterman, the owner of Glencripesdale Farmhouse, placed himself on record that he didn't trust Mr Whittle's motives;  Whittle's agent retorted that he felt the Council had given unjustified attention to Besterman's objections; a Mr Tom Colville, the owner of holiday accommodation in the area pointed out that there was no need for any more holiday homes in the area; and Iain Thornber, the local historian, was back to point out there had never been a large farm on Glencripesdale. That's an odd view of the history but it fell to Mr Thornber to make what was perhaps the shrewdest suggestion of the day: that the Council suspend the grant of p/p for two years to see how Mr Whittle's plans were coming along - in other words to be sure that the grand scheme wasn't just a ruse he'd lose interest in as soon as the permission for the two houses had been secured.

The shore of Loch Sunart at Glencripesdale
After the public had withdrawn, the planning committee members retired to consider their decision. Contrary to his position the previous year, the local member, Michael Foxley, was now in favour of both houses. This was on the basis that, if Mr Whittle successfully appealed to the Scottish Government (a scenario Cllr. Foxley considered likely), the Council would lose control over the conditions to be imposed.

The decision reached was that the estate worker's house was refused (again, apparently, for reasons of the precise siting of the house applied for rather than the principle of a house at Glencripesdale) but the owner's house (i.e. lodge) was approved provided it was single storey and no more than 2,000 square feet. It was also subject to the occupancy by owner and no sub-division of the estate conditions. To meet Mr Thornber's point, the p/p would not be suspended but there would be regular monitoring of progress with the estate business plan (pretty toothless as the Council couldn't revoke the p/p if it wasn't satisfied with the progress). The details of these and a number of other detailed conditions were to be thrashed out between the planning department and Mr Whittle's agents and brought back to the Area Committee Meeting on 17 May 2004 for final approval.

Lower Glen Cripesdale from the air in 2007

Let's take a breather at this point in this planning marathon to review where we've reached after more than a year:-

- "barge pier" upgrade - relatively uncontroversial - REFUSED
- estate worker's house - controversial - REFUSED
- estate owner's house - very controversial - APPROVED

The meeting on 17 May 2004 received the depressing news that Mr Whittle's agents and the planning department were still a long way apart on the detailed conditions for the house. The committee therefore agreed (somewhat reluctantly, one detects from the minutes) that the house might be one and a half storeys and 3,000 square feet and that, despite the requirement that it be only for the estate owner's use, up to ten weeks holiday letting would be allowed. The frequency of monitoring the business plan was also reduced and it was remitted back to the officials to continue the negotiations.

The next development in the saga was something of a bomb-shell - Adam Besterman brought an action for judicial review of the Council's decision in principle in favour of the house. But he could have saved his legal fees because, in September 2004, exasperated at Whittle's heel-dragging in the negotiations over the detailed terms of the conditions, the Council brought matters to a head by formally REFUSING the application for the estate owner's house.

Adam Besterman's Glencripesdale House - photo credit Gordon Brown
At their meeting on 1 November 2004, the planning committee noted glumly that the Council was now the respondent in three appeals to the Scottish Government (the other two being the pier and the estate worker's house from back in 2003 - remember them?). They were all going to be conjoined in a single public local inquiry and the committee members noted that a specialist planning lawyer from Council headquarters would attend to put their case. The PLI was scheduled for 25 April 2005 but, six weeks before that date, Mr Whittle withdrew his appeals on the basis that his landscape architect had identified less controversial sites for his proposals, these presumably to be the subject of a third round of planning applications. 

Again this post has become too long. I'm going to break here but promise to bring the Glencripesdale planning saga to a conclusion in Part 4. Meanwhile I leave you with a picture of the 5th Duke of Argyll (1770-1806)

Something tells me that, when he planned changes at Glencripesdale in the late 18th century, he didn't have to employ landscape architects to dance to the tune of a planning committee. He probably WAS the planning committee.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate - Part 2

Before continuing the story, I discovered after I finished writing Part 1, a rental (rent roll) of the MacLean of Duart estates in 1674 shortly before they were taken over by the Earl of Argyll. You can see that here and it includes £200 plus 6 quarts of butter and 6 stones of cheese payable for "Glencribastill". And on the Roy Map of 1747-55 (see that here), it's "Glen Cribsdale" so these two references probably give a big hint as to how "Glencripesdale" is pronounced.

"Glen Cribsdale" on the Roy Map
Also, the tenant in the 1674 rental is given simply as "Lochzeill" which I take to be a reference to Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of Clan Cameron. If so, it's an interesting reflection that, as long ago as the 17th century, one clan chief could be another's tenant, co-existing in an atmosphere of delivering up finished dairy products as opposed to the more traditional norm of thieving each other's cattle at the point of a claymore!    

Anyway, carrying on, we'd reached the 1960s when the Forestry Commission (FC) had converted the Newton brothers' Victorian and Edwardian mixed sporting and farming estate into a mono-culture forestry plantation of exotic conifers. It was a fate suffered by many Highland estates in the post-War era when the economics of maintaining rich people's playgrounds had ceased to be viable.

When Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government came to power in 1979 (an era of fiscal austerity much like today), it promptly resolved to stop funding the FC's endless deficits and decreed that, henceforth, it would have to make up its losses by selling off parts of its vast landholding.

Hence, the 18th century Glencripesdale Farmhouse was sold off in 1983. I'm not sure if he bought it directly from the FC or from a previous purchaser but, for the last 10 years or so, the farmhouse has been owned by one Adam Besterman. As well as farms in Gloucestershire and Wales, he owns Auch Estate near Tyndrum - a remarkable coincidence that that was where the Stewarts who bought Glencripesdale from the Duke of Argyll in 1821 farmed. (Auch is the farm below Beinn Dorain in the horse-shoe loop of the railway to the east of the A82 between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy.)

Auch from the A82 - Beinn Dorain on the left
At some stage - I would guess in the 1980s - the north east portion of Glencripesdale Estate along the south shore of Loch Sunart was transferred from the Forestry Commission to Scotland's conservation quango, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). This was due to the internationally important  native oak woods along the shore of the loch left unaffected while the FC had planted of exotic conifers elsewhere on the estate. This land was eventually declared a National Nature Reserve - brochure about this here (pdf download: it's shortly to be "de-declared" as an NNR for reasons you can see here. That doesn't mean the oak trees will lose their statutory protections as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it just means there won't be a re-print of that brochure.)

In 1993, the remainder of Glencripesdale (the bit with the Sitka Spruces on it) came to the top of the Forestry Commission's disposal list and was sold to a Danish trio called Niels Tandrup and Viggo & Helle Sorensen.

Their first priority was to fell the commercial plantations established by the FC 35-40 years earlier and now reaching maturity. But how to export the timber? Rather than having heavy lorries laden with logs thundering down the private track along the shore of Loch Sunart through the fragile habitat of the National Nature Reserve, the Danes hit upon the innovative solution of exporting the timber by sea. To facilitate this, a steel barge was beached on the shore to act as a makeshift pier to load logs from. Though crude, it was an early and far sighted instance of extraction of timber by sea which has now become best practice, even for the Forestry Commission itself.

The "barge pier" at Glencripesdale - Picture credit Keith Cunneen
In 2002, the Tandrup/Sorensens sold the property to Hugh Whittle, the owner of Glenfeochan Estate just south of Oban. He developed a dream for Glencripesdale which was to progressively fell the remaining FC plantations of exotic commercial species as they matured and, in a very long term (30+ years) plan, gradually restore the estate to the mixed environment of farming Highland Cattle amongst native woodlands much as it had existed under the Newtons a century before.

This is all very much in tune with the latest officially endorsed fads in conservation and, as part of an integrated plan, Whittle also planned a new lodge on the site of the Newtons' demolished mansion and an estate worker's house. The remaining commercial timber would be exported via a consolidated version of the "barge pier". With the prospect of grant assistance from an enthusiastic Forestry Commission (who are far keener nowadays on restoring native woodlands than establishing commercial timber plantations) and SNH also keen to see restoration of a part of the native woodland for which Loch Sunart is famous, he lodged the necessary planning applications for the houses and pier upgrade with Highland Council.

What followed was an exhausting seven years of bureaucracy and red-tape which I'll pick up in Part 3.

Native oak trees in Glencripesdale National Nature Reserve - photo credit Gordon Brown