Friday, November 4, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate - Part 4

I see from the estate agent's website that Glencripesdale is now under offer so I need to wrap this story up.

In Part 3, we'd reached early 2005 when, six weeks before the opening of a public local enquiry into his plans, estate owner Hugh Whittle threw in the towel on his second attempt to get planning permission for a lodge and worker's house and an upgrade to the pier formed by an old barge beached on the shore to enable extraction of timber by sea rather than by road.

Glencripesdale House bottom and the barge pier top
The next development was that, in April 2005, the planners granted a five year extension to the existing time limited planning permission for the barge pier (as distinct from the previous applications to upgrade it which had been refused) to permit extraction of a further 50-80,000 tonnes of timber. This was granted despite the efforts of serial objectors Mr Colville (owner of holiday accommodation locally who believed there was no need for any further holiday accommodation and fretted that the pier's retention would "permanently damage the amenity, scenic value and ecology of Loch Sunart") and Mr Besterman (owner of Glencripesdale House whose lawyers had drafted a lawyerishly pettifogging objection to the effect the application was flawed because it requested extension of the life of a jetty when what was being discussed was a barge.)

But Mr Whittle didn't attempt to lay siege to the planning citadel in earnest again until August 2008 when he lodged four new applications for: (1) extension and permanent retention of the barge pier; (2) estate worker's house; (3) agricultural/forestry store; and (4) "estate manager's house" - i.e. lodge - on the site of the demolished 1870s mansion house.

There's nothing in the public domain to explain the delay of nearly two years before these applications came before the Lochaber Planning Committee in June 2010 but what we do have this time is the planning officer's report to the committee which you can download here (scroll down to "Planning Applications to be Determined"). What's noticeable from this is the statement that the only reason the officials were bringing the applications before the councillors of the committee (as opposed to deciding them themselves under delegated powers) was "minor departure from development plan and number of representations". This was despite - or perhaps because of - the number of reports Mr Whittle lodged in support of his applications including:-

*Supporting Planning Statement by Brindley Consulting dated June 2008.
*Estate Plan dated 4 July 2008.
*Building Design Statement by Iain Dawson Architecture dated 12.10.07.
*Landscape Strategy.

*Ecological Survey Report by Mackenzie Bradshaw Environmental Consulting date June 2008.
*Drainage and Ground Assessment by JIG Environment Ltd dated May 2007.
*Sea Access Background Information, including Condition Survey (Aug.06),
*Options and Recommendations, and Method Statement by Arch Henderson
*Consulting Engineers and Mackenzie Bradshaw Environmental Consulting.
*Operational Needs Assessment by Smiths Gore dated December 2009.

How eye-wateringly expensive does that lot sound?

 There was also media coverage in the Scotsman and Press and Journal focussing on Hugh Whittle's claim to be the only laird in Scotland without a house on his estate - which is a little bit disingenuous considering he's got another estate, Glenfeochan just south of Oban, which has a very nice house on it:-

What was no different this time round, though, were the massed ranks of NIMBYs - there were 57 objections. The planning report doesn't tell us who they were although it did record a statement on behalf of Mr Whittle that "a large number of objectors do not live in the neighbouring communities and/or have responded to a factually incorrect flyer circulated out of Glencripesdale House". They included such perennial nanny state, bottom of barrel scraping chestnuts as:-

*Concerns over servicing due to remote location.
*Impacts on the remote wilderness quality of the area through visual impact of buildings and increased activity associated with agricultural and tourism uses.
*Precedent these proposals would set for further development, both locally and nationally.
*Impacts on local biodiversity.
*Development does not offer significant employment to local people.
*Concerns that applications are motivated by personal financial gain.
*Area is inhospitable for a large part of the year and strategically unsuitable for family life.
*Concerns raised over animal welfare due as veterinary visits would be commercially prohibitive.
*Increased light pollution.
*Increased noise pollution.
*Increased traffic and inadequate access.
*Impact of sewerage disposal on the local environment.
*Pollution from dust.
*Inappropriate size of properties proposed.
*Impact on landscape quality.
*Impact on protected species.
*Estate could be managed by someone living on the northern side of the loch, travelling to work by boat.

That last point is particularly egregious considering an objection to previous applications was the health and safety implications of living alone on the otherwise deserted south shore of Loch Sunart - what are the H&S implications of travelling to work every day across the loch in a boat? The only thing missing is the statutory bat colony (although maybe that's implicit in "impact on protected species").

Estate worker's house - nice work if you can get it
But despite (or - again - perhaps because of) all these objections, the final battle with the planners was less of a bang than a whimper: this time, there was no site visit or public hearing and the minutes of the planning committee record simply that it accepted the planning officer's recommendation that all four applications be granted subject to the conditions that they may not be sold separately from the estate and that the estate itself may not in future ever be subdivided. Both houses must be occupied only by the owner of, or a person employed by, Glencripesdale Estate (no allowance for letting to stalking parties which the committee had been prepared to concede in 2004). This time round, Mr Whittle was obviously not of a mood to argue with these conditions which had proved such a stumbling block previously.

The "estate manager's house"
So what's to be made of all this? Is Hugh Whittle a shrewd operator who achieved his goal of an upmarket country sports retreat amongst virgin wilderness by deliberately playing the long game with Highland Council and running rings round them with talk of "estate manager's houses"? (Tiresome conditions can always be lifted at a later stage.) Or is he someone who's suffered from the very worst of everything that's wrong with big government and nanny statism - why shouldn't anyone be allowed to build what they want on their own land?

Glencripesdale Estate sale plan
I suppose you have to rationalise it by saying that, if you accept there has to be a planning system at all, then that involves some people being refused permission. If there were no planning system (or there were but it was too easy to get permission), then presumably the south shore of Loch Sunart would now be lined with houses to its general detriment. But would that be so bad and/or would the problem be as bad in practice as might be feared? There were no planning laws in the 18th century when Glencripesdale Farmhouse was built and it's a listed building. And I bet the Newton Brothers' Victorian mansion would be as well if it were still standing. But having said that, I know from experience here in the Azores what happens when planning laws are lax and the fees for "building permits" form a significant part of local authorities' budgets:-

That's a development by the shore at Faja Grande on the island of Flores where I live. It was begun at the height of the southern European property bubble without a thought being given to whether anyone would buy the apartments. The universal reaction is "How on EARTH could they have given permission to build THAT in such a beautiful environment?". It may not appear from a glance at the photo, but the apartments are not finished and work stopped about a year ago. Now the bubble has burst, they never will be finished, no-one will ever buy them, and they will form a blot on the landscape for years to come.

I used to argue with locals here who were averse to development, saying they should count themselves lucky because in Scotland it's practically impossible to get planning permission. I've since modified my view a bit but there's balance to be struck. I'm not sure it's being struck in the right place, whether on the shores of Loch Sunart or of Flores.