By Ian Fraser
Published: Sunday Herald
Date: 22 April 2012
Argyll and Bute Council has hit out at a new survey of housing in the Highlands and Islands which blames its planners for “population decline and low housing construction.”
The Lochgilphead-based council condemned the document, a survey of rural planning commissioned by Highlands and Islands MSP Mike Mackenzie, as “simplistic, selective and misleading” and blamed low levels of development on “economic circumstances beyond our control”.
One councillor, Independent, Bruce Marshall denounced the document as “trash” and a “political gimmick, designed to rubbish what the council has achieved in recent years.”
However Mackenzie last night defended the report, saying: “The first step in solving any problem is to understand it. Argyll and Bute Council must recognise their historic underperformance and make sure their next local plan is a plan for success.”
The new research, which compares Argyll and Bute unfavourably with the five other Highlands and Islands local authorities, named Scotland’s second largest council area as the country’s worst performing in terms of housebuilding, population growth and GDP per capita.
“Developing Development: Evaluating Highlands and Islands Planning Strategy at the Local Level” was commissioned by Mackenzie, a former builder and one of the Scottish Parliament’s foremost authorities on planning and construction. It was written by Grey Joyner, a young US researcher, currently studying at Berlin’s prestigious Humboldt University, while an intern at the Scottish Parliament.
The report urges the “underperforming” local authority to “loosen” its planning policy, and to increase housing supply to boost population in economically fragile areas. It says: “It’s clear that change must occur in Argyll and Bute. Not only does the council have the lowest level of housing construction and a declining population, it also has the lowest GDP per capita of any Highlands and Islands local authority. In fact, its GDP per capita of £12,780 in 2010 is 16% lower than any other Highlands and Islands local authority and 30% lower than the Scottish average.”
The report claims that the two councils with the highest GDP per capita in the Highlands and Islands, Shetland and Orkney, are also the most open to development. “Argyll and Bute is the only council which does not allocate sufficient land to cover the HNDA (housing need and demand assessment).”
It then claims that the council has allocated land to cover only 44% of the need, enough to build 2,481 homes in 2011-18. However Argyll and Bute has a shortage of 4306 dwellings or 11% of the total housing stock in the council area. According to the report, the council has acknowledged that it could allocate more land to meet its HNDA needs, and has admitted a “substantial and sustained unmet need requirement for affordable housing”.
However Argyll and Bute has also, according to the report, claimed that allocating more land is “unnecessary, unrealistic and unaffordable” a position described in the report as “illogical” and “misleading”. “The effects of Argyll and Bute’s failure to allocate sufficient land to housing are stark,” the report reads. “Its population shrank by 2.3% from 2001-10 and the council continues to suffer from above average net migration. By contrast the population of Highland Council grew by 6% over the same period.”
An Argyll and Bute Council spokesman said: “The report is too simplistic and shows very little appreciation of the Scottish planning system. It deals with the issues in a very selective manner to give a misleading impression, [We are] disappointed we have not had a chance to enter into any dialogue with the author before its release. We strongly refute the allegation that the council’s local planning policy has been responsible for some strategic issues facing the council, ie population decline, low house building rates, low gross domestic product.
“There has been a considerable downturn when it comes to built development in Argyll and Bute. This is largely due to economic circumstances out with our control eg difficulties in obtaining mortgages and capital finance.”
One independent planning consultant told the Sunday Herald: “Low levels of housebuilding in rural areas are as much about development finance and the lack of any builders who are active as it is the planning system. You will find plenty of plots for sale in these rural areas, and planning consent is not that hard to come by, but nothing ever gets built.”
Argyll and Bute, whose coastline is equal to that of France, is Scotland’s second-largest council area. It has been run since 2010 by a coalition of Independents, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. In November the council agreed to establish a £750,000 Rural Housing Development Fund, which generated development bids worth £2.5m.
This article was the business splash in the Sunday Herald on April 22nd, 2012