Lesley Riddoch: Rural Scotland needs a more inspiring plan for the future

·5-min read
McCaig's Tower on Battery Hill overlooking  Oban
McCaig's Tower on Battery Hill overlooking Oban

Imagine a plan so powerful it sets the agenda for land, sea, housing and forestry in Scotland for the next 20 years.

Imagine the hopes of communities who have invested years of their lives and all their emotional energy to produce truly affordable housing so youngsters stand a chance of staying, working and having families which will guarantee a future for local schools and health centres.

Imagine what they would expect from a Scottish Government that talks constantly about community empowerment, place-making and re-population.

And then imagine how devastated they must feel reading the new National Planning Framework (NPF4), a powerful blueprint for planning which ignores all the incredible efforts of Scotland’s rural communities and leaves them once again at the margins, fighting the system instead of having their success recognised and turned into a new officially endorsed, small-is-beautiful default.

NPF4 may sound dull, but this outcome of the Planning Act 2019 is fast becoming the talk of the rural steamie, sweeping away the old structure plans of Scotland’s 32 councils, two national parks and four city regions and replacing them all with one overarching policy framework to guide planners and shape the future look of Scotland.

Privately, key rural organisations want the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee to reject it before scrutiny ends next month, and demand an inspiring and visionary strategy co-produced directly with rural Scotland instead.

What’s so wrong with NPF4? In a sentence – it’s city-shaped and planning for rural decline.

Take the minimum number of new homes each council should plan for in the next ten years. NPF4 suggests Orkney gets an extra 1600 houses thanks to renewables. But Shetland gets 850 and the Western Isles just 192. That’s 19 new houses built every year across nine Hebridean islands. What does that say to Gaels, except leave?

The framework suggests better rural broadband but doesn’t require it and suggests fibre which doesn’t work for remote communities. And it showcases space ports and the blue economy, but remains silent on vital, basic things like agriculture, land use and land reform, ignoring the great ingenuity and courage of the Eiggs, Knoydarts, and generations of crofters and farmers who’ve clung on – despite the system – for decades.

Why has officialdom not got beyond this? Are the myriad plucky and often crowdfunded self-help developments by small communities still not enough to prove their worth to policy makers? Do professionals believe so little human capacity exists within the Highlands, Islands and Borders that blank cheques for developers to build large urban-style housing in profitable clumps are as good as it gets?

Why not change tack completely and plan a future with self-build/community-build as the rule not the exception so that small groups of houses at low cost can be built precisely where people want them to be? Or is the great fear that such grassroots empowerment would actually work, keeping small schools open or (heavens) forcing the swathe recently closed to re-open, thereby increasing councils’ costs?

Can we discuss this or has managed decline outside the cities become the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish Parliament?

One stunning section of NPF4 describes a "Northern revitalisation spatial area’ from Wick down to Oban as follows “The area has a strong economy … but there remain pockets of deprivation … where there is a need for low skilled and low paid jobs.”

Wow. Such a "strategy" will only compound the collapse of catering and tourism and confirm the view that rural and island Scotland is set to become some kind of Victorian workhouse.

Another section talks about creating "20-minute communities" where everything a citizen needs should be readily available on the doorstep. This would be funny if it wasn’t so unreal.

The Highlands contains areas the size of small European states without private childcare, hospital facilities, main roads or public toilets. Many elderly islanders are forced into mainland nursing homes because nothing is available within two hours of where they live, never mind 20 minutes. Islanders attending "local" government meetings often have three-day round trips. Come on.

The whole 20-minute concept has been cut from an urban template and pasted onto rural communities (a fifth of the population) who need something very different.

So, are we heading for a future where rural life basically means living in Glasgow’s overpriced "urban fringe" or in a volume house builder’s estate round Inverness while the rest of rural Scotland (95% of our land mass) becomes the preserve of wealthy second-home owners fae the sooth? What a travesty that would be, since a green future needs more rural dwellers for renewable energy, forestry, leisure and food production without food miles.

Of course, NPF4 doesn’t say "move to Portree, Oban or Dumfries if you really want to live outside the Central Belt to make services easier to deliver". But that’s what it means.

Trilling about the Highlands as a playground for walkers and the opportunity for peat restoration (both good things) doesn’t say ‘"let’s de-prioritise the needs of local inhabitants". But in the absence of equally enthusiastic trilling about meaningful community control, that’s what it means.

Without a clear, transparent statement of planning priorities, the public will have no idea whether money, net zero targets, rare flora or someone’s scenic view is more important when rural planning applications are decided over the next 20 years – nor will underpaid planners in a creaking system.

It’s the lack of precision in NPF4 that’s really worrying rural activists because without specifying and demanding the micro-sized solutions that have been proved to work in rural Scotland, local authorities will take the well-trodden path of least resistance, opt for centralised re-population delivered by the most powerful developers, believing that’s what the Scottish Parliament wants.

Is it? Or will MSPs reject NPF4 and ask the Scottish Government to commission the Rural Parliament and its experts to draft something inspiring and workable instead? There’s still time for MSPs to surprise us.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting