Chalmers Question Time at Winton House debated whether there was “a bright future for the Lothians?”
Chalmers & Co’s debate drew a large audience from farmers, landowners, rural businessmen, government policy makers, developers and professional advisors. Suggesting that there could be more money in the countryside now than may be the case in future, Francis Ogilvy (the chairman and also the owner of rural estate managers Chalmers & Co) asked if 2012 would be a good year to invest; invest in what, where and perhaps even why? The Main Issues Report is being written by planners and if the rural voice is to be taken up, it must be heard. How is renewable energy viewed? What sort of development is needed or wanted? Is there enough innovation?
The four panelists at Chalmers Question Time were Dr Alan Renwick, Head of Land Economy at SAC, Paul Wheelhouse, MSP, a former economist involved in rural policy, Mark Jennison co-owner of Realise Renewables, and Richard Heggie from Urban Animation, a planning and urban design consultancy tasked with developing a vision for Haddington.
Encouraged to ‘stir the pot’ by Francis Ogilvy, the panellists identified that the farming sector needed to do things differently. Alan Renwick warned of scarcer resources and greater competition, pointing to ‘sustainable intensification’ and ‘smart specialisation’. He argued that agricultural subsidies had worked as a barrier to innovation, which is increasingly critical to success. Paul Wheelhouse noted that the Scottish Government supports ‘cohesion’ in rural communities, heralding a need to focus on rural areas being viable centres.
Richard Heggie encouraged a move from urban-centred thinking towards greater innovation for rural planning, promoting a more integrated rural-urban fringe and even a rural parliament. Mark Jennison hailed the opportunities for renewable energy but bemoaned planning hurdles, disjointed policy, changing goal posts and the media. All the panellists agreed there was a clear need to engage with communities (now a legal requirement) and the planning system generally if there is to be constructive change.
On renewables: “Would independence see Scotland as the renewables capital of Europe or wind turbine junk yard, and how long would there be public support for subsidies?”
Paul Wheelhouse believed Scotland could have 25% of Europe’s wind energy, claiming Scotland has a competitive advantage, and aiming to deliver 100% of Scotland’s electricity from renewables by 2020. Others were less convinced and noted the imbalance between different industries. Robin Salvesen described how solar power had been used successfully in all the lighthouses around Britain for more than ten years. Alan Renwick warned against moving from one form of support to another. A straw poll revealed a large majority favoured the use of renewable energy, but only when considered as part of a mix.
On community engagement:
Requirements for community engagement were being met with a lack of direction, said Mark Jennison, making reference to a Forestry Commission project where opportunities for spending for community benefit were wasted. The theme of engagement was clearly not resonating with the audience. A developer and the planners present, stated that what you put in is what you get out, noting positive examples where developers see the benefits of building long term community relationships. Paul Wheelhouse trumpeted the use of US style ‘Charrettes’, as deployed to the west of Edinburgh, suggesting that developer’s master plans can be changed in real time to reflect the community’s view.
The Main Issues Report (MIR) for East Lothian: “Should it say anything specifically about the county’s rural areas? How to strike the balance between amenity, energy and employment?”
Alan Renwick argued that the bulk of economic activity does not come from agriculture but construction and tourism. In response, Robin Traquair, a pig farmer, suggested whilst this may be true for conservative arable farming in East Lothian, intensive livestock systems, as seen in Denmark and Holland were not only more profitable, but could enable more spin offs for the community. Richard Heggie said there was a need for leadership to bring this about.
Hugh Broad, a local farmer, suggested a balanced rural economy needed a third of its population commuting, a third retired and a third living and working in the local area, noting that planners need to do all they can to encourage small businesses. For growth, Simon McCreery of Yester Farm Dairies referred to the need for independent businesses rather than just national chains that tended to purchase nationally instead of from smaller local businesses.
“Our people are a tremendous asset”, said Tim Wood of McInroy and Wood based in Haddington. “We need to incentivize and educate to get urban businesses to come out to the country.” Alan Renwick suggested we have invested too much in our capital city at the expense of the regions.
Fiona O’Donnell, MSP claimed that rural areas don’t have access to superfast broadband. She cited Elvingston Science Centre amongst others as proof that people can be drawn out of the city. Mark Jennison referred to his time as development manager for the Isle of Tiree and said the first thing the islanders did was install their own broadband.
Richard Heggie hailed the MIR as an opportunity to comment and reverse the lack of positive support in the existing local plan for rural enterprise. Only five people in the audience admitted reading the local plan and they were planners, policy analysts or developers! There was recognition in part that there should be no place for armchair grumbling, although it was accepted that responsibility for the engagement went both ways. Andy Stewart from East Lothian Council said the plan was readily available.
Nick Wright, a planning colleague of Richard Heggie’s, concluded that the future of our countryside and villages is not just about development, from a planning perspective. It is also about renewable energy production, food production, supply chains and innovation – all part of the government’s Land use Strategy. The Local Development Plan needs to recognise and link with these non land use issues.
George Barton asked: “East Lothian has lots of prime agricultural land which will become more valuable as food security becomes more critical. How can agricultural land be protected despite population growth (East Lothian’s is forecast to increase by 33%), and how can the increase in population be absorbed?”
Richard Heggie accepted that there are many issues involved in this, noting how planning policy usually protects the best agricultural land and focuses on brown field sites. Jackie McCreery commented “We need to work out how to make more food from less land and need sensible discussion on genetic modification.” Paul Wheelhouse said “we should allow organic growth round existing settlements to make them more sustainable“, a view shared by the audience. One interpretation was that this meant a tailored vision for separate communities that was positive and enterprise-focussed, not negative and regulatory focussed. It was questioned afterwards if this is in fact at odds with the current local plan. Neil Sutherland, a planner formerly with East Lothian Council noted how “we have 100 hectares of land in East Lothian allocated for employment yet there are problems servicing this and competing for higher value uses (housing).”
Andrew Shepherd asked: “What careers advice would you give to young people graduating this summer?”
Mark Jennison naturally advised Renewable Energy, stating that the future is rosy in renewables but we need a mix of renewable energies. Paul Wheelhouse said “we will always need skills across a range of areas. Growth sectors include manufacturing, engineering and renewables. Industries that export to Brazil and China are leading us out of recession.” A view shared by Fiona O’Donnell who commented “we’d all benefit from having manufacturing in the countryside.” Alan Renwick plumbed for agriculture “but only if you are a certain type of person. We need innovative people to come into Scottish agriculture. The agriculture of tomorrow will be knowledge-based.”
Lest the panel depart with a view that there is not a bright future for the Lothians, Joe Harper of Dods Seeds ended on an encouraging note: “there are already lots of great businesses in East Lothian and good employers. We should be more positive. There are lots of good things happening here.” Not to be too gushy, Francis Ogilvy concluded that “in today’s world there is no place for complacency”.
Chalmers & Co is a firm of chartered surveyors, rural estate managers, letting agents, estate agents and architects East Lothian. Please contact Francis Ogilvy or the team on 01620 824000 to discuss your property and land issues.