Friday, March 06, 2020

A must read for all those concerned about local democracy and the planning process in Nairn - very serious questions raised in planning objection to controversial King St build and demolition of heritage buildings next door

Citizens we urge you all to get a cuppa or pour a large dram and consider this objection to what is proposed for the site next to the former Old Social Work Buildings in King Street and the demolition of said OSWB (also known as former Police Station Buildings).  This letter has appeared on the Highland Council e-planning pages and there is other documentation concerning the controversial application here on the relevant file on the Council website.   

Please consider everything outlined here folks. Are we on the cusp of a new "Community Empowerment" dawn or does this application just mean more (actually lots more) of the same?

"For the attention of Keith Gibson, Planning Officer
Highland Council
PLANNING APPLICATION 20/00338/FUL: Nairn Town Centre/62 King St

I object to the proposal set out in application 20/00338/FUL
Before setting out the detailed and specific reasons, I wish to make three general observations.

• Regeneration : This area is the critical central part of the town. It defines the character and identity of Nairn, for both residents and visitors. A revived town centre has to fulfil a number of functions as well as complying with official guidance and responding to public expectations. Nairn town centre requires (and has) an overall, integrated development strategy which meets all those objectives. We have only one chance to get it right. The present application neither delivers nor contributes to that outcome.

• The CAB . The planning application by Highland Council is to construct a single building. It is not a popularity poll on the activities or worthiness of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, which has been identified as potential occupant of the ground floor. I recognise, like most of the community, that the CAB does useful social work. That is not however a justification for it to be located in this particular proposed site. Admiration of CAB activity is not the same as support for the proposed new building. Whether or not the CAB does good work is not a consideration relevant to the planning decision;
• Housing : There is general acknowledgement that some more housing should be provided in Nairn. But it does not follow that constructing a new block of flats in this particular location is the best, best-value, or most appropriate response. Other options exist and should be fully
and carefully examined.

Objection 1. The application does not comply with, or meet the overall objectives of, the agreed Nairn Community Town Centre Plan (NCTCP); nor is it consistent with the guidance in SPP, PAN 82, or the policies for the site set out in the Inner Moray Firth Local Development Plan.

The NCTCP has a clear overarching policy which is echoed in NA7 of the IMFLDP: “The development plan highlights a clear objective to strengthen Nairn’s historic town centre with a specific focus on promoting uses that add to commercial vitality and viability, improve the physical appearance of the town centre and increase pedestrian links and footfall to the High Street. It confirms that the Council will not support development that is likely to have an adverse effect on the town centre’s vitality and viability.”

PAN 82 stipulates that: “In carrying out that assessment [of a planning application] the authority must identify all aspects of the development plan which are relevant to the proposed development, interpret them carefully taking account of the wider aims and objectives of the plan as well as the detailed wording of stated policies. ”

SPP para 28 makes clear that

"..... the aim is to achieve the right development in the right place. It is not to allow development at any cost."

SPP para 29 establishes a firm principle:
... making efficient use of existing capacities of land, buildings and infrastructure including supporting Town Centre and regeneration policies ... protecting, enhancing, and promoting access to cultural heritage including the historic built environment".

The IMFLDP is equally specific about the priority objectives relevant to Nairn town centre:

"Para 2.8: Promoting and protecting city and town centres. One of the main elements of the to focus attention on the areas of towns and local centres to bolster their role as well connected meeting places and as hubs for local facilities ...

“Para 4.34: "Develop the role of Nairn as a tourism and employment centre...”

• The new building will do nothing to add to the commercial vitality of the area, nor will it increase footfall into and through the town centre and to the High Street shops and services;

• Nor will it provide the improved social and amenity space or facilities which are identified as the wider aims of the NCTCP;

• The application offers neither a ‘well connected meeting place and hub’, nor are the functions of the building in any way related to attracting tourism or creating employment;

• A housing and office block does not offer any incentive to local residents – or passing tourists – to visit, linger, or spend time in the vicinity. It therefore fails to meet the key objective of promoting the town centre’s vitality and viability;

• The 1 or 2 bedroom flats will suit working people, whether single, couples or with those very young families: adults are likely to be away at work, children either pre-school or away at school. This will generate no more footfall or communal activity, during daytime or evenings, than occurs around the existing bus station apartment block and Royal Walk flats;

• Moreover, the planning requirement for dedicated parking provision, bin storage and access etc for a larger new building will take away space currently available and used by all the town’s residents and many visitors; • The CAB is an important support for those in the community that need help. It is essentially a private, confidential advice service. Its clientele are almost entirely from within the town’s population and – by definition – mostly those with financial and personal needs and difficulties. A substantial proportion of its clients are unlikely to regard their attendance at the CAB as a part of a wider engagement with the other services and businesses of the town centre. In that respect its location on this site is counter-intuitive;

• Relocating the CAB to the building will actually decrease the footfall to the High Street, and will leave another premises on the High Street/Cawdor Road vacant and unoccupied.

All these considerations mean that the application fails to comply with the two key requirements of the NCTCP and PAN 82 and the wider objectives of the IMFLDP. The Council (as planning authority) should therefore not be submitting or supporting the application.

Objection 2. The proposed building would pre-empt, or complicate, the delivery of other elements of the town centre regeneration plan, and does not enable or deliver on key requirements for the revival of the town centre and High Street.

The NCTCP outlined very precisely the requirements. It envisaged:

“Theme 1 .
...a civic hub in the town centre ...”

“Theme 2
... better use of area between King Street and the High Street....streets and open space could be made more attractive for walking, cycling, sitting and other social activity...”

and in particular:

“Proposal 6. Establish a new Town Square
Nairn currently lacks a large, attractive outdoor space that can accommodate community activity in the town centre... A town square’s vitality relies on it being well linked to popular walking routes, well-overlooked and surrounded by active ground floor uses...An appropriate location could be identified through the development of a masterplan for the area between the High Street and King Street, which should also set out proposals for buildings, land use, parking and movement, including improvements to east-west walking and cycling links.”

“ Proposal 8. Reconfigure car-parking to achieve more efficient use of space
Car parks in this area need to be safer and more attractive with good pedestrian access, attractive landscaping, and improved surfacing, lighting and wayfinding. Consideration could also be given to coach parking... Making car parking space more attractive was identified as a priority ..... Consultation feedback considered it to be essential to the vitality of the town centre, capable of setting parameters for other projects to follow. The layout should include dedicated parking for tourist buses.”

• The current application offers none of these these possibilities. It does not accord with the existing (master)plan, and would render more difficult the subsequent provision of a coherent and integrated multi-functional public space;

• It proposes a single rectangular block which does not, and could not, serve as a civic hub;

• It does not incorporate any open, public social or recreational space that might fulfil the function of a town square;

• Local town residents and visitors will have neither incentive nor opportunity to stroll, relax and take in the sights of that vicinity as they come and go with their shopping or their kids. • The application includes only statutory parking for its housing residents (achieved by demolishing a historic building) and precludes, or prevents, a more ambitious reconfiguration of the parking space to incorporate space and amenities for tourist, visitor and coach parking.

For these reasons consent for the application as proposed should be refused.

Objection 3. The design of the building does not acknowledge, complement or link to the important adjacent historic town centre buildings and does not enhance the appeal of the town centre as a destination.

There are three important, traditional stone buildings on the site, all owned by the Council. Two (Courthouse and Italianate School) are listed buildings. The third has been badly neglected. Each has significant history. Individually and together, they represent the character and heritage of this core part of the town.

• The application proposes a bulky rectangular building devoid of character and without distinctive features, local identity or architectural merit. The town has several of those already. None enhances the attractiveness of the town centre;

• A 12-unit housing block surrounded by car parking and bin storage is no-one’s idea of an "enhanced streetscape". Visitors will not be queuing up to take photos of a new town-centre view centering on a housing block and a patched-up (standalone?) old public toilet!

• The current proposal envisages the demolition of one historic building (the former Police Station/Old Social Work Building), and makes no reference to, or connection with, the others. The NCTCP explicitly proposes such a connection and the reconfiguration of functions between them;

• The destruction of the former Police Station/OSWB to be replaced by a new housing block with parking and bin storage is directly contrary to the spirit, objectives and wider aims of the NCTCP, and undermines the concept of a civic hub focused on, but extending from, the Courthouse into and across this area as set out in the NCTCP:

“Theme 1
.... a civic hub in the town centre providing a range of community and visitor services, for example, the library, citizens’ advice, tourist information, museum or other public services. Nairn Court House may have potential to accommodate some new services particularly if extended to the rear to create a new frontage to the space between King Street and the High Street....”

This application would preclude, or pre-empt, the delivery of the NCTCP proposals; and it would constrain other options (already being discussed) for the relocation and redeployment of other civic services and administrative functions in the various town centre buildings. It should therefore be refused.

Objection 4. The proposed demolition of the former Police Station/Old Social Work Building (which appears to be a prerequisite or integral part of the proposal) is unjustified, unacceptable and inconsistent with the NCTCP.

The NCTCP is quite categoric:

“Proposal 9. Bring the Council’s former social work building back into use.
This former office building is vacant and its prominent site should be brought back to productive use, ideally serving a community/cultural purpose......Restoring these buildings to active use was identified as a priority... Feedback highlighted their value as part of the traditional fabric of the town. There was keen interest in establishing an appropriate new use, with preference for community use/ownership or public use, e.g. tourist information. There was little support for demolition, despite concerns over the property’s neglected appearance and setting.”
• The dilapidated state of the building is entirely due to neglect and the owner’s (Highland Council) failure to maintain and protect it. It would set a very unfortunate precedent if it were to be accepted that in order to justify demolition or redevelopment the Council could simply let sound older buildings decline through lack of care and maintenance;

• The proposal to demolish the OSWB – in order to create parking spaces for the new block – is disguised within the application. It has apparently been the subject of a separate, unpublicised warrant which, despite the provisions of the NCTCP, had not been subject to consultation. This is unacceptable. The grant of the warrant ahead of consideration of the planning application implies bias and pre-judgement of consent and thus raises questions about the integrity of the decision-making process;

• The application dated 26 Sept 2018 by the CAB under asset transfer legislation is for the renovation of the building(s) at 60-62 King Street, not for demolition. There is no publicly available record of the consideration and approval of this application. This would suggest that the proposal to demolish is non-compliant with the terms of that application;

• It has been claimed that restoration of the OSWB is “uneconomic”. This is no more than an assertion – made by the applicant, who has a vested interest in its removal as part of this planning application;

• No independent survey evidence has been provided to support the assertion. No valuation of the site and building is currently available. No costed studies have been made available on alternative options for the re-use of the building. The case for its demolition has not been conclusively made;

• Demolition implies that the building has negligible or no value. This is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the Council has previously sought bids of – reportedly – around £70,000 for the building from local community groups seeking to bring the building back into use. This previous approach also stands in stark contrast to (and raises questions about) the arrangements under which it appears the site of 60-62 King Street was to have been sold off to the CAB for £1.

Objection 5. The prospective occupancy of the ground floor by the CAB has not been supported by agreed public policy or a published business case, and raises questions about the basis for its occupancy and the viability and longer-term utilisation of the building.

It is debatable whether the identity of the occupant of the office-space in the proposed new building is a material planning consideration. The plans indicate that the ground floor would be purpose- designed, and that the CAB will be the occupant. This is being used by the applicant as a way of appealing for support for the proposed new building.

• There is no information in the application’s design statement or supporting information which sets out the business case for the occupancy arrangements proposed;

• The CAB is an independent organisation (like many other comparable third-sector bodies) and part of a national network. It is responsible for its own financial management and for its own office arrangements. It is not a Highland Council department or subsidiary. The application sets out no reasoning or explanation as to why the Council should be constructing and providing dedicated and purpose-designed office premises for this particular organisation when it does not do the same for other comparable and possibly equally-deserving groups which deliver a social or community service;

• This also leaves unexplained the relationship between the applicant (Highland Council) and the CAB, which is a grant-funded organisation, neither a part of the Highland Council nor a private or commercial enterprise. The proposed site and building appears not to be that which the CAB sought (and may have been granted) the right to purchase. Will the CAB be tenant? Freeholder? Shared owner? The terms applying to its occupancy, and the duration of any lease or contract, are matters of legitimate public interest as well as being relevant to the status of the planning application;

• This matters, and it is material to the application, precisely because the application indicates the construction of dedicated, purpose-built premises. So the configuration of the premises is a matter for assessment as part of the planning appraisal. There are clear implications if for whatever reason, now or in the future, the CAB became unwilling, or was unable, to take up or remain in occupancy of the offices in the proposed building;
• The question thus arises of what the effect of the proposed configuration might be on the longer-term prospects for the viability and utilisation of the building, and the impact on the surrounding town centre site. Were the ground floor offices ever to fall vacant (and prove unlettable for other purposes, or be occupied by a different kind of tenant) the consequences for the town centre vicinity could be serious.

Objection 6. The application process, provision of information, and level and timing of local engagement, on a proposal where the Council is both applicant and planning authority and so at risk of conflict of interest, have failed to meet the criteria laid down in official guidance.

Local engagement in local planning is now a cardinal principle of the 2015 Community Empowerment Act and the 2019 Planning Act. In addition, PAN 82 sets out very stringent guidance in situations, such as this, where the Council is the landowner, the developer, the applicant, and the planning authority. In such circumstances there is a clear and high risk of conflict of interest.

• In this instance, the handling of the application has raised serious concerns about the integrity of the process and the good faith of those involved. Despite the adoption of the NCTCP as supplementary guidance, and the high level of local concern about the future of the town centre, the application has been prepared in private meetings, and presented fully- formed as a fait accompli (initially in a press report) with no prior public consultation and no local engagement other than – at a much later stage – in the statutory period following formal submission of the application;

• The separate and unannounced submission and approval of the demolition warrant, ahead of the planning application and discovered only by chance, adds to the impression of secrecy and bad faith, irrespective of whether the minimal formal requirements for notifying and processing of such warrants were observed.

• Given the multiple roles and direct interest of the Council in respect of this application, and in the light of para 17 of PAN 82, a decision by officials under delegated powers would be inappropriate: the application should be considered by a planning committee.


It has been claimed – by the applicant – that the current application "... complies with..... and is sympathetic to...." the NCTCP and many of the proposals within it. That claim is nonsense, and a matter of opinion. It cannot be accepted as fact. The seven specific objections itemised in detail above demonstrate that the proposal is in many key respects inconsistent with the NCTCP, and actually renders delivery of the other elements of the overall plan more difficult if not impossible.

I do not oppose the (re)development of this town centre site. My objection is to this building, for this limited purpose, in this particular part of the site. It is the wrong building, in the wrong place. It is a piecemeal, short-term initiative. It appears to have been proposed for only two narrow motives: to meet housing targets and secure a modest grant associated with relocation of the CAB.

This application prejudices the prospects for the achievement of a genuinely vital, diverse, multifunctional town centre with a range of features and facilities which might offer a focal point and destination for residents and visitors alike. This application is a wholly inadequate response – by the principal landowner and the planning authority – to the vision set out in the NCTCP.

Some of those who have already commented in their consultation-responses have identified other additional elements which ought to be incorporated in a project-design and planning proposal, and which might make it more acceptable. One of the fundamental elements of an approach to the redevelopment of such a key town centre site should always be (and usually is) that it should include 'planning gain'. Put simply, the opportunity to develop - whether offices, residential units or other business-type functions - provides a mechanism for seeking from those who develop, benefit or profit, an appropriate contribution to, or the incorporation of, spaces, facilities and amenities which are of public or community good.

At present there seems to be no thinking or planning – in this single stand-alone building proposal – for any associated or additional works which deliver that wider benefit. Consent to redevelop such an important public and community space in such a key location should only be given if it also delivers a significantly greater contribution to the rest of the vision for a revived town square and welcoming, remodelled public spaces. At the moment this building only delivers for the Council (social housing targets) and CAB (new office). In the present application there is absolutely no "dividend" in terms of improvements to the public realm, reconfigured structures, or other changes that will serve the wider public good and make the town centre more attractive, accessible and fit for the future.
Nairn, and this town centre site, deserves better. If development is to proceed, it requires a much more comprehensive design than the present single building. It has to be consistent with the NCTCP. It has to be integrated more sensibly with the existing and adjacent buildings. It has to be accompanied by appropriate landscaping rather than just bin storage and parking spaces. It has to contribute to, not ignore or detract from, the objectives in that agreed plan.

This application should be refused. The proposers should go back to the drawing board. The town centre needs something much better.

Brian Stewart
3 March 2020"


Tree-hugger said...

Brian, how many novels in the making?

Anonymous said...

This is so disappointing.
Is the writer aware that last year alone the CAB reported over £1.8 million financial gain for its clients?
£1.8 million.
That is a huge sum of money going into the local economy.

Anonymous said...

Very comprehensive, well analysed and correct. It will be interesting to see How HC justifies their actions both on the proposed new building and even more so for the way they tried to demolish the OSWB having intentionally let it run down.

An independent of HC survey needs to be funded and made public.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Martin not Brian -
"The fewer the words, the better the prayer."
Martin Luther