Monday, December 21, 2020

The Nairn Common Good Chronicles: Part 1 - Sandown - who proposed the sell off and why?

The fate of Nairn’s most valuable asset, the Sandown Common Good land, is up for debate again, as the Gurn has recently reported in a series of three articles which details questions asked of Cllr Tom Heggie at the last online Nairn West and Suburban Community Council meeting on Monday the 30th of November. You can find those articles here, here and here.

Discussion at the last NW&SCC meeting was prompted by the Highland Council announcement  of a public consultation on the proposal to sell off the Sandown land.  At the meeting Cllr Heggie was asked about the timing of the proposal, and why it was being pursued in the middle of a pandemic and over the Christmas period.   He replied that the idea should not have been a surprise, that it had “been on the table for years”, that there was “no immediate plan”, and “no pressure to sell”.

It is certainly true that the sale of Sandown was a headline issue between 2006 and 2010, when an abortive previous attempt to sell the land failed following a government planning Appeal.

So it seemed right to get the Gurn fact-checking department to investigate whether and how the idea of selling off Sandown resurfaced.  As there is no longer a local Ward Forum, there has been very little public discussion of the future of the Sandown Land.  Back in September 2018 a story  emerged that a plan to build some 65 houses on part of the Sandown Land had been prepared by the Council-backed Highland Housing Alliance.  This was subsequently dismissed by  Cllr Heggie as “a mistake by a planning official”.  There has been no whisper of selling any Common Good assets in the reports submitted to the quarterly meetings of the Nairnshire Committee in recent years.  

Our intrepid investigators have however discovered the story behind the latest initiative to put the Sandown Lands up for sale.  The subject surfaced in a Ward Business Meeting (a closed working meeting of local Councillors and officials) on 8 November 2019.  At that meeting officials were instructed “to advise that 2021 would be the last year the tenant could have the [agricultural] let”.

The Action Note of that meeting – copy now available online - also records that, although the Common Good Asset Register had yet to be finalised and published...

“Members raised the matter of selling Sandown Lands and whether to proceed.  Two options were discussed: -
1. Market the lands and find out the value of them.
2. Market the lands and specify what housing should be made available.
Members asked for a ballpark figure to be provided for marketing costs and whether this figure would change depending on the options above.”

Council officials evidently swung into action.  By the next Ward Business Meeting on 12 December 2019 – see the Action Note document - matters had moved forward significantly. It is a Highland Council official – not the Common Good Officer, but the Head of Development & Regeneration – who recommends early action to sell the land.  As the Action Note records, Mr Maguire

“….recommends appointing an independent marketing agent and put the site on the market to sell. This will need to be instructed by Members. Time is critical now, there have been several enquiries from developers about the land and now is the right time to market. Actively marketing the site shows that something is being done with the site with regards to the IMFLDP.” 

Local Councillors were “content with discussions and the proposed way forward”.  The Action Note also says….

“Independent marketing agent to be obtained for proceeding to a sale. This then needs approval by members (Nairn Common Good).  This would require following the CEA process; offers, then planning etc.”

These Ward Business meeting discussions took place a year ago.  They were never publicly reported.  So fast forward to the statements made by Councillor Heggie at the recent NW&SCC meeting that “there is no developer on the horizon”, and “there is no imperative for a sale”.

This observer finds it interesting that the pressure to market Sandown for sale appears to have come as much from Highland Council officials as from our own Councillors.  It is also noteworthy that none of these discussions mention any action other than sale to a developer, and that the intention is simply to deliver housing.   There is no debate about alternative possibilities for use or management of the land;  no consideration of phased or partial sale;  no examination of the idea of long leases so as to generate an income stream;  and no attempt to identify possible other uses which might benefit the local community.

As a side note:  Sandown is not the only Common Good asset whose fate is in question.  The 12 December 2019 Ward Business Meeting record also reveals (item 2.7) that in response to an unspecified request to rent Viewfield Stables, local Councillors are minded to “market it for use”.

Comments here on the Gurn and elsewhere have indicated that there is a strong local feeling that decisions on how to use, manage and dispose of Nairn’s Common Good should not be made in closed Ward Business Meetings, nor by a group of 72 Councillors most of whom have little connection with Nairn, but should be made following open public discussion by a properly inclusive and representative local committee.  The NW&SCC Participation Request is a first attempt to ensure wider and more inclusive community engagement in the discussion and decisions.

As Gurn readers already know, the process required by the Community Empowerment Act is now under way with a deadline of  12 February 2021.     Local residents of Gurnshire thus only have a few short weeks in which to comment on whether the Sandown land should be sold at all, to say whether now is the right time to do so, and to put forward ideas for possible alternative ways forward.