The Gurn has received a copy of Sheena Baker's submission to the consultation on the Highland Council to sell the Sandown Common Good Lands. Tomorrow is the last day of the consultation, if you wish to make a submission yourself there are details of how to do that on the Nairn West and Suburban Community Council website.
Anyway, here's Sheena's contribution:
CONSULTATION ON PROPOSAL TO SELL LAND AT SANDOWN, NAIRN
I am writing in a purely personal capacity and not in my role as the Chair of Nairn West & Suburban Community Council. This is my personal representation to the above consultation.
I am of the firm belief that this is not the time to be conducting a consultation on such an important part of Nairn’s Common Good Assets whilst the country is in a pandemic situation resulting in national lockdown.
1. I firmly believe that the timing of this consultation is fundamentally wrong and that it should be withdrawn. How HC can believe that they are fully meeting the need under the CEA to properly engage with Nairn residents on this proposal during a pandemic is beyond my comprehension. A local Councillor reported that a HC Officer had advised that the online responses were higher than normal. I would sincerely hope that that is correct. Both Community Councils, local and Inverness press and social media outlets in Nairn have all put a considerable effort into engaging with residents and urging them to respond. This is still a totally unsatisfactory state of affairs because the ability to hear and question other views has been severely limited by the lack of open to all public meetings during this consultation. Under Covid regulations any public meeting is banned and Zoom meetings do not allow reactive conversations to easily take place and allow everyone to join in. Many residents do not have computers or iPads let alone the facility to use Zoom and there are others, particularly those of the older generation, who do not have broadband connections to their homes. To my knowledge this proposal has not been on public display at our local council offices, public libraries, or the community centre as none of them have been open due to COVID restrictions. All this consultation legally does is allow HC to be able to state “we engaged with the Nairn public” It is, as far as I am concerned, a pure tick box exercise and needs to be recognised as such! This land has been part of Nairn’s Common Good for some 430 years, surely this could have been postponed until the pandemic was behind us and the matter could be openly publicly debated. What makes the rush even more unseemly is that the HC say there is nothing actively being planned. If that is true, there is no need to have a consultation!
2. The Legal situation
3. On 24th November,2020 I submitted a letter to the Nairn Councillors as Trustees of Nairn Common Good. They immediately passed it to Highland Council and after several requests I eventually discovered it was on the desk of HC’s Legal Manager.
4. On 17th January,2021 I chased a response from him and on the 18th received an acknowledgement that he was dealing with it. Since then I have had no further contact from him or any other HC Officer on the matter.
5. I mention this correspondence as I had hoped it would have been resolved and I would then not have to refer to it in this response, regretfully the dilatory way my letter has been dealt with has left me with no other option but to include it.
6. I laid out all the background to my belief that Highland Council have illegally transferred £344k of the Sandown Lands (or a pro indiviso share to that value) to the Council General Fund Balance Sheet. Sandown Lands are inalienable and to have legally taken the action that HC did, they would have had to have received Sheriff Court confirmation before acting.
7. We are left with an illegal act and it is clear that Highland Council need to rectify this immediately by reversing the actions they took in earlier years.
What exactly is the reason for the Consultation?
8. The “mantra” the Council has steadfastly been denying is that there is any developer waiting in the wings to buy this parcel of land. That is patently incorrect. FOI’s and latterly Ward Minutes clearly show that from 2017 to date HC Officers have been actively engaged with ongoing correspondence with two major developers. Both are developers, and both have clearly indicated an interest in acquiring this land. Either the HC Officers have been economical with the truth with our four local Councillors or the quotes made to the press have been disingenuous. If there is any truth in either scenario then that is a very unsatisfactory way for a Regional Authority as big as HC to be conducting affairs relating to Common Good Assets. Officers do not have any legal responsibility in relation to Common Good Assets and their disposal, Trustees however do.
9. If there truthfully is not a development being planned then, I say again, withdraw the consultation. We are told in the statements released by HC Councillors that there is no potential sale in the offing (the Ward Minutes and emails seem to scotch that). If that is true why, oh why have the Four Nairn Trustees and Councillors agreed to this action which from the minutes has clearly been initiated and encouraged by one or two Officers of Highland Council? This appears to being driven solely as a cheap fix for the HC housing waiting list. There is a statutory obligation on Local Authorities/Councils to home people, there is no such obligation relating to Common Good land or assets.
10. If this was to go ahead against the wishes of many in Nairn, and the land is disposed of, it is pie in the sky thinking to believe that any developer, other than HC or an arm of a HC housing Association, would build a development of affordable houses. It is more likely, as has been the way of recent years, that private developers would build and sell the private housing first to maximise their profits then towards the latter stages build some affordable housing. Private developers would look to acquire the land at the lowest price, this is hardly likely to be a good long-term deal for the Nairn Common Good Fund.
11. The BID working with the NW&SCC compiled a list of many first-floor empty properties in and around the High Street that could easily convert to good quality one- or two-bedroom flats. This helpful suggestion appears to have been hastily sent to the bottom of the in tray of the HC Head of Development. The suggestion clearly did not fit his/HC ideas and timings. This all helps to suggest that there is an agenda being closely followed by HC Officers and the Nairn Common Good land at Sandown is the easiest fix to meet this agenda. Not good enough!
12. I realise that there is a need to find land for development in Nairn but am incredulous at the suggestion in the new IMFLDP that only the Sandown lands have been preferred out of the many other identified and proffered Nairn sites. How convenient that here again HC is judge and jury! The site proffered at Househill would clearly be an excellent site especially now we understand that the Nairn Bypass will be completed. Househill should also be a preferred site on the new IMFLDP thus providing an alternative option.
13. Next Actions and moving forward. Before HC can do anything with any of the Sandown land, they must purify the title by reversing the illegal action they took with this undoubtedly inalienable land. If there is to be development, then the best site would be the area next to the allotments on the north of the A96. It is the only completely dry site and has good access to the necessary services. This site properly marketed, bringing in maximum long-term gain for Nairn’s Common Good Fund, could be developed in a manner allowing for the needs of both private and affordable housing to be built. It could easily accommodate a mix of Housing Association, some individual built sites, and some developer site. This would only necessitate a small portion of Common Good land being disposed of. Let us openly discuss that suggestion in a public forum unlike the decision formulated behind closed door leading to the SHIP proposals for 2021 -2026 which only cites Sandown.
14. Learn from the past - back in 2012 meaningful engagement with Nairn residents took place and due attention was taken to the views of the town. Yet again that was another waste of public money as it now appears that the outcomes of that Charrette have been firmly kicked into the long grass by Officers of HC.
15. Why did HC and the Trustees of the Nairn Common Good not decide to start with a decision to hold meaningful engagement and discussion with Nairn? I proffer the answer – it would not have allowed them to do what THEY have DECIDED IS BEST for Nairn!
16. Over the years I have heard quoted from HC Officers that Nairn is the town that likes to say NO! I am sorry that this is the impression HC has. After all, if we are saying No it is purely because HC keep TELLING rather than asking Nairn what its needs are going forward. Communication is a wonderful thing – why do HC Officers not start with that way of working and maybe then we can all move forward in harmony!
17. This Consultation offers no monetary figures, is totally open-ended and tries to give HC unfettered discretion to dispose of Sandown Lands. If it were to progress it would result in Common Good land, which has been part of the Royal Burgh for some 430 years, being sold off for the equivalent of sweeties. Nairn would be being robbed of its long-term inheritance to fix a hole in HC’s depleted finances.
CONCLUSION – Highland Council should remove this consultation from the table. As always, I would encourage meaningful ongoing engagement from both our local Members and Highland Council with the town, its Community Councils, landowners, and other interested groups such as NICE and the BID. This would allow for an acceptable route map for the agreed future development of this town and its Common Good Assets and Fund.
24th February 2021