HOUSING SCHEME, BAILE IOCHDRACH
This page is a response by Kevin Byrne to an invitation from CCDC for comment upon the proposal to build social housing upon the skyline above Port Mor. The page is not really intended for circulation beyond the circle of persons living in the island or with an interest in its wellbeing.
THE ORIGINAL MESSAGE and letter to CCDC
As will be well-known, there is a shortage of available housing to rent in Colonsay, and anything available to buy is frequently unsuited to modern living and invariably too expensive for a first-time buyer. Over the years, various properties were purchased and upgraded by public agencies for rental purposes, and a total of eight new houses have been built from scratch for the same purpose. There is still a significant housing shortage and Colonsay Community Development Company has sought to encourage a Housing Association to build and rent new homes to meet the need. CCDC purchased croft land same years ago, most of which has been allocated to new crofters who have undertaken to build their own homes, and a small portion of this croftland was held back, at Baile Iochdrach (the rising land on the north side of Port Mor). At one stage it was intended to be used as the site for a Heritage Museum.
In recent months, CCDC has successfully negotiated with a Housing Association to build five houses upon that plot of land, which is a tremendous achievement and which will go a long way towards current needs. We have now reached the stage when designs are being drawn up and Planning Permissions are to be finalised, but at this point things have gone slightly awry, possibly due to simple over-enthusiasm. In a break with the norm, there does not seem to have been any Consultation Exercise as such and, instead, members of the community were invited to attend and view a display of the new estate as envisaged by (presumably) either CCDC directors or the Housing Association, or both. This exhibition was held at short notice, on one day only, and was unable to be seen by anybody who happened to be away at the time.
This being the case, I have personally been unable to ascertain the facts of the proposal, but what little I have gleaned - if correct - fills me with misgivings. I would prefer a quiet life, but have felt obliged to report my misgivings in a letter to the Directors of CCDC, which was submitted on Tuesday 20th September; things seem to be moving quickly, because by 21st September there was a digger on site, although as yet there has been no sign of a Planning Application. As an individual, I am very pleased that these houses will be going ahead, but as a neighbouring resident I am deeply conscious of the flaws in the proposals as I believe them to be. By 22nd September, no director of CCDC had corrected me on the points that I had felt obliged to raise, so I must assume that they have some validity; since Monday 19th at least, the plans have been not available for reference in the Service point.. I am aware that in raising any concerns there is the danger that my own position will be misunderstood, and it is for that reason that I give below the full text of my letter to CCDC. I am in favour of housing, but urge for it to be provided in an appropriate location and after due consideration.
View of site across graveyard, from Bruthach na Chas Bhriste
In a nutshell, the entire development is in the wrong place and can be immensely improved by moving it just 50 metres to the southeast, whilst still remaining squarely within the available plot. It is wrong because this very significant development as proposed will dominate the skyline when viewed from any point between Garbh Cladach and Cnoc nam Fad; and it is even more wrong because the intended site is quite literally on a rocky bluff at the very edge of an open Atlantic fetch extending to Nova Scotia. I live nearby, in a single house and at a much lower elevation, and there are many days when we cannot even get into or out of a car without risk of injury; up on that bluff, except in the very calmest of conditions, the inhabitants will be in a living nightmare.
A mini-excavator is on site, which identifies the position of a proposed estate of 5 houses, right on the skyline. The lower ground is to the left in this view, still affording excellent views but a much less obtrusive site, much more sheltered and a much more affordable option.
I suggest that the directors of CCDC should pause long enough to hold a proper Consultation Exercise with an opportunity for shareholders and other residents to air their views; and in advance of that meeting, some adequate "artist's impressions" should be prepared and circulated, so that we can all understand exactly what is proposed. If, on the other hand, it is decided to carry on regardless, that is also fine by me - after all, I'll be gone in ten or fifteen years. The important thing is to ensure that we do not simply sleepwalk into spoiling the golden opportunity that now presents itself - but if most people really see some benefit in the apparently perverse choice of the skyline site, so be it.
To: Colonsay Community Development Company
The Service Point, Scalasaig PA61 7YW
19 September 2016
An Open Letter , from Kevin Byrne, Homefield, PA61 7YR
Re: Siting of proposed new housing at Baile Iochdrach
I have just returned from holiday and can only regret that I have not at any stage had an opportunity to become fully informed as to the details of the above proposal; very possibly the mixed messages and confused information that I have received makes this letter unnecessary, in which case please accept my apologies. On the other hand, if my misgivings are well-founded, it is better to present them now, rather than to take the easy option. I understand that I missed a Consultation Exercise, but I hope that I am not too late to enter my thoughts for consideration.
In the first instance, I wish to welcome the prospect of additional rental accommodation in Colonsay and I applaud CCDC for its efforts in this regard; the concept is excellent, my reservations merely advert to the method of implementation. Secondly, to avoid doubt, I confirm that I have no personal interest to declare although, as must be obvious, the current proposals as I understand them will have a negative effect on my tourism interests and will affect the occupants of a number of houses, one of which belongs to my daughter and her family. Thirdly, this letter is written on my own behalf and does not represent the views of any other person.
As I understand the situation, CCDC hopes to enter into an agreement to transfer ownership of an area of community-owned land to a Housing Association, free of charge, on the understanding that the Housing Association will build a small estate of five houses upon that land, to be made available for rent. Details of the allocation policy are completely unknown to me but I must assume that CCDC have taken steps to ensure that the houses will be allocated for the benefit of Colonsay's community, rather than to meet the general needs of homeless persons within a wider catchment area.
A development of five houses, naturally enough, must be recognised as a very substantial intrusion into an agricultural landscape of isolated individual dwellings; in addition to five houses there will be ten parking places, associated manoeuvring and turning spaces, possibly five garages, almost certainly five garden sheds, washing lines and the domestic ancillaries of modern life. The buildings, one must assume, will have a roof-ridge height equal to (or possibly greater than) that of Donald Gibbie's house or Cnoc nam Ban. Unless I have been misled, it is proposed that this entire development is to be placed upon the highest ground within the available site.
The original proposal, as I understand it, was to have seen development in the lower part of the site, just beyond the boundary with Homefield croft, and where any development could have been much more cheaply built, where it would not have been obtrusive and where it would have excellent views of the sea without being perched on the top of a hill exposed to the full force of the Atlantic gales.
The decision to change the position of the development does not seem to enhance the accommodation in any way, although it does add considerably to the cost, both financially and environmentally. It appears that the reason for this revised decision is to bounce the Housing Association into building a much longer length of access roadway, thus facilitating the persons to whom Community Crofts have been awarded.
I can, of course, appreciate the thinking involved, but the short-term gain of one hundred metres of access road for incoming crofters must be paid for in terms of a permanent change to our landscape and the creation of a housing estate which will actually be less satisfactory in every way. Where buildings are close-set in an exposed position, wind force must necessarily be increased between and around those buildings, leading to heat-loss and great discomfort in storm conditions. In addition, a development in that elevated position will be obtrusive when seen from the popular viewpoint at Garbh Cladach, from the grid at Port Mor/Gart a' Gobhain, or from the graveyard; from Port Mor itself, or from the Heritage Centre, it will dominate the skyline.
I hope that I am wrong, and that the proposed development area has not been changed; otherwise, I do urge that you take time to reconsider the situation. It may be that the Housing Association could be persuaded to pay for the additional length of access road as a goodwill gesture, in exchange for having been given five valuable building sites without charge; or perhaps they could pay market value and CCDC could develop the length of road for itself. It seems that there really must be a better way - we need the houses, but we also need to cherish our environment.
At the very least, if the elevated position is held to be especially desirable, may I ask that you circulate computer-generated images, so that we can all have a preview of the likely appearance of the development when seen from the graveyard and from Port Mor? Such an image is not expensive to produce and is probably already available on request from the architect concerned. I recall that when COHT wished to build on that land they were told by the planning authority that they could only build on the lower part of the available ground so as to protect the scenic amenity.
THE RESPONSE RECEIVED:
I am grateful to CCDC for a response to my Open Letter, which response is given below, together with my comments arising. From the CCDC letter it is clear that they were advised right from the start that the lower site could not be used - at which stage it must have become obvious that the entire proposal was a non-runner.
CCDC can never have imagined that it could be acceptable to build a substantial sub-urban housing scheme upon the skyline of any Hebridean island - on Tiree, they cannot even build a beach-hut on the beach. In view of their knowledge it is hard to imagine why the directors pressed on, building false hopes in a scheme that they must have known was doomed to failure. It is most unfortunate that, as a consequence, time and resources have been misdirected and there will be such needless disappointment as all concerned come to terms with reality.
If it is true that the only acceptable part of the available ground cannot be used, then we simply do not have a site in the first place. This is a great pity, but it is certainly not my fault and I can only regret that CCDC have gone so far down a blind alley. However, we do want the housing and I urge CCDC to seek to get permission to have it built upon the freely available and entirely suitable site that we have at our disposal. Such an application would surely receive widespread community support.
Here is Andrew's response to my original letter, which is at the foot of the page.
May I, as a long standing Director of CCDC, respond to your letter to CCDC and your open criticism of the proposed Housing Project at Baile Iochdrach . Thank you.
The "Low Ground" that you deem most suitable for the project is indeed just that! Low ground on Colonsay is usually soft and boggy. And as you know well from your own building experience at Uragaig, foundation costs on boggy ground can be extremely high! It is for this very reason,
that when the Argyll & Bute planners (including head of department ) along with WHHA inspected the ground available for building, they quickly deemed the intended lower site unsuitable. They took the option of the (slightly higher) harder ground, where building costs will be considerably reduced. In the Planners view the project will not "dominate the skyline" and I assume they have considerably more experience of these things than you or I.
So, why did the planners categorically refuse to consider the higher ground when the Heritage Trust made an initial application? What has changed? And, of course, the lower site is not "boggy" ground, this whole area consists of a thin layer of top-soil over heavily eroded rock, interspersed with raised beaches. Naturally enough the lower ground accumulated a deeper level of humus but it will certainly present no difficulties for building. Needless intrusion upon the skyline is only one cause for concern, windspeed and direction amongst a tight group of buildings render the site equally unsuitable; that the architects had not even considered this aspect has already been revealed - they planned to have the doors on the windward side!
For your own peace of mind place a scale rule on Donald Gibbie's and Cnoc na Ban. You will find their ridge height to be 3.5mm. Place that height in the bracken, where the digger is operating and you will see the ridge height of the new houses will not break the skyline of the sea. The proposed houses are all single story cottages. Cnoc na Ban will then be the eyesore well above the skyline!
Why not simply produce the artist's impressions?
You would indicate that CCDC have failed to keep everyone informed and that the Project is being rushed ahead with no consultation. The project is certainly being rushed, as we have an extremely short window of opportunity to utilise housing funds. These funds were not allocated to Colonsay, but were "slippage" from a delayed mainland housing project. We have until the end of 2017 to get this project through. If we fail, the next round of housing monies available to Colonsay will be in 2020! You have agreed that social Housing is the key to the future of this community. The generation, that can never get a toe on Colonsay's housing ladder, will never forgive us (or yourselves), if we fail to deliver.
This is not an issue. Building the houses in the wrong place is in nobody's interests; there is absolutely no technical or financial reason to necessitate a blot on the landscape. If the houses are not built it will not be my fault, it will be the fault of whoever is trying to railroad through with an unacceptable amendment to the original guidelines. If the houses cannot be built on the lower ground then, sadly, it transpires that we do not have a suitable site and the project is dead in the water. On the other hand, the undeveloped site could be sold on the open market and the funds raised would be enough to buy suitable land elsewhere, from Colonsay Estate or one of the crofters.
There has been consultation. You have had every opportunity to keep yourself informed, come to CCDC meetings etc. Goodness Christa is a past Chairperson of CCDC! I believe Sophie came to one of the site meetings during the summer and raised objections then. A long time has elapsed since. Time enough to seek detail and ask directors. The plans are available in the CCDC office. Caitlin has been away since the Music Festival. Knowing that you were to be away on holiday when the public meeting took place, you could have asked for copy and had someone then raise objections on your behalf. To state, that because no CCDC Director responded to your initial letter within two days, your opinions must then accrue validity, brings a very wry smile!
It is not me that is laughing. I am simply asking for proper access to the plans and proper consultation upon what will be a major development with permanent consequences for the community. CCDC is about to give away land belonging to the community and with a value of over £250,000 and it is not unreasonable for a shareholder of the company to ask for information - it is a very large investment. If there are any hiccoughs or delays to this project, they will have been caused by the process, not by me or any individual who seeks to ensure proper consideration of the matter in question.
Trusting that this helps you understand the project at Baile Iochdrach better and in time, I am sure, you will have quickly forgotten your early misgivings and be delighted to have youthful neighbours to help dig the garden. And perhaps push the wheelchair!!
It is well-known that I was amongst the very first to draw attention to the serious distortion in our demography, and indeed some people thought I was a little too direct about it. [Evidence of my concern was given here and has been removed by request - the fact that I signalled my concern is accepted and has not been challenged 27.09.16]. I am deeply conscious of the need to correct the demographic imbalance, and it is red-herring to suggest that building five houses in the wrong place would be some sort of panacea.
However, on that point, do we have some written assurances on the Allocations Policy? Previous experience does not suggest that the provision of social housing in Colonsay automatically leads to a younger or more economically vigorous community profile. I raise this point not because of any objection to past experience but because, in this instance, there seems to be a great stress upon the perceived youth and vigour of the proposed tenants and it would be good to be certain that this has been agreed between CCDC and the Housing Association in question. We are giving them land worth £250,000, what exactly are we getting in return?
Is the Allocations Policy agreed and available? Who will own the property? Will we get a ground rent? Is it a permanent gift or is it a leasehold? Will tenants have a right to buy in full, or to share in the equity? Is there a right of pre-emption? Exactly how much of the site is to be given away? Are there restrictions on further development? What happens if the Housing Association goes under or (as is very likely) it is sold off to the Private Sector?
And, genuinely, kind regards from me. I am deeply conscious that Directors and others will have worked long and hard to try to develop this plan and I can only regret that it seems churlish to seek clarification or raise doubts. I am as keen as anyone to see new housing being built, but it would be wrong to go off at half-cock. We all know, from sad experience, that our problems do not respond to a magic bullet. At first we thought electricity would help, then it was water, or better ferries, or working TV, or a better Village Hall, or the children getting home at weekends, or more jobs, or social housing - they have all been a help, but only as part of a coherent plan of development. So please do not shoot the messenger - let us build the housing, but not at any cost and not in the wrong place. Best wishes - Kevin
FURTHER UPDATE ...
The points that I have raised were discussed at a meeting of CCDC on Monday 26 September and on the following day a message was circulated by CCDC within the community which was a "consolidated response" to my comments. That second response does not lend itself to simple reproduction here, and in any case it will hopefully have been seen by all interested parties - if not, I will be very happy to forward a copy by email on request or, of course, a copy can be obtained directly from CCDC. I do not propose to make any direct re-response, but I thank CCDC for having considered the points that I have raised. Doubtless, matters will now take their course.
On a point of clarification: I have at no stage said that I was expressing the views of any interest group or individual other than myself, but I note that CCDC representatives have been confused by my closing phrase: "don't shoot the messenger". I did not that they could have taken it to suggest that I was carrying a message in the literal sense, since the reference was in fact to a well-known passage in Plutarch. Wikipedia gives a succinct translation of the relevant passage: "The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus' coming, was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him".
MINUTE OF CCDC MEETING
The draft minute of the meeting is posted on the CCDC website and the relevant section is reproduced here:
A discussion regarding the social housing project progressed and SW highlighted that he was keen to hear more about the allocations policy from WHHA and looked forward to the proposed meeting on the subject with their consultant Lucy Robertson. KB [Kevin Byrne] then sought clarification on any Declarations of interest and at this point Liam M declared an interest. KB asked if there were any guarantees on the allocations policy and TP highlighted that there has been positive feedback which means that the on-island housing need would be met by the Allocations Policy.
KB then went on to say he believed that the housing was being built in the wrong place and that CCDC had been misled by the government partners in the Colonsay Social Housing Project. KB said he had been told that 1 of the houses was to be let by 4 individuals.
TP refuted this. TP highlighted that he had all of KB's correspondence and a variety of responses from Directors and Members of CCDC which had been collected together and that a full response to the points and questions in his Open Letters would be forwarded to him.
KB pressed the point of the houses breaking the skyline. TP categorically refuted this and said again that the Architect had said the houses would not break the skyline. KB wanted for the record to say that he was a supporter of housing for the island but that he believed these were the wrong houses in the wrong place. AA made the point - that this is KB's opinion to which he is entitled but it is not the opinion of the Chief Planner, Housing Association, Architect and community reps.
KB asked about the consultation meeting and said it was his understanding that it was an exhibition and not an opportunity for consultation. CM highlighted that it was a consultation exercise which was run by WHHA. Kevin clarified that he was not speaking on behalf of anybody else when it was suggested that his correspondence was on behalf of others.
KB made the point that he had put forward his issues and points in writing to avoid any misunderstanding and to ensure that people were clear that he was speaking on behalf of himself. In response to the queries regarding the consultation exercise TP highlighted that the project had been ongoing for almost 18 months and documented in Board Minutes throughout that period which were circulated to Members for information and comment.
TP also wished to highlight that CCDC had intended to post the plans of the housing development on the shop noticeboard prior to the consultation exercise but WHHA had asked that the plans were not circulated until they had received initial feedback from Rhona.
KB reinforced his grievance regarding the houses breaking the skyline. TP again reiterated that the Architect was confident that the houses would not break the skyline, the Design Team had been cognisant of this and responded with single story houses - and said on this point that he was bringing that issue to a close. He highlighted that once the planning notice was posted, that was the appropriate time to raise objections. TP and KB agreed that it would not be productive to go through KB's letter line by line. KB wanted it noted for the record that the discussion had been closed and left. TP highlighted that it was the discussion regarding the "skyline" that he was closing not the overall housing discussion which continued on.
THE POSITION AS IT STANDS
It seems from the experience outlined above that neither consultation nor discussion is welcomed and that any misgivings must be left aside; in the view of CCDC anybody who has misgivings must wait until the planning notice is posted, which will become "the appropriate time to raise objections". In the view of Kevin Byrne this is a needlessly inflexible position, since a desire to modify or enhance the proposals is very far from being a desire to lodge a formal objection. If any objections are lodged on foot of a planning application, it will be as a direct result of the refusal to have an open and objective process of prior local consultation.