Neil Sutherland, Makar Housing and Forest Policy Group
This is the second of 2 blog postings on the subject of housing woodlands, making the case for more housing and rural businesses to be sited in woodland.
Constraints on new housing in woods
There are considerable constraints on individuals, and families wishing to build houses and or set up small businesses in woodland. Firstly there is a general perception amongst the public, land use professionals and planners that woodlands should be no-go areas for any form of development. This seems to take several forms, i.e.:
- landscape will inevitably deteriorate if housing is allowed in woodland;
- conservation or recreation in woodland might be damaged by housing;
- in plantations managed for timber; housing will inevitably be inconvenient due, for example, to possible difficulties of shared access;
- allowing a few well-designed developments in woodlands will be the thin end of the wedge and will inevitably lead to a plethora of poor developments.
These types of objections are really convenient excuses for keeping planning practice the way it is, and all could be overcome with proper planning and good design.
Secondly there are planning policies and rules, and the associated attitudes of planning professionals. Planners’ resistance appears to be centred on opposition to the concept of “sporadic development in the countryside”. In addition, planners are also likely to cite the potential difficulties and costs of service provision. Lastly, there is the Scottish Government’s Control of Woodland Removal, which although it does not relate directly to felling trees for housing (because it is a planning control issue), sets the tone by making it clear that woodland removal is an evil to be avoided – unless, by some miracle, there is a clear public benefit. And bear in mind that most people wanting to develop houses in woodland are individual and small developers, trying to operate in a system dominated by big housing providers, and with limited resources to fight the inevitable battles.
Culturally this leaves us a long way from a positive relationship between woodland, housing and everyday ordinary life.
The planning system
Planning should aim to initiate an understanding of places that guides future development. Key questions include:
- What makes places, and why do successful places function as they do?
- How could strategic thinking about place-making help support economic activity and job creation?
We are not deficient in seemingly uplifting strategic planning policy at a national level. In MAKAR’s experience, however, such ambitions rarely filter through to planning in practice. Local planning authorities have two planning elements: Strategic Planning and Development Management. Development Management is, in turn, made up of a number of distinct functions with often narrow single issue remits: Archaeology, Landscape, Contaminated Land, Woodland etc. Much of MAKAR’s experience of submitting planning applications is of running the gauntlet of single-issue interpretation, with any one subjective difficulty able to derail a proposal. Development Management is also often characterised by the fear of negative precedent – it is fundamentally reactive rather than proactive. It is not surprising that applications relating to rural business or rural housing often don’t meet with every aspect of policy. Well-considered and justified applications are too often treated with scepticism and suspicion, getting bogged down in detail and negative interpretation.
Planning policy also tends to be based on single-use zoning allocations, and does not support mixed-use proposals (i.e. housing and non-domestic development), despite this being what we need for a diverse rural economy. Having said that, some types of mixed-use development have become more accepted by planners as a development approach over the last 20 years. What is needed now is a rural version of mixed-use development, which delivers multiple economic, environmental, and social benefits.
We are concerned that recent planning policy is not addressing these issues. The new Highland Council Highland Wide Local Development Plan Policy 52 Principle of Development in Woodland suggests that development within woodland will be considered, but in reality, over-zealous interpretation of the Scottish Government’s Control of Woodland Removal Policy appears to make this unlikely.
It also seems we are restricted in Scotland in our understanding of woodlands as places. All too often woodlands are given one of two contrasting interpretations: either conifer plantation, seen as a timber resource, or native woodlands valued only for their conservation potential. Neither of these extremes is likely to offer the best potential for housing and the types of multiple benefit interaction that development in woodlands can help stimulate.
What is needed
A shift in perception is required to recognize the potential of woodlands as places of both creativity and economic activity; and with woodlands contributing to housing supply and rural development. There are growing signs of a shift in attitudes; the hutting movement, woodland crofting, community woodlands, farm forestry and changing practices in woodland management. We just need to find simple ways to unlock the potential for woodland sites to offer suitable opportunities for housing and business activity. Both the planning system and professional attitudes need to change to reflect this.
- Revise local authority policy and supplementary planning guidance so that they recognise the importance of positive relationships between woodland and rural settlements – in terms of diversity of buildings and settlements; and the dynamism, enterprise and empowerment that this can generate.
- Develop a rural version of mixed-use development, and promote the inclusion of rural housing and mixed-use development in land use planning.
- Allow the construction of single houses outwith settlements, where they are well sited and designed to fit with local landscape character, or where landscape and carbon impacts are mitigated by woodland planting.
- Introduce new financial and planning incentives to link woodland expansion with rural housing and business development. For example, a carefully considered development proposal incorporating a few hectares of newly established woodland could be linked to a rural housing and or business site. Justification on planning grounds would be public benefit and the immediate uplift in value emerging from the development could finance woodland establishment, thus saving the public purse.
- Promote examples of best practice from abroad, such as the Swiss type multiple-use rural development co-dependent approach; involving agriculture, forestry, industry and housing.