The Proposed Local Development Plan (LDP2) was approved by the council at its meeting on 25 September 2020. When published, LDP2 will be made available for representations for a period of 12 weeks. According to the report submitted to the council, alongside the formal adverts in the press and the council’s website, the Plan will be made available for inspection at all public libraries and council contact centres if current COVID-19 restrictions allow. Consultations will be carried out with the Scottish Government, key statutory agencies, neighbouring planning authorities and community councils as wells as public organisations and businesses and those members of the public who have expressed an interest in the LDP process and have submitted representations in response to the Main Issues Report (MIR). Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the usual public consultation events/meetings/exhibitions are not possible. Public consultation is therefore to be carried out via online video presentations; the details of which will be confirmed through press releases and the council’s website. The presentations will provide information on the background and purpose of the LDP, how it can be viewed and how representations can be submitted. It is envisaged that it will be some time next year (2021) before a report on the representations received is available, after which the council must decide how to proceed; amend the LDP in light of the representations received or submit the LDP to a Scottish Government Reporter for examination.
LDP2 is based on population estimates and projections by National Records of Scotland, which show that the population of the Scottish Borders has increased from 114,840 in 2014 to 115,020 in 2018 and is projected to increase by 1,757 (1.5%) to 116,777 by 2026. The figures project an increasingly ageing population with a 28.6% increase in the number of people aged 75 and older (from 12,200 persons to 15,700 persons). The Scottish Government projects that the number of households will increase by 2,084 (3.8%) to 56,497. Based on the population and household projections, additional housing will be required to meet the needs of an ageing population and an increase in smaller households.
LDP2 sets out a range of policies to address the future planning of the Scottish Borders under the following headings: Placemaking and Design; Economic Development; Housing Development; Environmental Promotion and Protection; and Infrastructure and Standards.
The spatial strategy directs growth to three Strategic Development Areas (SDAs): Central Borders based on the Galashiels/Selkirk/Hawick/Jedburgh/Kelso area; Western Borders based on Peebles/Innerleithen; and Eastern Borders based on Eyemouth/Duns. SDAs provide the focus for retail, commercial and strategic opportunities. Improved connectivity from Edinburgh to the north and from Newcastle and Carlisle to the south is recognised as being essential for future economic growth in the area. Dualling of the A1 and an A7 by-pass for Selkirk are therefore seen as essential components of the road transport network. Scottish Borders Council continues to campaign for the reinstatement of the railway line between Tweedbank and Carlisle via Hawick as well as an improved rail service for the Berwickshire communities with a rail halt at Reston. The potential reinstatement of the former railway line from St. Boswells to Berwickshire via Kelso is also being considered.
However, little consideration seems to be given to the improvement of transport links between the three SDAs, particularly the link to the west of the Central Borders, i.e. the A72 from Galashiels westwards to Peebles and beyond, or to improvements to the A703 between Peebles and Edinburgh [would there be merit in examining the possibility of reinstating the rail link between Peebles and Edinburgh via Penicuik, given the amount of commuting between Peebles and the Lothians?] In the distant past, by-pass proposals have been put forward for both Innerleithen and Walkerburn where there are obvious bottlenecks.
There is a recognised need for further land for business and industry within the Peebles area and in Galashiels. A large area at Tweedbank has already been identified to accommodate a range of uses. Perhaps, one of the main challenges is deciding on the future pattern of development in the Peebles area. LDP2 identifies additional land for business and industry at Eshiels with land at Nether Horsburgh (opposite Cardrona) identified for longer term development. Due to the continuing uncertainty over the prospects for a new bridge over the Tweed in Peebles [when is the council going to bite the bullet] any development south of the river is limited.
The council’s local housing strategy identifies the need for further affordable housing, the provision of housing for the elderly, accessible housing for younger people and the need for housing supply to reflect demand (housing supply should be in the right place). There is also a requirement that sites allocated within the LDP should not only be capable of being developed but also will be developed. Sites which have been allocated within the LDP for some time can, therefore, be removed. Five such long-standing sites that remain undeveloped have been removed from LDP2. Sixteen new sites, including one mixed-use site, have been added!
There was a bid to remove the proposed housing site at Netherbarns, Galashiels from the LDP, when it was considered by the full council on 25 September, but Galashiels Councillor Sandy Aitchison was unsuccessful. Councillors voted 18 votes to 11 to retain Netherbarns in the new LDP, despite a previous Government Reporter ruling against the site when it was previously considered for inclusion in the LDP. Developers have attempted to build houses on this site a number of times since 2006 without success, and many people consider that any development on this site would have a detrimental impact on Abbotsford House, the home of Sir Walter Scott. This issue will no doubt run and run for some time yet.
According to the LDP, the vision for communities continues to seek to ensure that new development is located and designed in a manner which respects the character, appearance and amenity of the built and natural heritage of the area and that good placemaking and design principles continue to be implemented. The LDP therefore seeks to build sustainable communities which are attractive and distinctive and create places to live in accordance with good placemaking and design principles. It is interesting to read, therefore, that Tom Miers, the former chair of the Planning and Building Standards Committee [which arbitrates on planning applications for housing and other development], on losing his post bemoaned the standard of design of new housing: ‘the identikit housing estates’ put forward by developers that are ‘bland, uninspiring and downright ugly’; a sentiment that many may agree with! So why don’t the committee put there foot down, if this is the case, and implement the policies stated in their LDP.
The changing role of town centres and the underperformance of some of them is a major test for the council as planning authority. A one year pilot study has been put in place to assess the impact of loosening the policy on the core activity areas, which restricts changes of use from retail to other uses, of Hawick and Galashiels. For this pilot period, the core activity area for Hawick was completely removed, and a wide range of non-retail uses has been allowed in Galashiels core activity area. The LDP now proposes that the core activity area of Hawick (and Stow) be permanently removed. The LDP proposes that the core activity area of Galashiels be reduced in area by the removal of Channel Street and Douglas Bridge area. In the remaining part of the Galashiels core activity area (essentially Bank Street) and in Melrose, Selkirk, Duns, Eyemouth, Jedburgh, Kelso and Peebles core activity areas, the policy remains essentially unchanged but with a wider range of uses allowed. However, in Peebles, Kelso and Melrose, which continue to perform well, there will be a higher level of protection of retail uses than in Galashiels, Selkirk, Jedburgh, Eyemouth and Duns.
Delivering sustainability and mitigating the causes of climate change are fundamental requirements of the LDP. National planning policy and guidance also supports renewable energy, both on-shore and off-shore (a delicate subject in the Scottish Borders). The LDP therefore promotes improved connectivity and the reduction in travel by car (not always an easy option in this rural area). Although, this may not always appear to be the case from decisions of the Planning and Building Standards Committee, the LDP supports all types of renewable energy developments within appropriate locations. Supplementary Guidance, produced in 2018, provides advice on the matters to be addressed when putting forward renewable energy proposals. Flood risk remains a primary issue for both developers and the council and is a major issue in determining the future pattern of development.
The LDP also includes policies based on the principles of sustainable land use in order to protect areas of nature conservation, protected species, local biodiversity and geodiversity, landscape, countryside arounds towns, the built heritage, greenspace, woodlands and forestry and the coast. The LDP makes reference to the proposed Scottish Borders National Park commissioned by a local campaign group but does not offer a view on this proposal. The area proposed seems to extend over much of the southern part of the Scottish Borders but excludes the Tweed Valley (Forest Park), which is a major recreational resource, as well as the beautiful Ettrick and Yarrow Valleys. Given the attractiveness of these areas and the tourist and recreational pressures exerted on them, one might ask why National Park designation is not being contemplated for these areas.
LDP2 has been prepared taking account of a wide range of background and supporting studies and these can all be accessed from the council’s website. The challenge, now, is for the council to engage with the people it serves taking account of the restrictions imposed by Scottish Government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The existing adopted LDP will be five years old in May next year and thus extend beyond the usual timeframe of 5 years. Notwithstanding the present emergency, the planning system has to continue to perform its role of guiding the future use and development of land within the Scottish Borders. An up-to-date local development plan is, therefore, crucial. Let us hope it is not too long before we hear further on the process and timing of the public consultation on this important planning document.