A northern light shows the way
This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Just before Christmas, a visitor to my wife’s annual jewellery exhibition told me about a new housing development in Scotland called Tornagrain. She made it sound Utopian — a new town east of Inverness designed in a way which will incorporate schools and hospitals, solid, well-built houses which people want to buy and has not attracted the wrath of local communities.
She had been to visit it as a potential model for new housing in Oxford, which, like so many towns and cities, desperately needs housing, but finds itself thwarted by well-orchestrated, middle-class opposition and — as happened in the Chesham and Amersham by-election — hostility to government housing policy at the polls. I decided to investigate how Tornagrain had come about and what lessons, if any, it might hold for new urban development.
I decided to investigate how Tornagrain had come about and what lessons it might hold for new urban development
Tornagrain is situated about six miles east of Inverness, close to the airport, on the estate of the Earl of Moray. In 2002, the current Earl (then Lord Doune) was approached by the local authority, the Highland Council, about the problem of the increasing sprawl of Inverness which was growing eastward in a totally haphazard way. The council wanted to create a string of new developments on the A96 between Inverness and Nairn.
Lord Doune was sceptical. He had read history of art at University College, London and knew something about the long history of Scottish new towns, dating back to the twelfth century, including Nairn itself as well as eighteenth-century model towns like Inveraray.
The tenth Earl of Moray built part of the New Town in Edinburgh, designed by James Gillespie Graham. Lord Doune’s father, the twentieth Earl, embarked on the development of Dalgety Bay in Fife before changes in tax law made it unaffordable.
It should consist of mixed development, be walkable, and incorporate schools and shops
Lord Doune and his recently appointed managing director, Andrew Howard, took themselves off on a study tour of new urban developments in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and the United States, including Seaside in Florida, the model of the new urbanist movement, and met Andrés Duany, its charismatic leader. They decided to employ him.
In September 2006, Duany arranged what he described as a “Charrette” in a hotel in Inverness of 600 people: everyone in the area — local politicians, planners, consultants, drainage experts, traffic engineers, people who answered an advertisement on local radio — and involved them in a process of consultation about what a new town should look like.
The answers were unsurprising. It should not be like most new developments — standardised suburban houses in cul-de-sacs — but instead should consist of mixed development, be walkable, and incorporate schools and shops. Duany and Moray Estates set about planning a new town, Tornagrain, and got planning permission in 2013.
By this point, it had become obvious that it was impractical for Duany, based in Florida, to supervise the detailed design of new housing in the Scottish Highlands, so Moray Estates employed Ben Pentreath, a young-ish architect who studied art history in Edinburgh and then architecture at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. Pentreath is a traditionalist, but a relatively flexible one, less doctrinaire than the previous generation of messianic anti-modernists and as much interested in issues of sustainability as classical design.
After a process which has already taken twenty years, they have so far built about 300 houses of 5,000 planned. Moray Estates has had to pay for all the basic infrastructure. But one can begin to get a sense of what is different to most other developments. The houses are pretty traditional, based on an early nineteenth-century, Scottish vernacular.
The lay out is deliberately irregular, including some houses on paths rather than roads, which the planning system hates. The houses are set back from the street behind hedges. Parking is as far as possible off-street. At the moment, it feels a touch unreal because it is relatively small-scale, but there are shops, a café, a nursery and allotments, which ordinary developers would not include.
So, what are the lessons of Tornagrain? The most obvious one is that to build a good new town requires a developer (in this case, Moray Estates) with a long-term view of investment and financial returns. Tornagrain is planned to grow organically over the next fifty years. It will not deliver the quick financial returns required by normal investors.
New housing needs more variety, more encouragement, and consequently, more government support
The second issue is that the architectural model is conservative which house-buyers like, but the architectural profession doesn’t. Tornagrain is never going to win the Stirling Prize. The design of the houses is not so different from that of the volume housebuilders, except they are much better quality. Great importance is attached to community support.
At the moment, housing policy is stuck. Incoming governments promise 300,000 new houses, but the planning system is incapable of delivering them. So, what should happen?
I think there could be a stick and a carrot. The stick would be a requirement for developers to build to higher standards in order to ensure sustainability. The carrot would be the government getting involved in the provision of infrastructure, even including possible matched funding for new development instead of leaving it entirely to the private sector.
It’s not impossible. Harold Wilson’s Labour government invested in new towns in the 1960s. There are plenty of landowners who might get involved if there were financial incentives. At the moment, new housing is controlled by three big volume housebuilders.
New housing needs more variety, more encouragement, and consequently, more government support.
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