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Rural Settlements A Scottish Perspective

John Moir and David Rice

Stephen Owen, in an edition of Urban Design [1] and also elsewhere [2] is critical of planning for its overcautious approach to rural housing development because he believes it has stifled the socioeconomic opportunities and vitality of the village. Owen's is not a lone voice on this. Over the fast fifteen years at least, some academics such as Newby [3] , [4] and the Rural Development Commission have questioned what is seen as the 'blanket' restraint on development in the countryside and it is little wonder that this issue has become so central to the DoE's Rural White Paper. [5]

Owen [1] , [2] is also critical of planning's apparent failure to promote quality design in rural settlements. Design policy relies on: ,meaningless exhortations towards "high standards of design"(Owen, p. 11) [1] and 'negative phraseology ... [paying] lip service to the need for good design but rarely [promoting] it effectively'(Owen, p. 14). [2]

He calls for a more 'discriminatory' approach to restraint complemented by the introduction of a rural design initiative.

Our intention here is not to reject Owen's view. Indeed the empirical work which we have recently undertaken in Scotland, provides some justification for Owen's criticisms of planning policy. However, our work also suggests that Scottish rural local authorities may have already moved away from 'blanket restraints' on the location of housing in the countryside and are taking initial steps towards improving the design of rural housing.

Levels of Restraint

Our research examined the policies of six regional, twenty three district and four unitary authorities in relation to the location and design of housing in the countryside [6]. The results revealed that a protectionist stance is still clearly discernible throughout rural Scotland. All local authorities had some form of policy for protecting the countryside with strong restraints effectively limiting most housing development in 'designated countryside', for example prime agricultural land, National Scenic Areas, Nature Reserves and SSSIs. But there is also noticeable spatial variation in the level of restraint applied to 'non-designated' countryside. Strict controls on virtually all development (with the usual and long-established caveats for development such as that required for 'operational need') are being used in 'green belt and 'urban fringe' locations around Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen - but not Dundee's rural suburbs where there has been no 'green belt' since the 1980s and where the Rural Areas Local Plan and draft District Plan incorporated differing levels of control on development throughout the plan area. Finally strict controls have been applied in some scenic areas such as Arran, considered to be under pressure from non- local housing demands.

Yet throughout much of Scotland's rural periphery, local authorities are displaying a willingness to accept small-scale and individual housing development not only in the (sometimes small) nucleated settlements but also in 'countryside development zones' or the open countryside in general. Such a relaxed approach is fairly widespread and can be seen in much of Highland and Grampian Regions, and parts of Angus and the Borders. Local authorities justify their willingness to allow small scale and isolated housing development on the grounds that it:

Interestingly too, with certain exceptions (for example Highland's Black Isle Local Plan Alteration and Perth and Kinross's Perth Area Local Plan), such a relaxed approach has not generated great controversy.

Therefore, there is no universal practised policy of restraint on housing in the Scottish countryside. Controls on development are applicable in some areas but more relaxed policies are being applied in others.

Design Guidance

Of course, the local plan has also been used as a vehicle for setting out local authority policy on the design of rural housing. Virtually all of the local plans in our sample had design policies which were generalised and brief, more than conforming to the limitations highlighted by Owen. Policies such as:

' building should pay attention to layout and design.' '...the design of development should maintain and enhance the visual amenity of its setting.' 'siting and design [of new housing]... should be sympathetic and not appear incongruous.'

are only three from a large number which could have been chosen to illustrate this point.

However, many local authorities are also going beyond the statutory local plan in an attempt to address rural design issues - though in a way which reflects the distinctive characteristic of Scottish rural settlement and therefore, representing a refinement on what Owen advocates. Owen equates rural settlement with villages; this is entirely appropriate and valid in England where the village has been so significant in the settlement pattern for centuries.[7] , [8] In Scotland, historical and cultural factors have led to a different form and pattern of settlement. As Millman, [9] Naismith, [10] Perry and Slater [11] I have stressed, although nucleated settlements, particularly those arising from eighteenth and nineteenth century 'improvements', are widespread, the village is not the characteristic settlement form - except perhaps in south- east Scotland. Dispersed settlement is more a feature of the Scottish countryside. Therefore a 'design initiative' for rural housing needs to be orientated more towards dispersed and isolated housing in the countryside.

Despite this distinction between Scotland and England, the 'design problem' is similar. The quality of modern rural housing has generated as much controversy in Scotland as it has in England. [10] , [12] , [13] The problem has become so acute that it has stimulated a series of responses from the Scottish Office. It has sponsored research into timber framed housing in the countryside [14] and has also produced advice for local authorities on how to accommodate the extension of settlements into the landscape.[15] But preceding both of these initiatives, was an Advice Note[16] urging local authorities to prepare design guidance for housing in the countryside.

Our own research looked at the guidance offered by local authorities as a means of setting design standards for housing in the countryside. In our sample of local authorities, nineteen (districts and unitary authorities) had prepared design guidance for prospective applicants. A further four indicated their intention to prepare design guides. It is also known that at least two other authorities not covered in our survey have prepared guidance. Only four in our sample gave no indication of a commitment to the preparation of a design guide for rural housing.

Three authorities (Angus, Argyll and Gordon) had prepared design guidance before PAN 36 (1991), but the majority had prepared or updated their guidance after 1991. It seems that PAN 36 [16] has acted as a catalyst for local authority action on the rural housing design issue and indeed several authorities made it quite clear that their design guides were prepared in response to PAN 36. Interestingly though, the local authorities appear to have elaborated on PAN 36 by adding to the siting and design considerations set out in the Advice Note.

Illustrations from Moray District Plan.

1 Traditional domestic dwellings

Rural dwellings have evolved in response to their setting and function in the countryside. The architecture is simple but functional, yet has a distinctive style, which gives the Moray countryside its individual identity.

2 Catalogue bungalows

Belongs to nowhere yet found everywhere. Easily absorbed into the city suburbs, where it can blend more effectively with the built-up area. In the Scottish countryside, however, it appears 'out of place' and unable to blend with its natural surroundings.

3 A Suburban Approach

Bulldoze the site, removing all contours, trees and hedgerows. Add a sweeping driveway, a modern bungalow on a platform with an absence of landscaping and you create an insensitive development which irrevocably damages the natural features of the countryside.

4 A Rural Approach

A much more successful result, providing the same level of accommodation, can be achieved by a better selection of site, a more sensitive house design, and a more thoughtful use of contours and landscape features.

The local design guidance which has been produced does vary considerably in content and quality of presentation. In cases where authorities have used 'Housing in the Countryside' development control policy notes, guidance covers only a few siting and design considerations. These cases hardly constitute what was envisaged by the Scottish Office. Moreover a minority of authorities refer prospective applicants to PAN 36. Clearly this is entirely inappropriate. It was never the Scottish Office's intention for their advice which is 'general' and has no specific locational setting, to be translated so literally into any local context. Finally, whilst the Scottish Office and a number of rural authorities recognise the importance of regional and local 'character', relatively few design guides explain what this means in detail.

Nevertheless, despite these limitations, there is also much to commend the design guidance which has been produced. Scottish local authorities are adopting a more positive and pro- active role on design standards, Many provide a clear statement of what should (and should not) be incorporated into the siting and design of rural housing. Although Owen is critical of county- wide design guides for promoting standardisation and suburbanisation in housing design, this may not apply to the newly emerging Scottish design guidance. The origins of the latter can be traced back to the works of Naismith, [10] Fladmark et al [12] and PAN 36 which were specifically geared towards promoting the maintenance of, or revival in, the Scottish rural vernacular. The concept of Scottish rural housing design is very much part of the local design guides. A model in this respect must be Moray District Council's Local Plan (c1993) [17] which illustrates:


It is not suggested here that Stephen Owen's plea for a 'rural design initiative' will be satisfied if he simply looks north. The Scottish approach presented above still leaves a number of questions unanswered. For example, how effectively will the design guidance be implemented? Will it lead to a 'better' outcome in terms of the design of rural housing? Moreover, there is room for refinement, particularly in the case of ' regional and local character', where a more precise definition should be developed.

Nevertheless, despite this, there are clear signs that Scottish local planning authorities:

Indeed the increased significance attached to the design of rural housing in Scotland offers an interesting opportunity for planning to switch direction on its housing in the countryside policies. Instead of attempting to maintain countryside amenity through a safety-first approach involving a virtual block on housing development, it may be possible to adopt a more flexible and relaxed approach which permits housing development in the countryside because, if well designed, housing can make a positive contribution to landscape - as it has for centuries.#


1. Owen. S. (1995), 'Rural Settlement Design' Urban Design , Issue 54, April, pp. 9-11.

2. Owen, S. (1995), 'Rural Rethink', Planning Week , Vol. 3, No. 11, 16 March, pp. 14-15.

3. Newby, H. Bell, C., Rose, D. and Saunders, P. (1978), Property Paternalism and power: Class and Control in Rural England , Hutchison.

4. Newby, H. (1980), Green and Pleasant Land , Pelican, Harmondsworth.

5. Department of the Environment (1995), Rural England - A Nation Committed to A Living Countryside , HMSO.

6. Moire, J., Rice, D. and Watt, A. (1995), 'Housing in the Countryside: The Locational and design Policies of Scottish Local Authorities', Centre for Planning Research. Research Paper No. 1 , School of Town and Regional Planning, University of Dundee.

7. Hoskins, W. G. (1970), The Making of the English Landscape , Pelican, Harmondsworth.

8. Taylor, C., (1983), Village and Farmstead - A History of Rural Settlement in England . George Philip, London.

9. Millman, R., (1975), The Making of the Scottish Landscape , Batsford.

10. Naismith, R., (1985), Buildings in the Scottish Countryside , Victor Goilancz.

11. Perry, M. L. and Slater, T L. (eds) (1980), The Making of the Scottish Countryside , Croom Helm, London.

12. Fladmark, J., Mulvagh, G. and Evans, B, (1991), Tomorrow's Architectural Heritage Landscape and Building in the Countryside , Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh.

13. Jarman, D. (ed) (1993), Field of Vision: New Ideas on Rural House Design , RIAS, Edinburgh.

14. Richards, J. and Richards, M. (1994), Timber Frame Houses in the Scottish Countryside , HMSO, Edinburgh.

15. Scottish Office Environment (1994), 'Fitting New Housing Development into the Landscape', PAN 44 , Scottish Office, Edinburgh.

16. Scottish Office Environment (1991),'The Siting and Design of New Housing in the Countryside, PAN 36 , Scottish Office, Edinburgh.

17. Moray District Council (c1993),'Moray District Local Plan 1993-1998, Housing in the Countryside , Moray District Council.

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