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Whitebridge Forest-Farms

An innovative farm-forestry proposal in the Highlands

Bernard Planterose


In late 1996 Lonsdale Forestry applied to the Highland Council for planning permission to divide a conifer plantation into four separate units with a house on each. The scheme was envisaged and presented as a model of one type of ‘farm-forestry’, ‘crofting forestry’ or ‘agroforestry’ appropriate to Highland Scotland, and the developer took care to demonstrate a willingness to work in close co-operation with the council and other interested statutory bodies. However, in April 1997, the Highland Council Inverness Area Planning Committee refused outline planning permission.

The Basic Proposal and its Preparation

In 1996 Lonsdale Forestry, the owners of Whitebridge Plantation to the south of Loch Ness, approached Neil Sutherland, an architectural consultant, and Bernard Planterose, an ecological and forestry consultant, for advice on the preparation of proposals for the division of the plantation, which extends to 250 hectares (ha), into smaller units and the erection of an appropriate house for each unit with a view to selling the units as autonomous, freehold farm-forestry holdings.

In September 1996, we presented Lonsdale with "An Outline Proposal" which suggested subdivision of the plantation into 3-4 units of between 30 and 100 ha each and a revised restocking plan to permit a variety of management options appropriate to small-scale, intensive woodland management.

We had in mind the example of Norway where the average farm-forestry holding comprises 10ha farmland and 56ha forest and has at least one privately-owned dwelling. It may also have small business infrastructure and other buildings such as stockhouses, dairy, sawmill, workshops, horticultural areas (including covered growing spaces). (Not all Norwegian forest farmers work only on their forest holding, although many do.)

The proposal was intended to offer scope for the natural evolution of ‘farm or crofting forestry" which has no strongly established tradition in Highland Scotland, although it is endorsed by the Crofting Forestry (Scotland) Act 1991. In making our proposal we envisaged an extension of the typical Scottish Highland crofting situation in which Whitebridge forest-farmers might have additional part-time employment to complement their management of the land. We also envisaged that in the most integrated examples the part-time work would take place on the unit itself and might involve the processing of some forest farm product.

There was no intention, or indeed possibility, of dictating to new owners how they should manage their woodland. However, we outlined, for the purposes of discussion, four examples of how the units might be managed , each with a different range of species and a different cutting regime. Together the four units would undoubtedly create an excellent mixed woodland of high landscape and wildlife quality. In ecological and forestry terms, the examples place emphasis on (1) variety of species, (2) native species and (3) continuous cover forest management; and in economic terms on (1) production of high-quality, high-value timber and (2) on-farm processing.

We suggested that one of the four units might be managed for the high-quality firewood market. This would involve the coppicing of alder, birch, ash and oak for instance - all native broad-leaved species that respond excellently to such intensive and specialized management. This unit would require a firewood processor - maybe a combined tractor-powered cross-cutting saw and splitter along with bagging and drying sheds. This would be an good example of appropriate light industry meeting proven local demand.

A second unit might specialize in the production of high-value craft woods such as birch, holly, oak, alder, dog rose, juniper, elm and many other native broad-leaved species which would be ideal for these purposes. This unit would require a very small sawing facility and, say, a kiln and storage sheds. The manager of this unit would probably process some of the timber on site and would therefore require modest workshops from which some produce might be sold.

A third unit might specialize in the supply of a range of high-quality constructional timbers and might therefore grow some Douglas fir, European larch and Scots pine along with ash, oak and beech, for instance, for internal applications. The manager of this unit might well create a small construction business around his or her own timber supplies and would also require workshops, drying sheds and a kiln as well as storage for moderate scale forestry equipment.

The fourth forest-farm unit might include a horticultural component and utilize deciduous leaf-litter for rich compost as well as the shelter of mixed forest for a variety of stock. It might also be managed actively for wildlife conservation, creating a diverse, organically managed unit of a type that dovetails well with the provision of high-quality visitor accommodation.

It is not hard to imagine how co-operation might evolve between the four different operations. This might include the sharing of harvesting equipment and drying and storage facilities for timber, for instance.

Our proposals stated that buildings would be carefully designed and located to make an interesting contribution to landscape. They would link with the topography and the design of new woodlands in a harmonious manner that would mirror the close relationship between the inhabitants themselves and their environment. Buildings would incorporate features derived from the most recent understanding of how ‘sustainability’ principles should be applied to house construction on forest farms. For instance, they would display outstandingly low embodied energies and running energy requirements. Their materials would be largely local, natural and toxin-free. Their very design would therefore promote respect for the environment in resident and visitor alike. By integrating building design with landscape both visually and by the use of local materials they would provide models of so-called "ecological building".

We emphasised that the proposal should provide a high-quality example of the innovative concept of ‘Forest-Farming’. We wished to respond positively to the challenge of developing a new architectural vernacular for the rural Highlands of Scotland, and we tried very hard do so in accordance with the currently widely-held and officially-promoted goals of achieving "sustainability" and blending environmental and social responsibility. In common parlance you could say that the proposal was "right- on" !

Policy Statements Supporting the Proposal

We believe our proposals were in keeping with key statements about sustainable policies for woodland management, resource use, and the economic welfare of fragile or disadvantaged rural communities - statements which have been made by both international conventions and national and local governments in the wake of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.

We intended to contribute to innovation in the field of appropriate, small-scale, ecological or sustainable land management with resources being managed for local use, as advocated in the Helsinki Guidelines, on which UK forestry policy has been based .

We believe the proposals were also consistent with the principles elaborated by the Forests and People Rural Areas Initiative (FAPIRA) in the Scottish Office’s publication "Forests and People in Rural Scotland (1995) which stands at the forefront of government thinking on forestry policy in Scotland today. The FAPIRA initiative aims to "promote the social value of woodland and ways of deriving the greatest benefits from woods and forests in rural areas, particularly for local people". It endorses the principles of Rural Development Forestry (RDF) including "... the more direct and beneficial participation (of rural people) owning or controlling forests...".

The proposals were also consistent, we believe, with the Highland Council’s Structure Plan, with its policies of promoting development in socially fragile and disadvantaged areas; encouraging "new housing and associated building in areas which are continuing to experience depopulation or require further development to maintain their viability"; and with its policy on housing in the countryside and its emphasis on "good design" with the dwellings, for instance, "properly located in harmony with the landscape" (RS1). The Whitebridge area is zoned in the draft Local Plan as a "Restricted Countryside Area" in which according to Highland Council policy " a strong presumption will be maintained against the development of houses’ except where a house is ESSENTIAL for the management of the land".

In an amendment of the Structure Plan (Alteration No.1 (Forestry) October 1994) the Highland Council endorses "the development of a diverse, multiple-purpose woodland resource which...creates lasting employment opportunities and makes the best possible use of native species...". The document goes on to say: "In particular, the Council is keen to encourage farm forestry on an appropriate scale as a diversification option for farmers and crofters whose livelihoods are likely to be made uncertain by changes in agricultural policy." The Strathdearn, Strathnairn and Loch Ness East Local Plan also endorses these policies.

The proposals also seemed to accord with the Highland Council’s Indicative Forestry Strategy (IFS) which has as its principal theme the development of multi-purpose forestry, identifying specifically "demand for a wider range of home-grown timber products, e.g., slow-growth pine for joinery work, birch for turnery ... and timber dwellings", and also advocates "the development of a wood crafts sector based on native species".

The Planning Application and the Immediate Response

Late in 1996 we lodged an outline planning application with Highland Council for four houses, one on each 65ha forest unit and received comments by the end of the year. Those from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) were constructive, but we also received from the council copies of 10 representations from local households, along with one from a company of chartered surveyors acting for the local hotel and one each from a surveyor and solicitor acting for the surrounding estate. These representations were all hostile and culminated in the presentation of a local petition against the proposal.

The Highland Council (Planning and Building Control Services) asked us to respond to the public representations and notified us of the need for a Public Hearing in view of the local response. They also asked us to consider submitting full planning applications with full supporting papers which would give details of "operational requirement" and potential owners.

The Proposers’ Response to the Objections

In January 1997 we confirmed that the proposers wished to proceed with an Outline Planning Application in order to establish the principle of the development (i.e., of forest farming in this location at this scale). We pointed out that it was unrealistic to produce the level of detail required to support a full Planning Application at this early stage when it was not known who might occupy the properties. We emphasised that we regarded the locations of the house sites as "open to consideration", and expressed our hopes of "proper consultation with the Highland Council and SNH in connection with the detailed elaboration of woodland and business management plans together with a Section 50 Agreement if necessary". We felt we could not have done more to indicate our willingness to co-operate with the planning authority and went on to present a very detailed explanation of why we felt the proposal was consistent with national and local government policy, invoking the policy statements referred to above.

The Refusal and the Reasons Given

At the Public Hearing held in the Town Hall, Inverness in April 1997, Highland Council’s Inverness Area Senior Planner recommended refusal of the application on the grounds that as the application was "in outline" and " the scheme did not identify individual owners..." and furthermore, as " exact statement of the extent of the business had not been made... the applications had to be treated as four individual house sites in the countryside" which was "...against Council Policy RS1.1". The Planning Committee accepted its official’s recommendation and resolved to refuse the application.

All seven of the Planning Committee’s grounds for refusal (set out in the Minute of the Hearing) refer to the specific housing issue and invoked Highland Council’s "Housing in the Countryside Policy", which is supported, in the Committee’s view, by the Scottish Office’s National Planning Policy.

Clearly, these policies have very important implications for rural development and for rural development forestry (RDF) in particular. It could be argued that, on account of them, the Whitebridge proposal never even left the starting blocks. It is interesting to note that judging by the Council’s own Minute of the Hearing virtually no consideration was given by the Committee or the planning officials to the forestry/resource use implications or the wider issues of environmental or indeed socio-economic sustainability. The case for farm-forestry as an innovation or precedent was not under discussion: the debate never reached that point.

One of the grounds for refusal reads: "If approved, [the development] would create a serious precedent leading to further applications for housing development all to the detriment of the area." Note how this perceives ‘housing’ as the problem rather than ‘farm-forestry’ itself.

The Whitebridge plantation is classified in the final draft of the Local Plan as a "Sensitive Area" (one type of "Restricted Countryside Area" as defined at RS1.3 in the Structure Plan) in which "a strong presumption will be maintained against the development of houses". In such areas an ‘operational requirement’ for housing needs to be demonstrated for a planning application to succeed. To prove an operational requirement, we needed to submit what amounted to detailed management and business plans for four operations or businesses. These could only evolve after owners had been found and the units sold, which of course could only happen after planning permission had been granted - a Catch 22 situation.

Discussion of the Reasons - Ostensible and Underlying

The failure of the Whitebridge Proposal raises important questions about innovative schemes for small-scale resource-based employment linked to new housing in rural area in the Highlands. Agro-forestry or farm-forestry represents one way of assisting sustainable rural development and the term "Rural Development Forestry" has entered the language of rural consultants and some planners. Our proposal was intended to provide a well-thought-out model for the application of the principles of RDF. It also provided an opportunity for the Highland Council to demonstrate the importance it attached to its policy on farm forestry as stated in the Structure Plan and to assist, in conjunction with the appropriate agencies and sympathetic consultants, those wishing to develop projects consistent with the policy.

So why did the application meet such a blank? To be fair, it has to be said that we did little in the way of consultation with people living in the area and under-estimated the potential opposition to the proposals. We did keep the local councillor informed and she showed a positive response at an early stage. In the end though, objections orchestrated by one local estate put both the Area Committee and the full Highland Council in an awkward spot, and it would have been hard to fly in the face of such strong local feelings. I would suggest, however, that behind the frequent local objections to ‘development’ in rural areas there are both prejudices in elected bodies and presumptions in planning departments which need to be addressed. In particular, there are two specific attitudes which seem to prevail in both the public mind and official policy and practice and act as brakes on rural development. These can be represented as: a. empty landscape is good landscape; and b. housing is ugly.

Some headway has been made in recent years in dismantling the first of these. Commentators from both ecological and social backgrounds have repeatedly drawn attention to the unnaturalness of barren Highland landscapes and to the beauty, ecological richness, and economic health of several regions of the world which successfully combine potentially fragile mountain landscapes, vigorous human populations, and healthy tourist industries. One of our closest neighbours, Norway, has frequently been cited as a highly pertinent example.

Nevertheless, their views need considerable reinforcement in some quarters. The barrenness and emptiness of the Highlands will surely always be found by those who seek it out. In the meantime, is it healthy that a whole economy and social fabric be held ransom to the perceived requirements of those who visit for a couple of weeks a year? A valuable maxim to which to adhere might be "an ecologically healthy landscape is necessarily a good landscape", for such a landscape would have a more diverse matrix of land uses (and non-uses) than we have today, created and actively managed by a larger and more dispersed population.

The association of new houses (in the countryside) with ugliness and damage to the environment is widespread, and I suggest that the "kit bungalow", with its characteristic fundamentally poor design, alien materials and frequent unsympathetic siting, has contributed to the prevailing attitude against new housing. We might ask whether this attitude pervades the planning department itself? This would be paradoxical to say the least, given its executive role, but is it not the case that both public and planners’ expectations of new rural housing in the Highlands are very low?

Fortunately there is interest at the highest level in tackling this issue (see paragraph 22, "Towards a Development Strategy for Rural Scotland, Scottish Office 1997). The fact that contemporary rural housing in upland Scotland is perceived as ugly by a wide spectrum of interests has been acknowledged recently by the Scottish Office in its consultation paper Investing in Quality : Improving design of new housing in the Scottish Countryside (April 1998)." This document (read in conjunction with the Scottish Office’s "Timber-frame Houses in the Scottish Countryside") sets the scene in some detail and goes some way to explaining why both the public’s and planners’ expectations of new rural housing have fallen so low. This well-intentioned initiative to improve the situation may help to undo the prejudice against new housing (and other building) which dogs innovative development proposals. The case for the support of ‘environmentally conscious’ building has never been stronger, and I believe every encouragement should be given to designers and developers willing to take a lead in providing examples of high-quality ecological building on units of land managed in an integrated way.


Traditional forestry and the plantations it has produced in Highland Scotland have been faulted from many different viewpoints, social and ecological, aesthetic and spiritual. ‘Restructuring’ of some plantations is currently underway, and this will address a number of specific criticisms. However a more radical reassessment of traditional practice which advocates sub-division of large plantations into smaller units is attractive in the context of rural development. Such sub-division may be economically attractive to forestry companies faced from time to time with unthinned and/or undermanaged forests (viz. the Forestry Commission's disposals programme itself).

Sub-division would mean that more smaller units would become available on the market at lower prices and would therefore be within the reach of larger numbers of people. Lack of availability of small units is currently the obstacle to the refinement of the concept and the exploration of the economic viability of small-scale farm- or croft-forestry. The various community-led initiatives to own and manage woodland in different parts of Scotland are exciting and useful, but we also need a healthy sector of individuals to pioneer a wide variety of small scale owner-occupier woodland management systems.

A change of attitude by planners to the creation and management of smaller forest/woodland units with associated houses would assist would-be forest dwellers and the owners who might sell to them. There are a wealth of small-scale industries associated with woodland management which already receive encouragement from Highland Council policy. But the Council must wake up to the need to allow, even to promote, housing in plantations as a corollary of the growth of this economic sector. At present, "forestry" stands as a planning zone all of its own in both Structure and Local Plans, and this serves only to reinforce the disjunction between forestry and local economic activity, forests and housing.

Yet forests, including conifer plantations, are ideal environments in which to create buildings of high ecological and aesthetic standards: they provide a ready supply of one of the most versatile and aesthetically pleasing building materials - timber, which requires low amounts of energy for its conversion and transport if it is milled on site. Forests ameliorate climate (including wind), which means lower energy/running costs for the buildings which they shelter, and provide biofuel with associated low transport costs. In addition, they have the ability to screen development.

There is scepticism about small-scale woodland management and there is fear of new housing. To combat these, we need the support of the planners and agencies wherever and whenever members of the public show commitment to the ideals of integrated forest living and farm-forestry and make imaginative proposals for putting these ideals into practice. We urgently need to encourage, rather than dismiss in summary fashion, examples and pilot projects in this field of development. In the ‘fearful’ context I have described, I am not surprised that the Whitebridge proposal failed. But I am not disheartened, for I am sure there will be more. My hope is that this paper may encourage agents of larger forest owners to consider such schemes when they have to dispose of woodland holdings. One man’s uneconomic thinning or clearfell could be a small Highland community’s new hope or inspiration.


Timber-frame Houses in the Scottish Countryside, Scottish Office, March 1994

Investing in Quality : Improving design of new housing in the Scottish Countryside , Scottish Office, April 1998

For Further Reading

Crofter Forestry Experiences, Scottish Crofters Union, Old Mill,Harapool, Broadford, Isle of Skye (Telephone 01471-822529)

Forests and People in Rural Scotland, Scottish Office (HMSO, 1995)

Indicative Forest Strategy, Highland Regional Council, 1992

Norway -Scotland Study Tour, Reforesting Scotland (1993)

Towards a Development Strategy for Rural Scotland, Scottish Office, 1997



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