An innovative farm-forestry proposal in the Highlands
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
The Basic Proposal and its
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-
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
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 Offices
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
The proposals were also consistent, we believe, with the Highland Councils
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 Councils 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
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
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
Councils Inverness Area Senior Planner recommended refusal of the application on the
grounds that as the application was "in outline" and "...as the scheme did
not identify individual owners..." and furthermore, as "...an 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 officials recommendation and
resolved to refuse the application.
All seven of the Planning Committees grounds for refusal (set out in the Minute
of the Hearing) refer to the specific housing issue and invoked Highland Councils
"Housing in the Countryside Policy", which is supported, in the Committees
view, by the Scottish Offices 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 Councils 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.
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
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
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 Offices "Timber-frame Houses in the Scottish Countryside")
sets the scene in some detail and goes some way to explaining why both the publics
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
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 mans uneconomic thinning or clearfell could be a small
Highland communitys 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