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Wilson's Weekly Wrap

November 10 2008


It has to be said that securing an outline planning approval doesn’t usually command acres of column inches in the national press, but then it’s not every day an application needs to be finessed through the system by the Minister for Special Relations with US Tycoons.

To be fair, the owner of the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire contained himself to his usual level of hyperbole when responding to this past week’s announcement, unlike the good councillors of Aberdeenshire who felt the need to go into exaggeration overdrive in support of his proposed development.

For some reason unbeknown to those familiar with Scotland’s planning process, the notion that the project will be on site within three months seems to be commonly held amongst these worthy public representatives, notwithstanding the fact that the Trump International golf links proposal requires a number of separate, phased applications to be submitted before detailed approval can be given.

The first part of this will be a detailed masterplan for the Menie Estate, to be followed by separate proposals for two championship golf courses, a luxury hotel and the not insubstantial development of nearly 1000 houses.
The latter of course was intended to be the cash cow that paid for the rest, but John Swinney has insisted the golf courses be constructed before anything else, so the Donald will just have to spend real money before seeing any return on the investment.

As mentioned in last week’s Wrap, the ability of our man in the Big Apple to raise the cash in this particular order should prove interesting in these financially challenged times.

More intriguingly, it seems there is even the possibility that the Aberdeenshire councillors are commercially more savvy than they’ve previously given any indication of and that poor old Don is actually being used by them as a stalking horse for the transformation of the north east into a vast Golfopolis.

Only two days after giving Trumpton the green light, it seems Scottish ministers have also approved proposals put forward by the Muir Group for a £115m golf course, luxury hotel and 280 house development on the historic Blairs Seminary estate on the outskirts of the Granite City.

This, plus plans from Robert Lumsden, laird of the Banchory and Leggart Estate for a £700m ‘village’ and business hub, appears to give legs to claims by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (Acsef), the public and private partnership that drives (sic) development in the region that a £3bn investment bonanza is on its way.

In such a heady climate, it is easy to see why streamlining the planning system is now so high on the business and political agenda – forget your Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Scotland’s environment must henceforth not only be seen to have its doors opened wide to that elusive species, the inward investor, but also, it seems, its legs.

Scotland’s finest home. Nearly

So, Willie Haughey, chairman of City Refrigeration Holdings and one of the country’s wealthiest men, has been denied planning permission for “Scotland’s finest home”.

The former Celtic director and £1m + Labour party funder wanted to build a 28000 sq ft ‘American colonial style’ mansion with views of the Parkhead ground on an 11 acre site between Cambuslang and East Kilbride.
It should be said that South Lanarkshire Council planning officials had recommended the scheme for approval, but the application was referred to the Scottish Government because the site at Greenleeshill Farm is apparently part of the green belt.

Naturally disappointed, Mr Haughey commented ”I wasn’t expecting to get a refusal – there were no objections from locals or environmental groups”. 

Now, putting aside the fact that large tracts of South Lanarkshire Council’s purlieu have more in common with the landscape of the moon than anything that might remotely be described as attractive recreational terrain, it seems that Willie’s big (huge) mistake here was to only pitch for one – albeit fairly large – house to be built.

Had he submitted an application for several hundred plus a hotel and a couple of golf courses there can be little doubt he’d have been welcomed with open arms down Holyrood way and the economic importance of his plans given fairly instant precedence over any concerns for the preservation of the green belt. Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m missing something here.

In those we trust

It doesn’t get any better at the National Trust for Scotland. Not content with parting company with its previous, highly-paid chief executive, advertisements for a replacement indicate the new incumbent’s desk is unlikely to be found in the current Charlotte Square headquarters, but at an as yet unspecified location somewhere in the central belt.

The Trust of course, is desperately trying to close a £3m funding gap, and moving from the Robert Adam-designed property (restored in 2000 by Simpson & Brown Architects) could potentially reduce its overheads whilst improving organisational efficiency.

NTS is arguably the largest membership organisation in the country, but its ability to attract its 300,000+ card carriers to more than a few of its properties each year seems to be slipping with overall visitor numbers dropping from 1.5m in 2002 to 1.3m in 2007.

The looming recession is unlikely to ease the challenge faced by an incoming CEO, as he/she will have to deal with the twin realities of a slowing in the amount of money left to the charity in legacies and a considerably reduced investment income from a battered stock market. 

The NTS is up to its ears in new projects though, all of which require additional funds to be found – Dumfries House (on the coat tails of the Prince of Wales), Abbotsford House and the Burns Museum, mentioned in last week’s Wrap to name but three. Short of reconstituting itself as a bank and being bailed out by the UK government, it’s difficult to see how in the current climate the Trust – and its new CEO - is going to be able to continue spinning plates in its own (thankfully inimitable) way without a few of them crashing to the floor.

Time, surely, for a business plan that returns the Trust to its original purpose rather than continue with the pot pourri purveying that seems to have become its raison d’etre in recent years.

If you’re going to give a prize, give it

Being predominantly based in London, the UK’s architectural press has always had a problem with the award Andrew Doolan instituted for architecture in Scotland, given that it offered more money than any other UK prize.
Year on year there has been an implicit sneer in their reporting of the winning design, the inference being that the shortlisted projects are not really of UK national quality never mind of international standard.

Certainly its true that selected projects north of the border tend not to be all-singing, all-dancing ‘iconic’ statements of contemporary metropolitan architectural fashion being instead more of a reflection of what is currently happening in a country whose distinct culture and environment demands different kinds of architectural solutions to its needs.

In any case, from the outset the Andrew Doolan Prize was very much intended to raise standards in Scotland and who can say that over the past ten years architecture in Scotland has not seen significant improvement?
Whether intentional or not, this year’s shortlist highlighted the upsurge in quality in the country’s rural architecture, not something that ever manifests itself with, say, the Stirling Prize.

Indeed, over the lifetime of the Andrew Doolan prize, a number of very good projects outwith Scotland’s main cities have been successful – Sutherland Hussey’s ‘An Turas’ on Tiree and Reiach & Hall’s Pier Art Centre in Stromness coming immediately to mind - demonstrating a diversity of approach and concern for context that is often overlooked in other award schemes.

What then will the London press make of this year’s result – a split decision resulting in two urban projects sharing the spoils: Elder and Cannon for their restoration of Castlemilk Stables in Glasgow and the Potterrow development for Edinburgh University by Bennetts Associates?

Certainly they can be critical of a judging panel that couldn’t reach a conclusion– something that even ‘Celebrity Come Dancing’ manages to do every week – and you have to wonder at a chairman as experienced as Andy MacMillan not delivering a casting decision, although to be fair – and despite the high quality of all the entries - none of the projects this year jumped out as an obvious winner.

The RIAS – organisers of the award - have made what they can of this by gamely suggesting that the result offers a debate over what is the best building in Scotland, but if we are to go down this path we need to open the prize up to a public phone-in and forget all about having ‘expert’ architectural judges.

The profession needs to put its money (or in this case, Mrs Margaret Doolan’s and the Scottish Government’s) where its mouth is and tell the public what it believes is the best building – a split decision is a cop-out and simply confuses the issue.

A suggestion therefore: in future years the judges need to be told that they can’t leave the room until they come up with a winner and are able to give clear, publishable reasons for their choice. After all, anyone who knew Andrew Doolan would tell you he was not a man for equivocation.

Lighthouse musings

Linda Fabiani, MSP and Minister for Architecture was as confused as anyone by the decision she had to read out at Friday evening’s ceremony for the RIAS Andrew Doolan Prize, but in her speech she was absolutely clear on just how much money the Scottish Government was now putting into the promotion and support of architecture in Scotland.

Aside from announcing that she had agreed to raise the amount put into the RIAS Andrew Doolan Award from £15k to £25k, she carefully itemised the support her department had given to the Lighthouse since her party was elected to government – a sum not unadjacent to £1m.

For anyone listening carefully, the sub-text was clear: whatever financial problems the Lighthouse may currently be experiencing, they are not of her government’s making.

The Lighthouse has argued that the cancellation of the ‘Six Cities Festival’ has left a large hole in it finances, but this was a project initiated by the previous administration and, given its lack of impact in any of Scotland’s major cities last year, it is hardly surprising the government chose not to continue with it.

The Lighthouse’s follow up argument to this has been that it has no real core finance and that it is too dependent upon project funding which, as with the ‘Six Cities Festival’, is volatile.

Whilst the organisation’s accounting methods as regards core and non-core may be open to interpretation, its ability to deliver individual has been shown up a little by the reported cost overrun of £100k on the temporary structure designed by Gareth Hoskins Architects for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.

There is no question that the structure was a success and put Scottish architecture on the map at the event, but subsequent reporting of the Lighthouse’s project management and the astonishing cost overrun has – as is so often the case in Scotland – managed to secure defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Lighthouse’s third argument is that it should be treated like the National Galleries or National Museums and be given sufficient core funding to carry out its operations.
This, however, is to deny the basis upon which the Lighthouse was established, but more importantly to confuse its function with those institutions that have a clear custodial function over important aspects of the nation’s heritage.

With no collection to speak of nor a need to retain specialist expertise, the Lighthouse has simply not established its case for permanence within the cultural infrastructure of the nation.
As mentioned last week, the City of Glasgow Council has been approached for additional support, but there must surely come time when the good councillors will ask themselves what the real value of the venue is to the city, especially when they are being pressed to make cuts in other public services.
In the same week that Southwark Council in London intimated its intention to fight to retain the Design Museum within its boundaries, it is difficult to envision the City of Glasgow Council making the same kind of statement on behalf of the Lighthouse.

There would, after all, have to be another city pitching to attract it away from Glasgow, an unlikely scenario given the Lighthouse’s history and the financially straitened times in which we live.

And finally…

To Dublin and the intriguing case of U2’s missing tower. Readers with an unhealthy interest in the past decade’s fashion for the vertical will recall the intention of Bono and the bhoys to erect the tallest building in Ireland.

The Foster & Partners - designed tower was to have housed new penthouse level recording studios for the band and presumably a few other functions as well, but it seems even rock giants can be affected by the credit crunch.

The bottom having now fallen out of the Irish property market and commercial property speculation off the rock’n’roll radar, it looks like the lads will just have to make do with those old stand-by’s, sex and drugs, for the next little while. Times as they say, can be tough.

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