The local community gets involved
On a chilly winter night, over 75 people turned out to participate in a public meeting arranged by NICE to discuss the plans for the future of Nairn’s town centre. Community Councils and local business associations were represented, along with many prominent local residents.
The event produced some useful ideas and clear indications of local opinion and preferences.
Setting the scene and outlining the issues
The evening began with a brief explanation of why NICE had been formed: essentially to mobilise and represent the collective views of the community of Nairn – in the absence of a single unified Community Council – on development and other matters which affected the whole town, and to engage in dialogue with the Council on planning matters and related issues. Members of the NICE working group then gave a sequence of presentations, starting with a visual reminder of the qualities and features that that make Nairn an attractive town, and some thought-provoking images of the less-appealing aspects of the town centre.
The audience was reminded of the Council’s intentions: to market the land for development, on the basis of a brief which envisaged essentially housing and parking. After a brief mention of the public feedback received so far, the NICE design team described their initial work on a possible design for the town centre – including possible redevelopment of the adjacent Library and old bus station land, with changes to the layout of King Street to improve traffic flow and access. Elements of NICE’s thinking had been fed into the Council plans at a design workshop in late November, resulting in the current 3D outlines available on the Highland Council’s website.
The NICE presentations concluded with a brief account of the major challenge – how to find the significant amounts of funding that would be required for any alternative to the Council’s sell-off plans.
A number of key issues were then raised in the open Q & A session:
Timing, and the Council’s strategy
Given the Council’s perceived intention to proceed with the sale of the site in early 2011 after the modest extension of the consultation period, the first and very blunt question was “why the rush?” After 15 years of the Council’s previous approach, which had delivered no results, some felt the present unseemly haste could not be justified. Currently land prices and demand were depressed, and developers were finding it hard to raise finance: there was a risk that the land would be sold and then – like other sites around the town centre – simply left undeveloped. Some audience members found it hard to reconcile the short official timescale with the clear statement by Councillor Sandy Park that there was “no pressure” to sell-off the site. Numerous people called for much more time to enable fuller consultation and exploration and discussion of alternative design and development options. Some believed that the Council would indeed be willing to defer the disposal plans and to respond more positively to local wishes. Others expressed grave concern that the Council would ignore local views and dismiss any suggestions or initiatives which were not accompanied by firm funding commitments.
The financial challenge and the role of the community
There were several comments about the scope for greater community engagement in the development process. Some recalled the earlier initiative of the Nairn Fund. Others pointed to the political priority now being given to encouraging local community-based schemes elsewhere in the country, and the linkage with the question of possible use of Common Good assets. Perhaps a community buy-out was one option to explore. There might also be an opportunity to access some of the public funds allocated to support the local economy following the closure of RAF Kinloss. This led to a show of hands on the prospect of local support for a community-based enterprise to take on the role of fund-raising and, potentially, undertaking local development. Some 50 of the 75 people present supported such an idea, while recognising that this would need significant further work and could not be achieved without the positive support of the Highland Council.
There was acceptance that if more housing was needed in Nairn, it should not be located on this town-centre site. A range of other suggestions were made on detailed aspects of the possible future development of the site – from revision of bus-stand locations to the promotion of the tourism potential of Nairn by developing specific projects aimed at attracting visitors. The importance of preserving the character and identity of Nairn was underlined in some robust comments expressing concern about the expansion of Inverness and the continuing loss of green space and arable land.
A strong plea was made for “holistic planning” – for the Council to take a joined-up approach to the development of the centre of town. The future of this particular site should not be taken forward in isolation and independently of the wider consultation and planning for the rest of the town which was in prospect during 2011.
Progress so far, and the way forward
The meeting attendance, and the comments, underlined the level of local interest, and of support for NICE’s efforts. It was recognised that the site was critically important for the future regeneration of the town. This was a unique opportunity. A successful and appropriate design would revive the town. An unsuitable or ill-judged plan would do lasting damage. There was a consensus in favour of a design plan which made good use of existing sound buildings, and which offered a balanced mix of well-designed buildings (for retail, office and other uses), public open space, and parking.
The discussions point the way forward for NICE.
- Within the next six weeks the first objective is for the group – and local individuals – to put forward more thoughts and comments on the Council’s existing draft brief for this site;
- In parallel, there is a clear objective of persuading the Council that good planning practice, their own local planning framework, and common sense, all require that the development of this site be considered alongside the proposals for adjacent sites and public buildings, and integrated with the overall draft plan for Nairn. If this results in a the decision about the eventual disposal of this town centre site being deferred until consultation takes place on the wider plans for the town, this is no bad thing in present circumstances;
- A third objective will be for NICE to seek professional and expert advice, and Council views, on the options for alternative, more ambitious development options in which the local community – or a suitable community organisation – can be involved as a key stakeholder.
Making sure local views count
Jimmy Ferguson, the acting chair of NICE, commented, “The significant turn-out tonight reveals the extent of public interest among the people of Nairn, and we appreciate the support that local residents have shown. The discussions confirm how much still needs to be done to persuade the Highland Council to adjust its proposals to take full account of local views. All those who attended, and all other residents of the town, are urged to join NICE as members – and to participate in the ongoing discussions – in order to ensure that the development plans deliver a town centre of which we can all be proud.”
14 December 2010
Download a high resolution pdf of the Masterplan presented on Monday. As a result of comments received a new plan will be released in the next few days.
To add your weight to the growing public desire to see a better solution for town centre development, become a member of NICE completing and returning this form.
The Highland Council’s original draft brief, and the illustrations of possible modifications, are available at the Service Point or online at the Council’s website http://www.highland.gov.uk/yourenvironment/planning/developmentplans/localplans/NairnTownCentreDraftDevelopmentBrief.htm