It is probably time for my regular reminder that this blog expresses my personal and professional opinion. It does not necessarily reflect the official views of any organisation that employs me or with which I am associated.
On Wednesday 19th January, four Stirling Councillors voted to approve planning permission for an out-of-town retail and mixed-use development at Crookbridge, Stirling. They voted against the recommendation of the council officers to reject the application. By 4-2 the Planning and Regulation Panel Meeting drove another stake into the heart of ambitions for national and local outcomes and the enhancement of health and wellbeing, economic and social development, climate change and sustainability. They showed an inability to grasp the problems we have locally and nationally (if not globally) and the sort of solutions we need to support and plan for. The decision flies in the face of national and local policy approaches and of Town Centre First and the Place Principle, both of which Stirling Council supposedly are in agreement with and meant to adhere to.
The last thing the struggling Stirling city centre, and especially coming out of the pandemic, needed was another car-focused development including an Asda, offices, car showroom and fast food and drive thru’s on a greenfield site further away from the heart of Stirling than any other previous development. Quite what those trying to regenerate and revitalise the City Centre thought I do not know, but I would not be suprised if the Stirling BID members and the new owners of the Thistles Centre feel mightily let down. I certainly do.
There are many aspects of this whole saga, and if you can stand it you can watch the Planning and Regulation Panel Meeting on YouTube (here), with the discussion of this application starting at about 2 hours 42 minutes in. A short report in the Daily Record can be found here. You can see the councillors seemed to have been swayed by a large job figure; something that previous experience tells us will not fully materialise and which is even less likely in post-pandemic retailing.
The Scottish Government’s National Outcomes and approach are now well set down. The Government has declared a climate emergency, it has recently published plans seeking a 20% reduction in car kilometres in the next few years, its draft National Planning Framework 4 clearly signals the damage such out-of-town developments do and the need to reverse the trends and build places around concepts of 20-minute neighbourhoods, livability and avoiding damaging forms of transport and movement. At a local level Stirling is trying desperately to rebuild and re-energise its city centre. The sprawl of Springkerse (which this site extends further away from the city centre) is already a disaggregated, car-focused agglomeration.
The introduction for a forthcoming Holyrood Events seminar summarises the Scottish Government’s approach well:
“As Scotland transitions to a net-zero, well-being economy, and patterns of life change throughout the world, particularly in response to the Climate Emergency, planning and an “infrastructure first” approach is essential in successfully navigating the challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities that this trajectory presents.
With its proposed National Developments and National Planning Policy outlined in the document, the Scottish Government explains how Scotland will deliver net-zero through a place-based and plan-led approach to sustainable development. There is an emphasis on protecting the climate and nature and promoting human rights and equality. It also seeks to deliver enhanced livability through the pioneering 20-minute neighbourhoods policy approach. This approach aims to use planning to tackle health inequalities, minimise waste, and focus on building the right houses in the right places with inbuilt local infrastructure to reduce reliance on unsustainable modes of transport.”
The four councillors in Stirling clearly know otherwise.
The details of the application are not the focus here. If we are to be serious about our challenges, such developments as these no longer have a place. But specifically, the application relied on a 2007/8 advice note/guidance on how to do retail impact assessments and most of it did not need to meet the sequential test due to the nature and combination of uses the applicant combined. The core consumer data was the household survey from 2008 (with some estimates of change, though how you do this accurately given the last two years I do not know). The world has changed since 2007/8; it continues to do at pace and it needs to do even faster. Just think how retailing and town centres have changed in the last 15 years. This process was flawed in practice and in concept; hence the officer recommendation to reject.
But no, Stirling councillors backed a development designed to add more traffic and do more harm to people, the planet and the economy, locally and beyond. It beggars belief.
A few months ago I was asked in the light of my review for the Scottish Government, my chairmanship of and work with Scotland’s Towns Partnership, my academic professional expertise and possibly from being a long-term resident of Stirling, to be a member of the Council’s City Centre Working Group with an aim of helping to steer its revitalisation, and as part of a new focus from the Council on improving the City centre.
At the end of last week I resigned from the Group in the light of that decision on Wednesday. The Council officials and business people on the Group have, in my view, been badly let down. I see little future success for the Group when members of the Council are so eager to damage the place and to defy national priorities and all commonsense. I hope those left prove me wrong and Stirling City Centre can recover. I wish them well, but my frustration should be obvious. At least I have more time to spend with towns that are grasping a positive future.
These same councillors will no doubt pop up again soon decrying the state of the City Centre and demanding action. My thoughts if they do may best be left unwritten.