“One Small Step for Highland Council, One Giant Leap for Nairn…” – or is it the other way round?

  • The Ward Forum:  HC’s latest presentation

The principal subject on the regular Ward Forum agenda on 26 January was the future of Nairn Town Centre.  The meeting has been reported in detail in the local “Nairnshire Telegraph”.  Council officials acknowledged, but did not fully accept, the ideas and input that had come forward not only from NICE working groups but also from others in the town.  In his presentation the Council planner, Tim Stott, listed the elements in the NICE proposals which he and others (such as Transport Scotland) found useful, and then identified a number of criticisms of the early versions of the plans prepared by NICE.  He then revealed, for the first time to the Nairn public, the latest version (“Option 3”) of the Council’s proposed plan (See THC3 right).  This has since been printed in the 1 Feb Nairnshire Telegraph.

  • Integrated planning, or separate sale and development?

The Council officials noted the strong local view that housing should not be the principal component of a redeveloped town centre site.  They accepted that the site should instead incorporate a diverse mix of buildings (new and refurbished), civic open spaces, and parking and services, with appropriate focal features to provide identity and character.  They acknowledged the desirability of improving and simplifying the A96/King Street junctions to improve traffic flow and provide easy and safe access.  They agreed the recommendation, strongly urged by NICE on the basis of local feedback and comment, that the plans for the town centre site and the adjacent Library and Bus Station sites should be integrated with, and be part of, the overall Local Plan for the town of Nairn which is to be drafted, and go out to public consultation, during 2011.  This willingness to undertake joined-up planning was generally welcomed.

At the same time officials reaffirmed their determination to press ahead with the submission of a separate “interim” plan and development brief for Council approval in March, ahead of the Local Plan.  This revised development brief (the “Option 3” displayed) would cover only the Council’s town centre site  and the Co-op property.  This would not only serve as the basis for the Council’s response to any developer-applications that might be made in the coming months, but would also enable the Council – if it so decided – to offer up the town centre site for sale or disposal “if opportunity arose”.

Those present, and the wider Nairn community, will be able to form their own views on how far this ‘two-track’ strategy represents a sensible and appropriate way forward.  In a brief follow-up Q&A session, representatives of the NICE working group pointed out that recent versions of the NICE plans (the latest version, NICE v.4 – see link on right) had addressed most of the concerns raised by the Council.  One or two members of the audience signalled that they had ideas which were not reflected in the NICE plans;  and a renewed plea was made for the provision of extensive parking on the town centre site.

The discussion at the Ward Forum concluded that it would be useful to have a further working meeting of Council officials, members of the NICE design and planning team, and any other interested parties.  The aim would be to examine in detail how to address and if possible reconcile the remaining disparities between local suggestions including the NICE plans, and the latest “Option 3” draft plan put forward by the Council.

  • Getting down to detail

That working meeting took place on Monday 31 January.  In preparation, the NICE design team carried out a careful comparison of the Council’s “Option 3” proposals, and the latest version (version 4) of the NICE suggested plans.  This detailed analysis and comment by the NICE team is available to view from the menu bar above.

A separate request was also put forward from the Chair of Nairn River Community Council for a reflecting pool, suitable planting including monkey-puzzle trees, and sculptural features recognising and honouring historic “sons of Nairn” and the town’s maritime history, to be included in the town centre plan.

Initial discussion of the transport, traffic and access issues related to the A96/King Street focused on the possibility of reducing the number of junctions, and the relative merits of roundabouts versus traffic lights.  NICE takes the view that mini-roundabouts would facilitate traffic flow more effectively than lights, but Council officials argued that roundabouts were more costly.  With the prospect of more traffic lights in town as part of the Sainsburys’ development, it was suggested that there needed to be an “end-to-end” plan for the A96 through the whole of Nairn.  This part of the discussion was brought to an end without resolution, on the basis that Transport Scotland was primarily responsible for planning and funding works on the A96.  The Council offered to arrange a meeting between NICE representatives (and others) with Transport Scotland officials to address all these issues before the town centre redevelopment plans were finalised.

The meeting reached agreement that – subject to the views of the Co-op as owner – the Regal buildings should be demolished and redeveloped;  and that the derelict filling station should be dedicated essentially to parking (although if a developer put forward a building-proposal, and could also offer relocated parking, the Council did not wish to rule this out).  The idea of multi-storey parking was mentioned:  there were comments for and against this.  There was debate over the precise location and orientation of any possible new buildings (regarded as necessary to provide “development-value”) so as not to complicate access to the Co-op or the rear of High Street premises.  It was agreed that the listed former Free School and the former Social Work buildings should be retained, but no clear conclusion was reached as to how they would be used or whether they would become public-access premises.

The officials appeared to accept NICE concerns about the general shape and layout of the proposed civic space or square and offered to review their plan.  NICE will feed in additional suggestions to the Council planners.  There was no discussion of possible cycle routes.

The Council remained firmly opposed to the inclusion in the development brief of any guidance or plans for the adjacent Library site and car park, or for the derelict Bus Station site, preferring that these be addressed separately in the context of the forthcoming Local Plan, for which the “Call for Sites” – an invitation to developers to bid for land, and to local communities to offer views – was published on 1 February.  NICE is still concerned at the lack of vision or plans for the library site and car park (where the Council lease expires in 2015), and similarly fears that the absence of any plan or guidance for the bus station site might result in an application for development which is incompatible with the wider objectives for the regeneration of the town centre.

  • Where do we go from here?

Inevitably, those who attended the meetings (and indeed the wider population of Nairn) will have differing views on the outcome of this latest series of discussions.

The optimists are encouraged by the Council’s stated willingness to co-operate with the local community and to take into account the ideas and proposals that have come forward in recent weeks and months.  They look to the Council to deliver on the assurances that the interim development brief will not close off future options for a revived town centre that links successfully and imaginatively with the surrounding area.

The pessimists, or sceptics, are uncomfortable at the Council’s undiminished resolve to process the plans and the development of this important site independently and ahead of the normal Local-Plan process.  They continue to fear that the pressure for early approval of a development brief is driven by the Council’s determination, despite assurances to the contrary, to sell off the site.  This carries the risk that its development will take place in a piecemeal fashion.  Such an approach is clearly not in accordance with official planning guidance and best practice.  There is a concern that short-term interim guidance and plans will become long term or permanent.

NICE continues to believe that the plan it has put forward is preferable because it offers a more integrated vision for the future than the interim option tabled by the Highland Council.  NICE considers it important that the dialogue and debate should continue, both on this specific subject and on the wider question of the future development of the town.  The Highland Council has indicated its willingness to listen.  NICE therefore encourages all local residents to offer their views and suggestions, via this site or any other online medium, to the NICE working group members, to the local press, or directly to the Council.

To encourage public debate and feedback, NICE will be publishing further comment and analysis on this website in the near future, and intends to offer further input to the Council’s planning process in the light of local residents’ views.

03 Feb 2011

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