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October 20, 2020

Public money, private profit

A worrying trend that seems to accompany what, on the face of it, are well intended government initiatives is the speed with which these schemes are exploited. The vast ‘profits’ earned by house builder Persimmon as a result of the ‘help to buy’ scheme, and the evidence that Government backed Covid bounce-back loans worth several millions have disappeared through fake companies are examples of this exploitation – both legal and otherwise. Housing seems an area which is particularly prone to this. Scottish Government’s Building Scotland Fund which has paid millions to private developers with highly questionable results is coming under fire.

Billy Briggs, The Ferret

A private housing development backed financially by a government “green” fund has been criticised for destroying “cherished woodland” and not providing affordable homes.

The Ferret revealed last month that private developers have received £100m from the Scottish Government’s Building Scotland Fund (BSF) but only built 700 affordable homes. The environmental credentials of some housing projects funded were also questioned.

A row has now erupted over a development funded by BSF called Athron Hill, near Milnathort, Perth and Kinross. It is an exclusive new-build of 35 family homes, advertised as having “majestic views out over Loch Leven, the Lomond’s and the Pentland Hills beyond”.

The Athron Hill Development Company’s project involves eco-housing and the company says it is committed to “environmentally-friendly living”.

But campaigners opposed to the project claim there has been “large scale destruction of trees” and the firm has not protected the squirrel population and other wildlife such as deer and newts.

Local residents told The Ferret they were not consulted over the development and voiced concerns over the damage to the environment and the lack of affordable housing provided.

The BSF is the precursor to the Scottish National Investment Bank, which is required to finance action on climate change and tackle inequalities in housing.

The fund was announced in 2018 by ministers who committed to investing £150 million in housing for a three-year period up until 2021.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the new bank, which is due to start lending this autumn, would be central to a green new deal for Scotland.

More than two-thirds of the sum has already been allocated. But so far all the cash, as revealed by The Ferret, has gone to private developers, with only 700 homes allocated for affordable housing.

The developer has not followed conditions imposed to protect the resident squirrel population and other wildlife such as deer and newts.

Athron Hill received a £4.6m loan from BSF. Locals opposed to the development include Alan Miller, who stays in the hamlet of Tillyrie, next to the site.

He said: “The developer has not followed conditions imposed to protect the resident squirrel population and other wildlife such as deer and newts.

“[It] has been awarded a loan of £4.6m from the Scotland Building Fund which does not appear to meet all the criteria. This is taxpayers’ money. The houses may be eco-friendly but what has been sacrificed to build them is certainly not. There is also no mention of affordable housing.”

Jane Timperley, a resident of nearby Milnathort, is also opposed to the project. She said that despite writing to a number of agencies the community has been “unable to establish” what criteria was applied to applications.

“There is a complete lack of transparency regarding this,” she added. “It is our understanding that applications should meet the government criteria of the ‘Place Principle’, in that they should have community consultation – the environment should be considered, and there should be contribution to affordable housing and ordinary people.

Timperley added: “My sentiments and concerns lie predominantly with nature and it saddens me beyond belief that a beautiful natural space on the flank of the Ochil Hills should be bulldozed and manicured in order to line the pockets of developers who do not care about the environment and its flora and fauna.

“This really should be a key government concern. The hamlet of Tillyrie is no longer a peaceful dead end but faces years of construction traffic and a lifetime of residential traffic.”

Another resident who asked not to be named, said: “It seems to me those areas, the existing places and environment, won’t benefit as it is a new build of expensive houses, taking over a wild area the people used to walk in and we have not been asked to input into what we need to make our community flourish.”

Clare Symonds, of Planning Democracy, a charity concerned with development in Scotland, said communities should be involved with projects at the planning and design stages, through to construction, to ensure develepers adhere to “good practice standards”.

She added: “While we welcome the aim to encourage low carbon housing to help tackle the climate crisis, this must not come at the expense of other important government objectives such as affordable housing provision, safeguarding biodiversity and community empowerment.

“Any government funding initiatives have to to be thought through to intelligently tackle the multiple problems we face. What is the point of incentivising eco housing if you destroy cherished woodland that supports protected species in the process?

However, Dan Multon, director at Athron Hill Development Company, defended the project and said he had contacted each household individually and is glad to discuss people’s concerns.

He added: “We fully understand the concerns of local residents, who fiercely want to make sure that this beautiful part of the world is preserved – and we’re confident that everything we are doing is in keeping with both the consents and best practice.

“Ultimately, we share this protective view of the local area. It is my own local neighbourhood – and I am committed to repurposing the old hospital site to create a sustainable, community-driven development that also brings benefit to the local environment. This is hugely important to me on a personal level.”

It is my own local neighbourhood – and I am committed to repurposing the old hospital site to create a sustainable, community-driven development that also brings benefit to the local environment.

Multon added: “We have appointed ecological experts and are undertaking an extensive replanting of native woodland to boost biodiversity. It’s in our interest to create attractive surroundings for new residents and existing residents alike.

“Clearly we are committed to this development and bringing it to market at a time when more and more of us are seeking green space and environmentally-friendly living.”

He continued: “We are now working closely with the local authority to ensure that all of our work continues to be in keeping with the most recent, detailed planning consent and over the coming weeks we will be working with our contractors to improve the road through Tillyrie.”

Kevin Stewart MSP, the Scottish Government’s housing minister, said: “The Building Scotland Fund aims to support the development of homes across all tenures where a lack of available finance in the market is preventing developments proceeding.

“Developments successful in securing funding from BSF have met the required criteria for finance, including having in place planning permission granted by the local authority. In this case, the fund is providing loan finance on a commercial basis and we continue to monitor progress of the development.”