The Water Tower

The Water Tower
The Water Tower at Dusk

Friday, October 15, 2010

10 years to plan, 10 months to build

A wooden house in a woodland. The Planning Story.
When we bought a water tower my mum was living on her own in Moredun. What about living next door to us in the cottage? we asked, but she declined. Maybe it was just as well. But as time progressed we thought about building on the site of the cottage drying green and submitted a tentative outline application in 1996 as a possible home for my mum. Not enough detail and insufficient space to build, came back the reply along with the usual host of policy references. We tend not to accept negatives Gerry and I so we explored further. A lack of detail we could understand but not enough space was a strange one. Surely that was up to us to make the build fit into the exisiting space? Out of the blue a senior officer in the council asked if we would like to adopt the road? this was equally strange. Why would we want to adopt a road? We put everything on ice and had a re think. We put up  wooden garden gazebo (approved in 1998)  instead but that's another story. Gerry is tenacious in the extreme and set about discussing plans with architect colleagues and getting the detail worked out for a proper building. This was post Masterchef days and we had been to the USA on a trip to explore food in the States and along the way we marvelled at some extraordinary buildings created by an architect called Mickey Meunnig in California. Making use of sloped sites and using cortain steel and timber, this architect creates some amazing buildings that are sympathetic to environments that are largely un touched. With the help of Oberlander Architects and also Ricky Hall Architect we decided on a scheme that ticked all the boxes for us. We had a lot of discussion with the planners and had encouraging noises from Suzanne McIntosh in the planning office. A main build plus 3 pod structures on the slope behind close to the tennis club fence; giving us living accomodation, 2 spare rooms for visitors and a painting studio for Gerry. The application was submiited in 2004 and then we went off on a 12 month sabattical as a belated celebration of Gerry's 50th birthday. The restaurant had been running for 10 years and I had been working full time for 26 years.With no children it was relatively easy to do the trip.

For some reason the application just sat in the planning department. We heard nothing and sent e mails to ask why. Since we were enjoying the trip so much it was less important but none-the-less annoying that a planning application could take this long. Then we received a notification that the local community council had raised objections. These objections were fair - relating to access to the cemetery for example - but the pre cursor note was interesting "this application is about to be approved and the community council......." How could the community council know it was about to be approved? we knew nothing.
Returning home in 2005 it was clear that there had been a great deal of discussion about our planning application with more unfounded rumour than actual fact being discussed. We were building at the rivers edge and we were building a guest house and restaurant. So much so that when the application was refused the local newspaper described it as Water Tower Guest House Plan Refused. In fact the planning department had modified the title of our application in its correspondance and this was the source of the erroneous title. When went to appeal we were awarded fair compensation for this error.

We felt very aggrieved for a myriad of reasons but in particular the length of time to process the application and the rumours. We discussed our plans with the senior planning development officer Mr Clive Christopherson - we got into parking, breaking walls to create holes, enhancing conservation area, getting bin lorries in, privacy and amenity etc etc- and all in the wider context of a new development that was being built on the other side of the tower that ticked none of these boxes. Ah but every application is treated on its own merits and one must not use another to argue for your own. Mr Christopherson drove us to distraction and when he actually said (and this is minuted and accepted)

 "I will personally never allow you to build on that ground"

we knew that there was something wrong. Surely it wasn't the personal opinion of 1 person. We took our application to appeal and although it was turned down because the design was too exotic for the quiet corner of Eskbank, we established the principle to build and this raised our spirits. I had almost given up and although keen to fight for the compensation and to prove the injustices, I was no longer intertested in building at all. Gerry is different!

Around 2005/6 we started on alternative plans bouyed by the reporters views. We sought help from Kirsty Towler, a planning advisor and now good friend that we knew from the days of renovating the tower. We desiged a sympathtic building looking very much like an overgrown version of the gazebo. We were going to try to keep the gazebo but there simply was not enough available space to do it all. Gerry had plans drawn up by David Paton and he also produced a water colour impression of the build set within its woodland surround. New local plan policies were emerging and RP9 was a draft policy for the protection of river banks. Our ground would be impacted by RP9 but we saw no reason why the build would harm the area in visual or physical terms. I am not a planner but this subject is more an art rather than a science. We embarked on a positive relationship with the planners and were encouraged by this. They were professional and encouraging although not able to confirm that it would be approved. It would have to be assessed. We gambled with the parking regulations. Not wanting to knock a hole in a beautiful wall we chose not to have car parking on the site knowing that this could give a reason for refusal. We debated long and hard on this one between ourselves but stuck to our principles. We received permission for our build. Oh Joy.

Then the disabled access regulations kicked in. We modified our plan and this was also approved. But the local frustration at this stage was palpable. To the extent that our achitect David Paton was contacted by the secretary of the local Amenity Society and asked if the plans could be modified to restrict the size of the build and even suggested an alternative disabled access that would require a gap in the wall and cutting through the tree roots of the most significant Sycamore tree on the streetscape. 

Policy RP9 was quoted at us time and time again - mainly by a few members of the committee of the Amenity Society. I looked it up and researched it.

Policy RP9 Protection of River Valleys states that development within the river valley will be permitted where there is a specific locational need for the development, and if so then the development must not have any adverse impact on the landscape and conservation value of the valleys, or impede potential public access opportunities.

I couldn't understand the concern about RP9 - this build would have no adverse impact on the landscape but I suppose that was only our opinion. I will leave blog readers to decide themselves and next weeks Scotland on Sunday magazine will show pictures and tell the story in a much better way than I can. One key aspect of the build is the clever foundation system that ensures the protection of tree roots. More on that when I get Gerry to write up some of the technical detail of the build.

One interesting point from the RP9 policy; public access opportunities must not be impeded. This challenge was thrown at us around year 2000. Any path on our ground was previously a short cut and did not connect 2 public places. In other words - no right of way existed. Many attempts were made to thwart this fact. At one point this year we were accused of blocking the actual public footpath and steps linking Cemetery Road and Ironmills park. Sane and clever people believed this! Remember we were asked to adopt Cemetery Road in 1996. I wonder?

Perhaps it was the extent of the local grievance that really affected us more than anything. It seemed dis proportionate against all the other good stuff that we had done in the area. We then realised that a substantial number of people who were members of the Amenity Society were unaware of the actions and communications made by their committee. We wanted to continue to live in Dalkeith and Eskbank (The tower is located in Dalkeith but the new build is situated in Eskbank despite being a stones throw from the tower) and it was good to know that not all 100+ members shared the views of the committee. The extent of the concerened few marched on and although I had joined the community council for Eskbank some people believed I shouldn't be allowed to be a member because I didn't have a registered address in Eskbank at the time. How sad.

We decided to call our new build RP9 and I'm sure you can understand why. The project management files are all  labelled RP9 and we discretely branded our wooden gate posts with RP9. It felt right because we believe we are protecting the river bank.

I'll get back to woodland issues next time I promise. I apologise for this rant on planning and local complaints but would like to stress that in recent years the planning department in Midlothian have been highly professional and a delight to work with. We have received sound advice and guidance from Kingsley Drinkwater and equally sound advice and guidance from the tree officer Ellen Krog-McCallman. I know we tested them both! I do hope they understand.

RP9 in its setting at various times of the year.

No magnification - to appreciate the over all setting

That view from the bridge - see earlier blog entries for the same area from a different era.

It looks really lovely at night......

Spot the RP9 name on the post

To the right of RP9 our wooden sitting out area and store

How it looks from Cemetery Road

Winter wonderland with all exposed

The Oxford Gargoyles in August this year - performing for our friends. A truly one off event for us at the time but what a great way to complete a house build project.

That wood pile as it is now, starting to soften into the environment.

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