This isn’t the usual type of post I put up on this blog. However, as this is a local Glenrothes issue which virtually no one seems to know about, I’ve decided to publicise it.
Glenrothes Art Club moved into its existing building, known as The Cottar House, some time in the late 1950s. The Art Club’s website tells us that this property was part of a set of farm buildings known as Woolmill Farm, which were scheduled for demolition. With the help of the two local authorities at the time, Glenrothes Development Corporation and Glenrothes District Council, the Cottar House, and an attached outbuilding known as the Coach House, were saved from demolition along with the rest of the farm, and the Art Club’s been in occupation ever since.
The Club took full ownership of the property from the Corporation when the latter was wound up in 1995/6 (incidentally, my memory of how that came about is slightly different from the Club’s version, which implies that it was all the Club’s doing, rather than part of an overall plan on the part of the Corporation to pass its community assets where possible into community hands, subject to appropriate claw back provisions, of which more later).
In any event, the Club now propose to sell the site and have lodged an application for planning permission for ‘up to three’ dwellinghouses on the current site of the Cottar House and its grounds, with the report to Fife Council’s Central Planning Committee making it clear that the intention is to demolish the existing building. In this blog piece, I want to set out the pros and cons of the proposals as fairly as possible, and then let others decide if they want to take things further.
I do, however, intend to write to Historic Environment Scotland to ask if they want to inspect the building with a view to it being listed under the relevant legislation.
The Art Club and the need for funds
Again from its website, the Art Club make it clear that maintaining the building over the years has been a struggle – and that much of their own funds and efforts have gone towards that. At one point, around 1998, they say they did apply for Lottery funding to upgrade the building but were unsuccessful.
It’s clear that the application to have the site cleared and redeveloped with three modern dwellings is designed to maximise a capital receipt for the Club. This is, I understand, to allow them to move to more suitable premises elsewhere in the town.
All of that sounds absolutely fair enough. And yet, and yet…
I should make clear my interest here. I grew up in Orchard Drive, just across the road from the Art Club. My late father, Keith Ferguson, was worked for the Corporation at the time, and could probably lay claim to being the town’s historian, having written three books about the place (other books on Glenrothes by other writers are also available). The whole Alburne Park area was a great little community, with a lot of Corporation officials living there – including Mr Coghill, one of the Art Club’s founder members, whose family we knew well.
The Art Club itself I remember as a thriving place – I have vague memories of us neighbourhood kids putting on some sort of play in it at one point. Alburne Park still has a special character: a lot of the officials bought plots of land off the Corporation – my Dad included – and built their own houses on them. They’d probably never be allowed to do that these days, of course, but the whole point was that the senior officials were obliged as part of their employment to actually live in the town, and get involved in forming clubs and societies such as the Art Club, building that sense of community. And yes, they did pay the market rate for the land.
The legacy of all of that is, if you want to see some good examples of Sixties architecture, drive round Alburne Park, Alburne Crescent and Orchard Drive. There’s even a house on stilts!
More than that, though, the Corporation was keen to preserve some of the character of the area from previous times. The road that runs through it was, historically, the main road to Cupar; although Thomas Alburne’s house, the 17th century Alburne Knowe, was demolished, the Corporation preserved some cottages thought to date from the same period and converted them into ‘Beechgrove,’ a very attractive property on the left hand side of the road going down. Across the road from it, and just down from the Art Club building, is the former Paper Mill manager’s house, ‘Levenbank,’ which is a B Listed building.
‘Levenbank,’ and, in the second picture, ‘Beechgrove.’ Particularly unsympathetic signage for the gym.
In other words, that whole corner of the road is a collection of some of the few pre-1948 buildings left in Glenrothes. The Cottar House, like ‘Beechgrove,’ was deliberately retained when the rest of the area was cleared for redevelopment (there are also some older buildings housing Balbirnie gym etc. down the Woolmill Brae, but I wouldn’t pretend they’re of much architectural merit). I totally understand if the Art Club feels the premises are no longer fit for purpose and want to move elsewhere. But I can’t help a feeling that something’s not right about the proposed demolition of the Cottar House.
Apart from anything else, the building has benefited from public money over the years to keep it maintained. I’ve no doubt the Club have done their best to keep it going, and it may be it’s beyond repair. But has that really been fully explored? And if it’s a building worth keeping, are there not other ways of its useful life being extended?
I mentioned above that the current proposal to demolish, clear the site and build three modern houses will maximise the capital receipt for the Club. However, that’s not the only option. There is room at the back for a modern house to be built, in a sympathetic design, without demolishing the Cottar House. It’s quite common in other areas for money from modern housing to be ploughed back into bringing older buildings back into habitable states: it’s called an ‘enabling development.’ That could, conceivably, allow conversion of the building back to a dwellinghouse. The whole package would be less lucrative than the wholesale demolition and new build option, of course.
However, the whole idea of the Art Club getting the property at a nominal sum back in 1996 (and renting it for next to nothing before then) was that it would be used for a community purpose. There’s a claw back option in the title deeds which, I think, provides that, in the event of the Art Club no longer using it, it’s to be offered back to the Corporation’s successors (now Fife Council). If the titles don’t say that, they will at least provide for the Council to share in the proceeds of sale.
In either event, is it fair that the building, which has been kept afloat for sixty years with public money, can now simply be used as a bargaining chip for a private club? That’s one way of looking at it, I think.
The Planning Application
Turning to the planning application itself, this can be viewed along with the objections and other correspondence on Fife’s excellent planning portal here. The report by Fife’s planning department (which can be viewed here) is due for consideration by Fife Council’s Central Area Planning Committee on Wednesday, 11th January in Fife House at 2.00 p.m. It’s a public meeting, although members of the public aren’t allowed to speak at it.
In line with the legal requirements, the immediate neighbours – including the clubs down the Woolmill Brae – have been notified, a total of 10 notifications. 7 out of 10 have objected, which is why what’s called a ‘local development’ such as this has to be taken to committee, rather than being decided by planning officers.
Again, I have to declare an interest here – my day job involves managing the Council’s committees. As soon as I realised what was proposed here, and that I had conflicted – to say the least – feelings about it, I decided to arrange cover for my part of the committee clerking role so that there could be no suggestion that I had used my position to influence any decision on the application. However, should others wish to do so, the members of the Committee are set out here, and can be contacted via that link.
My planning colleague’s professional recommendation is for approval. I am not a planner, and I respect that a recommendation has to be made one way or another. However, any planning report will summarise the issues, and some of these issues are often a judgement call – in other words, others may properly take a different view from the professional recommendation. Points of interest may include:
Policies E2 and E4 of the Adopted Local Plan (para 2.4 of the report)
These policies state, amongst other things, that proposals should be ‘compatible with their surrounds in terms of land-use and relationships to existing dwellings.’ The professional recommendation is that the proposals would be compatible.
It’s notable that the photos that form part of the applicant’s agent’s supporting statement show either the Cottar House itself, or the 50s/60s housing on Alburne Crescent. There’s no photo that shows how the Cottar House forms part of a group of older buildings at the head of the Brae. Indeed, the supporting statement only goes as far as saying (at 4.9) that the development can go ahead ‘without compromising the amenity enjoyed by existing houses in Alburne Crescent.’ Maybe that’s true. But what about Beechgrove, and Levenbank?
Policy T1 – Road Safety (para 2.6 of the report)
There is evidence that the development will increase peak time traffic trips – the Club at the moment mainly uses the property during off peak times. This has led the Council’s Transportation Development Management Team to express concerns. Mitigation measures proposed consist of clearing away shrubs that are on Fife Council land. The planner’s report says at 2.6.4 that the Council’s Estates team have confirmed they’re willing to discuss the sale of the land. Does this not mean, however, that as things stand, the applicant doesn’t have sufficient control of the land needed to implement the development?
Policy B2 – Protecting Existing Employment/Tourism/Local Community Facilities (para 2.2.5 of the report)
This policy (and its replacement policy 3 under FifePlan, awaiting final confirmation) presume against the loss of facilities that serve a valuable employment, tourism, and/or local community purpose. Evidence has to be shown that
a) the existing business is not viable;
b) the existing building cannot be reused for its existing purpose or redeveloped for a similar community or tourism purpose; and
c) that equivalent alternative facilities exist for this site elsewhere in the local community.
Policy 3, the replacement policy, also requires evidence of marketing for at least 18 months.
The supporting statement, submitted by the applicant’s agent, is, I feel, somewhat light on the details as regards that evidence. Specifically, I don’t see any evidence that the Club couldn’t raise funds to repair the building, although it’s admittedly clear from their last accounts that they don’t have a huge war chest of their own money to carry out renovations. Part of the reason for that is that, quite admirably, they’ve kept their subs low historically so that people on a lower income can join.
However, they do have (or did in February last year) some £11,500 in their balances. Could some at least of that not be used to match fund repairs and renovations?
Similarly, there’s no detail on what repairs are needed. A new roof? More than that?
There’s nothing to indicate if evidence of any marketing, or of any attempt to establish if another community body would want to take the property over, has been produced.
I write all of this with genuine conflict in my heart about whether to get involved here. I’ve tried to set out, as honestly as possible, my motivations. Just for the sake of full disclosure, my parents in law still live at the far end of Alburne Crescent, but I don’t think for an instant a new development like the one proposed would have an effect on property values in the area.
I fully understand the Art Club’s desire to move on and get better premises. I just don’t think, in all the circumstances, they should be allowed to oversee the demolition of one of the few remaining buildings of any type of historic character in Glenrothes. I sincerely hope that a solution can be reached which allows the Art Club – in itself one of the oldest, if not the oldest, community clubs in the town – to realise its ambitions; and for the Cottar House to continue on, either as a community facility or as a private dwellinghouse.
Please feel free to comment on this, and/or share with others who have an interest in Glenrothes.