By Karin Goodwin
From The Sunday Times (Scotland) - May 21, 2006
The Queen’s master of music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has criticised the proposed spread of prefabricated “kit homes” which, he claims, threaten to turn areas of rural Scotland into “squalid English suburbs”.
The composer is angered at a planned development of eight such houses near his home on Orkney, condemning them as “bungaloid excrescences” that are being thoughtlessly “plonked” into the landscape.
Highland council wants to increase the development of prefabricated buildings, which it sees as one way to solve its housing crisis. Officials will travel to Orkney next month to evaluate their viability.
The flat-pack ready to assemble homes were introduced into Britain in the 1990s and have been heralded by John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, as the answer to Britain’s housing crisis.
Eight one-storey concrete kit houses have already been built or granted planning permission on the Orkney isle of Sanday, which has a population of 500. Maxwell Davies, who has lived on the island for the past 30 years, believes that the houses will be an eyesore and is urging the council to create protection zones where kit homes are banned.
“It’s just a quick fix on the council’s part and extremely short-sighted. It is quite possible to design housing to fit with the landscape. Local stone can be waterproofed and reclaimed timber used,” he said.
“I felt I had to speak up so that it goes on historical record that we tried to do something about this.”
He believes that there should be greater regulation of housing designs to ensure that they are suitable for rural landscapes.
“It is the unthinking, uncritical plonking down of unsuitable kit houses in prominent inescapable positions in vulnerable landscapes which I question,” he said. “It would appear that junk architecture, like junk food, is addictive.”
Highland council does not have any planning restrictions against prefabricated kit homes. Some councillors believe they could be the solution to helping locals, at present priced out of the housing market, on to the property ladder.
Cairngorms National Park is to become the first area in Scotland to ban incomers from buying homes to prevent property prices spiralling further out of the reach of locals. Sales of new housing are to be restricted to those who can prove a residential, family or work-related link with the area.
This move followed a council report warning the area that incomers were threatening the viability of schools and the survival of communities.
“If we are to increase the number of houses we are to build, and to build them quickly, then we have to look at the best and most convenient ways of achieving this,” said Sheena Slimon, who chairs the Highland council planning committee.
“There are a limited number of tradesmen in the Highlands so, if the Orkney kit home model proves to be a viable way forward, it would certainly be helpful for us,” she added.
Neil Stephen is a director of Hebridean Contemporary Homes, a Skye company which builds high quality kit houses to a design that Maxwell Davies is understood to approve of. Stephen claimed that more appropriate housing could easily be constructed with the use of simple and inexpensive modifications. “Kit houses can be inspired by traditional buildings, such as the long house, which can look good in the dramatic landscape,” he said.
“There is a terrible housing crisis here and that has to be addressed without spoiling what makes it special in the first place. A lot of the design issues are not only about using appropriate materials, but about proportion and siting of the houses.”
One problem identified by planners and architects is the lack of a planning strategy — which means that houses are built individually where land can be bought cheaply, often on hilltops or other prominent skylines. “The release of land is so random and bizarre that there is no proper consideration for making communities,” said Malcolm Fraser, a leading Edinburgh architect.
“What’s disappointing is that kit houses — which can be easily adapted — often end up looking like something that would be at home in the Essex commuter belt.”
Jeremy Baster, director of development services at Orkney council, acknowledged that there were design issues with certain kit houses and said that the council was reviewing the planning guide.
“We now have something of a housing crisis on Orkney and there is a significant demand for affordable housing,” he said. “One solution is putting up kit houses.
“We are, however, trying to encourage people to look at the type of variation that might be possible and to increase the amount of advice we offer.”