What have they done to Downies Village?

The coast off Downies near Aberdeen What we do with the past tells us much about our present.   The past can be a place we wish to return, seeing the present as nothing but a moment in a downhill race to mediocrity and degeneration.   In the world of architecture and community, or claimed community, this finds its doleful and reactionary expression in the nostalgia of Prince Charles and his acolytes who wish to return to a world where everyone knows their place and architecture expresses fixity by mimicking forms from the days of pre-modernism.   The dream is of neat and ordered villages and small towns with residents abiding by the moral strictures of those who know best.  DSC02449 However, as much as we might deride the nonsense pedalled by the Prince he does make the valid point that the metaphorical and literal bulldozers of developers should not be allowed untrammelled right to build whatever and wherever they like.  DSC02423 On a recent visit to the village of Downies I was astonished to find that in the midst of this historic fishing township there had appeared a housing development which would not be out of place on the heights of Westhill.   Downies is not a planned village.   It is unlike the “model” villages which were promoted by progressive and paternalistic landowners in the 18th and 19th centuries.   No neat grid or geometric layout sits above these cliffs at Portlethen.   Prince Charles’ dream of order is confounded by the lack of a clear and obvious pattern (at least to this observer).   Cottages go off the road at either side, with asymmetric position and irregular gardens.   Prince Charles’ Poundbury it is not, although one can well imagine the new houses at Downies fitting into a Poundbury landscape with attempts at regularity within the compound of the “scheme” Its break with the feeling of community is emphasised in the developer’s own description: The development is served by a private mono blocked access road with a central court yard area.   Is this the developer attempting to create a closed community around its own square, separate and distinct from the picturesque locals?   Whatever it is the spirit of the enclosure is at odds with the openness of all else around.          DSC02426 It is not that there are many houses going up at Old Portlethen, five are in progress; rather it is the proportions relative to the existing properties and the sympathy for the landscape, the sense of place, and the present householders which is in question.   Where older houses gradually follow the line of the increasingly steep slope towards the cliff- edge the new buildings, in their bulk and their height show little care or appreciation for the historic site.   From what can be seen at the moment, February 2013, the houses seem architecturally unexceptionable.   Dull perhaps, “aspirational” even, well able to be lived in and no doubt will provide comfortable homes for those who can afford them.   The developer says: they are A select development of 5 homes in the picturesque village of Downies with some breathtaking views of the North East coastline.   Of course what it omits to say that the monster 5 bedroomed house called Isla is parked directly in front of an older, but not original, property called Bayview.   I suspect that a bay view is now wishful thinking but the owner has the comfort of knowing that the behemoth Isla has the advantage of being fitted porcelanosa tiles in its striking main bathroom.    DSC02436   But this is not the point.   The point is is there a place for these beached monsters in a village typified by low level housing following the contours of the land, and which crucially gives us some sense of the way our ancestors lived?   Please note I am not saying that Downies of today is and should be the village in which the fishermen and their families lived, not only would such a desire be unattainable it would also be unwanted, imposing as it would poor sanitary conditions and no electricity upon residents.  One of the joys of the older buildings in Downies is that, with additions here and there of kitchens and bathrooms they have managed to improve the living conditions without losing a sense of the old, much improved from the derelict village Peter Anson found in the early 20th century.   This incremental growth and improvement was organic, not keeping the village in locked in timeless aspic yet still maintaining historical continuities. DSC02428   As can be seen from the photographs this is not the case with the present development.   We can hardly criticise the developer for doing what developers do that is making the most of market potential.     There was no practical reason why a developer could not have followed the style of the single storey cottages but financially it presumably makes more sense to go for bigger is better.  We might just as well wail over investment bankers’ lack of probity or cats eating birds.     No, the real problem is that permission was given to the project.   We must ask what were the planners thinking of? – although thinking is perhaps too strong a term here.  DSC02431   The Director of Infrastructure Services at Aberdeenshire Council, wrote that the new properties were quite acceptable as they were no more than, an amendment in design to what has previously been approved.   He also stated there was no conflict between the traditional forms and the developer’s proposals, rather they new builds were said to respect the character of the old and were worthy addition to the village and would, in his words, integrate successfully.   Of course by integration what the planning officer means is the technicalities of building regulations and local plans.   When the Scottish Government Reporter approved the plan he said that the houses would unite the village’s historic core with its outlying elements.     Downies I defy anybody now visiting the site to show how the houses have brought such a unity.   There appears to be a confusion of terms here: there might be similarity with outlying elements but unity?   At the more meaningful level of historic continuities and community feeling planners have little to say.   They deal with bureaucratic regulations not the experienced lives of residents.    DSC02446 Speak to the folk who live in Downies and you come away with the feeling not that they want to remain a closed community rather they tell you that it’s a respect for the history of the area that they want to preserve; a respect for the generations who, perched above the North Sea, carved out a precarious living and managed to establish an identity through the lives they lived and the village they inhabited.   Just as respect is given to structures such as Skara Brae so also should it be allowed villages like Downies.   Sadly, and short of demolition, it looks as if this is another battle for historical integrity which has been lost.   All who put the rubber stamp to this travesty of planning should be ashamed of their actions.    DSC02458           Contribution by Textor

12 Comments to “What have they done to Downies Village?”


  2. Plannng is a process. Formal plans have their cycle fo representations – but few ‘real people’ (as opposed to lobbyists and developers) make representations. It took me as an interested councillor a whole lcal plan cycle to understand the system – and then the process changed.
    And the actual applications are determined against the Plan – unless material considerations say otherwise.
    It all makes for a system that seems designed to be inpenatrable for the layman – and to gve lots of scope for planning consultants ( of which I am now one) scope to argue.
    What is needed? Engaged Councillors who understand and care. Engaged communities who have not simply a voice to say no, but a voice to say ‘here, this kind of development is Ok’.
    Too often Plannning is reactive – and a negative process for communities – and dare I say it – developers- alike.

    I have every sympathy for communities having alien forms of development imposed. I wish we could figure out how to have the sensible conversations that would mean development benefits communities – not just landowners and developers. But that would require a change not just in plannng but our views of land ownership and taxation.

    • Thank you for that comprehensive response.

      Opaque regulations and processes are barriers to local democracy in that they prevent communities from challenging planning applications on an equal basis with professionals, whether developers or council officials.

      Good councillors are also essential to reflect opinions from within communities. It has to be said they come in all shades of ability, interest, knowledge and intelligence. There are two in my part of Aberdeenshire who demonstrate this; one very responsive and actively representing local voices and another who has done absolutely nothing for the community since election. I don’t know the situation with councillors at Portlethen.

      And yes this country does require immediate and far-reaching land reform which should help communities such as Downies.

  3. Debra. I am a local resident – lived in Downies for 27 years. We made representations time and time again but were largely ignored which doesn’t surprise me because we are the individuals with the least clout in this whole scenario. It’s ironic really because we are the ones who really understand what works and doesn’t work in our area – we see the state of the roads leading to the village, we see the increases in traffic, we see the disruptions whilst building is taking place, we see the changes caused by the new housing resulting in flooding on the village roads, we know that there will be no social benefits or additional resources created in the village, we see that the new housing is out of kilter with the existing village and does not fit with the geography of the land, we know that a precedent has been set and that housing of a similar vintage will be planned in our area from now until infinity and we know and see this from our daily experiences of living here. However our opinions doesn’t really count even when we have been proved right after the event.

    Now we go through the same scenario once again for a further two houses planned to dwarf the existing housing that they will sit alongside. Apparently a planner/reporter/councillor needs only one or two visits to a site/village to know more than the people that have lived there day in and day out for a number of years. I should add that we are not all NIMBY’s – as Lena says we would quite happily welcome housing in the old part of Downies that is in keeping with the existing buildings.

    Yes I am cynical about all things related to planning, reporters, councillors, etc. I don’t have to look too far to see what is going on in Aberdeen with recent plans for new builds which are obviously made to maximise financial gain for all parties involved, and with a total disregard of public opinion and the dismissal of any issues relating to heritage.

    Or I might be wrong about everything I have written here?

  4. Keyword in this article mat be Reporter. When a planning authority refuses permission developers appeal. In this case it seems they won – and then an amendment to that permission was granted.

    Now I no longer have any brief for Aberdeenshire, and I don’t know the reason why one set of planners/Councillors would refuse and a Reporter would grant but this isn’t as simple as bad planners or planning.

    Was the land zoned in the local plan for housing? Did villagers make representations at that point. If so, why werevthey ignored?

    • Thanks for that. The answers to your questions would have to come from Downies residents but I believe representations were made but one or two bungalows had been built previously and it was on the basis of that it was decided it wasn’t a self-contained historic unit. So what has happened is increasing numbers of houses have been built, large houses some of them, and demand increases because of its setting no doubt. I suspect residents wouldn’t really object too much if the new houses were designed in keeping with the cottages. Sadly they are not.

  5. Great article Lena but unfortunately the powers that be aren’t easily swayed by the truth. Another two houses of questionable dimensions and design are being planned for further down the village and will, more than likely, get the go-ahead after a bit of resistance from us villagers. And no doubt there will be more after that. It’s not only historical integrity that’s being lost but also the personal integrity of the planners although I’m beginning to doubt if they ever had it to begin with. Nowadays it’s all about personal gain and the only people who do not gain from this is us who stay in the village.

    • Thanks Ian. Once planning one development gets planning permission it’s easier for successive applications. I don’t know if this area is particularly poor when it comes to recognising and protecting important little villages to preserve their integrity but it certainly appears that way.

      It’s a crying shame that old Portlethen is fast losing its uniqueness. Developers are determined and planners seem to go along with them blindly.

      Further west in the shire has similar problems with tiny hamlets quickly expanding with buildings of dubious architectural merit. One difficulty is planners are hidden away. We mostly don’t know who they are or their interest in preserving built heritage and communities. I suspect many of them bring with them their own agendas.

  6. Interesting article, these houses appear to be being built on an area of land that was sold in the 70s as four individual lots to the surrounding houses so this could never happen!

    • I understand many of the long-time residents of Downies are very unhappy, to say the least, about what’s been allowed to happen. So many cases of this sort of thing happening and developers running rings around indifferent planners. Thanks for taking time to read the piece.

      • No worries, other than it was me that sold the land! I think I got £50 for it around 1975. Oh well, at least the people who lived there at the time wouldn’t have had to see them.

      • You must feel pretty bad for all sorts of reasons!

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