Community futures for Orkney villages

1 May 2010 | blog, place making, small towns, working with communities

We have completed a study for Orkney Islands Council sketching out community futures for Orkney villages and future possibilities for the communities of Dounby, Finstown and St Margaret’s Hope. Originally described by the client as village masterplans, these loose collections of proposals for three very different settlements are the antithesis of the usual design based, top-down interventions that plague many local communities throughout the country. Together with Yellow Book, Nick Wright Planning and Ben Hamilton Baillie we worked with the village communities and the client to produce proposals which include new business space, the dismantling of unnecessary road infrastructure and the allocation of new roadside housing sites rather than the deep field-filling proposals favoured by mainstream builders and by some housing associations.
St Margaret's Hope - away from the main streets
Orkney is a remarkable place. The traditional style of building on the islands – the unconscious vernacular – was more or less abandoned half a century ago for other ways of building. The small Council housing schemes, the occasional suburban estates, the kit houses and dream homes standing alone in the landscape, and the weird house extensions collectively bring the rest of the UK to the islands. Yet the bleak landscape overcomes most of this. In a village like Dounby, there is no ‘style’ for planners to worry about. There is no vernacular way of building to be put on a pedestal, copied, nodded to or preserved. It’s a nice place though and the local community appreciates that there is no need for significant change.
main road through Finstown looking west towards StromnessIn all three villages, there is little planned capital investment. There is some interest in housing development – both affordable housing and opportunities for self build private plots. There are proposals for a care home in St Margaret’s Hope but apart from this, there is very little happening in terms of development other than single dwellings and house extensions. The absence of a significant development industry on Orkney has saved these villages from some of the less positive changes that similar sized settlements on the Scottish mainland have experienced.
finstown building typologies
So our aim has been to develop a realistic, relevant and deliverable set of policies and proposals that would make a positive difference to each village. It is important to bear in mind that the Council is not the sole instigator of change. Just as important is the way in which other people bring change about, especially through or with the agreement of the local community. Some of the themes that should underpin the futures of these villages include:

Theme 1: the importance of the local community

A Community Co-operative:

There is much local interest in the future prosperity of the villages, not only from local businesses and retailers but from residents in general. This is an ideal footing for the establishment of a local community co-operatives to help new projects to get off the ground. Community Co-operatives have been shown to be effective in providing local services in marginal market circumstances where local residents want better facilities than the Council might be able to provide or which cannot survive in normal market circumstances.
a packed community workshop in Dounby
It is important that public agencies should gently assist and support the setting up a local co-operatives rather than dominating and micro-managing the process. To work effectively, co-ops need to be strongly community based rather than be the creation of the Council. A local co-op will need support to find, acquire or rent premises, find suppliers, pay for marketing, ordering, budgeting, logistics and recruiting of volunteers. Highlands and Islands Enterprise have considerable experience of working with local communities to establish such ventures and should be involved in the process of setting this up.

Local support and project champions:

Linked to the ethos and practice of community co-ops is the need to encourage projects to be initiated, developed and supported by local people. The force for change should come from the local community rather than being imposed by the public sector. There is a culture of high involvement of the public sector in Orkney matched by a sense of dependency by the community – an expectation that the Council will be responsible for or be involved in the majority of change in the village. Change in the villages is very driven by public sector finance and therefore subject to the same budgetary shortcomings that most local authorities have to work with.

What is required is for local champions and groups to take responsibility for projects rather than relying on the public sector to do so. Community based projects or initiatives by local companies can be far more effective than the public sector in obtaining finance and promoting proposals and schemes that work for the town and with which the local community feel a sense of ownership.

Theme 2: the appreciation of place

These villages and the surrounding landscapes are worthy of the highest standards of maintenance and enhancement. Having a diverse economy contributes to securing a better sense of place. A committed and involved business and residential community is equally valuable. An understanding of the physical assets of the town and its setting is the foundation of place and placemaking.
Dounby and surroundingsThe specific areas that have to be addressed are education, awareness and appreciation of local circumstances and context – forming a sense of what makes Orkney special and ensuring that this is not watered down by inappropriate, out of context or rootless interventions. Improving place awareness in the local community is a major project but some of the tools which can be used to achieve better standards of placemaking and design are readily available. They are:

  • the introduction of compulsory design statements for all development in and around the villages
  • the production of guides for a range of different subjects and/or for specific areas of the town such as the new ribbon or linear housing development areas
  • the introduction of specific briefs for important, large or prominent sites or for the creation of new greenspace and its integration in settlement form
  • new approaches to the design of roads infrastructure which adopts the Designing Streets standards and 20 mph limits within these settlements

But one of the most important conclusions from undertaking this work, and it is reflected in many other projects in 2010, has been around the issues and blockages created by conflicts between the different historical professions of architecture, planning, landscape, housing and roads engineering which translates into disagreements and lack of shared objectives between different Council departments and ensure that the outcomes are sub-optimal. This results in frustration for local communities and confusion about overall objectives.