The Trust and us

The National Trust for Scotland saved Fair Isle in the 1950s but things have moved on in the interve


Fair Isle stands out among Shetland’s 17 inhabited islands for a number of reasons. One of these is that the island, along with the vast majority of the houses, is owned by a single landlord: The National Trust for Scotland.

The relationship between the National Trust and the island is often cited as reason for Fair Isle’s continuing success as a community, and historically there is much to be said for the part that they have played in this success.

The trust purchased Fair Isle in 1954 from its then owner, George Waterston. Waterston had only been landlord for six years, but had found himself unable to muster the financial strength required to protect the island from the threats that it faced. And these threats were very real. In the 1950s houses here did not have electricity, running water was by no means universal, and depopulation had reached such a level that evacuation was being openly discussed. Things clearly needed to be done, and done quickly, in order to save the fragile community.

In the years after the transfer, improvements were steadily implemented. Modernisation of housing and the provision of amenities were high priorities, as were improvements to the island’s connections with the outside world. Flights to Shetland began in the late sixties, and then became a regular service in the mid-seventies, by which stage Fair Isle had become a very different place.

Since then these improvements have continued. Housing on the island is now of a very high standard, and this ongoing process has helped to create not only a sustainable place to live but also a confident and optimistic community. The 'partnership' that has developed over the years also means that islanders now have, in theory, a much greater say in the running of the island than ever before. Forums and committees, made up usually of elected residents, meet to discuss all of the issues that are important to the community, and in some cases, such as housing and “forward planning”, to make their feelings known to the trust.

The truth is, though, that the island no longer really needs the National Trust. The conditions under which the current arrangement were a necessity have long since passed, and at times that arrangement can now seem like an anachronism, or worse, a barrier to real progress. But while everyone expresses their annoyance at the trust sometimes, many argue that this is better than the alternative: expressing it at each other, which is always a danger in a small place.

If ever there was an island for which community ownership seemed ideally suited, then Fair Isle is it. Yet unlike other islands in the west of Scotland, that is not a route that people here have chosen to take. For me, the benefits of such a move are quite clear: it would give islanders the freedom to pursue whatever ideas they felt would be of benefit to them, and not require them to rely on the trust’s approval; it would remove the potential for a 'dependency culture', where begging to the landlord replaces getting things done; it would also remove the need to deal with a slow and unwieldy organisation, which has a thousand other interests and pressures on both its time and its budget. That said, there are many others – people who have lived in Fair Isle far longer than I – who would passionately disagree. The trust has seen us through the past half century, they would say, so why seek to change what still works? It is a question for which there are no simple, or immediate, answers.

Photo by Dave Wheeler: Jimmy Stout, skipper of the Good Shepherd, with Angus Jack of the National Trust for Scotland, in front of a plaque, recently unveiled at the community hall

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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