Settling down in her chair, veteran planning campaigner Penny Uprichard almost heaves as she opens her copy of FifePlan, a planning document similar in size to the Christmas edition of the Argos catalogue. To Miss Uprichard, this mammoth document has come to symbolise the issues surrounding the planning system in St Andrews.
Replacing smaller locally-focused planning strategies, the newly established FifePlan aims to create one overarching plan for the whole area.
“Nobody understands all that it says, because if nothing else they simply would not have time to read the whole thing,” Ms Uprichard says. A consultation period on the plan was followed by a consultation on the original consultation period, rendering the whole process farcical in her eyes.
The Saint asks whether she considers this faulty planning system a local problem, or whether it applies nationally. “This is a problem that affects the whole of Scotland,” replies Ms Uprichard.
She is currently campaigning for an overhaul of the planning system which would allow input from all sections of society, as opposed to the centralised systems which are currently in place. “All that is said when we voice our opinion on proposed developments is that our views will be taken into account,” says Ms Uprichard, who is a vocal member of St Andrews Community Council. “In reality, local residents have very little power over the whole process.”
Ms Uprichard is concerned that there is a particular problem in St Andrews. The University has entered a “strategic partnership” with Fife Council, she says, which to her infers that planning applications by the University will be treated particularly sympathetically by councillors. A key example, quotes Ms Uprichard, is the University’s most recent major construction – the Medical and Biological Sciences building. On a personal level, she considers the modernist architecture unappealing, but what is of more concern is that it blocks the historic view previously enjoyed from Kennedy Gardens over to the golf course and the North Sea beyond, with the dark blocks on top of the building creating something of an eyesore.
A significant part of the planning debate in St Andrews is driven by the constant pressures on the housing market caused by the demand for student accommodation. Ms Uprichard says that she does not blame students for the tensions that can arise between the local community and those at the University.
She highlights what she sees as a lack of engagement from the University with local residents over its expansion plans in recent years, saying that back in the mid 1990s, the student population was half of what it is now. In her view, failure on the University’s part to adequately mitigate the pressure of admitting thousands of extra property seekers has led to severe problems now.
This is the latest battle for seasoned campaigner Ms Uprichard, who made national headlines back in 2013 when her battle against a proposed new development of 1,000 homes on the edge of St Andrews ended up in defeat at the Supreme Court, along with incurred legal bills of £179,000.
When asked what motivated her to pursue this case to the limits of the legal system, Miss Uprichard comments that she did not expect the case to rise to such levels at the outset, adding that she does not regret her actions. In terms of motivation she said: “I think when you see something that is wrong, you want to change it, and from there you work as hard as you can to see that change happen. This is especially important here in St Andrews, which I believe to be the most significant historical town in Scotland.”
The Saint raises the ongoing debate about Madras College and where to build any new school. Ms Uprichard opposes the current plans to build near the Community Hospital, arguing that the area is prime green belt land which is rich for agriculture. She says that Fife Council actually published over a dozen options as to where a new Madras could be built, before very latterly committing itself to the proposed Pipeland site.
Acknowledging that current conditions in the Madras campuses are widely considered to be far below-par, Ms Uprichard says that the blame for this situation should not be laid at the feet of those whose legal campaigns are delaying the Pipeland construction. Instead, she says, it should be apportioned to Fife Council whose neglect of the sites over the years has resulted in these conditions.
The Saint finishes by discussing the role that students can play in local democracy. Pat Mathewson, Association president, and Clare Armstrong, SRC member for community relations, are both granted “exofficio” roles on the council. However, with 20 roles available on the elected council and (according to the council’s website) currently only 14 elected members, there is room for willing participants to step up via co-option.
Could students volunteer to fill those gaps, providing further opportunities for dialogue between ‘town’ and ‘gown’ and – perhaps more importantly – creating a larger student bloc for any policy discussions or votes put before the council?
Speaking in a personal capacity, Ms Uprichard is lukewarm about the idea. She suggests that “community councillors dedicate significant amounts of time to their roles,” and that this could be incompatible with students who have existing commitments. The Saint points out that SRC and SSC members have meetings at least as frequently as the Community Council and Miss Uprichard responds by adding that students are by nature “transient residents,” whereas most members of the Community Council have been active on the council for many years.
Though Ms Uprichard’s views may be different to those of many students, it cannot be denied that she is whole-heartedly dedicated to St Andrews and its future. Whether her hopes for more local involvement in the planning procedure and a different site for a new Madras College will come to fruition, however, remains to be seen.
*Small changes have been made to this article compared to the print edition.