Two years ago I launched the North Highland Initiative at the Castle of Mey, in order to promote the produce, tourism and the built environment of this, I think, remarkable and contrasting region, which, in some ways, I have known and loved since I was really quite a small boy and got to know a little tiny bit about the area by driving through Castletown and seeing Castlehill which has become derelict. Many of you will already have heard of the work of the Initiative and may even have been directly involved with it.
North Highland Products Limited, trading under The Mey Selections brand name, formed the first venture of the Initiative, and has already successfully helped to raise the profile of produce from the area. The portfolio has steadily grown since the brand was launched from beef and lamb to now include whisky - Barrogill whisky-, oatcakes, cheeses, chutneys and preserves and I am hoping mutton will soon be on the list as well, to add to the Mutton Renaissance campaign. This year we are on course to achieve an annual turnover of nine million pounds. We now have over three hundred farmer members trading through NHP Ltd and this number is growing weekly.
One year later the tourism brand was launched, which has brought together through the North Highland Tourism Operators Group over one hundred and fifty bed and breakfast owners, hoteliers, cruise-ship operators, retailers and others to help realize the great potential for long-term tourism growth in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire. This model of broad representation and pooled experience has been developed together with VisitScotland, the local enterprise agency, Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise, and the Highland Council. I have always believed that there is strength in numbers... To get people together, singing from the same hymn sheet can be remarkably beneficial.
An important part of the attraction to visitors to the North Highlands is the way in which man has imbued the landscape with layers of meaning and beauty from distant antiquity until much more recent times, from extremely isolated rural habitation to the urban grandeur and sophistication that its towns and even its villages have aspired to; all of which brings us to the third part of the whole Initiative: the Built Environment; which not only affects the environment and appeal to tourists but also, directly, the quality of life of those who live here.
Since the 19th Century, Caithness has played a special role in the quality of the built environment across the United Kingdom and beyond, and millions of people around the world will at some point have set foot probably on Caithness stone, on the pavement, if not the land itself. This village has been described as “the Flagstone Village”, such was its significance in the industry, though there are of course many other stories woven into the fabric of the village and the parish of Olrig, from pre-historic times through two World Wars and up to the present day.
Previous generations of the North Highlands have entrusted us with a rich built legacy, and even up until the 1950s the local authority housing was above the national average in its incorporation of local materials and some considered details. The same, alas, cannot often be said of more recent developments. Over the last fifty years, development has, in the main, generally been piecemeal and timeless principles for the way people built places across the centuries have been abandoned. As with other places across the UK, it could be argued that the use of the car, to the detriment of the environment as we are learning, has been put before the comfort of the pedestrian. It seems to me, if I may say so, that we must find ways of tackling this and whilst I am on the subject I feel that we can find ways to ensure that there is less separation between social housing and private residences, and that we can try to overcome some of the disconnections which have, in some cases, resulted in work, shopping, education and health services becoming rather too distant from the places where people live.
And of course you don’t need me to tell you, there is a great need for affordable homes, and growth can bring prosperity and amenities, but there are different ways of building and planning that can positively enhance the environment whilst meeting the needs of residents. One of the essential underlying principles is that any new development should demonstrate a Sense of Place and not be just a ubiquitous blanket of identikit and somewhat homogenized boxes.
Through the workshop here you will have met members of my Foundation for the Built Environment, which is dedicated to improving the quality of people's lives by teaching and practicing timeless and ecological ways of planning, designing and building.
And, in addition to our Education Programme, which teaches the skills required for successful place-making through seminars and workshops; the Projects team is engaged on a series of live developments across the UK and beyond, to demonstrate the principles of sustainable urbanism through practice. At the inception of all of these projects is a collaborative process known as Enquiry by Design, which you are all part of here today, and which has successfully enabled communities and stakeholders to actively participate in the planning process. By rapidly testing ideas and suggestions through drawing – we are so lucky to have people here you can draw so quickly and can see what might be possible - a considerable amount can be achieved in a short space of time, and I think this is the interesting thing, reduces the normal planning process by about two years. You might find that is possible here.
Last year The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment opened an office in Scotland, based in Edinburgh. Since then my Foundation has been active across the country, with very considerable interest in our work coming from communities, landowners, developers and planning authorities. The first Enquiry by Design workshop in Scotland took place last November in Ballater within the Cairngorms National Park, and the second last month in the rapidly growing town of Ellon in Aberdeenshire; two quite different contexts but in both of which the workshops have succeeded in generating long-term plans for sustainable growth.
I must mention my Regeneration Trust, founded to help breathe new life into redundant landmark buildings (of which there are so many often lying redundant and unloved, though held in great affection by so many, though people often can’t find solutions). It has been active in Scotland for several years and has had a number of considerable successes with buildings such as Stanley Mills in Perthshire and Anchor Mills in Paisley. My Trust, which is jointly leading the workshop here in Castletown, will be working collaboratively here and elsewhere in the North Highlands as part of the Built Environment Programme to help find viable new uses for key heritage buildings and to raise partnership funding to bring about their restoration, particularly where there are wider benefits to local communities.
And Ladies and Gentlemen, in an effort to raise standards across Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, a Built Environment Advisory Group has been established which includes representatives from my Foundation and my Regeneration Trust. And today, also here are Bob Maclennan, the Chairman of the North Highland Initiative, and Robert Gray who are helping to give the built environment programme the same impetus and drive as the other successful ventures. Can I just congratulate them both most warmly for their quite remarkable achievements over the last three years... because I don't think even they believed that we would be quite be where we are today.
This Advisory Group, in collaboration with other parties, is working towards the creation of a Pattern Book to reflect local urban, architectural and landscape traditions, as suitable guidance for future developments across the region. This will be prepared with the intention that a Kite-mark will be awarded as an incentive for excellence in new developments that meet the aspirations of the Pattern Book. It will also explore, jointly with my Regeneration Trust, ways in which good quality restoration and regeneration of heritage buildings can be recognized.
At Dunbeath, not all that far away, a design competition, inspired by the owner should result in an exemplary small-scale development, which will demonstrate the added value of considering a number of individual dwellings as part of a coherent composition, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
It never ceases to amaze me how many solidly built but neglected shells scatter this starkly beautiful landscape and at my request working with farmers and landowners, Andrew Wright, a former President of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and member of the Advisory Group, has begun the monumental task of cataloguing the disused traditional buildings of the area. This inventory is essential, as until the full extent of the situation is known we will not be able to fully ascertain the economic potential of these buildings and the skills and resources that may be required for their restoration. That is the crucial challenge, developing these skills.
The Built Environment Advisory Group also hopes to work with other agencies and businesses to promote the development of craft skills, without which the restoration and continuing development of a quality built environment will obviously be hard to achieve. In particular, the North Highland College, together with my Prince’s Trust in Scotland, is exploring ways of developing a close working partnership in order to bring about a solid foundation in core craft skills training. In addition to working towards more accredited training, the development of apprenticeships will be fundamental to plans for the expansion of skills and the creation of rewarding jobs.
I am delighted to see and meet here today such a broad range of residents, business people, farmers, planners and others with an interest in the village and the area, all combining forces to help forge, at the end of the day, a new holistic vision for Castletown and Castlehill that will strengthen the bonds between the rich heritage of the village and its aspirations for the future. Through the concentrated efforts of this impressive gathering, I do hope that the plan produced will succeed in uniting past, present and future and become a model for the entire region and beyond, as I think this will break new ground in this whole area. Ladies and Gentlemen, it seems a very fitting project from which to officially launch the Built Environment Programme of the North Highland Initiative.