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St Andrews Bay Development (Kingask)
Turbulent Planning Phase - General Comment
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Cut from a subtle cloth

Jim Crumley, The Courier, 9 February 1999

Government Health Warning: What follows, if you happen to be involved in developing Kingask near St Andrews, or if you happen to be one of the members of Fife Council’s area development committee meeting today to pronounce on the fate of Kingask, could put you off your breakfast. I hope.

New readers can start here, in a small town on the sea. At its core is a medieval survival of streets and proportions shadowed and shone on by the hard light of east coast suns.

Its university and its pre-eminence in the annals of golf have ensured a world-wide clientele. When the town attaches words like ‘royal and ancient’ to its endeavours, these are no idle boasts.

Countless travellers from countless shores have washed up here and been grateful, moved beyond reason by an aura which seems to amount to more than the sum of its parts. People dream dreams here. Among the most recent travellers is an American. Dr Donald Panoz gazed down lovingly on the town from Kingask and gave voice to the. thoughts of countless coast walkers before him:

“We have something very special here,” he said.

These are almost certainly the only words he has uttered since he came here with which you and I would agree. Dr Panoz did not mean that the vigour of sea wind and poleaxing light, and the pungent scents of history and tradition, stirred his mortal soul and wrought poetry there. His sub-text was very different. It went something like this (I paraphrase now, for effect, and with the bias which befits a hostile witness):

“If I trash this headland with a damn great hotel and all the other money-spinning leisure bric-a-brac no-one really needs and use golf as the excuse, and get it all up and running by the 2000 Open, I can make me a sweet fortune, take the money and run back to where I came from. We have something very special here.”

He never actually spoke these words, of course, apart from the last six, but that is what, it seems to me, Dr Panoz is saying. I think we have something very malodorous here.

The scheme is quite unnecessary, the site appears to have been chosen to give maximum offence and visual intrusion, the modifications proposed in response to public outrage were an insult.

But more insulting by far to both landscape and natives is that Fife Council had its head turned and let itself be seduced. How could that happen?

There are few things more squirm-making than the sight and sound of strangers brandishing their mega-bucks, then mysteriously persuading councillors and council officials to allow them to make more megabucks at the expense of the people who elected the councillors and pay the officials. No wonder Dr Panoz thinks he has something very special here.

But does he really think we need him to tell us that St Andrews is special?

Where we differ is in our definition of what makes it special.

St Andrews is a four-fold phenomenon.

One is that it is an organic town. It has evolved. Each evolution acknowledged the worth of what preceded it and evolved accordingly. That is rare among small Scottish towns. It creates a kind of commonplace dignity, a thing of the streets and the stones, and a sense of awareness in the natives of where they put their feet, and what they breathe, in every waking hour of every working day. That, too, is rare.

Another is St Andrews’ landscape setting, a thing as much a part of the sea as the land. Like all east coast settings, it is cut from a subtle cloth. Stranger eyes are slow to attune to it.

The third thing is the sense of the town from the landscape setting, both bold and battened down at the same time, both land-cradled and sea-going, both hard-edged in its spired and spiky profile and soft-centred in a kind of cloistered evening quietude.

The fourth is the sense of landscape setting from the town, that quality of airy softness or dazzle you drag subconsciously into the streets from the fields or the sea, so. that it mitigates the hard stone like the effect of slack water on high tide. This fourth ‘specialness’ is the most vulnerable of all. A single discordant note deliberately implanted can wreck the whole visual and sensory balance.

But these are elementary things. Their value in a society which likes to think of itself as civilised, likes to think it knows the worth of conservation, is beyond price, beyond economics. They are the stuff of the quality of life. They are - they should be - the first principles of planning policy.

What is on offer at Kingask is not an economic lifeline or a cure for social ills. It is a wound, a scar for life on the face of the landscape. You cannot build on such a scale, on such a conspicuous site which is so central to the landscape setting (and, therefore, the defining character) of a town like St Andrews, without wounding.

And for what? A developer’s bank balance? Is that a worthier cause in the eyes of Fife Council than its own landscape? St Andrews does not need a 200-bedroom hotel any more than it needs two more golf courses and the apparently compulsory accessories of leisure industry junk. What it does need is protection.

Protection for its medieval heartbeat which, among other things, means slowing and quietening and minimising the impact of traffic. No-one believes the Kingask project will do anything for the townscape other than make the burden of traffic intolerable on medieval streets and buildings.

Protection for the wholly complementary environments of townscape and landscape setting with a rigorously enforced, non-negotiable green belt. Kingask is not just a particularly thoughtless concept. It is an enormously powerful precedent. Build it and nowhere is safe. Deny it, and create the desired impetus for a green belt, for sanctuary and enlightenment.

Or do we really want St Andrews to become the place about which future generations of visitors and natives will say: How could a place of academic excellence ever have done something so unutterably stupid?

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