The landowner of the north-east’s newest town has a vision to cut out the work commute by bringing big business out of the cities and into the country.
And the Queen’s cousin David Carnegie, the Duke of Fife, is optimistic it can be achieved after a tough few years battling everything from the impact of the oil downturn on the housing market, to the uncertainty of Brexit; the way homes are taxed in Scotland – as well as a lengthy legal battle over developer contributions.
Despite all of this, he hopes his Chapelton of Elsick development can one day be home to 22,000 people, with employment on their doorstep.
“It’s all part of the general scheme of trying to help people not to have to travel to work,” he explains.
“I always say people don’t commute to work for the fun of it. We do it because that’s the way we’ve built – living here and working there – and people have to travel between the two far too often. I think for most people if we can bring people much closer to their place of work it creates a much nicer way of living than many of us have got used to.”
His vision, he says, is very simple and you can say it in a single sentence. He is trying to create “a really great place to live”.
He added: “It is creating a sense of place which is at the heart of what we are doing and at the heart of urban design.
“It is really about trying to create a community. When you are sitting there working away with plans you think ‘will this achieve that?’”
“But actually what’s been fairly satisfying for us is, even though we are still quite early on in the project, it’s a very long-term project and there is already a sense of community and people really do enjoy living here.”
The duke, director of Elsick Development Company (EDC), said the idea to create a whole new town on the outskirts of Aberdeen was sparked by the development of the city bypass.
He said: “ It came about because of the AWPR. We actually weren’t looking to do any development here and it was only when we became aware that the AWPR was going to change things quite significantly in this area that we thought ‘well what does that mean for the land here?’”
“We were just thinking about doing up some steadings – it was that scale of development.
“But we were approached by some local housebuilding companies who were looking for land for major allocations and I took the view that it was going to happen on us or around us, so the area was going to change anyway.
“I thought rather than fighting it, which has been the approach in the past, we should embrace it really and take what was going to be scattered development throughout the local communities and stick it all in one place and create something positive
“And by doing that they were able to create something of sufficient scale, so that they now have a free-standing new town, a new settlement which they hope one day won’t rely on people commuting.”
He added: “I mean it is near Aberdeen and this is important but the scale of it is such that the masterplan area is 2,000 acres.
“Ultimately, we are looking at about 8,000 houses, maybe more, with a population of 22,000 and a lot of employment land, so the idea is this will be a sub-regional employment centre for people who currently live to the south of Aberdeen but have to work to the north. It’s all part of the general scheme of trying to help people not to have to travel to work.”
But starting a major housing development at the height of the oil and gas downturn and in the midst of Brexit has not been easy. And with only 150 homes sold since development started in 2013 he said the development is a “40-year plan”.
But the duke believes we have been through the worst.
He said: “It’s too easy to say there is some sign of improvement in the market. We are always looking for signs, but I think everyone is of the view it can’t get any worse. If someone is buying a house they are undertaking the biggest financial transaction they are ever likely to undertake and they don’t do that in times of uncertainty.
“Almost ever since we started in 2015, there has been some element of uncertainty hanging over people whether it be referendum or Brexit or the oil industry but it’s been a very difficult time for the market generally, so we are very pleased actually that we got away and are going quite well.
“We have just been ticking along through these difficult years.”
Another challenge the duke faced was costly development contributions imposed on the firm by Aberdeen city and shire councils.
Mr Carnegie was asked to contribute to a Strategic Transport Fund for public transport improvements.
But the Court of Session ruled it was not lawful for the developer to be obliged to pay for upgrades which were not related to the proposed development.
Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire councils appealed, but the Supreme Court in London unanimously dismissed the appeal.
Mr Carnegie said: “The whole argument was unnecessary, really. We went through four legal cases and each time it was found in our favour.
“If it had been done differently from the outset the whole thing would have avoided this argument and the costs involved.”