Cllr Mino Manekshaw says granting permission to convert a 110-year-old commercial unit on Mercat Cross in Culross – made famous worldwide by TV series Outlander – into a residential premises “beggars belief” and shows that planners are failing to listen to locals who were staunchly opposed to the bid.
He claims planning officers have taken the applicant’s claims of a lack of demand for commercial units at face value, without any evidence.
The building is currently occupied by Rankin’s Cafe, which opened last October, and prior to this had been an art gallery and an office, and for 100 years was a butcher’s.
Agents acting for the landlords, Bob and Valerie Barbour of Cumbernauld, say previous tenants have complained of “low footfall” in recent years, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
This has prompted the residential conversion bid in order to make the building more marketable to potential buyers.
But Cllr Manekshaw, who was elected in 2017, was not satisfied that this had been justified in the information included with the application.
“Where is the evidence of the cafe business being unviable for this location?” the West Fife councillor thundered during a recent meeting of Fife Council’s central and west planning committee.
“The supporting statement is questionable, the change of use is unwarranted, unwanted – and should be refused.”
Mary Stewart, Fife Council planning service manager, believed refusing the application could put the C-listed corner building at risk of falling into disrepair.
“I would remind members we’re working with a listed building – refusal of this does not mean a cafe will operate from this premises,” she said.
“One of the biggest risks to a listed building is a period of inactivity, and one of the most positive things is to retain it in beneficial use.”
Backed by Dunfermline North Labour member Helen Law, Cllr Manekshaw sought to have a decision on the application deferred so more information could be sought. However, he was defeated by a phalanx of SNP and Labour delegates, led by the SNP’s Alice McGarry and Labour’s Andrew Verrechia, who insisted on pushing it through.
Cllr John Beare, SNP Glenrothes North, Leslie and Markinch member, said: “Having read the report and listened to what elected members have said I cannot see a defendable reason to refuse.”
In its formal objection to the plans, Culross Community Council said there had been “no proper nor effective marketing” in trying to sell the unit beyond a listing on an online buy-and-sell website.
It also believes there are unanswered questions about the communal garden green behind the building and the ability of the house, which is partially underground, to function properly as a residential dwelling.
Lynne Smith, chair of the community council, has lamented the committee’s decision as a “hard blow”.
She said: “The fact that the opposition of both the elected councillors on the committee and the community council counted for absolutely nothing is shocking.
“The message is clear: we have no voice.”
The community council has been so dismayed by the decision that it is “on the verge of disbanding”, according to Cllr Manekshaw.
“They feel like they weren’t listened to,” the Conservative said of the Culross populace.
“People are feeling totally disconnected from the process. The council makes all the right noises about local accountability but at the same time people aren’t being heard.
“On several levels, I’m extremely disappointed. I did think of standing down – but the community council would rather I stayed because I can help them more from the inside of the council.
“But I am so fed up and don’t see the value of continuing – though the people I respect say otherwise.”
Agents acting for the Barbours were contacted for comment but had not responded at the time of filing.