Please visit Chalmers & Co’s tent at the Haddington Show this Saturday 29th at East Fortune to give us your views on what developments and businesses you want to see in our countryside. We will be delighted to share drinks and strawberries with you. For the most stimulating response, we shall be offering 50% off a mid-week break in one of our clients’ self-catering properties marketed through our new enterprise – Chalmers Cottages.

“We are here on earth to do good unto others. What others are here for, I have no idea.” WH Auden.

The Ecobuild Exhibition in London was all about great ideas, innovative solutions, and practical advice on the sustainable future of the construction industry.

David Brackenridge and his colleagues Fraser Sheerin and Sebana Moynagh spent two days at the exhibition to explore the very latest in eco technology, building systems and renewable energy generation. In this third blog on Ecobuild, Sebana, our Student Architect, shares her views and ideas on what she saw. You can also read David and Fraser’s blogs.

What are your lasting memories of Ecobuild 2013?

From beehives to biomass, I found the event a great learning experience!

The slump in house purchases has meant that the number of households renting privately in Scotland has nearly doubled to 290,000 over the past 10 years. The number of letting agents has also increased dramatically to about 500. The result is that complaints to the property ombudsman have risen by 123% in five years.
Letting agents for private property should be regulated by the Scottish government, says the leading housing charity Shelter.

Shelter Scotland said the sector was becoming filled with “cowboy” operators because agents needed no professional expertise or experience to set up.

“We’re not altogether surprised at Chalmers & Co,” says Christopher Lamotte at the firm. “We’ve seen a lot of inexperienced estate agents moving into lettings and management, and quite a few new agents entering the market, often trying to undercut us. They think it’s an easy source of new revenue but have little experience and few processes.

When architects are approached by farmers with redundant stone-built farm steadings, it is usually assumed that the best way forward is to apply for planning permission to convert the buildings into houses. So Chalmers & Co Architects team found it refreshing to meet a client looking for an alternative approach.

Prora Farm, near Drem in East Lothian, has a lovely, late 19th century sandstone farmhouse and steading. The farm is still actively worked by Hamish Miller and his son Graham. The steading is unusually close to the farmhouse where Hamish lives, converting the steading into houses was, therefore, not considered as attractive as business use.

An initial plan was drawn up to convert the agricultural buildings into office and storage properties ranging from 48 to 152 square metres to rent out to small businesses. With the help of Chalmers & Co’s Architectural team and Oliver Joinery Ltd, the steadings were repaired and re-roofed. Drainage, water and power were all provided. An opportunity then presented itself.

Mrs Wilma Flockhart has just retired from Chalmers & Co, chartered surveyors & architects, after being with the firm for 31 years under the guise of John Sale then Chalmers & Co. Amongst her roles, she has managed the lettings and estate agency departments.

“Wilma has played a key role in making Chalmers & Co East Lothian and Midlothian’s leading residential letting and management business,” says Francis Ogilvy, owner of the firm.

“Having been to school at Knox Academy and being Haddington born and bred, she is well known by our many local clients. We will all miss her experience and sound property management advice, and wish her an enjoyable and relaxing retirement.”

There is still an opportunity to contribute to the forthcoming East Lothian Local Development Plan and help define what is meant by ‘appropriate rural development’. Arguably, the planning system tends to be urban-centric – perhaps not surprising given that is where more people live and more development happens. But the challenges of development in the countryside tend not to be given sufficient attention or debate, so there should be more of a debate about the future shape of our East Lothian countryside.

This debate shouldn’t simply be about what society wants the countryside to look like – whether there are wind turbines on the horizon, for example. The debate should also be about the future of our rural communities. Do we want more jobs in our villages? More commuters? More businesses? More facilities? The answers to these questions should inform the forthcoming East Lothian Local Development Plan.

“Farmers, landowners and rural business owners need to come forward and ensure that they contribute to the East Lothian Local Development Plan while there is still an opportunity. The ‘Rural Voice’ needs to be heard,” says Francis Ogilvy, chartered surveyor and owner of Chalmers & Co, land agents and architects.

Chalmers & Co, letting agents and estate agents, report that the letting market is strong currently. Agency manager, Scott Jack, comments:

“The average void period on the properties we have let over the last six months has been only 2 weeks. In fact, nearly 40% of the homes that we’re managing have let with no void period at all. That means that the landlords lost no rent because the new tenants moved in as soon as the property became available. Buy-to-let investors should be interested!

“We are still finding that an increasing number of new instructions are from people who are unable to sell their house because of the weakness of the sales market. Some people may be turning to their current estate agents to let their properties. However, don’t under estimate the importance of having experienced property managers. There are plenty of things that can go wrong.

Is it appropriate to continue with a planning policy based on restraint in the rural areas of East Lothian? Should an alternative strategy be adopted to secure a sustainable future for rural communities and areas?

These are some of the questions discussed in a report called East Lothian’s Rural Voice, a community perspective on the future of East Lothian’s countryside. The pioneering Rural Voice report is based on an online survey and workshop agreed between and sponsored by the Council and Chalmers & Co, chartered surveyors and architects. The fact-based Rural Voice report will feed into the Main Issues Report for the new East Lothian Local Development Plan via the Rural Forum.

The facilitators and report’s authors, Urban Animation and Nick Wright Planning, identified one thread which ran through all of the discussions: something needs to change. It suggests that there is a good opportunity for the Council to break new ground with an integrated rural planning policy that releases rural economic potential, enables sustainable communities, and conserves natural resources.

Chalmers & Co, letting and management agents, report that their clients saw residential rents across East Lothian and Midlothian increase in line with inflation when rents were reviewed this spring. Similarly, average monthly rents in Edinburgh rose by 2.9% roughly in line with the RPI in April to June compared to the same period last year, according to Citylets (Q2 2012).

However, bigger rental hikes may be in the pipeline because of the continuing strength of demand for rental properties.

The size of the Scottish private rental market continues to grow, having increased by about two-thirds (67%) over the last 10 years or so. In the most recently published Scottish Household Survey there are estimated to be 273,000 privately rented dwellings in Scotland as of March 2010, a figure that has increased by more than 110,000 since March 2001.