IT has been branded “Europark”, though it has little to do with either Europe or parks. It’s a controversial plan for 3,000 new homes on a large swathe of the green belt in North Lanarkshire.

The developers, Orchard Brae, say that building five new “villages” on fields and woods between the M8, Carnbroe, Cairnhill and Calderbank is about “breathing new life into underused green space”.

But local campaigners say that the development will destroy the “de facto country park” of Woodhall and Faskine and deprive communities of a vital “green lung” for enjoying nature.

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The argument is just one of many raging across Scotland about plans to build houses on green belts around towns and cities. It typifies the contentious issues at stake: the importance of green spaces, the need for new housing, the desires of local communities and the potential profits of developers.

That is why the Association of the Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS) has chosen Calderbank for its annual general meeting on May 31. There, members will be talking about plans to launch a new nationwide campaign to protect Scotland’s green belts from development – a campaign that will be fiercely opposed by house builders.

“This environment needs the protection of every thinking person to save it from being ravished by the uncaring,” says Dr Ann Glen, the secretary of Monkland Glen Community Council. “Developments for housing should not be allowed to encroach on the green belt.”

Woodhall and Faskine has been green since the ice rolled back in Scotland, she argues. It is a rich natural habitat for otters, badgers, bats and over 37 bird species.

“Our communities here are some of the unhealthiest in western Europe and some of Scotland's most deprived,” she says. “So green places close to homes are invaluable for the encouragement of exercise, the 'green pill' that doctors advise.”

Orchard Brae, however, takes a different view. Its mission is “to deliver an exceptional mixed use, residential and recreational environment”, it says. “The development will improve and extend the green network and bring employment and recreational benefits to the residential communities that surround it.”

As well as much-needed new homes, Europark will bring £500 million worth of investment, 1,100 jobs and £126 million in additional household income, the company says. Its “green heart” will preserve a “riverpark” as public space and it will include community orchards and allotments.

Everyone, it seems, wants to be seen to be green. The reality of housing in green belts is more complex, with competing values and conflicting motives unlikely to ever be reconciled.

The concept of green belts – land surrounding built-up areas that should be protected from urban sprawl – was born around London in the 1940s. There are officially now 11 green belts in Scotland, covering over 200,000 hectares around Greater Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and other towns.

Scottish Government planning policy allows local authorities to designate green belts for “protecting and enhancing the character, landscape setting and identity of the settlement” and “protecting and providing access to open space”.

But many are threatened by major housing developments. In addition to Europark, there are plans for 9,000 houses on five sites near Perth, 7,500 houses at two sites on the outskirts of Edinburgh and major developments near St Andrews and Stirling.

To bring communities together to oppose such developments, APRS is now preparing to launch a major campaign to protect Scotland’s green belts. It points out that over 1,600 hectares of green belt has been lost around Edinburgh since it was first designated in 1949.

“We now believe that it is vital to lead a concerted campaign to protect remaining green belts from further attrition,” says director, John Mayhew.

“Green belts should be protected for the long term. Once they are lost they are gone forever. They will be even more important for our children and grandchildren than they have been for us.”

According to Mayhew, green belts are a vital tool for preserving the countryside and their destruction harms some of Scotland’s most deprived communities. “Loss of green belts deprives people of nearby green spaces, which can have a substantial impact on both physical and mental well-being,” he argues.

“We recognise the pressure to build more housing, but previously-developed brownfield sites should be developed first. Development sites in green belts should only be allocated as a last resort through the local council’s planning process, so that only the least valuable areas are lost.”

The trade association for house builders, Homes for Scotland, fundamentally disagrees. Scotland is “mired in a housing crisis” and urgently needs new homes around cities, it argues.

Scotland’s population is rising and the number of households around Scotland’s four main cities is projected to rise up to 24 per cent over the next 25 years, it says. There are also 150,000 households on waiting lists for places to live.

Yet the number of new homes being built in Scotland is now 40 per cent less than it was before the recession. “Homes for Scotland believes we need at least 100,000 homes of all tenures across this parliamentary term to help meet the diverse needs and aspirations of all those living in Scotland,” says the group’s chief executive Nicola Barclay.

Half of new homes built in 2014-15 were on brownfield sites, and 199 hectares of previously used land were brought back into residential use in 2016, she points out. But there are limits to how many brownfield sites can be used, as they are contaminated or have difficult ground conditions.

“There simply isn’t enough brownfield land in cities like Edinburgh or Aberdeen to build all the homes required,” she argues. “Not everyone wants to live in a dense urban environment. Just as Primark and Harvey Nichols cater for different market segments, so too must new housing in terms of variety of type, size and location.”

Barclay also suggests that green belts are not necessarily of great landscape or environmental value. “Jumping the greenbelt into surrounding communities simply diverts pressure and inevitably leads to increased commutes, congestion and pollution,” she says.

“We need healthy, rational debate on how to accommodate our growing population and resolve our housing crisis. Where will our children and grandchildren live if we don’t?”

Both Mayhew and Barclay believe that they are battling for the good of future generations. But both may have to compromise as the competition for land around communities intensifies.

Glen Bramley, Professor of Urban Studies at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh’s green belt, points out that areas under pressure might need to plan for significant growth. “In some cases this could justify a once-in-a-generation change to the shape and boundaries of green belt,” he says.

“Such changes have previously been developed through the strategic planning system, in a defensible way. A good example would be the south-east wedge of Edinburgh.”

But he is critical of what has happened on other cases. “Some changes seem to be driven by speculative development applications by well-resourced private companies which own land in green belts, and may get planning permission despite not having been identified in the strategic forward plans for the city,” he states.

“Past experience shows that local authorities and national government will go out of their way to positively encourage high status economic developments on green belt land,” he adds. “A cynic would say that green belt is really a reserve of land to pull out of the back pocket at a crucial stage in negotiations with big companies.”

Bramley accuses politicians of being “two-faced” on green belt development, and describes policy as “ambiguous and sometimes misleading”. Many planning professionals believe that green belts need to evolve from the traditional “polo mint” encircling urban areas to a network of “green wedges”, he says.

“There is not complete agreement about whether green belts should be permanent, or relatively long term, or purely a tactical growth management tool. I personally believe that some green belt or network – particularly that of high landscape, ecological or recreational value – should be permanent and with a very restrictive regime, to discourage endless speculative applications and nibbling.”

Perhaps surprisingly, a group committed boosting green areas in cities, Greenspace Scotland, accepts that green belts may not be sacrosanct. “We recognise that green belt land can be poor quality land which may be unmanaged and left sitting with hope value for potential future development,” says the group’s chief executive, Julie Procter.

“On a strategic basis, as part of a local plan and/or open space strategy, there may be a case for some housing development in green belt areas so long as access to quality greenspace is maintained or improved and opportunities are maximised to enhance and improve the integrity and connectivity of green networks.”

Campaigners, however, are calling for tougher measure to preserve green belts. “Green belts require stronger protection in the present planning system, in which undue weight is being given to the facilitation of development,’ says Duncan Campbell, convenor of APRS Green Belt Alliance.

“Building more houses does not usually reduce prices and thereby increase their affordability. Private sector developers are affected by market forces and the need to generate profits, so normal supply/demand factors often do not operate,” he argues.

“Building more houses in the green belt is unlikely to solve the so-called housing crisis. Other policies will be required such as building more affordable houses at higher densities within settlements, preferably on brownfield sites and more rented accommodation.”

Unfortunately it’s difficult to know what those who campaign against homelessness currently think about the issue. When the Sunday Herald asked Shelter to comment, it declined on the grounds that it didn’t “as yet” have a policy on housing in green belts.

It did point out, though, that a commission on housing and wellbeing it set up under former Auditor General Robert Black made some comments in 2015. “We should maximise the use of brownfield land,” the commission concluded.

“We should ensure that there is an increase in the land available for new housing, even if this means reconsidering some longstanding planning principles such as rigid protection of all green belts in areas with a significant housing shortfall.”

Maybe there should be some flexibility in the way green belts evolve, but this would require tough, intelligent and far-sighted management by local authorities. Few would want to see the green spaces that help keep communities sane sacrificed to profit developers.

TABLE: Green Belts in Scotland

Aberdeen

Ayr and Prestwick

Clackmannanshire

Dunfermline

Edinburgh

Falkirk and Grangemouth

Greater Glasgow

Helensburgh

Perth

St Andrews

Stirling