Scottish Green Belts Alliance

Summary of our report's conclusions

Our report on The Future of Green Belts in Scotland concludes with some possibilities for the future of green belts and some suggestions for the new Scottish Planning Policy (SPP). This must be regarded as provisional since other points may be added in the future.

  1. Confirm the value of green belts
    The green belt principle has stood the test of time and essentially remains sound. We consider that this should be the starting point of future policy, rather than concerns about problems in exceptional cases.
  2. Emphasise the many purposes of green belts
    There is a danger that green belts may be portrayed as having limited (and negative) purposes, whereas they are multi-functional. The protective elements are for positive reasons of conserving what are socially valuable and environmentally vulnerable. We suggest that the new SPP might include a fuller statement of purposes than appear in the 1985 Circular, as outlined in section A of our paper.
  3. Purposes relate to circumstances
    Some purposes will be applicable in particular locations and circumstances. Purposes and policies should be related to local needs and circumstances. We consider that it would be inappropriate to prescribe a one-model-suits-all approach in the new SPP, though some broad values of green belts apply across the country.
  4. The Precautionary Principle
    The precautionary principle could be adopted in the SPP. This is an element of sustainable development, which advocates restraints on development likely to cause damage to the environment in circumstances of significant complexity or uncertainty without waiting for scientific or other evidence of proof. This may be related to the Sandford principle which states that where conflict arises between environment and development, the natural and cultural heritage should be given greater weight.
  5. Retaining a sense of continuity
    A sense of certainty and continuity about green belts is needed and we hope that this will be a thrust of the new SPP. Without certainty and continuity, landowners, developers and planners may operate on the assumption that ultimately any green belt land is attainable for development. The following steps are suggested.
    1. In the SPP, designate green belts as having the presumption of permanence.
    2. Take reconsideration of green belt boundaries out of development plans and make boundary review a distinct operation less frequently (e.g. every 30 years) or in circumstances agreed by the Scottish Executive to be a crisis.
    3. Introduce a system of criterion-referenced reviews.
  6. Criterion-referenced reviews
    Reviews of green belts (either at periodic intervals or crisis reviews) should be carried out by a system of rigorous testing according to centrally-designated criteria by the Scottish Executive, in our view. We consider that green belt land should not be released unless there is incontrovertible evidence that development is genuinely needed, that alternative sites do not exist and that the long term benefits clearly override those provided by the green belt. We hope that the SPP may address the issue of reviews, perhaps reserving to the Scottish Executive decisions about triggering reviews and actions to follow reviews.
  7. Models of green belt should be fit for purpose(s)
    The green belt models offered in section E of our paper illustrate that a one-model-suits-all approach would be inappropriate. Models of green belt should be fit for purpose. For example, the Town Revival Model might have wide application, especially in areas of decline, but the Tier for Growth Model would be considered for areas experiencing extreme growth pressures and only after a crisis review.
  8. Incursion approaches should not be confused with green belt models
    Incursion approaches are based on an assumption that breach of green belt will happen. Those approaches consider how to effect breach. That would only be applicable, to a limited degree after a crisis review. It is important that incursion approaches are not confused with green belt models. It is also important that incursion approaches should not dominate the planning agenda. They should be seen as exceptions, not the main issue.
  9. Avoidance of coalescence of settlements is important
    It has been suggested that settlement coalescence does not matter. We strongly disagree, and consider that avoidance of settlement coalescence is important and should be retained as a designated purpose of green belts.
  10. Green belts to provide countryside for recreation
    We consider that, with the advent of rights to countryside access through legislation, the argument for green belts to provide for recreation increases. Greater certainty of protection provided by green belts boosts the likelihood of paths creation and other recreational amenities and that this ties in with calls for healthier lifestyles. It has been suggested that green belts will do for the 21st century what public parks did for the 19th. As 'green tourism' and more vigorous outdoor pursuits become the norm, so ready access to the countryside takes on greater significance. Further, green belts help to keep the countryside closer to people. Urban sprawl drives it further away. The recreational purpose for green belts is greater than ever. We suggest that the new SPP might emphasise these issues.
  11. Green belts for institutional purposes
    There is some vagueness in the Circular's wording and, although some essential public infrastructure may necessarily cut into the green belt (a new runway at an airport, a park-and-ride terminal, etc.) we do not consider that the need to provide a public facility necessarily justifies green belt use. More debate and clarity is needed on this issue, especially the definition of 'institutional purpose'. For example, it can be questioned whether university campuses, business parks, agricultural showgrounds are necessarily acceptable for green belt purposes since they often end up being similar in appearance to industrial estates.
  12. Green belts to maintain the landscape settings for towns.
    This has been a long-standing reason for green belts and it seems generally accepted.
  13. Green belts to safeguard natural heritage for future generations
    This reflects long term obligations and is part of the civic conscience argument. Once a piece of green belt land has gone for development, it has probably gone forever. This ties in with avoidance of urban sprawl, safeguarding countryside and protecting wildlife as well as improving the quality of town fringes, encouraging community and other woodlands and other rural benefits.
  14. Beyond-green-belt satellites
    This has been a traditional approach and still has validity, especially if there are good public transport links between settlements.
  15. Green belts as assets for sustainability
    We suggest that green belts contribute considerably to sustainability.
  16. Town fringe areas of green belts especially in need of care
    Town fringe areas are especially sensitive and at risk. They deserve particular attention, care and management.
  17. Social justice, economic competitiveness and national policy for better balance of growth areas
    Green belts can be used as a tool towards the above aims. In theory, by controlling development in areas of growth it might be possible to attract it to areas of decline. Since this is in the arena of 'big politics' we feel that it is outside the remit of this paper and we therefore do no more than mention it. However, a national policy for distributing growth can be coupled with protection of the environment and seems to be a win-win situation.
  18. Green belts appropriate for small towns
    In the past, green belts have mostly (but not solely) been designated for large towns, cities and conurbations. A new emphasis might be given to green belts for small and medium sized towns. The experience of those 'washed into' conurbation green belts deserves attention. Our observation is that the effect has been positive for them and the green belt principle might be advocated for small and medium sized towns more overtly. We recognise that smaller towns may be less likely to have brownfield sites to develop, but the range of purposes for green belts suggests that other reasons justify green belts.
  19. More green belts
    It is heartening that new green belts are being created. The new SPP might give explicit encouragement to the creation of many more green belts. At present there seems to be inconsistency across Scotland and settlements which could benefit from green belts belts do not have them. It might be possible for the SPP to lead the way to more extensive use of green belts for towns of all sizes.
  20. Legal confirmation of green belts ? Other means of strengthening their status ?
    It is our observation (though we cannot substantiate it statistically) that recent years have witnessed an increase of incursions into green belts and a weakening of the preparedness by some authorities to regard green belts as protected over the long term. We stress that this observation is impressionistic and is limited to a few areas, but, if true, it could lead to a regrettable trend. Research into whether that has been the case would be interesting, e.g. an assessment of cases where approval 'in very exceptional circumstances' [Annex, para. 4(iii) of Circular 24/1985] was given. In any case, consideration might be given to whether it would be appropriate to accord legal status to green belts (vide the London Green Belt Act 1938) or some other mechanism to diminish the erosion of green belts. Perhaps that can be achieved through the SPP, but the issue of a degree of certainty (presumption of permanence) is crucial to the future of green belts.
  21. Imminent changes to the planning system
    Imminent changes to the planning system seem to us to provide additional reasons to confirm, strengthen and increase green belts. The Scottish Executive's National Planning Framework for Scotland (2004, para. 1) calls for Scotland to be 'competitive, fair and sustainable' and stresses (paras. 93 onwards) the importance of protecting and enhancing a high quality environment. It is our contention that green belts support these objectives.
  22. Green belt management and enhancement
    We consider that green belts should be more than designations for protection but should be accompanied by appropriate arrangements for countryside management to promote landscape enhancement and public access as well as farming, wildlife and other benefits.
  23. Taxation changes
    We raise the possibility that adjustments to the system of taxation, especially VAT could be considered towards achieving some of the above benefits.
  24. Retention of the term 'green belt'
    The term 'green belt' is well-established and widely known. In some quite minor respects it does not precisely describe the concept; for example a green belt does not necessarily encircle. However, any change could be confusing to the public and could be seen as an attempt to undermine green belts. We feel strongly that the term should be retained.

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