Scottish Green Belts Alliance

Observations about aspects of Heriot-Watt University's
Review of Green Belt Policy in Scotland

Here are our observations about aspects of the Heriot-Watt University 2004 report on their research on green belts for The Scottish Executive.

We start with praise. There is much useful information in the Heriot-Watt University report's literature search on green belts, its review of development plans and its four area case studies of (i) Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, (ii) Dundee and Angus, (iii) Edinburgh and Midlothian and (iv) aspects of Glasgow and the Clyde Valley. It considers several concepts such as urban form, transport corridors, green buffers and wedges, and land management. Some of the conclusions are welcomed by the SGBA such as the value of green belts, their long term importance and the need to enhance them.

It raised the possibility of three policy options : scrapping green belts, incremental improvements and a two-tier system. In a press release of 11.8.04 the Scottish Executive rejected scrapping green belts, gave its belief that a two-tier system is not necessarily the best way forward since 'that is potentially confusing and could undermine the protection that some green belt areas enjoy'. (See Minister's press release 11.8.04.) We agree, as advocacy of a two-tier approach to green belts suggests a 'one-size-fits-all' policy that would be inappropriate.

The Heriot-Watt researchers stated that 'tight time and resource constraints' limited their work on 'key issues'. We sympathise with their dilemma and give them credit for indicating openly that their report was restricted. The researchers also state that the range of interviews with 'key national stakeholders' (para. 1.30) focused on policy-makers, developers and planning professionals, thereby seeming to give less attention to other important social, environmental and local stakeholders. In approaching a new SPP it could be important to fill the gaps.

We note that the report tends to concentrate on metropolitan aspects, to the relative neglect of rural and town facets. The SGBA considers that conceptual, ethical and practical aspects pertaining to the countryside (after all, green belts are countryside) and smaller towns need to be given rather greater emphases, as well as refinement of more overarching approaches.

Those interested are urged to read the Heriot-Watt report and we do not summarise it here, but below we touch on some matters which cause us concern.

  1. In our view, the Heriot-Watt report does not offer a sufficient Scottish overview of green belts, but is essentially a case study report of four areas, predominantly in the east where problems are different from the west. (The pressures in Edinburgh and Aberdeen are untypical.) Other green belts and their effectiveness are largely omitted or only referred to briefly. There is no map of all Scottish green belts either existing or proposed.
  2. Although some emphasis is put on one green belt which was abolished (Dundee), there is no counterbalancing assessment of those which are proposed (Perth, St. Andrews, Stirling).
  3. The value of green belts for small and medium sized towns is not adequately covered, in our view.
  4. Community, rural and green belt organisations seem not to have featured markedly in the interviews or data-gathering and this perhaps accounts for what we consider to be insufficient coverage of issues such as countryside benefits, sustainability, the SEA arrangements, wildlife, landscape, tourism and concern for future generations.
  5. The overarching ethical and practical functions of green belts to check inappropriate short-term development and to require careful review prior to any proposed incursion might have been given more prominence in our assessment.
  6. Bearing in mind that this is intended as a policy review, we consider that Circular 24/1985 (which is the basis of current policy) might have been afforded fuller analysis, both of its strengths and of its shortcomings.
  7. Successes of green belts (e.g. in ensuring use of brownfield and other degraded urban land) get mentioned, but appear not to emerge as predominant themes.
  8. While alternative approaches are properly considered (e.g. in the report's international section), we feel that there is inadequate assessment of how those places which do not have green belts might benefit by their introduction.
  9. Financial interests of both developers and authorities are clearly important factors, but there seems to us to be insufficient data about these influences or discussion of how taxation changes could reduce pressures on green belts and assist beneficial development.
  10. The SGBA is especially concerned at the wording of paragraph 7.2 on page 93 of the Heriot-Watt report. This is the start of the chapter summarising the researchers' assessment of policy options and, from its prominence, it appears to be a key theme adopted by the researchers. It states:
    ‘. . . that green belt should be seen as having an overarching function, as a tool for managing the long term growth of metropolitan areas.'
    Not only are words like 'managing' and 'growth' somewhat imprecise, but interpreted in certain ways, we worry that the statement could be used undermine green belts. Further, green belts are relevant to small and medium sized towns and countryside. They are not just a metropolitan feature. But most importantly, although the long term growth of urban areas is one valid aspect of the green belt issue, it is only one of several which might be described as ‘overarching’.

The report suggests that all those who attended the policy workshop held on the report would accept the view quoted above. A few of us attended that workshop and we certainly do not accept the proposal in its present form and are unhappy at the implication that we would accept it. The SGBA organisations consider that this statement should not be included in the draft SPP unless the wording is modified and clarified to bring it in tune with other green belt purposes and described as only one of several overarching concepts.

The Alliance groups recognise that Circular 24/1985 has deficiencies, that circumstances have changed, that the purposes for green belts have increased and that there are current pressures in specific areas such as Edinburgh and Aberdeen. It is appropriate to reassess the Circular at this stage and to create a new SPP. However, we feel that, useful though the Heriot-Watt report is in some ways, it did not fully meet the needs of preparing for the new SPP. More research is needed. In the meantime, we hope that the SGBA report has gone some way to filling some of the gaps.

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