In this 12th section of her green belts walk, Kat meets a campaigner in Carmunnock and learns some of the tactics of the volume house-builders wanting to build on the greenbelt in some of the most sought-after countryside around Glasgow.
I met Robert Cochrane in Laura’s Tearoom in Carmunnock, Glasgow’s last remaining village. Robert, until recently, was the planning representative on the community council and was going to show me round the village and explain some of the recent issues they have had related to the Green Belt.
Carmunnock has been the site of many a battle with the mass house-builders. Less than half a kilometre of green belt separates the village edge from Castlemilk, one of the housing schemes created on the outskirts of Glasgow in the 1960s. But the contrast is stark: most of the households in Castlemilk fall into the 5% most deprived households, according to the Scottish Index of multiple Deprivation (SIMD), whereas Carmunnock, just up the hill, is the reverse, with most households in the 10% most affluent.
Over a fruit scone and a flat white, Robert told me about the fight to save ‘Roz’s field’. Roz was a much loved horse and local character and her field became the site of a battle which exposed such bad practice that it led to Glasgow city council changing their planning processes. This case is an illustration of many of the injustices which are built into the planning system and are faced by communities all over Scotland, many of which haven’t been able to muster the resources and efforts, and sheer time and levels of knowledge that Carmunnock has managed. The following blog is a good example of just what it takes from a community to oppose development, even that which is clearly contrary to the local plan and planning policies.
The Fight for Roz’s Field
Roz’s field lies a hundred metres from where we sit in the cafe, and was designated in the most current Local Development Plan as green belt. When a developer applied for planning permission to build four five-bedroom executive homes they were turned down by the planning department because it went against planning policies. The developers appealed the decision, as they can do at very small expense, and the case was heard by a review panel of three Councillors.
The panel approved the development, against all expectations, which sent shock-waves through the community. The issue had seemed so clear-cut – how had the appeal panel found in favour of the developers?
The planning appeal
You can watch the meeting for yourself because the community council have uploaded it to youtube with some captions of their commentary. The meeting was held online and the recording made public by the council. There were a number of irregularities – firstly objectors are able to attend meetings and at least two weeks’ notice needs to be given, however the meeting had been brought forward two weeks so the community council only got one day’s notice. Secondly, despite strong and repeated advice from planning officials, two of the three councillors on the panel voted to uphold the appeal. Council officials then repeatedly advised that councillors must provide justification within the planning policies for granting the appeal. The official points out that the houses do not meet any of the criteria which would allow development on green belt.
The proposed houses are not:
- Promoted through Strategic Development Plan
- Directly associated with agriculture, horticulture or forestry
- For a leisure or recreation development
- Dwelling house replacing an occupied or recently vacated dwelling house
- Directly associated with telecommunications
- Required for existing approved used
- Related to the generation of renewable generation of energy or heat
- For the extraction of minerals including coal.
But despite repeated requests for ‘material considerations’ for granting the appeal, one of the councillors keeps overriding the clear advice and disregarding the obligation to provide justification within the planning policies for the decision.
The appeal was granted.
Because of the way Scotland’s planning laws work, developers can appeal a decision they don’t like, as they did in this case, but communities have no right of appeal. Even if a decision is made so patently unfairly and against policies, the community have absolutely no recourse. The only thing a community can do in this situation is to go to judicial review – a very long and very expensive process.
The Judicial review
A community can only take a case to judicial review if
- The correct process wasn’t followed
- The decision was unlawful or
- On the grounds of irrationality, if it is so unreasonable that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have made it.
It was on this third point the community council decided to go to Judicial Review, and they started fundraising. They raised £12,000 towards the costs but, just before the court case started, Glasgow City Council withdrew from the case. They were not going to defend their decision.
The community were delighted … but their victory didn’t last long. The developers stepped forward and announced that they were going to fight the judicial review themselves.
Legal advice obtained by the community council estimated that, if they lost, it would cost them £75,000 in legal fees, a sum they just could not afford. They couldn’t fight on, the liability for the costs would fall on the office bearers of the community council. They risked losing everything.
We sat in silence contemplating the injustices of the system.
“They’re already marketing the houses” said Robert, after a bit “The cheapest is £850,000 and they are up to over a million pounds.” I recalled that one of the councillors kept saying in the planning review meeting that they’ll make lovely homes for local people. “Honestly though! Who can afford that? It certainly won’t be local people” said Robert.
We’d finished our coffee by that time and we set off the short distance to Roz’s field. “The horse was a local character, everyone loved her.” said Robert as we walked, “It was a few weeks after they put in the appeal, the horse died in great pain.” He explained that it seemed very sudden and local people were suspicious. “That horse could have been a barrier to planning because of the bad publicity of taking away the horse from the community. She’d have become the symbol of the campaign.” Roz’s owner was apparently so upset she didn’t want a post mortem so we will never know what caused her death.
The horse was no longer in the field, but two men in high viz were putting up an 8ft high security fence. “A few days ago there was a mature hedge here with some trees – full of wildlife ” said Robert pointing at piles of wood chippings. “They’ve even grubbed out the roots,” he said sadly. “We didn’t know they were going to do that – we
assumed they’d just cut it back a bit but keep it for the houses.”
“It’s bringing it all back to me again, just talking about it with you” said Robert, looking downcast. “It’s why I left the community council after we lost. I just couldn’t keep fighting.”
This case has, at least, resulted in changes to Glasgow City Council’s planning appeal processes. The appeal now has to be heard by five Councillors, and all Councillors who sit on an appeal need to have training on the planning system. APRS has recently responded to a Scottish Government consultation about making planning training mandatory for all elected members, so we hope that, in future all decision makers will be more aware of planning law and policies.
The inequality built into the system
It’s what a lot of campaigners experience in these fights – burnout. And the developers rely on it. They know that if they keep coming back time and again they will wear people down. “It’s what they do” says Robert “they do everything to confuse and distract.”
We talked about Ann, who I’d met in Greengairs. He had been introduced to her through a Planning Democracy event when they had just started the campaign. “I just don’t know how she kept going over so many years.” said Robert.
“It’s like a full time job” said Robert. It was exhausting. Robert was not an expert in planning, or campaigning, he is trained as a teacher, but he’s certainly an expert now.
Robert explains how it is almost impossible to keep up with all the development applications around the village “The village is on the border of three councils, most of the village is in Glasgow but South Lanarkshire is just here and that field is East Renfrewshire” he says as he points across the road. “when I was the planning representative on the council I had to look at all three websites to check for applications”. He described how developers often “make a mistake”, he signals quote marks, with the postcode to make it harder to find. “We only found out about Roz’s field because the horse’s owner came to me to say that she had seen a man with surveying equipment in the field”. Robert had to search about until he eventually found the field in the planning portal with no postcode registered at all.
Developers withdrawing and Resubmitting
We discuss the situation that if an application is withdrawn before being refused – for example, if there is a particularly bad response at local consultation stage and a lot of objections come in – then the developer can withdraw the application. In this case all the paperwork is removed from the planning website – including all the objections. The developer can then simply change something small and resubmit the application in the knowledge that all the objections will no longer be attached to the application, and they will no longer be online from the previous application.
“That happened here with a couple of fields just over the boundary in South Lanarkshire” said Robert. “A developer had a very bad response at consultation with the whole community against, and they withdrew the application. We’re just waiting for it to come back again. They keep coming until they’ve worn you down.”
I explained how Planning Democracy and APRS want previous versions of applications with all the objections to stay on planning portals. “That is exactly what’s needed” said Robert.
The Tragic Tale of Carnbooth House
We continue down the road, crossing a main road, as Robert told me about the next planning case they had been fighting. A company, who owned a big hotel locally, among other hospitality and club venues in Glasgow, had applied for two blocks totaling 36 apartments and associated parking in the hotel’s greenbelt grounds, just outside the village, which had been turned down as it went against the local plan.
Robert took me down an overgrown pathway. There was a thin strip of tarmac underfoot and we ducked under drooping branches and fallen trees. “This was built as access to the old school when they built the dual carriageway”. An old path from the village had gone past the school and then on to Busby but the dual carriageway provided no underpass for the path and it fell into disuse. “There are still older people in the village who remember going down the path to play at the waterfalls. There was a ford and a path all the way to Busby. You can’t do that now.” he said.
The path we were on was barely passable, but had street lighting and was evidently invested in at the time. “When the school became a hotel they didn’t want people walking down here” said Robert.
As we walked he told me the story of the grand B-listed arts and crafts house, designed by architect Alexander Cullen. It had started out as a grand country house, which became a residential school and then the hotel. After the company were turned down for the apartments they applied for an extension for the hotel with underground spa, function room and more rooms. This was supported by the community council and was given permission in 2018.
Soon after the permission was granted the hotel owners resubmitted the application for the apartments saying that they could not get the money to build the extension without building the apartments first. They claimed that the B-listed mansion house would be at risk if they didn’t get permission for the apartments. This is called ‘Enabling Development’ which is an established planning tool which allows additional developments to ‘subsidise the cost of restoring a listed building and securing its long term future.’ Enabling development means that development, which goes against planning policy, may be permitted if the public benefits of the proposal, in this case securing the B-listed mansion house, can be shown to outweigh any negative impacts.
The company got permission for the apartments at appeal despite opposition from the local community.
We joined a lime tree-lined drive taking us round an elegant bend and then the mansion house came into view. It was a complete wreck, a burned out shell. The solid red sandstone walls of the house still stood, but blackened beams lay, with the charred remains of the rest of the house, on the ground floor where they had all fallen through. A ripped and charred portrait sat outside a grand stone entrance bearing a carved coat of arms showing a tree with the all-seeing eye above, and the words Fide et Fiducia – In faith and truth.
It had only happened a couple of months before – in August- and I could still smell the caustic smell of burning.
Robert explained that, when planning permission is given construction needs to start within three years (which was extended to five during COVID) or the permission lapses. The 2018 planning lapsed in Spring 2023 and in the summer the council had written a letter to the hotel letting them know. “Immediately after the letter was sent fly-tipping started at the entrance to the hotel” said Robert “not just small stuff – huge piles of rubble. It completely blocked the entrance”
Two weeks after the letter, the fire started. “They sent 10 fire engines but they couldn’t get here because of the fly tipping. They had to bring in earth moving equipment before the fire engines could get near the hotel, and by then the whole building was completely destroyed”
We stood and looked at, what would have been, amongst Glasgow’s finest arts and crafts buildings. “The police have just announced that the fire was deliberately set,” said Robert. “But that’s all we know for now”.
So two planning cases, both very current, that Carmunnock residents have been dealing with have brought up so many of the issues that people all over Scotland deal with. Carmunnock is lucky in that it has an active Community Council, and many local people with capacity to understand the complexities of the planning system and to stand up to the power of the developers. Many other communities in very deprived places are subject to some of the worst impacts of unsustainable development and have far less capacity to fight.
The Green Belt Walk Continues
Robert and I continued our circuit of the village through fields that lay between Castlemilk and Carmunock which had been planted with native trees – “this ground was bought by Glasgow City Council when they were building Castlemilk but they didn’t use it” he said – it was now part of a project to plant thousands of trees in Glasgow as climate mitigation. “I suppose it means that developers won’t be putting in planning permission here” I said.
The final couple of fields on our walk were the “Warnock Trust fields”, gifted by a local benefactor to be used for the benefit of locals, for example as a cottage hospital or a recreation ground, and, thereafter, to be handed over to the ownership of the council. The conditions of the gift had never been fulfilled and money didn’t exist in the council to make anything happen so the fields were now stuck in a kind of limbo. The community council had approached a law professor at Glasgow University to see whether it would be possible for a community development trust to use the fields, but the conditions of the original gift made it impossible. “We tried everything, but I suppose they’ll just stay like this” said Robert – in a resigned way as we walked between the rough fields and a hedgerow heavy with hawthorn berries. “At least we managed to get a path put in along here” he said.
When we arrived back in the village I waved farewell to Robert and set off on the next section of my greenbelt walk – weaving my way from Carmunnock and around Thorntonhall, one of the most expensive places to buy a house in the Glasgow area. Mansion after mansion rose out of new developments. I walked along the back of one of the houses which was laid out like an Italianate palace’s gardens. A man was shoo-ing a few stray leaves off the pristine lawn with a leaf blower.
A few fields further on I came across a Scots pine with a sign nailed to it
“NOTICE This site is private property. The contractor will not be responsible for any injury caused while trespassing. Parents are advised to warn their children”
The poster was illegal, of course, not compliant with the Land reform Act. Robert had told me that there wasn’t a field in the area that hadn’t got an option on from a developer “They give the farmer some money up front to sign a contract to sell their land to a developer if there is planning permission on the land” said Robert. “Not many farmers can afford not to”.
I could imagine that this was an area that a developer had bought or had an option on, and they were keen that locals did not have regular use of it or for local children to gain a connection to the land, to it so they would be less likely to see opposition if and when they applied for planning permission. I took a photo of the sign so I could report it to the local access officer when I got home. However I’ve heard so many reports of illegal signs that were reported but never removed due to a lack of resource for access duties in local authorities. Perhaps I’ll come back at a later date and check and if it’s still there I will take it down myself.
Since I was walking alone I needed to make a circular walk to return to my car and decided to find the path that Robert had told me about, that local people used to use. From my green belt walk thus far I have found no path too overgrown, no fence too covered in barbed wire, no hedge too dense to make my way. I was determined that I would rediscover that ancient footpath.
I walked out of Busby passing a series of mansions, each grander than the last, until I found a path that crossed a field towards a huge arts and crafts house which looked like it should have stood in its own deer-park rather than on the edge of a small town. As I walked round the back I found that the owners had added a modern extension which had doubled its size.
I was getting over-confident as I headed down the hill towards the woodlands of the Cart and Kittoch SSSI, and followed along the top of the wooded gorge. Soon I would come to the waterfalls and the ford and it would just be a short bash through the undergrowth back to Carnbooth house.
But as I reached the fence and started looking to where I could climb over I looked up. A collection of bright yellow chalet houses adorned with wagon wheels and hanging baskets blocked my way. The decorated static caravans and chalets sat in a manicured field of grass that could have been a putting green. To add to the effect, two knee-high bronze golfers teed off from the edge of the burn.
At the end of a grand drive of yellow gravel sat a gigantic motorhome, more like a tour bus, its flagpole held a full-sized saltire aloft and the adjacent wooden dovecote had two miniature cannons underneath as if to threaten anyone who dared visit the waterfalls.
What was evidently the ford of local memory, was now a footbridge and a vehicle bridge, both taking style inspiration from a wishing-well.
I could see part of the falls when I leaned over the fence. They were evidently very dramatic and very vertical – but now there was nowhere to visit them – the traditional path, gathering spot for local kids and access to the waterfall had been entirely privatised into someone’s personal playground.
The waterfalls marked the edge of the Cart and Kittoch Valleys SSSI. Their citation says that this is one of the largest areas of semi-natural woodland within the greater Glasgow area. The SSSI certainly came to an abrupt end with these manicured lawns. A place that was once where local children came to play and a place of great natural beauty was now only accessible by the owners. I had to run across the lawn and climb a wall to get back to the road and the bridge across the Cart in the end – there was no way across the gorge lower down. As I passed I stopped at the entrance gates – electric gates with imposing spikes and a sign with a picture of a Doberman “No Entry. Dogs on the loose at all times” said the sign.
I guess I won’t be calling Robert to say I have rediscovered the old path and that, with a bit of work with a strimmer and a pruning saw, all of Cummnock and Busby can, once again, meet down at the falls for a picnic. I gave a thought to all those campaigners, like Robert, who are seeking to protect what is special to their communities, working against all the odds.
Postscript: Having read this blog Robert told me that the Community Council had sought advice from the Access Officer at Glasgow City Council about the owner of the house with all the chalets and mobile homes in his garden about blocking access to the traditional path. The owner had put in the locked gate and was intimidating to walkers. In the end the community simply gave up.
If you’d like to read about the other green belt walks you can do so here