In this Guest blog by Dani Garavelli, the journalist joins APRS’s Kat Jones for a walk through the green belt between Stepps and Gartcosh and meets local campaigner Isobel Kelly and Planning Democracy’s Clare Symonds.
This article was first published in The Herald on October 28th 2023, All images: Gordon Terris Herald and Times Group
WE are waist-high in thistles and nettles when we see them: two deer, their heads bobbing, and golden against the autumn sky. They are our reward for thorn-torn, itchy legs, and the sweat beading on our foreheads. There have been other rewards, too, on our six-kilometre hike. A kingly heron presiding over a shimmering pool. Red admirals and tortoiseshell butterflies flaunting their colours over mounds of sphagnum moss. Giant dragonflies. Bulrushes so plump and fairytale-ish, I half-expect Mole and Water Rat to paddle past us. All this, less than six miles from Glasgow city centre.
I have come walking with Katherine Jones and Clare Symonds. Jones is the recently-appointed director of Action to Protect Rural Scotland (APRS). Symonds runs Planning Democracy, which campaigns for a fairer planning system and helps ordinary people take on the might of housing developers. A few months ago, Jones set out to walk all the way round Greater Glasgow’s green belts in chunks, both as a fundraising exercise, and to help her understand the pressures on it. It’s a journey of around 200km, which is taking her through areas of great beauty, but also areas of post-industrial blight.
Along the way, Jones has been meeting locals fighting the incursions. “Often these people are portrayed as well-off nimbys, who stand in the way of improvement,” she tells me. “But what I have discovered is that much of Glasgow’s green belt land borders deprived estates such as Easterhouse where access to open space is particularly important for physical and mental health.”
Their battle is an unequal one, the locals trying to navigate labyrinthine planning regulations without a compass; the developers backed up by money and lawyers and consultants whose job it is to find ways around the system.
For our walk, Jones has chosen a route between Stepps and Gartcosh. We start out at noon from Frankfield Loch – one of seven kettle lochs formed by the melting glaciers in the last ice age. Together, they are managed as the Seven Lochs Wetland Park, which contains two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, several local nature reserves, a sculpture trail and the newly-restored 15th-century Provan Hall. Though the park straddles the Glasgow City/North Lanarkshire border, our route is through North Lanarkshire.
The Wetland Park is a mosaic of habitats for badgers, otters, butterflies and greater crested newts and contains areas of raised bog. But it is hemmed in. The towns and villages to the north are creeping out, inch by inch, mile by mile, housing development by housing development. For brief moments, we could be deep in a prehistoric forest, but then we’ll catch a glimpse of a steep bank topped with new-builds, or diggers and boards reading Cala or Belway or Persimmon.
As we pick our way through a birch grove, its floor thick with ferns, Symonds speaks of “solastalgia”, the distress caused by the loss of a once familiar landscape. “It’s confusing for people,” she says. “They hear so much talk about a ‘sense of place’, and 20-minute neighbourhoods, and how everyone reconnected with their local environments during the pandemic, but what they experience is change they feel powerless to control.”
Green belts were introduced in the 1950s to prevent urban sprawl. The designation is not brd on ecological or recreational value. Green belt land may be previously developed or agricultural, publicly or privately owned; it may be scenic or ugly, well-maintained or overgrown, so long as it is open and helps maintain the integrity of towns and villages it surrounds.
There will always be a tension between open spaces and housing, particularly at times – like now – when there is a shortage. The trade association for house builders, Homes for Scotland, has claimed the country is “mired in a housing crisis” and that the Scottish home-building sector contributes £3.4bn a year to the economy.
Yet, the extent to which commercial developments help those at the bottom of the property ladder is debatable. Most of the houses we see on our walk are three, four and five-bedroomed detached and semi-detached, selling for more than £300,000, even though, with more people living alone, there is a pressing need for single-occupancy accommodation for the young and old. Twenty-five per cent of all developments are supposed to be “affordable” houses. But the definition of “affordable” is slippery, and the percentage malleable. When the figure is deemed “unachievable”, developers are allowed to pay a “commuted sum” in lieu of on-site provision, though the local authority is supposed to spend it on affordable housing of its own.
National planning policy and documents drawn up by councils including Local Development Plans (LDPs) and Local Housing Strategies are supposed to set out the land allocated for new housing and the type of housing deemed appropriate in any given area. Theoretically, given the plan-led system, if a site is designated as green belt and not allocated for housing in the LDP, a developer should only be able to obtain planning permission to build there in exceptional circumstances.
Until recently, developers overcame this by exploiting loopholes in the system. For example, in allocating land for housing, local authorities analyse housing need and demand, and set out “a five-year effective housing land requirement”; if, for any reason, the amount of allocated land fell below that, then developers would use the shortfall to bolster their application.
Earlier this year, the government introduced the National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4), which was supposed to simplify the system and tighten up the rules, but aspects of the policy are already being contested. After the Scottish Government rejected Miller Homes’ appeal over a development at Mossend in West Lothian, the company took the case to the Court of Session.
It has not yet been heard, but the developer is expected to argue NPF4 should not apply until the local authorities have developed new LDPs to fit with it. More than a dozen other appeals have been sisted pending the outcome of the case.
Local authorities do consult with local communities. But the system is so complex, most people with busy lives find it impossible to navigate. The land through which we are walking, for example, is covered by three different plans: the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Strategic Development Plan (now superseded by NFP4), the North Lanarkshire Local Development Plan and the Seven Lochs Wetland Park Plan. The Seven Lochs Wetland Park – described as an exemplar of green network planning – provides for “the integration” of 4,300 new homes.
Many of the developments around its perimeter have met with local opposition. The majority were included in the LDP and passed by North Lanarkshire Council. One – the Gateside and Hornshill Farm Development – was rejected by the local authority, but approved by the Scottish Government’s reporter on appeal. One of Symonds’s many complaints is that developers have the right to appeal the local authority’s decision, but the local community do not.
“The developers have all the power,” she tells me as we pause for breath. “They can manipulate the numbers and keep throwing money at the application until they get their own way.”
Jones says there are plenty of brownfield sites developers could build on, but that would cost more because they are often awkward and it might require remedial work to be carried out. Developers prefer green belt land because it tends to be on the periphery of towns with access to motorway junctions and because they prefer to be able to build upwards of 300 houses per site. “The model is broken because the focus of development companies will always be on making enough profit to satisfy their shareholders rather than the wider public interest,” says Jones.
We walk on. In one copse, a distinctive bird call heralds the vibrant yellow stripe of a goldcrest. On Cardowan Moss – a raised bog – we stumble on a giant silver dragonfly, part of the sculpture trail. About half way through, Symonds leaves us to deal with more queries from campaigners, and Jones and I carry on alone.
There aren’t many people out and about, but desire lines, ad hoc bridges, and makeshift dens testify to its use. At a small pool, we bump into Susan Galloway, whose dog Buffy is sniffing round the water’s edge. Galloway lives in a house near the edge of the moss. She started exploring the lochs during Covid and now walks there every day.
“When I first moved here 20 years ago, there were just a few bushes on the nearby coal bing and you could walk to Cardowan,” she tells me. “Now it’s all houses. I brace myself for the day I look out of my window and they’ve started to build, because they’ve built everywhere else.”
One day, a bulldozer did turn up. “My neighbour phoned the wildlife people because of the greater crested newts, and the wildlife people told them to stop.” Nevertheless, Galloway exists in a state of hyper-vigilance. “I mean, if they run out of space, they will take anything,” she says. “I think I’d chain myself to something if they did though.”
As we walk on, the paths run out. We squelch our way across marshland, scale a barbed wire fence, swing around a tree to cross a burn and push our way through the thistles. Struggling to keep up, I remember that, on her previous walk, Jones was accompanied by a friend who survived four days lost in the Malaysian jungle, and I feel underprepared. But, by the time we see the deer, we are on the home strait. Our finish line is Lochend Road, home to veteran campaigner, Isobel Kelly. Kelly’s house is called Field View. When she moved there 40 years ago, it did indeed look out over a field towards Johnston Loch. Today, all that can be seen from her window is yet another housing development: 248 homes constructed by Persimmon and Avant in 2016/2017. Hundreds more houses have been built around the loch by other developers, with hundreds more to come.
A former theatre nurse, Kelly left to set up a company supplying sterilised surgical instruments to NHS Trusts, which she sold after it went global and floated on the stock market. One day, a few years back, she popped out to a public meeting on bin collections, and, by the time she came home, the Gartcosh Residents and Tenants Association had been founded. It now encompasses 300 households. Since then, she has become an expert in planning regulations, au fait with the jargon, and able to cite relevant sections from relevant acts. “I have learned from our losses,” she says, “because that’s all we’ve had. We haven’t won a single battle.”
Kelly is not against housing per se. “People need housing and housing has to be built,” she says.
“There’s just no consideration for the indigenous population.” Last year, the Scottish Government introduced the concept of local place plans – community-led visions of how land should be used – but it’s a bit late to draw up a local place plan if much of what you loved has already been destroyed.
“There is hardly a blade of grass in Gartcosh, now, that does not belong to a developer,” Kelly says.
Earlier, Glen Bramley, professor of urban studies at Heriot-Watt University, told me there is a tendency to allow the private sector to take the lead rather than having a strong planning function within the local authorities, “so you get developers coming along, selling their visions for a place, but not set in context”.
When the Seven Lochs Wetland Park masterplan was first presented to the Gartcosh community, it sounded transformative.
“They painted an ecological picture,” Kelly says. “They told us the housing would be placed in the ‘undulating landscape of the loch’ so as not to be intrusive. They said: ‘Listen, the farmer owns that land, you don’t get access to it anyway’, which was true. ‘We’ll put in a pathway, there will be an activity centre’. We should be living in Nirvana now but it doesn’t translate into grassroots reality.”
The problem is – Kelly claims – that the additional housing has come without sufficient infrastructure: the local GP surgery is over-subscribed, the local primary school is double its capacity, and some of what was promised – a footbridge over the railway and an access lane and path round the loch – has not been delivered.
North Lanarkshire Council says it’s investing £93m in infrastructure, including a community hub, with a new primary school and NHS health centre, due to open three miles away in Chryston in October, and a community hub with a new nursery, ASN provision and increased capacity primary school for Gartcosh about to go out to public consultation.
As for the path round the loch, it was included in the “aspirational” Seven Lochs Wetland Park masterplan 10 years ago, but it has proved trickier than expected to deliver, Lorna Bowden, Planning and Place Manager claimed, because of the marshy nature of the land and the need to consider public safety, and because it would run through a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation which needs protected from heavy footfall and can’t be developed. Another path, round the loch, but away from the water’s edge is to be created.
Of the 3,000 houses provided for in plans for the Glenboig: Gartcosh Community Growth area, only 1,000 have so far been built. And so, the applications will keep coming. Bramley says many councils appear to regard green belts as a land reserve, which could be used for infrastructure such as pylons and bypasses, “but then, once the bypass exists, there is a tendency to build the housing right up to it”.
To illustrate the extent of the creep, Kelly tells me how one company, which sought planning permission for 250 houses on the east side of the loch, was told they must leave 50 metres on either side of a high powered gas line, cutting the number of houses to 108. The company insisted that, in order to fit 108 houses on the site, they needed to move the road into the green space. They then applied for planning permission for a further 75 houses around the new road on the grounds they had not achieved their 250-house quota. This application was dismissed both by North Lanarkshire Council and then the reporter on appeal. “But, they will be back,” Kelly says. “We know they will be back because if you looked closely at the plan for the roads, the underlay had the houses on it.”
If they do try to resubmit, Kelly, and the residents and tenants association, will be there to fight them. They will keep on fighting until there are no battles left to lose, and the Gartcosh Kelly once knew has gone forever.