Campaigners have warned proposals to build homes on a green belt site in Renfrewshire – despite overwhelming opposition – are “irresponsible” and they have accused a council of failing to “act as a counterbalance” to the powers of big business and developers.
The development plans are said to be the latest example of Scottish planning law working “against communities”.
Renfrewshire Council’s planning board will vote on Tuesday, 15 March, to approve a proposed Local Development Plan, which controversially includes a site in Lochwinnoch as suitable for housing despite a long history of flooding.
Plans to remove the protected green belt status of the Burnfoot Road land have been marred by community opposition amid concerns about the impact on sewerage, local wildlife and the stretching of village services.
Environmental and land reform campaigners have said more should be done to ensure local residents have more of a voice in the planning process, with experts questioning the current process.
Green belt under threat
Dr Calum MacLeod, policy director at Community Land Scotland, said: “It’s vital that people are able to engage meaningfully with decisions about land use that fundamentally impact on the sustainability of their local communities.
“That means ensuring that the planning system genuinely addresses their concerns, rather than relegating communities’ voices to the margins of decision-making processes.”
In February the Scottish Government’s independent reporter published recommendations on the Renfrew site, suggesting it is appropriate for housing.
The reporter said SEPA confirmed the site is “potentially vulnerable” and “partially within the functional flood plain of the River Calder” but were satisfied only the eastern part of the site is included and mitigations could be put in place.
A 2013 council report advised against the inclusion of the Lochwinnoch site’s development, citing adverse impacts on the natural environment, including issues with flooding and sewerage in Lochwinnoch, but the local authority later included Burnfoot Road in a 2017 housing sites review.
Increased carbon emissions, demand on local services as well as flood risks were all cited, but the report claimed developers Stewart Milne indicated “all of the constraints to developing on this site” can “be dealt with” in their plan to build 122 houses on the greenbelt.
Community councillors and members of the Burnfoot Action Group say the consultation period was “insufficient”, warning the site’s inclusion could “set a precedent” for housing developments across Scotland, putting other green belt sites at risk.
Burnfoot Action Group’s Colin Patterson said: “To consider or encourage further development that will increase the population is irresponsible. The climate change emergency is more and more of an issue now.
“It’s not just Lochwinnoch, it’s the other villagers in Renfrewshire and throughout Scotland who have developers sniffing about.
“Public bodies are there to protect and look after the ordinary people and act as a counterbalance to the powers of big business and developers. In this case they have not done that.”
Alan Bissett of Lochwinnoch Community Council added: “The people who will be most directly impacted by this don’t want it, and yet the council, who are supposed to be representing us, are completely ignoring the wishes of the villagers.
“This would establish a worrying precedent. [But ] if we are successful it might scare off future developers who realise they’re not going to get an easy ride here.”
Developer Stewart Milne said “appropriate consultation and robust, independent environmental assessments” were carried out and the “character” of surrounding areas was taken into account. A spokeswoman added the company is aware of community concerns and engagement would continue.
A 2017 poll found an overwhelming majority of Scots also thought green belt areas should be given better protection, with a number of sites given the go-ahead in recent years.
Edinburgh City Council last year earmarked a swath of green belt for around 2,000 homes as part of its ten-year plan for development. Issues, including the approval of a film studio in the Lothians and a sporting centre outside of Dunblane by Scottish Ministers, have also been opposed by environmental groups in recent years.
Opposition MSPs have said there needs to be more stringent protections for land in Scotland.
Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer said: “Building on greenbelt is almost always about maximising a developer’s profits, not serving the interests of communities. And its a disaster for our wildlife, given one in nine Scottish species are already at risk, with developments regularly destroying precious habitats.
“Planning law is still tilted massively in favour of developers and against communities. Far too often parties in our parliament work to serve the interests of corporations, property speculators and wealthy landowners, not the communities they were elected to represent.”
In Renfrew, concerns over the ecological impact have also been raised over the development’s location. The land apparently falls within the boundary of the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park, which could halt development.
Councillor Andy Doig wrote to Housing Minister Kevin Stewart pleading for him to intervene and prevent development on the site, but the minister did not respond.
The Scottish Government said the lack of response was due to an “administrative oversight” and a reply would be sent “shortly”.
A spokesperson added: “The reporters have submitted a report with recommendations to the council and it is now for the council to consider the recommendations made.”
Renfrewshire Council said “extensive public consultation” had taken place and responses considered, with only changes to the LDP put forward by the reporter to now be considered.
A council spokesperson said any future applications on the site must consider “all issues and representations raised with that application by residents or others”, while SEPA told the Ferret the determination of a planning application is “ultimately the responsibility of the local authority” but that an objection was raised based on “concerns around potential drainage issues at the site”.
Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park was approached for comment.
Image thanks to iStock/jimmcdowall