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Review of Green Belt Policy in Scotland




Origins of the Edinburgh Green Belt

5.46 Sir Frank Mears first put forward the idea of a Green Belt around Edinburgh in the Regional Survey and Plan for Central and South-East Scotland in 1948. A detailed proposal, including several wedges into the city, was made the following year in Abercrombie and Plumstead's Civic Survey and Plan for Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Green Belt was officially designated in 1957.

Functions of the Edinburgh Green Belt

5.47 The Edinburgh Green Belt, the first to be established in Scotland, preceded the first central government advice on the issue in Scotland (DHS Circular 40/1960). The objectives agreed by the participating local authorities in 1956 were:

  • to assist in limiting further expansion of the city;
  • to prevent the merging of built-up areas;
  • to prevent the use of agricultural land for development;
  • to preserve and enhance the landscape setting of the Capital (Lothian Regional Council, 1989a: 1).

5.48 This was to be achieved through an absolute prohibition of development except where shown to be necessary, including provisions for safeguarding amenity in any consent given, and ensuring consultation between the Green Belt Authorities (then the City of Edinburgh Corporation and County Councils of East, West and Midlothian).

5.49 In the study of the Edinburgh Green Belt boundaries undertaken in 1999, the purposes of the Green Belt were stated to be in accordance with current government guidance (Scottish Office Circular 24/1985), these namely being:

  • maintaining the identity of the City and neighbouring towns by preventing coalescence;
  • providing countryside for recreation and institutional purposes;
  • maintaining the landscape setting of the City and neighbouring towns (East Lothian Council et al, 1999).

5.50 The Finalised Edinburgh and the Lothians Structure Plan 2015 identified a fourth benefit: to assist urban regeneration and sustainable development by diverting development pressure to brownfield sites (East Lothian Council et al, 2003, para. 2.22). This has not been stated formally as a policy aim in local plans or in the new structure plan, but it has been an implicit objective for some time, which in retrospect is regarded as having been effective, as the Green Belt is considered to have aided in steering development to brownfield sites. So successfully though, that there are concerns now over running out of brownfield sites in Midlothian, and the need to allocate land for development within the Green Belt - this, however, is not the situation in the City of Edinburgh, where high levels of brownfield development are expected to be generated year-on-year. Local authority planners stressed the current need to review the functions of the Green Belt in relation to urban regeneration, transport networks and sustainable urban form (including issues such as pollution, social inclusion, etc.). There was some concern among planners about the public perception that the Green Belt is a landscape designation, when statutorily it is not about landscape itself but about city and town settings and boundaries.

Urban form

5.51 The Edinburgh Green Belt was officially designated as a continuous belt around the City of Edinburgh, from Dalmeny Estate in the west to Prestongrange in the east. Though there have been boundary changes, this belt has essentially remained in place. It is relatively narrow, with an average width of two miles.

5.52 The 1965 Quinquennial Review added five green fingers into the city (Corstorphine Hill, Cramond/Silverknowes, Holyrood Park, Braid Hills and Water of Leith Valley) as well as some smaller wedges, thus resulting in a model more closely resembling the earlier Abercrombie proposals. Two of these green wedges or fingers have more recently been described as Green Belt 'islands', as they are not physically connected with the main body of the Green Belt (Corstorphine Hill and Silverknowes).

5.53 Another feature is the urban envelopes or 'islands' of development within the Green Belt, which are urban in character. These are distinct settlements such as towns or villages, where Green Belt policies do not apply (e.g. Currie/Balerno). Other smaller settlements which are considered to make a contribution to Green Belt objectives are retained within it, and it is considered that the policy 'washes over' the settlement (e.g. Swanston). There are also non-conforming uses, which are regarded as established activities remaining within the Green Belt, but which are seen as contributing to Green Belt objectives, and therefore also under a 'wash over' approach. These were identified in 1988 as being: Edinburgh Airport, Royal Highland Showground at Ingliston, Heriot-Watt University and Research Park at Riccarton, Edinburgh Centre of Rural Economy - Bush Estate, and Millerhill Marshalling Yards. The 1999 Boundary Review recommended adding the Roslin Institute site as a non-conforming use. On the whole, however, this recent boundary study recommended few major changes to the previously existing boundaries, and did not drastically alter the form of the Green Belt.

5.54 In addition to its originally stated objectives, the Edinburgh Green Belt has served as a service corridor to accommodate services and infrastructure (Lothian Regional Council, 1989a). One of such infrastructures, the City Bypass, has in turn become a hard 'defensible' edge for the Green Belt along the west of the city. Pressure for the release of land for development has led to a major recent release in the South East Wedge, which the 1994 Lothians Structure Plan identified as suitable as a location for development, but requiring a study in order to establish defensible boundaries for the Green Belt.

5.55 Since its designation, the inner edge of the Edinburgh Green Belt has undergone considerable change, through both allocation of land for development (extending the city outwards incrementally) and designation of land as Green Belt (extending green wedges inwards). The outer edge has also seen some changes through additions to the Green Belt, particularly towards the west. This trend is regarded with concern by amenity groups such as the Edinburgh Greenbelt Network (representing other bodies including Friends of the Edinburgh Green Belt, the Green Belt Alliance, and the Cockburn Association), who consider the inner edge of the Green Belt to be the most sensitive because of the amenity and contribution to quality of life it makes to adjacent communities.

5.56 An analysis of objections to the Rural West Edinburgh Local Plan (RWELP), and an analysis of decisions on planning applications within the Edinburgh Green Belt, suggests that there is continuing development pressure on the inner edges of the Green Belt. Objections to the RWELP show this to be mostly from housebuilders, as well as landowners, and concentrated on the edges of existing settlements such as Currie and Balerno, Ratho, Newbridge, South Queensferry and Drumbrae (Edinburgh) ( see Appendix 2). They also show some evidence of pressure for economic development, both on green belt land, particularly around the airport, and on land designated as countryside, by Newbridge. This geographical spread is reflected in the distribution of non-househoulder planning applications lodged with City of Edinburgh Council in the last five years ( see Map 5.5).

5.57 Future patterns of urban growth raise several issues, on which the relevant local authorities hold differing views. Though the Scottish Executive has taken a lead in producing the West Edinburgh Planning Policy, there is still uncertainty over whether the model to follow here is one of 'green business' within the Green Belt, or one that eventually leads to the creation of a more intensively developed business zone along this well-connected corridor. The development of a low density corridor raises the question of how to serve it with transport and other infrastructure in an efficient way.

5.58 Business development and transport are controversial issues in the Edinburgh Green Belt. The bypass provides a high level of accessibility, which is much sought after by business, and in this context the Green Belt is seen by some as a constraint on economic development. The continuous belt model is brought into question, as in addition it can lead to leapfrogging. An alternative that has been suggested is satellite settlements along transport corridors, allowing economic development beyond the City of Edinburgh and also providing access to the countryside for a larger number of people.

5.59 A further issue is the landscape and ecological value of Green Belt land. This is a point on which amenity groups and local authorities differ, with the former attaching great value to Green Belt land, and the latter conceptualising the Green Belt in its statutory terms, linked to setting and prevention of coalescence rather than to any intrinsic landscape or ecological values, which are protected through other statutory designations.

Green Belt planning control regime

5.60 The Edinburgh Green Belt was officially agreed and designated in 1957 by the local authorities with jurisdiction over the Lothians, which agreed to incorporate its boundaries in their respective development plans. After Local Government reorganisation in 1975, responsibility for the Green Belt altered, with the Green Belt area falling within the jurisdictions of Edinburgh, East Lothian and Midlothian District Councils, but also within the scope of the new Lothian Regional Council.

5.61 Lothian Regional Council promoted an agreement (Code of Practice) which was entered by the regional and district councils in 1983, and which set the pattern for the Green Belt regime over the next two decades. This covered:

  • amendment to boundaries to be included in local plans;
  • limitation of development or redevelopment in the Green Belt to agriculture, forestry, active countryside recreation or other uses appropriate to a rural area, except when necessary and of strategic significance, and with no suitable alternative location;
  • definition of urban envelopes around existing settlements within the Green Belt;
  • considerations regarding planning applications related to the expansion of major non-conforming developments (e.g. Edinburgh Airport);
  • provisions regarding consultation among the planning authorities with respect to applications within the Green Belt;
  • matters relating to inter-authority disagreements over Green Belt issues;
  • implementation of a programme of remedial landscaping measures for degraded areas (Lothian Regional Council, 1989c).

5.62 With local government reorganisation in 1996, authority over the Edinburgh Green Belt fell to the City of Edinburgh, East Lothian and Midlothian Councils, and coordinated action on the Green Belt is now agreed through the Lothian Structure Plan Joint Liaison Committee and the Lothian Heads of Planning Forum.

5.63 Since its designation, the Edinburgh Green Belt has undergone several reviews. In 1965 it was part of the Edinburgh Development Plan Quinquennial Review, which showed that 380 ha had been released for development, but on the other hand added 1,532 ha in the form of green fingers into the city. Lothian Regional Council carried out a survey of the extent of the Green Belt in 1978, leading to the adoption of the Code of Planning Practice in relation to the Green Belt (see above). Lothian Regional Council also carried out the 1988 Green Belt Review of Boundaries, which aimed to identify land 'that did not contribute to the purposes of the Green Belt and could be released for development to help meet the greenfield targets set by the 1985 Structure Plan' (East Lothian et al, 1999: para 3.4). This supported 10 Green Belt extensions and 15 deletions. In 1994 a Landscape Appraisal was undertaken as part of the new Lothians Structure Plan. The most recent reviews have included the Edinburgh Green Belt Boundary Study 1999, which aimed to assess the defensibility of existing boundaries and recommend changes where appropriate (undertaken by all four Lothian Councils), and the South East Wedge Study, which aimed to amend the Green Belt boundary so as to provide for the planned release of land for development (undertaken by City of Edinburgh and Midlothian Councils). Changes identified by these studies have normally become policy once they have been incorporated into new or revised local plans.

5.64 Despite this evolution, public perception of the Edinburgh Green Belt appears to be that of a permanent statutory designation which precludes any development. This is, however, not the case. An analysis of planning decisions on land within or overlapping with the Green Belt area shows that 552 non-householder applications were decided by City of Edinburgh Council during 1999-2003, representing about 5% of the total planning applications in the City of Edinburgh. Of these, 71% were approved. Only 17 applications (3% of total) were for major housing developments, 47% of which were approved. 21 applications (4% of total) were for major business developments, 62% of which were approved. The highest approval rates were for minor business, advertisements and other minor ( see Appendix 1). Figure 5.4 shows the distribution of approved and not approved planning applications in the Edinburgh Green Belt. Data provided by City of Edinburgh Council shows that over a third of approved planning permissions in 1999-2003 were contrary to the development plan, but this was not consistent throughout different types of proposed new land use. For example, while no approved major housing developments were departures from the development plan, about a third of approved major business developments were. According to City of Edinburgh planners, the authorities "are pursuing pragmatic policies that recognise that there can be no prohibition on all development and that some legitimate developments are supportable".

5.65 However, although the number of applications in the Green Belt is relatively high, few of these are for development of greenfield sites, and thus pressure on undeveloped Green Belt land through actual planning applications appears not to be as high as the number of planning applications would initially suggest. The highest rate of approval is for applications on land in institutional use (which may suggest that 'wash over' areas have a higher rate of success in planning applications approval, as would be expected), but land parcels and agricultural land also show a higher than average rate of approval (though their number is extremely low).

5.66 In summary, the Edinburgh Green Belt planning control regime has seen some changes since it was originally designated. There have been changes in the Green Belt's overseeing authorities, planning practice, and extent and boundaries. In addition, there is evidence of development pressure, resulting in a considerable amount of planning approvals.

Land management

5.67 Active local authority involvement in managing the Edinburgh Green Belt dates back to the 1983 Green Belt Agreement, when the authorities committed themselves to a programme of remedial landscaping measures for those areas of the Green Belt identified in the 1978 survey as suffering from poor environmental quality (Lothian Regional Council, 1989d). This agreement led to the establishment of the Green Belt Improvement Programme, in 1987 renamed the Green Belt Initiative, with the participation of the four local authorities and the Countryside Commission for Scotland.

5.68 In 1991 the Edinburgh Green Belt Trust was established as an independent charitable organisation, with the support of City of Edinburgh, East Lothian and Midlothian Councils, as well as Scottish Natural Heritage. Its remit is to secure environmental improvements and enhancements in the Green Belt, which it does in collaboration with landowners, and drawing on public funds and additional private funding, as well as on community voluntary inputs. The local authorities do not participate through land acquisition or development for recreational use in any significant way, though in the case of the South East Wedge the Council is a major landholder, thus ensuring a tighter control on land development.

5.69 Many of the problems the Trust aims to address are related to fly-tipping, vandalism, neglect and decay. These are mostly related to the proximity of built-up areas. For example, farmers report difficulties in farming due to vandalism and farmland severance. In addition, there is evidence of the creation of hope value in land, due to its development potential close to the city, which could generate problems for authorities wanting to buy land for the introduction of transport schemes (CERT) or recreational uses.


5.70 The Edinburgh Green Belt has been in existence for nearly 50 years, over which its general belt-shape and area have remained in essence little altered, though there has been some 'outward migration' of inner and outer boundaries, as well as the addition of green wedges into the city. It has been under constant review, as well as subject to changes in its administration due to local government reorganisations. However, it has come to be perceived by the public as a stable statutory designation that in theory prevents all development, albeit under constant threat from 'erosion' through development.

5.71 During the period of increased growth in Edinburgh in the 1990s, the Green Belt is seen to have taken on an added function of encouraging sustainable development through forcing developments onto brownfield sites and thus strengthening Edinburgh's 'compact city' character. However, development pressure continues, and questions around future Green Belt policy are emerging as brownfield sites are used up. Pressure on the actual Green Belt is evident in the planning applications that are submitted, as well as in objections to recent local plans. The interviewed local authorities involved are aware that new options need to be considered, in order to allow development to continue in a sustainable way, but have different views on what these could be. Other stakeholders also have different views on preferred options. At one end of the range of options is continuing current policy, which may preserve the setting and identity of current settlements, but may lead to development leapfrogging the Green Belt and increasing commuting. At the other end is developing an approach based on green wedges and transport corridors, which may allow the outlying authorities to benefit from the economic development generated by Edinburgh, but would lead to coalescence. There is no unanimous view on these and intermediate options among the different local stakeholders, and any proposed way forward should aim to maximise acceptability to all parties involved.

Figure 5.4. Planning decision outcomes - City of Edinburgh Council


Figure 5.5. Proposed uses - City Of Edinburgh Council