Heart of Scotland
When in 2009, the Scottish Government published a blueprint for the long-term development of towns, cities and the countryside, it was full of major headlinegrabbing projects needing millions of pounds of investment.
Alongside these huge capital projects in the government’s second National Planning Framework (NPF2), such as the replacement Forth Road Bridge, a high-speed rail link to London and the reinforcement of the power grid, was one that may have had a lower profile – but was big on ambition.
The Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) proposed to create a strategic network of green space, stretching east to west, and to promote the environment as something that could enhance people’s lives.
It was not included in the original drafts of the NPF2, but the government bowed to pressure from all political parties in Parliament who believed the environment needed to be represented in the county’s long term plans.
This year, when the draft for its follow up, NPF3, was published, CSGN was there at the outset. For chairman, Keith Geddes, it is a mark of how successful the project has been already – and it is only marginally on its journey to 2050.
“I think the biggest positive coming out of the last year is the fact that Central Scotland Green Network has been included in the draft National Planning Framework by the Scottish Government,” he says.
“It was only after parliamentary pressure that CSGN was included in NPF3 and I think from the number of references in the document, I think the government now take a view that we can play a major role in helping to transform Scotland’s central belt.” The draft document, launched in May by Local Government and Planning Minister Derek Mackay, said the CSGN was “promoting a step change in environmental quality across the most densely populated part of the country; was designated as a national development and there had been strong support for retaining it in the latest strategy”.
It noted too that the network would be an “integral part of placemaking, [with a] greater focus on active travel and tackling vacant and derelict land and in areas where there are concentrations of economic disadvantage and poor health”.
Geddes says there had been “good signals” from early on that it would continue to be considered a national development, but admitted he was “a wee bit surprised” at the number of positive comments contained within the strategy.
He adds: “I think compared to other projects in NPF3, which are largely capital-based and extremely expensive, for a relatively small sum of money, CSGN can help deliver projects across the central belt that do have a real effect on the quality of people’s lives and are also best practice models for local authorities and other partners to use as a model for their area.” Alongside the NPF3, there has been a review of CSGN’s own governance, which will not be released until later this year but has included the setting up of a performance planning coordination committee that will draw together different government departments to all have an input into the organisation.
Geddes says: “The good thing about that is although we are primarily an environmental project, and we’re happy to be described as that, sometimes when people talk about the environment, you are put in a particular box.
“What we’re trying to do is draw in other departments – transport and health, for example – to see what contribution they can make to ensure the policies we’re seeking can be developed across Central Scotland.” CSGN covers a huge part of Scotland, including 19 separate local authorities. Eleven have already signed up to concordats with the network, including East Dunbartonshire, Fife and North Lanarkshire in recent weeks and Geddes says there are more in the pipeline.
The organisation has a number of funds aimed at bringing better support to communities within its boundaries. In 2012, CSGN’s Development Fund, Community Projects Fund and Learning Outdoors Fund supported more than 260 projects with grants of more than £1.1million.
At the annual forum, held in Edinburgh in June, it gave £5,000 to Glasgow Clyde Valley Green Network Partnership for its plan to create a ‘green bridge’ linking Drumpelier Country Park in Coatbridge and Commonhead Moss in Glasgow, across the M73.
Geddes says that many of the projects that are supported are driven by the community themselves – not imposed from above. At the other end of the scale, CSGN is thinking big: its forum also featured presentations on the High Line project in Manhattan and the restoration of the river running through Seoul in Korea.
Geddes says the emphasis is often on the practical benefits CSGN has to offer, it’s not just a theoretical exercise.
“If you can employ more youngsters as trainees in an environmental project, if you can create more allotments, create more active routes to work, or projects that are attractive to tourists and to Scots themselves, then people do sit up and take an interest and recognise there are such things as green jobs and ways in which a good environment can stimulate the local economy.” One of the most significant projects for the network is the development of the John Muir Way, which will see a walking route developed from Dunbar – the birthplace of the Scottish-born naturalist – to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.
A significant investment of more than £2m has been made already from sources including Scottish Natural Heritage, Sustrans and sportscotland. It is due to be opened on 21 April, the anniversary of Muir’s birthday, by First Minister Alex Salmond next year, which is the centenary of the naturalist’s death.
Geddes says the event, organised by the John Muir Working Group, which also includes Creative Scotland, EventScotland, VisitScotland, East Lothian Council, SNH and others, will be accompanied by a John Muir Festival and a closing ceremony in the National Park – to mark the role Muir had in setting up the National Parks in the USA. It is also hoped that one of Muir’s descendants will be able to attend the opening and walk part of the route.
“It promises to be a very well used route, not just from end-to-end users, but by local communities along the route,” says Geddes.
“An SNH survey showed that 23 per cent of Scots are aware of John Muir, but they are mainly aware of him through the John Muir Trust or the country park.
“They are less aware of John Muir, the man, and we are really hoping that this opportunity will give him and his legacy much greater recognition in Scotland.” The inclusion in NPF3 and a number of meetings held between CSGN’s board and Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse and Planning Minister Derek Mackay show the organisation is clearly a growing influence on public policy but how well does the general public know of it?
Geddes says: “I’m happier to concentrate on key stakeholders in terms of influencing policy and ways in which it’s implemented on the ground, by helping grants, ideas or model projects.
“It’s not a goal, if you like, to become popular amongst the population. It’s about trying to focus our energy and activity on key people.” But he says people will be aware of what the organisations is trying to achieve as increased resources are put into helping set up projects across the central belt.
The most important aspect of what CSGN is trying to achieve is that people living in the central belt, from Ayrshire through to East Lothian, have a better quality of life.
“I think people’s perceptions of themselves are at least partially defined by their perceptions of their own communities,” he says.
“If they look out of their front window every day and see desolate land or vacant derelict land, it doesn’t help create a very good self-image. What we are trying to do is improve the quality of life in a very real way for communities across central Scotland.”