The Cockburn Association and the Green Belt: A history and case study of civic action

POSTED ON August 30, 2023

The Cockburn Association has a long history of support for Edinburgh’s Green Belt.

As an organisation the Cockburn Association works to promote the conservation and enhancement of both Edinburgh’s landscape and its historical and architectural heritage. It has a long history of campaigning and intervention when the plans of central and local government and those of private developers threaten the unique character of the city.

Edinburgh’s Green Belt is such an issue, and the organisation has consistently monitored its evolution from its implementation in 1957 to the present day. Interventions and constructive comments have inevitably occurred mainly when areas of land designated as Green Belt have been eroded and thereby considerably reduced in size.

Full case study available here – The Edinburgh Green Belt (2023).

Edinburgh’s Green Belt

Historically the land surrounding Edinburgh has long been appreciated by its residents. In the 18th and 19th centuries in particular the public wishing to escape the grime and squalor of the city sought the countryside beyond its boundaries for health and recreational purposes. For the same reason merchants and wealthy landowners (who wanted access to the seat of power) from the 17th century onwards built their country estates there with their designed landscapes and tenanted farms.

In the last century several golf courses, recreational facilities and footpaths were established around the outskirts of the city which both defined the principal elements in the Green Belt and most importantly served as a further buffer to urban expansion.

The formal designation of Edinburgh’s Green Belt dates back to the immediate post-war period and is found in The Civic Survey and Plan for the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh prepared for Edinburgh by Patrick Abercrombie and David Plumstead in 1948.  The aim of the Green Belt policy was:

  1. a) to limit the expansion of the city and its neighbouring small towns and villages
  2. b) to prevent farmland being lost to development
  3. c) to preserve and improve upon the landscape surrounding the city.

The rationale for the Edinburgh Green Belt was set out very clearly in the Abercrombie Plan. He noted Edinburgh’s “spectacular open spaces of world-wide renown” which help to give Edinburgh it’s unique character. The landscape of Edinburgh contains three central hills of Castle Rock, Calton Hill, and Arthur’s Seat. In addition, there are the Braid, Blackford and Corstorphine Hills, the beautiful coastal scenery of the Firth of Forth and the dramatic Pentland Hills to the south. The protection of these spaces and views of them are important factors that generated widespread political, professional and public support for Green Belt principles.

Green Belt Planning

The Edinburgh Green Belt was a key element of control in the rapid expansion in the urban area that took place in successive decades. In particular, the 1965 Plan sought to control development in a form that protected high quality farmland, natural landscape features and recreational facilities using green belt designations as a key, long term strategy.

The latest Green Belt boundaries are defined in the proposed City Plan 2030 which will be the Local Development Plan for Edinburgh for the period 2022-2032. This plan was submitted to the Council for approval in December 2020 and is in the process of being adopted subject to the formal Examination in Public process conducted by the Department of Planning and Environmental Appeals (DPEA).  Aim 2 of the Strategy (p8) states that it will be “directing new development to, and maximising the use of, brownfield land, rather than greenfield land, and re-imaging Edinburgh’s neighbourhoods, rebuilding the city from within and delivering new communities in Edinburgh Waterfront, West Edinburgh and on other major development sites across the city”.

Erosion of Green Belt land

Overall, the breaches of the original Green Belt boundaries have led to a modified form and shape of major sections of Edinburgh’s Green Belt and allowed far greater access to previously unobtainable land for urban uses.

The physical scale of the overall loss of green belt land from the original Abercrombie designation and as extended in the 1965 Development Plan now amounts to some 4000 acres or 1619 ha, the equivalent to well over 3000 football pitches!

In February 2023, the Scottish Parliament approved the National Planning Framework 4 which includes revised National Planning Policies which included Green Belts. It sets down strategic housing targets for housebuilding for each local authority and for the Edinburgh City Region (which is expected to accommodate around half of the Scottish demand) to be implemented by 2023. The housing target for Edinburgh is 36,750, for East Lothian 6,500 and Midlothian 8,850 all of whom have areas of land in the Green Belt. As stated earlier whilst the City of Edinburgh Council has approved a “brownfield first” strategy its City Plan 2030 (which is not expected to be formally adopted until late 2023/early 2024), the housebuilding lobby have suggested that further Green Belt releases will be needed to meet demand.

As such further Green Belt battles can be expected.


It is apparent that the review of the history of the Edinburgh Green Belt has identified an ever-present threat of major breaches of its defined boundaries.  Currently, given the number of powerful development groups making significant, renewed attacks on the established boundaries of the Green Belt, it is more important than ever that the Cockburn Association responds timeously to each and every new challenge.

The Edinburgh Green Belt (2023)

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