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Schools told to keep off the grass

Neil Munro reports on a blossoming campaign to save Scotland's open spaces

The Scottish Executive's flagship schools rebuilding programme is responsible for the loss of a green area equivalent to 180 football pitches, it has been claimed.

A survey by a group of activists in South Lanarkshire, which has sent its report to ministers and MSPs, says developers behind the construction of new schools are eating into parkland, playing fields, recreation grounds, amenity areas and informal green space.

The Holmhills Wood community park action group in Cambuslang is fighting the siting of the new pound;22 million replacement for the merged Cathkin High and Rutherglen High in the park.

It used freedom of information legislation to prise details of the use of land by developers out of local authorities; the results cover more than 90 per cent of the schools planned, under way or completed under the Executive's pound;2 billion public private partnership (PPP) initiative.

It says that, with 30 of Scotland's 32 councils using PPP to rebuild or refurbish around 300 schools by 2009, some 320 acres of public green space across Scotland is earmarked for development or already being built on in pursuit of that objective.

The group argues that this is to satisfy the preference of developers for new-build schools rather than refurbishments.

The Holmhills group says that some councils "are failing to respect national planning policy guidance". Many have failed to carry out any monitoring of open spaces or to take a strategic approach to open space issues.

It accuses a number of councils, naming South Lanarkshire, Stirling and Highland in particular, of using "questionable tactics" to override local plans and avoid public consultation on contentious projects. Schools cited as invading green space include six projects in Stirling, Alloa Academy, Denny High and Dingwall Academy.

The report, prepared by John Bachtler, a university lecturer, states: "The Scottish Executive is either wilfully or unconsciously ignoring the loss of open space and the failures of the planning system associated with PPP schools projects.

"Ministers rarely intervene to 'call in' planning applications damaging green space."

The Green Party has tabled a parliamentary motion setting out a catalogue of alleged failures in the planning system and in the monitoring of school projects. It is calling for a moratorium on all PPP projects not yet started until there has been a full audit of open space loss and strict new guidance has been issued.

The party noted that 29 councils had not been able to provide any collated records on open space loss. Robin Harper, its co-convener, commented: "I find it utterly disgraceful and shocking that the loss of green space in communities up and down the country is happening without any knowledge of the extent of damage known, either locally or centrally."

The Executive points out, however, that the vast majority of new projects provide improved sports and leisure facilities that are also open to the public. "The days when we just had playing fields outside and a gym hall inside are long gone," a spokeswoman said.

Another spokesperson on the planning side defended the operation of controls on areas that are "valuable and valued". Ministers would only call in planning applications "where issues of significant national importance are raised".

A review of planning policy has begun, and ministers will issue a consultation document next year. The Holmhills group says this will be too late to have an effect on the loss of open spaces associated with PPP schemes.

The Executive is providing pound;2.4 million over the next five years through Scottish Natural Heritage for the "Greenspace for Communities"

initiative. It has also announced an additional pound;1 million in funding for Greenspace Scotland to be used in 2005-06, covering 50 projects.

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