Greenspace Governance: Statutory Solutions from Scotland?

By Jill Dickinson and Dr James Marson.

Greenspace is widely acknowledged for providing a range of environmental, social and economic benefits, whether such greenspace comprises traditional Victorian parks, overgrown waste grounds, pocket parks or roadside nature reserves. The benefits provided by any type of greenspace are well established, and have been most recently articulated by the House of Commons Public Parks Report (2017). Whilst other community or third place (Oldenberg 1989) facilities have closed, greenspace continues to increase in popularity. A report from the Heritage Lottery Fund (2016) reported that 57 per cent of adults now use their park at least once per month.

Despite this, greenspace is at risk from public sector funding cuts. The National Audit Office (2014) noted how dwindling budgets have forced local authorities to prioritise statutory facilities, leaving greenspace potentially facing a ‘vicious circle of decline’ (House of Commons, 2017 p.31). The last government’s Big Society agenda envisaged the voluntary sector stepping in to plug any gaps in greenspace resourcing. Yet, research has indicated how such voluntary groups are themselves susceptible to the effects of the austerity agenda, and may lack the skills, experience and equipment required for long term greenspace management (Mathers, Dempsey and Molin, 2015). Such effects may also be uneven. The Forestry Commission and Friends of the Earth have also suggested that a reliance on the voluntary sector could compound existing instances of environmental injustice and accelerate the decline in the quality of greenspace found in disadvantaged areas.

In a bid to address these challenges, research by academics at Sheffield Hallam University explores other jurisdictions’ greenspace strategies before focusing on Scotland’s greenspace governance model, and exploring an opportunity to introduce a similar regime in England and Wales.

Whilst New Zealand and Australia have established statutory responsibilities for government and delivery bodies, Scotland has adopted a different model which imposes legislative liability on a much broader range of stakeholders. With the principal aim of fostering civic responsibility, Scotland’s approach to greenspace governance comprises two key elements: firstly, the Law Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (‘the 2003 Act”) sets out a framework of statutory rights, obligations and powers for local authorities, landowners and those accessing their land; and secondly, a non-statutory, separate Scottish Outdoor Access Code (‘the Code’).

Part 1 of the 2003 Act establishes public access rights over most of Scotland’s greenspace, it requires local authorities to support and protect such rights and provides them with greenspace governance powers. The 2003 Act also requires greenspace stakeholder collaboration through local forums to steer legislative implementation and to resolve disputes. In turn, landowners are prohibited from preventing or deterring access rights with the threat of local authority remedial action in instances of non-compliance. These statutory provisions are supported by the Code which provides operational guidance for this implementation of Scotland’s greenspace governance regime.

Whilst Scotland’s model has been subject to criticism, the Land Reform Review Group has deemed it to be an overall success. Sheffield Hallam’s research findings suggest that the introduction of a similar land reform Act for England and Wales could encourage broader greenspace engagement, providing stakeholders with the necessary toolkit to ensure access to quality greenspace for future generations.

In summary, there is a clear discrepancy between the benefits provided by greenspace, and the funding available to create and maintain them. It appears that the introduction of a statutory mechanism would facilitate more clear and coherent greenspace governance for all involved. Scotland’s statutory framework has been in place for some time and, as such, has undergone considerable review. Rather than devise a new statutory greenspace governance model, there are arguments for identifying the most successful aspects of Scotland’s model and adapting them (as appropriate) for England and Wales.

Jill Dickinson is a senior lecturer in law and law apprenticeships lead at Sheffield Hallam University and Dr James Marson is a principal lecturer in the department of law and criminology at Sheffield Hallam University.

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