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May 21, 2008

The Scottish Renaissance Towns Programme

A new initiative to regenerate Scotland’s small towns – the Scottish Renaissance Towns Task Force – was launched this week and is looking to identify a limited number of small towns for inclusion in the initial programme.

Sunday Herald

WE HAVE caught Irvine on a good day. But even with the sun out it is hard not to feel engulfed with despair. The reason is the Bridgegate Centre, a Valhalla of a shopping mall that dwarfs everything in its environs and is decaying before our eyes. The Bridgegate is some three-and-a-half decades old but looks considerably older. Paint is peeling off the workwork, many of the windows have not seen a cleaner this century and the overall impression is of neglect and disintegration.

However, it is its size which most perturbs Alan Simpson, the recently appointed Head of Urbanism at the Mackintosh School of Architecture and one of the prime movers of the Scottish Towns Renaissance project which will be launched this week at The Lighthouse in Glasgow. “This would be out of place in Sauchiehall Street let alone Irvine,” says Simpson, who is to town planning what David Bellamy is to endangered butterflies.

At least here the local shopkeepers are proud to put their names above their doors. There is Alyson’s Flowers, Jimmy’s Fishing Tackle and Sadie’s Clothes Shop competing for business with bog standard chain stores, betting emporia, travel agents and tanning “studios”. On the other side of the street there is a painful reminder of what the Ayrshire town and birthplace of Jack McConnell and Nicola Sturgeon – to name but two of the many luminaries associated with it – once was and perhaps still could be. A cobbled path leads upwards to a handsome church and nearby Hill Street – narrow, steep and residential – would, says Simpson, be “absolutely charming” were it not for the carbuncle at its foot.

Irvine is typical of the towns Simpson and his colleagues are considering adding to the shortlist of places in urgent need of rebirth. Scotland, it seems, is full of towns which once had a raison d’etre but are now desperately seeking a new role in a fast-changing world. West Kilbride, for example, is our first craft and design town. Wigtown, not so long ago apparently in terminal decline, has been rejuvenated by giving itself over to books. Meanwhile, Peebles is the home of the independent shop, while Castle Douglas is where to go if you want organic mince and exotic cheeses.

As yet, though, Irvine’s future direction remains unclear. Dating back to the 12th century, it has undergone several metamorphoses in its long history, from fortress to river port to milltown and, latterly, to new town. But these days, if you ask anyone if they know anything about it, they invariably mention the Magnum Centre, which opened in 1976, and for a long time was second only to Edinburgh Castle in the number of visitors it attracted to various leisure facilities. “All towns and cities have a language,” says Simpson. Quite what Irvine’s is, is difficult to determine. For whatever tongue the planners were using in the 1970s it was surely not the same one that was current when the town became a Royal Burgh or entertained Mary, Queen of Scots and Robert Burns or provoked Daniel Defoe to write: “Here are two handsome streets, a good quay, and not only room in the harbour for a great many ships, but a great many ships in it also.”

When the Bridgegate was built, reflects Simpson, intent against the evidence in front of us on accentuating the positive, architects and planners were barely on speaking terms let alone conversing in a language they could all understand. The former did what they did without reference to the latter and acted as if they were sociologists and able to solve society’s problems by imposing ring roads, high-rise flats and pedestrian precincts. One of Simpson’s personal bugbears is what he calls “sheep pens” – barriers erected unnecessarily to keep traffic and people apart.

The ideal solution would be to pull the Bridgegate down but that seems pie in the sky. Alternatively, you could call in broadcaster Sarah Beeny – who is soon to present a programme which will do for towns what she has previously done for streets – and give it a makeover. “It’s a frame building,” says Simpson, implying that redevelopment is not outwith the bounds of possibility. “You could reclad it, cut into it, create cross-streets, reconfigure …” Words begin to fail him at the enormity of the task and its likely cost. “The truth is it’s grossly out of scale, ugly, badly maintained. Doesn’t anyone care what these things look like any more?”

It is worth noting, however, that the architects of developments such as the Bridgegate, which today we find easy to deride, were once lauded for the boldness of their design and the freshness of the their vision. One thinks, for instance, of Dundee’s Overgate Centre, which even a critic as discerning as Colin McWilliam deemed “unusually good”. Everything no doubt is relative, especially, say, when compared with an excrescence like Edinburgh’s St James Centre, which most of the capital’s residents would be happy to see reduced to rubble by a cluster of friendly bombs.

But McWilliam, writing in 1975 in his influential book, Scottish Townscapes, also went out of his way to praise relatively new shopping malls in Cambuslang, Hamilton and Motherwell – which when I last visited it a year ago united the community in disgust. Thirty years ago, when no doubt it looked a lot better and smarter than it does now, McWilliam praised its “imaginative system of external concrete units”. That is not how I would describe them.

By now we are travelling north and east along the A736 towards Neilston, where we have arranged to pick up Pauline Gallacher, who spearheads the Neilston Development Trust, which is run entirely by volunteers. With a population of 5000, Neilston is one of the smaller towns which the Renaissance project is looking at. Gallacher, an enthusiastic latecomer to urban regeneration, lives just outside Neilston, in countryside more reminiscent of Dumfries and Galloway than the Central Belt. That, she says, is both Neilston’s blessing and curse. A survey has shown that during the week 70% of its population leave the town to work elsewhere. The remaining 30% are either young or old, infirm or unemployed. However, she adds, there is a strong sense of local identity and pride. The annual agricultural show, for instance, still attracts a crowd and the only year it was cancelled was because of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

The most notable success of the Trust, which was set up four years ago, was its purchase of Neilston’s former Clydesdale Bank building through the same community buyout scheme that allowed the islanders to buy Eigg and the crofters to acquire Assynt. With the help of a £225,000 grant from the Big Lottery, the Neilston Trust has brought back into use a building which was lying empty and redundant. Now it houses an office for volunteers, a community cafe and provides space for numerous activities from yoga to piping. “The ownership of assets by communities is seen as a vital step towards giving local people a real stake in local development and regeneration,” says Gallacher.

There have been many similar buyouts across the country and there is potential for many more. Buildings which were once integral to a town’s sense of itself and which defined its character – churches, schools, post offices, libraries, police stations, banks and building societies – are often no longer used for the purpose they were originally intended.

Many have been redeployed but as many or more have not. In my own home town of Musselburgh the handsome main post office closed some years ago and has not been reinvented. Situated in a historic part of the town, it blights everything around it, sending out a signal that nothing can prosper here. In the past, such things were meekly accepted but the experience of Neilston shows that this not need be so. If communities feel strongly enough they may be able to do something about it.

Sick towns are like sick people; the longer you leave them untreated the worse their condition will get. As he drives, Alan Simpson talks passionately and unapologetically about beauty and how all towns should aspire to it. He travels the world looking at towns and cities and those that are successful, that work, share common characteristics, whether they are big American cities or small Northumbrian towns or Tuscan tourist traps.

“Making a town or a city beautiful is an economic and social force for good,” he says. This beauty thing can create wealth.”

To achieve this, he adds, people need to feel a sense of custodianship, ownership and civic pride. This can manifest itself in several ways. For instance, litter should not be tolerated. Nor should graffiti. Shopkeepers should be encouraged make their window displays attractive and keep their shop fronts clean. In Italy, for example, you often see shop-owners sluicing the streets outside their shops early in the morning. When did you last see that in Scotland? If you make a place more beautiful, argues Simpson, it will attract business. Moreover, it becomes busier and discourages anti-social behaviour. But too often we are inclined to pass the buck and to assume – vis-a-vis litter – that “they’ll pick it up”, whoever “they” are.

“While as a nation we value quality in our buildings and civic spaces – the value of tradition, amenity and beauty – we nevertheless lack real concern about what a place looks like in its everyday life,” says Simpson. “This lack of concern manifests itself in low quality buildings, the poor state of our public transport system and the general condition of many of our streets and squares. It manifests itself in the prevalence of litter and pollution and in the shortage of attractive landscaping, street trees and good public art. It manifests itself in the lack of an overall concept of amenity and in a sheer lack of beauty.”

Beauty is not a word one would use without irony about Livingston, the next town on our list. Like Irvine it is a New Town but, in contrast, it is believed to be a success. If that is the case it is not apparent to us. Not that we see much of it.

Robin Smith, a retired town planner and the author of The Making Of Scotland, described the manner in which it had been designed as the “cloud cuckoo approach”, the place having being planned in the “car-happy” 1960s and umbilically attached to the M8. “Yet,” acknowledged Smith, “a remarkable and overtly independent study in 1996-97 claimed that Livingstone’s quality of life was among the highest in Britain: evidently it all depends on one’s point of view.”

Our immediate problem is how to gain access to the town. In mediaeval times, invaders were repelled by the sight of stout walls, high turrets and deep moats. Livingston’s equivalents are ring roads, sheep pens, an absence of signs and a spooky dearth of people who might give us directions. As Simpson drives, steam begins to issue from his ears through frustration. Pace Gertrude Stein, is there any there there? It is hard to tell. But there are plenty of shops the size of bonded warehouses, drive-in fast food joints and roundabouts masquerading as nature reserves.

“The car has been prioritised over everything else,” says Gallacher. We decide to abandon our attempt to see what makes Livingston tick but even finding the M8 proves beyond us.

Instead we take the much more pleasant A71 and, as we head eastward, reflect on how difficult it is to effect change and improve the built environment. For Gallacher it is about “creating an appetite”. For Simpson: “The USP is community engagement.” From the experience of both, the need to get local people enthused and capitalise on civic pride is crucial. Partnerships must be forged between the public and private sectors.

Certainly, there is no shortage of studies and reports, master plans and long-term strategies. Central government can provide enabling legislation while local authorities can listen to the needs and aspirations of local people and ensure that where possible shops remain viable despite growing Tescofication. Wider footpaths, lots of trees and shrubs and great lighting are prerequisites.

You need, says Simpson, an overall strategy and you’ve got to deliver quality, whether it’s a cup of coffee, street furniture or public art. At which point Gallacher spots an awful stainless steel example of the latter. “All these places,” she says, as we pass West Calder, “had a story and now they’ve got a predicament.”

What is difficult, if not impossible to determine, is the future. Colin McWilliam, while applauding the disappearance of “the ugly trail of telephone wires”, went on to predict that television aerials would soon follow. But what he could not have envisaged was the plague of satellite dishes. Similarly, he bemoaned the increased use of the car and its dominance of towns.

“Streets that once united the buildings and activities on each side now make way for a stream of traffic which has the very opposite effect, keeping them apart both functionally and visually,” he wrote. In the mid-1970s, the car, it seemed, was here to stay but with oil reserves finite, and the price of both fuel and food rising, will the car remain a popular and affordable form of transport when it becomes imperative ecologically and socially to shop locally? Thus is illustrated the complexity of town planning.

WE are coming into Musselburgh, where I was born and brought up and still live. Even from the bypass, you can see the steeple of Inveresk kirk, where Alexander “Jupiter” Carlyle, one of the characters of the Enlightenment, was the minister. On the road which parallels the River Esk into the centre of town, there is an avenue of trees, which pleases Simpson. A sandstone terrace similarly delights Gallacher. I feel a surge of civic pride, as if I had personally done the planting and building.

We pass the old wire mill, where the cables for the Forth Road Bridge were made, a site that has been an eyesore for a couple of decades. It has been acquired by Tesco, which intends to build an even bigger store than the one it already has nearby. There are well-kept beds of flowers on the banks of the Esk and ducks are roosting and squabbling. A swan lands like a model of Concorde on the water. To the right, at the Car Bridge, is an empty building, said to have been earmarked for a Marks and Spencer’s, which draws a murmur of approval from Simpson. This, I gather, will be good for the town’s profile.

Musselburgh is divided by the river. On one side is Fisherrow which, as the name suggests, used to be sustained by what could be gleaned from the sea. The so-called Musselburgh side is where most of the shops are: Ali’s Cave, Iceland, Semi-Chem, Greggs, Boots. A few shops are boarded up. There are a couple of butchers and one greengrocer’s. The sole post office is to be found at the back of Poundstretcher. The A1 takes traffic east to Edinburgh and south to East Lothian and England. Despite the bypass it is still busy.

IN a briefing note prov’ided before we set out, Nick Barley of The Lighthouse, wrote: “Musselburgh seems to have lost its sense of direction. While property prices remain fairly high, there are significant questions to be asked about how Musselburgh can (and should) position itself to thrive in the 21st century.” It is, I confess, something that has never crossed my mind. How, one wonders, can, or should, Musselburgh position itself and what can I do about it? Both Alan Simpson and Pauline Gallagher seem to think that it is OK, admittedly not Barcelona or Chicago or Durham, places that have won Simpson’s approval, but not on the critical list. The opening of Holyrood, a six-mile bus ride away, has reinforced Musselburgh’s position as a dormitory town for Edinburgh and the coming of the Queen Margaret University has led to an influx of teaching staff and students looking to rent or buy.

Both are circumstances beyond the control of my fellow Musselburghers, as was the closure of the mills and the Midlothian coalfield and the decline of the fishing industry. But one can either bemoan one’s lot or do something about it. Which, speaking as a true son of Musselburgh, is the clear course that should be taken. Litter will be lifted, weeds cleared, trees protected and councillors petitioned.

There will be no respite for the apathetic, no votes for the do-nothings. We have our pride and the words of our town’s song off by heart: “Musselburgh will be a burgh when Edinburgh’s nane.”