Monday, 29 December 2014

Help for one of Scotland's Nothing-Towns

Before and after - Fresco of Jesus in Borja
Before and after - Fresco of Jesus in Borja
by Cecilia Giménez

You know, one of my greatest and longest serving fans sent me a wonderful story last week about a wee town in Spain. Entitled 'Struggling town gets tourism boost from art restoration cock-up', the article describes how Borja, a nothing-town near Zaragoza, became a magnet for thousands of curious tourists eager to see the handiwork of the restoration artist Cecilia Giménez in resurrecting the local economy by 'vandalising' a Fresco of Jesus. Incidentally, Borja is just down the road from Pamplona, the town which gave its name to the famous holidaymakers song Una Pamplona Blanca.

Anyway I digress. Her well intentioned work, which you can see above, is to my eye quite stunning. It seems to literally blur the boundaries between figurative and abstract painting! It has brought about a quiet revolution in the town's visitor numbers - and fortunes. So what has worked for the nothing-town of Borja could perhaps work in our lovely wee Scotland too.
the centre of Irvine
the centre of Irvine

When I read about Borja I immediately thought of one of Scotland's nothing-towns - Irvine. I've never been there but a colleague lived there for a few years as she clambered up the greasy pole to planning respectability here at Auchterness. She often talked about the town, likening it to a merger of Motherwell and Cumbernauld - but by the sea. Three bad things wrapped into one. In other words it is what we expert planners would call a dump.

Now I gather from recent canteen chat that the good burgers of North Ayrshire Council have been trying to turn around the fortunes of the town. To quote, they intend to, "collectively identify and build on Irvine’s economic strengths and build a 'whole town' appeal that promotes Irvine’s Clyde coast location, its connections to Glasgow and its quality of life attributes, to offer a successful, vibrant town offer". This is laughable cliché planning - a vacuous and cynical exercise! I had a quick look at the Draft Strategy which has been out for consultation - a big mistake in my view and not even a properly accessible document - and it is full of ideas like an 'Urban Dressing Programme', 'Quality Plaice Building', 'Promoting an Aspirational Plaice' and 'Linking-up Town Centre to Secure Added Value'.

I'm guessing that whoever produced this document was doubled up laughing as they wrote it. It's like the result of one of these games where you have columns of random words and you join them together blindfold. We have done this at Auchterness in the past so I hesitate to dismiss it as a way of filling up a report - it's a useful and valuable exercise in the right circumstances. Of course it has been issued to consultation which must mean that the Council like it! Well as an expert planner I can tell them right away that it won't work - it won't make any difference at all.

Here's my idea! Why doesn't the Council simply admit that the town is a dump and market it on that basis? Some of the components could include:
  • not picking up litter or emptying litter bins - ok little change here but...
  • an advertising campaign which says that the Scottish Maritime Museum is the most boring museum in Scotland - it's like going to a zoo only to find that all the animals are dead!
  • demolishing the Magnum Centre - oh wait...
  • publishing an inaccurate train timetable to frustrate visitors
  • even more nasty and unpleasant public art
  • a town of empty shops - folk will be surprised when they find occupied shops
  • completely random clamping of cars in public car parks
  • announcing that the Big Idea has reopened and getting some good publicity over the outcry
  • introducing an entry fee at all entrance points to the town

That's just a start but you can see how this could mirror the success of Borja in moving from nothing-town to regional success story. I'm happy to advise North Ayrshire Council as a paid consultant in this matter.

Anyway, sorry I haven't been able to write more lately. Hope you all had a great Christmas and all the best for Hogmanay. Cheeriebye for now from Auchterness – have a good one!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Keppies are back!

the ill-judged West Dunbartonshire Council HQ proposal
 the ill-judged West Dunbartonshire Council HQ proposal

You know, I've been so taken with the fantastic world-leading architecture and planning of Halliday Fraser Munro over the past months that I had forgotten about Keppies - an old favourite and again, a world leader in design and planning. Well! I noticed an article in the treacherous Urban Realm rag last week confirming that Keppies are back in the frame with a fantastic appointment for the design and landscaping of the new £19.3m headquarters for West Dunbartonshire Council - the same Council that brought us this. ( My story is at the foot of the page but the original Guardian article has been removed for legal reasons!)

This is fantastic news for Keppies who will get a nice fat fee out of this but there are many other considerations. The idea of the development is peppered with mistakes which will have many long term implications. Let's have a look at this from an expert planner's viewpoint - ie mine.
Dumbarton Town Hall - An impediment to development - ripe for demolition
An impediment to development - ripe for demolition

First of all, the development seems to be retaining the A-Listed facade of a derelict building and this is clearly an elementary mistake. It would have been cheaper and far better to have knocked this down and built a completely modern structure. I feel that Keppies would be good at this! It could have been a well-earned smack in the face for the conservation lobby instead of a lily-livered piece of tokenism. Or even panderingism!

Secondly, I seriously question the location of the development in Dumbarton town centre - which like so many others across Scotland is a dead zone full of rats, welfare scroungers and tumbleweed. In my view, this development should have been located on a greenfield site with easy parking and good connections to major strategic routes. Another advantage of out-of-town town halls is that it is more difficult for the great unwashed to turn up out of the rain with a series of petty complaints about things they know nothing about, soaking up staff time in the process.

Now Keppie's Director Richard MacDonald is quoted as saying, “This is an important regeneration project for Dumbarton and the redevelopment of this site is a fantastic opportunity to integrate a sympathetic but contemporary solution into the existing urban context", but we all know this is just PR rubbish. Secretly he only cares about the fee and that is absolutely the right approach. Some may say that this proposal follows the guiding principles of the Sir Malcolm Fraser Commission into Town Centres but I think that even he would agree that this is a poor show from West Dunbartonshire Council and should be the subject of an immediate review. After all, what is the point in building a brand new spanking development in an area that will cease to exist in the next few years?

Now I'm not sure about this but I assume that as is the case with most Council offices, the amount of space taken up by toilets is proportionally much more than in normal buildings. Reading racks for the Daily Record in each booth take up a lot of space and there is considerably more demand for and uptake of this facility than in say a call centre. It's an interesting design parameter - isn't it? There is no mention of this on Urban Realm although the discussion boards are alive with commentary from Big Chantelle and Spellcheck, two of the leading architectural critics and thought leaders of the Urban Realm website.

You know, if this unfortunate development is ever built, I think people will look back on it and shake their heads, wondering how this ever happened. Maybe it will be the last silly development to take place before Scottish Independence - who knows. It could have been integrated in the great Lomondgate development where there is plenty of synergistic development - like coffee shops and burger bars and of course a dreadful Andy Scott horse sculpture. Anyway I have to praise Keppies for winning this and getting a nice fat fee but I utterly condemn the development as lightweight and lacking in any real planning principles.

All the best from Auchterness - see you later in the week maybe. Cheeriebye for now.

Monday, 1 December 2014

It's Charrette time again

A new land use plan being prepared  during a Scottish Government Charrette
A new land use plan being prepared
during a Scottish Government Charrette
You know, it's that time of year again - and I don't mean the Festive Season. Rather it is the Charrette Season - a time when many Councils find out if they can have their own Chimpanzees' Tea Party courtesy of the Scottish Government or if they have to wait for another year. As an expert planner, I'm aware of many Councils, some near Auchterness, who have tried and failed to win this dubious honour. I actually feel quite sorry for them! How can they have fallen for this ridiculous pantomime? How could they be so gullible?
creating the elements of the green strategy

Well it's a long story and a boring one so I'm going to skate over the details. Basically the Reverend Andrew Duany comes over to Scotland, persuades Wee Jimmy McKinnon, the then Head of Planning in the Scottish Government that charrettes were the way forward. I documented this before. He was a paid a goodly sum to run them in Dumfries, Fife and Aberdeen - and nothing worthwhile has happened since yet they have become 'the thing to do'. The answer!
putting the finishing touches to the town centre strategy
putting the finishing touches to the town centre strategy

Now make no mistake, Duany is a star turn and in a completely different class to the nonentities that have turned up to run the Scottish Government Charrette process in recent years. I don't need to name names as you all know who they are - arrogant, insincere, preening folk with the gift of the gab but no other talent. Frankly, I would just need to turn up in my purple corduroy suit with Duncan and Cameron and we would do better than these guys.

If you are looking for a bit of funding though, these Charrettes are the only game in town, hence the attraction to poor and useless Councils who are so starved of talent and resources that a Chimpanzees' Tea Party becomes an attractive and desirable thing to do. It's simply a marker for how planning has deteriorated over the years to the point where these trivial events are treated seriously.
making a model of the new community centre
making a model of the new community centre

Thinking about some of the greatest successes of planning over the last few years such as Glasgow Harbour promoted by the great Sir Ewan Jamieson, the epicentre of dynamic growth at Edinburgh Waterfront planned by Forth Ports or God's Own Gold Course at Menie designed and built by Hon Dr Donald Trump himself, we all know that charrettes were not part of the process of creating these magnificent environments. Halliday Fraser Munro haven't been near a charrette yet they are perhaps the finest architectural firm in Scotland - if not in Europe!
Group 2 seem unwilling to give their feedback
Group 2 seem unwilling to give their feedback

Take my word for it, playing around with paint and scribbling on bits of paper is never going to create world class projects in our lovely wee Scotland. Pantomime performances by the same old faces of  'the Scottish animators' or whatever they are called is never going to produce anything other than the same old stuff. The professional press is totally compliant and therefore complicit in this because it represents a good bit of business. RTPI Scotland should act on this now - it's time that this nonsense stopped!

All the best from Auchterness - have a great week and I'll be back very soon. Cheeriebye for now!