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Tearing down heritage borders on insanity
Columnist, Scotland on Sunday
Filed 10 Jan 04
This article is reproduced with kind
permission of its author
from Scotland on Sunday 9th January 2005
"The Scotland you have always imagined is
closer than you think... " runs the slogan across the top of
the Scottish Borders website. Then it adds: "Visit the real
Scotland." This, then, is the selling-point. A place linked
inextricably to a familiar image, so strong that you only have to
close your eyes to picture it. That powerful sense of identity is
reinforced when you scroll down to the entry for Galashiels, heart
of the textiles industry, with its famous motto: "We dye to
live and live to die." In your mind's eye you can almost see
those stern old mills with their pediments and porticos.
Most towns would give their eye-teeth for this
kind of profile. Most towns strive to create it. So why, within
the next few weeks, will Galashiels begin pulling down one of the
only remaining buildings of distinction in the centre of town -
the former Scottish College of Textiles, an old woollen mill, with
its neo-classical frontage, its polished marble ionic columns, its
two-leaf timber door and its great balustraded sandstone canopy?
The answer given is so misguided, so hopelessly
out of date, that one has to pinch oneself to realise that this
is the 21st century and not the 1960s. Scottish Borders Council
believes that by pulling down the building and approving an application
by Tesco to erect a superstore in the centre of town, they are adapting
the town to the needs of the future. As Bill Lamb, one of the councillors
who voted in favour of the project, put it: "Had [the vote]
not been passed, we could have put signs up on the A7, the A68 and
the A702, saying, śLet's keep the Borders backwards."
The idea that destroying your heritage is a sign
of progress is simply daft - and it ignores every precept taught
by modern planners. Most British towns or cities with an eye to
the future have grasped the idea that their strongest asset is their
identity, which is almost always linked to the past. By preserving
it, adapting it and then projecting it to the outside world, they
have discovered a means of raising their profile, ensuring that
the town is a pleasant place to live, and making it an attractive
centre for the businesses and the people they need as the foundations
of their future prosperity.
Dundee, which is striving to reinvent itself,
has opted for Captain Scott's Discovery as a symbol of its enterprising
past; ask any councillor there and they will deeply regret the decisions
made in the 1960s to pull down the wonderful Victorian buildings
which graced the city centre. Liverpool, which won the European
Capital of Culture award for 2008, is refurbishing all its waterfront
buildings as a triumphant reminder of its shipping history. Newcastle,
instead of destroying buildings, has conserved them, refurbishing
its warehouses and riverside landmarks and adapting them to modern
Galashiels has ducked that challenge, and opted
instead for mediocrity. Initially split on the decision, its councillors
have gradually been won round by the hard sell from Tesco, whose
only interest is in getting a foothold in the Borders before Asda
beats them to it. Tesco's line is so practised that they can recite
it in their sleep: more jobs, more choice - and what's more, shoppers
want it. They say nothing about the local producers who will be
put out of business, the high street shops that will be forced to
close, the running down of businesses which are bypassed because
the superstore will source its products from well outside the area.
The jobs they will create are greatly outnumbered by those that
will be gradually destroyed by the superstore steamroller which
crushes everything in its path.
Chris Ballance, the local Green MSP, calls it
"a completely blinkered decision". David Roemmele, a local
inhabitant who has campaigned tirelessly against it, calls it "disastrous".
And Historic Scotland, which tried, at the last moment, to stop
the development, is bitterly regretting the fact that it failed
in its bid to list it for conservation; the agency should have done
so long ago but never got round to it.
Finally last year, when it heard about the planning
application, it gave it List B status; but Tesco appealed against
the late decision - and won. The Scottish Executive, which could
"call in" the application, has so far refused to do so.
Some time this spring, therefore, Galashiels will begin the process
of destroying its past.
At the same time, an equally bizarre idea is gathering
pace in the Borders. Not content with erasing its heritage, the
local authority is encouraging plans to build a new town, either
somewhere between Galashiels and Melrose, or on the southern side
of the Eildon Hills, near St Boswells. The logic of this escapes
me. A beautiful and unspoilt part of the Borders, designed by Walter
Scott, a potential world heritage site, inextricably linked to a
romantic past, is to be infected by urban blight, burying those
green slopes beneath the bleak anonymity of a modern housing scheme.
The idea, I understand, is to attract Edinburgh commuters, who will
be drawn to live in the area because of the impending Waverley rail
link - a commuter ghetto in the heart of the Borders.
But why would Edinburgh workers want to live in
a bland modern development of the kind they can find anywhere in
the central belt, when they might be attracted to a proper Borders
town, with its history and its heritage intact, its buildings carefully
preserved, its out-of-town suburbs sensitively developed, and its
shops offering a real choice of food and local products?
That would have been a vision worth striving for.
What is more, it would have stood a far better chance of succeeding
than this rush to bury the past on the one hand and create a new
monstrosity on the other. One further warning: do not count on the
Waverley link going ahead. It is one thing to campaign for it, quite
another to assume that the Executive will agree to support it. The
planners would do well to see the signature on the cheque before
they start pursuing their flawed new venture.
They should remember, too, that King Arthur and
his knights lie sleeping beneath the Eildon Hills, awaiting the
call to emerge and fight their battle for truth and beauty and the
return of Camelot. I doubt if their plans include ribbon developments
or Tesco superstores, and they will certainly react badly if they
are awakened, not by Merlin's spells, but by the noise of the council's