The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S3M-7682, in the name of Michael Matheson, on Denny town centre regeneration. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament considers that there is widespread dissatisfaction among residents in the Denny and Dunipace area regarding the planned Denny town centre regeneration; believes that Denny town centre is in desperate need of regeneration, and would welcome regeneration plans that carry widespread support in the local community.
I welcome a number of the local residents of Denny and Dunipace who have come here for this debate because it is on a very important issue in their community.
On the banks of the River Carron in my constituency are the two small towns of Denny and Dunipace. Together they have a population of around 15,000 and are the second-largest population centre in my constituency.
In 1877, the villages of Denny and Dunipace were joined to form a single burgh and have remained that way ever since. However, for many centuries they were quite separate communities that lay on opposite banks of the River Carron. Tradition has it that in the 13th century, the priest in Dunipace was the uncle of William Wallace, and that the great man himself made many visits to Dunipace at that time. Denny was little more than a small village until the middle of the 19th century, but it has a long history that goes back to the medieval period, and it played a role in the wars of independence.
Like many communities in the central belt, both Denny and Dunipace were greatly affected by industrialisation in the 19th century. Linen production and calico painting attracted workers from across the district and the population of the area continued to rise in the 20th century.
New technologies brought decline to and, subsequently, closure of many of those industries. The area then turned to blackband ironstone mining to feed the iron industry in Falkirk. Coal mining, iron founding, brickworks and chemical works all played their part in the industrial make-up of the Denny and Dunipace area.
In more recent years, the soft waters of the River Carron were favoured by paper mills, which saw the Carrongrove paper mill being established—exporting paper across the world and employing hundreds of men and women locally. However, the paper mill has closed.
The communities of Denny and Dunipace are proud. They have a strong sense of community that is shaped largely by their past and a strong desire to see the area improve in the future. However, it is an area that is blighted by the most neglected town centre that one could possibly imagine.
Town centres often serve as the heart of a community, where people shop, meet, work and socialise in the evening. They serve as the hub that draws the community together and they are often viewed as the window into the wider local community.
Think about when one comes into a town for the first time: first impressions are so important. A clean, pleasant, welcoming town centre gives the impression of a pleasant and welcoming area. However, when visitors come into a town centre that is run down, unpleasant and uninviting, for many of them it is simply a matter of continuing to pass through. The desperate state of Denny town centre has not happened overnight. A legacy of neglect of the town centre over decades has led to the situation in which we now find ourselves.
Six or seven years ago, Falkirk Council finally recognised that the town centre of Denny needed to change. However, despite widespread local consultation and the development of a master plan for redevelopment, for almost five years Falkirk Council has talked the talk of regeneration, but it has certainly not walked the walk. Not a single brick has been removed or laid as part of the so-called regeneration. In fact, Falkirk Council seems to be intent on making the situation even worse, given the £140,000-worth of temporary repair works that it has carried out in recent months, which have defaced buildings that many would have thought could not be defaced any further. I understand the need to carry out essential repairs, but I do not accept that a town centre that is already a carbuncle should be made even worse by such works. That is simply unacceptable.
Because of the way in which Falkirk Council has treated the people of Denny and Dunipace and the lack of progress that it has made on regeneration of Denny town centre, it would be fair to say that the people have lost confidence in the council. They have been told that the economic downturn has prevented the original master plan from being taken forward, so I, along with many others in the town, have asked for the council to produce an alternative plan that can be delivered in the present economic climate and which reflects the desires and aspirations of the community. To this day, we are waiting for the council to present us with an alternative plan.
The people of Denny and Dunipace have lost confidence in Falkirk Council and rightly so, but they are united in their desire to see the heart of their community restored. Over the past year, several campaigners in the town have organised a number of public meetings and protest marches around the blocks, all of which I have attended. Those events have brought together the old and the young, those who were born and bred in the area and those who have recently moved there. The message that has gone out from all those events is that the people of Denny and Dunipace are fed up waiting for the council to take the action that is needed, and that they will not sit back and allow the neglect of their community to continue.
The campaign to fight Falkirk Council’s neglect took a new twist in September last year, when the local campaign group asked for the town to be awarded the carbuncle of the year award because of the state of the town centre. As a result, it is the holder of the “plook on the plinth” trophy.
I do not expect the minister to be able to solve the problem, but I hope that he and other members will recognise that the community of Denny and Dunipace is, frankly, fed up with Falkirk Council’s lack of action, and that they will agree that it is now time for the council to deliver on the regeneration of Denny town centre that has been promised for so long.
The very heart of the community is in desperate need of regeneration. Jobs are being lost as businesses pull out of the town and others choose not to locate there because of the condition of the town centre. Having a carbuncle for a town centre eats away at the community’s sense of pride.
The community in Denny and Dunipace is strong and has pride in its local area. That sense of community and pride needs to be matched by a town centre that will serve as the new heart of the community. It is time for Falkirk Council to show the people of Denny and Dunipace the respect that they deserve by delivering on the promise of regeneration now.
Michael Matheson’s motion is in three parts. The first part asserts that
“there is widespread dissatisfaction among residents in the Denny and Dunipace area regarding the planned Denny town centre regeneration”.
The second part acknowledges what we all know to have been the case for very many years, namely that
“Denny town centre is in desperate need of regeneration”.
The third and final part says that the Parliament
“would welcome regeneration plans that carry widespread support in the local community.”
No one could disagree with that—we all want the best possible rejuvenated town centre for the Denny community. It seems that the only point to be debated is whether there is widespread dissatisfaction among Denny residents about the plans for the town centre’s regeneration.
The project has been an aspiration for many years under local government administrations of different political persuasions, so it can only be good news that the regeneration is finally in progress—although it is, perhaps not surprisingly, likely to be a long, drawn-out process as various issues, some foreseen and some unforeseen, are resolved.
To put it into perspective, resolving those issues and gaining the necessary consents take time and can be frustrating for the local community and everyone else. Reasonable people only become dissatisfied when they are not kept advised about why there are delays—unforeseen or otherwise. The question is, therefore, whether the local community has been sufficiently consulted and kept advised. Denny residents and local businesses have been included in the regeneration plans for Denny town centre at every stage of the process, and plans have been altered to reflect the concerns of the community.
The original master plan for the regeneration was presented to retailers and the Denny community. Following feedback from the public, the plan was revised to address their concerns, particularly those about disabled access. The revised plan was put on open display to the public, who were also informed about the development via a website, a newsletter and a questionnaire. In February 2007, 93 per cent of the questionnaire respondents considered the plan to be satisfactory or better.
During the following few months, a working group—including members of the community council, retailer associations and council officials—agreed to resolve the traffic-management issues. There was also communication with the archdiocese after an access concern was raised. That issue was resolved.
Because of the economic downturn, the plan had to be revised and further consultations were undertaken. Meetings were held with the Denny community and local retailers, displays were erected in public buildings and plans were published online. The feedback from that consultation was positive, with 76 per cent of those who completed the online survey favouring the proposals. Of those who attended the library display, 100 per cent favoured the plans. In addition to that, feedback was also presented at a public meeting in January 2008. Further amendments to the revised plan were presented to the community through drop-in centres that were held over two days in August 2010. Of the 160 people who attended those sessions, 90 per cent found that the proposals were a positive step for Denny.
I could go on, but it is self-evident that there has clearly been extensive consultation of the local community every step of the way. The consultation process is on-going, local people are constantly being asked for their opinions, and their feedback has helped and continues to help to inform the regeneration process.
In those circumstances, the Parliament can be assured that there is no cause for widespread dissatisfaction among the residents of Denny and Dunipace, who will have the satisfaction and pleasure of seeing the regeneration completed and Denny town centre transformed.
My congratulations go to Michael Matheson on bringing the issue to the chamber, and on his extensive knowledge of the locality. For my sins, or otherwise, I live in yet another carbuncle town: Cumbernauld. We were not desperately keen to get that award back, so I thank the people of Denny and Dunipace for hanging on to it.
Cumbernauld also suffers from the problems that Denny faces and that Michael Matheson has illustrated. I do not know whether it is significant that, in North Lanarkshire, where Cumbernauld is, we have a Labour Administration and—if my memory serves me right—Falkirk is in a similar situation. It is regrettable that no one from the Labour Party has chosen to take part in the debate.
The distinction is an interesting one. It is not relevant, however. I apologise again to Mr McMahon. I did not see him sitting up there at the back. Given the extent to which the Labour Party claims to represent communities and the fact that it is the lead party on Falkirk Council, a Labour member could have been in the chamber to speak on behalf of their party.
I have been involved in the Falkirk area for a number of years, both as an elected regional list member and when I worked for the previous member. I have watched various programmes come about, including the Falkirk gateway project, and I have seen the changes in Stenhousemuir and in the region. Denny and Dunipace just seem to have missed out; I have not yet figured out why.
Margaret Mitchell set out clearly the history of the extent to which consultations have taken place, are on-going and will take place. As someone from Cumbernauld who has seen the same process, I know how fed up people can become with that. It is possible to overconsult—indeed, at times, overconsulting is simply an excuse for kicking things into the long grass. I say that notwithstanding legitimate observations about planning consents and who owns what building.
At some point, someone has to take responsibility, draw a line under the consultations and say, “We’re going to do something about this.” The situation that we are debating is characteristic of many other examples that members have raised in the chamber in describing consultations and involving communities only for nothing to happen. Those who are responsible—co-incidentally, they are up for election next year—need to be held to account. I refer to the current or any future composition of the local authority—with Falkirk Council one can never tell. Somebody needs to take some action on the matter. I have full sympathy and empathy for the people of Denny and Dunipace. They feel as if nothing is being done and that they are being ignored.
I congratulate Michael Matheson again on bringing the matter to Parliament and I hope that some of the publicity that may result from the debate will prompt somebody in Falkirk Council to address some of the challenges.
I, too, think that it is disappointing that no Labour member is in the chamber to take part in the debate. I had not seen Mr McMahon, either. He seems to have drawn the short straw in having to sit manfully in the chamber so that Labour can say that it was present for the debate.
That was a very useful clarification. There is no interest from the Labour Party in Denny town centre. It is also very useful to know that Mr McMahon is sitting in the chamber only to do some revision and that he is not interested in the debate. If the member is concerned that Labour has no Central Scotland list members, I gently point out to him that that will be rectified after the election. The SNP will pick up a number of those constituencies, which means that Labour will have to seek representation through the list system.
It remains a disappointment that there are no Labour members in the chamber for the debate. With the Tories, Labour forms part of the Falkirk Council administration. At least Margaret Mitchell is in the chamber to try to defend the position of her colleagues on the council, albeit that she did so somewhat unconvincingly. She certainly failed to convince my colleague Michael Matheson. The complacency from both Labour and the Tories at local government level will ensure that my colleague Michael Matheson wins Falkirk West again on 5 May.
On the basis of Ms Mitchell’s contribution, in the main.
Hugh O’Donnell stole my thunder somewhat. Like him, I live in Cumbernauld, which, as he mentioned, won the carbuncle award in 2001 and 2005. I was going to say—only in a jocular fashion, of course—that it might be useful to have another dismal town centre nearby to draw attention away from Cumbernauld town centre. Interestingly, it was the residents of Denny who asked for the carbuncle award to be awarded to the town. Some people might think that that was out of a sense of shame in their town, but I think that they are to be congratulated on being proud enough of their town to recognise that a problem exists in relation to the town centre and on their being willing to take a fairly drastic step to highlight that problem.
In 2001, when Cumbernauld received the carbuncle award, the then editor of the local newspaper said:
“I think the people of Cumbernauld are very proud of their town, but they are very ashamed of their town centre.”
It seems pretty clear that there is a similar experience in Denny, where the people are willing to stand up and say that the town centre does not match their pride in their town and that something must be done. When the carbuncle award was once again awarded to Cumbernauld, in 2005, the then director of planning and environment at North Lanarkshire Council, David Porch, was very defensive and said that, in the council’s opinion, it was a “ridiculous” award. It seems to me that Falkirk Council has adopted exactly the same position regarding Denny, saying that it is disappointed by the move to apply for the award. I advise Ms Mitchell that that is where the complacency comes in. It seems that Falkirk Council would rather bury its head in the sand than tackle the problem head on. Michael Matheson set out clearly the lack of support that there has been for redeveloping Denny town centre.
The town centre regeneration fund would have provided an ideal opportunity for Denny town centre; however, having looked into it, I do not believe that there was any real application to it by Falkirk Council. I see that the council is going to improve the traffic lights in Denny town centre using funding from the town centre regeneration fund. That is all well and good, but Denny does not need just new traffic lights; to use a traffic light metaphor, it needs green for go for a proper regeneration of the town centre.
Once again, I congratulate Michael Matheson on his campaign, and I congratulate the residents of Denny and Dunipace on their campaign, too.
I, too, congratulate Michael Matheson not just on obtaining the debate, but on the tremendous work that he has done, especially for Denny and Dunipace, first as a list member and, over the past four years, as the first-past-the-post constituency member for Falkirk West. It would be remiss of me not to mention also the tremendous work that was done by his predecessor, Dennis Canavan, who also showed tremendous loyalty and commitment both to Falkirk and to the Denny and Dunipace area.
I will make some general remarks about regeneration and then focus a bit more on Denny and Dunipace. However, I must first say, both as a minister and as a member covering Central Scotland, including that area, that it is not right to say that there is no concern among local people about the state of Denny town centre. Indeed, every time that one speaks to someone who lives in or near Denny, they express real concerns about the state of their town centre. That is a concern that any reasonable person must share. Nevertheless, as the minister replying to a members’ business debate, I will not get into a party-political battle about who is to blame for it; I want to address the general issues.
I am referring to both the need for regeneration and the regeneration process—or, as the local people would say, the lack of a regeneration process.
Two or three weeks ago, the Scottish Government published its national regeneration discussion paper, “Building a Sustainable Future”, which sets out the importance of investing in Scotland’s deprived communities to generate growth and employment and to tackle poverty, deprivation and high levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. That is why, in our budget strategy, we have put economic recovery and job creation at the core of what we are trying to do throughout Scotland within the limited resources and remit of this Parliament and this Government. We have set out our spending plans, which reaffirm the Government’s social contract with the people of Scotland to protect front-line services and to seek to enhance the resilience of the Scottish economy. That includes support for disadvantaged areas and people, and regeneration is fundamental to the overall purpose of sustainable economic growth. I hope that we share that agenda with everyone in Scotland.
One of the big problems that the Scottish Government faces is the £1.3 billion-worth of cuts that are being imposed on the Scottish Government by the United Kingdom Government next year, which come on top of the £500 million-worth of cuts that were imposed by the UK Government on the Scottish Government this year. Many of those cuts—40 per cent of all the cuts over the next two years—will be capital investment cuts. One of the things that John Swinney has been able to do has been to ensure that, despite those cuts, the councils of Scotland have received an increased share of the overall spending by the Scottish Government and, by making imaginative use of revenue, he has been able to establish, in addition to our mainstream capital investment programme, a further programme of £2.5 billion for investment in transport, health and education.
As Michael Matheson pointed out, the problem is long standing. It predates the current economic circumstances, regardless of who is to blame for them. Consequently, I am particularly interested in what steps the minister feels able to take to bring Falkirk Council to the table with the concerned residents of the communities in order to make some progress on the issue, despite the budget restrictions that the council and the Scottish Government are operating under.
I have visited Falkirk Council to discuss regeneration in general and the needs of certain areas in particular. Of course, every council faces the challenges that have resulted from the cuts that have been imposed on us by London. However, there are initiatives that can be taken, and many council areas are doing that. For example, in East Ayrshire, which is a much more deprived area than the Falkirk district, as a whole, the council is doing a tremendous amount of work on the regeneration of Cumnock and Kilmarnock. That example could be followed in the case of the Denny and Dunipace area.
A specific suggestion that I would make would be to consider establishing in Denny and Dunipace a community development trust. There are nearly 400 community development trusts in different parts of Scotland, and they are increasingly successful in regenerating the local areas that they represent.
Last week, I announced an additional £250,000 to build up the capacity for the establishment of additional community development trusts, because they are a major way in which the Scottish Government, local authorities, the private sector and the third sector, working together, can mobilise resources for reinvestment in local communities. A good example of that is the community of Neilston, just south of Paisley. That community has established a community development trust, which is situated in an empty property that it bought from the Clydesdale Bank for a nominal fee and put to local use. It is nearing the completion of a community wind farm project that it is sharing with the private sector, which will generate £400,000 a year for investment in Neilston. Following that project, the trust will start work on reinstating a former hydro project, which could generate up to £1 million a year for investment in Neilston.
The council should not just put up its hands and say that because of the depreciation in capital values, there is nothing that it can do about Denny and Dunipace.
I am afraid that I do not have time.
There is plenty that can be done with a bit of imagination and leadership. If Falkirk Council comes to me as the regeneration minister—as I hope I still am in a few weeks’ time—it will get a positive and helpful response to help it to deal with the challenges in Denny and Dunipace. Of course we do not have a blank cheque to write, but we have a commitment. There are many sources of funding to tap into apart from Scottish Government sources, and many initiatives can be taken.
For all of us, irrespective of whether we are from the absent Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Tories or the Scottish National Party, it is not party that is important but commitment to the people, and to the regeneration of many towns such as Denny that have never fully recovered from their post-industrial revolution past and which need for the 21st century a level of commitment, investment, leadership and support—from the local authority in this case—to move forward for the future.
We owe it to the people of Denny and Dunipace to do everything that we possibly can to help them to turn their town from being a carbuncle into the attractive place that it can be, not only to live in but to visit and to invest in for the future.
12:46 Meeting suspended until 14:35.
14:35 On resuming—