I stopped celebrating birthdays decades ago and have just passed an age milestone that America named both a Route and a sixties rock ‘n’ roll song after. Yet each day still brings something new and long may it remain so. Easily the most substantial chunk of learning experienced recently happened last Friday.
Those who have followed me for any time will know that I have a mouth on me and that mouth has got me into trouble more than once. I like to think that I use both experience and judgement on a regular basis and, on the good old Scots Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense principle, don’t pillory folk without justification or proof they have ‘form’. Apologies have been forthcoming only three times in the busy four years this blog and a parallel Twitter account have been running. This constitutes the fourth.
Back in February of this year, I clashed on Twitter with Steve McCabe, Labour Leader of Inverclyde Council. The topic was prosperity and economic development in general. I had used Inverclyde as an example of decay, with major losses over decades having resulted in loss of population and economic difficulties. Although positioned vis-a-vis Glasgow in roughly the same relationship as my own East Lothian is to Edinburgh, I had posited political leadership as a major factor in their decline vs our prosperity, quite apart from the relative differences between us driven by the two cities’ differing fortunes.
Steve was having none of this. An escalating series of tweets resulted in Steve deflecting the growing acrimony by throwing down the gauntlet and challenging me to come see for myself. Having experienced Labour leadership under Norman Murray in my own ELC and Jim McCabe’s in South Lanarkshire via CoSLA, I had a picture that was a mix of inertia, Buggin’s Turn, reactive cabinet spokespeople and a surly hostility to anyone outside their group. I suspected a bluff, or possibly even a wheeze to waste an unbeliever’s time.
In my first attempt to visit, I tried to seal arrangements over Twitter because ELC had seen fit to cut off all remote access for councillors in the name of UK-driven database security. That was a mistake and resulted in the first attempted visit being cancelled at short notice, which did little to allay my suspicions. However, Steve was quite civil about it and doggedly rescheduled for May 2nd, this time ensuring respective PAs were on top of it.
Getting to Greenock from North Berwick is quite a coast-to-coast adventure; three trains and a hike through central Glasgow, totaling three hours each way. Was I being had? I expected a brief meeting for form’s sake and then an hour or two with colleagues or officials being shown how Inverclyde works as a council. Although all structured differently, all councils provide roughly the same services.
I was more interested in what role it played in economic regeneration, especially its £60m per annum ALEO called Riverside which had taken stick for failing to either get the private investment or provide more than a few percent of the jobs promised. A Reform Scotland report was especially critical and the Parliaments Local Govt committee has been rummaging in this area, looking for bodies. My own experience of Inverclyde was limited: some passing visits en route to Cowal and Bute and several days door-knocking in the by-election caused by the death of David Cairns in 2011.
Met off the train by Steve himself, the balance of the afternoon was entirely not what I had anticipated. No flunkies, no tour of council buildings (although we did pass his salt barn), this was a personal tour by Steve himself, keen to correct any impression I had that the area was an economic basket case from which people were fleeing. And, given that all I knew was that Inverclyde had lost all but one of its shipyards and 10% of its population in a decade, that was a fair accusation to make of me.
Port Glasgow town centre does look worse for wear—a wobbly retail mix heavy on betting shops, carpet stores and charities, reminiscent of Tranent. But the town centre buildings of Port Glasgow were better than Tranent—solid Victorian red sandstone tenements found all over Glasgow and solid enough to merit refurbishment at some future date.
That was a theme that repeated itself throughout the trip: a Victorian heritage of such civic pride that whether it was the swimming pool in Port Glasgow or the ex-Tate & Lyle dockside Sugar Sheds in Greenock or the Marine Centre, Gourock, it was clear that substantial investments a century ago were worth further investment now as there was both heritage and architecture that had a place in the future.
One reason you soon became confident of that is the peculiar geography of the place. Unlike post-industrial Blantyre or Airdrie where some new alternative to heavy industry is not obvious, here you are dealing with a strip of land less than 10km long and barely 1/2km wide. And what is beyond that is both unspoiled and spectacular. Housing estates do run up the steep hills that lead to Loch Thorn and rolling, pretty countryside. But the glory of the place is the Clyde.
Still a river until it turns south at Tail o’ the Bank, the 2km wide sweep of calm water is gloriously visible wherever you are. And, unlike views from North Berwick across the Forth—fine as they are—they don’t have the detail of Helensburgh or Kilcreggan going about their business across the water, nor the height of hills reaching up to Ben Lomond on the horizon, with Dunoon and the green Cowal Hills beckoning you further on.
As property barons have always maintained, there are three vital elements to prospering with property: location, location and location. Seeing how many visitors come to our coast and the praise they give it, it’s easy to see the potential in Inverclyde. While some heavy engineering remains (Ferguson’s, the last shipyard in Port Glasgow still builds ferries) and the James Watt dock in Greenock has been converted to a marina, there are miles of unused waterfront now obvious contenders for redevelopment, all within a few hundred metres of 4-each-hour modern electric trains to the centre of Glasgow and the A8 to Glasgow airport.
Steve and his colleagues seem to have clocked all this potential but have started at the pragmatic end, bringing the likes of a Mega-Tesco and B&Q to boost retail and retain shoppers in the area. These have not been sited subtly, being highly visible off the A8 but not close enough to town centres to boost surviving High Street retail. But Inverclyde have also moved with the commercial times, hiding a large Amazon distribution warehouse in woods above the Western Ferries terminal and evolving the IBM presence at Inverkip into a commercial park.
And, rather than bulldoze a rich architectural heritage, many solid stone-built edifices live on in new roles. Particularly impressive is the Custom House area of Greenock which leads on the container port and cruise line terminal. Tastefully landscaped and cobbled, it includes a Premier Inn, The Waterfront Complex and Cinema and the Western College campus. This leads onto a fine wide promenade west (to Battery Park and Gourock) that outshines Portobello and has massive recreational potential. Here, with green banks to develop and, calm, wave-less water, the potential for watersports—kayaking, skiff rowing, paddle-boarding, as well as sailing of all shapes—seems huge.
Even end-of-the-line Gourock where the ferries leave for Dunoon (Cowal) has retained a functional High Street with a wide selection of douce villas offering stunning views. They lend the place such class they could be key in attracting people back into the area. Past the urban section, Inverkip offers a marina and Wemyss Bay ferries to Rothesay (Bute). Their green, unspoiled environment stretches all the way up and over the hills to Kilmacolm in a wide hinterland back to Port Glasgow. This latter was ideal cycling country: gentle hills, varying rural views, roads with little traffic.
Steve was quiet-spoken—not at all brash or boastful. But, as a local whose dad spent his working days slapping red lead paint over the bottom of ships in the local yards, he spoke with assurance and passion. As with anyone so rooted in the place, he clearly knows and loves his patch. But what Steve also brings to the party is a vision, determination and the backing of a strong local Labour party who—in contrast to my own experience—seem to have moved on from wishing good old days to return and are looking to a future through ideas and with gumption to back them up.
Having gone to Inverclyde as a unbeliever, as no fan of this post-industrial backwater, one afternoon with Steve turned me firmly around. Now I wonder if, despite all our advantages, East Lothian might not come second to Inverclyde in seizing a rich quality of life for the future of its citizens, if Steve McCabe has his way.
All power to him: property prices there went up 24% last year.