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Centred on success: a regional focus on central Scotland

Mat Fascione

Centred on success: a regional focus on central Scotland

It’s such a grim day at Helix Park that even the swans are crouching in ditches. A pair of wading birds cross the path near the visitor centre, their heads bowed into the rain, dashing for the shelter of the reeds, like a pair of old ladies on a shopping trip heading for a shop doorway.

But even on a day like today, the monumental Kelpies are stunning – even more so than usual, in fact, since the dramatic sky deepens the shadows on their sinewy faces – and there’s a steady flow of people out and about.

Seeing how busy it is in driving rain, it’s no surprise to learn that nearly 900,000 people use this park every year, almost three times more than was expected when it opened in 2013.

Helix Park, Home of the Kelpies, a 320-hectare site of post-industrial scrubland between Grangemouth and Falkirk, is one of Scotland’s great regeneration success stories. It was developed with money from a range of funders, including Falkirk Council, but the crucial element was a £25m Big Lottery grant – the largest possible – which was secured in 2007.

We have 60-odd staff here in the summer, all locals, and the sense of pride they have is immense. It shows what appropriate investment can do to a region

The following year, the financial crisis hit and public spending projects across the country were halted in their tracks, but Falkirk Council decided to push ahead with the Kelpies. “The regeneration of Falkirk and the site has grown from that brave decision,” said Ben Mardall, team leader for The Helix, over coffee in the stylish café. “Since then, we’ve really transformed Falkirk from a drive-through destination to almost a two-night destination. Between the Falkirk Wheel, the Helix and the other attractions we have, like Callendar House, Kinneil Railway and the distilleries, tourism is a real driver to the region.”

As well as the Kelpies, visitor centre and cafés, the park showcases the restored historic canal, offers a wetland area and boardwalk, epic children’s playground, lake and many kilometres of well used walking and cycle paths connecting 16 local communities. A VisitScotland advertising campaign put pictures of the Kelpies in every Tube station in London and the benefits of their fame are filtering into the town itself. New hotels and cafés have sprung up locally, with some visitors choosing to base themselves in the Falkirk area in order to visit Edinburgh and Stirling. There was a 50 per cent increase in visitor numbers to the Falkirk area between 2009 and 2016. “We have 60-odd staff here in the summer, all locals, and the sense of pride they have is immense,” says Mardall. “It shows what appropriate investment can do to a region.”

Central Scotland has needed such visionary projects. The area between Glasgow and Edinburgh, taking in North and South Lanarkshire and Forth Valley, has tended to have a lower profile than its big pushy neighbours, in spite of its huge population. Stretching from Dunblane, Stirling and Alloa in the north to Biggar and Abington in the south, East Kilbride in the west to Polmont in the east, it comprises many populous towns with a proud industrial heritage, as well as sweeping tracts of agricultural land. Huge local authorities like North and South Lanarkshire (combined population 660,000) rub shoulders with tiny Clackmannanshire, the smallest council area in mainland Scotland (population 51,000).

Iron and steel-making, as well as mining, once defined the area, with Motherwell known as Steelopolis, Falkirk associated with the great Carron ironworks and Hamilton a centre for mining and engineering. These and other local towns suffered a similar fate when the mines and steelworks closed, registering high rates of unemployment.

Problems persist and the public sector remains an important employer. NHS Forth Valley and NHS Lanarkshire provide jobs, as do government offices in Falkirk (a regional centre for the Child Support Agency) and East Kilbride (the Department for International Development). But the story of the last 20 years has been one of diversification. Big, iconic employers are still vital: the petrochemicals plant and refinery Ineos at Grangemouth is a behemoth, employing 1,300 people directly, while supporting a significant small business supply chain; Diageo is an important employer in Clackmannanshire; the Prudential and Ogilvie’s in Stirling; Mackintosh and Farmfoods in Cumbernauld; and Dalzell steelworks in Motherwell.

But tourism, retail, services and the small business sector have become increasingly important.

A number of small businesses have spotted opportunities in the heritage of the area, particularly in the food and drinks sector. Small businesses are particularly important in rural areas, villages and small towns, according to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB): the more rural the area, the higher the proportion of private sector jobs typically provided by small businesses.

The Clackmannanshire town of Alloa once had nine breweries. Those days are gone but Williams Bros craft brewery took over the old Forth Brewery in 2004 and runs a successful business producing craft beers. McQueen Gin is a family business that started making award-winning gins in Callander a few years ago and has a gin emporium in Stirling city centre. A brand-new distillery is being built in Falkirk, projected to create 86 jobs, and a second – the old Rosebank distillery – is being restored, 26 years after it was mothballed, with the expectation of 25 new full-time jobs when it reopens in 2021. They will further improve the tourist offer in the area.

Susan Love of the FSB notes that regeneration projects like the Helix create “a buzz that brings people in” but connectivity – broadband and mobile phone as well as transport links – are top of the wish list for investors and small businesses.

Keith Brown MSP, deputy leader of the SNP and a former Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, knows the Forth Valley area well. He was a councillor in Clackmannanshire Council for 11 years and became its leader between 1999 and 2003, before being elected to the Ochil constituency in 2007 and then Clackmannanshire and Dunblane in 2011. His constituents then were often people dislocated from mines and associated businesses.

We’ve really transformed Falkirk from a drive-through destination to almost a two-night destination

Connecting Clackmannanshire better to other places became a pressing priority after the Scottish Parliament was established, as it had no rail link, inadequate road links and needed a new bridge over the Forth. “To me, when I moved here, it seemed like it wasn’t on the map,” he says. “A lot of people won’t look at investment if you are not on the public transport network.” There is now a rail link to Stirling (which opened in 2008), a new Clackmannanshire Bridge to ease congestion on the Kincardine Bridge, and improved road links. The rail line was expected to transport 155,000 passengers a year but actually transports 400,000.

“There’s relatively low unemployment, less than in the last 30 years, but it tends to be low paid and relatively insecure,” he says. However, he notes that businesses based in West Fife can draw staff from Clackmannanshire. Spanish train company Talgo, for instance, is poised to bring 1,000 jobs to West Fife, and that could benefit Clackmannanshire and other parts of central Scotland.

In North Lanarkshire, a higher proportion of people are economically active than in Scotland as a whole, but earnings are lower than the Scottish average and there are substantially higher numbers of people with no qualifications and a lower proportion of highly qualified people. In South Lanarkshire, earnings are slightly higher than the national average and although qualification rates are lower than average, the difference is less marked than in North Lanarkshire. Skills training continues to be a critical part of the area’s economic strategy.

Improved transport links have helped boost Lanarkshire’s appeal to investors. South Lanarkshire has also benefited since 2003 from the largest school-building programme in Europe, which was recently completed, and there are major drives to build council houses and improve existing ones.

A common challenge across the region, however, has been the need to improve high streets and town centres. Small town Scotland has been particularly hard hit by the closure of Post Offices, banks and chain-store branches, followed by the slow creep of empty shops and derelict plots.

Central Scotland has been successful in securing regeneration funding for town centres. Hamilton town centre is set for an £8m regeneration to deal with derelict buildings and provide social housing. Further money has been allocated to development in Cambuslang, which has received £620,000 of Scottish Government funding towards a £1.4m improvement of the physical environment of the town.

A City Region Deal in Stirling and Clackmannanshire, worth £90m of UK and Scottish Government funding, was agreed in 2018. The aim is to drive sustained economic growth by capitalising on emerging sectors of the economy, boosting skills and improving infrastructure. A new International Environment Centre to link environmental research with business opportunities is due to be built, as well as an Aquaculture Innovation Hub.

As the economy of the area has changed, so has its politics. Central Scotland was dominated by Labour up until 2007, with the party winning all but two of the Holyrood constituency seats up until that point. That started to change in 2007, and in 2016, the SNP won all 12 constituency seats in the area, though Labour made up some of its lost representation with the election of four MSPs on the Central Scotland list.

This loss of representation for Labour at Holyrood has reflected a similar story at Westminster. All 10 MPs covering the area are now SNP; in 2005, they were all Labour. Along with the loss of Glasgow, the decline of Labour in Lanarkshire has been a matter of anguish for the party.

What has not changed, is the reputation of Lanarkshire politics for in-fighting and factionalism. Where once it was Labour spats that dominated the headlines, the SNP is continuing the dubious tradition. In 2016, SNP North Lanarkshire councillor Julie McAnulty was accused of using a racist slur by another activist, Sheena McCulloch, who was part of a rival SNP faction. McAnulty was suspended but subsequently sued her accuser. The Court of Session ruled that the original accusation had been “outrageous” and “activated by malice or ill-will”.

South Lanarkshire council has a minority SNP administration while North Lanarkshire has a minority Labour administration, and the two continue to compete for the hearts and minds of local people.

They do so against a backdrop of ongoing challenges, but with home-grown small businesses and tourism initiatives becoming ever more important, alongside the engineering jobs and manufacturing for which central Scotland has always been known, the next chapter could be brighter.

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