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Will the usual power-brokers welcome a new town created by grass-roots initiative?

Walter Humes - Scottish Review


The history of Scotland's new towns has been rather chequered. In the period after the Second World War there was a pressing need for housing development outside the main cities and by 1965 five new towns had been built (East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Livingston and Irvine). These have had their highs and lows, enjoying investment and expansion in good economic times and unemployment and decline in periods of recession. Architecturally, they have never been loved and over the years several have been nominated for the controversial 'Plook on the Plinth' award, which is given annually to the Scottish town judged to be least attractive.

Against this background, the proposal to create an entirely new community in South Lanarkshire, called Owenstown, must be judged adventurous and bold. The hope is that the town will grow to support 8,000 homes and the same number of jobs, with a total population of 20,000. A 2,000-acre site has been gifted to the Hometown Foundation, a charitable trust which will take the project forward.

Owenstown is named after Robert Owen, the industrialist and social reformer of the early 19th century, who created New Lanark, providing work for adults in cotton mills and a remarkably enlightened system of education for young children. Nowadays Owen would be called a social entrepreneur, combining the capitalist motive of profit-making with a philanthropic desire to offer opportunities for self-improvement to the disadvantaged.

Thanks to the efforts of the New Lanark Conservation Trust, many of the features of Owen’s original community have been restored and attract thousands of visitors each year. It is no accident that some of the people behind the plan to establish Owenstown have made a major contribution to the preservation and development of New Lanark. They include Jim Arnold and Arthur Bell, respectively director and chair of the New Lanark Trust.

The Owenstown Co-operative has been established as a charity and its founding principles are: to promote community development and social wellbeing; to provide homes where needed; and to promote sustainability and environmental responsibility. What is particularly interesting is that this initiative has come from outside the political mainstream, rather than from central or local government. Indeed it will be fascinating to see how the usual power-brokers respond to this grass-roots development. Will it be welcomed as a creative enterprise or seen as a threat to the authority of traditional decision-makers? I imagine that the co-operative might have to negotiate its way through quite a lot of bureaucratic obstruction before its vision can be translated into real homes and real jobs within a thriving community. Exponents of old-style municipal paternalism may not take kindly to a new player, however well-intentioned, muscling in on what they see as their territory.

Despite the difficulties and setbacks it will undoubtedly face, there are several reasons why the Owenstown venture should receive enthusiastic support from the wider public. Too many of Scotland's existing towns are bleak, grim places and anything that provides an inspiring model of how things might be better is surely to be welcomed. Again, there has been a serious loss of any sense of community in many parts of Scotland and the plan to involve those who might want to live in Owenstown in the development process, listening to their ideas and making them feel part of the project, can only be for the good. This might also help to counteract the dependency culture which has afflicted the Scottish mindset in recent years: that is, the assumption that everything should be left to various official agencies, rather than regarded as a shared responsibility involving individuals and public, private and voluntary organisations.

A major plank of the proposal is to ensure that Owenstown is as energy-efficient as possible. This includes recycling waste, generating electricity from wind turbines and solar panels, and a public transport system that relies on battery-powered buses. There would also be a dedicated town farm supplying fresh vegetables to residents. One can anticipate a lively battle as the supermarkets try to move in. It is also to be hoped that there will be some real creative flair shown in the design of homes and public spaces: Scotland has had enough of identikit housing schemes that almost seem to invite the attention of vandals.

Owenstown's website owenstown.org invites people to register an interest in the project. Those behind the proposal are to be commended for their imagination and vision: the degree of success which they manage to achieve may be an important indicator of the future direction of post-devolution Scotland.