Saving Down Towns | New Cumnock

cover of Prospect edition 135

Prospect magazine scours Scotland for its Carbuncles Awards. The infamous Plook on the Plinth is awarded to the place deemed worst for planning and architecture. Glenrothes was the winner this year.

This year, for the the first time, Prospect decided to run the Saving Down Towns conference to explore what could be done to get towns like Glenrothes back on their feet.

The article below, jointly written with Willie Miller of WMUD, was published in the summer 2009 edition of Prospect. It describes the afternoon workshop we facilitated to support the community of New Cumnock, Carbuncles runner-up, in saving their down town. Our thanks to Prospect for allowing us to reproduce it here.

from Prospect

“With a stimulating morning of analysis and best practice under their belts, conference participants got their chance to look at the future of two of Scotland’s Down Towns – Glenrothes, winner of this year’s Plook on the Plinth, and runner-up New Cumnock. Willie Miller and Nick Wright co-facilitated the New Cumnock workshop.

Short presentations from local boy Bobby Guthrie (New Cumnock Liaison Group) and Willie Miller set the scene – the town’s mediaeval roots as the gateway to Ayrshire, more recent boom and decline on the back of deep coal mining, and the impact of the community’s contraction from 9,000 to around 3,000 inhabitants over the last 40 years. Bobby also outlined the local community’s aspiration to use heritage-led tourism to reinvigorate the local economy.

Our twenty workshop participants – a diverse mix of local residents, architects, planners, urban designers, the private sector – were given a difficult but exciting task. In the face of powerful economic and social forces, what could New Cumnock be like in 2040? What could be done to turn this Down Town into an Up Town?

drivers of change

In the workshop discussions followed, four potential drivers for the town’s future emerged:

Outdoor recreation Taking advantage of the spectacular mountain landscape of Glen Afton immediately to the south, we saw opportunities for mountain biking, walking, fishing and watersports – which would in turn create business opportunities for cafes, shops and accommodation. An outdoor hub would not only draw visitors from Ayrshire and Glasgow, but also provide more opportunities for locals to get out into the countryside.

Commuter town The great asset of a railway station has seen growth of commuting to Kilmarnock (25 minutes) and Glasgow (an hour) in recent years. Continued growth could stimulate more housing growth, which would in turn help to sustain more local facilities and services.

A better place to live Targeted investment in facilities, services, new development and the environment could make New Cumnock a better place to live and work – not just for commuters, but to attract more local residents and businesses. The intention would be to reverse the vicious circle of population decline and disinvestment, and create a virtuous circle – not only retaining population by making economic opportunities more accessible, but also in the longer term encouraging population growth.

Consolidation With such massive population decline in recent decades, demolition of whole streets of post-war housing on the town’s periphery has already started. Continuing to manage both new development and further demolition to consolidate the town around its centre would have positive benefits.

With a different group of people, or on a different say, we might have produced other visions too. And with more time we would have been able to explore what needs to happen to implement these visions. But that does not diminish the relevance of these particular suggestions.

the process

Saving Down Towns conference, 2009

What stood out from the workshop for us, as the facilitators?

Firstly, everyone got it. They understood exactly what they were there to do. Our group was a massively diverse mix of people – professionals and non-professionals like, locals and people who had never been to New Cumnock. Despite these differences, everyone seemed comfortable with the collaborative, interactive nature of the groupwork. People appeared to have little difficulty thinking 30 years ahead, and sharing sometimes challenging concepts about change and community identity.

We are not surprised by this – it mirrors our experience of running similar community workshops elsewhere. But we do think it is worth highlighting.

Our second thought is on turning these ideas into reality. In many ways, local communities have more ability now to do this than local authorities, Scottish Enterprise or any of the public bodies who traditionally have led regeneration initiatives. Committed and energetic community groups like the New Cumnock Liaison Group can find it easier to access funding and implement projects than the public bodies.

But we’re not saying it’s easy for community groups. Whilst funding opportunities may be available and government strategies may increasingly promote community-led development, there are still many barriers – from community groups’ own confidence to traditional regulatory mindsets in public bodies.

Community groups might just have the energy and commitment to turn around Down Towns like New Cumnock. What they now need is to be trusted and supported by public bodies to take the lead.”

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