Cumbernauld town centre

Cumbernauld town centre
North Lanarkshire
1 September 2007

The neat lawns and modernist housing of North Lanarkshire’s new town achieved something of a cult status through Bill Forsyth’s 1980 film, Gregory’s Girl. With its well-thought-out road system kept apart from pedestrian routes and an indoor shopping centre, Cumbernauld is the somewhat awkward setting for the story of a much less rational, gangly teenager.

“Two advantages of learning to drive in this new-town environment — the absence of traffic lights, the total absence of stray pedestrians,” Gregory’s driving-instructor father explains to a learner. “But you must remember that in other towns, things won’t be so controlled,” he adds, just before his wayward son steps in front of the car.1

The careful separation of cars and pedestrians was indeed a distinctive feature of many new towns. Originally planned by the Attlee government, these new settlements were to create environments fit for the mid-20th century and solve the overcrowding of Britain’s slum-ridden big cities. But even before they had all been finished, new towns were received with disappointment by commentators such as the urban designer Gordon Cullen.

According to Cullen the majority of these schemes were a “step back” on the urban housing estates they were replacing. He describes a lack of “tension, drama, encolosure, surprise,” and criticises the “ebbiness” of the towns: “the theory that everybody else stinks and so you must have as much room as possible between.”

Translated into town planning jargon this quality of ebbiness becomes low-density housing — the results are deplorable — foot-sore housewives, cycle-weary workers, never-ending characterless streets, the depressing feeling of being a provincial or suburbanite in an environment that doesn’t belong to town or country and the impossibility of ever getting into the real country which this suburban sprawl has banished.2

Cumbernauld was, however, seen by many in the field as a good example of the new-towns scheme. While it was still under construction, the architecture critic Ian Nairn praised Cumbernauld’s townscape and wrote that, “unlike the other New Towns, it has a sense of site”.3

On a moorland ridge by the existing Cumbernauld Village, the site was chosen as a result of the Bruce Report of 1945, to be one of four new towns to house “overspill” from nearby Glasgow. Starting in 1956 and with a budget of £70m, the chief architect, L Hugh Wilson, oversaw the plans for a scheme smaller and thus denser than other new towns.

All its housing would be within 20 minutes of a single integrated town centre, along footpaths and subways; these would avoid the wide roads which, along with enough parking space, would allow for 100% car ownership. The first phases of the town centre were designed by Geoffrey Copcutt, as a vast concrete megastructure accommodating a technical college, entertainment and leisure facilities, department stores, shops, offices and penthouses.

In 1967, the town received the Reynolds Award of the American Institute of Architects and was described as the “most significant current contribution to the art and science of urban design in the western world”.4

35 years later, the UK branch of the international conservation body Icomos identified phase one of Cumbernauld new town (everything built between 1963 and 1968, including the town centre) as one of 18 key 20th-century heritage sites at risk and worthy of preservation. An Icomos spokesman said: “Cumbernauld reflects the rewriting of the urban landscape that took place in the last century. It is among the most important innovations.”5

Despite this recognition of its built heritage, Cumbernauld — and especially its town centre — is more often derided for its utopian architecture and the neglect thereof. An internet survey organised by the Idler magazine placed Cumbernauld second, in a list of the 10 worst places to live in the UK; it was consequently featured in the magazine’s Crap Towns book which recommends, “townplanning students visit Cumbernauld to learn what not to do”.6

Unlimited Magazine handed Cumbernauld town centre the 2001 “Plook on the Plinth” award, for the “most dismal place in Scotland”, the judges describing the building as “a rabbit warren on stilts”. But, according to the magazine’s editor, Gordon Young, “Cumbernauld, won this prize, not because of the mistakes made in the 1960s, but because politicians have failed to do anything to remedy those mistakes”.7

In 2005, the town centre received the ironic accolade yet again. The local authorities were, once more, given the blame for the lack of improvement, in particular the Cumbernauld and Kilsyth MP, Rosemary McKenna. Tim Abrahams, the deputy editor of Prospect Magazine (who now organise the Carbuncle Awards) said: “People in Cumbernauld are pretty annoyed and they have every right to be. Cumbernauld is an affluent town.”8

Shortly after Copcutt’s megastructure received its second Plook on the Plinth, viewers of Channel 4 voted it as the building they would most like to see demolished. The poll was conducted at the end of Demolition, a TV series devised by Janet Street-Porter and George Ferguson (then president of Riba), as a reaction against the BBC’s popular Restoration programme.

The show concluded that the town centre should not be knocked down but that it should be given a proper sense of place, with a walkway and pavement cafes stretching alongside the building. The architect Gordon Murray, who was interviewed for Demolition, suggested that the centre be redeveloped as a leisure hub.

These ideas have not, however, been taken up by North Lanarkshire council, whose plans for regeneration revolve around an additional shopping mall, constructed by a private developer next to the existing town centre. London and Regional’s 350,000 sq ft Antonine Centre, which opened in June 2007, houses 42 new stores including branches of Next, TKMaxx and Woolworths. The £40m project by Keppie Design is part of the phased redevelopment of the town centre that is being overseen by the council-owned company Campsies Centre Limited.

Nevertheless, the Demolition programme makers have been unimpressed by the council’s attempts at regeneration. Janet Street-Porter was particularly scathing about the new mall and a large adjacent Tesco store, writing in the Independent that the local authorities were “seriously negligent” for not taking into account what people want or following the suggestions given in Demolition. “If these bureaucrats were politicians they’d be voted out of office, but, as civil servants, they can carry on ruining the lives of the people of Cumbernauld as long as they like.”9

But for the local politicians, the Antonine Centre is a positive step in improving the town’s image, which, they argue, has been damaged by all the negative publicity. Responding to the Plook on the Plinth award, Rosemary McKenna said: “There is a serious side to this constant and very public negativity and that is when possible investors in the Town Centre could become nervous and scared off.”10

The council’s planning director, David Porch, shares these worries, telling the BBC: “If Cumbernauld is to continue to develop and grow it needs investment, not shallow, obstructive and damaging comment that offers no meaningful solutions or constructive suggestions.”11 On another occasion, he dismissed the Demolition programme’s proposal as “not based on practicality or reality”. “Tree-lined boulevards and al fresco bistros might sound appealing,” he said, “but in reality developments have to be practical and deliverable.”12

Members of the Cumbernauld Community Forum are, though, not so quick to write off the programme’s plan. Like many of the town’s other residents, they are not convinced that the Antonine Centre is enough of a solution to Cumbernauld’s blighted town centre.

In June 2007, the Scotsman asked local people what they thought of the new shopping centre. Sandra Gribben was especially sceptical saying: “I would not be surprised if the shops are all boarded up this time next year.” For others, the new building does not make up for the neglect of the original town centre. Lisa McMillan said: “I definitely think the money could have been spent more wisely. It would have been better if they had done up the old shopping centre and spent the rest on better facilities for families.”13

There’s evidently a lot more work to be done before Cumbernauld can shake its eyesore image and locals can be as optimistic about the town centre’s future as the new-town planners were in the 1950s. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

Commenting is closed for this article.