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Charette charade?

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29 Nov 2011

It’s been 18 months since American urbanist Andres Duany packed his bags  for Miami following a five day charette in Lochgelly, Fife. The  initiative promised to usher in a new dawn for an ailing community but  following the media brouhaha some locals are upset that all they have to  show for it are some promotional stickers and a surplus stock of ‘I  love Lochgelly’ bags. Invited back to assess progress for ourselves  Urban Realm took the opportunity to speak with local community leaders  in order to find out what (if anything) has changed for the better.

It’s been 18 months since American urbanist Andres Duany packed his bags for Miami following a five day charette in Lochgelly, Fife. The initiative promised to usher in a new dawn for an ailing community but following the media brouhaha some locals are upset that all they have to show for it are some promotional stickers and a surplus stock of ‘I love Lochgelly’ bags. Invited back to assess progress for ourselves Urban Realm took the opportunity to speak with local community leaders in order to find out what (if anything) has changed for the better.

James Glen, spokesperson for Loch of Shining Waters (a group of volunteers promoting Lochgelly online and in print) told Urban Realm: “The charette was sold as a public consultation giving the people a chance to put forward their ideas, but it was just an opportunity for Fife Council to tick the consultation box and rubber stamp all the plans they had before. 90% of the plans that were drawn up at the beginning of the regeneration process are still the plans being worked on today – nothing has changed in those plans. They’ve tweaked them a little bit. As I see it they’ve brought an American over here to endorse Fife Council’s plans and made him a multi-millionaire. That’s the response you’ll get in Lochgelly. What’s the charette?”

Catching up in the rundown environs of the Lochgelly Community Regenerations Forum Urban Realm caught up with Christine McGrath, secretary of the group, recalled: “This great American from The Truman show was coming here. He was going to make Lochgelly great. Everybody was coming to their doors to see this guy, meeting in the town hall every night from Monday to the Saturday, everyone said what they wanted. On the final night everyone was oohing and ahhing what was going to happen. Then nothing did.”

Eileen McKenna, fiery chairperson of the Forum ventured: “He put it down as a fifty year process; it’ll benefit maybe my children or my great grand-children, they’ve done nothing since 1997. Look at Dunfermline and see what they’ve got - a community centre, library and doctors surgery to go with it. Lochgelly’s got nothing.

“Lochgelly has one of the highest rates of flatted accommodation, 90% of the houses are four in a block. They’re not all semi- detached.  Andres Duany initially put a three storey sentinel building at the bottom of South Street. We actually looked at the plans and it took him two days to re-do those plans take everyone out of these high rise on the same piece of ground give them all houses on a small plot of land for their vegetables or a yard. Duany handed them back to Fife Council and said that is a disaster waiting to happen. What did they do? They still built the flats. Why was the man here if we actually weren’t listening to him?

An enormous 1750 new houses are planned in a doughnut of development around the existing town of approximately 7,000 souls as Lochgelly faces up to a future as a dormitory of Edinburgh  -but McKenna stressed: “We are very much for new housing because we need affordable housing; if they build so many private houses then they’ve got to build houses for first time buyers and rent. BUT we want the facilities to come first – not after the houses have been built. “People can buy a four or five bedroom house here for the price of a flat in Edinburgh,” notes McKenna, but: “no facilities are being put in place for schools, doctors or dentists; so people coming into the community are just going to drain facilities that are already here. They’ll come in off the dual carriageway, they’ll leave by the dual carriageway and they’ll do their shopping by the dual carriageway.”

It is plans to build houses close to the nearby Mossmorran chemical plant however which are eliciting most concern, as Glen voiced: “Go up South Street way there’s supposed to be a 3km exclusion zone but they’re actually proposing to put a school, housing and a nursing home in there.

Outlining the dire state of public service provision in the town McKenna noted: “You’re waiting two weeks to a month to see a doctor in Lochgelly, if you have an emergency you see a nurse. Only if the nurse deems that you really need to see a doctor do you get an appointment. Andres Duany suggested building a glass extension to the school, connecting the old building, but in the latest plans they’re not going ahead. It was stated that the land the school was going to go on was possibly and probably going to be sold off to private developers.”

A further bone of contention is presented by the decision to relocate the town’s railway station: “We’re not against them moving the railway station when they’re going to put in disabled access - it’s how they’re doing it” explained McKenna. “They’re moving along to where a football park is, we’ll lose two football pitches and their changing rooms.” Glen added: “They’ve taken the local golf course out of greenbelt and put it under the countryside act - saying it gives it more security so it can’t be built on. About three months ago someone else did a check on that and we found that yes it can be built on.”

At the heart of many of these gripes is a lack of accountability from an often disengaged local authority. Just three copies of the draft planning guidance document have been made available to the public (Fife Council has also made it available online). One copy went to the library; one copy found its way to the planning office and a third arrived at the community council. McKenna bemoaned: “We had a maximum of a month to give feedback. Take into account that the locality offices are locked two days a week and for the first week the office didn’t know where the booklet was. A normal person coming in and reading that couldn’t make head nor tail of it. James here deciphered it down and out of 88 pages there are six which are relevant to Lochgelly. The rest is just bumf and gobbledygook to confuse people. It looks good, when you open it and see all the braw pictures. Oh aye Lochgelly could look like that… you’ve got Germany and everything in it.”

Andres Duany said that the town house old folks centre should be sold off for 15 one bedroom flats. One councillor queried it and said that there should be two storey flats. I went to that committee meeting and not one of them objected to it. The councillor from Lochgelly who was there never opened his mouth, which really annoyed me. We attended that meeting and we weren’t
allowed to speak. That’s how open our planning meetings are.

If you want to question anything you’ve got to be psychic because they put your question in 10 days prior to the meeting in writing so they can answer it. But you’re not allowed to put any questions I n on planning matters. I put eight questions in and they’ve come through and in the minutes it actually said that questions had been put forward to them. And it came to the question phase – no questions. What’s going on here? The questions weren’t pertinent to the minutes – so you’ve got to be psychic.

Glen cites construction of the A92 as the first nail in the coffin for the area: “Loch Gelly was part of the town. Everyone went down there for picnics and to swim in the summer, when they built that motorway it cut off the loch. Everybody’s childhood was going down to the loch fishing, water skiing and that all stopped when the motorway was put through. That was the first thing that Fife Council did to Lochgelly. From there Lochgelly went downhill. Instead of people driving through it they drove past it.

One scheme which has made it out the ground is Lomond Homes New farm vale development close to the train station, an uninspired suburban cul-de-sac of detached homes and bungalows it was approved by the local authority only after the developer signed a section 75 agreement which, amongst other things, called for a permanent pathway between the development and nearby Grace Street. This was to be built upon completion of phase two works but this phase was never completed (Lomond have leap frogged to phase three after leaving one remaining plot undeveloped).

McKenna railed: “Lomond have created a separate legal company named Lomond The Avenues ltd to avoid fulfilling their obligation under the section 75 agreements to pay a total of £300k for the improvement of education and public realm provision – no payments from this have ever been received.”

Adding to local umbrage a recently commissioned square is the target for a further refurbishment in draft planning guidance document from June 2011 as it is “neither well enclosed” nor “fronted by active uses”. Prompting Glen to query: “There are lots of buildings in need of regeneration so why are they throwing more money at something which has already been redeveloped?”
Lochgelly’s shining waters may have been sullied by murky decision making but its future can still be bright - assuming common sense can prevail. Urban Realm will be following the work of the community group as they continue to press for more enlightened thinking and a built environment to which everyone can be proud.

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