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Battenberg down the hatches

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7 Oct 2010

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The second leg of our Carbuncles road trip provided something of a jolt  as we passaged through relatively affluent housing toward the dystopian  centre of Denny, today best known as the southern terminus of the mooted  Beauly-Denny electricity transmission line. If East Kilbride had lulled  us all into a false sense that all was well with the world then Denny  was to be our wake up call.<br/>
What distinguished Denny first and foremost in our minds was not the  shabbiness of our surrounds, and boy were they shabby, but rather the  impassioned outrage of the many locals we met. Wanting only for  pitchforks the townspeople did not shy from articulating the disdain  with which they held the decaying mess masquerading as a &lsquo;town centre&rsquo;:  &ldquo;Its embarrassing bringing friends here, they all point at it,&rdquo; being a  common sentiment. Chief amongst them was local resident Brian McCabe,  aka Mr Black (he had re-christened the Urban Realm judging crew as the  &lsquo;Reservation Dogs&rsquo;), McCabe gave the team the inside track on what&rsquo;s not  been happening in the town over the past few years. Describing Denny as  a &ldquo;town and community in crisis&rdquo;, McCabe stated: &ldquo;Falkirk Council, has a  disgraceful record of dismissal and neglect towards Denny and its  people, the most recent manifestation of this being the shambles which  is the Denny Town Centre Regeneration Project. Falkirk Council&rsquo;s vision  for Denny is myopic in its clarity and criminal in its execution.&rdquo;



The second leg of our Carbuncles road trip provided something of a jolt as we passaged through relatively affluent housing toward the dystopian centre of Denny, today best known as the southern terminus of the mooted Beauly-Denny electricity transmission line. If East Kilbride had lulled us all into a false sense that all was well with the world then Denny was to be our wake up call.
What distinguished Denny first and foremost in our minds was not the shabbiness of our surrounds, and boy were they shabby, but rather the impassioned outrage of the many locals we met. Wanting only for pitchforks the townspeople did not shy from articulating the disdain with which they held the decaying mess masquerading as a ‘town centre’: “Its embarrassing bringing friends here, they all point at it,” being a common sentiment. Chief amongst them was local resident Brian McCabe, aka Mr Black (he had re-christened the Urban Realm judging crew as the ‘Reservation Dogs’), McCabe gave the team the inside track on what’s not been happening in the town over the past few years. Describing Denny as a “town and community in crisis”, McCabe stated: “Falkirk Council, has a disgraceful record of dismissal and neglect towards Denny and its people, the most recent manifestation of this being the shambles which is the Denny Town Centre Regeneration Project. Falkirk Council’s vision for Denny is myopic in its clarity and criminal in its execution.”

Drew Mackie, aka Mr Blonde, a specialist in community engagement and partnership working, joined the judging panel for our Stirlingshire foray, he observed: “Driving into Denny is a pleasant experience. Leafy suburbs hint at a bob or two and a rather imposing church dominates a wide street as you approach the town centre. None of this prepares you for the shock of the centre itself. The main street is dominated by a shopping, office and housing development that glowers at its traditional neighbours. It is difficult to over-stress the threatening feeling of this block.  This is compounded by its state of repair - roughcast is spalling from the walls and netted scaffolding shields Denny's citizens from its fall.”

This prognosis was shared by architect and writer Mark Chalmers, aka Mr Orange, who noted: “A coat of render with a Battenberg cake colour scheme (applied in the 1990s) did nothing to cheer it up – especially because the parapet flashings have failed, and large sheets of render have come away from the blockwork.  Car park, shops and flats are linked with walkways straight out of A Clockwork Orange, their concrete streaming with water leaks.  On a human level, one block of flats was apparently let out to ‘undesirables’, and not even the MacGuyvering with bedding plants and hanging baskets manages to improve that aspect.  I can’t help feeling they are just a mudflap on the battle tank of Dereliction.”

Nevertheless plans are afoot by developer Henry Boot and architects Keppie to rectify this sorry state of affairs with the creation of 18,000sq/ft of retail space, anchored by an Aldi superstore. But not everyone is cock a hoop about these plans, Mackie for one: “the roofline of this proposal is not articulated apart from at its midpoint in the journey down the street, in contrast to the rhythm of individual roofs opposite, but the improvement in scale and the containment of the street is marked.” Chewing over the development plans which Denny denizens can look forward to Chalmers remarked: “Denny’s regeneration has taken on at least two aspects: firstly a housing estate on the site of the cluster of papermills at Carrongrove.  The cathedral-like esparto sheds, the mill’s giant power station, and the breathtaking scale of the Twinwire machine have gone, to be replaced with tattie print bungalows.  Secondly – in the town centre, the ill-suited shopping parade will come down, with new buildings and a revised road layout intended to remove traffic from Stirling Street, and focus it instead on pedestrians and shops.”

A survey conducted 10 years ago suggested that 50% of residents did their shopping out of town but McCabe reckons that situation has now deteriorated. “Since then more than half of the shops and businesses in the town centre have closed down. Today you'd be lucky if 35% of locals shop at the town centre! This is a tragic figure when you consider that the nearest shopping centres are Stirling and Falkirk, each six miles distant.” McCabe added: “£275k has been spent on very handsome traffic lights, but do you know they didn’t give us any new colours. It’s a bottleneck and though you are limited by Denny Parish Church the solution is not what the local council has provided.”

Colin Frame, a development surveyor at Falkirk Council, has been tasked with fronting these plans to the community, a role he described to Urban Realm as “communication, communication, communication.” Notably this entails convincing sceptical locals that their plans amount to anything other than a pipedream after a series of delays dampened optimism. But McCabe said: “It's interesting to hear Colin's mantra of "communication, communication, communication". D'you know what? Colin's employers, Falkirk Council, took the decision to cut back on their original proposal at a meeting last month. The meeting had 17 items on the agenda of which the only one held 'in camera', with all press and public excluded from the meeting, being Denny regeneration. They made that decision a month ago and not a word has been offered to the local community by way of explanation since. That's communication?”

That hiccup came amidst ongoing financial turbulence which had threatened to scupper the scheme, though Frame insists a series of design revisions, including removal of residential flats after: “market research indicated low demand for flats located above shops,” have made the scheme viable once more. McCabe dismisses these revisions as “cuts” however: “Cut all residential elements from the scheme; cut all office accommodation from the scheme; cut 12,000sq/ft of retail from the scheme; and cut the development from two floors, down to ground floor level. Would you have any faith in these "design" elements improving an already flawed scheme? Cos I don't!”

Nevertheless the long running saga in the town is unlikely to end anytime soon after Frame revealed it will take approximately two years to acquire interests needed for phase one, a further year to get phase two up and ready and three years to tackle the remainder. It is an extended gestation which McCabe does not have time for, referring to the new government: “They’re called the Con Dems, I wish they would condemn this.” With judicious patience this wish may yet come to pass, Frame offered to invite McCabe to the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new development when it opens… in 2016. but McCabe responded: “I'd love to take Colin up on his offer for a 2016 opening, but I fear I may not be here by then. The town will have closed; retailers left; tumbleweed rolls through the main street to the strains of The Specials 'Ghost Town'. Would the last person to leave put the lights out please?”
The lights may not yet be out in Denny but the sputtering efforts to illuminate its drab high street paint a black future for the town, high voltage hub or no. In the words of Mackie: “All in all, the centre of Denny is egregiously, breathtakingly carbunclish.”

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