Carbuncles 2012: Linwood
13 Jan 2012
Another year brings another Carbuncle as our annual quest for the most dismal town in Scotland reaches yet another grisly denouement. Linwood has been no stranger to controversy since it made headlines as the location of S1 Jobs infamous 'Lavvy Heid'. Since then the town has gone down the toilet as its main shopping centre has been slowly run into the ground. As Urban Realm found out however residents, under the 'Linwood Sucks' banner, are increasingly finding their voice in the face of official neglect.It’s been three months of trudging around some of the country's darkest corners but in the end judging for the 2011 Carbuncle Awards didn’t prove too challenging, Linwood’s plight was simply too great to ignore.
Linwood has been no stranger to controversy since it made headlines as the location of S1 Jobs infamous ‘Lavvy Heid’. Since then the town itself has gone down the toilet as its main shopping centre has been slowly run into the ground. As Urban Realm found out however residents, under the ‘Linwood Sucks’ banner, are increasingly finding their voice in the face of official neglect.
Linwood’s town centre, conceived in 1969, was sold as Scotland’s first regional shopping centre - but it never quite got there as the judging panel quickly discovered upon arrival. Some have attempted to apportion the blame on the closure of the Rootes car plant but for Tom Burke, a local community champion and founder of www.linwoodsucks.com, the malaise goes deeper: “Everyone blamed the decline on the car plant, but that closed in 1980. Obviously there is more to it than that. I first noticed the visual decline in 2001 when S1 Jobs did their famous TV advert here, ‘Lavvy Heid’.”
Linwood then is a town without a heart as those businesses which survive decant to a nearby industrial estate. In their wake lies a town centre which viscerally defines the word grim, particularly at night when gatherings of the Linwood Young Team congregate in groups of up to 20. “They’re mostly not doing any harm just looking for somewhere to hang out”, points out Burke, “but old people coming through here at night do look quite vulnerable.”
Eyeing a series of exposed concrete beams on the centre roof Burke ventures. “This is a popular play area, the youth will run across these concrete beams. The closest you’ll get to any youth centre is up in the community centre – which is scheduled to be demolished.”
Peeling shop fronts reveal something of the time warp which Linwood has become as eighties digital font betrays a protracted absence of investment. “There’s been no upkeep or maintenance, all it’s got is thirty years of pigeon shit inside,” moans Burke. In that time the main growth in the town has come from an array of impressive stalactites.
Remaining life centres on the library, from which the Urban Realm team was swiftly ejected. There are no shops left open and most of the lighting has either fallen down or been removed. Adjoining the library is Tweedie Hall, the defacto town hall, and a health centre, which remains in use. Nearby the fire escape to the original opticians has a cage, chain and padlock on it in response to the shop being held up a few years back. It has since moved to a portacabin on site with its own secure entry. The receptionist is delighted with the new place: if only to escape the “pigeons and rats”.
Intercepting one woman on route from the health entre to the bus stop, we asked what life was like in Linwood: “There’s nothing going on in Linwood, they said it (redevelopment) would start last month. The date keeps changing so we don’t know what’s happening. It’s an eyesore, even if they flattened it it wouldn’t be so bad. It’s been like this for years.”
A statue once stood at the centre of this square behind us but has been removed for safe keeping: “Vandals started hacking pieces off it, so it had to be removed”, Burke explained: “It looked a bit like a ship and was supposed to represent hope rising from adversity. It’s been put in storage and the council say it will be replaced if the new town centre ever comes to fruition. A group of unlicensed scrap merchants seem to be on a mission to strip everything of value from the shopping centre.”
A local council worker on route to Tweedie Hall ventured: “Its like Fort Apache. I feel really strongly about the sociological implications never mind the health implications. They seem to strangle every initiative… it’s this Tescoisation of the world where they’ll buy up land so no-one else can build. At the bottom of the food chain are the punters who are in effect powerless.”
Eyeing a loosely fenced off area of shattered paving Burke explains: “The last surviving post box was removed in the last couple of weeks, this is typical of development work in Linwood, dig something up and leave it. There is no bank in the town, just one surviving post office a mile and a half away.” For a place of 9,000 odd folk it must be one of the largest communities in the country without these key facilities.
“I’ve spent the best part of four years in Iraq and thinking of some of the positive reconstruction work that’s taken place there it’s actually better than this,” Burke laments.
But how could things have been allowed to get this bad? “I believe it was a tactical decision by Tesco as early as 2000 when a company called Balmore bought the shopping centre, after that it was run into the ground,” Burke muses. “Only later did it emerge that Balmore is actually part of Tesco. No-one really wants a Tesco but if their plan was to make the town centre so bad that locals would accept anything then that plan has worked. People are now welcoming Tesco. People would rather have nothing than this dangerous eyesore.”
The attentions of Tesco have thus far not served the town well and Linwood is already well served by an Asda and Co-op, perhaps a more promising sign of hope lies in Club Sandwich, small scale, entrepreneurial venture. Skirting an open manhole cover, Burke adds: “Nobody wants to spend maintenance on something scheduled to be demolished - but if you’ve opened something as a through route then you have a duty of care and certain health and safety duties.”
Carbuncles judge Geoff Crowley of Highland Galvanizers said: “The actual fabric isn’t so bad, the frame isn’t so far gone that you couldn’t make something out of it. The concrete’s spalled and some of the flat roofing could be a bit of a problem so probably no-one’s taken much interest in looking at a refurbishment programme.
“Yes there are eyesores, yes there are problems with contamination but Linwood’s housing isn’t so bad. Look at that pile of rubbish there, if the neighbour sees that they’ll think it doesn’t matter if they don’t mow the lawn. It’s broken window theory, if there is a problem, it spreads like a cancer and becomes a general lowering of community standards. It’s got to be nipped in the bud.
“You see lots of examples of pride in the community despite these problems, flowers in the garden, clipped hedges. That’s a good base to start with and try and draw back to a more acceptable situation. There are a lot of people who have a certain level of pride in this community.
“Sometimes if you have a Carbuncle you need to cut bits out and it could be that that bit there (the centre), which is not performing any function, maybe not having it, if you just levelled it and grassed it, would be better than what you’ve got. It wouldn’t be what you want but it would be better than what you’ve got and when there’s no money that might be a solution.”
Another bone of contention for our judges was the prevalence of ‘no ball games signs’ on vacant ground. At one time there were as many as a dozen playgrounds dotted around town but since the 90s they’ve all slowly been removed. Including one, inadvertently, closed down by Burke himself when he discovered it had been built on contaminated ground. Crowley said: “Linwood needs lots of little playgrounds and it has the space for them. Putting all the play activity inside a big shed is not a good idea, kids need to play outside.”
Burke added: “If people are living their normal busy, day to day schedules they might never see this. They might just drive up the main roads going backwards and forwards to work and be oblivious to the eyesore of the shopping centre because they’ve gotten so used to it.”
This observation highlighted by a key rift in the community; those with cars and those without. “If you don’t have a car you’re at a massive disadvantage,” Burke noted. “You’ve got the Phoenix Retail Park with its cinema, Asda and McDonald’s but there is no allowance for pedestrian access - you see young mothers with prams, old age pensioners and kids on bikes risking their lives to cross the motorway twice to reach the Phoenix.”
This divide highlights a key difficulty for Linwood; can it make up its mind and agree on a town centre or admit that there are actually multiple centres? On the map it’s difficult to pinpoint a true centre, the existing mall being right on the edge and yet that’s where Renfrewshire Council place their Christmas tree. Linwood isn’t a lost cause. It could be turned around and turned around quite quickly. To do so however requires action, it is in this spirit as a catalyst for change that Linwood has been awarded the 2012 Carbuncle award.