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November 28, 2017updated 19 Jul 2021 2:58pm

Could Paisley really be the next UK City of Culture?

By Jonn Elledge

I wore a paisley shirt when I went to Paisley. It hadn’t been deliberate – at least, it hadn’t been conscious; who knows how much my subconscious hates me – so I spent the train journey up to Scotland worrying it looked like I was taking the piss. But everyone I met in the town seemed delighted. “Ah, you’ve dressed the part!” one said, more jovially than I probably deserved. 

Jean Cameron, the Venice Biennale alumnus now leading Paisley’s bid to be 2021 UK City of Culture, was even more pleased, seeing my shirt as the ideal cue for a discussion of the town’s history. The 19th century textile manufacturers who popularised the Persian design and effectively built the town were “early creative industries”, she told me – and their extensive investments in grand civic architecture marked them out as industrial philanthropists, too. Then, in the manner of a vicar turning a sermon, inescapably, towards Jesus: “There’s a parallel, I think, with the 200 businesses backing the bid.”

Well she would say that, wouldn’t she: talking up the town’s enthusiasm for the bid is literally part of her job. And the actual 2021 City of Culture won’t be named until Paisley and the other contenders (Coventry, Sunderland, Swansea, Stoke-on-Trent) have had a chance to make their final pitches to judges, Dragon’s Den-style, in this year’s title-holder, Hull, early next month.

But what does seem clear is that the bid has united the great and good of Paisley in the belief that this is their chance to revive a town which feels rather left behind. “I’ve been at the chamber eight years,” Bob Grant, the chief executive of the Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce, told me when I met him earlier that day. “And I’ve never seen anything like it. So many public and private organisations, such real momentum.”

Paisley (bottom left) in context. Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

The first thing to know about Paisley is: don’t call it part of Glasgow. It lies inside the conurbation, less than seven miles west of the city centre, contains Glasgow Airport, and is just 10 minutes by train from Glasgow Central. But it prides itself on its continued independence, and describes itself as “the largest town in Scotland”. (This is literally true: the only settlements larger are the country’s four major cities.)

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And as an outsider, it’s difficult to know quite what to make of the place. Throughout my day in the town, people told me how much it needed regeneration, and that it was seen in Scotland as a byword for urban decay, so when I finally got a chance to walk around late that afternoon I was expecting a depressed, shambolic kind of place.

The reality isn’t like that at all. The town centre contains a higher concentration of listed-buildings than anywhere in Scotland except Edinburgh, and its grand town hall sits neatly between an ancient abbey, a landscaped square used for public events, and the banks of the White Cart Water. If I hadn’t been primed on what to expect, I’d have assumed I was looking at a fashionable Glasgow commuter suburb.

But I wasn’t – and not just because of the “not in Glasgow” thing. The town’s economic problems are twofold. One is that, while Renfrewshire as a whole is prosperous, life long ago begun to pass the town centre by. It retains several big public sector employers – the council, the NHS, the University of the West of Scotland – but retail activity has largely moved to out-of-town malls like Braehead, while most of the industry is now in out-of-town business parks up by the airport. As with so many other Victorian mill towns far to the south in England, that Victorian centre has been largely forgotten.

The other problem is that parts of the town aren’t particularly prosperous at all. Jean Cameron reels off the stats. A whole fifth of the town’s population live in communities numbered among the most deprived in Scotland. In one part of the town, 25 per cent of the population are on proscribed drugs. “The street I grew up on is the poorest street in Scotland,” she adds. “So this feels personal to me.”

The partnership behind the project – Renfrewshire council, the chamber of commerce, the university and others – formally launched the town’s bid to be 2021 City of Culture precisely two years before my visit, on the auspicious date of Friday 13 November 2015. The marketing bumf on the bid’s website promises that success will see £113m “investment that will transform our high street”, and a million visitors in 2021, quite a lot for a town of just 80,000 people. (Around 2.6m live within an hour’s drive.)

And it’s easy to believe, in the west of Scotland, that such labels have power:  the first UK city to hold the title of European Capital of Culture was Paisley’s giant neighbour, back in 1990. The accolade marked the point the old Glasgow of shipyards and sectarianism began to shift in the public mind to the new Glasgow of students and hipsters and Belle and Sebastian. If it worked once, why not again?

The Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church. Image: Wikipedia.

It would be an exaggeration to say that winning doesn’t matter: those visitors, and that investment, is important, and the bid’s website speaks longingly of the £1bn that has poured into Hull in preparation for its own tenure.

All the same, though, winning isn’t everything: another purpose of the bid has been to give the town a mission. To emphasise that sense of engagement, the bid team are based not in Renfrewshire’s council offices, but in a colourful, accessible-looking building with a shop front in the middle of the High Street. 

There, Jean Cameron tells me gleefully about the consultation exercise, which has seen her team speak to 34,000 people – nearly half the population of the town, including all its school children – and tries, unsuccessfully, to get me to go to a school play that evening. Dundee was shortlisted for this year’s City of Culture, she notes. “When they didn’t win, they didn’t put their bid in a drawer: they used that energy.”

Renfrewshire’s director of development Alasdair Morrison shows me a map of the town, with certain areas marked out in purple, but declines to tell me what this means (such details are a matter for the judges, he explains, apologetically). Instead, with the light starting to fade, he takes me on a tour of the town. He takes me to the 12th century abbey and the 19th century Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church, which stands at the other end of the town centre and rivals its older neighbour in size. Those Victorian industrialists built so many churches for so many sects, Morrison explains, that most have now been converted to other uses.

There are more glories, still. The grand old houses of Oakshaw Street, on a brow above the town, from where on a clear day you can see Loch Lomond, 15 miles to the north. The disused mill building on the southern edge of the town centre, now turned, inevitably, into posh flats.

Perhaps most impressive of all was the Grade-A listed Russell Institute. Built as a children’s hospital in the art deco style of the 1920s, it had by the 21st century fallen into such disrepair that the NHS sold it to the local council for £1, just to get it off its hands. Inside, the building – today the local home of Skills Development Scotland – remains a thing of beauty, all grand, double staircases and gold-leaf bannisters. And for decades it had just been left to rot. 

How, I wondered out loud, had a place with as much going for it as Paisley ended up in such a state? Why was it not the posh Glasgow commuter suburb it appeared?

Partly, it’s that Glasgow’s revival hasn’t had long enough to spread to the surrounding towns. And partly, I suspect, the problem is a reputational thing: it’s easy to see potential as an outsider, when the name of a place doesn’t bring up all sorts of negative cultural associations that it does for the locals. 

But Morrison pointed to a more insidious reason. Listed architecture can be “a curse” for a town, he said. “They’re expensive to renovate, and you don’t have to pay business rates if you leave them empty.” In other words, those great Victorian buildings that from the outside give Paisley such character may be precisely why it’s struggled to bounce back. “If I could show you inside some of these buildings, you’d find it genuinely shocking.”

The abbey and the town hall. Image: Google.

Despite not being a city at all, Paisley has won substantial support for its bid to be city of culture. Both the Scottish government and the town’s giant neighbour in Glasgow are backing its bid, as are many of the Scottish MPs at Westminster. And there’s a widespread sense that this is a chance to draw attention to smaller places which often get forgotten in our national debate about regeneration. As Ross Nimmo, the head of development at Glasgow Airport, points out: “There’s a cities agenda. There’s a market towns agenda. There are documents and funding streams that talks to those kind of places. What speaks to Paisley?”

Jean Cameron herself made a similar point. ”We are the smallest place that’s ever been shortlisted. We are punching above our weight: we are putting not just our town but towns in general on show.”

I asked everyone I met in Paisley one question: what would it mean for the town to win? Cameron’s answer was personal: “I’ve not had opportunity to work in my home town for 30 years,” she said. “I don’t want to have to wait another 30 years.”

When I put the same question to Morrison, he reeled off statistics about visitor targets and investment propositions and the economic opportunities of a town that sits midway between Scotland’s largest city and an international airport.

But it was what he said as he finished his guided tour that really stays with me. “It’s given everyone something to believe in again.”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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