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Why must Glasgow's planners devastate before they renovate?

UNTIL the 1960s there was in Glasgow a big wasteland between Sighthill Cemetery and the Monkland Canal, with Springburn Road on the east, Port Dundas to the west.

It was polluted by factories. Crossed by Keppochhill Road, this interesting district also held railway sidings, a slaughterhouse, a scummy green lake giving off sulphur fumes which local children called the Stinky Ocean, also a steep slagbing they called Jack's Mountain. Beside the canal a more natural hill overlooked the buildings north of George Square. On the summit, surrounded by a fence of vertical railway sleepers, was a squat brick circular tower about 10ft high. It sometimes sent up puffs of smoke, being the top of a vent from the railway tunnel out of Buchanan Street station. The smoke came from steam engines pulling trains to Oban, Edinburgh or Dundee.

Years bring inevitable change. The canal east of Port Dundas became the M8. The Stinky Ocean was drained, Jack's Mountain flattened, the wasteland tidied and five residential tower blocks built. A carpet of turf was put over a large area with trees and winding paths. Called Sighthill Park, its high point is the hill over the railway tunnel, whose vent had been filled. In 1979 Glasgow had an official astronomer, my scientific and imaginative friend Duncan Lunan. He thought it time for Glasgow to have the first stone circle built in Britain for more than 2000 years, and that the summit of Sighthill Park would be the best place for it. The city fathers agreed. Duncan aligned the stones to indicate the midsummer and midwinter solstices, with flanking stones to indicate major and minor lunar standstills. The main stone was lifted into place by a Royal Navy helicopter.

Last year I visited Duncan's Sighthill henge for the first time in many years. This required an uphill struggle through overgrowth. I was astonished to find a change in the ground level had left the stones no higher than my bum. Duncan told me a landscaping accident had caused this, and that Glasgow's land and environment services were hoping for funds to undo the accident.

You report that Glasgow's Department of Development and Regeneration means to destroy the circle ("Battle to preserve stones as area has revamp", The Herald, December 1). A road through it linking new buildings is planned in a multi-million pound scheme to renovate Sighthill as part of Glasgow's bid to host the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. It is proposed that the tower blocks (where 400 families live) be demolished and 830 low-rise homes built instead, with a new school and campus. This can be a Youth Olympic village if the bid succeeds.

There is something grimly familiar about this. Since the Second World War Glasgow has used planners who think that to renovate they must first devastate: totally clear the ground so that a blank drawing board can represent it, a blank they can fill with a new scheme wholly their own and that of their paymasters. In this they go against the advice of Patrick Geddes, Scotland's greatest town planner who designed much of New Delhi, Edinburgh Zoo and the renewal of Edinburgh Old Town that removed rotten housing while keeping the old and useful buildings. He said that, before planning to improve a depressed district, you should survey it, finding what bits are in good working order and what can be made so. Talking to those living and working there had to be part of this survey. Only afterwards should planners and politicians co-operate to replace what was incurably bad.

Not every high-rise building is a slum and Sighthill Park with its open spaces and wildlife is handy for local families. But the privatisation of local government property and functions has left our councillors with hardly any power to make anything but deals with big businesses – supermarkets instead of small retail shops, a few vast hospitals and schools instead of many small ones accessible throughout the country. This process uses the politicians we elect as puppets. But they want to be action men, exciting instigators of visible change, so they will remove all the historic monuments to great Scots from George Square, make it a space for commercial enterprises for two or three years, then bring them back if they can afford to. Armed with compulsory purchase orders and powers of eviction, they will get grand publicity for their Sighthill renovation scheme. By leaving what is well enough alone they could save millions of pounds in public money and use it to stop children, women and men dying of homelessness.

Alasdair Gray,

2 Marchmont Terrace,

Glasgow.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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