Many local people ended up being drawn there to work. Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association (FDA), the union for senior civil and public servants, was one of them.
"If you're growing up in Cumbernauld," he reasons, "the civil service is one of the main employers. You either work with the civil service or know someone who does." His mother Sarah began working there when the family relocated to the new town. His sister followed suit. In retrospect, Penman's own future was all but laid out for him.
"My sister still works there, too," he adds. "At a funeral once I remember making a joke about an election meeting at Cumbernauld, about 900 members, and the three election tellers were David Penman, Sarah Penman and Alison Penman. People were shouting out 'fix' ..."
He remembers, too, the bitter Civil Service strike of 1981, which involved Cumbernauld, amongst other offices. It lasted six months and his mother helped run the union office. Penman was still at school when he joined her on the picket lines. "When I went to work there in 1985, there were still tensions there about people who had come in during the strike," he says.
"My dad John was quite political, as well. He supported the Socialist Party of Great Britain and in the late 1950s, as a conscientious objector, he refused to do his National Service on the basis of belief and was jailed for four months. So there was always a little bit of politics and current affairs [at home]."
Penman, now 45 and living in Essex, "drifted" into the civil service, having wasted – his word – the last years of his education. His brother John became a journalist. Penman considered doing the same, but a safe, white-collar job beckoned instead. "As a lot of people discover, the activity around being a union representative was more interesting than the day job and I was drawn quite quickly into doing that." He got involved with the STUC's youth committee and became was the first-ever young worker on the STUC general council.
That started his acceleration through the union ranks. He worked with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and joined the FDA 12 years ago, serving as Jonathan Baume's deputy before replacing him this summer in the top job, with a salary that on his appointment was about £83,000.
The FDA is facing multiple challenges, and will call on all Penman's considerable political and negotiating skills. It may only have 19,000 members – the PCS, the UK's largest civil service trade union, has 270,000, and Prospect, another civil service union, has 150,000 – but the key word in the FDA's profile is the word "senior": diplomats, crown prosecutors, procurators-fiscal, policy advisors, economists, tax inspectors, special advisers, government lawyers and NHS managers are all members. They are everywhere: Acas, the Tate Gallery, the Cabinet Office, government departments, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the DVLA, Historic Scotland, the Imperial War Museum and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Its reach even extends to people at the security service, MI5, and the secret intelligence service, MI6.
"One thing it isn't is an association for senior Whitehall mandarins," Penman says, dispelling the image of Yes, Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby.
"Granted, there's a group of them who are our members, but nearly a third of our members are lawyers in one form or another. We've got a lot of tax professionals, diplomats abroad, schools inspectors, and NHS chief executives and senior managers. It's a broad professional grouping.
"We also have formal links with the staff associations in both MI5 and MI6. We'd originally done a deal with SIS [MI6] in 2002, and as a result of that the MI5 staff association had a beauty parade to see which union they would work with, and picked us. We support the association with professional advice and representation.
"I'm proud that, as a union, we can span all these different disciplines and provide collective and individual representation and support. We offer union membership to people who you might think are better placed to look after themselves. You'd think lawyers, for example, could represent their own interests, but our levels of membership in the CPS and among procurators-fiscal are among the highest levels anywhere in the TUC."
For a measure of the challenges faced by the FDA, there is little better indication than Penman's words when, back in May, it was announced he would be succeeding Baume. "I recognise," he said then, "this is a time of enormous challenge for the public services and public servants. The relentless onslaught of organisational change, the Government's austerity measures and the resulting attacks on jobs, pay and pensions mean this is an unsettling and difficult time for many public servants."
Relentless is the word. The Government's latest pension offer to civil servants was accepted by FDA members by almost three to one, but many if not most remain extremely unhappy with aspects of the deal, particularly pension contributions. The deal was preceded by prolonged lobbying and negotiation – including, at one stage, industrial action, a first for the FDA.
"The entire public sector has been in a difficult place for the last couple of years," Penman says. "The Civil Service, currently, is at its lowest level in staffing terms since the Second World War and it's projected to shrink by another 10% by 2015 – in other words, from 430,000 down to about 380,000. That places huge demands on people. Additionally, if you look at what our members are paid, compared to the rest of the public sector, never mind the private sector, they get significantly below the market rate for the big jobs that they do. The pensions issue has been settled to a degree – there's still some work to be done – but we're now saying to the Government, we want a new deal on the total rewards package, and we need long-term structural reform, particularly around civil service pay.
"But that is difficult just now. The Government isn't really interested. It is all about austerity, austerity, austerity, and that's it. It will be a big challenge, and one of the big priorities for me as general secretary is that now we start to influence that debate. At some point we'll be back on pay and negotiations. The Government will have to address the fact that, in the middle of a double-dip recession, they are losing about a third of their senior Treasury civil servants – they're going to elsewhere in the public sector, or the private sector."
Complicating the situation is the Government's alleged politicisation of the civil service, and the way in which ministers view civil servants. Cabinet Officer minister Francis Maude enraged many FDA members when he alleged they had been engaged in "passive resistance" to Government policy, prompting Penman to observe: "With the Coalition Government in mid-term doldrums, it is not surprising there is a degree of tension around government."
David Cameron, 18 months ago, made an attack on the "enemies of enterprise" – the civil servants in Whitehall and town halls, and the "mad bureaucracy" that he blamed for holding back entrepreneurs. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said such talk was "hardly the language of motivation and empowerment." And Steve Hilton, Cameron's former policy guru, made no secret of his loathing of the civil service.
But Penman has also had to deal with political point-scoring from Labour, as when Caroline Flint, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, criticised payments paid to civil servants at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
"Most public servants have suffered either a two- or three-year pay freeze on top of an imposed £2.8 billion pensions levy," was Penman's crisp response to Flint. "These performance-related payments are non-pensionable and the only additional payment many of these civil servants will receive. To call them bonuses and implicitly link them to the discredited and obscene bonus culture in the City is nothing more than crass political opportunism."
The pressures on Penman and the FDA, then, show little signs of letting up in the years ahead, particularly if the Coalition Government continues to insist on its flat-out, all-or-nothing austerity drive, and as its civil service reform programme is rolled out. But he is up for the fight, and then some. A union leader who joined the picket lines as a teenager is not one to give up easily. "I am," he says, simply, "quite driven."
dave penman Union leader