The restoration of Campbeltown

The most improved place in Scotland? Regeneration agency, SURF, this year thinks it is Campbeltown, as the town’s former regeneration project officer, James Lafferty, explains…

IT would be noticeable in a city the size of Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Imagine, then, the impact of 42 shop fronts being overhauled in a town with a population of not even 5,000.

Over the last few years, Campbeltown, on the Kintyre peninsula, has undergone such a dramatic transformation that barely a single street has gone untouched, by a zeal to inject new life.

And as well as the revamping of our shop fronts, there has also been the restoration of the local cinema, the Town Hall, a local hotel, plus 11 prominent tenement buildings containing over 80 shops and flats.

Campbeltown’s regeneration has been on such a scale that it’s little surprise that Scotland-wide regeneration body, SURF, recently chose us as this year’s recipient of its annual Most Improved Place award.

It’s been quite the journey.

As recently as nine years ago, Campeltown was identified (here) – by the Scottish Agricultural College as the country’s ‘most vulnerable’ town, in its Rural Scotland in Focus 2012 report.

Also back then, in 2012, the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation had identified much of the town as having slipped into the ‘top’ 15 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland.

One of the most visible signs was that many of the town’s historic buildings had fallen into disrepair and become vacant.

Routinely described as ‘Britain’s most peripheral mainland town’, Campbeltown suffered from limited transport links, a lack of employment opportunities and a reducing population.

These challenges continue to apply, but there are positive signs, which I will describe later.

The tragedy of Campbeltown’s decline was exacerbated by the fact that the town had been something of an architectural jewel, many of its buildings dating back to the 19th century, having been commissioned – from several, distinguished Glasgow architects – by the many whisky barons who operated in the area at the time.

It is fair to say that, at the end of the 19th century, Campbeltown was one of the most prosperous towns in Scotland – thanks not just to whisky, but also fishing, shipbuilding and farming.

That wealth translated itself into some very grand buildings.

The town’s geographical location back then made it well placed to take advantage of the industrial developments taking place on the River Clyde. But it was sufficiently far away to evolve its own unique style and character.

That it became a somewhat different story, afterwards, was all too obvious. But, if ever a place has witnessed a determination to pick itself up, Campbeltown has to be it.

From the depths has emerged a level of energy and imagination that can only be described as astonishing.

And inspiring.

A spark was, among other things, a review – conducted in 2005 – of the economy of the whole Kintyre peninsula, commissioned by the local authority, the enterprise agency, Argyle & the Islands Enterprise, and a then Scottish Government department, Communities Scotland.

Argyll and Bute Council was successful in securing funding from Historic Environment Scotland to create one of Scotland’s first Conservation Area Regeneration Schemes (CARS). 

In 2009, it then secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI). 

Both schemes were merged and delivered until 2015 under the banner of the Campbeltown Town Centre Regeneration Project.

In 2015, a second CARS was approved, which was recently supplemented by support from the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Fund for additional shopfront improvement grants.

I was involved as regeneration project officer for the last 15 years, straddling the two CARS, until this year when the second CARS came to an end and I moved on, to work on the regeneration of Lochgilphead town centre. 

I’ve worked with some great colleagues over the years, including my deputy, Cara Browning, and there is no doubt that, without the input of so many different council officers, it would not have been possible to deliver all of these projects.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on our submission to SURF, which noted that, since 2007, we had a strong presence in the community – from our town centre office, staffed by local people, and shared with local charity, the South Kintyre Development Trust.

We wrote: “We had an open door policy, and made the office the focal point for all activities; providing a base for establishing contacts and partnerships, sharing information and best practice, joint working and developing projects.

“You could say that the outcome of the [2005] review was a community-led regeneration programme, driven by the public sector with support from the private and ‘Third’ sectors. From the outset, a ‘bottom-up’ approach to regeneration was adopted, with the community involved throughout the entire process.”

It ironically helped that Campbeltown had been largely by-passed by any great economic surges since the 19th century. Yes, many buildings had fallen into disrepair, but none had been demolished in anticipation of more prosperous times to come. 

Looking back, it helped that all of us soon enough began to build up a pretty intimate knowledge of the grant-giving eco-system. 

Much of the town’s rehabilitation has been funded by heritage bodies such as Historic Environment Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, supplemented by local authority and European funding and private donations.

Besides the 42 shop fronts, some 40 other buildings have been repaired – each to high conservation standards and to the combined tune of £13m – meaning more than 2,000m2 of derelict or vacant floorspace being brought back into use.

It is important to recognise the role of not just governmental agencies, such as the local authority, but the community too; for instance, the group of local people involved in restoring the cinema, one of the first purpose-built cinemas in Scotland, plus the Town Hall and a backpackers’ hostel.

Of course, there remains the risk of the town sliding back into the bad old days of just a few years ago.

But, somehow, I don’t think so. Back, in those ‘bad old days’, you would see, every Friday evening, streams of cars heading mainly for Glasgow for the weekend. And these cars would come back, invariably laden with shopping.

Today, the tenants who have moved into our refurbished shops are providing a range of services – including a seafood restaurant, hair and beauty salons and a tea room – that local people are turning out in numbers to support.

There is now a real vibrancy to the place.

It’s been amazing. A substantial amount of money has been spent on building fabric, such as the repair of roofs and chimneys. But it’s been the refurbished shop fronts, and the new businesses that have moved into the restored premises behind these fronts, that have got people talking and buoyed up.

James Lafferty works for Argyll and Bute Council’s Projects and Regeneration team

Pictured: The newly-restored Campbeltown Town Hall

Picture credit: James Lafferty

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