Women power transformed a town once nominated as worst in Scotland

The National, by Lesley Riddoch
20.01.19

IT’S the thing most towns dread – a Plook On The Plinth nomination as the most dismal town in Scotland. Yet when Lochgelly attracted the critical eye of the Carbuncle Awards judges in 2010, something important happened.

Firstly, the former mining town in Fife didn’t win. Secondly, a group of three women, who’d been working in the community since 1998, resolved to step up their efforts and transform their town. In 2016, their hard work was finally rewarded, when Lochgelly won the title of Scotland’s Most Improved Town in the annual Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum Awards.

According to Helen Ross, treasurer of the Lochgelly Community Development Forum (LCDF): “I was the proudest person in the world that night.”

But transformation didn’t really start with the carbuncle nomination in 2010. The impetus for change began much earlier.

Helen recalls the bleakest days of 2004 when the town was voted the “Worst Place To Live In Britain”.

“Journalists sat at street corners, waiting till mangey dogs walked past to take pictures,” says Ross.

“Everyone’s heart sank because behind the scenes we were already doing so much and we were all working so hard to change things.

“But pits had closed, and the town was full of three storey flats no-one wanted – there were even maisonettes on top of the flats. Improvement plans had been hatched but demolition had to take place before renewal could begin – it was a long-term process.”

Lochgelly is in the poorest 10% of communities in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, but still the Carbuncle nomination came as a crushing blow. It read: “Lochgelly imparts a funeral air and the Lochgelly Centre, the heart of the community, lies boarded up waiting redevelopment.”

Of course, it wasn’t always like this – and that’s what hurt townspeople most. The Fife town was a weaving and agricultural village, but after the discovery of ironstone and then coal, it became one of the main centres of coal mining in Fife.

Lochgelly miners – a self-regulating and self-sufficient, community-minded bunch – paid a penny from their wages to build their own Miners’ Institute.

Soon after, subscriptions paid for a Co-operative Society.

Around Fife, mining communities built libraries, schools and provided services. Bit by bit that self-starting attitude disappeared as the mines closed.

By 1998, local women Christine McGrath and Eileen McKenna decided they’d had enough. Lochgelly had become a forgotten town and the two women were determined to change that. They formed a local regeneration group and recruited Helen Ross. She recalls; “We had different personalities, different skills and a lot of life experience.”

That was an understatement.

Ross has worked as a window dresser, telephonist, driving instructor and market trader, as well as having travelled round the world.

She’s worked for insurance companies, credit firms and local councils. Together with McKenna (an expert form-filler) and Eileen (a talented planner) they formed a strong, determined team.

Their timing was good. Fife Council and Ore Valley Housing Association (OVHA) had just started work with the community on the Lochgelly Masterplan. This ultimately led to five housing developments and an award-winning business centre beside the refurbished Miners’ Institute.

The Lochgelly Centre finally got its refit and was extended to include a 415-seat theatre, library, local office, e-commerce suite, sports hall, creative classrooms and a cafe.

Satisfied that many of the “hardware” issues were being tackled, the Regeneration Group reformed as the Development Forum (LCDF) and decided to tackle the big “software” problem – how locals felt about their own town.

Relaunching the annual gala and parade in 2006 began the process of social change, followed by a community Christmas light switch-on event, which involved fundraising for the lights, closing the road, organising a torchlight parade and a Christmas Craft fayre. These simple things were transformational.

Ross remembers; “When we saw about a thousand people coming down the road carrying lights – we all just burst into tears. It was such a beautiful sight.”

The next advance also resulted from what seemed like a setback at the time.

In 2010, the world-renowned planning expert Andres Duany led what newspapers described as “a ground-breaking charrette” (planning forum), but what locals less charitably described as “a shovette” – a culture crash in which imported professionals seemed to run roughshod over locals.

But the event ultimately did a lot of good, unlocking funding to transform the much-loved, B-listed Town House into four mid-market rented flats. New flats have also been built on other vacant and derelict sites in the town, bringing 31 new affordable homes to the town centre.

Another important legacy of the Lochgelly charrette was a change in Scottish Government practice, recognising that local people know their towns better than anyone and professionals should listen, help shape community aspirations, facilitate and enable change, but always encourage local people to do the leading.

A final happy outcome was that Fife Council allocated Hazel Cross to work in the town.

Ross recalls: “Believe me, she had a hard time when she came in because of the feeling generated by the charrette, but Hazel won everyone around. She really listened to us, could see all the work that had gone on, valued us, rolled up her sleeves and made us a promise she would help.”

One of her early achievements was “intercepting” the Indoor Climbing and Bouldering Centre originally looking for space in Glenrothes or Kirkcaldy. Cross pointed out that Lochgelly was just off the A92, with its own train station, and the open space of Lochore Meadows nearby. The centre would kickstart plans to develop Lochgelly as an accessible active leisure cluster for residents and visitors, and give the sport a town-centre shop-window instead of obscurity on an industrial estate.

Her argument was persuasive and the centre should open later this year in the refurbished St Andrews Church, run by a new community interest company, Rockgelly – just part of the astonishing rise in occupancy rates of shops and offices in Lochgelly.

From 2009 to 2016 town centre vacancy rates have halved. The new OVHA business centre is 86% let and the refurbished Miners’ Institute is 70% let. An eloquent riposte to naysayers who predicted the new units would sit empty.

And there is a blizzard of projects on the go – organised, prompted, mentored or supported by LCDF. The Community Shop sells affordable clothing and homeware and provides a place to blether, volunteer and overcome social isolation. The Connect Project will link would-be volunteers with local vacancies and the chance to gain qualifications. Heritage trails and guided tours are starting up, featuring the birthplace of Jennie Lee, who became the youngest woman elected to the House of Commons in 1929. And lots more.

According to Cross, the key to Lochgelly’s success has been strong partnerships, trust, honest discussion, ambition for the town and a realisation that change doesn’t happen overnight.

Jennie Lee would surely admire the dogged determination displayed by the modern lasses of her own home town.