Planners have shaped our towns and villages for better or worse

The Queen's Hotel in Grangemouth's Old Town was one of a number of historic buildings swept away in the name of progress
The Queen's Hotel in Grangemouth's Old Town was one of a number of historic buildings swept away in the name of progress
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The anniversary of Scotland’s town planning institute provides an opportunity to reflect on the dramatic changes to the built environment across the Falkirk district in the last 100 years.

We might not stop to think about it, but our day-to-day lives are all shaped by the built environment around us. From the street we live in, the shops we visit or the roads we drive down – all of them started life as a plan drawn up by someone in the past.

None of the buildings we take for granted – whether it’s our school or place of work – arrived by accident. A site was chosen, an architect was employed to design a suitable structure and a team of builders made it a physical reality.

But who makes these decisions? More often than not, it is the responsibility of local council planners.

It’s a tough job, and the results inevitably don’t always please everyone. Debate raged in Denny throughout 2013 about the quality of proposals to replace the town’s crumbling Church Walk.

Then there’s the websites and Facebook pages that document the changes to our towns and cities, such as ‘Old Falkirk in Pictures’, that have become hugely popular in recent years, which are typically filled with hundreds of comments that lament the loss of old buildings and pour scorn on their modern replacements.

Now a new competition aims to address that imbalance by finding the planning success stories of the past 100 years.

To mark its centenary, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) wants to hear from people in the Falkirk district about any local examples of when planners get it right.

“We are looking for people and organisations to put forward their ideas on their favourite places that have been built, enhanced or protected by planners and the planning system in Scotland since 1914,” said Craig McLaren of the RTPI.

“We want to hear about those places that have had positive and sustainable impacts socially, environmentally and economically; that show best practice in planning; that have benefited from the role played by planners and the planning system; and that are seen as nationally significant and important to Scotland.

“It could be a regeneration area that has reinvigorated a town and made it an attractive place to work, live and enjoy. Or you could put forward a neighbourhood that has been protected because it is in a Conservation Area.”

There are several potential candidates in the Falkirk district, according to local historian and Falkirk Herald columnist Ian Scott.

“One project that does stand out is the restoration of the Hippodrome cinema in Bo’ness,” he said. “It was a fantastic success for Falkirk Council and it is certainly of national importance – I assume that the local planners had a major role in that project.

“In fact, the restoration of old Bo’ness, including buildings in Corbiehall, the old town centre and Dymock’s Buildings, was certainly a major achievement for the planners.

“The former St Modan’s Church in Cochrane Street, Falkirk, was also saved and very well converted into flats a decade or so ago – but I think that had more to do with the fact that it was a listed building that any local planning decision.

“The Townscape Heritage Initiative which restored the old churchyard in Falkirk town centre two years ago was a great piece of work and, of course, we have another one due to start this year round the historic steeple area.”

Other likely candidates from across the district include conservation area in and around the Mercat Cross in Airth or Dollar Park in Falkirk.

However, many Falkirk Herald readers may wonder about the rationale behind some of the more contentious planning decisions of the past century. The demolition of almost half of Denny town centre in the late 1960s in order to build Church Walk continues to cause controversy to this day.

Older Grangemouth residents may recall fondly the way the old town once neatly lined the original entrance to the Forth and Clyde canal. Much of the old town – which was carefully planned in the 18th century – was swept away in the 1960s and 1970s, including the picturesque South Bridge Street and Canal Street.

And Camelon Main Street looks radically different today when compared to the early 1960s.

Ian has his own candidates for the worst planning decision.

“The old Falkirk Town Hall was also well worthy of saving, though it came down in 1968 before the public began to take a serious interest in conserving our heritage. There are many shocking developments in Falkirk town centre, most dating to the 1960s which should never have been given planning permission.

“The worst in my opinion is the concrete box of a building facing the Parish Church on the south side of the High Street.

“This is the most historic part of Falkirk and to allow that building even in the philistine 1960s was shameful. I’d be very happy to take a hammer to it myself.

“Having said all that, I must commend our planning department in the 1980s and 1990s for their vision in restoring Callendar House and the centre of the town to the east of the steeple where a number of Victorian and Edwardian facades were saved and developers forced to keep the frontages and build new offices etc onto the back. That was a triumph.”

Regardless, the RTPI believes that a record of successful urban planning has long been one of Scotland’s “best kept secrets”.

“The institute’s centenary provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the planning profession and to share successes with an audience beyond Scotland,” added McLaren.