Lesley Riddoch: Sorry Edinburgh, Dundee is on the up

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Edinburgh Council’s deputy leader will be making one New Year’s Resolution today. Dinnae slag off Dundee.

Cammy Day has taken a drubbing since declaring that; “If bloody Dundee can get a V&A, then the capital city wants something even better. Dundee is not the capital, Edinburgh is.”

Dundee's 80 million waterfront museum has been in the planning for more than a decade.

Dundee's 80 million waterfront museum has been in the planning for more than a decade.

This over-touchy remark did sum up everything that’s bad about dear established, entitled old Edinburgh, but Auld Reekie isn’t the only city with a Dundee complex. Many Aberdonians also feel sore that their east-coast cousin, though denied any share of the oil action, is on the up and up. It’s as if an ancient urban pecking order has been disturbed.

Of course, folk who last encountered Dundee in the 1990’s would remember a very troubled city. The multis (low-rise flats with high levels of unemployment) were no-mans lands. Population predictions saw tweedy Perth on the rise with gritty Dundee on its way out. And then…. something happened. It could have been Mike Galloway’s decision to return from the Gorbals Restoration project as Planning Chief for Dundee Council. Under his leadership, the council started to think differently about their responsibility for the concrete pick and mix of Dundee’s Waterfront. The construction of the Tay Road Bridge in the 1960’s had flattened old Dundee. The beloved docks were in-filled so spiralling concrete ramps could accommodate rush hour traffic queuing to pay bridge tolls. The elegant Victorian facades of two railways stations were demolished. The Tonk ballroom and the swimming pool were flattened. The bus terminal behind the Caird Hall became a car park. The Fifie ferries crossing the silvery Tay to Fife were mothballed and in place of the old people-focussed Waterfront, a car-focussed world of roads, ramps, car parks, pedestrian overbridges and uninspiring concrete buildings sprang up. In the name of modernity the “new” Waterfront had divided the city from the Tay. It’s been a long journey back but it began with one thing – the ability to collaborate.

Twenty years ago Dundee University worked with Ninewells Hospital to bring Britain’s best biomedical researchers to the city. Now Dundee is Scotland’s life science hub, and regularly boasts the highest concentration of internationally cited scientists in the UK. Around the same time, students at Abertay, Dundee and Duncan of Jordanstone art school connected with the city’s powerful comic book tradition and Sinclair PCs to kickstart an impressive gaming industry. These collaborations encouraged the council to undertake the ambitious Waterfront regeneration, which in turn laid the groundwork for the V&A Dundee – an idea jointly pitched to London Museum managers by Dundee University and the Council.

Dundee has also benefitted from its relatively small size. According to the recently retired Mike Galloway, “Dundee is small enough to get good ideas adopted fast but big enough to feel lively.”

That combination is attractive to new industries and millenial entrepreneurs, who consciously shun world capitals to live where housing is cheaper, quality of life is better and cities have more flexible, less hierarchical ways of working.

Take Tom Shepherd. As sales manager of a thriving biotech firm in California, he was head-hunted to Paris and then approached to head up CXR Biosciences in Dundee. Like most bio-techers he was accustomed to living outside the main centres – San Diego not San Francisco, Boston not New York, Cambridge not London. The ten-minute commute to work along the silvery Tay was one attraction, but the clincher for a guitar fanatic with a French wife, was arriving during the Dundee Guitar Festival and a French film season at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Culture creates successful towns and cities – so it matters that Scotland’s cultural jewels have been hogged by Edinburgh and Glasgow, glowering across the M8 at one another for decades. The effect has been to deaden cultural life in most neighbouring towns and cities.

Take Paisley. It has the second highest number of listed buildings in Scotland, 30 thousand students and pockets of wealth as well as poverty. Yet every week, Paisley buddies catch the train out of town heading for leisure, meetings, nights out and jobs in Glasgow.

The Paisley Community Trust is about to change all that with an ambitious plan to transform Paisley centre into an arts and leisure hub as iconic as Glasgow’s Merchant City or London’s Carnaby Street. Local people will finance, build, own and manage a brand-new £24.7 million cinema and performing arts theatre complex called Baker Street. What got Baker Street off the ground? Local businessman Gary Kerr, one of three original trustees, cites this extract from “Made in Scotland”, where Billy Connolly describes life in 1950s Drumchapel. “Even as a boy it was obvious to me that things like cafes, cinemas and theatres are essential to sane and normal life. If you live in a town with none of those things, a dullness descends on the place and an anger develops among the people. It felt like the council had played a dirty trick on us. It was as if they thought that all we people were good for was to work, come back home and quietly watch TV until we died.”

Of course museums, cinemas, theatres and cafes can’t combat chronic problems of poverty, drugs and hopelessness in small town Scotland any better than they do in Edinburgh or Glasgow. And of course, street and community activities are as important as shiny, new cultural centres.

But fair play to Paisley, Dundee and the other Scottish towns, who are determined to provide their citizens with sane and normal cultural lives - and to Cammy Day who’s apologised and promised to visit Dundee in 2019. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin; there was never a good war between rival cities, or a bad peace. Amen to that on Hogmanay.