Red Road Rage?

by Ken Gibb

It had all been going so well. While there is always a modicum of cynicism about mega events and there have been one or two specific problems in the re-development of the Dalmarnock area (such as a very public refusal to move out by one family), the run-up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games was going smoothly. That was until the decision was taken to blow up five of the six iconic Red Road flats in the north of Glasgow during the opening ceremony.

My immediate reaction was that this was ‘what an odd thing to do’. Organisers said that this was both a commemoration and a reflection of the revival and renewal of the city – but it was all widely viewed as a rather bizarre, even gross form of entertainment. A strange image to send round the world about the city. A second element to the story was the decision to leave one of the remaining six blocks standing since it still had a job to house a proportion of Glasgow’s large asylum seeker/refugee population.

The local communities, politicians, Glaswegians and the arts community launched an effective campaign complete with media support and a 17,000 plus petition of opposition. The Deputy First Minister made the best contribution saying that she still supported the demolition but that it had to be done ‘sensitively’. This conjures up interesting images of somehow less explosive detonations.

The tide was however unstoppable and the decision was finally taken not to do the blow down during the opening ceremony. Since then there has been both a process of damage limitation by one side and further comment by both the victors and a still rather bemused audience (in which I include myself). The official response was that for safety and security reasons (i.e. there might be a protest) it was better not to go ahead.

What are to make of this episode? In the first place it would seem to show a pretty inadequate consultation process – something the protagonists have generally been pretty good at hitherto. Second, a bit like that elapsing time period when the position of a minister becomes untenable and eventually resignation becomes inevitable, there was a real sense that the decision would not hold and they would have to backtrack. Third, as far as I understand it, there is no question that the flats will not be coming down though I do not think anyone is yet suggesting that it should be co-ordinated for the closing ceremony! Fourth and perhaps more positively, it has brought the position of the asylum seekers back however briefly to the foreground of housing and city debates in Glasgow.

A final point. As I have argued in an earlier post – I do not have a problem with demolition per se and think it is a useful solution in certain circumstances, as is often the case in Glasgow and elsewhere but I also recognise that other positive outcomes are possible for the re-use of such buildings – as GHA have shown converting a multi in Ibrox into mid market rent, which is now fully let. There are also refurbished former council multi-storey flats just a stone’s throw from the opening ceremony.

I know there are commentators and academics who are profoundly critical of both the community effects of demolition/clearance (as many of the same people are of the Commonwealth Games project itself). While they had a point to say that the opening ceremony blow down was a mistake and ill-thought through, I think it is not correct to view one stage (the clearance) of a huge and lengthy regeneration programme going on across Glasgow as in some way pathologising the poor and its communities. I have been directly involved in several big regeneration programmes and well remember understandably cynical tenants not believing the promises we were making after previous failures by their former landlord. We knew these things had worked elsewhere and knew we had the resources and expertise to make it work there. It did – but they had to see it for themselves. Simply dismissing the process because of one albeit dramatic destructive bit of symbolism at a point in time in the case of Red Road is a category error. Rather: judge it by its results in terms of homes, community and the like.