Many towns across the UK today have been badly hit by the closure of shops and other retail premises. Arguably fewer have been hit harder than one of Scotland’s largest towns, Paisley.
That Paisley has one of the highest levels of store vacancy of any UK town, at almost 1 in 4 premises lying vacant in the first half of 2012, betrays that any new retail offering will be warmly welcomed by the local authorities.
A walk along Paisley’s main thoroughfare, High Street, gives ample evidence of the economic problems that have impacted on the town in recent times and which display little sign of the vibrant shopping street that characterised the town in the not too distant past, when Paisley was a popular destination for those seeking to escape the crowded streets of Glasgow, only 10 miles and a mere 15 minutes away by train.
Of course Paisley is not the only town in Scotland, or indeed in the UK, experiencing such problems but its unique location and closeness to Glasgow, sitting immediately adjacent to the city’s eastern borders, means that it has struggled not to be viewed simply as a ‘Glasgow suburb’. The development of two out of town shopping centres at Braehead and Silverburn, both ten minutes drive away, has also impacted on Paisley’s ‘retail offering’ and on job opportunities in the town itself.
That Renfrewshire Council sees some future for Paisley in the attraction of additional discount stores to complement those already existing in the town has raised many voices that have questioned the longer term economic and social viability of this approach to town regeneration, highlighting that future sustainability cannot be based on such a limited basis.
There is another perhaps more significant problem that lies beyond the reach of the existing powers of Scottish councils; many of the empty properties on the High Street are privately owned and many landlords appear content to leave them as such, a problem compounded by a number privately owned derelict and semi-derelict properties across the town centre.
Further, Tesco have well advanced plans for a major store just outside the town centre and again fears have been raised that this will have a detrimental impact on the remaining small stores. Again this is a story that has been repeated the length and breadth of the country but in the absence of alternative forms of inward investment, Tesco and other supermarkets are warmly welcomed by many local authorities.
These controversies around the future of the town and the economic health of its High Street in particular also raise questions about who ‘owns’ Paisley, whose town is it and who should shape its future? Is the local authority out of step with the wishes of the residents of Paisley? A brief glimpse at Paisley’s past will tell us that there have often been fraught relations between citizens and rulers, albeit in very different contexts.
Hidden beneath the newly laid paving blocks and behind the facades of vacant shopping premises and the few remaining stores in the High Street today lies a rich history of agitation and conflict, much of it centred in the town centre. Paisley has a long tradition of popular struggles, some of these local in nature but which also expressed support for country wide struggles for wider political reform.
In 1819 for example, riots took place on the High Street by a population committed to parliamentary reform, which in many ways was the start of two decades of agitation for political reform in the town, but which also echoed and reflected Scotland and UK wide struggle for greater democracy.
These ‘riots’ and other protests often attracted widespread support from workers from the weaving and thread industries, upon which much of Paisley’s past prosperity, reflected in the famous Paisley Pattern, was based. Many of these workers were female and Paisley has a proud history of women’s involvement in such protests and struggles.
Paisley’s High Street, like numerous other high and main streets in towns across Scotland and elsewhere, has been the scene of some of the most notable episodes of political struggle in UK history. We have come a long way since these times but across the UK today, albeit at a very level, there is a continuing struggle to ensure that the voices of local people are heard when it comes to talk of town ‘regeneration’ or ‘renewal’.
Might we even see a return to the kinds of protests that engulfed the entire town in 1907, when 17 days of strikes at the large J & P Coats Anchor Mills saw thousands of women textile workers take to the High Street in protest against low wages and bad conditions? There is certainly a long and proud history that can be called upon in support of present day struggles!