Living the ‘dream’: New Lanark

Every now and again I let my guard down and allow the Trust to piss me off. In fact… I’m too easy to rouse, so can count on me succumbing to futile but flaming rage at least once a year.

August 2015 and I haven’t disappointed myself – or family.

Our house is one of very few in a very small village. A ‘special’ village. One that’s been ‘revitalised’. One that’s being actively ‘conserved’. Or at least that’s two of the primary aims of the worthy charitable Trust that was established in the 70s to revitalise and conserve it.

‘Conserve’ and ‘revitalise’.

Yes, both are very worthy aims. Laudable. Preserve the fabric of the (now iconic) built environment that – at the time of its establishment – marked a revolution in the treatment and housing of ‘workers’. Specifically mill-workers.

I’m sure, if I hadn’t been just 7 yrs old in 1974, I’d have been up for the battle that the early Trustees/campaigners had to fight. And I know they had to fight hard. It was uphill. Difficult. But they were tenacious and convincing. And their vision prevailed.

Or perhaps, it is more accurate to say: the Director’s vision prevailed.

The project began small, but with the appointment of a Director in 1974, it had found someone who could drive it forward. It is certainly testimony to that individual’s commitment, drive and resilience, that what was a derelict village in the 70s, had become one of only 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland by 2001. A lifetime’s work. Twenty seven years dedicated to achieving that holiest of conservation grails.

Time is a bit of a bugger though. And plans – well, they have a habit of taking on a bit of a life of their own. You can have a vision. And visions are fine things. But how many visions allow for reality? For the bumps and bruises that come along the way? For the fact that other people’s visions may be different. May even be better than your own vision…

Twenty seven years is a long time for any one person to remain in charge. It is a long time even if you have the willingness and ability to reflect and be self-critical.

27 years can habituate you to getting your own way and blind you to alternatives of opinion or direction. And it can be difficult – even for the strongest and most principled of people – to maintain a democratic approach to leadership – the approach that is essential if part of your job is to create a sustainable community

On the macro-level I’m thinking of the demented behaviour of Thatcher as she faced eviction from no 10 and I am thinking of the final term of Blair. Habituated to power and to ruling, they could not easily countenance its loss.

However, you increase the difficulties if you enter into an intimate relationship with a member of your ‘team’. And if that member subsequently becomes your succession plan – you are not building a healthy business model, you’re building a monument to yourself.

If 27 years becomes 35 years – and if your ‘retirement’ involves the reins being passed to your partner (via open and competitive interview of course) – your continuing involvement in whatever capacity becomes an irresistible inference. If you act as postman delivering official Trust letters you are obviously not ‘detached’ or retired from the Trust you formerly directed – however much you protest otherwise. And when you prevent the exercise of a servitude right of access and egress – in the name of the Trust and advising ‘I’ll see you in court’ when challenged to reinstate that access – well, you’re clearly anything but detached.

The inability to let go – that’s all very human and understandable. It’s hard to relinquish control particularly after such a long time or to imagine another identity for yourself. Retirement courses are not for nothing.

But how much more difficult when your leadership style was never an inclusive or community-engaging one?

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned: that you can plot ‘reconstruction’ on a graph. Build pretty models. Project plan to death. And fondly imagine you’ve got all bases covered with your contingency planning – with your assessment of ‘risks’. But introduce people – you know, ordinary folk whose needs and wants occasionally diverge from your own… well, there’s where it’ll come unstuck.

But that’s the real challenge and the mark of outstanding leadership… remembering that other people can and do (a lot of the time) have better ideas or that they want different things and have different perspectives, whilst at the same time valuing and respecting their contributions and engaging positively with a diverse community… Learning not to see their contributions as criticisms of your own views or opinions – that’s surely an essential skill when you’re self-purportedly ‘building a community’… Professional self-reflection is written into the Standards for every regulated profession I know of -and for good reason.

But that’s not how I have ever experienced New Lanark. It’s not how my husband has experienced it. It’s not the experience of my children nor my parents or of any of the neighbours who have spoken to me of their frustrations.

Take the village’s rented Housing stock: Until 2009 the rented housing in the village (40 tenancies) was owned and managed by a Housing Association. This Association was a Registered Social Landlord (RSL). Regulation meant that tenure was secure and there were controls around the administration of housing lists and health and safety etc.

I joined the Association Committee shortly after a bit of a stooshie between the Trust and the State Regulator – the Trust Director had been advised that governance was not as it should be. He had to take less of a controlling and prominent role. The backlash to this was inevitable. The Director was vocally and furiously contemptuous. The campaign to have the Association de-registered began… tenants were ‘canvassed’. I lost count of the number of tenants I spoke to privately and in an attempt to ensure balanced information was provided who a) were frightened of questioning the wisdom of de-registration for fear of repercussions for either their jobs (with the Trust) or their tenancies and  b) were ignorant of the benefits which accrued to them of registration. I attended several meetings where the ‘bureaucratic demands and costs’ of registration were cited as the over-riding reasons for pursuit of de-registration. And where the ‘reluctance’ of other RSLs to assume responsibility for the housing was used a) as proof that ‘they’ were doing the right thing in seeking to de-register and b) that such reluctance was also connected to the burdensome responsibility for the land and walls also owned by the Association. Any suggestion that the Association might easily split what they owned into two parcels (land and Houses) and transfer to the Trust (land) and to another RSL (housing only) to make it attractive for an RSL and to ensure continuing protection of tenants rights, was treated as though I’d just farted and/or was certifiably insane. I was pissing into the wind when I tried to bring up tenants’ interests. I left – but admit to being 95% certain at that point in time that de-registration was not attainable (given the statutory processes).

I was wrong. It’s easier to remove rights than I ever suspected it would be. And once those rights are lost…

The Housing is now managed by a ‘registered charity’ – though the status of tenants to their landlord is as any other private tenant to any other private landlord. They lost the protections they formerly had. They’ll not be getting them back. And the tenant’s group (set up as a sop to the former regulator) is a) powerless and b) the Secretary of the group is the ex-Director… Even the (expensive) communal heating system – over which tenants have very limited control – was installed, not to benefit tenants and to keep them warm, but to ensure buildings were not damaged by fuel poverty. The poor – those on benefits – have no choice what they pay for heating – the choice is made for them. They have to pay their property’s pro rata heating costs. The management of buildings take precedence over human beings.

Take the fact that the Trust does not recognise any trade union for collective bargaining purposes – and that as a consequence many employees are afraid to join any.

Take the Trust’s depressingly regular (and painfully badly written) epistles to residents – playing the public name, blame and shame game; exhorting behaviours believed by the Trust Director to be ‘acceptable’ and containing vague threats of action against transgressors (usually small and very small children – though the letters have also pointed a finger at someone who had decided to flush a disposable nappy down the loo).

Take the hypocrisy inherent in a tourist destination deliberately marketing itself as a family and child-friendly destination whilst at the same time displaying a gross intolerance of the children who actually live in the village. Children are not to ‘play ball-games’ or engage in any other activity which the Trust deems to be a ‘nuisance’. So far that last (amusingly and un-enforceably widely drafted) term has included toddlers and pre-schoolers squealing with delighted excitement as they play ‘tag’ in the communal back court immediately adjacent to their own back doors.

And then take the behaviour of the ex-Director, leaning out of his window with a camera to take pictures of the under-age transgressors… (Yes, I saw him with my own eyes – else I’d not have thought it possible that four small children could have attracted such malevolent and threatening behaviour.)

The contradictions and inequities created by the management of the village never cease to amaze me. So ‘fairy lights’ under the waterfall and in the trees; obtuse and ugly traffic management systems; communal land (which is part funded by tenants and ostensibly for their use) being used for the frequent weddings and tourist functions (and effectively closed off to residents) – these are deemed acceptable. Whilst private owner attempts to replace or revise internal heating systems or the keeping of some small furry caged animals or the playing of children in communal spaces is deemed ‘anti-social’ or ‘against regulations’. Not a word is said about the drunken fights that have broken out after the functions which have taken place in the Hotel.

When I first moved here I thought it was to an idyllic place, where the values of the village managers must surely strive to meet and exceed the grandest aspirations of the village’s most famous designer, Robert Owen. Turns out they are – but not quite in the way I’d imagined.

Owen’s ideas were radical and reforming – but they are of their time.

Owen offered paternalistic protections – in return for which residents were effectively ‘trapped’. A cynic would say that his concerns with health and education were directly related to the increased productivity which this could guarantee.

But it was a different world. And it is neither appropriate nor helpful today to imagine you can run the village in the way that Owen did.

Of course, some people believe that you can.

And this is probably where the underlying politics of the management of this place best reveal themselves.

Take the benign sounding Hometown Foundation ( – registered office here, in New Lanark).

It’s apparently been set up to “enable local communities to become stronger by having much greater control over the things which are most important to them.” So far so good…

Then we get to: “To achieve this, the Foundation will provide the means to transfer ownership and power from the state to local communities focussed on providing the best possible outcomes in their own areas.”

To understand just how sinister and ‘anti-everything we tend to hold dear in this household’ that is, you need to ‘follow the money’… which takes you to this particular lovely: Robert Durward (along with some other lovelies such as far-right former army man and now ‘pr lobbyists etc Stuart Crawford Associates who acted for both Durward’s ‘New Party’, Durward’s ‘Scottish People’s Alliance’ and his British Aggregates Association) of course – but this is the one who founded and bankrolled the now financially cleaned out ‘foundation’

Durward is the Scottish millionaire who bankrolled the Political Party that the late David McLetchie (worthy Scottish lawyer and Scottish Conservative Leader) described as “fascist and undemocratic”:

WEALTHY, opinionated and with an axe to grind, the man bankrolling the launch of what is billed as Britain’s newest political party is hardly the sort of person to keep his views to himself.

Outspoken on Europe, an avowed enemy of environmentalists, an opponent of “witchhunts” against drink-drivers and an advocate of letting the army sort out schools, hospitals, and roads, Robert Wilson Menzies Durward, 51, has a track record of putting his money where his mouth is when he wants to get his political point across.

And yet the Lanark businessman is proving uncharacteristically reluctant to emerge from the shadows to take credit for his role in the creation of a party so right-wing that the Scottish Tory leader, David McLetchie, has been moved to dismiss it as “fascist and undemocratic”. (thanks to the Scotsman)

I gulped when I read that. Gulped a bit at the ‘anti-environmentalist’ acting as Trustee for a charity professing to be pro-environmentalism (wonder what kind that would be?).

I’d chased the info when researching Hometown – an organisation which immediately and instinctively struck me as suspiciously anti-democratic – but only because, for years, I’ve been decoding the innocent-sounding language that right-wingers love to cloak their ideas in…

Hometown’s primary project was this:

‘Owenstown’. Presented as worker’s nirvana on earth (just keep thinking ‘Durward’ and contempt for the democratically elected services we all own and control).

And who happens* to be Owenstown’s Director?

Yip. That’s right. My neighbour – the ex-Director of New Lanark. 

And if you’re not convinced of at least some corporate or ideological warmth between Durward’s Hometown and New Lanark: Hometown’s office is the Mechanic’s Workshop in New Lanark, rented from the Trust. And one of the Trustees (B Nicol) on the New Lanark Board is the Project Director of Hometown.

We appoint in our own image?

No doubt we do. But in the meantime, folk (NL Trust) who appear (at least to me) to hold the public sector and local government et al in contempt are happy to take the handouts that same State sends its way.

*Thankfully our elected representatives and appointed planning professionals did the job we pay them to do. Planning has been decisively refused. So it’s not entirely clear what happens next with Hometown or Owenstown…