The Fight Over Glasgow's Historic Docks Is a Battle for Its Soul

Is building swanky flats the best way to preserve the Clyde's heritage?
September 6, 2016, 11:05pm

The Govan Graving Docks (Pictures author's own)

"Steamin'" is one of many Scottish words for being drunk. Going back to a time before cheap flights, departing for a holiday from Glasgow meant boarding a steamship bound for a seaside resort on the Clyde. The journey would be spent at its on-board bar, presumably to compensate for the miserable Scottish weather outside, and so the notion of "getting steamin'" was born. Apart from the obvious fact that people have always enjoyed getting pissed, it gives an idea of how the river has shaped Glasgow's culture, economy and even its language over the centuries.

Today, there's just one seagoing steamer left in the world, the Waverley. A few weeks ago, I was aboard as it filled up with daytrippers for a cruise down the Clyde. True to form, most seemed to be hitting the bar by midday. What they may have missed as we sped along the river is just how neglected much of it is, marked by forgotten stretches of wasteland, scrapyards and crumbling jetties.


A century ago, the city built one fifth of the world's ships. A huge proportion of its workforce – around 70,000 – were employed in the factories that lined the riverside. These days, little remains except two yards, both heavily dependent on British naval contracts, and the iconic Finnieston crane, now used for charity ziplines rather than heavy industry.

Valuing built heritage has rarely ranked highly in Glasgow's priorities, and the city has gained an unfortunate reputation as a place where listed buildings are left to rot until they "just go on fire", conveniently paving the way for redevelopment.

Just over the river lies an expanse of derelict land that developers have long had their eyes on. The Govan Graving Docks were once a vast ship repair yard, with three dry docks with connecting quays and walkways. Described by Historic Environment Scotland as "outstanding" and "without parallel in Scotland", they have been disused since 1987.

Around 2003, the site came into the ownership of a development company, now known as New City Vision and under the control of the same Irish property speculators who, until last year, owned Berlin's famous Checkpoint Charlie border crossing. In 2003, the firm began demolishing the listed dockside buildings as Glasgow City Council sought millions in EU grants to help them progress plans to infill the docks and built flats over them. That funding failed to materialise and a second round of proposals, put forward in 2005, also stalled.


The occasional act of arson aside, the docks have largely been left alone since and, just a few minutes from the centre of Govan, have become a quiet, post-industrial haven for those seeking somewhere to down some cheap cider, walk their dog, or capture their arty urbex photo project. The site is steeped in history, and standing on the edge of the river, it's easy to imagine the Clyde as it once was.

But while the docks have stood still, the area around them is virtually unrecognisable from the late 1980s. A media quarter, including the huge glass structure that houses BBC Scotland, sits on reclaimed dockland nearby, while the Zaha Hadid designed Riverside Museum is just over the river. Where once huge cranes towered over the horizon, there is now a highrise hotel and the sprawling Glasgow Harbour scheme of luxury flats. According to Dr Kirsteen Paton, who has extensively researched the social effects of a transformed Clydeside, this new supply of expensive private housing has a subtle gentrifying effect. Local residents are invited to feel involved in a regeneration process that will soon priced them out of the area.

Such a fate could soon befall the Govan Graving Docks. Proposals have recently been submitted for 600 homes on the site, as well as hotels, shops and restaurants. The high construction costs involved with building around a protected riverside environment means they will almost certainly be aimed at the higher end of the market.


Some are not buying the case for developing the docks. Momentum is building behind a campaign to turn the area into a heritage and nature park, which would maintain as much of the existing landscape as possible in what they describe as "one of the most important industrial heritage sites in Scotland."

"New City Vision may own the site but they can do nothing on it without planning consent, or huge capital reserves or investment which they don't seem to have, but which they have claimed to be about to seek for several years now," says Iain McGillivray of the Clyde Docks Preservation Initiative, established last year in a bid to preserve the site. "The docks are category A-listed which means planning consent would have to be approved by Historic Environment Scotland with the Scottish Government having the final say."

The same developers have recently faced a high profile battle over the future of a community-run green space in the west end of Glasgow, where they are hoping to build flats. Having dragged on for over six years, a final decision is on the verge of being reached.

Aware of the sensitivities around protecting the Govan docks, New City Vision have proposed a museum as part of their development. McGillivray brands this the sort of "token concession developers all too often try to make". The firm behind the huge Braehead Shopping Centre, which opened further along the river in 1999, also had to build a maritime museum as a condition of their original planning consent. Museum funding was withdrawn by the shopping centre a decade later and it now lives on as a drive-thru Krispy Kreme outlet.


For their part, New City Vision's chairman, Harry O'Donnell, told me that the proposals for the site, which they intend to move forward by the end of this year, will leave all three dry docks intact. Various architectural assets, such as the cast iron bollards and granite surfaces, will also be preserved. "The emerging plan has a significant element of public realm and we are very keen that the shipbuilding and marine heritage of the area is captured in some way within the final scheme," O'Donnell says.

It's easy to get overly sentimental about Glasgow's river. Like most aspects of the city's culture, it has been adeptly parodied by Limmy. "There's no new ships being built, and instead you have these… credit crunch buildings," he says, mockingly adopting a middle-class accent. Cities can't live in the past forever and the regeneration of Glasgow's waterfront is hardly unique, nor unwelcome. But it remains to be seen whether the city's last 19th century docks can be best preserved for future generations by building expensive flats on top of them.


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