Regeneration is about people and stories

Wheatley Group Chief Executive Martin Armstrong believes regenerating communities gives today's tenants the chance to connect with the past.

Martin Armstrong

I met a remarkable lady recently at the launch of our latest new-build development in Glasgow.

The Govan site, which is being developed by GHA, Wheatley’s largest RSL, features 105 affordable homes situated on and around a former well-known tram depot. The old tram office itself, until recently on the “at risk” register, has been imaginatively redesigned, restored and refurbished to now comprise 20 flats for mid-market rent.

On any other day, at any other new-build launch, the presence of the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, would have had star billing. But as the First Minister herself acknowledged in her speech, it was ex-tram conductress Catherine Mulrine, aged 90, who stole the show.

I have wondered since why it was that Catherine captured our hearts that day. She is, I have to tell you, a sprightly, clever, funny and interesting lady. However, it was what she represented that resonated just as much.

Standing there in the old tram office entrance - now a bright, modern welcoming foyer - our invited guests could see and touch glimpses of a past life: the wrought-iron balustrade; original restored tiling; huge wooden outside doors turned into a wall feature; and - pride of place - a sepia photograph of tram workers at their desks in the early 1900s, blown up, framed and hanging on the reception wall.

The presence of Catherine, who was a conductress on the trams in the forties, brought all of these to life.

A local resident, she had watched the tram office lie neglected for years and was thrilled when we announced plans to refurbish it. Over the months she has visited regularly as the development took shape, becoming well known to the site manager and his team.

Invited to be a VIP at the official launch, she came armed with stories, and souvenirs of her days on the trams: her conductress badge, photos of yesteryears and her old book of rules and regulations. She also brought a celebration cake, baked and iced for the occasion.

Everyone involved in regenerating communities – housing and asset officers, architects, planners, local residents - will have faced at one time or another the issue  of whether to retain and refurbish an old, disused building or demolish and replace it with modern housing. Often, of course, you have no or little choice. When you do, there are still so many factors to consider and balance, from cost and practicalities to heritage and aesthetics.

At Brand Street, we decided to preserve and transform. And I’m so glad we did. The new tram office flats are spacious, warm and comfortable, with a unique mix of original and modern features. At £550 a month, it is high-quality affordable living in what – the local MSP, Nicola Sturgeon, avows – is one of the finest parts of Glasgow.

What we all know is that the value of holding on to the past in this way is not just about recycling bricks and mortar, saving facades and preserving architectural features.

It is about people, their stories, their lives. It is about bolstering a community’s sense of itself, remembering and respecting the lives of our parents and our grandparents. It gives today’s generations the opportunity to connect with the rich history of their area, deepening their sense of belonging and building pride in the place they call home.

I will go back to the Govan development when it is completed later this year and visualise the first tram leaving the Govan depot on a sunny morning in 1943. And I will imagine, aboard it, a smiling, excited 16-year-old conductress called Catherine.


Thursday, September 14, 2017