Irvine shakes off its Cinderella image in a story of regeneration
Sunday Herald 22nd November 1989
THE five new towns (Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Irvine, and Livingston) occupy a special place in Scotland’s transition from the old to the new. They have 5% of the population, take 30% of all new investment, and 40% of inward investment.
Irvine, once Glasgow’s seaport, was the last of the new towns to be designated, in 1966, some 20 years after the first, East Kilbride. Unlike the others, Irvine had a substantial existing community. Its population then was 34,600; today it stands at close on 57,000.
The prime mover in fashioning the new town’s destiny has been the Development Corporation. In the beginning it was faced with the task of finding modern substitutes for dead or dying traditional, labour-intensive, industries.
Developments were rapid until 1974. Two major multinationals had established their presence — Beecham with a pharmaceutical project which has today expanded into a total investment approaching #175m, and Volvo who established a 1,000,000sq.ft. complex for its UK Truck and Bus HQ. A broad base of smaller-scale manufacturing was also attracted.
From 1974 through to the early 80s, despite North Sea oil, industry languished almost countrywide in recession, and Irvine suffered worse than most areas. It become the Cinderella of the new towns. At one time 40% of its factory space was unlet.
Why was it in this unfortunate position? It can be explained by saying that East Kilbride was built on interest rates of 4%, 5%, and 6%; in Irvine’s case the figures are 14%, 15%, and 16%.
The turning point came in 1983 when Prestwick Circuits expanded into the town, manufacturing printed circuit boards. Until then Irvine had been unsuccessful in attracting the electronics industry. Later the same year, SCI of the USA arrived, establishing its first European component-assembly base. Today SCI employs 800, and continues to expand.
In 1984 Indy Electronics of California (now Iteq Europe following a British management buy-out) built a #20m factory and today employs 290, which will rise to 420 by the end of next year. A succession of electronics companies have now set up in the town, and a sound base has been laid for the future.
Other manufacturing business has since taken off. The Kymmene Corporation has invested #215m in Caledonian Paper. The plant went into full production this summer, manufacturing quality lightweight coated paper. Employment totals 450 and Kymmene has plans for the mill to be doubled in size within three to four years, when sufficient wood becomes available from Scottish forests.
A recent, and perhaps significant development, has been the decision of a Hong Kong company to establish a base in Irvine, manufacturing shirts and employing 150. The cloth will be imported initially, but the company will be looking closely to establish whether or not the complete operation can be carried out at Irvine.
Particularly encouraging have been the expansions engaged in by companies already established in the new town. Pride of place goes to Fullarton Fabrication which was started 11 years ago by Allan McLuckie and five colleagues using their redundancy money. Today, with more than 1100 workers, the company is the biggest employer in the area.
Unemployment figures come in two parts. Job Centre details embrace the Irvine travel-to-work area, which covers nearby towns from which Irvine draws labour. Three years ago the rate was 24.7%, a year ago it was 16.7%, and today, it is 13.2%. This means 6700 people registered unemployed and receiving benefit.
Figures for the new town itself, compiled on the same basis by Strathclyde Regional Council, show that from a level of 22% in the mid-80s, today’s figure is 11.1%. Notwithstanding the changes in calculating the unemployment statistics, there is no doubting the improvement which justifies the buoyant mood and undoubted prosperity that is evident in the town.
Last financial year an additional 1622 jobs had been attracted and unemployment is falling faster in Irvine than in most other areas.
There are around 200 companies on the Development Corporation’s eight industrial estates, seven of which are in a swathe of land to the east of the A78 by-pass. To the west of the road is the old town where new shopping precincts, for example, have been designed imaginatively to blend in with the old town.
Private house builders are queuing up with proposals, and the corporation has recently received Government approval to build 185 up-market houses for business executives in a phased development on eight sites around Perceton.
The Magnum Leisure Centre is the biggest paying-visitor-attraction in Scotland, and the fourth largest in Britain, with 1.25m passing through its doors each year. The Development Corporation and the local authority, Cunninghame District Council, have been concerned to make Irvine not only a good place to work in, but a centre for the full enjoyment of leisure.
An Arts Trail has been established, and there are such attractions as the Seaworld Centre and the Scottish Maritime Museum. Day visitors head for Irvine in droves, but too many holidaymakers have to move out because of the lack of appropriate accommodation — a situation the town would like to see changed.
If the state of the economy and high interest rates affected Irvine so badly in earlier years, what of the present situation? Unlike the past, Job Centre vacancies are described as healthy. There will inevitably be some casualties but, overall, Irvine expects to continue to prosper.