Could Paisley really be the next UK City of Culture?

Paisley Town Hall and the abbey, from across the White Cart Water. Image: Paisley.org.uk/Flickr.

I wore a paisley shirt when I went to Paisley. It hadn’t been deliberate – at least, it hadn’t been conscious; who knows how much my subconscious hates me – so I spent the train journey up to Scotland worrying it looked like I was taking the piss. But everyone I met in the town seemed delighted. “Ah, you’ve dressed the part!” one said, more jovially than I probably deserved. 

Jean Cameron, the Venice Biennale alumnus now leading Paisley’s bid to be 2021 UK City of Culture, was even more pleased, seeing my shirt as the ideal cue for a discussion of the town’s history. The 19th century textile manufacturers who popularised the Persian design and effectively built the town were “early creative industries”, she told me – and their extensive investments in grand civic architecture marked them out as industrial philanthropists, too. Then, in the manner of a vicar turning a sermon, inescapably, towards Jesus: “There’s a parallel, I think, with the 200 businesses backing the bid.”

Well she would say that, wouldn’t she: talking up the town’s enthusiasm for the bid is literally part of her job. And the actual 2021 City of Culture won’t be named until Paisley and the other contenders (Coventry, Sunderland, Swansea, Stoke-on-Trent) have had a chance to make their final pitches to judges, Dragon’s Den-style, in this year’s title-holder, Hull, early next month.

But what does seem clear is that the bid has united the great and good of Paisley in the belief that this is their chance to revive a town which feels rather left behind. “I’ve been at the chamber eight years,” Bob Grant, the chief executive of the Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce, told me when I met him earlier that day. “And I’ve never seen anything like it. So many public and private organisations, such real momentum.”

Paisley (bottom left) in context. Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

The first thing to know about Paisley is: don’t call it part of Glasgow. It lies inside the conurbation, less than seven miles west of the city centre, contains Glasgow Airport, and is just 10 minutes by train from Glasgow Central. But it prides itself on its continued independence, and describes itself as “the largest town in Scotland”. (This is literally true: the only settlements larger are the country’s four major cities.)

And as an outsider, it’s difficult to know quite what to make of the place. Throughout my day in the town, people told me how much it needed regeneration, and that it was seen in Scotland as a byword for urban decay, so when I finally got a chance to walk around late that afternoon I was expecting a depressed, shambolic kind of place.

The reality isn’t like that at all. The town centre contains a higher concentration of listed-buildings than anywhere in Scotland except Edinburgh, and its grand town hall sits neatly between an ancient abbey, a landscaped square used for public events, and the banks of the White Cart Water. If I hadn’t been primed on what to expect, I’d have assumed I was looking at a fashionable Glasgow commuter suburb.

But I wasn’t – and not just because of the “not in Glasgow” thing. The town’s economic problems are twofold. One is that, while Renfrewshire as a whole is prosperous, life long ago begun to pass the town centre by. It retains several big public sector employers – the council, the NHS, the University of the West of Scotland – but retail activity has largely moved to out-of-town malls like Braehead, while most of the industry is now in out-of-town business parks up by the airport. As with so many other Victorian mill towns far to the south in England, that Victorian centre has been largely forgotten.

The other problem is that parts of the town aren’t particularly prosperous at all. Jean Cameron reels off the stats. A whole fifth of the town’s population live in communities numbered among the most deprived in Scotland. In one part of the town, 25 per cent of the population are on proscribed drugs. “The street I grew up on is the poorest street in Scotland,” she adds. “So this feels personal to me.”

The partnership behind the project – Renfrewshire council, the chamber of commerce, the university and others – formally launched the town’s bid to be 2021 City of Culture precisely two years before my visit, on the auspicious date of Friday 13 November 2015. The marketing bumf on the bid’s website promises that success will see £113m “investment that will transform our high street”, and a million visitors in 2021, quite a lot for a town of just 80,000 people. (Around 2.6m live within an hour’s drive.)

And it’s easy to believe, in the west of Scotland, that such labels have power:  the first UK city to hold the title of European Capital of Culture was Paisley’s giant neighbour, back in 1990. The accolade marked the point the old Glasgow of shipyards and sectarianism began to shift in the public mind to the new Glasgow of students and hipsters and Belle and Sebastian. If it worked once, why not again?

The Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church. Image: Wikipedia.

It would be an exaggeration to say that winning doesn’t matter: those visitors, and that investment, is important, and the bid’s website speaks longingly of the £1bn that has poured into Hull in preparation for its own tenure.

All the same, though, winning isn’t everything: another purpose of the bid has been to give the town a mission. To emphasise that sense of engagement, the bid team are based not in Renfrewshire’s council offices, but in a colourful, accessible-looking building with a shop front in the middle of the High Street. 

There, Jean Cameron tells me gleefully about the consultation exercise, which has seen her team speak to 34,000 people – nearly half the population of the town, including all its school children – and tries, unsuccessfully, to get me to go to a school play that evening. Dundee was shortlisted for this year’s City of Culture, she notes. “When they didn’t win, they didn’t put their bid in a drawer: they used that energy.”


Renfrewshire’s director of development Alasdair Morrison shows me a map of the town, with certain areas marked out in purple, but declines to tell me what this means (such details are a matter for the judges, he explains, apologetically). Instead, with the light starting to fade, he takes me on a tour of the town. He takes me to the 12th century abbey and the 19th century Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church, which stands at the other end of the town centre and rivals its older neighbour in size. Those Victorian industrialists built so many churches for so many sects, Morrison explains, that most have now been converted to other uses.

There are more glories, still. The grand old houses of Oakshaw Street, on a brow above the town, from where on a clear day you can see Loch Lomond, 15 miles to the north. The disused mill building on the southern edge of the town centre, now turned, inevitably, into posh flats.

Perhaps most impressive of all was the Grade-A listed Russell Institute. Built as a children’s hospital in the art deco style of the 1920s, it had by the 21st century fallen into such disrepair that the NHS sold it to the local council for £1, just to get it off its hands. Inside, the building – today the local home of Skills Development Scotland – remains a thing of beauty, all grand, double staircases and gold-leaf bannisters. And for decades it had just been left to rot. 

How, I wondered out loud, had a place with as much going for it as Paisley ended up in such a state? Why was it not the posh Glasgow commuter suburb it appeared?

Partly, it’s that Glasgow’s revival hasn’t had long enough to spread to the surrounding towns. And partly, I suspect, the problem is a reputational thing: it’s easy to see potential as an outsider, when the name of a place doesn’t bring up all sorts of negative cultural associations that it does for the locals. 

But Morrison pointed to a more insidious reason. Listed architecture can be “a curse” for a town, he said. “They’re expensive to renovate, and you don’t have to pay business rates if you leave them empty.” In other words, those great Victorian buildings that from the outside give Paisley such character may be precisely why it’s struggled to bounce back. “If I could show you inside some of these buildings, you’d find it genuinely shocking.”

The abbey and the town hall. Image: Google.

Despite not being a city at all, Paisley has won substantial support for its bid to be city of culture. Both the Scottish government and the town’s giant neighbour in Glasgow are backing its bid, as are many of the Scottish MPs at Westminster. And there’s a widespread sense that this is a chance to draw attention to smaller places which often get forgotten in our national debate about regeneration. As Ross Nimmo, the head of development at Glasgow Airport, points out: “There’s a cities agenda. There’s a market towns agenda. There are documents and funding streams that talks to those kind of places. What speaks to Paisley?”

Jean Cameron herself made a similar point. ”We are the smallest place that’s ever been shortlisted. We are punching above our weight: we are putting not just our town but towns in general on show.”

I asked everyone I met in Paisley one question: what would it mean for the town to win? Cameron’s answer was personal: “I've not had opportunity to work in my home town for 30 years,” she said. “I don’t want to have to wait another 30 years.”


When I put the same question to Morrison, he reeled off statistics about visitor targets and investment propositions and the economic opportunities of a town that sits midway between Scotland’s largest city and an international airport.

But it was what he said as he finished his guided tour that really stays with me. “It’s given everyone something to believe in again.”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.