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24 April 2000

Not a bridge too far

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

On Clydeside, life is currently imitating art while doing impressions of Billy Connolly. Only a year after the Secretary of State for Scotland, Dr John Reid, rescued the Govan shipyard from closure, it faces another terminal crisis.

As the tenders for six roll-on/roll-off ferries for the Royal Navy come in, it has emerged that a German yard has managed to undercut the Govan price by a huge margin, perhaps as much as 50 per cent. The darker roots of Connolly’s comedy showed when one west-of-Scotland wit remarked that morale on the Titanic at 50 fathoms was better than it was at Govan last week.

Even if the government can weld together yet another rescue package for Clydeside shipbuilding, it is clear that one of Scotland’s most famous industries will soon be history, or at most an industrial heritage site. But those who liken the trajectory of our heavy industries to that of the Titanic might see the gloom on the Clyde lift a little if another riverside scheme becomes a reality. And the Titanic analogy might even seem like a good one.

Not far from the shipyards, at Pacific Quay, there is a large derelict site that was once occupied by the Glasgow Garden Festival. If all parties involved can agree, there is a strong possibility that a large film studio, fully equipped to accommodate the most technically demanding productions, will be built on the Clyde. The national agency for film, Scottish Screen, has put forward a proposal for this to the Scottish Executive, and last week Henry McLeish, the Minister for Enterprise, made unmistakably encouraging noises. The likelihood is that the Executive will come up with £6m, and if that happens, almost all the pieces will fall into place.

Almost all. BBC Scotland is looking to move out of its antiquated premises at Queen Margaret Drive and build a new headquarters in Glasgow. The BBC would like to build at Pacific Quay and, with a film studio planned for the same site, it would make every sort of logistical sense to do so. Except that they want a bridge. And at £8m, which seems cheap, it might be a Bridge Too Far for Scottish film-making. The BBC has made it clear that it is unlikely to move to Pacific Quay unless a bridge linking the site to Glasgow’s West End is thrown across the Clyde, and if they go somewhere else, that might seriously damage the credibility of the riverside development. This proposal has stirred a range of opposition from the Lord Provost, Alex Mosson (the bridge will run through his ward), to Alistair MacLeod, managing director the ferry company Clydefast, which hopes to run services from the city centre to destinations on the Firth of Clyde. The bridge might get in the way of his boats.

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Pacific Quay is just that, a key project for the revitalisation of the centre of Glasgow, and what used to be the beating heart of Scottish industry. The stakes are simply too high for this bridge or the lack of it to stand in the way of creating substantial new industries in the very place where the old ones withered. As the e-economy is carved up between multinational giants able to take on governments and profoundly to influence patterns of trade and manufacture, Scotland cannot hope to be part of controlling the distribution and delivery systems of the information revolution. We can certainly help to make the electronic kit, but we don’t have Microsoft, Yahoo! or even Nokia to use their muscle to bring work to Scotland.

But we do have something else, something that all of these powerful companies must have. For whatever historical reason, Scotland has at present a glittering array of creative talent, and much of it is clustered around film, television and storytelling in general. Put in the blunt and colourless language of executive-speak, Scotland has the ability to produce the software for all of these new and burgeoning delivery systems, be they PCs, digital TV or mobile phones. The sort of quirky, awkward storytelling talent needed to create this happens to be around this country at the moment. To stay here, it needs focus and opportunity. And Pacific Quay could provide a good deal of both. All that governments and government agencies can do is provide the conditions in which talent can flourish, and that is precisely what is at stake at Pacific Quay.

Even though the Scottish Executive has grasped the importance of this project, it could do something more to make it happen better, something that will cost very little, but might have a substantial impact. Writers and storytellers are the people who underpin almost all creative activity, and if we can attract them to Scotland, to stay or to come and live here, then the chances of success for Pacific Quay are much enhanced. The Irish do this in a simple way by offering substantial personal tax advantages, in the reasonable hope that the presence of writers will seed other activity. A package of this sort surrounding Pacific Quay would represent more than joined-up thinking for a joined-up government; it also offers the chance of more initiatives and more imaginative development.

That is why it is vital for all involved parties to sit down soon and sort out a solution to this business of a new bridge across the Clyde. To the men of the Govan shipyard, only a short way upriver, it might seem a grim irony that they were forced to close because it cost too much for them build another method of crossing water.

Alistair Moffat