Dargavel: WW2’s biggest weapons factory and a scandal over school numbers

In a special outpost of Kat’s Green Belt Circumnavigation she takes a trip to the hairdresser and discovers a £75 million pound mistake in the Council’s negotiations for school provision for a 4000-home development, with a brand-new primary school 1000 places short.

“That’s what I love about my job,” said Jan, as she finished off cutting my hair and began the blow dry, “you get to hear all the stories of what’s happening”.

I travel all the way to Erskine for my hair now on the recommendation of my friend Gail (who came on the Gleniffer Braes walk), who has been loyally having her hair done with Jan for 15 years. It’s well worth it for the amazing job she does, but also for the chat. The first time I went I had just taken Dani Garavelli, the journalist, on one of my walks. She was writing a piece for the Herald which got us to chatting a bit about the locals’ issues with over overcrowding in schools and not enough facilities being built.

Jan had so much to say about these issues in her own community, telling the stories she heard from her clients in the hairdresser. People were up in arms. You might say it was the talk of the Steamie. She told me that there was a gigantic new development under construction just down the road at Bishopton and I heard that the school built to accommodate kids from the new development was 1000 places short; about local services being overwhelmed; about an independent inquiry that was being carried out into how the council could have, so catastrophically, underestimated the number of children a new school would need to accommodate.  Jan’s clients were telling her of their worries about school places. “And there are still 2000 houses still to build”.

I decided that I should tie a green belt walk in with my next hair appointment. And that I should find out a bit more about the situation.  First I looked at the OS map and aerial photos of the site, which was all strange square banks around buildings scattered across the landscape.  It looked like nothing I’d seen before except possibly the old Nobel explosives testing site at Irvine, which I’d explored with a group from the RSPB a few years ago – looking for the invertebrates that love the exposed soil and dunes. It turned out that this was a munitions factory that opened during the second world war. It was the biggest factory the Ministry of Defence had and employed 20,000 people. The area covered by the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) is huge – 2350 acres – half within a perimeter fence, presumably to contain the most contaminated land.  

After it closed in 2002 it became one of the largest vacant and derelict sites in Scotland. Loyal readers will remember the walk I did through the site of Ravenscraig steel works and the decades of struggle to regenerate the site. However Bishopton was a bit of a success story in this respect. Being only a few hundred yards from Bishopton station certainly helped, with the fastest trains to Glasgow city centre taking 17 minutes, but a new junction on the motorway was also built and a park and ride at the station. Jan had told me she had clients who had moved from all over Scotland to the area for jobs in Glasgow. The masterplan, written in 2006, showed a huge country park and a mixed-use village centre would be built, leisure and health facilities, shops, schools and also commercial/business premises. The cover picture showed a modern interpretation of a traditional Scottish village centre clustered around the edge of one of the lochs.

They had success in attracting developers and ended up as a case study in a publication by the Scottish Land Commission about regenerating contaminated land, and building with access to nature in mind. They also won various planning awards.

So what had gone wrong that is causing so much stress among Jan’s clients?

The first proposals for the site were for 2800 housing units and a mixed use village centre – the Masterplan had pictures of small Scottish towns showing the traditional layout of shops, businesses, leisure and accommodation. There was a good mix of housing types too. The masterplan said that there wasn’t enough affordable housing and housing for couples and singles in Bishopton, Dargavel Village would provide that, but also space for business and commerce.  Over half the Ordnance site would become a country park and community woodland. This initial masterplan was revised a couple of times, but I was getting a bit muddled between the various plans.

Map from the original Masterplan 2008 showing the extent of the country park, nature reserve and community woodland areas (outlined in red by me). the area lablled 1 will remain MOD as an ‘Environmental Test Facility’, areas labelled 5 will revert to agricultural land.

It turns out I didn’t really need to do any other reading, Jan had all the facts and figures in her head. I could have had an appointment with the planning department and then stood in the street and questioned 100 people, and I still wouldn’t have gained as much information as I did in an hour of having my highlights done in Smith and Smith.

It seemed as though the promises of the developers did not match up with the reality. Local people weren’t just angry, they were hopping mad. “One of my friends has moved away out of the area, because she’s worried they won’t find a secondary school place.” said Jan “Another client thinks that they won’t be able to sell their house if they move away to find a school place because there are so many new houses still being sold in the area.”

Jan told me that BAE, as the developer, was required to build a primary school but it was far too small.  They only had to build capacity for 440 children to serve a development of 4000 homes. “The school is full to bursting with 500 kids, but there were 1425 kids from Dargavel needing primary school places on the last intake”

“They are putting portacabins in place as supplementary classrooms already and it has only just been finished.” She continued “The intake of Dargavel school has now been capped at three classes of P1s this year. And out of those 75 children entering P1, only 8 do not already have siblings at the school.”

A map from the 2008 Masterplan showing the mixed use village centre (red), business park (purple), commercial/community (blue) and housing (orange)

As someone who has fretted about places in a local school myself I know what this means. Demand is so high that, unless you already have a sibling in the school – and therefore have priority, you have almost no chance of getting in. It also means, due to class size limits in P1, that most years will have composite classes (two years blended together) to maximise use of the space.

The situation is the same in secondary schools with no new school having been built and the existing school needing an extension which will make it the biggest school in Scotland. “That was my school said Jill. It such a shame how people can’t access the education I had. People who’ve lived here all their lives”.

It is understandably generating considerable stress in Jan’s clients, and in the community, and the Council were forced to apologise in November 2022 and commission an independent inquiry into the situation.

2018 Proposed Revision to the MasterplanOn left– 2015 agreed revisions to extend housing out to the edges of the core area. On Right the 2018 changes to the plan which convert mixed use and industrial to housing and move the school allowing for more housing where that would have been.

The report of the inquiry was published in June 2023 and is not comfortable reading for the council.  It doesn’t pull its punches. The council showed “gross incompetence”, projections were “woefully inadequate”, decisions “deeply flawed”, officials showed “professional arrogance”.

The report explains that the first underestimate of pupil numbers in 2009 (only 340 places for a development of 2500) was compounded by an “obvious error of logic” when BAE applied to increase the size of the development by nearly 60%. The council insisted that the size of the school only be increased by 100 pupils. At the same time 441 extra homes were consented that did not have developer contributions to school provision attached. “The error was so obvious it is difficult to see how it remained undetected for six years” said the report.

The inquiry stated that “senior education management were both incompetent and not sufficiently engaged” and concludes that the council seemed to be unable to negotiate effectively with the developers. When BAE questioned the councils calculation of 300 secondary school places and proposed 200, the report says that the council “did not seek the underlying data to challenge them” reporting that “The council allowed BAE to cap contributions in both agreements leaving all risk with the council”.

The inquiry concluded that, when BAE used viability1 as an argument to increase the housing numbers by nearly 60%, the council did not ask for figures so they could scrutinize the claim. And that “BAE’s contribution to education per residential unit declined as negotiations progressed.”

With infrastructure already in place “BAE will have made a very substantial return from the increase in housing approved in 2018, and yet for this final phase have made contributions to education which are even more grossly inadequate than those provided in the first agreement”

After my hair was done I headed out to see for myself. I started from the station and headed down a concrete staircase to a strip of wild land between two small lochs, the type of regenerating scrub that people might refer to as ‘wasteland’ but which is a haven for wildlife. Across the water the new development was built right up to the edge of the loch. But instead of the village square and mixed-use village centre that were marked on the Masterplan, there were large villas.

In the process of the different Masterplans the amount of land dedicated to mixed use, community facilities, shops etc had been seriously downgraded. You can see from the photos below how the area had changed. Jan had told me that the lack of shops locally meant that the small Bishopton Sainsburys was often out of essentials. That people were needing to get in their cars just to get a pint of milk.

The inquiry report did not say much about the downgrading of community facilities, but in a section about more councillor involvement it did say “The original section 75 agreement included reasonably substantial community facilities. Eventually it was decided, by officers, not to proceed with those facilities on the basis of the extent of facilities elsewhere in the area”.

It seems, incredibly, that the decision to remove the community facilities from the build at the Dargavel school site was down to council officials making the case that there were enough nearby. No wonder the report was so damning of council managers.

Two great spotted woodpeckers were hopping up the trunk at the top of a tall birch and then flying their looping flight across to the next tree. There could have been a path here once, but I was constantly stepping over brambles, fighting through brash. I was surprised that, in such a built-up area, with thousands of new houses, the route was evidently hardly used. It was the most direct (and traffic free) route from the small Sainsburys to the new primary school, and I know from experience that every child knows the nearest route to a shop that might provide snacks, or sweets or crisps.

The answer came soon enough, when I had to cross a water filled ditch that crossed my route. Glad of my wellies, I stepped across, just as three teal flew up from the cover. I thought how easy it would be to put in a tiny bridge so people could link up the school and the shops. Perhaps it’s in the planning and they haven’t got round to it yet.

I popped out from the scrub into a large area of mown grass with some play equipment on. It was nearly 230pm and a constant stream of mums, dads, grannies and carers with pushchairs were walking towards me, heading towards the school. It was a modern building sitting right on the edge of the development, just a tarmac path divided the school fencing from the 6 foot fencing around the remains of the Dargavel Royal Ordnance Factory site.  With all the people around, it didn’t seem a very good time to try and find a way through the fences. Also there was no obvious way in – in a few places you could see where people had made holes, but they had been inexpertly patched up. 

Recent changes to school layout taken from an article on Renfrewshire Council Website . I am presuming ‘commercial’ marks the areas of community facilities which were later cancelled, but these plans are very difficult to interpret.

This school had been moved from its position in the original plan, which became housing, to this location replacing planned commercial premises. Even after it was moved the layout was changed and more housing added on the footprint (see picture).  The inquiry report noted the “inept decision by the council to reduce the size of the Dargavel school site” as an example of its inability to conceive the risks.

I walked along the fence and reached a site still being developed. The hoardings had pictures of “3,4,5 and 6 bedroom energy-efficient and high-specification family homes”. An estate of around 50 houses was under construction. But the building site was deserted: no people and no vehicles. Stuart Milne, the developer, had gone bust the previous week. Jan had told me that some of her clients were really worried about what was going to happen now they had gone into administration. They worried about deposits that had been paid for houses that were not finished. “Stuart Milne bought a big area in Erskine, close to where I live, that locals petitioned against. I wonder what’s going to happen with that.” she said

There was obviously no way forward through the building site so I turned round and walked back past the school and along the fence. To my left the brick bunkers of the buildings where, presumably, they used to store the explosives, with earth mounds that would protect against a blast. There was about 100m of space between one and the next giving an idea of the power of the weapons they would have once held.  To my right was a linear water feature – like an elongated pond – and the vast housing estate beyond. 

The houses were much of a muchness and stretched all the way back to the main road nearly a kilometre away, and 500m in each direction from where I stood. The area around the ponds here seemed great – but Jan told me that most of the estates were very lacking in greenery. “When we needed a bigger place we were thinking of buying at Dargavel, but we visited and it was just all grey – no green anywhere. Grey houses, grey streets and all built so close together there was no room for any greenspaces or garden to speak of. It just didn’t have a good feeling about it.” She said that, given the school situation, she is really glad she didn’t move from Erskine in the end. 

I went past some signs telling me that it was a criminal offence to cross the fence and suddenly felt very relieved that I hadn’t found a gap to go through earlier. At the very far end of the housing, where the construction of a Bellway development was underway, there was a low stone wall built as part of the infrastructure. I leaned over it and looked over acres and acres of flat land, prepared for building.

The other side of the fence, within the current restricted area, was a large plot of land which, until August 2023, was earmarked for 93 social housing units. This area will become a new primary school, at an estimated cost to the council of £50 million (in addition to an extension to the secondary school at £25 million). The land was gifted to the council by BAE systems for the purpose.

As part of the agreement the council has agreed that Dargavel will now have 4322 new homes. Regarding the site of social housing, Renfrewshire Council “will identify locations to build a further 93 elsewhere in Renfrewshire”2

Site secured for additional primary school in Dargavel
new school site – from Renfrewshire council website

APRS has always campaigned for the use of brownfield sites for housing wherever possible and the remediation and regeneration of a site like Dargavel, especially with the plans for a country park and the access to nature that is planned, should be applauded. However the changes to the original Masterplan that seem to have been negotiated by the developers appear to have downgraded the quality of the new settlement. The lack of school places and other community infrastructure is particularly egregious. It seems to be a textbook example of how good intentions and an aspirational Masterplan can be watered down and negotiated away – leaving fewer social housing units and affordable homes, fewer shops and community facilities, and a smaller school.

It reminded me of meeting with campaigner Isobel Kelly, when I took a walk at Gartcosh with Dani Garavelli the journalist. Isobel has said “Oh if you looked at the masterplan you’d be living in Paradise –  but we didn’t get any of that”.  I hope that this won’t be the case with Dargavel, but at the moment, apart from housing and a hugely overcrowded school, three times oversubscribed, there does not seem to be much community infrastructure.

It is now fifteen years since the first homes were started and, although I saw some evidence that there are paths being constructed around the edge of the fenced area during my walk, the realisation of a country park seems a very long way away.  

The new National Planning Framework 4 has an ‘infrastructure first’ approach, meaning construction of transport links, community facilities etc are delivered ahead of the housing. However, in this case the main issue was scrutiny of the developers’ projections for the size of the school, and the ineptitude of the council at conducting negotiations, and in extracting developer contributions for homes additional to the Masterplan.  The school was constructed ahead of plan. As the inquiry report said: “The planning application, in spite of its size, was handled like any other with planning officers seeking observations from each department and coordinating negotiations”.

These were negotiations over millions of pounds of investment on council facilities handled as if it were a planning issue, and the mistake is now going to cost the Education Department, alone, at least £75 million. “It is difficult to see how both of these agreements, involving potentially millions of pounds of investment in primary and secondary education, could have been handled in a more incompetent manner,” said the inquiry report.

I managed to get out of the development along the main road but the path I wanted to go down was blocked by a digger and a dumper truck working on the track – perhaps to improve it as further access to the estate in future. I took a detour further up the road, and scrambled up the sides of the cutting, through a hawthorn hedge and over a barbed wire fence. As soon as I was in the field a sense of calm spread over me and I took a deep breath. I was back in my preferred habitat for these walks. Three roe deer stood looking at me across a ploughed field sprouting messy patches of grass and weeds, and the hedge was alive with the chattering of hundreds of house sparrows. They flitted along within the protection of the hawthorn making it look like the whole hedge was bristling with life.  I was at last on the track that I had intended to join from the estate and it took me up to an incredible viewpoint over the whole site. Water lay in pools across the huge site – to my right the original MOD buildings and banks surrounded by scrub, and the other half covered in housing. A further 2000 homes, and the country park were planned to complete the project.

At the viewpoint a wall and stone seating area had been created. A corten steel plaque read “In memory of David Bailey – a valued colleague in the team that has delivered Dargavel Village”

The paths were well made and in places I walked over what seemed like a threshold, two boulders with granite sets between. These thresholds also appeared where no paths existed yet – the beginnings of the country park. My plan was to walk to Houston to visit a friend from my RSPB days, Yvonne, but it was getting late (who knew it took so long to get your hair done) and with sunset at 16:09 I called Yvonne to meet me at Formakin Estate, known to locals as the Monkey House, because of  the carved monkeys frolicking along the roofline of the gate houses and lodges.  

The buildings looked to me typical 17th century Scottish buildings: tall with stepped gable ends and steep roofs, but they were actually built at the start of the 20th century by an eccentric and very wealthy stockbroker from Paisley. The main mansion house was never completed, Yvonne told me that it was taken over by a charity in the 1980s and used to be open to the public with a café that it fell into disrepair and was sold for £1 and was converted into flats and private homes. I set off through the old estate and followed the circular path that is still marked out by bronze monkeys pointing you in the right direction. The path was lovely climbing up some steps next to the restored mansion house and then through fields and woodlands.

I met Yvonne, waiting in her car, just by the entrance. She said that they had recently closed the car park – “It is such a lovely place and so many people were using it during lockdown” she said. “Now there is no way to visit. The road is far too busy to walk on”.  I told her that the paths from Dargavel took me to within a field of the monkey house – I only had to climb a brand new barbed wire fence.

“A stile or a gate would link the two path networks together” I said, “It’s really easy.”

“I’d never walk across a field without a path” said Yvonne, horrified. Yvonne didn’t think the new owners of the apartments and houses at Formakin would like that “I was once shouted at by someone for using the footpaths there” she said.  

Later back at her house we discovered that Jan was a good friend of Yvonne’s from school.

“We grew up together in Erskine.” She said “Jan did move to Renfrew once [5 miles from Erskine] but that was only for a couple of years.”

Yvonne had designed the leaflets for the Smith and Smith Hairdressers. She laughed when I explained how Jan had inspired me to do this blog about Dargavel. 

“Jan knows everyone and everything that happens in the area” said Yvonne, “Nothing gets past her. She was definitely the right person to talk to!”  

We reflected on the serendipity and smallness of the world over a cup of tea while I tried to persuade Yvonne to come on my next green belt walk so I could share the joys of walking through fields with no paths.

  1. Viability can be used by developers to make changes to planning if a development can be shown to no longer be viable without it ↩︎
  2. Scottish Housing News ↩︎

If you’d like to read about the other green belt walks you can do so here

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