Bringing life to the Union Canal

Social enterprise needs to be at the heart of the economic vision for a new canal quarter, says Gavin Corbett.

I was at the council’s petitions committee this week, this time to speak in support of a petition which had been brought by local resident and community activist, Jane Jones, backing local social enterprise Reunion Canal Boats.

Reunion, and its two distinctive lilac-coloured boats, the “Lochrin Belle” and the “Jaggy Thistle” has been a fixture on the Union Canal for a few years.  The organisation provides training and skills opportunities for people, often with difficult pasts, on the journey into work.  It brings in thousands of paying customers each year – most famously Prunella Scales and Timothy West, for a recent TV show – and, most of all animates the canal: go along the canal on a summer’s evening and see the narrow boats and Forth Canoe Club and the rowing club all out and enjoying the water space.

Until recently, Reunion had use of a shop unit right next to Lochrin Quay, where the canal ends; from which it acted as a hub for the expanding annual canal festival and often as an unpaid tourist guide for curious passer-by.  Crucially, it provided a working connection between the new development and the canal itself.

However, as is the way of commerce, a “Wax Bar” paying full rent is now occupying that unit, with Reunion displaced to a rented room in the scout building in Valleyfield Street, about 10 minutes walk away.  I pass by the end of the canal every day and where once there was the bustle of people going in and out of the Reunion office there is now only a glass frontage with bored-looking staff waiting for the next waxee.

So Jane’s petition was to urge the council, as one of a number of landowners nearby, to give high priority to getting Reunion back canalside, both in the short term, even in temporary accommodation and, long term, as an exciting masterplan developed by 7N architects is built out.  If the new development, exciting though it looks, has space only for wax bars and Costa coffees, and not for Reunion and community groups, it will have failed, in my view.

And this is not mere sentiment.  If we are serious about real and longlasting economic value then India Quay (as the marketing brochure – but no-one else – calls it) has to be distinctive, has to recognise the canal as more than a pretty backdrop.  I am absolutely convinced that providing space for Reunion is a hard-headed commercial decision.  That will be the difference between a “development” and a “place”.

Of course, it is not just the Council.  There are other major players in the area – most notably Grosvenor, just over the road and West Register, just next door.  Most obviously, there is Scottish Canals.  If Scottish Canals had a petitions process I am sure Jane would have gone there too, as I am told that the partnership which Scottish Canals has with Glasgow City Councils and community organisations in Maryhill is very much something that could be emulated at Fountainbridge, with little delay.

I can’t wait until we see Reunion back where it should be, within a stone’s throw from the water.