Interview: Leonie Bell
A senior Scottish Government figure is spearheading plans to transform Paisley’s future. She tells us more in this exclusive interview.
You can’t keep a good town down. When Paisley lost its bid for UK City of Culture 2021, the story was far from over. On the contrary, it marked the beginning of a cultural rejuvenation project that’s still gathering momentum.
In autumn of last year, Leonie Bell, the Scottish Government’s Head of Culture Strategy and Cultural Engagement, joined Renfrewshire Council in the newly created post of Paisley Partnership Creative Lead. In a nutshell, that means she’s in charge of far-reaching plans to harness Paisley’s creativity to make a positive impact on education, health, poverty and business.
So what does the future hold? “I think it’s looking bright,” says Bell. “What Paisley did through the City of Culture bid process is build on its historic and heritage strengths. Paisley’s got a fierce sense of its own identity, it’s got this amazing past, but I think it’s had a period of falling into the shadows. That’s not where it deserves to be.”
It’s time to put Paisley on the map, so to speak? “I think one of the quotes that struck me from the bid was communities and residents saying ‘We now believe that our time is now’. And I think Paisley’s time still is now. It’s now about how we transform and reimagine that past into the future, so that Paisley becomes a town full of neighbourhoods and communities with a vibrant town centre at its heart.”
Bell brings a wealth of experience and a heaving contact book to her new role. Prior to working for the Scottish Government, she led the Scottish cultural programme for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which paved the way for its Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games equivalent. She’s also been employed as programme director at The Lighthouse, Scotland’s centre for design and architecture, and as Director of Arts and Engagement at funding body Creative Scotland. That’s quite a C.V.
It’s hardly surprising that she’s of the firm belief that culture is fundamental to the growth and wellbeing of every community.
“It’s so hard to imagine Paisley without culture,” she says, “it’s such a cultural town, it always has been and I think it’s always going to be. Our job is to make the most of that for the benefit of everybody. Culture and creativity make us understand who we really are and our place in the world.
They help us understand difficult times, bring us together and let us celebrate the great things about being human and living in communities. Paisley’s got a sense of physical place that’s just so incredible, every day my spirits are lifted by the quality of its public realm. We want to build on that and make it relevant for the 21st century.”
The Paisley Partnership was formed with a view to building on the City of Culture bid, the failure of which was just a temporary setback as far as Bell is concerned. “I think it was a defining experience for the town,” she says. “People put their heart and soul into the bid, but the fact that Paisley was shortlisted and that the bid galvanised so much interest and energy is something to be proud of. People around the UK and the world are now looking to Paisley and what Paisley is doing, and I think we’ve got an opportunity for Paisley to be a leader in the field of cultural regeneration.”
So, it’s very much a case of onwards and upwards. “We can still deliver on Paisley’s 2021 ambitions,” Bell enthuses. “There’s a lot of investment going on without the bid and that’s what we’re focused on now. The bid created a focus that everybody gathered around, we need to keep that momentum going and keep sharing our vision for Paisley and wider Renfrewshire. The journey is still continuing and we want everyone to be a part of it.”
For more information on Paisley’s regeneration, visit the Paisley Is website. This interview was published in Mill issue 3 January/February 2019.