Sandy Bannerman obituary

Architect planner who helped create the new town of Craigavon in Northern Ireland in the 1960s

The Scottish architect planner Sandy Bannerman, who has died aged 94, devoted almost all his long career to the UK’s new towns. His most important role was as chief architect planner to the Craigavon Development Commission, charged with creating a new city in Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s.

Great Britain was transformed in the 50s by new housing, schools and even new towns, yet little had changed in Northern Ireland. Terence O’Neill, the moderate unionist prime minister appointed in 1963, saw modern planning as a means of levelling up the disparate community and introducing new industries.

With unemployment four times that in Scotland and a faster rising population, already in 1960 the Stormont administration had commissioned a plan for the Belfast region. Robert Matthew, architect of the Royal Festival Hall in London, had worked on a similar plan for Glasgow in 1945, and now was called upon as a consultant to Stormont.

He proposed relieving Belfast’s slums and congestion by building a new city 25 miles to the south-west. Based around the towns of Lurgan and Portadown, with lush open spaces and a new motorway, it had a target population of 180,000 – larger than Derry and more than half that of Belfast. Unlike comparable new towns in the north of England and Wales, the area chosen was one of relative growth.

Sandy Bannerman kept going with the work on Craigavon after its master planner resigned in 1964.
Sandy Bannerman kept going with the work on Craigavon after its master planner resigned in 1964. Photograph: British Council

What was termed “the rural city” was to be developed to the highest standards by leading planners and landscape architects. The scheme was expensive, and it involved the loss of prime agricultural land. But for O’Neill it represented the future – and a way of keeping out the local Labour party. The planners had to battle with sectarianism and entrenched interests in an area that was predominantly Protestant. Nevertheless, the ambitions to give people decent homes and greater opportunities, based on decent planning, was genuinely meant. The detail of this plan was indebted to Bannerman.

Then, in August 1964, the initial master planner, Geoffrey Copcutt, sent an explosive open letter of resignation to the government and regional newspapers, having concluded that the project should be abandoned in favour of developing Belfast, Derry and other existing towns. Traditionalists who also opposed the new city were barely appeased by its controversial naming in January 1965 after Stormont’s first prime minister, Lord (James) Craigavon. As head of the design team, Bannerman kept going, laying out separate routes for pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles – leading Craigavon to be lampooned for its many roundabouts, as later was Milton Keynes. The landscaping, exploiting views across Lough Neagh, included three new lakes and a park around the restored Georgian house of Tannaghmore.

Work began on a new neighbourhood, Brownlow, intended to be of similar size to Portadown and Lurgan, a new city centre and standardised factories. Goodyear, the tyre manufacturers, moved in. Then came the Troubles, leading to the collapse of devolved government in 1972 and the winding up of Craigavon Development Commission in 1973, rampant inflation and a decline in the birth rate. Emigration soared.

Brownlow had seen the building of 2,500 new homes by 1971, mostly on a Radburn plan (based on a US design that originated in Radburn, New Jersey), with narrow pedestrian alleys that attracted vandalism, and the speed of building caused later problems. Most of this early housing has been demolished. Yet the last 15 years has seen Craigavon’s revival, with new housing and facilities provided by the private sector based on the infrastructure laid out by Bannerman and his team.

Construction under way on Craigavon’s shopping centre in the 1970s.
Construction under way on Craigavon’s shopping centre in the 1970s. Photograph: British Council

In 2016 and 2017 it was voted the best place to live in Northern Ireland for its good work-life balance. The Brownlow area now houses around 20,000 people, as was initially intended, and the Goodyear factory (closed in 1983) has been repurposed for new businesses.

Bannerman was born in Aberdeen, the son of Elizabeth (nee Strachan) and Alexander Bannerman, and named after his father, a meat salesman. He studied architecture at the city’s Gray’s School of Art and town planning at Glasgow School of Art. He epitomised a generation of architect planners who took ideas from one new town to the next.

His first job was in Harlow, Essex, in 1956, producing schemes for the town park and sports facilities under the consultant architect Frederick Gibberd. He shared something of Gibberd’s commitment to architecture, planning and landscaping as an integrated whole, and like him emphasised the last of these.

He moved on to East Kilbride and in 1957 to Cumbernauld, before in 1962 he joined Glasgow Corporation. Many of his colleagues there followed him to Craigavon in 1963.

A meticulous and inspiring leader, Bannerman became director of the Craigavon Development Commission and, following its winding up in 1973, continued his work as its divisional planning officer under the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland. He was briefly a partner in private practice with WJ Cairns & Partners, from 1977 running its Northern Ireland office with responsibility for the satellite development of Poleglass near Lisburn.

Sandy Bannerman laid out separate routes for pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles in Craigavon, leading it to be lampooned for its many roundabouts.
Sandy Bannerman laid out separate routes for pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles in Craigavon, leading it to be lampooned for its many roundabouts. Photograph: Radharc Images/Alamy

But the public sector won out when in 1980 he became chief architect to Glenrothes, one of the few new town development corporations to survive the Thatcher government’s stringent cuts. He retired in 1992 on its eventual closure, and pursued hobbies of fly fishing, gardening and golf.

After his first wife, Elizabeth (nee Johnstone), died suddenly, leaving him with two small daughters, Claire and Anne, he moved to Cumbernauld in 1957, where he met and married Maureen Thorburn, with whom he had a son, John. Maureen died in 2017.

His children survive him, as do six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

• Sandy (Alexander Henry) Bannerman, architect, born 8 October 1927; died 17 December 2021


Elain Harwood

The GuardianTramp

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