Vivian Linacre and Golden Yard Square

Vivian Linacre – the man with the gilded tongue

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VIVIAN LINACRE who has died aged 93 was an optimist’s optimist, an enthusiast’s enthusiast whose glass was always half-full-to-brimming-over with cheerfulness and passion for a cause.

A true Brit by his own definition, being born in Liverpool from Welsh, Irish and Italian stock then settling in Scotland for most of his life, Vivian Linacre was a kenspeckled commercial property developer who conjured-up shopping centres, offices and a gentleman’s club where others only saw resistance to change. He then won his campaign for the retention of British Imperial measures and having settled in Perth realised his long and ultimately successful appeals to prevent the demolition of Perth’s City Hall.

Born Vivian Thornton Linacre on 5 August 1928 in Toxteth, Liverpool, third son of Bert Linacre and Connie (née Ellis) he attended Knotty Ash primary school alongside Ken Dodd, and then Prescot Grammar School. His father’s work in the retail sector took the family to Birmingham and then Edinburgh where Vivian embraced George Heriot’s with typical enthusiasm and was later to send three of his sons there when he raised his family later in life. The University of Edinburgh was next where the poet Edwin Morgan befriended him, sending passionate letters and poems but after graduating Linacre went to London in the mid-fifties to work in property development for notable firms such as Healey & Baker.

Returning to Edinburgh in 1961 to join Murrayfield Real Estate Company rather than accept the offer of going to Australia with Jones Lang, he then joined City Wall Properties in 1968, first in Glasgow but then moving the office to Edinburgh, and reaching board level in 1971. Following its takeover by Rank Organization he left to become property manager for Trust House Forte before establishing his own businesses back in Edinburgh in 1978.

Specialising in Scottish retail developments Vivian Linacre’s early projects such as Kirkgate at the foot of Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, Eastgate in Inverness and the only community shopping available in Easterhouse, Glasgow, provide a list of what were once significant and inventive adaptations to the townscape but today appear as he himself predicted modest or even small compared to contemporary shopping malls.

While with City Wall the redevelopment of Edinburgh’s New Club on Princes Street was a controversial redevelopment in that it meant the loss of the beautiful Victorian façade by David Bryce, in favour of a concrete construction that gave expansive views of Edinburgh Castle and allowed retail units below. Stubborn objections from some members were overcome by Linacre providing a tour of archaic staff facilities that to most were unseen and resistance melted. Linacre later joked the development contract’s arbitration clause could never have been applied, for any judge that might preside would certainly have been a Club member.

A revolutionary “office campus” development known as Trinity Park saw Linacre bring conservationists such as the Coburn Association into the project’s conceptual process so he had their support from an early stage. The existing stone wall of an old Edinburgh mansion house together with over 90% of 110 mature trees was preserved with the new building meandering between trees so the maximum could be saved. The office was later described by a City Wall director as resembling “a sick octopus” or “melted swastika” but it became an exemplar of how to develop difficult sites in a consensual and co-operative manner.

Less successful was Linacre’s development of Wester Hailes’ shopping centre in the new council estate which met much political opposition – yet compared to past peripheral housing schemes it recognised the need for amenities and local shops that had previously been absent. It finally went ahead but was later overshadowed by competing developments at the Gyle and Livingston new town.

Going solo Linacre’s development of the neighbouring Conservative and Liberal Clubs at 112 and 110 Princes Street was an especially audacious project carrying great personal risk. He bought the Conservative Club property privately at £587,o0o (miraculously without requiring a deposit) and then spent months persuading Debenhams that merging the two properties (they had an existing option on the Liberal Club) would provide the department store site the retailer coveted. Without Debenhams agreement to the scheme bankruptcy would have been likely. Linacre later wrote,

“I was taking a colossal double gamble: devise a satisfactory design for such a large retail store within a partially reconstructed interior of the combined buildings, allowing for the many ‘listed’ features and assuming that the necessary planning consents could be obtained, and secondly that the economics of the whole project could provide for a reasonable deal with Debenhams while leaving some small change for a very small developer!

“That winter of ’76-’77 was the hardest and longest of my life; travelling to and from Edinburgh, working with the solicitors, design team and planning authorities, in addition to the two special tasks of keeping the Club (through the ad hoc Committee concerned) and their professional advisers happy – or at least quiet! and ensuring that meanwhile the empty Princes Street building remained secure. Concurrently, in London, I was pursuing the proposed transaction with Debenhams and consulting them throughout on the details of the scheme. I had to conduct this entire campaign, thereby incurring heavy incidental expenses, with no visible means of support!

The wheels nearly came off Linacre’s project when he discovered evidence of squatters on the top floor, having left excrement, litter and embers of a fire burning on timber floorboards – fortunately his architect managed to entice them out and the contracts with Debenhams were eventually agreed.

In 1983, concerned about the poor reputation of property developers and estate agents Linacre decided to raise funds for children at Christmas – The Scottish Property Industry Festival of Christmas (SPIFOX) was born. Holding an annual Christmas service at the Church of St Andrew in George Street, Edinburgh, dignitaries and celebrities graced the event every year with carols and readings –  retiring afterwards to the Assembly Rooms across the other side of George Street where an often raucous industry lunch lasted the afternoon. The event has raised £5m for children’s causes since it began with golf and Glasgow-based events also now happening.

A natural free marketeer, in 1984 Linacre stood unsuccessfully as Tory candidate for Edinburgh’s Haymarket ward in the district council elections, but by 1995 his sentiments against the newly re-branded European Union led him to become the first Scottish candidate of the embryonic UKIP at the Perth & Kinross by-election. Linacre approached Enoch Powell for endorsement, which was gladly given, and his election agent was a young Nigel Farage. The SNP’s Roseanna Cunningham took the seat from the Tories while Linacre came sixth with 504 votes, behind Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party but he had planted the party’s flag in Scotland, which was the aim.

Linacre served on the UKIP national committee, and party politics could have continued (it was certainly the wish of Farage and others) but also that year he re-established the dormant British Weights and Measures Association and devoted his energies to opposing forced metrication. Using his charm and bounding enthusiasm he gathered an impressive list of legendary British figures as patrons who could ensure appeals to keep using furlongs in horse racing, yards on golf courses and kilometres off British road signs won popular support. Eschewing party labels, Linacre ensured Peter Alliss, Ian Botham, Jools Holland and JK Rowland were amongst many others who rallied to the Imperial measures cause. The BWMA supported the metric martyrs of Steve Thoburn and other Sunderland market traders against their prosecution for selling bananas in lbs and ozs that was credited as providing living examples of the EU’s interference in everyday British life. Although the court actions were ultimately lost, decades later on the day of his death Vivian linacre learned from his wife Margaretha that Imperial measures were to be made legal again and he smiled in acknowledgement.

Settling into his retirement in Perth, Linacre’s tussle with Perth & Kinross Council over the fate of Perth City Hall lasted over a decade. Submitting various proposals for redevelopment that could revive the building cost-free, and for a number of years being the preferred developer, the Council eventually decided against commercial development preferring instead to build a museum which will now display the Stone of Scone. Linacre’s doggedness had at least ensured the Council had to find a solution other than demolition.

Vivian Linacre recorded many of his experiences in his books: How to save our Town Centres; Ground Breaking – a history of commercial property; The Marshall Place Conspiracy; and about the Italian side of his family, The Several Lives of Alberto Bioletti, a relative who fought alongside Napoleon over four continents.

Relying on a heady mix of boyish good looks and a dapper dress sense to go with his infectious enthusiasm, eloquent arguments and passionate perseverance, Vivian Linacre could have sold sand to Arabs and coals to Newcastle – but only in imperial measures of course. That he was able to convince political opposites, Town Clerks, planning officials and conservationists to all agree with him about an unconventional redevelopment was testimony to his winning personality and gilded tongue.

Vivian Linacre married, Joan, whom he met at the first London firm he worked for. They had four sons but divorced in the eighties, and in 1996 he married, Margaretha. She survives him with his sons David, Nigel, Timothy and Adrian.

Vivian Linacre, born 5 August 1928, died 17 September 2021

This is a longer version of the obituary that appeared in The Scotsman on 4th October.

Photo of Vivian Linacre with a BWMA Golden Yard courtesy of the family. 

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