Capital Investment: Local action in Edinburgh
22 February 2023
Communities in Edinburgh have been slower to take control of their local assets than their counterparts elsewhere in Scotland, it has been recognised. But they are now catching up with a series of truly exciting projects.
Nowhere more than in the north of the city, according to Community Land Scotland. There the community-led North Edinburgh Arts (NEA) is right at the heart of one of the most ambitious urban regeneration programmes in Scotland.
Its new venue, part of a £15m hub to be completed by the end of the year, will make up a third of the flagship building at the newly created Macmillan Square. Surrounded by 154 new affordable homes and 13 retail units it will anchor a new ‘town centre’.
It is part of a £200m plus programme of public and private sector investment. This is committed to revitalising an area which has long suffered from multiple deprivation, despite having some of the most affluent postcodes in the capital as neighbours.
NEA was founded 25 years ago bringing together Muirhouse Festival Association and Triangle Arts. It covers the Muirhouse, Granton, Pilton and Drylaw areas between the busy Ferry Road and the Firth of Forth.
Before that they met in huts, to drink coffee from chipped mugs and plan a way ahead. It didn’t take them long. Just over three years later NEA’s first building was opened. Financed by the city council and other public agencies the venue sat on land leased to the NEA charity.
At the time it was seen as a most impressive community asset, with its recording studio, 96-seater theatre and community garden. These along with other facilities are being integrated into the new hub. But it will have significantly more capacity with a new enterprise wood workshop, learning and creative studio space, alongside an expanded café, hot desk youth area and shared atrium. Crucially NEA now will own the land on which the building and gardens sit. Support of £156,000 from the Scottish Land Fund has financed a Capital Asset Transfer from the city council.
Long-serving NEA Director Kate Wimpress is proud of what has been achieved already, and is thrilled by the prospect of what lies ahead:
“The existing bright blue NEA building has been a beacon of hope for many years, not least throughout the lockdown. But our new extended hub will be taking us on to the next stage of a really exciting journey. The building will be a third bigger so we are hoping to add to the many hours of creative activity we have been offering every week, from Saturday morning yoga to messy play for the under-fives. We also want to increase the 40,000 visits a year we have been attracting from those who come to learn how to sew to those who play an instrument in the local orchestra. Owning the property outright will change our psychology, our feel for the place. I am confident it will be bustling, a real draw, and ready for the next 25 years.”
Bridie Ashrowan, CEO of EVOC (Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations Council), part of the Edinburgh Third Sector Interface (TSI) Partnership, says there are complex reasons why Edinburgh has been slower to pursue community ownership. The community right to buy in rural areas provision was contained in the Scottish Parliament’s 2003 land reform legislation, but wasn’t extended to urban areas until 2016.
But there have been other difficulties. She says it is not as easy to identify what constitutes an urban local community, as it is perhaps in the rural areas where there is so often, a geographical sense of place. Concern about the likes of housing or school rolls in rural communities, can motivate people to act and take control.
She continues: “There have also been barriers in urban areas, where fewer community development trusts have emerged thus far, but there is a sense that things are now gathering momentum. There appears to be a recognition on the part of city council officials, that they need to make the process less onerous for the likes of capital asset transfer to the community and voluntary sector.
“Local activists are beginning to see that community ownership is a way to improve the future for their area. This is particularly true for the green agenda, from the Harlaw Hydro scheme at Balerno to the solar panels Action Porty has put on the roof of the old parish church halls in Portobello.
“There is no doubt that Glasgow has benefitted from the advice and encouragement given to local communities by Community land Scotland and being based at a successful site, at the Kinning Park Complex. The former school itself was only transformed after an extraordinarily resolute local campaign to acquire it. But Edinburgh is getting there, look at North Edinburgh Arts, Bridgend Farm House, Space and The Broomhouse Hub. Communities are coming together and are inspired by what has been achieved in rural areas, and island communities. But officialdom has got to keep removing the barriers.”
Ailsa Raeburn, Chair of Community Land Scotland says “The popular image of community ownership may still be that of mountain, moor and woodland, but Community Land Scotland is immensely proud what has been achieved since the community right to buy was extended to urban areas in 2016. Some 28% of the purchases of land and assets recently supported by the Scottish Land Fund, were in towns and cities across Scotland.
“There have perhaps been fewer in our capital Edinburgh, which is popularly seen as an affluent place. But there are significant areas of deprivation. Not least around Muirhouse, where community-led bodies are leading the way in addressing the challenges. The city’s communities are now increasingly taking control of assets and improving local life.”
FROM URINAL TO YOGA
Communities are often sparked into action when faced with losing an important element of local life. It can be a bus or ferry service, a primary school or post office. In the case of Juniper Green, the village on the south-western outskirts of Edinburgh at the foothills of the Pentlands, it was the public toilet.
It marked the continuing retreat from the civic provision long accepted as part of normal life.
The City of Edinburgh Council closed the public convenience in 2015. But it was to provide an important local opportunity, which a determined community took. The community council persuaded the local authority not to sell the building or site immediately. Residents were consulted and there were suggestions that it could be used to replace the local post office which had already closed. In 2017 the Royal Bank of Scotland branch shut its doors and a community bank or credit union were mooted.
Cliff Beevers, a retired professor of mathematics at nearby Heriot-Watt University who chaired the community council recalls “First the post office then the bank, they were devastating blows. Soon after we lost the fishmonger and the butcher had gone too. The village was losing much of its retail infra- structure which is so important to the older members of the community.”
Both the PO and bank replacement ideas proved too impractical. Plans changed. The old toilet building was demolished. It was replaced by a new building at 531 Lanark Road, incorporating a much-needed community space for events, activities and classes, with a flat upstairs for affordable rent. But it took till December 2022 before it could open its doors having battled through covid and rising material costs.
Today it is the venue for a huge range of activities from: yoga sessions to Nordic walking; a knitting group to keep fit classes; guitar lessons to first aid classes and wreath-making. It is where the community council meets, and possibly reflects the long journey from urinal to yoga.
One of the crucial milestones on that near eight-year journey was the founding of the charity Pentlands Community Space (PCS) to raise the best part of half a million pounds (community councils are not allowed to own property), and to navigate the red tape and bureaucracy. But the support of the local community made it work.
Crucially a local builder Domenic Tedesco, agreed to act as contracting consultant. Professor Beevers, who had become PCS chair, describes this as “A generous pro bono offer worth, it was estimated, at around £75,000 for Domenic’s time, experience and know how.”
A local lawyer also gave of his time. Importantly a £33,000 grant from the Scottish Land Fund allowed the toilet building to be bought and demolished. Private, corporate, public, third sector, charitable and individual donations followed. The list is long, but those on it will not be forgotten in Juniper Green, according to Professor Beevers.
SWIFT ACTION IN PORTOBELLO
While localities in Edinburgh may have been slow to take the opportunities community right to buy offered, not so the good people of Portobello. They were the first in an urban area to use the provision when extended from rural areas to Scotland’s towns and cities.
In 2016, community body ‘Action Porty’ officially registered an interest in Portobello’s Old Parish Church and its halls on Bellfield Street. Despite interest from property developers, a grant of over £600,000 from the Scottish Land Fund and other fundraising delivered the church.
It was built in 1809 by the Kirk, with a mission to save souls. Action Porty’s ambitions for the Bellfield building are to help save our planet, while providing a vital community resource. Solar panels have been installed on the roof of the halls, capable of producing 20kw of electricity. It cost around £25,000, of which the Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN) fund paid £17,740, and the rest an interest free loan from a Scottish Government fund. Two 10kwh batteries were installed for when the sun doesn’t shine.
Action Porty’s chair, anthropologist Justin Kenrick, explains the background: “We are lucky to live in a seaside community, but we are painfully aware the threat rising sea levels from climate change poses. It is in our faces every day. We have to do our bit. The solar panels mean that we earn around £700 p/a in feed-in tariffs, as well as significantly reducing our electricity costs. But perhaps more importantly, they were a real catalyst for us thinking how we decarbonise our operations, and about the role the Bellfield building should play within our community.”
Action Porty has been working with fellow travellers Porty Community Energy, to help Portobello transition to low carbon living. One measure is to pursue an e-cargo bike ‘library’, allowing local residents to borrow them.
Justin said “One is already used to pick up food from supermarkets that is about to go out of date, and take it to the community fridge at the Baptist Church. The Community Fridge project is just one of many organisations we work closely with, to improve local life in the face of the social, climate and nature emergencies.”
There were public events to promote cycling and walking as active travel options and to advise on heating and insulating homes. Action Porty also initiated an ultimately successful campaign to save local five-aside football pitches and is currently helping monitor plans for the major new Seafield housing development to ensure they are socially just and ‘climate aware.’
Meanwhile the Bellfield building is being used daily for classes and events from pilates to adult drawing, baby & toddler music to the Scouts, weddings and jazz nights.
Outside on the north-facing wall of the old church, bird boxes have been fixed, as part of a partnership with RSPB. They are there to encourage the return of the swifts, which used to grace Portobello. Fingers are crossed they will be back this spring. It’s really a sort of metaphor for Action Porty.
Community Land Scotland