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Report: how a community in Edinburgh is fighting back against more student flats

When representatives from Drum property group visited live music venue and bar Leith Depot in April 2017, they didn’t mince their words.

‘They said “We are your new landlords, pleased to meet you, our plan is to demolish this building in the very near future”,’ says Pete Mason, part owner of the venue.

The news was a bolt from the blue.

‘We were pretty shocked. So, we put a message on our Facebook page and one of their PR representatives rushed down to meet us and apologised for dropping a bombshell.’

Drum, in partnership with Places for People and The University of Edinburgh, hope to demolish a two storey 1930s sandstone row of buildings on Leith Walk in Edinburgh to create ‘innovative’ postgraduate student accommodation with 500 beds, as well as building a hotel, new retail spaces and some housing. The development has led the community to fight back against yet another student development, which they believe would not only kill off several independent businesses but would also put the identity of Leith at stake.

Dark clouds on Leith

Leith was once home to several industries. Its glassblowers once produced a million wine bottles a week and there had been shipbuilding in the port for over 500 years until its closure in 1984.  Culturally, Leith sees itself as being different to Edinburgh, and it has a large and growing creative community tempted by the cheaper cost of living than in the city.

‘It’s a diverse population,’ says Linda Sommerville, campaigner for Save Leith Walk.

‘A local primary school has over 20 languages spoken. Whilst Leith has suffered post-industrially, there has been a shift away from some of the more obvious signs of neglect,’ adds Linda.

‘We’ve seen changes because of that, which has been welcomed. Lots of artists and musicians have moved to Leith,’

However, Linda believes the essence of how people choose to live and work in Leith is now being threatened by the development. Last week over 200 people packed into Leith Theatre to discuss the proposals.

The potential closure of music venue Leith Depot follows a wider theme in the city, with landmark music venues, such as Studio 24 and Electric Circus, closing in a short space of time. The news that Leith Depot could be next has struck a nerve.

‘They’re all shutting their doors,’ says Pete.

‘We’re a really small grassroots venue and we try and include the community as much as possible, including under-18 gigs and other varied things. The closure of another live venue is the final nail in the coffin really.’

Fife Hyland, communications manager for Drum defended the proposals. He said: ‘The existing buildings at Steads Place are no longer an economically viable investment for us.

‘We want this development to be a blueprint for introducing modern, contemporary design on to the high street without sacrificing the individuality and vibrancy that makes Leith unique.’

However, there are several thriving businesses on the row including Punjabi Junction, the Leith Walk Cafe and The Bed Shop. Leith Depot took over the lease on the building in 2015 from The Meridian Bar, a haunt which broke records for police call-outs and was once dubbed ‘Edinburgh’s worst pub’.

The space has since been transformed under their stewardship and has been praised for hosting a range of eclectic performers.

Drum has offered Leith Depot the chance to return to the new building on a fixed term rent, but it would mean they would have to move elsewhere during demolition of the current building and construction of the new one, which may take over two years. Leith Depot has told Drum they won’t be accepting their offer.

‘The plans are atrocious. We can’t shut down for two years and move back in again.’

‘They said they will include a music venue but it will have nothing to do with us.’

‘It’s not realistic to relocate and set up for two years. It’s impractical and nobody’s going to do it.’

Drum has said that their scheme will include a row of indep­endent retail, restaurant and entertainment units, but campaigners are concerned that due to the sizes of the units, which are larger than what is currently there, the only firms able to afford the rents will be large multinationals.

‘If it’s only Sainsburys and Starbucks who can afford these spaces then I don’t see how independent traders can,’ says Pete.

Student city

The sight of identikit student tower blocks is a familiar one in cities across the UK. According to accomodationforstudents.com, almost 300 private student halls of residences opened in the UK in 2017. There’s a big worry that 500 more students will saturate the area and squeeze services.

‘Most definitely it’s unsuitable for the area, ‘ says Pete.

‘We’re stressing in the campaign we aren’t against students. We’d rather they stayed in the community and weren’t sectioned off in a block of flats. Already there are five very large student accommodation blocks within a mile radius. As it stands now we’re saturated with these student towers already,’ says Pete.

‘Leith is a fantastic area and creative hub for artists and musicians. Leith Walk is an incredible street. It’s a long stretch that takes you from the East End down to the docks. You name it, every culture is here. It’s a great place to stay.’

Linda says the university has key questions they have to answer about what their relationship is with the city that hosts them. Attending their meeting at Leith Theatre last week was a representative of University of Edinburgh’s student’s association, who came and spoke about why they don’t support purpose-built accommodation due to how expensive they are for students. They are campaigning for more affordable accommodation for those studying in the city.

Drum updated their plans last week following consultations with local businesses. In the new plan, the retail units will be slightly smaller than originally planned, with one being a music venue. However, the plans have not been met with enthusiasm by business owners on the row and campaigners.

‘We’re not against development. Some of our people are at the forefront of improving Leith.’

‘On paper, [the updated plans] sounds OK, but in reality, the businesses can’t go back after two years,’ says Linda.

A petition against the development has seen 5000 signatures and the Save Leith Walk page on Facebook has almost 4000 likes. It’s now a waiting game until June when formal plans are expected to be submitted.

‘Leith Walk is culturally very important to people. Whether that’s an association with the local football team or the Proclaimers. There’s a cultural identity. It has struck a raw nerve.’

With rents in Leith rising and affordable accommodation becoming scarcer and scarcer, there’s a concern the city has been neglecting the growing housing crisis at the expense of other revenue streams.

‘The city has tourism and education as economic strands and they both come at a price to everything else,’ says Linda.

Now, there are campaigns across the city against overdevelopment and the groups are colliding and mobilising and taking back ownership of where they live.

‘The positive thing has been, in a matter of weeks, we’ve literally had thousands of people signing the petition against demolition before it goes on the planning portal. People have come forward from all parts of Leith to help. The support has been incredible.’

‘We’re told there isn’t any community anymore but this has shown people want to work together to make their cities better.’

‘There’s a huge desire to get involved and do something that will hopefully go beyond this, so people can think how we can get together to improve where we live and have that sense of agency that people are looking for.’

 

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