How Leith took on property developers – and won

When development plans in the Edinburgh district of Leith threatened to displace locals, the community successfully mobilised to put a stop to demolition. Eve Livingston reports

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Campaigners at 2018’s Leith Gala Day: Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

When you ask residents of Leith, the waterfront neighbourhood to the north of Edinburgh, to describe their community, there are a few words which come up again and again: family, creativity, diversity, close-knit community. ‘I’ve lived in a few different places in Edinburgh and never felt at home until I came to Leith,’ says 26-year-old charity worker Clara Boeker, originally from Germany.

The neighbourhood might be best known to outsiders as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and The Proclaimers’ hit song-turned-musical Sunshine on Leith, but it has undergone something of a transformation since the early 90s, and its depiction in these cultural milestones. Today, Leith boasts Michelin-starred restaurants and an array of fashionable bars and local businesses – but crucially, it has also managed to retain the working-class community spirit and artistic tradition which have always defined it.

Leith residents have protected their community for years, enjoying the benefits of development while resisting the creep of gentrification. But in early 2018, its delicate balance came under threat when Drum Property Group proposed a £50 million redevelopment project on the iconic Leith Walk, the central road which links the area to central Edinburgh.

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106–154 Leith Walk

Mirroring the contentious expansion of university buildings across Edinburgh itself, the proposal included plans to demolish 106–154 Leith Walk – a 1930s terrace of red sandstone buildings housing a range of local shops and businesses, community hubs and social enterprises – to make way for student accommodation for 532 students and a 56-room hotel, both operated by the University of Edinburgh. The shops and businesses were invited to take the new development’s retail units but at higher rents than they are paying, meaning most would be displaced.

“There were a group of us who had already worked on a right-to-buy community campaign nearby,” says 27-year-old local Frances Hoole. “We were tipped off to a community council meeting where [the redevelopment plan] was being discussed and when we got there, there were just far too many people to fit in – obviously because they all wanted to discuss this particular issue. So a meeting was set up and everything went from there”.

The ‘everything’ to which Hoole refers is the almost year-long community campaign Save Leith Walk, of which she and Boeker are both members. The group’s tactics involved a central petition to stop the demolition; encouraging and equipping community members to lodge planning objections; several community workshops and even a guerilla light projection to raise awareness of the issue.

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A packed-out community meeting. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

While the campaign focused on retaining the spirit of Leith and the local importance of the businesses housed in the threatened buildings – the food shop Punjabi Junction, for example, also trains up Sikh and BAME women to help with employability and social exclusion – it has also sought to articulate concerns about a planning system rigged in favour of developers.

“It’s in a conservation area,” points out Hoole. “You have to test what that means at a planning level and in a committee vote. This development would have begun changing the face of Leith Walk. When buildings are maintained by private developers you get rent increases for new businesses. It would have changed who it was for – no more small, local businesses or young musicians renting practice space.”

59-year-old musician Ray Neal became involved in Save Leith Walk because his partner’s business – much-loved local beauty salon Lovella – sits directly opposite the development. Having moved from New Haven, Connecticut, he could immediately spot danger when it emerged the University of Edinburgh would be the development’s single biggest tenant: “Yale University bought the whole city [of New Haven] and threw out all the local shops – it’s like a Disneyland for students,” he says. It’s a view which is supported by research showing that Yale has become New Haven’s largest commercial landlord. “Leith has a certain energy and character, a creative vibe. I was worried about that being lost.”

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Campaigners in front of the community-led vision for Leith Walk. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I didn’t know a single other person when I turned up,” says Boeker says of her participation in Save Leith Walk, which she describes as her first taste of activism. “A lot of people didn’t. But the meeting was full of all different people – different nationalities, ages, people who’ve lived there forever and people who’d moved in. We always say in the campaign: ‘We’re all Leithers – it doesn’t matter when you arrived or where you came from, we’re all Leith’”.

This diversity and energy set the tone for a community organising campaign which saw artists provide artwork and merchandise, local businesses donate products for auctions, and venues host workshops free of charge; there were at least five musical benefits held in support. Community support even included an anonymous “yarn bomber” whose crocheted protest signs persistently popped up around the area. The campaign also attracted support from Leith heroes Irvine Welsh and The Proclaimers as well as political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Edinburgh-based Mercury prize-winning band Young Fathers. Ultimately, the community group collected 12,500 signatures on its petition and over 3,000 official online objections to Drum’s plans, totalling 15,800 objections.

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‘Still want to know why is Edinburgh University developing properties instead of minds?’ Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

In January of this year, the group won. Drum’s planning application was rejected unanimously. “The day of the council meeting was incredible,” says Neal. “Councillors even laid into the arrogance and entitlement of the developers. We were stunned and elated.”

Hoole puts the success of the campaign down to the diversity of tactics utilised, with activists deploying their skills in artwork, street stalls, drafting planning objections and facilitating workshops. “And it was a symbol of a much bigger problem,” she adds. “So many people have felt a lack of agency in their community – they were excited that a group had managed to make their voice heard.”

Campaigners are quick to point out that the fight is still on: the developers still own the property and have a chance to appeal the decision (when approached for a response, Drum said it was considering its options and had no comment). Save Leith Walk’s original petition had the clear – and now, realised – ambition of stopping the demolition and retaining the businesses, but it continues to advocate for any development to be put to community use, and campaigns more broadly for better provision of social housing. But for the activists, everything has changed.

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Staff from local business RS Coachworks in front of a campaign sign. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I’ve got a family now that I didn’t have a year ago,” says Neal of his fellow campaigners. “And it’s shown the community that their faith in their voice has won out.”

“I think everyone agrees the world sometimes feels messed up,” Boeker agrees. “It’s been great to channel all that energy in a way that feels productive locally and shows people what is possible.”

Eve Livingston is a Scotland-based journalist specialising in social affairs, activism and inequalities. You can find her on Twitter or her website 

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