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December 14, 2016

Harbour at the heart

Portpatrick is an attractive, remote coastal village but with many of the features that might have caused a slip into steady decline. Off the beaten track, not a lot of obvious economic activity with an aging population and at its heart, the village’s prize asset – the harbour – was being allowed to fall in to disrepair by its owners. But the decaying harbour proved to be the catalyst for the community to embark on a remarkable journey – one that has made them a poster child of community led regeneration.


The Guardian

Coastal towns often face higher levels of inequality, lower wages and higher unemployment than other parts of the UK. The top five areas voting to leave the EU were all coastal communities in Essex, East Anglia and Lincolnshire. Dumfries and Galloway, on the west coast of Scotland, voted to remain but only by a slim margin.

In Portpatrick, a local seaside village, tiers of pastel houses stretch down to a small harbour where boats are moored. The place is so picture-postcard pretty, it’s hard to imagine that the harbour was almost left to rot – and with it, the future of the village – until local residents raised enough money a year ago to buy it.

As the closest port to Northern Ireland, Portpatrick was once the main crossing to Donaghadee. But over time the ocean smashed away two grand piers as well as Portpatrick’s future as a transport hub. When the crossing moved to nearby Stranraer, sailor numbers dwindled. Villagers knew that to get them back, they needed to improve the harbour with modern moorings and improved toilet facilities while keeping its charm, or risk losing precious tourist revenue to competing harbours up and down the coast.

The harbour’s private owners, Portpatrick Harbour Ltd, had applied in 2007 to build a 57-berth marina and fix pontoons to the listed harbour floor. Councillors quashed the plans, saying it was “completely inappropriate for the conservation of the area”. Locals then looked for a way to bring the harbour into community ownership where it could be maintained and improved in keeping with the village. They formed a trust, and by 2012 the villagers had reached an agreement with the owners to buy it for £350,000, financed through money from a local windfarm and a £125,000 loan from the owners themselves, which had to be repaid by 2015.

Banks and other lending institutions had balked at lending the trust the money to repay the loan for a harbour that had, since its purchase, been valued at only £75,000. And because it needed to finance debt, the trust wasn’t eligible for government grants or other types of non-profit funding like the marine coastal communities fund set up by Danny Alexander, then deputy treasurer in the coalition government, to address the desperate plight of declining seaside towns.

When Calum Currie, an offshore oil technician born and bred in the village, joined the trust in December 2014, he realised there was no way the community would be able to pay back the loan by the deadline. Currie sent a letter round calling locals to the village hall for an extraordinary general meeting. In January 2015, 160 people gathered to discuss what to do next.

Currie contacted Community Shares Scotland (CSS) – a scheme funded by the Big Lottery Fund Scotland and Carnegie UK Trust. He hoped Portpatrick Trust might be eligible to become Scotland’s first community benefits society, which would allow it to sell shares in the harbour to secure it into community ownership.

Kelly McIntyre, programme director of CSS, advised Currie to mobilise locals to buy shares to save the harbour. Emails were sent to regular visitors. Shops and stores advertised the share sale to tourists. The launch date was set for the annual folk festival in September, when the harbour would likely be full.

Robert Erskine, a lifeboat coxswain at Portpatrick since 1984, was among those going between the boats at the festival selling shares in the harbour for a minimum of £25. Each shareholder got one vote, no matter how many shares they bought. This key difference from other kinds of ownership structures prevents large investors from taking over. But few investors buy community shares to make money or wrest control. “A lot of people bought shares for their grandchildren,” Erskine says. “It made people feel part of the community.”

In just three weeks, Portpatrick had raised enough money to save the harbour, with the 554 shareholders coming from as far away as Canada and Bermuda. Currie was elected chair of the Portpatrick Harbour Community Benefit Society. “Without community shares we would have been dead in the water,” he says. “The financial benefits of the community share sale allowed us to find a future when there were no other avenues open to us.”

In Scotland’s more remote communities, radical action has a rich history. “Many Scottish communities are remote enough that they’ve just got to get on and find a way to make things happen,” says McIntyre. These projects aren’t always in response to budget cuts, but the result of positive changes in the way people look at community ownership, according to Jim Metcalf, head of practice at Carnegie UK. “Communities are finding ways to fund things that would have never happened without public support,” he says.

The community shares network runs parallel with an active Scottish community land movement, which started not long after the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust was formed in 1997 to save the island from centuries of absentee landlords. The Scottish government got its Community Land Act through Holyrood earlier this year and has recently allocated £10m a year until 2020 to support communities trying to invest in land buyouts.

Holyrood has also bolstered asset buyouts with a Community Empowerment Act, passed last year, to help people take control of local assets assets when council resources fall short. Portpatrick wanted to use the act to acquire a strip of overgrown wasteland by the harbour to tidy it up and turn it into a picnic area. But the act was so new that the council didn’t have the paperwork. So Currie negotiated directly with them instead. “We said that we’re not the kind for hanging around, and – fair play to them – they worked with us,” he says.

By employing members of the community, the benefits society has turned the wasteland into freshly mown lawn and installed new moorings in the harbour. It is negotiating with the council to take over the running of some communal toilets and to modernise facilities.

Currie dreams of fixing up the village hall using the money earned from mooring fees; expected to be £20,000 this financial year. “What better way to save your community hall than off the back of your harbour. Together the two of them are stronger, and we could go on to save something else,” he says.

With each small improvement, the society must make sure the harbour is running a profit, so shareholders can get their money back if they want it. “Now we know the harbour won’t get spoiled or used for some individual’s private gain,” Currie says.

A year on from the share offer, Portpatrick is becoming the poster child for community action. Currie has been invited to give evidence to Scottish parliamentary committees about community ownership models. Kevin Stewart, the SNP minister for local government and housing, sees the harbour as part of a broader movement of local residents doing things for themselves.

“Portpatrick shows how a community can take control of its own future,” he says. “Handing decision-making to local people, especially in choosing local spending priorities, is exactly the type of activity we want to see more of.”

Not-for-profit organisations are also watching closely. “The Portpatrick Harbour Community Benefit Society is an inspiration. It is this kind of new political and economic energy that is needed to reverse years of neglect and decline,” says Fernanda Balata, project lead on coastal and marine environment at the New Economics Foundation thinktank. Nef is putting together the Blue New Deal, which advises coastal communities across the UK that lack funding and are looking for other means to help themselves.

Currie says that for the communities at the heart of the movement, it’s not all about the money. “For the community to have control of the harbour and for everyone to have a voice, that’s priceless,” he says.