August 8, 2018
Powerlessness and planning
Depending on who you ask, Edinburgh’s Leith Walk is either the finest boulevard in Europe or a ragbag of some of the oddest and quirkiest shops, pubs and cafes you’re ever likely to find. What’s not in doubt is the level of local affection for this street. For some time now Leithers have been dismayed at what they see as increasing levels of inappropriate development. The Save Leith Walk campaign attracts hundreds to its public meetings but to what end? Powerlessness and planning seem to go hand in hand. Time is running out to shape the new Planning Bill.
There’s something depressingly ironic about the gentrification of Leith Walk, the iconic strip that connects the port of Leith with Edinburgh’s city centre. Renowned local author Irvine Welsh depicted the process vividly in his 2002 book Porno, which sees his Trainspotting characters respond in various ways to the visible middle-class encroachment of the place they grew up in. In real life, it’s Leith’s rich cultural heritage and artistic identity as expressed by the likes of Welsh, which makes it so attractive to incoming developers – at least in part.
With property prices soaring and long-time residents being ‘priced out,’ it’d be easy to point the finger at some of the cultural ventures that have contributed to Leith’s growing reputation as one of the ‘hippest’ spots to hang out in the country. But many community-led enterprises and artistic hubs have also come under threat – in March, it was revealed that Leith Depot, the only dedicated live music venue in the area, was earmarked to be demolished to make way for student housing and a hotel development.
For many locals, enough was enough. The Save Leith Walk campaign was set up in March to oppose the Drum Property firm’s plans to demolish the old red sandstone buildings on the walk, including Leith Depot. The campaigners believe it’s a last stand by a community that is “often ignored” in favour of big-time investors building “elite multi-million-pound corporate developments.” Leith Depot promoter Ryan Drever, who moved from Glasgow to work at the venue after it opened, believes the campaign has tapped into a sentiment held by the Edinburgh music scene as a whole.
He says: “The development represents a wider problem. I know Glasgow is affected by gentrification too, but I think the city celebrates its music scene a little more. It seems weird to me that you’d take an existing popular place and put an unpopular thing in its place. It’s just hard to see how their plans would benefit the community in any way. We felt that was important with Leith Depot – you need to respect these old buildings and make them useful for local people. If you want to establish a pub, fine, but why not do what’s needed?
“If you’re going to take away local businesses people care about, it affects the wider culture of Edinburgh. It’s not just about us – it’s about Leith Walk and the community. People might not see the cultural significance, but if a community does then you should be paying attention to that if you’re developing. We don’t run the Save Leith Walk campaign but we’re a part of it and support it.”
Leith Depot is more than just a trendy restaurant and bar – although it’s not short on veggie options or craft ales. It’s the only space on Leith Walk dedicated to showcasing live music every night, whether it be up-and-coming local acts or small-to-mid-sized touring bands. The owners don’t charge artists or promoters looking to hire out and, crucially, have opened it up for anyone in the local community to use if needed.
Having supported the local campaign more widely, running fundraisers, hosting stalls and selling bespoke ‘Save Leith Walk’ merchandise, the venue are now set to host an entire week of live music in mid-July under the banner of Love Live Music Week to raise awareness about the venue itself. Final line-ups are to be announced soon, but those already billed to perform include folk singer Chrissy Barnacle, Phillip Taylor of Glasgow rockers PAWS, pop collective The Spook School and Johnny Lynch aka Pictish Trail.
For Drever, using music to protest was a no-brainer. He says: “Right now, the best thing we can do is be louder and more fun than ever. If what we’re trying to say at a basic level is ‘this place is a fun place to go and hang out and we don’t want it to go’ then we want to throw a party and show that. By organising a whole week, we can make a real event out of it and send a message.
“Neil Pennycook was key on this – he knew when all the information about applications being lodged were to be made public and all the key details. Soon, a lot of musicians who were pals of ours were asking how they could help. We were already planning to do a big fundraiser for St Columba’s Hospice – an all day-festival on 14 July with local bands – so we’re using the whole week to raise awareness about gentrification. Some of the money will go to the campaign and some to charities and causes like Drake Music.”
It’s easy to sneer at the Leith Depot case – plucky punk promoters taking on a corporate property giant makes for a great David vs Goliath narrative in isolation. But many artists involved in the campaign genuinely consider the struggle to be symptomatic of a wider conflict between guardians of Scotland’s culture and heritage and the forces of capital seeking to exploit areas using the pretence of regeneration.
Mercury Prize-winning trio Young Fathers, who have recorded all their albums in Leith, called the campaign a “flag in the ground” because “all the stuff that makes an area desirable – the mix, the artistic community, the grit, the energy, they all disappear when gentrification happens.” Their call comes in the wake of the closure of Edinburgh venues such as Studio 24, Electric Circus Picturehouse and Silk due to similar developments.
However, not all hope is lost. In 2015, Morvern Cunningham initiated the Leith Creative project, which maps all the instances of artistic works and hubs in the area. She estimates that more than 1000 artists and creative businesses operate in Leith, with a far greater number working from home. The research, which now encompasses a huge community engagement programme, suggests there’s still plenty of scope for the community themselves to lead developments going forward.
Cunningham says: “The challenge for Leith now is to retain its identity and integrity in the face of rising house prices and increased development in the area. Increased development, in an already densely populated area, is seen as having a negative impact onto already overloaded services and local businesses who are perceived to be under threat.
“In terms of the wishes of local people in relation to development, across the board, Leithers are calling for social housing as opposed to more student flats being built in the area. There is a huge strength of feeling with regards to the Stead’s Place proposed developments that will affect local community assets such as Leith Depot and Sikh Sanjog/Punjabi Junction, but these are endemic of a wider issue relating to disempowerment and local people feeling a lack of agency and control over the planning decisions that are made in their communities.
“The work that Leith Creative has done to date and campaigns such as Save Leith Walk reflect the huge pride and passion that Leith as a community encapsulates. Its heart is fit to bursting. I have great faith and trust in Leith’s ability to persevere and embrace its challenges. There are great changes ahead, but I am hugely hopeful for Leith’s bright future. Sunshine on Leith…”