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February 20, 2019

Ignorance no defence.

The pension fund that put Kirkcaldy’s shopping centre up for sale for £1, is the same that unilaterally broke off negotiations with a community group in Dumfries over the sale of commercial property in favour of a public auction.  This high-handed approach might suggest they haven’t read Scottish Government’s guidance on how landowners should engage with communities – nor this protocol and useful guide recently published by Scottish Land Commission.  These are all relatively new developments so these pension fund managers could feasibly claim they weren’t aware of their new responsibilities as owners of Scottish property. They are now.

Leigh Sparks

It was an eye-catching gimmick, and it did the job, getting media coverage (and me onto the radio (again)). In early February, at a London auction The Postings shopping centre in Kirkcaldy was put up for sale with a reserve of only £1.    Was it outrage, amusement or a wry shaking of the head that followed?  Or simply, well that’s Kirkcaldy  perhaps?

But, as the pension fund sellers were quoted: “The reserve price of £1 is generating significant attention and we expect to get a considerable amount at the auction.”

The fact it was Kirkcaldy does not really matter though and there are good and less good things about Kirkcaldy, as there are with all towns.  And this shopping sale was being sold as a development opportunity that could help the town centre strategy. The point really was about another milestone in the change sweeping retailing – a 1980s shopping centre for £1.  In the event of course it went for a lot more than that (£310,000 with apparently 12 bidders interested), which suggests someone has an eye for an opportunity in Kirkcaldy, even though the same day the Marks and Spencer in the town closed.

More interesting though was the story of another retail sale at the same auction.  This time in Dumfries where the Midsteeple Quarter project are hell-bent on taking over what they can in the town centre and reinventing and running it for the good of the local community. 

Fed up with absentee and/or indifferent landlords, the plan has been to buy back the high street and establish a properly based mixed economy on local talents and needs.  Negotiations with the owners of two high street buildings in the Midsteeple Quarter had apparently been well under way, but suddenly the site was put up for auction. Yes, the sellers were the same pension fund as in Kirkcaldy.

With only a week or so’s notice, the Dumfries folk set about building a fund to bid at the auction.  Perhaps this was always doomed to fail, but the energy it released will build momentum for other things of a similar ilk.  In less than a week, a crowdfunder raised over £23,000.  This proved to be insufficient as bidding quickly rose over £100,000, settling on £142,000. A currently mystery bidder now owns these two buildings.  It is to be wished they have the good of Dumfries at heart, but there is something more important underneath this as well.

At one level this story is a failure – the idea for the community to buy these buildings did not work.  But, such energy and enthusiasm (and money) in such a short space of time bodes well for the future.  The funds will be repurposed to another community venture in the high street. The whole saga (can sagas be 5 days?) demonstrates the local desire to see places reinvigorated by and for the local community.  We need to make it easier to do this and to ensure town assets are actively used for the good of the local community.

But more than that, landlords and property need to begin to work more closely with local community groups and understand the desires and talents that are around in all of our towns. We are not short of ideas, but are often short of the right opportunities. Community involvement, and community ownership are vital components of the future of our places – but that sense of pride and energy to do things also underpins existing owners and operations, and it needs to be engaged with and not fought.

Go and take a look at the Midsteeple Quarter Project and what they want to do for Dumfries. And if you are local think about getting involved. If you are not local then seek out what is happening in your town