Since March 20th the citizens of Portobello have been receiving ballot papers asking whether they support Action Porty’s community buyout bid for Bellfield Old Parish Church and Halls: a bid to stop them from being lost to private developers.
Action Porty’s initiative is a response to a larger challenge – one faced by communities up and down Scotland. How do we create good places – vibrant communities where people want to live, work and play? Building much-needed housing is fine – as long as it is accompanied by investment in the necessary infrastructure to accommodate all sorts of community activity.
Portobello typifies what is fast becoming a national trend – extensive new housing development being paralleled by a decrease in community and amenity facilities! Action Porty wants Portobello to continue to be a great place to live and raise families, but to do so we need to have facilities which can accommodate all kinds of community needs and activity, including the creation of employment, training and volunteering opportunities.
THE STORY SO FAR
After decades of slow decline, the 21st century has seen a huge upsurge in community activity in Portobello: from Big Things on the Beach public art, POD’s village fair, PEDAL Portobello Transition Town’s community orchard and monthly market, Tribe Porty’s shared work and teaching space, and the skiffs, cafes, and beach volleyball all helping to revive the beach that now buzzes all year round.
For over two centuries, Bellfield has been a hub of community activity in Portobello: a place to celebrate and mourn, to discuss and perform, and to meet, dance and play.
The Save Bellfield campaign was formed at a packed public meeting in April 2017, shortly after it became clear that Portobello Old Parish Church on Bellfield Street was going to follow St James’s Church at Rosefield in being put on the open market. An inevitability after Portobello’s three Church of Scotland congregations merged into one at St Phillips. This meant we were facing the loss of yet another space needed for the everyday activities that support the well being of our kids, parents and grandparents, spaces where none are excluded because of a lack of money.
The gift of space to the community that all 3 church halls have been for so long couldn’t continue without the community reciprocating by filling the pews. So in response to the threatened loss, the public meeting voted unanimously to try to save this community space.
Two processes were instigated:
(1) a Community Right to Buy (CRtB) process to ensure the community would have first right to buy the buildings at market price once it was put on the market, and
(2) securing funds from the Scottish Land Fund (SLF) to bring in much needed expertise, and to secure the bulk of the purchase price.
Action Porty was created out of the Save Bellfield campaign as a company limited by guarantee, with all voters within its geographic area welcome to become full voting members. We quickly secured over £16,000 Scottish Land Fund Stage 1 funding to bring in Richard Heggie (Urban Animations), Sam Foster (architect) and Hazel Allen (Athena solutions, business planning) to help us assess community needs and the business case, and to develop strong plans through community consultation.
In September 2016 we became the first urban community in Scotland to successfully register our CRtB application following the expansion of the CRtB and SLF to cover urban areas in April 2016. This required getting all the paperwork in order (h/t Ian Cooke) as well as over 40 volunteers – superbly organized by Mary Campbell – going door to door to secure the minimum 10% backing from the electorate for this venture. In a matter of weeks, and by the deadline, we managed to secure the backing of 1,500 voters (over 25% of voters in Portobello). In the end we had only four days to recruit members of Action Porty before submission, during which time 315 people signed up.
The community has been incredibly supportive, with over £2,000 raised in one night in an August Bellfield cabaret, and almost £2,000 raised in a February music event in the Town Hall. The cabaret was organized by Shauna Macdonald and Kyrsta Macdonald-Scott, with Cal MacAninch performing in an extraordinary play written by Shauna for the occasion.
The community has provided intense feedback, with 200 people joining us upstairs in the library in September to feedback their responses to the initial architect’s drawings and options appraisal, and another 120 joining us in Portobello and Joppa Parish Church in November to feedback on the presentation of the final plans before they were submitted to the SLF.
Out of this emerged the vision:
“To create a community-led social hub that helps build, celebrate and support the collective and individual life of the community in a building that is fully accessible to all”.
The key aspects to the plans are:
(1) to use the stunning church building as a celebratory hall to mark individual life transitions such as weddings and funerals in a sacred space that is open to those of all faiths and none, and to hold collective community events and offer performances and events by and for local people and the wider world;
(2) to use the existing halls and the celebratory hall to create a fresh and lively space that’s accessible for all, and useful for people of all ages and abilities, for evening Scouts, Guides and Woodcraft kids to amnesty, badminton and a host of other regular events. From ceilidhs to school plays, we want to provide space for our community to enjoy arts and performance, helping to foster our community’s creativity and celebrate our history
(3) to continue to provide a café and grounds that are welcoming to older peoples, to young families, to those who – for whatever reason – are socially isolated.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Finally, in what seemed like months but was actually weeks after submitting our plans, on 17th February we heard that we were being awarded £647,500 of SLF Stage 2 funding, including £570,000 towards the £600,000 purchase price (the price decided on by the independent valuation in March).
We are now in the last days of voting, and hope that the community votes strongly, and votes Yes!