Jenny MacKenzie: How our Leith dream died

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WHAT’s happened to our dreams for Edinburgh’s dockside? Seven years ago, we were planning for 22,000 homes, we were transforming our waterfront and there was no better place to do it than Leith, they said – that special part of Edinburgh with an identity all its own – rebellious, rumbustious and a little bit rude.

We bought that and gave it a go. We attended charrettes – the posh word for community “consultation” events. They told us to go wild with ideas – floating gardens come to mind.

Community councils seemed to have teeth, and public meetings were riotous affairs. We were loud, passionate, roaring points of view. It was hectic, hard going and fun. Local democracy was alive and kicking up a storm. We thought this was a dialogue of some meaning and mindfulness.

Then the recession hit. Plans went on hold, decisions reversed, and dialogue dried up altogether. Nothing has been the same since. Now we wonder if the economic dip is entirely to blame.

Have you driven through Leith lately? Dreadful buildings are dumped on the death of our dreams by people who don’t live in the area. Even the seagulls are peeved.

When asked about tomorrow’s slums springing up and appearing overcrowded, an executive with clout said: “It’s economics.” Well, so is selling your grandmother for a fiver.

While we welcome new homes for the needy, we ask why they have to be created in the worst possible style, with no regard for surrounding communities.

Our lessons have been hard and sharp. We’ve learned that this “special identity” nonsense is a PR job put out by those who live well out of it. We’ve learned that, despite what senior politicians may tell you, community councils are hopeless at enabling a say in decisions that affect most areas. Tick boxes for neighbourhood partnership cosy cliques, jostling grounds for politicians; they’re matched only in wilfulness by interest groups. They may empower the ambitious, but certainly not the community.

So what’s the answer? Most of us are too busy making a living to study the bear pit of local politics and economic activity. Let’s overcome that and make time. Every letter we write, every protest we make and meeting we attend does make a difference, maybe not at once, but definitely building to the tipping point of more democratic decision-making. Surely it’s only when we grow up politically and learn to practise local democracy effectively, we can overcome the death of dreams like Edinburgh’s dockside. Sadly, in the meantime, we’re almost done now with our new Wester Hailes on the waterfront.

• Jenny MacKenzie is a community activist