Last week Scottish Minister for Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, announced that she had accepted the Portobello community’s “right to buy” the Portobello Old Parish Church on Bellfield Street. It’s a landmark decision and a victory for the hard-working volunteers of the Save Bellfield campaign, of which I’m proud to be a member.
So how did we get to that point?
Rural communities in Scotland have enjoyed a community right to buy since land reform legislation passed in 2003. Under that legislation, if the community has a population of fewer than 10,000 people, then a registered group can, in effect, have first refusal on private land or property which is put up for sale.
Last year, that right was extended to urban communities through community empowerment legislation. Then, when the church on Bellfield Street was declared surplus by the Church of Scotland, a group of locals came together to harness these new powers to bring this space into community hands.
The expanding community of Portobello desperately needs more community space and what better than an existing building which has been a well-recognised landmark in the area for generations?
From its existing use for activities like after-school clubs, events, performances, meetings and youth groups, to exciting new uses, the potential for the space is huge. And it’s exciting because it’s not just our vision for the building, but a shared one built from the passionate input of people from across the community, backed by signatures of support from almost a quarter of residents here.
It really has been an example of grassroots campaigning in action. As the project has grown, the Save Bellfield campaign formed the limited company “Action Porty”, which got backing from over 300 supporting members from across the community in just three days. A community consultation has been held via questionnaire and at an open-day at Portobello Library, around 200 local residents came together to view initial plans for the space and share what they felt a community-owned Bellfield should do.
So what next? In cities, just as much as in remote rural areas, being granted right to buy is just the start of a process. It means that Action Porty has first call over the building. But it still has to raise the money to buy it at a fair market value. We now have eight months to raise those funds. As with rural areas, we will look for the assistance of the Scottish Land Fund, but the continuing support of the community is going to be essential.
At the same time, the community’s vision for the building needs to be translated into a working reality in line with the ambitions of people in Portobello. There is the community survey running on www.bellfield.scot and a public meeting is planned for November 15.
The project has only got to where it is now because of the talents and countless hours put in by dozens of volunteers. As someone who grew up in Portobello, using the Portobello Old Parish Church weekly, I cannot think of many more exciting projects with which to be involved. We are eager to share the lessons we have learned with any other groups who are interested in putting this legislation to good use.
With hard work and continued support from the community, I firmly believe that the plans for a community owned Bellfield will become a reality.
Roll on the next few months!
Mary Campbell is an active member of the Save Bellfield Campaign and Green candidate for Portobello/Craigmillar in next May’s council elections