A COMMUNITY bid to take over former church premises in Portobello has been given the go-ahead by the Scottish Government.
And if the campaigners can secure the necessary funding, the purchase of the former Old Parish Church in Bellfield Street by Action Porty looks set to become the first urban community buy-out under new legislation.
The idea is to turn the church and halls into a multi-purpose community hub, giving young people back a meeting place for groups like scouts and cubs, providing affordable meeting and activity space and offering the former church as a venue not only for performances but also the celebration of life events, liked weddings and funerals, for people of any religion or none.
The government has agreed the project is of community benefit and given the campaigners’ first option on buying the buildings, provided they can pay the market value.
A public meeting next month will allow locals to see and discuss the latest plans.
Then Action Porty, the company set up by Save Bellfield campaigners to carry through the buy-out, will apply to the Scottish Land Fund (SLF) for financial help in buying the premises.
The SLF will also determine the market value for the property. One estimate put the value of the buildings at £600,000, but the campaigners are hoping it will be significantly lower than that. Action Porty will have eight months to raise the money.
The campaigners hope to receive an 80 per cent grant from the SLF and say the rest would come from crowdfunding and community fundraising.
Spokesman Justin Kendrick said: “It’s very exciting that we are the first urban community to secure the right to buy.
“It has been a huge amount of work and it will be a huge amount of work, but we also have a huge amount of enthusiasm.”
He was confident the money could be raised by next summer.
The group will then also need to find finance for the redevelopment of the Bellfield complex and plan to issue community shares, offering locals the opportunity to buy a stake in the project.
Drawings have been produced by consultants Urban Animation ahead of the public meeting on November 15, highlighting the current state of the buildings and showing how the premises could be redeveloped.
Ideas include constructing a new glazed space in front of the halls and fitting a circular stair inside the church’s belfry to use it as a beacon and viewing point.
The Old Parish Church was declared surplus to requirements by the Church of Scotland two years ago after the congregation merged with two others to form Portobello and Joppa Parish Church, based in the building which was formerly St Philip’s, Joppa.
It meant Portobello lost two well-used church halls – at Bellfield Street and at St James Church in Rosefield Place.
The Church of Scotland’s General Trustees refused an initial request to delay putting the Bellfield Street buildings on the market to allow campaigners more time to raise the funds for the buy-out.
But the Kirk has not since objected to the buy-out plan.
Mr Kenrick said the loss of two church halls meant there was a clear need for more community space in the area.
He said: “There are more than 2000 homes being built in Portobello or just on the edges, so as the number of community spaces diminishes, the growing population means demand is increasing.
“The Old Parish Church complex has been at the heart of Portobello life for over 200 years.
“We want to develop the buildings to provide more affordable, flexible space for community use, while retaining their character and history.”
He said they were consulting groups which previously used the building and others who are interested in making use of it in future.
The refurbishment is set to include a better kitchen and a new cafe, as well as access improvements.
Mr Kenrick said: “One of the major concerns is to make sure there is full accessibility and a flow of movement between the halls and the church building, which there isn’t at the moment.
“If we do manage to secure the church and halls for community use it will energise not just this particular venture but the community as a whole to take on other opportunities when they come along to ensure this continues to be a really vibrant place to live.
“It is only possible because of all the efforts over a long period by land campaigners to make sure people have this kind of right. People have spent decades pressing for land reform, so huge appreciation to them for all the work they have put in and also to the political parties who were willing to bring in the changes.”
Land Reform Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said the go-ahead for the Portobello buy-out was a significant milestone in the Scottish Government’s plan to see communities have more influence in their areas.
She said: “It is encouraging to see that urban communities like Action Porty are now taking advantage of the changes in legislation, to open up new opportunities to take greater control of their own future.”
The Church of Scotland said it had not yet been officially informed about any decision by the Scottish Government on the issue.