Save Leith Walk campaign a demonstration of community spirit – Susan Rae

Susan Rae hails the energy and passion of the Save Leith Walk campaign against plans to build student flats and a hotel on the site of much-loved businesses like the Leith Walk Cafe and Leith Dept.

Friday, 5th July 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 5th July 2019, 7:00 am
Susan Rae is a Green councillor for Leith Walk
Susan Rae is a Green councillor for Leith Walk

Twelve days and counting. As I write this, only 12 days remain before the iconic, much loved Leith Walk Café, which celebrated 60 years of serving the people of Leith last Saturday, closes its doors. Its neighbour, Leith Depot, transformed by the sheer hard graft of its owners over the last few years into one of Edinburgh’s most popular live music venues, faces eviction on 1 October.

In 2017, #SaveLeithWalk was born, when Drum Property announced plans to demolish the site – and Horace Gildard White’s quirky red sandstone buildings, home to much-loved businesses – to construct 500 units of student housing and a satellite hotel.

A committed, passionate group of people got together to carry out the ­biggest volunteer-run consultation and educational exercise ever mounted in Leith. They held huge public ­meetings which were broadcast live, ran street stalls, held fundraising events, staged son et lumière shows on public landmarks and launched a bold innovative ­marketing campaign any agency would be proud of. Their petition to save the buildings was signed by more than 12,500 citizens.

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The team at Leith Depot, one of Edinburghs most popular live music venues, are facing eviction on October 1. Picture: Greg Macvean

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Shopkeepers and shoppers, ­community activists and community councillors, students, cyclists, ­musicians, architects and administrators became, over time, experts. Experts in Playfair, Adam and the philosophy of Patrick Geddes. Experts in planning legislation, social housing, renewable energy, green space, ­community health and lobbying.

Meanwhile, a visibly contemptuous Drum Group, during their own limited, highly controlled engagement, dismissed the group as romantic amateurs, and issued a challenge to #SaveLeithWalk to create a template for 106/154 Leith Walk and Stead’s Place that would save the precious buildings and businesses and give our community what it deserves.

So what is that community vision?

It’s a place where Leithers can live, work and study, and most of all grow roots to build and develop our unique Leith community ethos.

Earlier this year, the Edinburgh City Council held a planning ­hearing which was so well attended that a satellite room was opened up. #SaveLeithWalk, with 12,500 voices behind it and the support of cultural icons and stars of New Leith spoke against the development, as did every Leith Walk and Leith councillor, the community councils and the Cockburn Society. Would commerce outweigh community need, and guidelines be ignored in favour of profiteering developers? Would those who govern ignore the majority? They did not. The decision to turn down Drum Property Group’s application was unanimous.

There were, as they say, absolute scenes in the City Chambers.

Drum Property did not take this well. They lodged an appeal with the Scottish Reporter and we now await the results with hope that the government official who now holds the future of the site in their hands will look at it as we do. Where is our adherence to new developments always providing 25 per cent affordable housing? Where is our ­commitment to a balance of 50 per cent affordable housing for 50 per cent student accommodation on Leith Walk?

Our green space, our community space has been violated. People have no homes and rents are spiralling. Our community has rejected a bland representation of the past. We are Leith Walk. We want to keep our buildings, our character and our people. It’s a joy and a privilege to be part of the #SaveLeithWalk family, where, regardless of origin, we are all Leithers.

Susan Rae is Green councillor for Leith Walk.