Edinburgh plans for £15 million restoration of Leith's Custom House approved - but museum plans scrapped
Plans to restore one of Leith’s most historic buildings and re-open it as a community and creative hub have been given the go ahead by Edinburgh City Council.
The £15 million project, which will aim to breathe new life into the Shore’s A-listed Custom House, was signed-off despite anger over the decision to abandon the originally-intended use as a museum dedicated to the history of Leith. And there were warnings that any move to sell the building in the future could see it become “a Wetherspoons”.
The council said the agreed option – which will still include some “heritage display spaces” – will create an “open and welcoming building for the community whilst generating sufficient commercial income to ensure that it has a sustainable future”.
A local councillor welcomed the plan but said it “isn’t exactly what the community of Leith envisaged” when the 210 year-old building was bought by the local authority. And she challenged claims it was not financially possible to open a museum, saying: “There certainly is money, but it’s not ending up in the right places.”
At the time of the £650,000 purchase of Custom House using common good funds in 2014, it was agreed the new asset should be used for a “museum/heritage purpose for the benefit of Leith and the wider city”. However council chiefs said since then it had emerged the level of external funding for this proposal would make it “extremely challenging to achieve”.
Whilst alternative plans for a ‘mixed-use community, creative and heritage hub’ were supported by members of the culture and communities committee on Wednesday (December 14), Tory councillors said due to the failure to meet the original commitment it should be ensured at least a quarter of the space was used for museum and heritage purposes.
And they said if this was not possible then options should be explored to sell the building. Green Party councillor for Leith, Chas Booth, hit back at the suggestion, saying it could lead to Custom House being turned into “a Wetherspoons or something worse”.
For the past seven years since the building changed hands, rooms have been let as office and studio space for artists – and it is proposed this should continue into the future to generate income for maintenance and upkeep. Under the new blueprint, which has been developed by Scottish Historic Building Trust (SHBT) alongside the council, there will be “enhanced entry points which could potentially engage with the adjacent external spaces including the current Dock Street Car Park, and create a series of flexible community and heritage display spaces on the ground floor”. The plans added: “It provides creative business accommodation on the upper floor levels with semi public/private spaces formed from the feature central rooms beneath the domed ceilings and cupola rooflights”.
‘Something isn’t working when one of the world’s major tourist destinations struggles to keep museums open’
The project is facing a funding shortfall of £5.82 million however and if the council does not secure all the cash within two years, works could be split up into two phases. Labour Leith councillor Katrina Faccenda said: “I do think it’s important looking back at the purchase of the building with money from the common good fund in 2014 that this eventual project isn’t exactly what the community of Leith envisaged at the time of purchase and that the original hopes that were for a museum dedicated to the story and people of Leith is slightly different from what we are looking at now.
“There are many unique aspects to the story of Leith whether it’s golf, shipping or flourishing migrant communities and there are many spaces where stories of wealthy and powerful people are told so the idea of having a space where every day stories of working people’s lives can be told is a great contribution to our city’s cultural landscape as well as functioning as a community hub.
"These are debates for maybe another time and another place, but something isn’t working when one of the world’s major tourist destinations struggles to keep museums open. There certainly is money, but it’s not ending up in the right places.” She added SHBT had a “track record of successful, careful and respectful restoration” and said the agreed proposals had “great potential for Custom House to become a hub for the community”.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ Max Mitchell said: “I think it is a pity that what was originally envisaged, as one of the ward councillors pointed out, is that it’s not exactly what the community of Leith had originally envisaged. The original point of the purchasing of this building was to deliver a museum and something of historic important to the people of Leith and the people of Edinburgh who have an interest. And so I would suggest that it might be worth considering how better these plans could utilise it as a much more museum and heritage-focused venue whilst also trying to be able to be self sufficient.”