Bellfield Church: the city “right to buy”

Green candidate Mary Campbell heralds the “urban right to buy” in Portobello.

Community “Right to Buy” has been with us for some time. Back in 2003, the Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform Act, which included a ’Community Right to Buy’ that allowed rural communities the right to buy land for common use, mainly by giving them first call over private land coming up for sale in certain circumstances.

Designed to help communities take ownership of land for community benefit and to address a range of community needs, the ‘Community Right to Buy’ has been a huge success. The new rights, alongside funding and support from the Scottish Land Fund, have brought more than half a million acres of land into the hands of communities across rural Scotland.

Recognising the legislation’s success in empowering communities, this year, the Scottish Government extended it to urban areas too.

This development couldn’t have come at a better time for our community of Portobello, where Edinburgh meets the seaside. Portobello is in the middle of a house-building boom, with over 2,000 homes planned. At the same time, we are losing crucial community spaces needed for the everyday activities that underpin the wellbeing of our community.

After the merger of three Church of Scotland congregations into a single Portobello and Joppa Parish, Portobello has lost the use of St James Church and Portobello Old Parish Church, two important spaces that sit at the heart of our community. These buildings provided a space for celebrations, after-school clubs, performances, charity events, meetings, youth groups and more. With these spaces going up for sale, the future of these activities was put in jeopardy.

With St James already sold to property developers and the sale of Portobello Old Parish on Bellfield Street looming, a group of local residents sprang into action, hoping to save the Bellfield Street space for community use. After an open meeting in April 2016, the Save Bellfield campaign was launched and an application to the Scottish Land fund was submitted to secure funding to see if the space would be sustainable to run as a community venue.

As a member of the campaign, I brought my experience organising canvassing for the Greens to co-ordinate the next step. To prove that the campaign had support, the Scottish Land Fund required that we gather signatures from at least 10% of the local community. With only a month in the summer holidays to do so, and a diligent and enthusiastic team of local volunteers to help, we went from street to street to spread the word of the campaign and gather the signatures we needed.

An example of grassroots campaigning in action, we managed to exceed all expectations, gathering signatures from nearly 25% of people registered on the electoral roll in the area and confirming to ourselves, the Scottish Land Fund and the community itself the value of this idea.

As things progressed, the Save Bellfield campaign needed to form the limited company “Action Porty”, which gained over 300 supporting members from across the community in just three days.

A community consultation was held via questionnaire and at an open-day at Portobello Library, around 200 local residents came together to share what they felt a community owned Bellfield should do. The open-day also provided a chance to show some of the initial ideas for the space, including preliminary architectural plans.

With the consultation complete and wide community support proven, we were able to finally submit the second phase of our application in September. The Scottish Government deemed our application competent, and sent a letter to the Church of Scotland ordering the sale to be put on hold until our application had been considered by the Government Minister. Once the Community Right to Buy has been granted, our community will have an eight month window to raise the funds required to buy the space, essentially giving us first-dibs on purchasing the space.

It is the first of its kind for an urban community right-to-buy, and hopefully not the last.

After countless hours of hard work by dozens of volunteers, we are now on the cusp of achieving something truly special. With more and more spaces like these going up for sale across the country, we hope to show the way for other communities to take back a part of their area for the community good. As a resident and as a member of the Green Party, I think that this is a really exciting project – one that I am truly proud to be a part of.

There is still much to be done, with money to be raised for the buyout and a final application to be made that details the community’s plans for the space in full. I’m optimistic that this community can collaborate to make this work, and pave the way for more urban community buyouts in the future.

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Mary Campbell is an active member of the Save Bellfield Campaign and Green candidate for Portobello/Craigmillar in next May’s council elections.