Preserving a community: an interview with Ian Hood from Save Leith Walk

Ian Hood, a founder of the Save Leith Walk campaign, stood in Bristo Square last week thrusting petitions into students’ hands. After agreeing to an interview, I met Ian, accompanied by his dalmation, in Black Medicine Coffee. Within minutes of launching into discussing the state of the campaign, it became apparent that this is an issue that means a lot to Ian, the inhabitants of those in the buildings and also the wider residents of Leith.

The ‘Save Leith Walk’ campaign refers to the push by many residents of Leith to save a row of buildings, from 106 to 154 Leith Walk. Fondly known as the ‘new shops’ by many residents despite the fact that they were built in the 1930s, the art deco shops – with classical touches –  were set to be demolished by Drum Property Group to make way for just under 500 rooms of student accommodation, as well as a hotel and some affordable flats. Though backed by the university, Drum was prevented from following through with their plan by the campaign, who successfully demonstrated at the end of January that the conservation area that applied to Leith also extended to these buildings and was done so deliberately, despite Drum arguing that they were not a thing of value. With twenty-five other building regulations that Drum’s plan failed, the organisation has until the end of April to appeal the ruling, submit a new plan or even possibly put it back onto the open market.

Faced with these quite limited options, this would suggest that Drum would have nothing to lose in appealing. Yet, as Ian points out, Drum appealing is by no means a certainty, as there would be “no guarantee that they’re going to win.” Indeed their attitude of wanting to “bluster” their way through [the campaign] and of not “car[ing] what [the] planning regulations say,” is one of overwhelming arrogance. However, Ian points out, there is a large degree of protection in Scotland of historic buildings, “you have to have a good reason,” to knock them down and in the past case, there wasn’t one. “Historic Environment Scotland calls the shots and if they say a building is worth keeping then it’s worth keeping.” Nevertheless, the reason Drum might appeal is that “they can’t demolish the buildings” unless they try, “if they don’t appeal then that building isn’t getting demolished ever.” However, if they decide to keep the building, they could simply just redraw how they use the buildings. One option would be to “modernise” it in a way that kept the facade and the roof,” and changes the insides, as the insides do not have the same protection that the exterior is granted. Indeed Ian believes that they will go down this avenue rather than choose to appeal, putting in a new planning application for “quite unattractive,” buildings, Drum compensating for the hearing by “building upwards and backwards,” creating an eyesore not only for those looking in, but also those looking out.

This all said Ian does suggest that “there is an outside possibility that [the campaign] could buy [it],” yet for now an outside possibility is all that it is. However, that the Scottish Land Trust has suggested that this is a real chance and that they are able to help point the campaign in the right direction of funds – despite not being able to supply money themselves – is encouraging. Furthermore, considering that the Scottish Government has put aside three billion pounds to build affordable housing, it is not unreasonable Ian argues, to request some of that to help build some affordable housing in the lot. Though the campaign does not have access to the £4.4m pounds which the site is worth, as Ian insists, “somebody’s got it we have just got to convince them to give us.” Nevertheless, as he continues, “having the money is not the same as being able to buy [it],” it would be on the open market, and there would be time constraints to add to the monetary issues.

Away from the planning for a second, the question as to what happens to the businesses in residence is currently being strongly debated. With most of the businesses evicted early on, leaving boarded-up fronts that have been labelled an “eyesore,” only Cassia, the Punjabi Junction, Leith Walk Cafe and Leith Walk Depot remain. Though Punjabi Junction has been allowed a space in the new development, the rest are having to close up shop and move elsewhere. Yet though Drum suggested that there were community benefits to the initial proposal, as Ian points out these are inconsequential to a company as rich as Drum and would have little community benefit. Furthermore, Ian stipulates that, despite Drums’ assurance that they were creating jobs, “when comparing economic outputs, you have to compare what you could do with it,” Ian believing that the potential of the site for jobs vastly outweighs Drum’s projection of employment benefit.

This contributes to further issue with Drum: their arrogance in dealing with the community. As Ian points out, it was implied by Drum that if there is a problem with a lack of businesses and houses, people could always move to “Livingston, where land is cheaper and more plentiful.” Yet it is this attitude that is contributing to the drain of people out of once close, communal neighbourhoods nationwide. Nevertheless, it is hard to refute that, despite the pushback from the local community against this project, Leith and Leith Walk are changing. Having lived in Leith since the early 1980s, Ian’s neighbours have shifted from dockers and printers and timberyard workers to environmentalists, teachers, engineers. Yet “these are [now] working class jobs” he argues, “but they wouldn’t have been working class jobs thirty years ago.” Though they might not have “calluses on their hands,” they are “people who get up in the morning and have to go and do a hard job.” This he argues is representative of Leith, the city evolving with the times rather than being altered beyond recognition. “What we’re trying to save is the community of today, not the community of thirty years ago, because there is a continual change of things and in some senses all we’ll ever succeed in doing is slowing the pace of change, not stopping it.”

Yet despite this change, there is no question that there is a community in Leith and on Leith walk that the campaign has been able to successfully tap into. Despite support from Jeremy Corbyn, Young Fathers, and The Proclaimers, “the heart of the campaign has been a community campaign,” Ian notes, “people were taking [petitions] home to get their neighbours,” garages, offices, and workplaces to get signatures. Yet not only did the campaign illustrate the presence of a community, but, as Ian points out, the campaign has aided the creation of a sense of solidarity with one another, fostering a stronger community than that which there was initially. People have come together and are offering up what skills and talents they can, aware that all their lives are tied up in the development of the walk. In the first meetings, “people were interested in what the future [was for] our community… it was a really exciting time…we raised £2500 in 36 hours.” With people voicing their loyalties;  “we like the shops,” “we like the community,” this gave us “real energy,” Ian furthers. Indeed with this communal energy behind them, it has enabled the development of a vision and plan for the space “that is about people working together, people living together and people sharing together.” Indeed the shops, though important, are part of a wider campaign, Ian pointing out that they’ve “got a position paper on student accommodation, the changing nature of Leith, and on Airbnb.” With a community centre, shops, some housing and green space, a sight seriously lacking in Leith after the trams ripped up the trees, the vision Ian stresses is inclusive to all, with people with disabilities, elderly, young and students being named in the summary of the campaign’s proposal for the space.

Though this inclusion of students might appear to fly in the face of their desire to prevent the building of student accommodation, as Ian points out, students have always played an important part in the makeup of the walk. With 12 to 15 per cent of the walk already being students and with Leith Walk having one of the highest amounts of graduates in the city (49 per cent); “it has always been a place for students.” Indeed Ian stresses that students are not the problem, but rather links the current accommodation plan to the “commodification” of Leith. Suggesting that our need to “experience things that are different” has caused a rise in things like Airbnb which has made it “harder for people to secure tenancies on a long term basis.” Ian argues that the proposed developments in student accommodation fall into this. This is due to the fact that the proposed accommodation was for postgraduates who would only stay for a year. Though there is a need for this, as students need to live somewhere, he suggests that “we’d have liked single parent students, and refugee students” to have been considered; long term students. “We would have liked to have been able to offer students not just a chance to study, but to stay.” This Ian argues would enable the continued development of a diverse and interesting community, as opposed to the creation of two separate communities of strangers.

As Ian points out, “Leith has been a diverse area for many years” and has played host “to a whole series of changing populations” over centuries, many of whom have “come to seek refuge.” This campaign is a continuation of that. By bringing the whole community together, the campaign is a representation of the desire to preserve the space that unites them. It demonstrates the power of collective action, of what we can do when we unite against corporations that are bigger than us and the importance of focusing on our locality. “I like it when we can see local people, me included have a say over the world that we’re in. And I want to be part of that, it helps create an identity for all of us.”

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